A Quick March around the Playing Fields and Daily Starlings

Wood millet (Millium effusum)

Dear Readers, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays our early morning walk through Coldfall Wood and Muswell Hill Playing Fields is at quite a pace, because my husband has to get back for a 9 a.m. call. Hence today, as I galloped along, I was able to snatch a few photos but couldn’t linger, for fear of being tardy. And so, I am throwing myself upon your mercy. I have always been interested in grasses, and in particular the way that they are so well adapted to the habitats that they find themselves in, but my identification skills are approximately zero. So, if you think I am wrong about any of the species I’m writing about, do not hesitate to put me right.

First up is what I think is wood millet (Millium effusum), growing amongst the hornbeams in the shadier parts of the wood. I love the way that each individual seed is lit up in the sunshine – it is a most ethereal plant. It’s said to favour winter-wet clay soils, and there’s certainly plenty of that lurking in Coldfall Wood.

Couch grass (Elymus repens)

We head out into the sunshine at a spanking pace but I manage to get a quick photo as we move along the side of the playing fields. This looks rather like couch grass of some variety: if so it is something of a pain for gardeners, what with its creeping rhizomes. However, finches and buntings like the seeds, and it is the one of the food plants for the Essex skipper butterfly.

Photo One byBy Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33951282

Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineloa) (Photo One)

At least social distancing on the Fields is relatively easy (even at speed) – one can always cut a corner to avoid a runner, and at least you can see people coming. As the temperatures are going into the ’80’s today, though, I do wonder if there are enough 2 metre squares of grass in the whole of England for everyone to sit on, now that we’ve been told that we can sunbathe. Of course, we must simultaneously ‘stay alert’, which rather ruins the whole idea of relaxation. In spite of this I have yet to see a virus, although I know some people in the prime of their lives who have caught it, and are finding that it’s a disease with a very long ‘tail’ that brings with it total exhaustion for weeks and weeks. I for one shall be walking briskly and sitting in the garden (and yes, I really do know how very lucky I am to have one).

Onwards! Another (probably inaccurately identified) grass is this rather dangly chap. It’s growing on the very edge of the fields, and I didn’t manage to capture the way that it sways in the breeze. I think that it might be hairy brome (and even if not, it’s a wonderful name). Hairy brome apparently likes shade, and this was a relatively sheltered spot. I believe that it could also be false brome, or even a fescue. Help! I’m sure there are some gramnophiles out there who could assist. I looked up the phrase ‘grass lover’ on Google to see if there was a special word for such a person, and I guess you can imagine which kind of sites I found.

Hairy-brome (Bromopsis ramosa) or possibly false brome (Brachypodium sylvaticum)

We stomp around the edge of the stream that brings all the run-off from the surrounding area into the woods, and there is my old friend, pendulous sedge. If you have a pond and leave it for more than ten minutes, one of these plants will soon arrive, and within the hour it will have had thousands of babies and distributed them into every nook and cranny. It is, nonetheless, a rather handsome plant (though, as the name suggests, a sedge rather than a ‘true’ grass) and it served the valuable purpose of hiding all my froglets from predators. However, it also has other uses, one of which is that the seeds from all those dangling seedheads can be made into flour. Who knew? Furthermore, unlike other grasses and sedges, pendulous sedge is not prone to the poisonous fungi ergot, which causes hallucinations, limb cramps and convulsions (more commonly known as St Anthony’s Fire).

Incidentally, you can tell a sedge from a grass because a sedge cross-section is triangular. So now we all know.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

And finally, as we head out past the electricity sub-station, I spot an old friend.

Wall Barley (Hordium mureum)

How we used to love playing with the seedheads of wall barley when we were children! You could pull the seeds apart, you could throw them at one another, and at one point I had them in my ‘zoo’ as ‘sheep’. The ‘zoo’ was polystyrene tiles left over from doing some work on the ceiling (yes, this was the 1960’s and polystyrene-tiled ceilings were all the rage in the East End), and the fence around the ‘field’ was made from spent matches and used drinking straws. The ‘house’ for the ‘sheep’ was made out of Lego. Now, if only I could have persuaded my brother not to run them all down with his toy tractor we would have been in business.

And finally, we are just reaching peak starling, I hope. The fledglings started squealing for food at 5 a.m. this morning, and are still going twelve hours later. Isn’t anybody else feeding them? At one point there were fifteen lined up on what was my pristine new handrail, and which will now require a very thorough scrub. I am pleased to see that the branch that I put into the pond so that the little birds could access a drink is being put to good use though. I just hope that all the fledglings learn to feed themselves soon and will pipe down,  before I am driven out of East Finchley by neighbours bearing pitchforks and lighted torches.

And yes, the water level in the pond is down again, though hopefully just because we’ve had no rain rather than because a heron has stabbed the lining again. We have had maybe 2 substantial days of rain since lockdown started in mid-March. It is the sunniest, most beautiful spring that I can remember which helps a bit, at least for me. I hope that you are managing too, wherever you are.

11 thoughts on “A Quick March around the Playing Fields and Daily Starlings

  1. Anne

    I can feel the brisk pace in your prose as you hurtle along, taking in as much as you can, snapping what you can along the why, while puffing slightly before the end so that you can get home before that all important call that brings the reminder that while you might be at home, work calls! It has been a breathtaking wander I too enjoy grasses and am woefully ignorant of them – something to work on …

      1. Anne

        Yes, and in the absence of flowers in the garden I have picked some for indoors – they look surprisingly attractive as an arrangement.

      2. Bug Woman

        As I get older, I find that I’m more and more interested in more and more things, with less and less time to find out about them all! Still, the day we stop being curious is the day we might as well not be here, I think.

  2. Sarah

    Lovely post. Our garden is overrun with young starlings too – and young sparrows who are just as importunate in demanding food. But my small pond is in a sorry state. It’s basically green algae soup. How do you keep yours fresh? Do you top it up with tap water?

    1. Bug Woman

      No, i find it’s the tap water that causes the algae…..if it’s blanket weed, you can just wind it round a stick and take it out, and eventually the water will clear. Have you got a lot of sediment in it? I think a pond is none the worse for a bit of stuff at the bottom for the invertebrates, but every pond’s life-ambition is to become a bog in my opinion…

      1. Sarah

        Oh gosh, I’ll stop topping it up, thanks! Unfortunately it’s a tiny pond, in full sun most of the day, and evaporates down to sludge. Very quick to attain the bog ambition.

      2. Bug Woman

        Could you plant something to shade it a bit? I seem to remember somewhere that a pond needs about a third of its area to be covered, but I could be making that up :-). And I think tap water is ok if you let it stand for a couple of hours so that the chlorine can evaporate, though I’m not sure that the stuff doesn’t still contain nitrates which might help your blanket weed to grow. No rainwater about at the moment, either. Still, bogs are good for wildlife too!

  3. FEARN

    Despite retaining ownership of the Observer Book of Grasses Sedges and Mosses throughout my life I have to admit to finding them boring or in the case of couch grass grindingly boring. Recently I helped resow a patch in the local park in order to create a wildflower meadow and was disgusted when I realised that we were ripping up grassland (not an easy feat) but then resowing with an 80% grass seed mix! On the plus side I love the word ‘fescues’ and your distinction between grasses and sedges will be featuring in the next virtual pub quiz!

  4. Pingback: Sparks of Life | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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