Monthly Archives: January 2021

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

Dear Readers, during the last weekend in January people up and down the UK sit at their windows for an hour and collect data on the birds they see. Some years all the birds turn up as if on order (the year I saw a great spotted woodpecker, a blackcap and a sparrowhawk was particularly gratifying), but on other years tumbleweeds float past. A dear friend of mine has a theory that, on Saturday and Sunday, everyone puts out masses of food and so everyone sees less, and she may well be right. So, as the Big Garden Birdwatch actually starts on a Friday I thought I’d try a weekday this year.

I think it was a middling year. It didn’t start off too well, with this distinctly non-avian critter dominating the seed feeder, but s/he soon moved off, allowing the usual suspects to turn up. I saw 5 goldfinches…

and 5 chaffinches….

and sixteen starlings (of course), one of whom has white tail feathers, and I shall have to see if I can get a photo of him/her for you all.

It’s funny how things ebb and flow, even over the space of an hour. The starlings mob the place for five minutes and then all disappear as if hearing a distant summons, before reappearing in a great swirl of squawks. Then the chaffinches reappear, hovering mothily around the feeders. Next door have put up some nyjer and suet ball feeders, which is great because I don’t have those, and so it provides greater variety.

I have invested in some Flutter Butter. For those of you who don’t know, this is peanut butter but without the salt and palm oil that make the human variety so unhealthy for birds and so claggy (though I never knew a fox who’d turn down a peanut butter sandwich). I’ve put one feeder in amongst the honeysuckle and bittersweet, where I hope the little birds will be brave enough to try it. Does anyone think that there’s been a bit of peckery going on on this one, or is it my hopeful imagination? Has anyone tried this stuff? How did you get on?

The one in the lilac bush is absolutely pristine, so obviously nobody’s dared have a go yet. I shall keep you posted.

When it’s quiet, it gives me a chance to admire my hazel catkins (as you do). I was supposed to have a ‘native hedge’ but sadly some of the ‘hedge’ has become saplings instead. I shall have quite a forest by the time I leave the house, but who could resist the chance of hazel nuts? Not to mention the second hawthorn tree that I have popping up, and the spindle.

There’s a brief flurry of excitement, and a pair of great tits turn up. Will they be attracted to the Flutter Butter? Er, no. I do find it interesting that both the blue and great tits will take either sunflower hearts or suet – I always think of these birds as insectivorous, but maybe they aren’t so fussy out of breeding season. The finches, of course, only ever take the sunflower seeds.

I love the way that the tits fly in at speed, take a single seed or suet pellet, and then sit on a branch, holding the food between their feet while they peck away at it. I’d also never noticed the pattern on the head of a great tit before. It looks a bit like a giant bee.

Spring is in the air as far as the woodpigeons (2 recorded) and the collared doves (3 recorded) are concerned. At the start of the hour, two collared doves were sitting next to one another perfectly peacefully.

Then, with a toot like a child’s trumpet, a third collared dove flew into the tree and, without so much as a by-your-leave, tried to accost what I assume was the lady pigeon, who flew off at great speed, pursued by her ‘suitor’. The other collared dove seemed to think about flying off as well, but evidently decided it was too much like hard work. At the end of the hour he was sitting unconcerned next to the woodpigeon.

I amused myself for a while by watching the chaffinches. These are the most elegant of the finches that I see for sure: they seem to hover at the feeders like our answer to hummingbirds. The males are also very handsome in their blush-pink feathers.

And then there’s the machine-gun cackle of a magpie, and everything flies off. None of the birds have much tolerance for magpies (except the collared doves and woodpigeons, who seem most unperturbed). It’s easy to see the intelligence of these birds. The one that I recorded was joined by his mate, and then the two of them headed off to the TV aerial to survey their kingdom. If someone drops a Kentucky Fried Chicken container or a pigeon gets run over within half a mile, they’ll know.

And so, after an hour, my tally was:

16 starlings

5 goldfinches

5 chaffinches

3 collared doves

2 blue tits

2 great tits

2 woodpigeons

1 magpie

1 robin.

Nothing exciting, but a nice variety of garden birds, plus one fat squirrel. It looks as if the garden is doing its job, and I can’t wait until spring to see what happens once the breeding season starts.


Saturday Quiz – Elemental!

Title photo by Charles James Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Silver-washed fritillary (Argynis paphia) (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, when it comes to naming animals and plants, we often look to the elements, particularly substances such gold or silver. Our quiz this week is to match the photo to the element – one point for a correct match, another for the name. To make things harder, I will give you a list of elements, but some of them will be used several times (all of them will be used at least once). So, let’s see how you get on!

You will get one mark for the correct element, and another if you can name the animal or plant, so 30 marks are on offer in total.

So, if you think the animal in photo 1 is an iron monkey, your answer is 1) Iron/Iron Monkey.

As usual, as soon as I spot someone has answered, I will let you know and unapprove the post so that others aren’t influenced by what you’ve said. However, I won’t always spot that someone has responded, so if I were you I’d write my answers down first.

You have until 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 4th February to pop your answers in the comments, and I’ll let you know the answers, and how you did, on Friday 5th February. Simples!

Have fun!

The Elements







Photo One by Charles James Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Two by Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Three by By Greg Hume - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo four by User:Nino Barbieri, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Five by By Greg Hume - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo Six by liz west, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Seven by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eight by Tan Meng Yoe at English Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eight by © Hans Hillewaert


Photo Ten by Julian Berry, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Eleven by Robert Jenssen, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Twelve by By RhinoMind - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Photo 13 by Jim Champion / Silver birch on the edge of Brinken Wood, New Forest


Photo Fourteen by Karen Stout, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Photo Fifteen by By Rocky - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,



Saturday Quiz – One of These Things is Not Like the Others – The Answers

Photo One by Martin Addison / Odd Man Out

Photo One

Dear Readers, well, as I expected, this was complicated! I’ve been through your answers, and the ones that were in my mind when I designed the quiz are in black. The ones in red are ones that you’ve suggested that I’m going to allow as legitimate. Please feel free to argue for any that I’ve disallowed if you think I’m being mean :-). 

The scoring scheme is one mark for getting a correct ‘odd one out’, and a second mark for a good reason. Some of you have suggested multiple reasons, but I’m only giving 2 marks for each answer, so the quiz is out of a total of 20. On that basis, FEARN is the clear winner this week, with 20 out of 20, closely followed by Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus with 16 out of 20, Fran and Bobby Freelove, Anne and Claire with 14 out of 20 and Brigid with 11 out of 20. Well done to all of you, and thank you for playing! Let’s see what I can dream up for this week.

What is the Odd One Out?

  1. Large Emerald, Yellow Underwing, Oak Beauty, Marbled White? The Marbled White is a butterfly, all the rest are moths.
  2. Cedar of Lebanon, Swamp Cypress, Juniper, Scots Pine? Only the Swamp Cypress is deciduous, the others keep their leaves through the winter
  3. Greater Burdock, Cornflower, Star of Bethlehem, Dandelion? The Star of Bethlehem is not a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae) – in fact it’s a member of the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). I’m also going to allow that it’s the only one that grows from a bulb.
  4. Willow Warbler, Fieldfare, Waxwing, Brambling? The Willow Warbler is the only spring migrant, all the rest are winter migrants to the UK. Several people mentioned the Waxwing as being the only one that doesn’t migrate long-distance, however one was recently ringed in Aberdeen and found in eastern Siberia, 3714 kms away, so I’m going to disallow it (though feel free to argue)
  5. Fly Agaric, Destroying Angel, Panther Cap, Amethyst Deceiver? In spite of its name, the Amethyst Deceiver is edible, while the other three are poisonous.
  6. Slow Worm, Grass Snake, Smooth Snake, Adder? The Slow Worm is actually a legless lizard, while the others are reptiles. Also, the adder is the only animal that’s venomous to humans, so I’ve accepted that as well. 
  7. Alpine Chough, Raven, Ring Ouzel, Jackdaw? The ring ouzel is a thrush, the others are members of the crow family. 
  8. Ivy Bee, Hairy-Footed Flower Bee, Shrill Carder Bee, Tawny Mining Bee? The Shrill Carder bee is a bumblebee, the others are solitary bees. I am also going to allow that the Hairy-Footed Flower Bee is the only one that doesn’t normally nest underground, preferring to nest in walls. 
  9. Lesser Celandine, Wood Anemone, Winter Aconite, Meadow Buttercup. All of these plants are in the buttercup family (Ranunculaeae) but the Meadow  Buttercup is the only one that is not a spring ephemeral (i.e. it doesn’t pop up when there’s no leaf cover and then disappear). I’ve also allowed that it’s the only one with white flowers. And I think I’m going to allow that the Meadow Buttercup is the only one that doesn’t have a bulb.
  10. Chinese Water Deer, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Reeve’s Muntjac. The Roe Deer is the only one that’s native, all the others are introductions (the Fallow Deer being brought by the Romans). I’ve also allowed Chinese Water Deer, as the only one that doesn’t shed its antlers (as it doesn’t actually have any).


New Scientist – Happy Sparrows, Why Shark Skin is so Slippy and Fishy Goings On in the Abyss

Juvenile sparrows chilling out

Dear Readers, long-term followers will know that I am fascinated by animal ‘personality’ – scientists have found that even creatures that barely have a brain (in our terms) can still be consistently shy, or aggressive, or friendly, or curious. So a recent study in which Zoltan Barta at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, investigated not only the personality of individual birds but how they did in groups was always going to be interesting.

Individual sparrows were first assessed for ‘personality type’ by leaving them alone in a cage for ten minutes. Some tried to get out, some sat quite happily and others hopped around looking for something to eat. At the end, the sparrows were put into groups either with birds of their own personality type, or in a diverse group, and left to get on with it for nine days. What interests me is that the birds in the diverse group were much happier and healthier on all measures, from weight to appetite to stress levels, than the birds that were just with cage mates of their own character. I do hope that they were released in the end, to form groups of their own choosing.

Observers of sparrows in the wild have long noted that one sparrow is always the first to explore a new food source, or to threaten a predator. It seems to me that having a variety of personalities within a species or community is useful in an evolutionary sense – after all, if all the sparrows were bold there’s a good chance that they’d be wiped out by a particularly clever predator, but if some were a bit more cautious they would be more likely to survive. But more than that, it shows that animals are not just automata, but are different from one another. As anyone who has ever been a farmer or owned a pet can tell you.

Read more:

Photo One from

Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps in a ‘sharkskin’ suit (Photo One)

Now, lest you wonder what a semi-naked man is doing on Bugwoman I would like to point out that this chap is wearing a ‘sharkskin’ swimming suit. Biomimicry – the use of design features from plants and animals – has been popular forever, ever since someone looked at the bud of a burdock and thought ‘velcro’, but it seems that we don’t always do it right. Do you remember the controversy about these sharkskin suits at the Olympics? They seemed to help the swimmers go faster, and I seem to recall that they were banned, at least for a while. However, it seems that we might not have got it right anyway, because according to Josephine Galipon at Keio University Institute for Advanced Biosciences in Japan and her colleagues, when sharkskin is on a shark, it helps most when the fish is accelerating and turning rather than when it’s cruising along. So was the effect of the suits psychological, I wonder? Or was there something about them being full-body suits that reduced drag? The jury is out.

Read more:

And finally, have a look at the film on the link below

It used to be thought that below 1000 metres the oceanic abyss was pretty much a desert. More recently, it was found that lots of scavengers can be found around whale carcasses and such, but this group of Pacific eels, found on an underwater mountain 3100 metres below the surface, was the biggest collection of fish ever seen at such a depth, with over 100 individuals. The scientist who found them, Astrid Leitner from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. explained that baited cameras were dropped into the deep ocean.

When they retrieved the lander, the first images they saw were initially disappointing as they seemed to show a black screen. But a closer look revealed the frame was so full of eels that it just appeared black.

“We basically landed on top of eels, then they just swarmed at us,” says Leitner.’

Photo Two Cutthroat eels (Ilyophis arx) swarming around bait 3100 metres down in the Pacific Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab, UHM; DeepCCZ expedition from Read more: from

Eels in the abyss (Photo Two)

The sad part of this tale is that the area where the fish live is coming under increasing pressure from those who want to mine there (yes, even at 3000 metres deep). The fish seem to like the seamounts rather than the plains where the mining would take place, but so little is known about these areas that untold damage could be caused before we even know what’s there.

This planet has a nasty case of humans, for sure.

Read more:

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two Cutthroat eels (Ilyophis arx) swarming around bait 3100 metres down in the Pacific Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab, UHM; DeepCCZ expedition from 


Wednesday Weed – Kumquat


Dear Readers, those of you who saw my birthday post last week will know that I got some unusual ingredients in my vegetable box: salsify (which I roasted and which was delicious) and some kumquats. The name comes from the Cantonese kamkwat ( 金橘) which literally means ‘golden mandarin orange’) and they are native to China, where they have been cultivated since the 12th century. In 1846 the plant hunter Robert Fortune brought them to Europe, and from there they soon arrived in North America.

The ones that I have are unbelievably sour – having had a little taste, I suspect that they will shortly be languishing in a bit of sugar syrup just to take the edge off. But the round kumquat (Citrus japonica) is said to have sweet skin and sour flesh, which must make for a most intriguing flavour. Some species have fruit which is eaten whole, probably by people that have a taste for bitter fruit. I’m sure that in the West at least, our taste buds have been corrupted by the lust for sugar (which would have been a very rare thing in the natural environment, probably limited to berries and honey). When I was in Pakistan for work, I sampled bitter gourd, which is a delicacy throughout the region, and the face that I inadvertently pulled was a source of great amusement to my colleagues.

One variety of kumquat, the Hong Kong kumquat (Citrus hindsii) has pea-sized fruits and enormous seeds, so unsurprisingly it’s grown mostly as an ornamental plant. However, as the kumquats are thought to be the earliest forms of citrus fruit, this species might be the closest we have to the ‘ur-orange’, the ancestral citrus from which all other kinds have evolved.

Photo One By Bernhard Voß - Self-photographed, Public Domain,

Hong Kong kumquat (Citrus hindsii) (Photo One)

Kumquats can bear thousands of fruits and, unlike most other citrus, are frost-hardy, which means that they are popular in spite of their sourness. Turned into marmalade they are a useful source of vitamin C, and their fresh taste can be used to offset sweeter ingredients such as chocolate or vanilla. They can also be used in fruit sauces to cut through the fat of meat such as duck or lamb. Very helpfully, 14 chefs give their ideas here. I rather like Nick Leahy’s idea of making a compote to eat with rice pudding: maybe I could dollop some onto my morning porridge? If I don’t get the sweetening right it will certainly wake me up. Or here’s a healthy salad instead.

Photo Two by Traci Des Jardins from

Winter Chicory Salad with Kumquats and Date Dressing / Traci Des Jardins (Photo Two)

On a visit to Corfu back when I was a young ‘un, I remember that there was a bright orange  liquor called Koum Quat, which was incredibly sweet and sticky. When I dug a bit further though, it appears that the fruit is also made into a clear spirit to be drunk after dinner. Kumquats were apparently introduced to the island in 1860 and have been grown ever since.

Photo Three by Edal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Kuom Quat liquer on sale in Corfu (Photo Three)

In China and some other countries in Asia the kumquat symbolises good luck, and is often given as a gift at Lunar New Year. It’s also a plant that seems to lend itself to being made into a bonsai, and, as people become more urbanised but still crave a bit of ‘nature’. they are becoming very popular. In Vietnam, many garden centres are turning away from selling the traditional trees and are turning to bonsai instead, although it’s an art that cannot be rushed. In the article here, I was amused to learn of the many things that unscrupulous gardeners try to sell their ‘bonsais’, from sticking on false fruit to inconspicuously attaching false branches. It reminds me a bit of the dyed heathers and ‘fake’ flowering cacti that were popping up all over the place a few years ago.

I must say that these bonsais look a bit bigger than I expected though. More like smallish shrubs.

Photo Four from

Garden Centre with ‘bonsai’ kumquat trees (Photo Four)

It might also surprise you to know that there is a Kumquat Festival, not in Asia but in Dade County, Florida. Apparently St Joseph, Florida, a nearby town, is the Kumquat Capital of the World. Tens of thousands of people come to the festival, which, in addition to everything kumquat-related, includes an arts and crafts fair, a 5km race in aid of a cancer charity, wagon rides and antique fire engines. In Dade County, everything hangs on the weather – from November to April the blossom appears roughly every fortnight, so there can be almost continual picking. However, in some years a freeze in December or January can destroy the crop and damage the trees, which won’t fruit again for three years. Farming has always been a precipitous business, and with climate change things are more unpredictable than they ever were.

Photo Five from

A seller at the 2004 Dade County Kumquat Festival (Photo Five)

Now, I thought that finding a poem about kumquats was going to be a challenge, but here are the first few verses of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’. I have taken the liberty of editing it down a bit, because for me it says everything it needs to say in the first few stanzas. However, if you want to see if I’m right, you can read the whole thing here. See what you think!

from A Kumquat for John Keats

Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like globes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon’s tang
(though last year full of bile and self-defeat
I wanted to believe no life was sweet)
nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,
and no incongruous citrus ever seen
at greengrocers’ in Newcastle or Leeds
mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,
a fruit an older poet might substitute
for the grape John Keats thought to be Joy’s fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight.* / /
and if John keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he’d help me celebrate
that Micancopy kumquat that I ate
whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin–
or was it sweet outside, and sour within?
For however many kumquats that I eat
I’m not sure if it’s flesh or rind that’s sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life’s mid-way
I’d offer Keats some kumquats and I’d say:
You’ll find that one part’s sweet and one part’s tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.

I find I can’t as if one couldn’t say
exactly where the night became the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul
of one in Florida at 42 with Keats
crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats
the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,
that this is how a full life ought to feel,
its perishable relish prick the tongue,
when the man who savours life’s no longer young,
the fruits that were his futures far behind.
Then its the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness behind them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

*Cf. John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy,” lines 25-26

Tony Harrison 1981

Photo Credits

Photo One By Bernhard Voß – Self-photographed, Public Domain,

Photo Two by Traci Des Jardins from

Photo Three by Edal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four from

Photo Five from

London Natural History Society Talks – An Introduction to Plant Galls by James Heal

Dear Readers, this talk exemplified why I am loving this series so much. James Heal is such an enthusiast that although I knew next to nothing about plant galls at the beginning, by the end I was desperate for spring to come so that I could go out gall-hunting. Heal endeared himself to me greatly by saying that he had a dream of giving up his job in finance so that he could become a gall-mite specialist. Who wouldn’t rather be a gall-mite specialist is my question, and I’m an accountant too. But let’s see first of all what a gall is.

We’ve all probably seen plant galls, even if we haven’t been aware of it.

Photo One by Lairich Rig / Silk button spangle galls on oak

Silk button spangle galls on oak (Photo One)

A gall is abnormal growth on a plant under the influence of another organism. So the ‘silk buttons’ above are actually created by the plant itself, due to chemicals produced by the invading organism. The gall involves the enlargement or proliferation (or both) of the cells or vascular tissue of the plant. This is produced for the nutrition and protection of the gall-inducing organism.

Photo Two by M J Richardson / Knopper gall on oak

Knopper gall on oak (Photo Two)

The great thing about galls (or one of the great things) is that they can be used to identify what caused them. Gall midges, for example (of which more later) are extremely difficult to identify to a species level from the insect, but the galls can be diagnostic.

So, how do you know what gall you’re looking at? Heal suggested a three-part approach:

Firstly, identify your plant. This might seem easy (‘It’s an oak’) but what kind of oak is it? There are some galls that we’ve all seen on lime leaves, even if we didn’t know what they were, but to identify the insect that caused them we need to know if we’re looking at a small-leaved lime, a broad-leaved lime or the very common hybrid between the two. Why is life never simple, I ask myself. Probably because it would be boring.

Having identified your species, it makes sense to take a good detailed note of where exactly on the plant you found the gall – leaf rib, body of the leaf, stem, bud?

Secondly, take a number of photos (if it’s a leaf, take both sides). If you can zoom in or magnify, that’s a good idea too. Many galls can be identified right down the species just through a good photo. If you want to become a serious galler (or Cecidologist) you might consider taking specimens and even rearing the inhabitants of the galls until they emerge, blinking, into the big wide world, but it’s not necessary for most people.

Thirdly, get yourself a good guide. If you are just beginning, Heal recommends this one:

But if you’re more serious, this is the one to go for, and apparently a new edition is due out soon.

And if you are really, really serious, the New Naturalist on plant galls has everything you ever wanted to know. This one is, I think, out of print, but you can get one-off reprints of New Naturalists if you go to their website, or second-hand bookshops will often have them. After all, plant galls are not the most apparently interesting of subjects, though after Heal’s talk I imagine there might be a run on the title.

Then, Heal moved on to talk about the different organisms that cause galls, and there are a fair few of them. After all, if you are a delicate little larva, how nice it must be to be surrounded by a robust protective covering while you munch away to your heart’s content, and many unrelated insect groups have taken this route.

First, we have the gall midges (Cedidomyiidae), members of the fly family (Diptera). These are tiny creatures, many of whom are less than a millimetre long. They have these remarkable antennae that look like strings of beads. Heal showed a number of photos of the midges causing the leaf to curl around: while we might see the caterpillars of species like the peacock butterfly making themselves a shelter by stitching the leaves of nettles together, with these midges the plant itself is persuaded to grow in an unnatural way. You can see a picture of ash mid-rib gall, caused by a gall midge, below.

Photo Three by By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gall midge (Photo Three)

Photo Four by By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ash Midrib gall (Photo Four)

Then there are the gall wasps (Cynipidae), who produce some of the most well-known and spectacular galls, such as the oak knopper gall in Photo Two, and the Robin’s pincushion on roses. Within that multicoloured mass of ‘hairs’ is a many-chambered gall, each containing a tiny wasp larvae. Heal points out that if you open up a gall caused by an insect, what pops out might not be the creature that made the gall but another species entirely that is either a parasite, a predator or some other kind of free-loader.

Photo Five by Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five

Oyster gall on oak leaf

Then there are the gall mites (Eriophyidae), which are Heal’s favourite group, partly because they are so understudied and so it’s likely that there are some undiscovered species lurking in our back yards. They are not typically ‘mite-y’ looking, but, as Heal put it, they look more like carrots, long and slim. The gall that you might have seen most often is the Nail gall on lime leaves, which is rather beautiful in my opinion. Some of the galls contain microscopic ‘hairs’ which can be diagnostic for species. Some gall mites are pests of food crops, but others, such as the bindweed gall mite, are used for biological control of noxious weeds.

Photo Six By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith - Own work, Public Domain,

Lime Nail Gall (Photo Six)

Photo Seven By Unknown author - Australian Insect Common Names:, Public Domain,

A cereal rust mite (Photo Seven)

So, these are the three main groups of insects who can create galls, but there are many others; sawflies on willow, aphids on elm and some species of moth. Then there are the fungi that can induce galls. Mistletoe technically is a gall-causer – the tree produces distortion and swelling at the point of infection, induced by the parasite. And then there are endless bacteria and viruses that can cause galls.

Photo Nine by Lairich Rig / Leaf galls on crack willow

Galls on crack willow caused by a sawfly (Photo Eight)

So this was a most interesting talk by James Heal – he pitched it perfectly for beginners, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a whole new bunch of gallers has been inspired by his presentation. I certainly learned a lot, and it’s left me with a whole lot of things to ponder. If you’d like to listen to the whole thing (which I would recommend) you can find the link here.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Lairich Rig / Silk button spangle galls on oak

Photo Two by M J Richardson / Knopper gall on oak

Photo Three by By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Photo Five by Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six By Rosser1954 Roger Griffith – Own work, Public Domain,

Photo Seven By Unknown author – Australian Insect Common Names:, Public Domain,

Photo Nine by Lairich Rig / Leaf galls on crack willow

Winter Comes to East Finchley

Dear Readers, on Sunday the snow that the rest of the country has had for weeks finally arrived in London. I still find something magical about it, the way that it covers up all the imperfections for a while, the way it falls so silently. It seems to put the birds into some confusion though: for a few minutes they disappear, as if trying to work out what this white stuff is, and then they’re back.

Starlings queueing up in the hawthorn

Male chaffinch on the sunflower seeds

Female chaffinch and goldfinch

I had been saying that I hadn’t seen a blackbird in the garden this winter when, as if by magic, one appears in the cherry tree next door.

But then the magic really happens.

This beautiful, well-fed little vixen puts in an appearance. She sniffs out all the suet we’ve thrown down for the birds and then goes for a wander.

Occasionally she spots a bird and decides to try her luck.

But mostly she’s just pottering. How do I know it’s a vixen? Because females squat to scent mark, while males raise a leg. She’s in beautiful condition. Look at that lovely long fur.

I wonder if I’ll get a portrait, and then she looks up. Look at that face. She has absolutely made my day.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Redwing about to fly off

Dear Readers, the cemetery is full to busting with redwings at the moment – these small thrushes are extremely shy, so getting any kind of photo has proven to be a challenge. The one in the photo above headed off as soon as it saw my camera. I wonder if they are hyperalert to people raising metal objects in their direction? I know that the woodpigeons in Dorset were always much more worried when I tried to take a photograph than the ones in London, and I put this down to the fact that the country ones are much more likely to be shot. Anyhow, even seeing a redwing was a nice start to the walk.

As usual, I suddenly notice things that I’ve been passing every week. This grave, in quite a well-manicured part of the cemetery, is completely covered in ivy. I wonder what’s under there? Quite the conundrum.

We loop through the woodland cemetery site, and I stop to say hello to the swamp cypress, now completely denuded of its leaves. But look, it has buds! Spring will soon be here.

And as we walk along our normal path, I suddenly notice an outbreak of snowdrops. What a particular joy they are this year! They must have been pushing up for ages, but I’ve only paid attention to them now that they’re in flower. Years ago, I imagine someone planted a few bulbs, and now they’re colonising the whole area. I love their delicacy and their strength.

Once I’ve noticed them in this spot, I see them all over the cemetery.

And by the stream, in the usual stand of ash trees, a robin is announcing his territory to the world.

These little puffed-up balls of feistiness are in full song: if you listen above the rumble of the traffic from the North Circular you can hear them challenging one another right through the cemetery.

We head towards the woody part of the cemetery. I hear a buzzard mewing, and crows cawing, but don’t see anyone overhead this week. However, there is a fine gathering of crows and magpies, and they are happily picking up chunks of bread that someone has left them under one of the trees. They are joined by at least two foxes, who are too fast for me to catch properly on camera, though there is the faintest suggestion of one in the photo immediately below.

Fox just to the right of the road sign.

We came into the cemetery at about 10.15 (it opens at 10 o’clock) and a car shot past us on the way out – maybe this was the person who feeds the birds. I’m sure they need it in this cold snap. Anyhow, now we know where to head for. Maybe next time I’ll have more luck getting a photo of the foxes.

I was rather moved by this Victorian cherub, on the grave of a child who died at six years old. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in terms of health: my grandmother lost three of her four children, one to scarlet fever, one to diptheria and one to a late miscarriage, before she gave birth to my Mum. This wasn’t unusual in the East End. But just because early death was so common it didn’t make it any easier; my Nan remembered the poems on the remembrance cards for her dead children for her whole life. I suppose that being in a pandemic is, for many of us, our first experience of a disease that curtails our activities and fills us with fear, one where medical science doesn’t immediately have all  the answers. As recently as the 1950’s people lived in dread of their children contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung. We have been very lucky, and you don’t have to walk far in this cemetery before you start to realise how unusual we’ve been. It makes me very humble when I see what previous generations have gone through, and what I’ve taken for granted, at least until now.

The great spotted woodpeckers don’t care about our troubles  though, they’re much too busy drumming and staking their claims to the best trees. I watch two woodpeckers chasing one another past the chestnut trees, and then get this most excellent photo of one. Yet another candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I feel.

And then I wander down for a quick look at the Mond mauseleum. I’ve mentioned it before, but it really is an extraordinary thing: my book ‘London Cemeteries – An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer’ by Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons describes it as ‘the finest classical building in any of the London cemeteries (along with the Ralli mortuary chapel at Norwood’). It was designed by Darcy Braddell, later a vice-president of the R.I.B.A, and was built in 1909. I’ve mentioned before that Ludwig Mond was a major industrialist and philanthropist. I must confess that I don’t love this building: it seems a bit overbearing and austere to me.

But I am very fond of this little tree that stands at the road junction opposite. I am thinking that it’s a weeping cultivar of silver birch, maybe ‘Tristis’? No doubt you lovely people will put me right. There was no angle from which I could avoid the sign pointing to the crematorium and pick up the purple of the shoots and the snaky twisting of the branches, so this will have to do. But what a pretty little tree this is! I shall have to pay it more regular visits to see how it’s coming along.

Saturday Quiz – One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Photo One by Martin Addison / Odd Man Out

Photo One

Dear Readers, after the success of last week’s quiz I wanted to try out something else new. Can you tell me which of the items in each of these lists is the odd one out? I will give one point for the correct selection, and another point for the correct reason. Plus, if you can persuade me that there is a different ‘odd one out’ from the one I’ve chosen I will probably give you a mark for that too. In short, I am making life difficult for myself, as usual.

I will unapprove answers when I see them in the comments, so that they don’t influence later posters, but I would still write your answers down on a piece of paper first if I was you. The dreaded Year End is still on and so I am not paying quite as much attention to you lovely people as I would like.

All answers submitted by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 28th January please, answers will be revealed on Friday 29th January.

Have fun!

What is the Odd One Out?

  1. Large Emerald, Yellow Underwing, Oak Beauty, Marbled White?
  2. Cedar of Lebanon, Swamp Cypress, Juniper, Scots Pine?
  3. Greater Burdock, Cornflower, Star of Bethlehem, Dandelion?
  4. Willow Warbler, Fieldfare, Waxwing, Brambling?
  5. Fly Agaric, Destroying Angel, Panther Cap, Amethyst Deceiver?
  6. Slow Worm, Grass Snake, Smooth Snake, Adder?
  7. Alpine Chough, Raven, Ring Ouzel, Jackdaw?
  8. Ivy Bee, Hairy-Footed Flower Bee, Shrill Carder Bee, Tawny Mining Bee?
  9. Lesser Celandine, Wood Anemone, Winter Aconite, Meadow Buttercup
  10. Chinese Water Deer, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Reeve’s Muntjac.


Saturday Quiz – Musical Plants – The Answers!

Dear Readers, what a splendid turn out for this week’s quiz, I shall have to do musical ones more often. If you remember I was giving one mark for the correct plant, with another mark for the song, and yet another for an artist who had actually sung the song. So, Liz, Claire, Jacqueline Jacques, Mike, FEARN, Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove all got the correct plants. Claire, Mike and Fran and Bobby all also got the song title and named people who’d actually sung the songs, so they all win this week with 30 out of 30. I docked half a point from FEARN (giving 29.5 out of because although Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) did write Edelweiss, I couldn’t find a recording of him actually singing it, but FEARN, if you can I will reinstate your half point. Anne got 29 out of 30 because I couldn’t find a recording of The Temptations singing ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, but if you can again I will reinstate your mark! Thanks to all of you for having a bash.

The answers are below, with a link to the song. I have checked out the artists that each of you mentioned and have given you an extra mark where I could find a cover version by the person.


  1. F. Daisy. ‘Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do (A Bicycle Made For Two)

The version below is by Dinah Shore, but it’s a traditional folk song, so I’m sure there are lots of other versions about.

2. H. Rose. ‘I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)

Version by Lynn Anderson

3. I. Build Me Up Buttercup

Original version by The Foundations

4.J. Edelweiss

Originally from The Sound of Music, sung by Bill Lee and Charmian Carr, this was the last song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein together There are also versions out there by Julie Andrews, André Rieu and of course Vince Hill, who got to number three in the charts (remember them?) in 1967.

5.D – Tulip – ‘Tip Toe Through the Tulips’.  The inimitable Tiny Tim. Good lord.

6. B  Lilac – ‘Lilac Wine’ I’m eschewing the traditional rather overheated  Elkie Brooks version for this one by Nina Simone, which actually gives me goosebumps.

7.E. Poison Ivy – ‘Poison Ivy’. Here’s the original by The Coasters. If this doesn’t have your toe tapping I give up. The Rolling Stones also did a pretty fine version, but for me The Coasters are just tighter. See what you think.

Coasters Version

Rolling Stones Version

8.C. Grape – ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. This has got to be Marvin Gaye for me, though Gladys Knight and the Pips knocked up a pretty good version. There’s one by Credence Clearwater Revival as well.

9. A. Blackberry – ‘Blackberry Way’ by The Move (and also by Cheap Trick). I loved The Move when I was growing up – who can forget ‘Flowers in the Rain’ or ‘Fire Brigade’? Well, lots of people clearly. When I think about it, I think they basically had one song, but at least it was a good ‘un.

10. G. Raspberry – ‘Raspberry Beret’ by Prince and The Revolution. Oh lord, how much I loved Prince. What with him and David Bowie being gone it’s hardly worth listening to the radio anymore (I jest, obviously).

And because I love Prince so much, here’s the link to ‘You Got The Look’, possibly Sheena Easton’s proudest moment 🙂