Monthly Archives: February 2019

Wednesday Weed – Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Dear Readers, I was delighted to spot a witch hazel in flower in Borough Gardens in Dorchester last week. I have always been fascinated by those strange, strap-like, dishevelled petals, and the way that they stand out when everything else is still in bud. The plant itself is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family, which is now confined to eastern North America and Central America, eastern Africa and Madagascar, and the Far East, though it was much wider spread before the Ice Ages in the northern hemisphere. ‘Our’ witch hazel comes originally from China, and was collected from there by the plant hunter Charles Maries. There was (and still is) a lot of money in plants, and the Victorians in particular had a craze for species from China and Japan to complement their ‘oriental’ schemes, and to add novelty. Although not an especially showy plant, witch hazel became popular because of its winter colour and unusual flowers.

Witch hazel is not a hazel, as we have seen, but neither is it particularly linked to witches, with the ‘witch’ in the name thought to come from the Middle English word ‘wych’, meaning ‘bendable’  or ‘pliable’. In the US, where there are several native species of witch hazel, the plant is used for dowsing (the detection of underground water, minerals or other buried objects), while in the UK hazel is used. Although this practice is described as a pseudoscience, with no clear proof of its efficiency, I find it interesting that 10 of the 12 water companies in the UK still use it to find leaks, along with other methods.

Because of its winter-flowering, witch hazel is wind-pollinated (most self-respecting insects are tucked up in hibernation or pupation at this time of year). When the seedheads are ripe they explode, sending the seeds flying through the air. They can travel up to 30 feet, which is enough distance to give them a chance of germinating without being overshadowed by the parent plant, and explains the alternative name of ‘snapping hazel’.

The flowers have a most attractive scent, which is another reason for its popularity with the cognoscenti. It is also extremely frost-resistant. However, it is slow-growing, which may explain its relative expensiveness here in the UK if compared to plants like the ubiquitous forsythia. You need to be patient if you buy a small witch hazel, and rich if you want to buy a more mature one.

 

Witch hazel is a regular ingredient in many medicinal and cosmetic products: witch hazel water is made by boiling up the leaves, bark and roots and then distilling the result. There is a lot of tannin in witch hazel, which is why it is often used as an astringent, for drying up acne, or dissuading piles. The North American species have been used extensively by native peoples, for everything from sore throats to haemorrhage. However, it should be noted that using the bark directly can cause skin disfigurement, so best to get stuck into that distilling process. Witch hazel ointment sometimes also contains arnica, and is used for minor injuries and bruising.

It is said that those explosive seeds are edible (if you can find them before they’re catapulted into the stratosphere), and the twigs can be used as a replacement toothbrush if you find yourself in need of emergency oral hygiene.

It doesn’t surprise me that witch hazel attracted the attention of Charles Rennie Mackintosh better known as an architect and furniture designer. I love the print below, with its simple elegance. The style is said to be more indicative of Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret MacDonald, who was an art student at Glasgow School of Art when the two met. At the time that it was painted (1915), the pair were living in the village of Walberswick in Suffolk, where Mackintosh was accused of being a German spy and briefly arrested. This may have been the impetus for a later move to Port- Vendres in Southern France in 1923, a warmer, sunnier and cheaper place to live.

Japanese witch hazel at Walberswick by Charles Rennie and Margaret Mackintosh (1915) (Public Domain)

And to complete the post this week, here is a poem by Robert Frost. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to this poet’s work: there is a kind of down-home folksiness to it that I just don’t get (and I was once accused of not realising that the poet was trying to be funny, which was extremely embarrassing at the time). I have something of a problem also with his double-syllable rhyming scheme, which skitters along on the edge of doggerel, to my ear at least. And yet, I rather like this poem, all in all. He is talking about the American witch hazel, which flowers in the autumn, rather than the one that I saw. Indeed, if he had seen the Chinese witch hazel blossoming in mid winter he might have had to write a completely different poem.

Reluctance

Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

 

Bugwoman on Location – Borough Gardens, Dorchester

Clock tower in Borough Gardens

Dear Readers, this week I was in Dorchester, spending some time with Dad and doing the practical things that follow on when someone dies – going to the bank, meeting with the solicitor. I felt sad as I headed to the nursing home: Dad was always a quintessential patriarch, in command of himself and head of the family, and it’s hard to see him become more vulnerable as his dementia gets worse. So, I walked into the lounge with some trepidation.

‘They made us walk uphill! For 83 miles! And we’re all old-aged pensioners’, Dad announced as I sat down next to him.

A group of the residents had been for a nature walk in the nearby woods, and Dad had thoroughly enjoyed it, for all the  hard work involved. He’d also taken the opportunity to correct the unfortunate person who was leading the walk.

‘He said that the holly leaves are pricklier at the top than they are at the bottom of the bush, but that’s the Wrong Way Round’, said Dad. ‘It’s to stop the animals grazing so why would they be pricklier at the top!’.

Since it was largely Dad who piqued my interest in nature as a child, I was not the least bit surprised that he was right. He still wins in all the general knowledge quizzes too.

It’s strange how the brain works. Dad can remember the capital of Iran but not who he is, at least not consistently. He was moaning about my behaviour the previous night (when I had apparently been demanding tea and generally wandering about) even as I was sitting there, bemused. I have learned not to contradict or correct him, because that didn’t go down too well when he was compos mentis and there’s certainly no point in doing it now. Instead, I am learning to be curious about what’s going on for him, and where he is at this particular moment.

I am also aware that vascular dementia tends towards silence, towards the end of speech, and so I want to wring every drop of meaning out of my relationship with my Dad while I still can.

Dad was always such a raconteur – my brother and I used to find the way that his stories grew and grew hilarious when we were callow teenagers. He’d been to Venezuela when he was working as a gin distiller, sometimes staying for months at a time. While there, he’d eaten the best steaks he’d ever had. And the size!

‘They were the size of this table!’ he’d tell the assembled friends and family , while Mum got on with the carving of the much smaller piece of beef that she was trying to stretch out so that everyone got served. My brother and I would imitate him afterwards.

‘The steaks were the size of a football pitch!’

‘No, they were the size of Wales!’

We would weep with hysteria at our own cleverness. It was only later that we grew to realise that Dad’s exaggeration was the result of his never feeling quite good enough for the company that he kept, in spite of his extraordinary achievements. He left school at 14 to support his mum and sisters, but he ended up travelling the world, learning Spanish and, finally, running the heritage centre for Gordon’s Gin. For all that, he never felt that his true stories were interesting enough, and so they were embellished until they were unrecognisable.

Seen in this light, the 83 mile walk is typical Dad.

And outside, spring is pushing through. It seems almost an insult. How dare life be going on when I feel so frozen! Bloody crocuses, busting forth so hopefully! And look at those honeybees and bumbles, already bustling about and looking for nectar and pollen. Life goes on relentlessly, whether I want it to or not.

I take a walk to Borough Gardens, a tiny municipal park close to the nursing home, which has everything you might want, and a few other things besides. Like the fine clock tower in the first photo, and this lovely bandstand, surrounded by some ruthlessly pollarded trees.

But it’s the plants that get me, every time. I start off marching along and end up dawdling, my eye drawn to the buds and the patterns in the leaves, and the sheer abundance of life just waiting to burst out.

Snowdrops

Witch Hazel

Sedum seed heads

A variety of pampas grass ?

Fern

Green hellebore

Robins sing their hearts out from every shrub

The herring gulls stand like sentinels, waiting for the rustle of a crisp packet.

Even in this tiny park with its swings and fountain and tennis courts and greenhouses, there is a sense of the natural world leaping into action, taking the opportunity to wake and breed and flower, and I feel that same force entreating me to take action, to move, to awaken to possibility. Part of me wants to linger in stillness, and part of me is filled with an urge to make something new, to carry the baton forward. And so I stand, oscillating, between two poles, eager for rest and called to movement. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but also strangely exhilarating.

Outside the park, there is an avenue where the crows are already starting to repair their nests. At the foot of each great tree there is an explosion of crocuses. I find that I am most moved by the damaged ones, those that have been trampled by passing dogs or crushed by a child’s foot. I suppose that they remind me of me, bruised and imperfect, but still trying to flower.

When I go back to see Dad, he’s leafing through one of the big lever-arch files that contain medical records. One of the nurses must have left it on the table. I watch him for a while. He seems to be trying to do something, but I’m not sure what. I see the man who used to organise conferences and dinners for the pensioner’s association after he retired, the man who used to run a whole distillery in a language that wasn’t his own. He seems very calm, contemplative even. I sit beside him as he ‘works’ away, and finally closes the file. The nurse comes by and collects it.

‘Thank you for helping us, Tom’, she says.

Dad nods. ‘You’re welcome’, he says.

It is possible to honour and respect someone even when it’s not clear what they know, or understand. It’s possible to meet them where they are. I am being shown that holding on to what someone was is not helpful, for them or for us, and that being curious can be a useful tool in trying to rebuild a relationship with someone who is in a state of flux. Just as the natural world is always cycling, changing, adapting, so is Dad, and so will I.

Wednesday Weed – Aloe Vera

Aloe vera.

Dear Readers, this rather elegant but spindly plant is a member of the Aloe family, and has a bit of a history. The mother plant belonged to a good friend of my husband’s who died back in 1998, and this is a tiny offshoot from that original aloe. You might expect it to be a bit larger considering that that was over 20 years ago, but it has had an adventurous time of it. A few years ago I put it out in the garden so that it could have a summer holiday, but for some reason the local foxes took exception to it, and dragged it out of its pot and under the hedge. If my husband hadn’t noticed that it was missing, it would probably have died there, but as it was we were able to rescue it and repot it. I hoped that it would  survive, and indeed it has, though I suspect it is still not as happy as it could be. It reminds me rather of one of Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculptures.

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Louise Bourgeois – Maman, 1999 (Photo One)

There are many, many species of Aloe, but knowing my husband’s friend, I think this plant is most likely to be Aloe vera, because he was very interested in the healing properties of plants. This plant originates in the Arabian peninsula, but has become naturalised in many parts of the world – indeed, I saw one on the island of Lanzarote that was easily the size of a small garden shed. Like all aloes, Aloe vera is a succulent that is adapted for desert climates, and stores water in its leaves. The sharp spines along the edge of leaf are a protection against the grazing animals that would otherwise gobble it up in order to supplement their own liquid reserves.

The water is held by the plant in the form of a gel, which is claimed to have all kinds of soothing and healing properties, particularly in cases of skin irritation or burns. The gel is also used as a dietary supplement and as a thickener for products such as yoghurt.

Unprocessed aloe vera ‘juice’ contains a substance called aloin which can work as a laxative, although products marketed for this purpose were banned in the US in 2002 due to their potential toxicity.  It has also been used as a cold and flu remedy, and to treat herpes. In fact, the ancient Egyptians knew it as ‘the plant of immortality’ and used it for more or less any ailment.

Although sometimes considered effective against the side effects of radiotherapy treatment, Cancer Research UK has reviewed the evidence and remains unconvinced.

It is true, however, that Aloe vera has a history of medicinal use going back to the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, a list of plants used in ancient Egypt from 1550 BC. I can see how temptingly emollient that sap looks, and am not surprised that among the products that I looked up at random are moisturisers, toilet tissue and, ahem, a colon cleanse.

For a long time it was believed that Aloe vera grew only on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and Aristotle was said to have asked Alexander the Great to conquer the island to make sure that supplies of the plant could be maintained. Alexander is said to have ethnically cleansed the island of its original inhabitants, replacing them with Ionians who would tend the aloes. The island is also home to myrrh (a tree resin extracted from the bark of a number of small trees), which, with Aloe vera, was used as an embalming fluid.

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127320

A split aloe leaf (Photo Two)

Although my Aloe vera plant is a bit weedy at the moment, they are rather splendid when they get to flowering size.

Photo Three by By Collage by en:User:MidgleyDJ, original images from Wikimedia commons (Image:Aloe_vera_offsets.jpg and Image:Aloe_vera_C.jpg) - See author., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5084561

Aloe vera in flower (Photo Three)

Although through some of their naturalised range Aloe vera plants might be pollinated by insects, they evolved to be pollinated by sunbirds, in particular the Arabian sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus hellmayri). These fill the niche that is occupied by hummingbirds in the New World, and look surprisingly similar. The plant can also reproduce by offshoots, like the one that produced my husband’s plant.

Photo Four by Av Tore - https://www.flickr.com/photos/28092414@N03/16153474921, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58326388

Arabian sunbird (Cinnyris habessinicus hellmayri) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by By Rahulsharma photography - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49803138

Sunbird on naturalised Aloe Vera in India (Photo Five)

And finally, a poem by Danielle Chapman, another poet who is new to me (and how I love the journeys that I go on when I research this blog)! She is based in Connecticut, but this poem speaks to me of somewhere else. I think she catches the way that curiosity, and close attention, is so often a cure for both major, and minor, pains. I have certainly found it to be so over this past few years.

Catch-All

Mother Dear, never apologize for nettles
I yanked in fury
from Lottie Shoop’s side yard — 
they stung me into seeing
fairy mosses lilypad
her middened juniper,
the quivering gobble of her chin,
teacup clicking dentures as she sprang
up into her wattle hut
and broke a rib
of aloe vera — 
gel belling the top of that claw goblet.
It didn’t cool the sting, and yet, noticing
sunshine thumbing plums in a string
catch-all — 
I was already well.

 

Photo Credits

Photo One by hh oldman [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127320

Photo Three by By Collage by en:User:MidgleyDJ, original images from Wikimedia commons (Image:Aloe_vera_offsets.jpg and Image:Aloe_vera_C.jpg) – See author., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5084561

Photo Four by Av Tore – https://www.flickr.com/photos/28092414@N03/16153474921, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58326388

Photo Five by By Rahulsharma photography – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49803138

Mum’s Memorial

St Andrew’s Church, Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, on Saturday last week friends and family  gathered to say goodbye to my Mum, Sybil Esme Palmer. Many people had battled through the snow to get there, following a blizzard the previous night, and the inside of the church was so cold that we could see our breath. But the church was full, and the singing was hearty. We sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Immortal, Invisible’, and my brother read the eulogy with a composure that was all the more impressive because I knew how devastated he had been by Mum’s death.

We had been very concerned about whether or not to bring Dad to the service. For weeks he hadn’t mentioned Mum, and seemed to have forgotten all about her, so we were worried that suddenly plunging him back into the reality of the situation – that his wife of 61 years had died- would distress him greatly when he was already so confused and frail. But then, a few days before the service, he began to talk about Mum again, and so we took the decision that he needed to be with us all. One of his carers from the nursing home came with us and Dad held her hand all through the service. I am so glad that he was able to come: it would have felt very incomplete without him. And I think he rather enjoyed the reception afterwards, which was beautifully arranged by my brother’s partner, and which had some very thoughtful touches, like the packets of forget-me-not seeds that everyone could take home with them.

Dad recognised his two sisters, and many people from the village. Everyone took the time to talk to him, in spite of the fact that what he was saying didn’t always make sense. Once this village takes you to their heart, you’re theirs for life. There was such a feeling of palpable love in the room, both for Mum and for Dad, that it seemed to lift a shadow from my heart. To have inspired such a spirit in such a diverse mix of people is a true memorial to the character of the people who are no longer with us.

And also, I might be biased but I cannot believe how handsome my Dad is. He seems to be being scoured away by dementia, but he reminds me now of an ageing film star. No wonder the ladies in the nursing home have a soft spot for him.

Bugwoman and her Dad

And then, of course, everyone goes home and here I am, with my memories and my sadness. I feel as if I have slowed right down to walking pace. I am finding great solace in cooking at the moment, and am baking bread as if the shops will soon run out. And then I was sitting at my desk writing, and happened to look up, to see this little chap.

Noddy, made by Mum

My Mum was such a creator, of toys and clothes and food and paintings. I mentioned to her that someone I knew was pregnant, and Noddy appeared a month later. He looks as defiant as my Mum often was, hands on hips and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. I love the laces on his shoes, his hair, his little belt and scarf and the bell on his hat. I must have ‘forgotten’ to pass him on, because there he was on the shelf, and I had no idea that he was there. When I took him down and cradled him he brought back everything that was fine about Mum, her generosity, her skill, her enormous heart. I don’t think I’d realised how much I missed her until that moment.

Everyone that I saw at the Memorial had received something handmade from Mum. Towards the end of her life she became very fond of making scarves, and giving them to anyone in the village who stood still for long enough. I remembered that I had gotten one from her, and went into my wardrobe to look. She’d made me four.

And then, I remembered The Bag. This was from an earlier period, when Mum was into patchwork quilting, and I think that it’s astonishing. I use it on special occasions, and have to wear something plain because it’s always the star of the show. Mum pieced together all those tiny pieces of fabric just before she started to get numbness in her fingers, and became unable to do such fine work. Life took so many things away from my mother, but she kept turning to the next thing, determined to create until the very last months of her life.

Ah Mum. What a lousy time of it she had over those past few years, coming down with one illness after another, gradually losing her mobility and, I fear, showing the first signs of dementia right towards the end. But she took such joy in things. A few weeks before she died, I bought Mum and Dad a box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates, and although Mum was barely eating at that point she managed three, each one cut into quarters. Later, she had a liking for toffee yoghurt, and the carers rushed to make sure there were enough in stock. Nothing that life threw at her could ever completely dent her spirit, and she found something to be glad about every single day. Her heart was full of love until the day she died, and for all I know she loves us still, as we do her.

RIP Mum. This poem was read out at the service. I hope you’ve found your Inn at last.

Up-Hill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

   Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

   From morn to night, my friend.

 

But is there for the night a resting-place?

   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

   You cannot miss that inn.

 

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

   Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

   They will not keep you standing at that door.

 

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

   Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

   Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti

Wednesday Weed – Lisianthus

Lisianthus (Eustoma russelliana) flower

Dear Readers, please excuse the somewhat bruised example of Lisianthus above – it was in one of the table decorations from my Mum’s Memorial service on Saturday, and has travelled back to East Finchley from Dorset via a rail  replacement bus,  so it is looking a little sad. I will write more about the service on Saturday, but it went as well as these things ever do, and better than most, so I have much to be thankful and grateful for. Mum was always partial to these delicate flowers, in their varied shades of pink and lilac, blue and white, and I realised that I knew next to nothing about them, except that they were very popular with florists, and, when not carted from one end of the country to the other, were very long-lasting and resilient.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=432031

A rather healthier example of Lisianthus (Photo One)

So, it turns out that lisianthus is also known as prairie gentian or Texas bluebell, and comes originally from the southern US, Central America and northern South America. As its common name suggests, it’s a member of the gentian family, and the wild plant lives in grassland and disturbed habitats.It is now relatively rare, particularly in the US where plant hunters sometimes cut the flowers before they seed. A field full of the wild plants must be really something to behold, and there are some stunning photos on the Wildflower Haven website here.

There is some confusion about how it got the English name lisianthus, which in Latin refers to a completely different plant. The name lisianthus comes from the Greek words for ‘smooth flower’, whereas the Latin name of the plant, Eustoma, means ‘good mouth’ in Greek.

I have always been very fond of the way the buds of lisianthus twirl open, like a tutu. The flowers seem to have the strong, supple grace of a ballerina.

Lisianthus is sometimes known as ‘poor man’s rose’, and I can see the similarity, though deep blue and purple ‘Lizzies’ have achieved a colour that roses can only aspire to. Lizzies aren’t fragrant, but then neither are most shop-bought roses. What does interest me is that lisianthus seems to have become a florist’s favourite from nowhere – I certainly don’t remember it when I was growing up, though Japanese horticulturalists have been creating different varieties since the 1930’s. The blue lisianthus is particularly revered in Japan, and is often placed on the grave of loved ones.

Photo Two by By Photo by David J. Stang - source: David Stang. First published at ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61022222

Lisianthus Lisa Pink (Photo Two)

Photo Three by Ramesh Ng https://cs.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soubor:Lisianthus_aka_Eustoma_7214.JPG

Blue lisianthus (Photo Three )

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

White lisianthus (Photo Four)

For anyone inclined to rush out and get a packet of lisianthus seeds though, I would say be careful. According to ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ magazine, they are very slow to grow, taking 15 to 20 months from planting to flowering. The seed is dust like and must be lain on top of the soil, rather than buried. The soil must be rich and friable, and while the plant needs to be watered, too much will cause it to fall prey to a whole variety of fungal diseases and pests. Once up, it will need to be staked, to prevent it falling over and those delicate blooms being damaged. Finally, this plant is technically an annual, so once it’s flowered you’ll have to do it all over again. If you’ve had any success with lisianthus, do let me know, so that we can find out how you did it and give you a round of applause.

Lisianthus is apparently the birth flower for people born under Sagittarius (November 22nd to December 21st), which would have delighted Mum as she was born on November 26th.

And here is our poem, by none other than Emily Dickinson. It refers to a close relative of ‘our’ lisianthus, but is none the less charming for that.

‘Fringed Gentian’ by Emily Dickinson

God made a little gentian;

It tried to be a rose

And failed, and all the summer laughed.

But just before the snows

There came a purple creature

That ravished all the hill;

And summer hid her forehead,

And mockery was still.

The frosts were her condition;

The Tyrian would not come

Until the North evoked it.

“Creator! shall I bloom?”

Photo Five from https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/nature/desert-in-bloom.htm

Wild lisianthus in New Mexico (Photo Five)

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=432031

Photo Two by By Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61022222

Photo Three by Ramesh Ng https://cs.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soubor:Lisianthus_aka_Eustoma_7214.JPG

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

Photo Five from https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/nature/desert-in-bloom.htm

The RSPB Big Birdwatch 2019

Dear Readers, the Memorial service for my Mum is taking place this Saturday (2nd February) at 11 a.m. at St Andrews Church in Milborne St Andrew.  I will write a little more about this soon, but in the meantime I just wanted to say thank you for the kindness and support that you have shown to me during this awful time. It has been such a comfort.

Dear Readers, every year it seems to be the same. I settle down to record the birds in my garden for the Big Garden Birdwatch (which is in its fortieth year this year), and all the unusual critters disappear. But data is data, and so I am only mildly irritated when one of the two feral pigeons who use the garden turns up and claims the ‘bird table’ for 30 minutes. I have named this one ‘Gladys’, for reasons that I find it difficult to explain. She is a very elegant bird (and may indeed be a male, though I have spotted her being courted by another pigeon so I am hedging my bets). She is, however, something of a dog in a manger. When she has eaten her fill she just sits there, and sees off all comers. Yes, even the starlings.

I have a great fondness for pigeons, as regular readers will know, but I only have an hour to get my beak count up, so I wish she’d get a move on. For those of you who don’t know about the Big Garden Birdwatch, you watch the birds in your garden, or in a local park, for an hour and record the maximum number of each species that you see. It is always on the last weekend in January, so over the years a lot of data has been collected. It highlights the relative gains and losses in Britain’s gardens, and has recorded the sad decline in species such as the house sparrow, starling and, particularly, the greenfinch. It will be interesting to see what trends this year’s Birdwatch reveals.

At the moment a flock of four chaffinches are regular visitors, and what a delight they are. At least Gladys doesn’t dissuade them.

Male chaffinch (Fringilla coeleps)

Female chaffinch

It is a particularly blustery day, and the birds that turn up in the garden seem to be blown in by the wind. I am always moved by how resilient they are, and how energetic. Gladys hasn’t moved, but there are a few other visitors. A great tit appears, and some blue tits are zipping in and out of the hedge. The coal tit who always visits the suet feeder decides not to put in an appearance until one minute after the Birdwatch is finished.

Great tit (Parus major)

As it is such a quiet time for birds, I have plenty of time to reflect on how my garden was neglected last year. Regular readers will know that my mother died towards the end of last year following a long period of ill health, and that my father was diagnosed with dementia which has gotten increasingly serious. As I look out at the pond (which should have been cleared in autumn) and some of the shrubs (which could have done with a prune) and as I notice the bramble that has advanced over the back fence and is now rooting next to the shed, I realise that there is plenty to do as soon as the weather warms up a little, and that I am rather looking forward to getting things back into order. I find myself drifting off into a reverie about what to do first and how to improve things, and I realise that when all else fails, there is always gardening. It is one of those projects that never ends, and which is all the better for it.

And then I notice a tiny movement in the bittersweet vine, and get a fleeting glimpse of a male blackcap rooting around amongst the berries. It’s too short a visit to get a photo, but it does give me the pleasure of manually adding a species to the list of ‘normal’ garden species on the Birdwatch form. I love how intensely black the cap of this bird is, like soot, and I have also spotted an attractive redheaded female blackcap, so maybe there is a pair. I saw a blackcap during last year’s Birdwatch too, so it gives me great pleasure to see the species again.

A blackcap from the 2018 Birdwatch

The regular goldfinches turn up amid a flurry of chime-like calls. I love the chequerboard pattern on their wings. Resident goldfinches are supplemented by visitors from Scandinavia in the winter. They are always such a pleasure to have in the garden. They are reputed to love nyger seed, but in my garden they  always head straight for the sunflower hearts, which I suspect are easier to eat than all those tiddly little black seeds. What I love most, though, is when I see goldfinches feeding on teasel or thistle. I might give teasel another go this year.

Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)

Young goldfinch feeding at the Olympic Park, Stratford

It does seem to be a bumper year for blackbirds, though. There is at least one pair, and a few random males, who are seen off by the resident male if they get too close to the female but are otherwise pretty much tolerated. I believe that all this will change soon when breeding gets going: blackbirds breed early, so it probably won’t be much longer, though the current cold spell will have slowed things up.

The resident female blackbird (Turdus merula)

Finally, Gladys gets bored, and everyone else gets a look in. I count 17 starlings in the lilac bush, waiting to see who will be brave enough to feed first. I imagine that having a range of personalities in a population of animals is a great advantage – sometimes fortune will favour the bold, and at other times it’s wiser to hang back. During last years Big Garden Birdwatch, I was visited by a sparrowhawk, and at that time discretion was definitely the better part of valour. This year, though, all was peaceful, and this starling had a couple of minutes of peace before the inevitable onslaught.

A contemplative starling

I did manage to record one species that I hadn’t been able to ‘catch’ in previous years. I took a look at the cherry tree that overhangs the garden (and so is fine for recording purposes as far as I’m concerned), and there was a song thrush in it. I found an empty snail shell on the path this morning, so I am very hopeful that the bird is eating my molluscs, though it could just be coincidence. Here is a photo from last year. Could it be the same individual, I wonder?

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)

And so, the hour draws to a close, and I am not unhappy with my tally. As is always the way, a dunnock and a wren pop up five minutes later and a more unusual group of visitors, some long-tailed tits, swarm the whitebeam a quarter of an hour later. There is something so soothing about just sitting and looking out of the window, and all in the name of science. I enjoyed it so much that I shall be keeping my eyes open for other ‘citizen science’ projects this year. Do let me know if you are involved in any such shenanigans!

And to close, here is one of the photos that I’m most proud of in all my years of being Bugwoman – some fledgling  long-tailed tits spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. It’s too early for the birds that I saw today to be breeding just yet, but I am hopeful for later in the year. These are the most adorable bundles of fuzz, and I was so glad to be in the right place at the right time for once. It’s always good to take the time to really look, whether it’s during a walk or in my own garden. I honestly never know who is going to turn up.