Monthly Archives: April 2020

A British Garden Bird Quiz!

Dear Readers, to shake things up a bit I thought I’d do us a little quiz on British birds and their calls/songs today. This is just for fun: I will publish the answers tomorrow, but will give a special shout out to the first person to get all (or the largest number of) the answers right (just pop them into the comments).

So, for starters, what birds are these? All photographs are taken in my East Finchley back garden, and, just to make it more challenging, not all of them are my best work :-).

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty One

And for bonus points, see if you can identify these: all the birds are pictured above. All recordings are from the Xeno Canto website 

22. Who is singing their head off here?

23. Who is raising the alarm here?

24. Which bird makes this sad little call?

25. Who is responsible for this jolly call? You can hear one of our earlier bird calls in the background towards the end…

And finally, who sounds very cross here?

Have fun, and I’ll ‘see’ you on Tuesday with the answers, and a request for some advice from you proper gardeners out there….

 

 

 

 

 

Tadpole alert!

Dear Readers, what ever time of year we go on holiday, it always seems to be the wrong time. Last year we went in April, and 90% of our adult frogs were eaten by a heron. This year, we headed out on 13th March (remember the days when you could actually go on holiday?) and on the morning that we left, the frogs were mating  but in the shallowest part of the pond.

‘That’ll cause trouble, mark my words’, I thought to myself.

Ten days later and, as I feared, the long dry spell had caused the water level in the pond to drop, and many of the eggs had dried out. All I could see was a sad layer of jelly and the little black specks that would have been tadpoles smeared across the stones. It was one more sadness in the middle of a desperately sad time.

‘I think the frogspawn has failed, for the first time in ten years’, I told my husband.

‘You might still be surprised’, he said.

And,  when I got back from Dad’s cremation, I had another look in the pond, and discovered that life is rather more resilient than I thought.

Look at all these tadpoles! At the moment they are vegetarian, and are getting stuck into the algae on the rocks. Some of them appeared to be trapped in tiny rock pools, so I have rearranged some of the stones so that they have access to the main pond when they’re ready – we don’t have any rain forecast, and I don’t want to top the pond up with tap water if I can avoid it. Later on, when they get little legs, they’ll become tiny predators, munching up the  invertebrate life in the pond. I am a bit concerned that it’s still pretty bare around the edge following my major tidy-up last year, but I am trying to remedy that (more on this later in the week).

The replanted marsh marigold is doing very well too, and often attracts hoverflies.

And my water hawthorn is tentatively popping out a few leaves and a single flower.

The water, which went bright green after the work that I had done in January, is gradually clearing, and I hope that my oxygenating plants will soon be bouncing back. One thing I am definitely thinking about doing is planting some pale-coloured flowers like nicotiana by the pond to attract moths, which will also help feed the bats – we had at least three regular visitors last year, and I want to encourage them.

There is such solace in sitting in the garden and seeing what’s going on, even if the tadpoles are so full of activity that it isn’t exactly restful. They have only a short period of time to grow up, and lots of competition, so I don’t blame them for getting stuck in. And here they are, the tadpoles that I didn’t think I’d see this year. How they lift my spirits!

 

 

 

A Jumpy Visitor

Zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus.)

Dear Readers, in this time of lockdown it is usually delightful when someone from the outside world comes to visit me (though not if the visitor is a mosquito) and so I was very pleased to see this jumping spider advancing along the edge of my desk. Jumping spiders are able to see the outside world in a way that other spiders don’t and so, although I did my best to get a decent photo of this spider, s/he kept edging away to the other side of the desk if I got too close. At one point s/he peered over the edge with just two enormous eyes showing. I can see why some arachnologists consider them their favourite spiders.

Jumping spiders and I go a long way back. Imagine, if you will, a pocket-hanky sized garden at the back of a tiny house in Stratford, East London. A six-year old girl is laying on her stomach in her best party dress, for which she will get ‘a right old telling-off’ in a few minutes, but she doesn’t care, because all her attention is focused on a jumping spider a few inches in front of her nose. The spider is crouching behind a tiny crenelation in the concrete slab that holds up the fence, and it is paddling its legs just like her cat does before she pounces. A fly is washing her hands a few inches away, and then starts to ‘clean behind her ears’, rotating her head a good 180 degrees on the string-like neck.

And then, the spider springs into the air and lands on the fly.

Truly, I (for it was me) had never seen anything so thrilling in my entire life. You could keep the lions of the Serengeti – who knew that such life and death struggles were going on in a city back garden? I  watched as the fly struggled, and then leapt up to go indoors to tell my parents what I’d seen. Sadly, they were less impressed with the spider, and more horrified that I’d now have to be positively hosed-down before I was fit to be presented to my grandmother.

And yet, that one incident opened my eyes to the sheer abundance of fascinating events and creatures that were right there, waiting to be experienced. I honestly believe that my love of nature and the natural world became turbo-charged in that moment – I had always preferred books about animals to books about people, but now my whole focus turned to the garden and what was living in it. No wonder that in these times of lockdown, I am finding my focus both narrowing and deepening, and I suspect that that’s the case for others, too.

Female zebra jumping spider (Public Domain)

One thing that makes the faces of jumping spiders so much more appealing to humans that those of other arachnids are those huge front-facing eyes. To the side and just above are two smaller eyes – these give the spider its peripheral vision, and enable it to detect its prey. Those enormous front-facing eyes enable it to lock on target, but also mean that it can see the movement of, say, a large late-middle aged female wafting a camera about. No wonder they seem to interact with us much more than most invertebrates.

It is also the case that jumping spiders appear to capable of learning: an experiment taught the spiders to associate a food reward with colour or location, and they quickly picked up where the tastiest titbits could be found. When the placements and colours were reversed, they soon unlearned their previous associations and formed new ones. Furthermore, the spiders, in the words of the scientists,

show differences in their learning success and in their preference of which cues they used (colour vs. location) as a reward’s predictor’

In other words, these tiny creatures, with brains smaller than a poppy seed and a life span of only 1-3 years, have intelligence and personality.

Experiments have also showed that jumping spiders are very interested in one another: in one test, they were more fascinated by one another than by a delicious food item being dragged past on a tiny cart. I shall hold that image in my head for quite some time, I must say. There is even some evidence that they can learn from watching the behaviour of other spiders. If we really paid attention to the little creatures around us, we would probably learn some extraordinary things.

Photo One by By Fotonfänger - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11135039

Perky jumping spider (Photo One)

I love how alert these creatures always seem to be, as if they are spring-loaded. Their Latin species name means ‘theatrical dancer’. They can jump at a speed of up to 2.6 feet per second, not bad when you consider that they are about the size of my little fingernail. The power to jump comes from a change in their body pressure, which results in the  fourth legs suddenly straightening, sending them flying into the air.

The love life of a jumping spider involves the male doing an energetic courtship dance, involving  waving the front legs and waggling the abdomen up and down. If you want to see the courtship display and mating of two North American jumping spiders, there is a rather nice video here. I listened with the sound down to avoid the usual silly music and cliched voice-over, but you may have a higher tolerance than I do.

Photo Two by Alexander Wild at alexanderwild.com

Photo Two by Alex Wild

These tiny tigers can be found all over the place at the moment: in East Finchley, they seem to like warm, south-facing walls, and I often greet one who lives beside my front door. If you want to meet a spider who truly ‘looks you in the eye’, this is definitely the one. And finally, for those of you with a very, very high tolerance for cuteness, have a look at this animation of ‘Lucas the spider’. You’re welcome.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Fotonfänger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11135039

Photo Two by Alexander Wild at www.alexanderwild.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saying Goodbye

Dear Readers, some of you have been following the story of my parents’ last years since way back in 2016, when my Mum was taken into hospital while she was staying with me in London, so it seems appropriate to bring you with me to closing of the chapter. Dad was cremated yesterday in the crematorium at Weymouth, on a glorious spring day. This is not an occasion that you want to be late for, especially when there will only be two mourners actually at the event (my brother was self-isolating with a fever), and so we were there an hour early. It was so peaceful in the crematorium grounds: the only sounds were the cawing of crows in the cypresses, and ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ which was chosen by the previous party as their music for saying goodbye. How idiosyncratic these choices are! I don’t know what anyone who didn’t know Dad would have made of ours (of which more later).

 

You would not have to ask from which direction the prevailing wind blows in the cemetery – every tree, every sapling, is leaning decidedly to the left. I idly wonder how some of them are standing up at all. Trees have a lot of sense, though: they ‘know’ that they need to adapt or get blown over, and so they sacrifice perfection for survival. This may be a metaphor.

I watch as the coffin bearing the next person to be cremated is driven to the door, and then the hearse drives away. At 1.30 it returns with another coffin. This one contains the earthly remains of my dear old dad. Of course, he isn’t actually here: that much was clear within a few moments of his death. The carer and I both went to the window to open it, as if to let his spirit out, just as I’d felt compelled to do when Mum died.

I had to get up and take a quick walk to regain a vestige of composure, and I found myself under those cypresses. People who are grieving are strange, otherworldly creatures who do peculiar things, and so it was that I found myself touching the trunk of one tree, almost as if I expected it to be breathing. It took me back to when I lay my hand on my Dad’s stilled chest, but at the same time it reminded me of when he was alive, this big, solid, reliable man, as dependable as a great tree. And I found myself taking off my shoes and standing in the grass, toes among the daisies, as if rooting down into the soil. Such a feeling of peace came over me, as if I was being held, and maybe I was, though by what or who I cannot say.

And then it was time. There are so many restrictions around the rites for the dead at the moment – no more than ten people, hand sanitizer as standard, no hugging people from other households. And yet, as we walked in to Concerto de Aranjuez (Adagio), to honour Dad’s love of Spain (and also the way that he used to whistle along with less than complete accuracy), I could feel all the people watching the webcast from home – Dad’s sisters and their families, some of my friends, and of course my brother – and it was comforting in a way that I hadn’t expected. The vicar’s eulogy managed to catch the essence of Dad in all his variety. And when we walked back out into the sunshine, to the sound of the theme tune to ‘Last of the Summer Wine‘, I felt as if we had done the best that we could for Dad, for now. 

Some of the peace of the day stayed with me as we started on the long trek home. It may not last, but then nothing does. My brother and I have often coped with the last few years by using humour, and this week we were remarking that we were orphans, but not the wide-eyed, sad Dickensian variety. Which kindly benefactor will adopt us, I mused, since we are grey-haired (and getting increasingly more so), old and a little on the podgy side? A friend of mine had the best answer:

‘Nature seems to be your nearest kindly benefactor’ she said.

And so it is.

When the Lockdown is Over…

Rockpool, photo by Claire Pegrum

Dear Readers, what do you find yourself dreaming about during the lockdown? I have found my mind going to some most peculiar places. For example, when I was a child I loved messing about in rockpools – I have never been one for laying about on a beach, but give me a fishing net and a jam jar and I’m there (all creatures are returned to the pool after inspection of course). How I remember that seaweedy smell, the salt in my hair, the slight tingle of incipient sunburn (there was no Factor 50 in those days). I find myself daydreaming about the way that the sea anemones turned from boiled sweets into medusas as the tide came in, and the prickle of the feet of the little crabs that I used to pick up. How I loved the dart of the little shrimps, and the many tiny suckers on the undersides of the star fish! Every rockpool seemed to be a treasure trove of delights, inexhaustible. It has been a long, long time since I went rockpooling, but when this is over, I shall head out again, barefooted on the slippery rocks, trying to avoid the barnacles.

And then there are the things that I’ve never seen that I find myself aching to see.

Photo Two by Svein-Magne Tunli - tunliweb.no / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Northern Lights (Photo Two)

Mum always wanted to see the northern lights, and before she got very sick we were trying to sort out a Norwegian cruise so that she and Dad could see them. I realise now that I was kidding myself, and that Mum and Dad were humouring me: I got a bit frustrated that no cruise ever suited, but I think they knew in their heart of hearts that they weren’t well enough to go. But now I have such an urge to jump on a boat in the middle of winter and head north: maybe I think that, wherever Mum is, she’ll be able to see them through my eyes. Whatever the reason, I find myself thinking about those great curtains of light dancing across the sky, and my heart yearns.

 

Rather closer to home, I want to go back to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, currently closed to the public. Rumour has it that it was closed following a barbeque and some sunbathing at one of the graves, that involved the police being called. Whatever the reason, it is now out of bounds unless you are attending a funeral or cremation, so I am missing the emergence of the young foxes, who will just be starting to explore the world – before it closed, a friend of mine told me that she’d seen no less than four young foxes cavorting around the graves. It’s so frustrating! But I shall have to make do with the photo above of a particularly confiding young vixen back in 2016. Isn’t she gorgeous?

Photo Three by kloniwotski / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

London (Photo Three)

And how I miss my city. I miss the museums and the art galleries and the theatre. I miss going to the cinema. But most of all, I miss just mooching around, walking along back streets that I’ve never experienced before, looking out over the Thames, finding little patches of green that I didn’t know existed. For all her messiness and noise, she is in my blood. My husband says that London is a disease that you have to leave to get over, and I know what he means. I have loved spending time in the peace of Dorset, but something always draws me back here.

And speaking of the delights of London:

Photo Four by RachelH_ / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Daunt Books’s famous gallery (Photo Four)

Photo Five from https://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/gallery?gallery=christmas-windows

London Review of Books bookshop (Photo Five)

I love these two bookshops with a passion. Daunt Books, on Marylebone High Street, specialises in travel books, and I love the way that they arrange all the books for a particular country or region in the same space. So, for Austria for example, you will have guidebooks to Vienna, walking guides for the Tyrol, Austrian recipes books full of kaiserschmarren and sacher torte, and novels by Elfride Jelinek and Robert Seethaler. Incidentally, can I recommend Seethaler’s 2016 novel ‘A Whole Life’? Maybe I’m biased because I’ve spent so many weeks in the Austrian Alps, but I found it a useful insight into the history of the mountains, as seen through the life of one man in a Tyrolean village.

The London Review of Books bookshop on Museum Street, close to the British Museum is, as you might expect, full of books on politics and economics, along with unusual works of fiction and an interesting selection of science and natural history books. Plus, it has a cafe with homemade cakes, and that’s hard to beat. The staff are every bit as quirky and interesting as the books, and really know their stuff. Pop in if you’re in the area and you’ll see what I mean.

And of course, I miss all the little things: having coffee with a friend, going out for breakfast with my husband, going to my pilates class, popping to the garden centre. But how easy it has been to take all these things for granted, and how wonderful it will be to be able to do them again! For some people I know that just being able to get back to work will be a huge relief. I never thought that I’d miss commuting, but how great it will be to jump on a train and go into the office to see my colleagues in the flesh when all this is over. There will be some re-evaluation of what makes life worthwhile for all of us, I think. It will be fascinating to see how long the effects of the lockdown last, and what decisions we make about our futures. We are certainly living through history, and it will be interesting to see what has changed when we step, blinking, into the big wide world again.

 

 

A Whole Life

Tom Palmer in his early thirties, with our Ford Consul Sunshine

Dear Readers, by the time you read this, I will be on my way to Weymouth Crematorium, to say goodbye to Dad. Even two weeks after he died it still seems impossible that I am writing these words, and I keep expecting to wake up and find out it was all a nightmare. I am reminded that when we first started to discuss the nursing home for Mum and Dad, she would look at me and ask ‘Am I dreaming? Are we really having this conversation?’ and I wasn’t altogether sure myself.

But yes, this is real, and tomorrow will be the end of Dad’s physical form on this earth. He was always such a big presence, and so at ease in his body, unlike the rest of us: Dad prided himself that he could still beat us in a straight sprint until we were in our early teens, and he liked nothing better than to take his shirt off and get some sun on his back. He was a very attractive man, and yet he didn’t seem to know it: Mum’s friends were always telling her how lucky she was to have him, which was a cheek as she was utterly gorgeous as a young woman too. Right up until the end of his life, women loved my Dad: his key nurse at the home told me that he was ‘always a gentleman’, and he loathed any man who didn’t treat women with the respect that they were due.

Dad and Bugwoman on her wedding day in 2001.

Dad and I shared a sense of humour, and I loved how dry he could be. He often could barely contain his amusement at the idiosyncrasies of other folk, and I suspect that we are having a bit of a giggle about some strangeness that is going on at the wedding. This served Dad in good stead at the nursing home, because he never lost his notion of the absurd. He would often shake his head and tell me how confused someone else was, this from a man who thought he was on a cruise ship. When we were growing up, my Dad and I used to love The Goon Show, which Mum loathed, because she could never understand why it was funny. As a teenager I got into endless rows with Dad about the Benny Hill Show, because I said it was misogynistic, and Dad just thought it was funny. I was so enraged about the many things that were wrong in the world that Mum must often have dreaded opening her mouth, but Dad ploughed on anyway. In fact, he was quite fond of saying something contentious and then standing back as I flew into spluttering fury. It wasn’t until I noticed the little smile on his face that I realised that I’d been played.

Dad at the Marina close to Minneapolis

When he was younger, Dad was the most easy-going man that you could meet. Mum was the Designated Worrier, and Dad was always the one to calm her down. But later in life, this changed. Not long after my marriage, Dad developed an obsession about the car, and about parking. He once came to visit us in Islington, close to where he used to work as a gin distiller, and he spent the whole lunch worrying about how he was going to get home again.

‘They’ve moved all the roads since I was here last’, he said.

Now, I wonder if the damage to Dad’s memory that was going to lead to his dementia had already started as long as twenty years ago.

Dad and Mum’s trip to see Mum’s cousin in Minneapolis was to be their last long distance trip. Not long after this, Dad had a stroke, and soon after that both his lungs and his heart started to fail. Being a life-long smoker, he developed COPD, what used to be called emphysema, and his heart’s irregular rhythm was corrected with a pacemaker. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that for the past five years life has been one emergency after another, with Mum and Dad in and out of hospital, on and off of antibiotics and steroids. Whenever Dad had an infection, he would become ‘confused’ – during one hospital stay he kept standing up and trying to ‘go to the shop’, in spite of being connected to a canula, a catheter and various monitoring devices. It was the first time that my mother and I had ever seen him like this, and I remember the cold sweat running down my back as I tried to persuade him to sit down. Later it transpired that after we left he had pulled out his canula leading to a spectacular bloodbath. It foreshadowed what would happen to Dad when he went into the hospital for the last time. In effect, it ended any attempt to give him the intravenous antibiotics that might have saved him.

Dad and Bugwoman in the bluebell wood near Milborne St Andrew

Every time Dad had a chest infection, his ‘confusion’ got worse. Sometimes, it cleared up and he seemed more lucid. It was clear that he was getting worse however. A couple of years before he died, he came home after a hospital stay, and he didn’t know who Mum was. He wasn’t sure if she was his Mum, or some random elderly lady who just happened to be staying in his house. Mum was heartbroken.

‘Do you think he thinks I’m his Mum because I look so old?’ she asked me.

When Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia, it came as no surprise to anyone. The news was delivered in the nursing home by a very compassionate consultant. Mum heard the diagnosis, and I have a feeling that it was then that she decided to let go.

‘He had such a magnificent mind’, she said. ‘He was my rock’.

In spite of his dementia, Dad was still determined to make Mum happy. Mum wanted to go home when she first went into the nursing home (although she changed her mind later), and Dad latched on to that. I remember him sitting on the bed, gathering all his patriarchal authority, in spite of the fact that his shirt was done up wrong.

‘I think we should get your Mum home, and then she’ll be well again’, he said, his hands shaking.

‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘If Mum goes home, she’ll just go straight into hospital’.

‘You’re wrong’, he said vehemently.

And all I could do was go outside the room and cry.

After Mum died, Dad went through a period of looking for her, though if you’d asked him he couldn’t have told you what he was doing. I think he just knew that something was wrong. But then, gradually, he settled in to the routine at the home, and somehow he seemed more like the Dad that I used to know: pragmatic, laid-back, wryly amused, mischievous. He was enjoying his life, and I am heartbroken that he didn’t get to have a bit longer to eat pie and mash, to sit in the sunshine and to plant out some little seedlings from the garden centre, handling them so gently with his big, brown hands.

The photo below is Dad as I remember him best – tanned, relaxed, at ease with himself. It was taken in Spain, which is the country that he loved most in the world after England. Like the people who are currently not being included in the Covid-19 statistics because they died in care homes, Dad had lived a full and interesting life and was still making the people around him happy. I heard Dorothy Duffy’s eulogy for her sister, who died from coronavirus, on Radio Four last week, and one sentence has stuck in my head.

‘Her underlying conditions were love, kindness, belief in the essential goodness of mankind, uproarious laughter.

Forgiveness, compassion, a storyteller, a survivor, a comforter, a force of nature and so much more.’

My Dad had a multitude of underlying conditions that contributed to his death, but that doesn’t make him in any way less deserving of grief, or worthy of remembrance. A community that doesn’t make space for everyone is not a community. Maybe this time will teach us how deeply dependent we are on one another, how intricately linked. When someone dies the reverberations in the web of life are felt a long way from the centre.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Thomas Reginald Palmer (5.12.35 to 31.3.20)

Blossom

Magnificent Kanzan cherry tree at the bottom of Durham Road, East Finchley on Sunday

Dear Readers, when we awoke this morning the temperature had dropped by twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was whistling in the chimney. I thought about putting a hat on before my daily walk to exercise, and was sorry that I hadn’t when the chill blast insinuated itself into my inner ear. Still, I was determined to see what was going on on my patch, and today I decided to tune into blossom because, with this wind, a lot of it was  likely to be gone by tomorrow.

I had been particularly taken by the cherry tree above. It was positively laden down with candy-pink, puffball flowers. The photo above shows it on Sunday.

By Monday, it looked like this: you can see some of the areas where the green leaves are showing through.

Cherry blossom today

And the pavements look as if there has been a wedding.

Incidentally, Durham Road also has one of my favourite, favourite trees, which I am slipping in here even though it’s its leaves, not it’s blossom, that makes it so gorgeous. I love the way that the colour shades from crimson to coral.

Japanese acer on Durham Road

But as usual I digress.

Our street on the County Roads has a variety of very pretty street trees. This is a crab apple that produces a whole mass of fruit in the summer, and turns golden and red in the autumn. Not bad value for a single tree, plus the parakeets sometimes strip its blossom.

Further down the street there are two striking pink crab apple trees: these might be of the old variety ‘Purple Crab Apple’ (Malus x purpurea), and at the moment they are spectacular.

Purple crab apple

Incidentally, if you live in London and want to know about your street trees, the London Street Trees map will give you a reasonable idea of what’s what (though not the individual cultivars, and some of the trees are irritatingly described as ‘other’ which is not abundantly helpful). You can access it here. Just enter your postcode, and away you go! Might be useful for an exercise session (but be careful of your social distancing, as always).

Off we go into the woods, and there are the wild relatives of some of these trees blossoming away. They may not be as fluffily-adorned as some of the ‘domesticated’ trees, but they have a delicate beauty all of their own, the pristine white flowers standing out against the crisp green foliage. Being in the wood at this time of year can feel like being at the bottom of the ocean: there is a strange otherworldly feel to it, even as we sashay past runners and children on scooters. There was a husky howling its head off as we strolled through this morning, and it reminded me that there were once wolves here, though a very, very long time ago.

The plant below, for example, is Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) – the leaves are much less deeply lobed than in the common hawthorn, and this is a plant of ancient woodlands and clay soils. Apparently, when those pretty flowers are cut they have such an unpleasant smell that medieval people said it reminded them of the stench of the Great Plague. It’s probably best to leave the flowers right where they are, especially at the moment. Hawthorn generally has a rather feral scent, and one wouldn’t want to encourage it to get any worse.

And what about this tree? Looking at the leaves, I am thinking wild cherry (Prunus avium): the flowers are so white that they glow in the semi-shade. Like a lot of woodland trees, this is a rather scrappy little chap, surviving in the filtered sunlight that comes from being slightly closer to the stream than many other trees.

And so we loop back and head for home. I cannot resist taking a photo of this goat willow catkin though: soon the bees will be all over it (though it will need to warm up a bit first).

And look at this splendid single paeony just waiting to erupt in a front garden close to the woods.

I don’t know about you, but being in lockdown seems to have heightened all my senses, so that I am primed to notice the changes that happen every day in my immediate environment. It is a real privilege to be able to go out at all, and walking the same routes on a regular basis reminds me of the pleasure that there can be in observing a local ‘patch’ in all weathers. I am waking up to the delights of slowing down, and of making the most of a bad job. Dad was a very pragmatic man. I can see him now, shrugging his shoulders and settling back into his recliner with a cup of tea and the TV remote, ready for a Last of the Summer Wine marathon. He always reminded me a bit of a cat, ready to curl up in the sun and disinclined to get excited unless there was something worth getting excited about. I could learn a lot from his example.

 

 

 

The Dance of Two Metres in Coldfall Wood

Sign at the entrance to Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, time was that a walk in Coldfall Wood would involve a gentle stroll, with me pausing every five minutes to take a photo of something or other. Not now! In the UK we are allowed out once a day for exercise, but all that loitering business is definitely frowned upon. After all, we are all trying to preserve this business of being two metres apart from people who aren’t part of our household, and that’s difficult enough when everyone is travelling at the same pace.

What a dance the good burghers of East Finchley are currently performing! There’s a step to the left, and then a step to the right, usually involving getting off the path to avoid a runner who is puffing energetically along. The biggest hazard, however, is people looking at their phones, oblivious. It would be very easy to become a curmudgeon (and I have tendencies in that direction as we know), but a piece of advice that I read at the start of all this shenanigans has stood me in good stead. It suggested that I am only responsible for my own social distancing, and that there’s little I can do about people who have other ideas about it. So true! I make sure that I step off the path or take the other route, because it costs me nothing, and it might keep both me and the other person safe. I have a suspicion that chaps might find this more difficult, as there is a definite dominance game played on the pavement at the best of times – what do you think? I know that women are not immune to this kind of gameplaying, but in my experience, a lot of blokes naturally take up as much space as they can, as if they are entitled to it. And I know that it’s not just women who are affected by ‘manspreading’ on the tube, for example – other men are as well.

Anyhoo, off I go into the woods, making sure to preserve not just my horizontal distance but my vertical distance as well, as instructed.

Gosh, two metres is quite a distance, isn’t it? I think if my husband fell flat on his face he’d be about two metres, so this makes it relatively easy to envisage (not that a tumble is desirable, obviously).

But how beautiful the woods look. The marsh marigold is just coming into flower along by the culvert, although it’s been extremely dry for the past few weeks, and the river is reduced to a trickle.

The crows are delighted though – there is a ‘secret’ spot in the woods where the crows go to bathe, and until recently the  whole area was flooded. Not anymore, though, and the birds are back.

I am loving the way that the hornbeam leaves are bursting through, so fresh and green. They look as if they are getting bigger every day, and I’m sure they are.

Hornbean leaves

At this time of year, you can clearly see the structure of the standard oaks that were planted many years ago. As you might remember from previous posts, Coldfall Wood is an ancient wood, where hornbeam was planted around an oak (a forestry method known as ‘coppice and standard’). The hornbeam would be cut back every year for kindling and charcoal (there are the remains of an old charcoal pit in one corner of the wood) but the oak would be allowed to grow for up to a century, at which point it would be cut down, and the wood would normally go to the Lord of the Manor. The oaks have magnificent full crowns, but at some point the tree will no longer be able to pump its sap all that way, and the top branches will die, with the crown retreating to a point lower down, giving us a ‘stag-headed’ oak. I will have a look next time I’m in the woods to see if any of the trees have reached this point, but for the moment have a look at these beauties.

Everything comes to an end, however, and there are a few enormous fallen trees in the wood. They always remind me of some kind of prehistoric monster, lurking in the undergrowth. We had a few bouts of very high winds during the winter, and maybe they were the final straw. Dead wood is normally left so that it can break down naturally, and provide a home for all kinds of beetles and other insects.

And so we circumnavigate the wood, waving hello to people as we dance around them, admiring dogs from a distance and listening to the parrots being rambunctious. It seems to me that pretty much everyone around here is doing their best under very difficult circumstances, and most people have now gotten the memo about what they’re meant to be doing. One thing this past few years has taught me is that it’s so important to take a breath and choose the kinder option – you never know what people are going through privately.

And, when I walk back along Creighton Avenue, I notice that two pigeons are happily ensconced in a nest in the eavestrough of one of the houses. It looks almost as if they’ve built a substantial nest, which would be unusual because, as we know, pigeons normally just throw a few sticks down and call it home. Maybe the plant was growing in the gutter already, and they are taking advantage? At any rate, they looked very content, and I thought I heard the tiny wheezing call which indicates that a happy event has occurred. Hooray for life! It seems to be popping up everywhere.

 

 

 

Home

Whitebeam leaves emerging

Dear Readers, this morning I got up a little late, after a disturbed night’s sleep, and decided to sit on the patio for my morning coffee. I haven’t been doing this and I have no idea why – I suppose everything has felt like too much effort. But as I looked around I realised that the world has been getting on very nicely without me. Look at the leaves on the whitebeam for example – at this time of year they sparkle silver in the slightest breeze.

A blue tit sits on the highest branch and scolds everything in the vicinity.

It’s a veritable Noah’s ark: there are a pair of blue tits, a pair of great tits, a pair of robins (I  know they’re a pair because they aren’t fighting), a pair of blackbirds and a pair of collared doves.

Some  of the animals are looking distinctly ropey though. This great tit looks decidedly below par.

Great tit (Parus major)

I am hoping it’s not the dreaded Avian Pox, but I will be giving all the feeders a good douse in antiseptic just in case. If I see any more birds that are affected the advice is to reduce feeding, which I will do. It’s just a shame at this time of year, when so many birds are incubating or feeding young.

And just to add to the drama, this collared dove has obviously had a close encounter, though I’m not sure with what.

Collared dove with chest injury

The bird seems to be flying and feeding normally but it’s difficult to see how deep the wound is. Pigeon feathers are very loosely attached, and come away easily, so maybe it’s not as dramatic as it looks. I shall keep an eye on the bird, but the chance of getting any treatment for it at the moment seems very slim. The bird’s mate is in the garden too and seems completely unconcerned.

But the main glory of the garden at the moment is the congregation of starlings. One sat in the tree and gave a great impression of a dog, following much whistling and tzicking and dancing. Sadly there was no point in recording it because the warm weather has also brought out the strimmers and lawnmowers and, dare I say it, a distant leaf blower.

The blackbirds are a delight: looking at my photos of the male, the slight chestnut tinge to his primary feathers makes me think that he might be a first-year bird, with his first mate. I wonder if the responsibility weighs heavily on him? I was pleased to observe that he saw off another male, so he is appropriately territorial. The female foraged for worms right next to the table where I was sitting: it has been very dry, so I think I might get the hose out later and give the place a water. The damper soil might bring some worms to the surface so that the hen blackbird can get a meal. I noticed that she didn’t seem to be collecting anything to take back to the nest, so probably she’s just incubating at the moment.

Young male blackbird

The goldfinches are looking splendid, and are dividing their time between the nyjer seed feeder next door and the sunflower seeds in my garden. In an ideal world everyone could work together to create one big, long habitat, with a whole variety of different food plants and niches for a range of creatures. But maybe that happens accidentally already? Certainly no two gardens are the same on the County Roads.

Goldfinches

I am delighted to see that the hairy-footed flower bees are out and about: they seem to love the flowers on my flowering currant, and it’s all the nicer because this was a self-seeded plant that I moved a couple of years ago. It is a much lighter pink than its parent, which gives me a whole new appreciation for genetic diversity. The bee in the picture is a female (they are a jet-black colour). The males are tawnier with a white stripe on their face, but they seem few and far between around here at the moment. Have you noticed any, UK friends?

Hairy-footed flower bee

And I’m pleased to say that after my drastic clear-out of the garden a few months ago, some of my favourite weeds are coming back.

I love the shadow of this greater celandine, and the lovely hairy buds. This was the plant that was carved onto Wordsworth’s tomb, even though his actual favourite plant was the lesser celandine. Oh well, we can’t always get everything right.

Greater celandine

My lovely friend J gave me some forget-me-nots last year, and they have taken to life in the garden with great enthusiasm. I am trying to get that ‘woodland glade’ look, and they are helping no end, along with the windflowers that I planted.

Forget-me-nots

Windflowers

And I am extremely tolerant of the dandelions, with their abundant pollen and sunny little faces.

Dandelion

I had forgotten the great calm that descends when I sit in the garden and get engrossed in all the goings on. I am still numb from the shock of losing Dad, but somehow listening to the birds and the hum of the bees makes room for a little window of feeling to open. I can feel sad, but somehow held at the same time. When Mum died, everything was still normal for everyone else, and that could sometimes make it very hard: I felt as if I was walking through the world having lost a layer of skin. But everything is so out of joint at the moment, and everyone is struggling, so strangely enough I don’t feel so alone. We live in such peculiar times, but having the chance to just sit and listen, to unfurl like one of the leaves on my tree, seems such a blessing. I am so, so lucky to have a little bit of outside space, to have good neighbours, and to still be being paid, and I never for a second forget that for other people the current lockdown is unbearable. I wish everyone the solace of the natural world, the chance to be among plants and animals, and the opportunity to find some peace there.

 

The Last Day

Female Eastern Bornean Grey Gibbon and baby (Hylobates funereus) (Photo by Jan Young)

Dear Readers, as the time for our departure from Borneo drew nearer, we were all anxious about whether we were going to make it home. Every day brought news of lockdowns and transport cancellations, and we had to take three flights to get back to London. As we left each lodge, it was closed behind us. We knew that there were roadblocks in place. But I was determined to try to enjoy the last days of the trip, in spite of everything.

“Whatever the future holds, at this precise moment I am standing in woodland looking up to the top of a tree and listening to the call of the gibbons”, I told myself.

Photo by Jan Young

The lodge at Tabin is home to a small family group of Bornean grey gibbons – a mother, father, baby and adolescent. They have been resident for years, and every morning they sing from the treetops. The male and female harmonise so closely that you’d almost think it was one animal, and the youngster joins in, somewhat haphazardly at the moment. No doubt at some point he’ll get in the swing of things. Literally.

Photo by John Tomsett

The song of the gibbon every morning announces that the territory is occupied, but I wondered if it had another social function. The distant calls of other families echoed in the stillness. Our guide explained that these were the children and grandchildren of the pair that we were watching. I wonder if there is some comfort for all these creatures in knowing that their offspring are still alive and thriving, that their parents are still there, even if they never see them? I know that I would take great joy in that situation, even if I was unable to actually meet my loved ones. And when a territory goes silent, another male gibbon will try his luck, much as if a blackbird doesn’t sing from the rooftops for more than a week, another male will move in. Simply stating ‘I’m still here’ can be a way of asserting that the normal order of things is maintained, for another day at least.

Gibbons are very faithful to their home range, even in times when the fruit that they eat is very scarce. This can make it very difficult for young males (who leave ‘home’ when they are about eight years old) to find a territory of their own, especially when the forests are as fragmented as those in Borneo. The North Bornean grey gibbon is listed as endangered, but how endangered isn’t clear, because very little is known about them. What is known is that there are four species of gibbon in Borneo, all found nowhere else on earth, and all confined to their own little patch of the island.

Photo by John Tomsett

On the very last morning, we awoke to the calls of the gibbon family, who were sitting in a tree just above our lodge. As we bundled into the minibuses that took us to the airport for the first of our flights, I thought back on what a remarkable trip it had been, and how lucky I had been with the timing of it all. Another week later, and we would not have been able to go. We had a scary moment at a roadblock outside Lahad Datu, where it looked as if we would be turned back, but once we were able to prove that we were heading to the airport they were delighted to see the back of us. We had our temperatures taken several times during the trip back, but we arrived at Heathrow with nothing to indicate that there was a crisis going on except for a couple of bottles of hand sanitizer and a few notices. And no sooner had I got home and started unpacking than I got the news that Dad had been admitted to hospital. And we all know how that ended. 

I look back on the holiday now as if it were a dream, a remarkable interlude in the middle of a strange, upsetting and disorientating time. It raised my spirits to see so many iconic species in the wild, and cast me down to see how delicate their situation was. I could weep for what we are doing to our planet, and yet the dedication of the people at the many conservation organisations and sanctuaries gave me a tiny bit of hope.We are capable of so much goodness and courage, and yet so often what we are told about is the wickedness. It feels better to me to concentrate on what we can do to help, because while the human capacity for stupidity and cupidity is pretty much endless, so is the power of community.

I am very grateful to the other members of our group who provided me with some wonderful photographs. John Tomsett, one of the people featured most frequently, has a Flickr account with some particularly fine photos, and you can view it here.

Going forward, I will be posting a little something everyday during lockdown. I have been noticing some very fine goings-on through my window, and on my daily walks, and I think we could all do with a bit of perspective during these tricky times. Meanwhile, thank you for following on my Bornean adventures, and for sticking with me through my personal Odyssey over these past few years. Who knows where we shall go next?

Photo by John Tomsett