Monthly Archives: September 2018

Bugwoman on Location – That Condor Moment

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Dear Readers, although my recent trip to Monterey was mainly about the hunt for cetaceans, we would have been remiss not to take time out to  look for the largest land bird in North America, the California Condor. Its wingspan is just a shade under ten feet, it weighs in at 26lbs, and there are just 463 individuals left. This is, however, something of an improvement on its condition in 1987 when there were just 27 birds alive, due to a combination of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction.  In an extraordinary conservation effort, these last remaining wild birds were captured and a breeding programme was started at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. The first individuals from this attempt to reestablish the species were released in 1991, and you can now see this extraordinary bird soaring above the coastal areas of California, the Baja California peninsula and some of the desert areas of Arizona and Utah.

California condors are, in effect (whisper it!) giant vultures. Their larger Andean cousins occasionally kill things, but the California condor is a cleaner-upper, an invaluable part of the ecosystem but not a bird of prey. Close up it looks almost primeval, with its midnight-black plumage and bald face, but it is unquestionably magnificent.

Photo One by CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189483Hoto

The face of a California Condor (Photo One)

Their role as scavenger hasn’t stopped them the California condor from featuring as both a creator and a destroyer in the legends of Native American peoples: the Yokut people believed that the bird sometimes ate the moon, causing lunar eclipses, whereas the Wiyot tribe of California believed that the condor recreated the human race after it was wiped out in a flood. Many peoples use condor feathers in their headdresses and ceremonial costumes, and the bones of the birds have been discovered in tombs. In many cultures, birds that fly so close to the sun are believed to have an affinity with the gods, and with returning the souls of the dead back to their ‘home’ in the sky.

Back to our trip to Monterey. We had spotted several birds in the distance, but were completely unprepared when we turned a corner to see a condor, in its characteristic legs-down posture, flying not twenty feet above a lay-by. We screeched to a halt in a tangle of cameras and binoculars, just in time to see the bird swooping low into a stand of trees. The guy repairing the overhead cables nearby  shook his head. I suspect he sees a lot of tourists nearly doing themselves a damage on their first close encounter with this extraordinary bird.

All the released birds wear a number tag, which enables them to be identified. The bird pictured at the start of this piece has the id number ‘ red twenty-six’, and has the name ‘Beak Boy’. He was hatched in Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, and was fostered by a pair of Andean Condors. These birds accidentally damaged his beak while feeding him, and although the beak has now healed it has a characteristic ‘lump’ on it.

In 2006 he paired with ‘Solo’ (#208) who was also reared in Los Angeles Zoo. This bird preferred the isolated areas of Monterey County, which are also hunting country. This exposed the bird to the risk of lead poisoning from shot left in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. In 2005 she was spotted in severe distress, and was taken into Los Angeles Zoo for treatment. Fortunately she survived, and was released. In 2008 an act was passed in California which bans the use of lead shot in condor territory, but this doesn’t protect the birds when they fly into other areas. Even the US military doesn’t use lead ammunition, and lead shot for anglers has been banned in the UK for many years. Come on American hunters, get with the programme! It isn’t just condors that are affected but all kinds of birds, from swans and loons to bald eagles.

In 2007, Beak Boy and Solo laid the first fertile condor egg in the wild in Monterey for over a century. Scientists were worried about this first egg, and so it was hatched in captivity. When the bird fledged she was released and joined her parents, no doubt learning all about what it means to be a condor. Beak Boy and Solo have hatched another five eggs since.

All this gives you an idea of the amount of micro-management involved in bringing a species back from the brink. Condors live for a long time (they can reach sixty years old) and breed slowly, not attaining sexual maturity until they are six, and only laying one egg every other year. However, if an egg or youngster goes missing, the birds will lay another egg: this was used by the conservationists as a way of doubling the ‘production’, with the original egg being raised in captivity by humans or condor foster parents, and the parents raising the second egg.

The birds are taught to avoid humans and overhead cables during the rearing process, which has increased their chance of survival in the wild. One of the measures involves feeding the nestlings via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to prevent them associating humans with food. The less these birds come into contact with humans, who have caused them so much harm, the better.

Nestling condor being fed via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to avoid habituation/imprinting on humans (Public Domain)

Let’s have a look at the story of another bird.

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is blue 52 or ‘Ferdinand’. He was hatched in 2012 but is already a large and impressive bird, though apparently with a sweet nature, hence his being named after the gentle bull ‘Ferdinand’ in the cartoon. Apparently when he was released, instead of flying off, he walked up the hill to where the other condors were feeding and joined in without any bickering or argument. He already weighs in at 23lbs and this is not surprising – his father, condor #1 or ‘Topa Topa’ to his friends, was the first condor to be taken into captivity in 1967 and is the largest captive condor ever recorded, at almost 26ibs.

And one last story…

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is green 11, or ‘Big Gulp’. He is a very young bird, hatched in 2015, and was named for his entertaining way of eating, which involved bolting down great chunks of semi-frozen meat. Since his release he has paired up with a much older, more established male #566, or ‘Mike’s Bird’, named for a conservationist who was killed the day after the bird was released. Mike’s Bird is the dominant bird in the area, but has been alone since the death of his mate a few years ago. Condors pair for life, and so maybe in his loneliness he is enjoying palling around with ‘Big Gulp’. The two birds apparently sit together and preen one another. It seems to me that California condors are generally most accommodating and tolerant birds, gentle giants.

The California condor preservation effort is probably the most expensive in US history, costing over $35m since the Second World War, and about $2m per year. I am not sure what price you can put on the sight of these birds soaring above the hills around Big Sur, but for me they are capable of inducing true awe, a sense of the sublime. They are ugly-beautiful, maybe the closest thing that we have to the great pterodactyls of old, in size if not in actual genetic proximity. Preservation of their habitat will protect a whole raft of other, less spectacular but nonetheless vital creatures and plants. The return of the California condor is a story about what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. When we live in an age of such destruction, it’s important to celebrate our successes as well as bewail our failures.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189483Hoto

You can see the biographies of all the Californian birds at the Condorspotter website

Wednesday Weed – Turkish Sage

Seedhead of Turkish sage (Phlomis russeliana)

Dear Readers, Turkish sage was a new plant to me when I first saw it in Dad’s garden a few years ago, but since then I have seen it all over the place. When in flower, it reminds me of nothing so much as those dishes of peeled prawns surrounding a bowl of cocktail sauce that were such a staple of buffets in the 1980’s. The seedhead, on the other hand, reminds me of a miniature wasps’ nest.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2061452

Phlomis from above (Photo One)

The plant is a member of one of my favourite families, the Lamiaceae or deadnettle family, and as its name suggests, it comes originally from Turkey and Syria. The plant’s generic name ‘Phlomis’, which means ‘flame’ in Greek, may relate to its use as a lampwick in ancient times, or to the strange shape of the flowers. As is often the case with complicated blooms, only bumblebees have the knowledge and the weight to open and pollinate this plant. The furry leaves are fed upon by the caterpillars of two tiny moths in the Coleophora genus – these are ‘case-bearer’ moths, in which the individual larvae build themselves tiny protective cases out of silk and bits of plant. It’s difficult to identify these creatures down to the species level because they are so discreet and the differences are so subtle. Quite possibly there are whole new species in our gardens just waiting to be discovered.

Photo Two by By J. Lång - http://wibe.ath.cx/hyonteiset/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16159, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9566878

Protective ‘case’ of Coleophora serratella (Photo Two)

Phlomis has been grown in the UK since at least the 1700’s – the head gardener of Chelsea Physic Garden, Philip Miller, grew many species between 1722 and 1771, while he was curator. The plants have spread into the wild in some places in the south west, and, while frost-hardy, do seem to prefer sunny, well-drained sites. Like so many Mediterranean plants they do not seem to mind poor soil.

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

Photo Three

Although called a sage, I can find no reasonable evidence that Phlomis is edible, or has been used in cookery, even in its native range. I suspect that with so many other tasty true woody herbs, such as thesages and thymes and lavenders and rosemaries being available, no one would bother with this plant. Plus, there are several references to those hairy leaves causing itching in those prone to dermatitis, so perhaps it’s best to admire from a safe distance.

Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2061557

Photo Four

Medicinally there is a rumour that the leaves were used in a tea to cure sore throats, but I suspect that this is more likely to have been ‘proper’ sage (Salvia officinalis). As noted in previous posts, the use of common names can get one into all kinds of trouble. However, one scientific paper  from Turkey suggests that a member of the Phlomis genus, Phlomis grandiflora, gives some protection to people with stomach ulcers. A further paper from Jordan suggests that Phlomis brachydon may have anti-microbial properties. Maybe I should not be so quick to dismiss this plant. People often know exactly what medicinal purposes their local plants can be used for, having worked with them for centuries.

For the gardener, one of the most spectacular features of Turkish sage is the seedhead. How magnificent a stand of these will be after the first frost, and I can’t help wondering if tiny bees will hibernate in those inviting nooks and crevices.

For our poem this week, I hope you will permit me a rather loose connection. Undoubtedly the sage in this poem is not Phlomis, but Salvia. But the poem is about Turkey, where our plant comes from, and so there is a link, in my mind at least. The poet, Fady Joudah, is a Palestinian-American doctor as well as being a poet, and has worked for Medecin sans Frontieres in Zambia and Sudan.

The Tea and Sage Poem

At a desk made of glass,
In a glass walled-room
With red airport carpet,
An officer asked
My father for fingerprints,
And my father refused,
So another offered him tea
And he sipped it. The teacup
Template for fingerprints.
My father says, it was just
Hot water with a bag.
My father says, in his country,
Because the earth knows
The scent of history,
It gave the people sage.
I like my tea with sage
From my mother’s garden,
Next to the snapdragons
She calls fishmouths
Coming out for air. A remedy
For stomach pains she keeps
In the kitchen where
She always sings.
First, she is Hagar
Boiling water
Where tea is loosened.
Then she drops
In it a pinch of sage
And lets it sit a while.
She tells a story:
The groom arrives late
To his wedding
Wearing only one shoe.
The bride asks him
About the shoe. He tells her
He lost it while jumping
Over a house-wall.
Breaking away from soldiers.
She asks:
Tea with sage
Or tea with mint?
With sage, he says,
Sweet scent, bitter tongue.
She makes it, he drinks.

Photo Credits

Photo Two by By J. Lång – http://wibe.ath.cx/hyonteiset/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16159, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9566878

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

Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2061557

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – An Update from Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, on this very day last year Mum and Dad had their 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and what a great day it was! This year, however, the celebrations were rather more subdued.

Mum has been in hospital for six weeks now. Well, more accurately, she’s been in ‘hospitals’ – the County Hospital twice, Wareham Community Hospital once and now she’s in Blandford Community Hospital. When I saw her after my week in Monterey I was shocked at how much weight she’d lost. She had her elegant cheekbones back, but at a cost – the doctors have been treating Mum for a blockage/pseudo-blockage/infection (take your pick), but the outcome has been that Mum has not been able to eat solid food for all this time. The fact that someone dropped and broke her bottom dentures didn’t help. She looks about a hundred and ten years old, as people do when they don’t have their teeth in, but her sense of humour and feistiness are in fine fettle.

For example, since she has been in hospital she has been asked SIX TIMES if she wants a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is known as a ‘DNR’ and is attached to your medical records. It means that if you die, no one will attempt to try to revive you. Mum replied that she would like to be revived, thank you very much.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me except for this blockage thing’, she said, ‘and I want you to resuscitate me if you can. I’m not done yet’.

But every time she changed ward or hospital, she was asked again, sometimes several times. The last time she was absolutely furious.

‘Are you expecting me to pop off at any moment then?’ she asked the consultant, who was surround by a penumbra of junior doctors with clipboards.

‘Oh no’, he said, as the others chorused the same response.

‘Then why do you keep bleeding asking me?’ she said. ‘I know that this might not be your choice, but it is mine’.

And so they slunk away.

Mum has been a fighter all her life, from her birth as a 2 lb 12 oz premature baby in 1935 through heart attacks and depression and COPD and arthritis and all the pains that flesh is heir to and more, and she ain’t about to cave in now. She wants to be home, with Dad.

Which brings us back to the anniversary.

You might remember me telling you that Dad seems to be much more confused lately than he has been in the past. Someone from the Memory Assessment Clinic came out on Tuesday, replicated the tests that his doctor had done, and found that he had got worse (well, I could have told them that). But  he has long periods of lucidity, when he does know who people are and what is going on, and at hospital visiting time he gave Mum her Anniversary card. His writing is terrible (I come by my scrawl honestly), and it isn’t helped by the peripheral neuropathy in his hands, and his stroke. But he had written

‘To my only wife and girlfriend, I love you forever’,

and he struggled out of his wheelchair to give her a series of kisses while the carer and I made ourselves scarce.

When we got home, I walked around Dad and Mum’s garden while the wind blew and the rain came in horizontally, and pondered what to do. Mum is currently unable to walk, and until she can make it from bed to the toilet to her chair, she won’t be able to come home – the bungalow is just not set up for a wheelchair. Meantime Dad is particularly confused at night, when he is likely to wake up, discover that Mum isn’t there and ring everyone he can think of, even if it’s 3 a.m. And so my brother and I are trying to manage the situation, to keep everyone safe while retaining their right to make their own decisions, to head off disasters at the pass and to deal with totally unexpected disasters as they crop up.

But the big lesson of this whole experience has been to try to learn when to push and when to accept, when to plan and organise and when to go with the flow. The flowers in the garden bend with the wind, and so must I.

At 6.30 a.m. earlier this week I was rudely awoken by a magnificent grizzled patriarch in his underpants, all ready for his  shower. The trouble was that the carer wasn’t coming until 8 a.m.  and Dad won’t let anyone else help.

‘I’ll just sit here’, he said, plonking himself down in front of an open window.

‘Dad you’ll freeze there!’ say I from my bed. ‘Why don’t you go and sit next door and I’ll make you a cup of tea’.

‘I’m alright here’, he says, as the wind tousles his hair. And then the lure of tea works its magic.

‘I think I’ll go and sit next door’, he says.

So I spring up, shut the window, whack up the heating and make him tea.

‘I’ll just put this blanket here in case you get cold’, I say.

‘I won’t get cold!’ he says. But I notice that he’s wrapped up in it twenty minutes later. The trick is to say nothing.

And eventually the 90 minutes passes, and the carer comes in, and dad is spruced up for another day. He has chosen navy trousers and a navy, yellow and red-striped teeshirt, and he looks very handsome, if I say so myself. I am trying not to concentrate on the fact that he’s dropped ten inches off his waist size in the past eight months in spite of eating voraciously. I have a call logged with the GP to talk about that, but at the moment, as Dad reclines the chair to get comfortable for another episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, all is well.

Sometimes there are moments of grace, of stillness, of ordinariness when I can stop and actually feel what’s going on. There are moments of horror, but also moments of the most tender care, the most profound love. I feel held in the embrace of everyone who has anything to do with Mum and Dad, from close family and carers through to neighbours and friends and the wider community. So many people stop me on the village street to ask me how Mum and Dad are doing. So many people are helping. There are so many small kindnesses that don’t feel so small to the person on the receiving end.

Someone said to me that looking after the elderly was a bit like looking after toddlers.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Except that one day a toddler can’t do something, and then the next day they can. With my parents, one day they can do something, and the next day they can’t’.

But with that stripping away we get closer and closer to what’s real, what it’s all about. At the heart of it all, at the end of it all, there’s a man in a wheelchair kissing his wife of 61 years, just like he did when he was a young blade and she was a shy girl of 22. At the heart of it all, there’s love.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Wednesday Weed – Goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago sp, probably canadensis)

Dear Readers, I’d been noticing this member of the daisy family growing in swathes alongside the railway line from Dorset to Waterloo, and was interested to come across it again in Trent Park in North London. Then, I saw some in the US during my recent visit to Monterey Bay. Goldenrods are largely native to North America, and are a family of some 120 species which look remarkably similar to one another, and may sometimes hybridise. In the UK, Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a popular garden plant and I would guess makes up a large part of the wild population here, though there is a native goldenrod too (Solidago virgaurea).

Goldenrod in the UK is largely a plant of wasteland and railway embankments, thriving on the bright sunlight and shallow soil. It is extremely popular with pollinators, who seem to love the racemes of tiny yellow flowers. The nectar produces a clear and spicy honey when not mixed with nectar from other plants.

Photo One by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Cryptic Bumblebee (Bombus cryptarum) on European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) (Photo One)

Goldenrod is sometimes blamed for causing hayfever, but this is more likely to be the result of ingesting the pollen of ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) which blooms at the same time in late summer. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, and the plant is largely pollinated by insects: ragweed is wind-pollinated, so the pollen is light. However, handling the plant can cause skin irritation, and a 1998 report  suggested that goldenrod (along with chrysanthemums and other members of the daisy family) caused such severe dermatological reactions that florists handling the plants on a daily basis were forced to change careers.

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Goldenrod and asters (Photo Two)

The leaves of goldenrod were once seen as a possible source of rubber by none other than scientist and inventor Thomas Edison. The idea was taken up by Henry Ford, and the tyres on the the Model T Ford that were given to Edison were made from goldenrod. Ford was concerned about the need to continue with rubber production during the Second World War, when many sources of the substance were cut off, and it seemed that goldenrod might produce a viable substitute, as the leaves contain approximately 7% rubber. However, the material produced was tacky, with low tensile strength, and so the experiment was abandoned.

Goldenrod does, however, have a distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly with regard to the treatment of kidney and urinary problems.

American goldenrod at Zmudowski State Beach

The young leaves and seeds of goldenrod have been used by Native American peoples as food, and a tea can also be made from the leaves or flowers (after the Boston Tea Party the plant was used to make ‘Liberty Tea’ to replace the tea that could no longer be obtained).

I was led slightly up the garden path by a US recipe for ‘eggs a la goldenrod’. It was described as ‘eggs on toast with gravy’. Turns out the ‘gravy’ would be called a ‘white sauce’ here in the UK, with the word ‘gravy’ reserved for the brown meaty stuff that’s poured over your roast dinner. Also, the recipe contains not a jot of the plant goldenrod. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed.

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Eggs a la goldenrod (Photo Three)

Goldenrod can also produce a dye, and the site here shows the amazing range of colours that can be created just by adding different chemicals. Dyeing is such an interesting subject, and such an outlet for creativity. I shall have to give it a go one of these days…

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Different dye colours produced from goldenrod (Photo Four)

Goldenrod does not just produce food for pollinators, but is also much liked by flies and parasitic wasps, whose larvae create galls just below the buds to protect themselves while they grow. Alas, some fishermen in North America have caught on to this and extract the larvae from their fortifications to use them as bait. Some woodpeckers and other birds have also learned this trick, and can be seen tappity-tapping until they’ve made a hole and can claim their prize, a valuable source of protein during the winter months.

Black-capped chickadee getting to work on a goldenrod gall (Public Domain)

Goldenrod is the state flower of Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina, and used to be the state flower of Alabama until it was replaced with the camellia. For many North American schoolchildren, its flowering indicates the end of the holidays, and time to get back to school. In the UK I can remember how the ‘Back to School’ signs in the windows of our local Co-op department store used to make my stomach shrink into my shoes. I hope that children these days have a happier experience of their educational establishments.

More US goldenrod

A patch of goldenrod growing outside your door is supposed to be a sign of sudden good fortune. On the other hand, goldenrod is yet another of those plants that superstitious folk in the UK will not allow inside the house. It is a wonder that anything floral gets past the front door in some abodes. Maybe just a few leaves would be safer if you are going to a dinner party. Or forget the flowers altogether and bring copious quantities of wine.

And as winter approaches, I am much taken by this poem by Bliss William Carman (1861 – 1929), a poet from New Brunswick in Canada that I hadn’t come across before. See what you think.

The Ghost-Yard of the Goldenrod by Bliss William Carman

WHEN the first silent frost has trod
The ghost-yard of the goldenrod,
And laid the blight of his cold hand
Upon the warm autumnal land,
And all things wait the subtle change
That men call death, is it not strange
That I— without a care or need,
Who only am an idle weed —
Should wait unmoved, so frail, so bold,
The coming of the final cold!

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1850’s cabin in North Carolina with goldenrod (Photo Five)

Photo CreditsPhoto One by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Monterey Bay

Dear Readers, I was due to travel on the 3rd of September, and on the 2nd September I was still not sure if I was going. Mum was in hospital, and Dad had had the paramedics out again for a chest infection. But suddenly everything seemed to settle down. Did I dare take a whole week out from the drama at home? I certainly needed it. I wasn’t sleeping. I was crying at the slightest little thing. I had broken out in a hideous rash. In short, I was on the verge of not being able to cope at all.

‘Go!’ said my brother. ‘I’ll handle things here’.

And so I went to the other side of the planet, to Monterey Bay in California, for a Naturetrek tour. I arrived in a flurry, my head still full of carer timetables and hospital visiting times and contingency plans. And then, I was out on the water, looking towards a grey horizon on a sea that was so calm that it felt as if the boat was bobbing about on liquid metal. The sea fret clouded my glasses and frizzed my hair, and the fog numbed the sound of the engine.

It can look so lifeless, the sea. But Monterey Bay is a cetacean hotspot, where cold upwellings from deep undersea trenches provide a feast of krill for the largest animals on earth, and all the smaller ones too. From that cold water comes the hottest blood in the ocean.

At first the sightings were fleeting. A long grey back broke the water, accompanied by a fountain of steam some thirty feet high. A blue whale, accompanied by her calf, was crossing the Monterey Bay superhighway. From our view in the boat she looked big, but the photograph below shows her true scale – blue whales grow to some 90 feet long here, though the longest ever recorded was 108 feet long.

Blue Whale swimming away from the boat (photo courtesy of Discovery Whale Watch and Slater Moore Photography)

Blue whales are remarkable animals, but because of their immense size they don’t go in for the acrobatics of their smaller relatives, the humpbacks, who measure a mere 50 feet long. There is a population of some 3000 humpbacks in the Monterey Bay area, and watching them made me wonder at their strength, their complexity and their sheer otherworldliness. Even after spending some twenty hours in their company in the course of a week I am still not quite sure if they were a dream, or if I actually saw them. Fortunately, there are photos.

It’s not uncommon to see a humpback ‘breaching’, or throwing itself out of the water. Scientists still don’t know why they expend the amount of energy required to heave that 30 ton body out of the water, but presumably it’s important. There has been speculation that it’s for communication (the noise of the splash carries for miles, and it’s been noted that when one whale breaches, another many miles away may do the same thing when the sound wave hits). Is it for exercise? Young whales seem to do more breaching, but maybe that’s just because they can. Or is it for sheer exuberance?

Incidentally, the angle of the photo below makes the whale look much closer to the boat than s/he actually was. The company that we used for the trips, Discovery Whale Watch  was very respectful of the rules around whalewatching in the area: whales were always given plenty of room, approached from the side rather than from behind, and the engine was cut when we were around the animals. In all the cases that I observed the whales carried on doing exactly what they were doing before we arrived.

Humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

We also saw the extraordinary sight of a mother and calf breaching at the same time – was the mother teaching the youngster how to do it?

Mother and calf humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Generally, when humpbacks breach they land on the back of their heads, which are bony, rather than doing a belly flop. Look at the length of those pectoral fins! When people first found the bones of humpback whales in the Americas, they took one look at those huge ‘hands’ and thought they must be looking at the skeletons of giant angels.

Another humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Humpbacks often feed communally on the huge shoals of anchovy that gather in the Bay to feed on the krill. We watched them blowing a circle of bubbles to make sure that the fish were pushed into a tight ball, before opening their mouths en masse and swallowing swimming pool-sized gulps of fishy water. I’ve watched scenes like this on Blue Planet, but never dreamed that I’d have a chance to see it in real life.

It’s hard to capture the excitement of seeing so many whales together. It felt such a privilege, as animal encounters always do to me. It is so easy to for me to become embroiled in my particular challenges and dramas, but seeing something like this wipes the mind clean until all that is left is a sense of wonder.

Humpbacks lunge feeding (Photo by Peter Dunn)

As the whales fed they were joined by sealions and pelicans, shearwaters and terns, until the whole sea was boiling. The biologist onboard pointed out that if the sealions started jumping, the whales were often going to surface right beneath them, and so it proved. Sometimes the whales seemed to get irritated with all the other creatures and made a trumpeting sound that reminded me of a baby elephant. It must be crowded under the surface with  all those other animals trying to muscle in.

And how quickly the whales gobbled up the anchovies! Sometimes, all that remained were a few sad silvery scales bobbing  beneath the boat. The feeding frenzy also gave us humans the dubious pleasure of smelling ‘whale breath’, which resembles a combination of flatulence and halitosis. I guess that if you live on a diet of krill you must need powerful stomach bacteria to deal with it all.

Sealions feeding above Humpback whales (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And as if this wasn’t enough, on several occasions we were joined by a superpod of several hundred Common Dolphin. They love to ride the bows of the boat, and the hashtag bites on their backs are a token of how determined each one is to claim the front spot.

Common dolphins riding the bow of the boat (Photo by Peter Dunn)

There are lots of explanations for why dolphins jump, too. Is it a dominance display, or a way of communicating? Probably both, but to me it also looks like a whole lot of fun.

Common dolphin jumping (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And when I got back to the land (which seemed to heave slightly under my feet) and gazed out to sea, I was left with a sense of profound mystery. In some ways whales are so similar to us (they are mammals after all), but when I think about their lives underwater, their songs, their epic migrations and their bonds with one another that might be maintained over many years and over hundreds of miles, I am astounded. To think that we share the planet with such creatures fills me with awe, and gratitude, and humility.

Humpback pectoral (Photo by Peter Dunn)

The majority of the photographs this week were taken by one of our guides on the trip, Peter Dunn. It was wonderful to be able to just watch and appreciate these remarkable animals without having to worry about whether I was getting the perfect shot. Sometimes, the camera comes between me and what I’m looking at, but this time I could relax into the experience. Thanks, Peter!

The photo of the blue whale with our boat was taken by Slater Moore, using a drone. In case you are worried about this causing disturbance to the wildlife, I should point out that it was used for less than ten minutes during a four hour cruise, and at no point was it flown close to birds or smaller sea mammals who might have been disturbed by the noise. Have a look at Slater’s website for some other remarkable photographs.

Wednesday Weed – Guelder Rose

Berries of the Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus)

Dear Readers, there are some plants which are exquisite in every season. Take the guelder rose, for example. At this time of year, it is dripping in shiny red berries. As the year progresses, the leaves turn to shades of red and copper.

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Guelder rose in autumn (Photo One)

And in the summer, the plant has flowers that resemble those of a lacecap hydrangea.

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Guelder rose flower (Photo Two)

Guelder rose is actually not a rose at all, but is a member of the Moscatel family (Adoxaceae) which includes other viburnums and elders. It is native to a broad swathe of Europe, northern Africa and central Asia,and a related plant, Viburnum trilobum which is native to North America is thought by some botanists to be a subspecies of ‘our’ guelder rose.

The plant is one of the national flowers of Ukraine, where it is known as Kalyna, and the red berries are associated with fertility, health and, in Slavonic pagan beliefs, with the birth of the universe. ‘Oh, the red viburnum in the meadow’ was a marching song of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. ‘Kalyna’ also referred to the hymen, and the bride’s bloodied nightshirt which was paraded in front of the guests on her wedding night as proof of her virginity was called a ‘kalyna’. It’s safe to say that guelder rose has a deeply symbolic value in Ukraine, becoming synonymous with the nation and with its people. The berries of the plant turn up everywhere, including on these rather fetching boots.

Photo Three from http://zhzh.com.ua/news/2008-10-09-448

Ukrainian Guelder Rose boots (Photo Three)

The name ‘guelder rose’, however, is thought to refer to the Dutch province of Gelderland, from where a popular cultivar of the plant, the snowball tree, originated.

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy - Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40586982

‘Snowball tree’ cultivar of the guelder rose (Photo Four)

Those red berries look delicious, and are indeed favourites of thrushes and the bullfinch.

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

Fieldfare on guelder rose (Photo Five)

Humans can eat them too, in small quantities, although they are reputedly very acidic, and prone to causing diarrhoea. If used at all, they are generally turned into jelly to accompany cheese and cooked meats. In keeping with our Ukrainian theme, you can find a recipe for guelder rose jam here. The berries have also been turned into brandy and even into a cocktail.

Photo Four from http://ukrainian-recipes.com/guelder-rose-jam.html

Guelder rose jam (Photo Four)

One alternative name for guelder rose was ‘cramp bark’, and an infusion was used to treat all kinds of cramps and muscle spasms, including menstrual cramps and the symptoms of lockjaw (tetanus).

In Scandinavian mythology, guelder rose was called water elder, and the water spirit, known as the Nix, was said to wait under the plant and play enthralling music. When someone stopped to listen, they would be grabbed and pulled under the water unless they already had a sprig of the plant in their pocket.

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen - 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21. kittelsen.efenstor.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1340906

Nokken (Water Spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen (1904) (Photo Six)

And now to a poem. There is something in this one that puts me in mind of the train journey from London to Dorset, where my parents live, and of the interminable hours spent looking out of the window, lost in thought and yet suddenly brought back by horses running in the New Forest, the sea, a field of loosestrife and golden rod. And, of course, guelder rose.

England, or the continent I had in mind when I came here by Eireann Lorsung
for Caroline
Every bird is a sister of mine—can you believe
I never saw horses running
before I came to this island,
and nothing but their own good sense keeps them
from falling into the ocean?
At the edge of your country
along traintracks that run from Devon
to Cornwall, someone
set up a howl and it’s been going
longer than we remember,
or our mothers
remember, or their mothers.
Where else could a woman turn
into flowering rosebush? All
so peripheral, the crooked edges maps show—
the limit is sensate here
where I can never travel all night
and the next day—
what brings me is what bound you,
a piece of cloth in tatting thread and colors
I found here—loosestrife, sorrel, the guelder rose,
wood anemone—a tapestry
barring girlhood to one
field, long stripe of a neighbor’s plow turning
land just over the woven branches: earth
to earth.
The sandwich cart rattles by, you stack
cups on a tray. Meanwhile, unobtrusively, the air
diffuses particles, the sky is pinked.

This earth. This shining in the sea.

(first published online as a winning poem in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize; also published in Her Book)

Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (2007) and Her Book (August 2013), both from Milkweed. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Two Serious Ladies, The Collagist, and Bluestem. She edits 111O and co-runs MIEL, a micropress

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Photo Two by © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

Photo Three from http://zhzh.com.ua/news/2008-10-09-448

Photo Four by Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy – Snowball flowers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40586982

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

Photo Six by By Theodor Kittelsen – 2. Nasjonalmuseet: No.21. kittelsen.efenstor.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1340906

A Scented Walk in the County Roads

A Victorian Stink Pipe on Durham Road, East Finchley

Dear Readers, I was hoping to satisfy your curiosity as to my whale-related whereabouts this week, but the truth is that there has been so much activity that I’ve had not a second to compose something for you. So, I  hope you will forgive me and enjoy this piece that I wrote back in June for just such an occasion as this. Next week all will be revealed!

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that summer in the city can seem to be a feast of rather unpleasant smells. There’s the smell of fat from Kentucky Fried Chicken when the wind is in the right direction, the ripe whiff of uncollected organic rubbish, and a slight scent of diesel. At least we aren’t still assailed with the perfume of sewage that used to be wafted skywards by the stink pipe pictured above. However, a leisurely ramble along the County Roads in East Finchley can present the perfume connoisseur with a veritable feast of pleasant scents, intensified by the humid atmosphere and the hot concrete.

Rose in All Saints Church garden

For example, who can resist the scent of a full-blown rose? Actually, there is wide variation in the scent of roses, from the floral via citrus to musk and even chocolate. This rose reminded me of classic floral with an overtone of lemon, and I could have stood there with my nose in it for an hour if the pose hadn’t been killing my back. These roses are not so popular with pollinators, though, who prefer the more lightly-scented single flowers of the Rosa rugosa species.

White rose in All Saints Church garden

And then there is jasmine. There are some splendid example on the County Roads, including the one that’s clambering over my friend A’s fence. Not everyone likes jasmine, as I’ve mentioned before – it is a waxy, sweet scent, a bit redolent of decay and decadence. I am convinced that Edgar Allen Poe would have been a fan. Today the scent seemed to come in pulses like a heartbeat.

Jasmine

And, surprisingly, some lucky person had a hedge of classic honeysuckle. It was going over a little, but there was still a trace of the honeyed perfume. It always reminds me of walks along hedgerows in the West Country as a child, with moths and bats rising over my head. Some of the showier varieties of honeysuckle have no smell at all, and I marvel at the breeding that could remove the key factor of a plant’s attraction in favour of a change of colour.

Some plants need a little encouragement to reveal their scent, like these splendid rosemary bushes, interwoven with spider webs. I love the spicy, resinous smell of this group of herbs, although I know many people who think that it’s a bit overwhelming and dominates the dishes that it’s used in.

Rosemary

And in the same family, of course, there is lavender, the bee flower par excellence at this time of year. The bushes in my front garden reveal their scent as I brush past them to get in at the front door. This year I must remember to dry some.

Lavender

And as I walk into the house for some much-needed shade, I smell honey so strongly that it’s as if someone has opened a pot of the stuff and warmed up a few spoonfuls in a saucepan. I pick up the buddleia flower and inhale. No wonder the bees and butterflies love it so much. It’s absolutely delicious. But I suspect that the smell of buddleia will always remind me of my mixed emotions during this troubling year, and will bring me both the wistful pleasure of remembering my parents, and the stomach-knotting sense of dread that seems to accompany every phonecall and visit. A scent can become subliminally linked to a set of emotions, and we often don’t realise the link until we breathe in a lungful of a long-forgotten perfume and it all comes rushing back. Smell bypasses our conscious processes and catapults us into the past, whether we want to go there or not.

Buddleia

It is said that the sense of smell is closely wired to the most ancient part of our brain, and it certainly seems to have a way of reaching past our consciousness and accessing our emotions directly.