Monthly Archives: June 2018

Bugwoman on Location – At Long Lane Pasture

Dear Readers, on the hottest day of the year so far, my friend A and I ventured forth for a walk around Long Lane Pasture. This nature reserve is just half a mile from my house in East Finchley, but it’s easy to miss, being tucked in beside the North Circular Road and the tube line. Once I was through the unprepossessing gate it was as if I was in some mythical summer from my childhood – although the rumble of the traffic is ever present this is the only reminder that you are in the London Borough of Barnet, not in some meadow in the shires.

Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum) beside the main path

There are meadow brown and ringlet butterflies, cabbage whites and the occasional cinnabar moth flitting around the long grass. The flower heads of a yellow buddleia hang opposite the berries of a guelder rose. Wild and garden perennials mix cheerfully together. All that is missing is the chirrup of grasshoppers, which puzzles me – with all this long grass I would expect the place to be deafening. I wonder why there aren’t any?

Seedheads of yellow buddleia (Buddleia x weyeriana)

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

There are some seats under a covered area next to the largest pond, and we sit and enjoy the shade and a drink of water. A moorhen and her chick head for cover, but the dragonflies are relentless. One male emperor dragonfly seems to want to own the entire pond, swooping down to see off all rivals, his wings gleaming in the sun. He always returns to the same reed to survey his kingdom. Occasionally he stoops at a butterfly but in a half-hearted way. This time of year is about breeding.

It is chastening to think ow easily this pasture could have been lost to development. In 1912 it was given to the public as a reserve, but half of it was lost in 1920 when the North Circular Road was built. For years the land was grazed by horses, but in 1999 Barnet wanted to build houses on the site, one of the last scraps of unspoilt green left in the Borough. After a public campaign it was designated as open space, and 2009 the Long Lane Pasture Trust was granted a 25 year lease. I suppose this means that we’ll have to gird our loins for another fight in 2034. I shall be marking it in my diary.

Alder bark ( I think! Feel free to correct me….)

We follow the paths, taking the opportunity to sit on the benches placed in the shade of the trees. In one area, an elm has been planted. A sign tells us that this is a Princeton elm, a hybrid developed in the US to resist Dutch Elm disease, which still kills off any elm saplings ambitious enough to grow taller than about six feet. The sign tells me that a white-letter hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) was spotted in the pasture in 2009: this is vanishingly rare in the UK, as the eggs are laid on the twigs of elm trees, and the caterpillars feed on the leaves. When the elms died in the UK, it was pretty much the end for the butterfly as well, so closely was it associated with the tree. The Princeton elm has been planted in the hope that ‘the white-letter hairstreak will make a home here’. I hope so too.

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

A white-letter hairstreak (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White-letter hairstreak caterpillar (Photo Two)

There are many small ponds on the pasture, many dotted with purple loosestrife and bulrushes. My friend A rescues a cinnabar moth caterpillar from one of them. The irises have just gone over, and there are some strange plants in another of the damper patches. I’m hoping that they aren’t skunk cabbage, an invasive species from North America that can out compete practically anything, but my latest advice is that it’s probably elecampane, a yellow member of the daisy family. I saw some in flower earlier, so this makes sense.

But the best is yet to come. My friend A points out some little webs in the long grass. I take a few photos, and once home I talk to some of my friends on the invertebrate identification groups that I belong to. It appears that the webs belong to nursery web spiders! I am cockahoop. These spiders are free-range hunters, tracking flies and other small insects  through the long grass and pouncing on them like cheetahs. The female carries her egg-sac around with her in her jaws and then, when they are ready to hatch, she weaves the webs that I saw so that her spiderlings are protected while they grow.

Nursery webs….

Apparently, when the male wants to mate with the female (who, as is the way with spiders, is much, much bigger than he is) he presents her with a gift of food while simultaneously pretending to be dead. When she comes over to investigate he apparently springs to his feet, mates with her (presumably while she is absorbed in her dinner) and then runs away as fast as his eight tiny legs will carry him. The ways of insects are strange, but I have known humans who would pursue the same tactics if only they were speedy enough.

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider - Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) carrying her egg sac (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult female nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo Four)

And so we come full circle to the entrance again, having only just skimmed the surface of the wonders that Long Lane Pasture has to offer. I haven’t mentioned the fluty notes of the song thrush, nor the pretty yellow flowers of the meadow vetchling, and I could probably go on all day about the moth population of the grassland. But that will have to wait, because once it gets above 80 degrees in London it’s time for even the mad dogs and English women to get out of the mid-afternoon sun, and into somewhere a little more shady. I shall certainly be back.

Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

Photo Two by By Ptelea [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Lukas Jonaitis from Vilnius, Lithuania (Spider – Pisaura mirabilis) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By Mathias Krumbholz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Viper’s Bugloss

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) by the stream in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, nothing delights me more than finding a plant that my guide describes as ‘common’ but which I have never seen before, and so it is with Viper’s Bugloss. What a fantastic plant it is, with its furry flowers and purple stamen and hairy stems. There is something rather Harry Potter-ish about it, and it looks far too exotic to be a UK native, even though it is.

I found this one growing from a crevice in a wall above the stream in Milborne St Andrew,  and it does seem to have a liking for chalky soils such as those in parts of Dorset. It is a member of the Borage family, and is much loved by pollinators. The name ‘bugloss’ comes from the Greek for ‘ox-tongued’ and refers to the rough texture of the plant. The ‘viper’ bit comes from the way the stamen resemble a snake’s tongue, from the look of the seed head, and from the belief that the plant could cure snakebite (probably another manifestation of the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’, whereby it was believed that God had designed the appearance of a plant to indicate what it could be used for).

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Viper’s Bugloss flower (Photo One)

Viper’s Bugloss is native to Europe and temperate Asia, and has been introduced to North America, where it is sometimes known as ‘blueweed’ and has become invasive in some parts of the continent.

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Viper’s Bugloss alongside a road in Montreal (Photo Two)

The plant contains alkaloids, which are poisonous, although there are no known cases of humans suffering from eating it. Because of its long taproot it can be difficult to remove from pasture, and in 2006 a paper suggested that bulls in Spain died as a result of munching on viper’s bugloss and common ragwort. However, while ragwort gets a very bad press, viper’s bugloss is generally tolerated. I sometimes wonder how and why we get these bees in our bonnets about particular plants whilst ignoring others that, it could be argued, are equally ‘dangerous’. Could the popular press have something to do with it, I ask myself (sarcastically)?

In Australia, a closely related plant (purple viper’s bugloss or Echium plantagineum) is known as ‘Patterson’s Curse’, because it is said to have escaped from the garden of a Mrs. Patterson. After a bushfire in Canberra destroyed all the other pasture, 40 horses are said to have eaten the bugloss and suffered liver failure, resulting in them having to be destroyed.

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Purple viper’s bugloss (Echium planagineum) in South West Rocks, Australia (Photo Three)

Viper’s bugloss is such a stunner (in my eyes anyhow) that a number of cultivars have been developed, such as ‘Blue Bedder’ which can be bought from the Royal Horticultural Society shop should you be so inclined. As usual, I rather prefer the species plant, and I suspect that it might be more attractive to pollinators in its original state as well. Why would you want to breed out those bright red stamens? I think we should be told…

Incidentally, you can see here how the buds start off pink and turn blue when the plant is ready to be pollinated, like so many members of the borage family.

Photo Four by https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Viper’s bugloss variety ‘Blue Bedder’ (Photo Four)

In addition to treating snake bite, the plant is said to be useful for ameliorating fevers, headaches and inflammation, with the best parts of the plant being the leaves that grow close to the ground, directly from the root.

A herbalist named Parkinson noted that

‘the water distilled in glasses or the roote itself taken is good against the passions and tremblings of the heart as also against swoonings, sadness and melancholy.’

which sounds like a good thing. As with all plants, and particularly ones that are known to be poisonous, I would suggest a good degree of circumspection however. Remember those horses in Canberra.

I am off to Austria next week, and I note that in the Tyrol, people were warned against consuming viper’s bugloss because it was said to stimulate sexual desire. Presumably all that fresh mountain air and yodelling was aphrodisiac enough, not to mention the lederhosen.

Many species of bees love viper’s bugloss, including the rather splendid red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lapidarius) (Public Domain)

It is also a favourite foodplant of the migratory Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). These insects come out of their chrysalises in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa before heading north and east to find foodplants for their caterpillars. Fortunately the caterpillars have wide-ranging tastes, from thistles to mallows, but they also love viper’s bugloss. In years when there are not many foodplants close to home, or if a large number of adults have hatched and survived, there may be extraordinary irruptions of the adults in the UK as they arrive en masse: I remember seeing over thirty in one small patch of community garden one morning a few years ago. All the more reason for growing lots of plants for butterflies and bees! The butterflies also have a love for viper’s bugloss as a nectar plant, so it helps both caterpillars and adults.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) (Public Domain)

And as if that wasn’t reason enough to welcome viper’s bugloss to your garden if you get a chance, looky here….

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum) feeding from viper’s bugloss (Photo Five)

Perhaps the most exciting insect find of all, however, is not particularly spectacular to look at, but is a sign of how our flora and fauna are likely to change with the climate. The viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) is a brand new species in the UK and is currently found at only one site, the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park in London. It strongly prefers species in the Echium genus to any other plants and, while it makes its tiny nest in every thing from empty snail shells to old beetle tunnels, at the park it was found nesting in an artificial ‘bee hotel’. Which just goes to show that if you provide lots of habitat in your garden, you never know what will turn up. It also points up the importance of ‘brownfield’ style sites for insects – many prefer these areas, even though they look uninviting to us, because they mimic the Mediterranean conditions of dry, poor soil and exposed, hot places to warm up that these insects are used to.

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396

Viper’s bugloss mason bee (Hoplitis adunca) (Photo Six)

I am reminded of the amazing book ‘Wildlife of a Garden – A Thirty Year Study’ by Jennifer Owen, who was a hoverfly specialist and who discovered several species that were completely new to science in her Leicestershire back garden. This was before the current (much welcomed) advent of ‘wildlife gardening’ – she had, by her own description, a very ‘ordinary’ garden with a lawn and flower beds and somewhere to dry clothes, and yet, because she paid attention and recorded the visitors that she had, she was able to list  2673 species of plants and animals. I wonder what the counts for our gardens would be? So many creatures, especially the tiny ones, escape our notice altogether, and that’s without all the ones who whistle through when we aren’t looking. We are surrounded by wonders, and I for one only notice a tiny proportion of them.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10222992

Photo Two by By Lubiesque [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by By Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia (Echium plantagineum plant1) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four from https://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/139228/Echium-vulgare-Blue-Bedder/Details

Photo Five by By spacebirdy(also known as geimfyglið (:> )=| made with Sternenlaus-spirit) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Thomas Roppenecker at https://www.flickr.com/photos/roppenecker/27613303396

 

 

A Summer Meander in Milborne St Andrew

Red Valerian, Milborne St Andrew’s ‘village plant’

Dear Readers, I felt some trepidation before this visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.  Dad has never really gotten over the chest infection that he had before Christmas, and he has been on a combination of antibiotics and steroids on and off ever since. He has had a CT scan for his chest and abdomen, because he has also been losing weight. He is due to have an endoscopy soon, but in one of those vicious circles that have become so familiar as Mum and Dad have aged, he needs to be able to breathe sufficiently to go through the ordeal of having a tube stuffed down his throat. In addition, Mum has been in a lot of pain with the arthritis in her knee, and has become increasingly concerned about her failing memory. I was worried about the pair of them, and so it felt even more essential than usual to go for a brief walk in the beautiful Dorset countryside, just to retain a bit of perspective and to recharge my batteries. It seems a little selfish I know, but without this I end up going down a rabbit hole of worry that doesn’t benefit anyone.

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) by the stream

My walk this time was full of surprises. I was passed by a man travelling at some speed on a pink skateboard, not something I usually see on the roads of Dorset. He passed me again when I was taking some pictures at the little stream opposite the village hall, and came to an stylish halt, flipping the skateboard onto its end and then up into his hand.

‘See anything interesting? ‘ he asked. ‘ I saw a water vole here a few weeks ago’.

Well, a fellow nature enthusiast. Turns out that Henry did a lot of work surveying and doing conservation work on Dorset and Hampshire rivers. We shot the breeze on the subject of the importance of river water crowfoot, and he told me that he had also seen a little trout in the stream. I was very happy to have an unexpected nature conversation. I sometimes feel like the Only Naturalist in the Village, but this is far from true.

River water crowfoot, now in full bloom

I walked on, up to the most beautiful thatched cottage with roses around the door. I see that I have neglected to take a photo of this rural idyll, but was very interested in the yellow weed growing in the gutter outside. This is fairly typical of me, as you know.

Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

I cut through a tiny footpath lined with brambles and nettles, and got a hole in my tights for my trouble. But how exquisite the hogweed is! I love every stage of it, from the tightly curled buds to the plate-sized white flowers to the green seedheads. Every hedgerow is full of them, and the hoverflies and bees and beetles are everywhere.

Hogweed buds unfurling

Hogweed in full flower

Hogweed seedhead

There are some very mighty trees around the farm and the church here, horse chestnuts and birches, oaks and limes.

One lime tree had some claw-like galls on the leaves, as if some tiny predator was trying to break through. These are lime nail gall mite, caused by an insect less than .2mm long. During the winter the mite lives in crevices in the bark of the tree, but when the plant comes into leaf the mites move out and start to suck the sap of the fresh growth. The chemicals injected by the insect cause the leaves to produce these strange claw-like outgrowths, within which the parasite grows happy and fat in his or her ‘castle’. When the autumn comes the mites leave en masse, mate, and lay their eggs in the bark, ready to repeat the whole cycle when the spring comes. The galls do not appear to harm the tree, and there is no treatment that will prevent or ‘cure’ them. Better to admire them as the thing of strange beauty that they are.

Lime nail gall (Eriophyes tiliae) on lime leaves

As I stood looking at the galls, I became aware of a luscious sweet smell. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but as I walked to the end of the path, I realised that it was coming in wafts from another enormous lime tree, the branches bowed down with the volume of flowers. I love the combination of citrus and almond in the scent of the lime tree, and this was so heady that I could easily have curled up under the roots and slept, further lulled by the sound of all the bees that were visiting the flowers. It gave me a great rush of peace, and I found myself thinking that, in spite of the way that the aphids that live on the leaves emit showers of sticky honeydew, the lime is a strong contender for my favourite tree.

Lime blossom

The lime tree

I headed down the road, past the vicarage, and stopped to admire the impressive crop of house martin nests under the eaves of the building. The little ‘orcas’ were zipping backwards and forwards like the tireless aerial acrobats that they are. We have been sharing our homes with swifts and swallows and martins for as long as there have been houses, I suspect, and what a rush of joy they must have given our ancestors as intimations that summer was finally here. Sure, they’re messy, but so are the starlings that visit me, and I wouldn’t not have them for the world. It warms my heart when people are generous of spirit and happy to share what they have in such abundance with other creatures.

Look at all those nests! How many can you count?

Onwards! I got talking to the lady who owns this beautiful cottage. She is originally from Dundee (and of course I have very fond memories of that town), and she described the cottage as ‘her pride and joy’. You can see this when you look at it. She described how quiet the village is at night, and how dark – I remember this from a period when I was sleeping with some of Mum and Dad’s neighbours because ‘my’ bedroom was taken over while they put in an accessible shower room. There is a kind of peace in the village that I am not yet ready for, dedicated city woman that I am, but I can definitely see the appeal.

And as I turned for home, I took a few shots of the red valerian that really is the ‘village flower’, popping up in scarlet and lipstick pink and white in every corner of Milborne St Andrew. Whenever I see it, I think of this corner of Dorset, and I keep my eyes open for Hummingbird Hawk Moths. I saw one once, and I have been waiting ever since to see another one.

Yesterday, Mum had an injection in her knee which we have high hopes will help with her pain – she has had cortisone injections with little benefit, but this is a replacement for the fluid that lubricates the joint, and doesn’t have any side effects. And today, I went, in the car, to the local shop because Dad wanted to buy a few cans of beer – Spanish of course, as he worked in Spain for many years when he was a gin distiller. On Monday, Mum and Dad go to the dentist, and then have some new reclining chairs delivered. And so, I leave Dorset in a cautiously optimistic mood. It feels so important to recognise that there are good moments, and it’s important to celebrate and make the most of them. We can’t do much about the future, but we can treasure every precious moment that we have with the people that we love.

Wednesday Weed – Rose Campion

Rose Campion (Silene coronaria)

Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long way, to when I bought my first house back in 1998. I realise that this makes me sound like a property magnate, but if I tell you that it was actually the only house that I ever bought on my own I hope it puts things into perspective. It was in Chadwell Heath, way out in the north-eastern hinterlands of London, sandwiched between the Romford Road on one side and the A13 on the other. My street, however, was leafy and suburban, and I settled into it with a contented sigh. Being a middle-class white woman, I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that the BNP, the extreme right-wing party of the time, had won councillors in the borough (Barking and Dagenham), but I soon realised that they were symptomatic of a deep-seated problem.

One example was that when a British- Indian doctor and his family moved into the house next door several people on the street cut them dead, turning their backs on them and refusing to respond to their greetings. Because I talked to them, I was cold-shouldered in my turn. Because Mum came to visit and got chatting with the family on the doorstep, she too was subjected to people staring at her and slamming their doors as she passed their houses.  I don’t know what additional harrassment the family suffered, as they kept themselves very much to themselves, but I do know that they had moved on within the year. They were replaced by a white family. When I sold the house, the woman opposite bustled over to check that I wasn’t selling it to anyone black. As it happened, I wasn’t, but to say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement – I still regret that I didn’t have the gumption to explore the subject further.   There were good people on the street who were welcoming to everyone, but the taste of bigotry and zenophobia poisoned everything. There were too many people who were afraid that things were going to change, and that they were going to be forced to be part of the diverse London that surrounded them. London, like so many cities, was built by immigrants – Irish, Chinese, Huguenot, Indian, Bangladeshi, Jewish, Pakistani, and a hundred other groups of people. Barking and Dagenham was, however, one of the few London boroughs to vote resoundingly for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.. Yes, the reasons for the Brexit vote were complicated, but  I strongly suspect that in this case, fear of immigration was the main reason why.

However uncomfortable I felt it was still home, and in one of the two tiny beds in the front garden I planted  three rose campion. In a couple of years they had taken over the entire bed, self-seeding themselves with vigour.  They were a blast of outrageous colour in a bland, small-minded, fear-filled landscape. I know of no other plant that has quite that hallucinatory cerise hue, set off by the furry grey leaves, and I have had a great affection for them ever since.

Rose campion is a member of the Caryophyllaceae or carnation family, and is native throughout Europe and Asia, although it was introduced to North America by the eighteenth century . It’s also known as ‘Crown Pink’ and ‘Lantern Flower’. Although it is a relatively short-lived perennial it does self-seed everywhere, as I know. It doesn’t mind poor soil (just as well, as my garden beds seemed to be largely composed of bits of brick). In their book ‘Alien Plants’, Stace and Crawley note that rose campion is often found growing ‘wild’ around villages, having either escaped from gardens by self-seeding or having been ‘liberated’ by people who fly-tip their garden rubbish.

If I may digress here briefly, I think that people often don’t realise the potential damage to habitats caused by casual dumping of garden waste. It happens regularly in the tiny remnant of ancient woodland closest to me, Coldfall Wood, where there are thriving communities of daffodils and hybrid bluebells, box honeysuckle and tellima, largely as a result of folk just throwing what they don’t want from their gardens into the wood. Ours is an urban wood, a mosaic of all kinds of plants, and hardly a pristine habitat, so the plants don’t wreak quite as much havoc as they might do in other places. Nonetheless, many well-established woodland species are having a hard enough time of it at the moment without having to compete with a bunch of narcissi.

Back to rose campion. The Latin species name ‘coronaria’ implies that this plant was used in garlands, and very fine they would have been too. In the Roman Catholic church, the plant is associated with John the Baptist, as it blooms around his feast day.

Those grey furry leaves help the plant to survive in drought-prone areas, the colour and the ‘hairs’ helping to reflect sunlight and reduce water loss. Certainly my rose campion were able to do well when other plants were wilting. The leaves give the plant yet another alternative name – ‘Dusty Miller’, and in the Middle Ages were woven together to form a wick for a lamp. According to the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD) the seeds, if soaked in wine, can be used to treat scorpion stings.

The flowers are attractive to bees and hoverflies, and one US site suggests that hummingbirds will also visit the flowers, so do let me know if this is something you’ve ever witnessed. It also seems to be a favourite for several butterflies, including the brimstone in the UK and several species of swallowtail in North America.

Large skipper butterfly on rose campion (Public Domain)

For our poem this week, I’ve discovered the Detroit poet Philip Levine, who was described as ‘a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland’ by Edward Hirsch. Have a look at this poem, and see if you can’t imagine yourself standing there, gazing at the rumpled seed-packets.

The Absent Gardener

Go back to early April of 1949. Get off the Woodward streetcar at Grand Circus Park, walk a few blocks west, and find behind the Greyhound bus terminal a tiny garden no larger than a Buick Roadmaster. Last week’s snow is gone. It’s just another morning in Michigan, the streets dark with last night’s rain, the air cool and fresh, the pale sky so distant you wonder if this is a different world & not last night’s when the silence, windless and heavy, smelled of rusted iron. Now the perfumes of wet black dirt, the tiny plots marked with sticks, twine, and pebbles to hold down the warped seed packets proclaiming their riches: radish, big boy tomato, ripe red wonder, little sweetie, rhubarb, rose campion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit of a Panic

Dear Readers, when I was wandering through Cherry Tree Wood here in East Finchley a few weeks ago, I was fascinated to see that some of the trees had these ghostly nets in them. The silk is similar to that of spiders, but because it is protective rather than used to catch insects, it’s opaque and surprisingly strong. In the midst of the tent above I could see frass, the black droppings of caterpillars. Some little critters had obviously been having a lovely time eating the new leaves. It didn’t take me long to find the culprits – the caterpillars of the bird-cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella).

Bird cherry with webs of the Bird Cherry Ermine moth (Yponomeuta yvonemella)

These caterpillars will be gone by the end of June, giving the tree plenty of time to recover. After all, compared with some webs,  this was a mild one.

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

A dramatic bird cherry ermine moth web in Essex (Photo One)

There is definitely safety in numbers – when the caterpillars all emerge at the same time it makes it less likely that an individual larva will be eaten. Furthermore, even the most diligent blue tit won’t want to foul her feathers with too much of that sticky stuff.

The caterpillars will pupate briefly, and then this rather elegant moth emerges. You can see how its resemblance to a winter-coated stoat gave it its name – just think of the white, black-spotted fur that lines the ceremonial robes of mayors and royalty. I always think that every black spot was once the tip of the tail of a small predator, and count how many died to make each outfit, but maybe that’s just me.

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK - Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Bird cherry ermine moth (Photo Two)

There are several other species of ermine moth in the UK, the commonest being the orchard ermine (which feeds mainly on hawthorn and blackthorn) and the spindle ermine that munches through (predictably) spindle. None of them are any threat to the plant, and their populations will naturally fluctuate according to the weather and to the availability of food and the number of predators.

As I was perusing the ermines and getting a few photographs, I was accosted by some young women who were anxious for their children.

‘Are these those dangerous caterpillars that I heard about on the news?’ they asked.

I was able to reassure them. The ‘dangerous caterpillars’ are the young of the oak processionary moth, a European mainland native that has been imported (just like ash dieback) on young trees for landscaping. These insects have been spotted in several places in West London, and they are considered a problem because they are ‘urticareous’ – that is, their hairs are likely to cause dermatitis and even asthma if inhaled. The clue to their behaviour is in the name: the processionary moth caterpillars follow one another around en masse. Their nests tend to be on the branches and trunks of oak trees, never among the leaves as with the ermine moths. You need to be in close contact with the caterpillars for them to cause any harm. The Forestry Commission are treating the outbreaks that they know about (probably with huge doses of biocides) and if you spot any actual Oak Processionary Moth caterpillars you can report it here.

Photo Three by By Kleuske - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Oak Processionary moth caterpillars having a trot around a tree trunk (Photo Three)

I do wonder, however, how many perfectly harmless caterpillars have been killed as a result of all the quasi-hysterical news reporting of the oak processionary moth. The story has all the ingredients for a media storm: invaders from overseas: a danger to children: an attack on that very bastion of Englishness, the oak tree. Many people have a fear of insects, and most of us have a fear of insects in very large numbers. I suspect that some people might have seen a caterpillar net in their garden and doused it with insecticide without stopping to identify it. Which would be a real shame, because some extremely rare species superficially resemble the oak processionary moth.

One of the most endangered is the Small Eggar (Eriogaster lanestris). This species lives in hawthorn, blackthorn and birch, and the caterpillars create a nest about the size of a small football. The larvae are attuned to one another and it’s believed that they communicate about where the best feeding opportunities are, before leaving to forage en masse. They have been under extreme pressure due to the loss of habitat in the countryside, and so are more likely to come into contact with humans. What a shame it would be to lose this creature because of mistaken identity.

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Small Eggar caterpillar (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Small Eggar silk tent (Photo Five)

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Adult Small Eggar (Photo Six)

Another possible victim of over-enthusiastic caterpillar killing is the Nationally Scarce lackey moth (Malacosoma neustris), which has some of the most appealing larvae of all lepidoptera, at least to me – I spent a lot of time playing with these creatures as a child, and although they too could set off dermatitis in those who are susceptible, I never had any ill effects. These caterpillars also live in nets and their preferred foodplants include oak. cherry. plum, apple, willow and hornbeam. You can see how these chaps, spotted in an oak tree, could be doomed from the start, although their caterpillars look very different from those of the oak processionary moth, and their behaviour is quite different.

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Lackey moth caterpillar (Photo Seven)

The eggs of the lackey moth look as if they’re made of ivory, and are always laid around a twig. I wonder if the mother gets dizzy laying them?

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey Moth eggs (Photo Eight)

In fact, to our human eyes, the adult moth is the least beautiful stage of the lackey moth’s life, although it is still a very handsome creature.

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lackey moth adult (Photo Nine)

So it seems to me that the ability to identify an oak tree, and to tell the difference between a lackey moth caterpillar with its cartoon-like blue face and the ultra-furry oak processionary moth caterpillar are what’s required to prevent the accidental extermination of rare moths who are already under extreme pressure. And also, it helps if, having learned these things, we communicate them to our children. No one wants their little ones to be bitten or stung or hurt in any way, but the best way of keeping them safe is to help them to understand what’s safe and what’s not. Children are naturally curious, and when they’re outdoors they will probably fall off of logs, get stung by wasps and come home covered in bruises and dirty. It’s hard, I know, but we cannot protect those that we love from things that hurt them and nor should we. How can we learn resilience without a little adversity? And besides, exploring the outside world and discovering things for ourselves is so much fun that it will bring us joy for a lifetime.

Photo Credits

Photo One from http://www.growsonyou.com/photo/slideshow/157704-bird-cherry-tree-ermine-moths-larvae/all

Photo Two by By David Short from Windsor, UK – Bird cherry ermine (rp), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63856375

Photo Three by By Kleuske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19940595

Photo Four by By User:MarkusHagenlocher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2151016

Photo Five by By Hans Gasperl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By H. Krisp – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19806408

Photo Eight by By José Manuel Benito Álvarez [CC BY-SA 2.5 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by By Ben Sale from UK ([1634] The Lackey (Malacosoma neustria)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Wednesday Weed – California Lilac

California Lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

Dear Readers, there is nothing that sounds more like summer to me than the drowsy buzz of bees feeding from California lilac. It seems to attract everything from bumblebees to honeybees to hoverflies,  and although its rather dusty, resinous smell makes my nose tingle I still always stop to see who is visiting. Apparently there is a species of California lilac which smells so strongly that it resembles ‘boiling honey in an enclosed space’. I think I shall give that one a miss.

The masses of tiny flowers soon lose their petals, resulting in a puddle of blue at the base of the plant.The resultant seeds are said to be dependent on forest fires in order to germinate, so it sounds as if self-seeding won’t be a problem unless you’re prone to having bonfires close to the shrub.

California lilac comes in many shades of blue, from what my grandmother used to call ‘Royal Blue’  to the most delicate powdery robin’s egg shade. It is extremely popular in the County  Roads here in East Finchley, where it has grown to about eight feet tall. Most varieties are evergreen, and there is even a more recumbent plant that could be used for ground cover.

There are 50-60 species in the Ceanothus genus, which is part of the buckthorn family. The genus is an endemic to North America, with its epicentre in, as the name suggests, California. The name ‘Ceanothus’ means ‘spiny plant’, which is surprising as, as far as I know, this is a most inoffensive plant. Do let me know if it’s attacked you at any point. I suspect that the small trees in my area are examples of the ‘domesticated’ form of Ceanothus arboreus, but there are many hybrids around. I am wondering whether to pop one into my tiny front garden, to fill the gap between the bulbs and the lavender. I shall be engaged in pondering as I write.

Incidentally, Ceanothus has nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots, which makes it good for the soil.

One species of Ceanothus, Ceanothus americanus, is known as ‘New Jersey tea’ because its leaves were used as a tea substitute during the American Revolution. As the plant is very high in tannin this is not as surprising as we might think.

Ceanothus americanus (Public Domain)

In their native North America, Ceanothus leaves are eaten by mule deer, and the stems and seeds are eaten by quail and porcupine. And so here, for your delectation, is a North American porcupine. You’re welcome.

Photo One by Fyn Kind at https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/26920045526/

North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) (Photo One)

In its native North America, Ceanothus has had a variety of uses. Those fluffy blue flowers are saponins, which means that they can be used as a soap substitute if crushed and mixed with water.This ‘soap’ was used by the women of some Native American tribes to perfume their skin before their marriage ceremony.

The roots produce a red dye (one alternative name for some varieties of Ceanothus is ‘red-root’). The flowers produce a green dye. Unsurprisingly, using the whole plant gives you a brown dye.

Medicinally, the roots were dried and used as a decoction to treat sore throats and all manner of bronchial ailments, from asthma to bronchitis. The plant was also used as a wash to treat sores and skin complaints.

One theme that crops up repeatedly when I read about Ceanothus is that it is short-lived. I wonder if the climate in the UK stresses these Californians, what with our heavy downpours, brief periods of hot sunshine and unexpected cold snaps.  At any rate, it certainly stresses me. I also wonder if any plant that blossoms so prolifically, year after year, can keep going for a long time. After all, trees such as beech and oak flower and set fruit intermittently rather than constantly generous.

Just as the Ceanothus in bloom reminds me that it’s summer, so do the banners outside the Royal Academy announcing that it’s time for the Summer Exhibition (which opens to the public on 12th June). For those of you who are unfamiliar with this event, it’s an opportunity for artists to have their work hung in the halls of the Royal Academy. The vast majority of the works are also for sale, with prices varying from under a hundred pounds to many thousands. Among the eager newcomers will be the new works of the Academicians, artists who have made it to become Fellows of the Royal Academy. One of the most interesting is Anthony Green, who presents scenes from the most unlikely angles. Conveniently, he has created one of a vase of Ceanothus, and if you have £16,500 hanging about I’d advise you to buy it sharpish. For more of his paintings, which manage to be both familiar and otherworldly, have a look here. I find them most intriguing.

‘A Vase of Ceanothus’ by Anthony Green (2009) (Photo Two)

I am also rather partial to this painting, ‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-MIller, who says ‘Who am I to edit nature? It looks beautiful enough as it is’. This image just sums up the unexpected pleasures to be had in walking London’s residential streets. The painting was at the Affordable Art Fair, and you can read more about it here. If you’d like to look at some of the artist’s other paintings (and I admit to having fallen in love) her website is here.

‘Ceanothus tree in a London street’ by Melissa Scott-Miller (2016) (Photo Three)

And to finish this post with something unexpected, here is a Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus), whose larvae feed on the leaves of our Wednesday Weed. This huge moth can be found all the way from British Columbia to Baja California, and has a maximum wingspan of 127mm. The adults do not feed, but spend all their short lives looking for a mate and laying eggs. The caterpillar goes through a variety of colour changes, but is never anything short of spectacular. I love the way that the eyespots make it look as if the moth has a couple of snakes for protection.

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalus) (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Fyn Kind at https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/26920045526/

Photo Two at http://www.anthonygreen.org.uk/paintings.html

Photo Three at https://affordableartfair.com/melissa-scott-miller-ceanothus-tree-in-a-london-street

Photo Four by Linda Tanner (originally posted to Flickr as Ceanothus Moth) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pertaining to ashes

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Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

Dear Readers, when I first moved into my house in East Finchley in 2010, I was at a loss to know what to do with the darkest part of the side return, the gap between the kitchen and the house next door. I wondered if anything would ever be happy there. Fortunately, someone suggested hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea, and after 8 years it has reached the roof. This year, it  was smothered in its strange, lace-cap flowers, and every time I stepped outside on my way to top up the bird feeders, it made me smile.

I didn’t, however, think that it was a very good plant for wildlife. My highest hopes were that it might provide a thick and leafy haven for birds’ nests at some point. But then, I noticed that, although there were only a tiny number of white flowers with petals on each flowerhead (known as a corymb), there were masses of tiny flowerets, which seemed to be composed entirely of stamen. I learned that the white flowers are sterile, but the unassuming smaller ‘blooms’ are not, and are in fact a rich source of pollen.

And so I started to notice that various pollinators were visiting the hydrangea. Bumblebees and honeybees collected the pollen, and small hoverflies seemed to be patrolling territories above the flowers. However, my happiest realisation was that I had a new visitor, or at least one who was new to me. The black and grey bee in the first photo is an ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), and she is busily collecting pollen.

How do I know that this is a female? The shiny black abdomen and grey and black-striped thorax are very distinctive. The males are smaller, and have white tufts of hair sticking out of the side of their thoraxes, rather like muttonchop whiskers (though in the wrong place). These are small bees, about two-thirds of the size of a honeybee. Their Latin name ‘cineraria’ means ‘pertaining to ashes’, a reference to their colour – incidentally the plant cineraria was probably named because of its grey furry stems.

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Although ashy mining bees are solitary in the sense that they don’t form colonies like honeybees or bumblebees, they do like to nest together. They build long nesting tunnels, usually on sunny south-facing slopes, and sometimes a favoured site can be peppered with hundreds of individual nests, the bees coming and going with a frequency that  reminds me of Heathrow airport. The bees seem to prefer bare soil, but will sometimes nest in lawns, leaving little ‘volcanoes’ of soil. They block the tunnels when they’ve finished foraging, or if it looks like rain. If disturbed they will rush to blockade their nest entrances – these are not aggressive creatures, and I have never heard of anyone being stung by one.

As is often the way, I noticed the bees last weekend, and by mid-week the hydrangea had gone over, and the bees had disappeared. Much like the hairy-footed flower bees that are around on warm days in April, ashy mining bees have a short, single flight period, and will all be gone by the end of June. The females spend their time busily gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larvae who have hatched in the brood chambers at the end of those tunnels. Once they have fed enough, the larvae will pupate for the rest of the year, ready to emerge in spring – the males pop out before the females so that they’re ready for them when they come out (much as the male frogs emerge in my pond a few days before the females turn up). The male bees hover around the nest site in a behaviour known as ‘lekking’, a term that I associate more with black grouse than insects.

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Ashy mining bees are not at all particular about what plants they use for pollen, and are very important for the pollination of oil-seed rape in some areas of the country (an indication that honeybees are not the only important pollinators). They go about their work largely unnoticed, appearing for a few weeks every year and then disappearing. I shall certainly watch for them next year, and will keep my eyes open for whatever species comes next. There is a dance in the gentle succession of species that emerge, or bloom, or die-back every month, and getting to know these patterns has been one of the most wonderful things about writing this blog. It gives me a sense of belonging and groundedness that is most reassuring when so many other things are in flux.

In her wonderful book ‘The Enchanted Life’, Sharon Blackie refers to the importance of having a ‘Sit Spot’ – somewhere that you sit every day, whatever the weather, and just observe. I know that plonking down on my kitchen step and paying attention to the hydrangea and to the plants has given me a real sense of the turn of the seasons and of how plants and animals and humans interrelate. It has given me peace when serenity was in short supply. It reminds me that life goes on, literally right outside my back door. And it is cool, and green, in the way that a forest is cool and green. It has become a sanctuary, thanks to this plant that doesn’t mind the shade, and flowers with such generosity. It reminds me how lucky I am.

I recommend ‘The Enchanted Life’ for anyone who would like to foster a deeper connection with the area in which they live, and who yearns for a sense of belonging. You can find out more about it (and purchase it directly from the author) here

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Common Fumitory

Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis)

Dear Readers, this is a plant that grows in one spot at the end of Mum and Dad’s road in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. I love it because of its bright pink and purple flowers, which remind me of lipstick. Common fumitory is in the same family as that urban favourite yellow corydalis, and if you look closely you can see how similar the flowers are.

Yellow corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)

Common fumitory is an ancient introduction to the UK (its natural range is mainland Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa), and its Latin species name, officinalis, indicates that it was used as a medicinal plant. The name ‘fumitory’ comes from ‘fumus terrae‘, or ‘smoke of the earth’, thought to be because the fine foliage looks a little like a cloud of fumes. Pliny the Elder noted that the sap from the plant, if rubbed in the eyes, made them sore, which is just what happens when ‘smoke gets in your eyes’, and led to another vernacular name, ‘fumewort’. However, the plant was used historically for treating conjunctivitis and other eye complaints, so maybe the soreness was just a necessary side-effect of the treatment. It was also used to treat skin complaints, to reduce the appearance of blemishes,  and as a kidney cleanser.

In Rosamund Richardson’s lovely book ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’, she reports how the cleansing power of fumitory was thought to extend beyond the skin to the soul:

‘If you wish to be pure and holy

Wash your face with fumitory’

Richardson tells us how the plant, according to a Victorian practitioner,

‘ought chiefly to be employed by those who have previously removed those moral blemishes which deform the mind, or degrade the dignity of a reasonable and an immortal being’.

In other words, sort yourself out before you start worrying about your freckles.

I was very sorry to learn that Rosamund Richardson died last year at the age of 71, having written many books about the British countryside. ‘Britain’s Wild Flowers’ is, I think, her last book, and well worth a place on any bedside table.

Other medicinal uses included the treatment of cradle-cap in babies.

Common fumitory is said to have roots that smell of smoke, and it is believed to expel evil spirits if burned in the house, or at an exorcism. It is said to protect you if you rub some on your shoes before a journey, and it may also bring you wealth, either spiritual or material. In the Ayurvedic tradition, fumitory is believed to confer long life.

In Iran, ‘water of fumitory’ is made by steeping the plant in water overnight and then distilling the liquid – the resulting distillate is used to flavour sherbet. Generally, however, the plant has been used sparingly as food: the leaves are said to be edible, and milk can also be soured by immersing the plant in the liquid. I have no idea what you would do with the milk that was ‘turned’ in this way, but maybe it made for a more pleasant taste than milk that was allowed to go ‘sour’ naturally. Plus, we are only just finding out some of the benefits of fermented foods, so maybe this was found to be healthful.

That bard of the English countryside, John Clare, whose observations of plants and animals still ring fresh after several hundred years, had this to say about the uses of fumitory in his poem ‘May’, part of ‘A Shepherd’s Calendar’:

And fumitory too a name
That superstition holds to fame
Whose red and purple mottled flowers
Are cropt by maids in weeding hours
To boil in water milk and way (*whey)
For washes on an holiday
To make their beauty fair and sleak
And scour the tan from summers cheek

The flowers of fumitory can be used to produce a yellow dye for wool.

Although the flowers look very enticing to me (and are indeed nectar-rich), they are rarely pollinated by insects, and so this annual plant reproduces by self-fertilisation. One animal that did favour the seeds and flowers was the increasingly-rare turtle dove, so perhaps this also helped to spread the plant from one place to another. It is thought that our intensive agricultural methods, which mean that there are far fewer ‘weeds’ such as fumitory about, is one factor in the bird’s Red List status. It is also shot in huge numbers as it migrates over countries such as Malta and Cyprus.

Photo One by By Yuvalr - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16798749

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) (Photo One)

Shakespeare was not overly impressed with fumitory, which he described as a ‘rank weed’ of fields. Here is Cordelia talking about her father in ‘King Lear’:

As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud,

    Crown’d with rank Fumiter and Furrow-weed,

    With burdocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers

    Darnel and all the idle weeds that grow

    In our sustaining corn.”

The plant crops up again in Henry V, and again Shakespeare describes the poor fumitory as ‘rank’:

Her fallow leas

    The Darnel, Hemlock and rank Fumitory

    Doth root upon.”

If I was fumitory’s press agent, I think I’d be complaining. However, Shakespeare was pre-dated in using the word ‘fumitory’ by several hundred years, with Chaucer having the first use of the word in a manuscript in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, where the plant is part of a medicine used as a laxative.

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And finally, here’s a fragment from Gerard Manley Hopkins, that ecstatic poet of kestrel and fallen leaves, on the common fumitory. People seem to either love Hopkins or find him uncomfortably over the top, but I can never read him without a sense of expansion, of the world being larger and more miraculous than I imagined, and in these straightened, black-and-white-no-shades-of-grey times this can surely only be a good thing. The poem below is not one of his best (as a fragment I suspect he meant to work on it but never got round to it), but can’t you just see that furrow?

FRAGMENTS, &c.

I ám so véry, O só very glad
That I dó think there is not to be had…

The blue wheat-acre is underneath
And the braided ear breaks out of the sheath,
The ear in milk, lush the sash,
And crush-silk poppies aflash,
The blood-gush blade-gash
Flame-rash rudred
Bud shelling or broad-shed
Tatter-tassel-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
Dandy-hung dainty head.

And down … the furrow dry
Sunspurge and oxeye
And laced-leaved lovely
Foam-tuft fumitory

Through the velvety wind V-winged
To the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
With a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
Of a sweet—a sweet—sweet—joy.’

Photo Credit

Photo One by By Yuvalr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16798749

Learning to be a starling

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Dear Readers, I have mentioned before that my garden is inundated with fledgling starlings every year. To start with it’s just one or two but by the end of May every bough is bending under the weight of squawling youngsters. When I look up, I see adult starlings with their offspring in hot pursuit. It’s a difficult few weeks for starling parents, to be sure. To start with, the youngsters are completely clueless, standing ankle-deep in food without knowing what it is.

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Somehow the adults seem to know which ‘child’ is theirs, and they only ever feed their own offspring, regardless of the pitiful cries of other youngsters. I wonder if they know by the tone of voice, or by some subtle visual signal? The little ones all look the same to me. Most starling parents seem to have two fledglings on average, though some exhausted parents have managed three – they probably started off with four eggs.  And they might not even be their own chicks – starling mothers will sometimes lay an egg in a neighbour’s nest for them to rear. This makes me wonder if this is part of the evolutionary process by which birds like the cuckoo learned to give up nest-building and chick-rearing altogether.

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During the next few days, the chicks follow hard on the heels of their parents, or wait impatiently on a tree branch for food to arrive. I’ve noticed that they start to peck at anything that looks the slightest bit edible.

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Are unripe rowan berries edible?

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How about hawthorn flowers?

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Maybe this is food?

I suspect that most birds are ‘hard-wired’ to peck, and so, following the example of their parents, will learn what’s edible and what’s not, just as most young animals, humans included, will pick up anything and put it straight in their mouths.

Some of the fledglings are definitely faster studies than others, not just in this question of feeding themselves, but also in paying attention to the social cues of the other birds. I’ve noticed that some youngsters will head off as soon as a much larger bird lands on the bird table, while others have to be practically knocked off of it. Some stay quiet when there’s a mass scatter of the birds to the safety of the trees, while others carry on calling. I suspect that again you could probably track the process of evolution here – the quicker a youngster is on the uptake, the more likely it is to survive to pass on its genes. There is also some evidence that animals in cities that have a variety of threats and opportunities to contend with become more ‘intelligent’ (by our standards) than country creatures – in fact, animals in any particularly challenging environment may evolve to have a wider range of strategies for survival than those who live where food is plentiful. The article here has a number of interesting examples, from mountain chickadees to raccoons.

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Over the next few days, the adult starlings will gradually make their youngsters independent. They will bring less food to them, and take a longer time between visits. They will become more inpatient with infants who follow them, and will sometimes try to escape their demanding offspring. This is a hard period for the fledglings, who will now have to try to fend for themselves – approximately 50 – 80% of all nestlings fledge, but only 20% of these will survive to breed. Everything eats fledgling starlings, from jays, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks to that most dedicated of predators the domestic cat, who takes more fledglings than all other predators put together. At this time of year it’s imperative to bell any outdoor cats, or at least keep them in at dawn and dusk.

The winter will also take its toll – many starlings no longer migrate, especially those in urban areas where there is usually enough food. The fledglings need to learn where to feed, drink and roost now, so that they will be prepared for the colder weather. They offset some of this difficulty by forming into flocks of adolescents, both because many eyes can identify sources of food more quickly, and because the bonds formed now will give them an advantage when they come to breed themselves next year.

The adults will have a brief period of rest and foraging for themselves before they ‘decide’ whether or not to try for a second brood.

I had always thought that the only way of ‘sexing’ adult starlings is by the small patch of colour at the base of the beak, but apparently the irises of the birds are different colours – rich brown in the male, a lighter, more mousey brown in the female. Now all I need is good light and my binoculars handy.

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And soon the hubbub will have died down for another year, as the adult birds moult and everything goes quiet in the garden. At the moment, though, I am awoken every morning at 5 a.m by the sound of young starlings looking for their breakfast. I imagine the neighbours are delighted.