Monthly Archives: June 2016

Baby Bum Barrels

A young long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

A young long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Dear Readers, sometimes a walk in the cemetery can yield something so exciting that it’s been all that I can do not to publish the photos until today. On Wednesday, when I was wandering between the graves and looking out for new Wednesday Weeds, I gradually became aware of the high-pitched contact calls of a group of long-tailed tits. Normally these little birds are almost impossible to photograph, because they hop from branch to branch like feathered monkeys, but on this day I was in luck, because among the adults there were some youngsters, who promptly parked themselves on a branch not three metres from where I was standing.

IMG_6658With their racoon- masks and red eyes, the fledglings look like tiny avian bandits, but as they sat on the branch, preening and waiting for their parents to bring them some food, they seemed utterly trusting to me, in the way of so many young animals.  Fortunately, they are part of a group of very watchful elders. I counted at least four adults in the group – some of these may be youngsters from the previous brood, who have failed to breed themselves this year and so are helping out with their siblings.

IMG_6662The fledglings often cuddle up together, as if remembering how closely they were packed together in the beautiful nest that their parents built. I found a failed nest close to East Finchley station a few weeks ago, but there’s a photo of a completed one below. It’s made of lichen and cobwebs, moss and feathers. It’s believed that one of the vernacular names of the long-tailed tit, ‘Bum Barrel’, actually refers to the nest.

By nottsexminer (Long Tailed Tit Nest 02.05.11 Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A long-tailed tit nest

There are moments in our lives when time seems to fall away because we are so absorbed in what we’re seeing. After the first few frantic minutes, when I anxiously tried to get some photographs so that I could share this with you, I put my camera down to enjoy the sight of these new creatures. They seemed like the essence of concentrated energy, fizzing and clicking and shuffling their wings. They sat on their twig for an inordinate amount of time, looking around with equanimity, as if everything in the world had been designed especially for them.

IMG_6650Of course, their world is full of dangers, not least the eventual coming of winter. Long-tailed tits barely weigh more than a goldcrest, and like all such small birds is in constant danger of freezing when insect food is rare. However, long-tailed tits try to offset the cold by roosting together, their tails sticking out and their bodies crammed as close as possible. This sociability saves their lives in many cases.

IMG_6672So, these fledglings have had a good start in life, and are surrounded by a supportive extended family, who will help them to learn what it means to be a long-tailed tit. How I wish that all young human creatures had such guardians in their early years, and such support as they grew up, for the world is scarcely less dangerous for them than it is for their feathered counterparts.

IMG_6665And for those of you who have been following the fox story, there is nothing to report this week, other than that all the foxes are present and correct, there are no cubs, and also there is no mange! Just at least three relaxed foxes.

IMG_6686 IMG_6682

I should have kept this one for Halloween! I used flash here (from a distance), but won't be using it again, though it didn't seem to bother the fox.

I should have kept this one for Halloween! I used flash here (from a distance), but won’t be using it again, though it didn’t seem to bother the fox.

All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Please attribute and link to the website if you use them.

Wednesday Weed – Black Medick

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..


Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)

Dear Readers, last week I was sitting half-hidden behind a gravestone trying to get some photos of the foxes when I saw two of them lope off along a grassy path between the tombstones. I decided to follow them, but of course they had disappeared by the time I’d gotten myself together – they are most elusive for such large animals, and I often sense them watching me with some satisfaction as I lumber past. However, what I did spot was a little patch of this member of the clover family, the intriguingly-named black medick. The citrus-coloured flowers remind me of lemon sherbet.

IMG_6460You might think that the name ‘Medick’ has some reference to the plant’s possible medicinal applications, but apparently not. The plant is closely related to alfalfa, and both are thought to have come from Media, a northern Iranian kingdom mentioned by Herodotus, and now largely lost in antiquity. The word ‘Black’ probably refers to the colour of the seeds.

By S. Rae (

Black Medick seeds (Photo One – see credit below)

Black medick is a common native plant, found in all parts of the country except for the north and west of Scotland. It can also be found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa, and has even made its way to many islands, such as Taiwan and Madeira. It can survive at an altitude of up to 1800 metres, and is cold resistant.  It is a member of the pea and vetch family, and as such it helps to fix nitrogen in the soil, and is a source of nectar for honey, and a useful fodder plant. I love the way that the flowerheads look like complex origami, with each individual flower having that distinctive ‘vetch-y’ look.  It is certainly a plant that repays close inspection.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The complex flowerhead of the black medick (Photo Two – see credit below)

This little plant, with its trifoliate leaves, is sometimes seen as the original shamrock of St Patrick , though these days this honour is more often passed to the larger, showier white or red clover. The finding of a four-leaved clover is considered especially lucky, as those of us who have scoured a meadow looking for such a thing as children will remember. I have always wondered why a four-leaved clover was seen as such a lucky thing (apart from its rarity, of course), and have read two explanations on the Flora of Castle Warden website. One is that a four-leaved clover grows where a mare has dropped her first foal. The other is that the four leaves stand for faith, hope, love and luck.

Whatever the explanation is, you can identify black medick even when it isn’t in flower by the tiny claw-like projections (mucro) at the centre of each leaf.

By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The leaves of black medick (Photo Three – credit below)

Although black medick is a useful plant for cows and sheep, it has a rather convoluted history when it comes to its ingestion by people. There are some worries that it might be problematic for pregnant women, or for anyone who is taking blood-thinners (Warfarin or Coumadin), or for children. However, in Europe the leaves have been eaten as a pot herb, and in North America the seeds have been used to make a kind of flower. The ever-useful Eat the Weeds website has a full run-down on the pros and cons of making your supper from black medick, but on balance I would incline towards leaving it for the bees and the other critters.

IMG_6458Black medick is one of the plants represented in Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies series, and although they are a little whimsical for my taste ( I prefer to think of fairy folk as being more mischievous and wild than the ones depicted here), I love how accurately the plants are represented (the flowers, leaves and seedcases are spot-on). I am also impressed by the butterfly wings on the fairies, which are fair representations of those of a female Large White.

By Sofi (

Mary Cicely Barker’s ‘Black Medick Fairies’ (Photo Four – credit below)

I have used quite a lot of other people’s photos in my post this week, because there has been a lot of strimming and grass-cutting in the cemetery. When I walked the fox-path again, I found myself ankle-deep in dried grass, desiccated buttercup flowers and the crumpled faces of germander speedwell. The black medick is gone, for now. But it’s the cutting of these areas that keeps their diversity, and I have every hope that some plants will rebound, while others will have already set seed. For every area that has been cut, another is re-growing. The starlings and blackbirds are tossing the hay aside in their search for insects, and the bees are moving on to the red clover just flowering in the less tended areas. And me? I’m just thinking that I should not assume that anything will be here forever.

IMG_6459Photo Credits

Photo One – By S. Rae (

Photo Two – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Three – By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four – By Sofi (

All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer