Monthly Archives: January 2021

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.

Lyrics

  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.

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=N_7aC7Csck8&list=RDAMVMN_7aC7Csck8

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

Version by Lynn Anderson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7cqwqcolqk

3. I. Build Me Up Buttercup

Original version by The Foundations

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvluBVhfGcw

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bL2BCiFkTk

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9TtUjZVTJQ

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LT38CIgRse4

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRfRITVdz4k

Rolling Stones Version

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9rTWPsJh6o

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zp4NbXE0_o

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELRHD4UCo74

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).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=l7vRSu_wsNc&list=PLvu8wCghVq0583O2tJ1YWQj1ZQligqnDa&index=8&t=0s

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jCuroTbqBI&list=PLvu8wCghVq0583O2tJ1YWQj1ZQligqnDa&index=16

 

 

 

Birthday in Lockdown

Dear Readers, last year on my birthday I had a pizza lunch in a real restaurant with my work colleagues, dinner in our local French restaurant in the evening with my husband and a birthday trip to the cinema. I also had my 60th birthday very-special-holiday to Borneo, in the teeth of the pandemic.

This year, by contrast, I am very excited by my vegetable box delivery. I have treated myself to the ‘cooks special’ box, which includes weird and wonderful things that you wouldn’t normally see, such as these strange roots in the picture above. Does anybody know what they are?

Well, maybe this will be a clue….

Yep, it’s salsify. Beneath that uninspiring grubby interior lies the queen of root vegetables (apparently). Let me know if you’ve ever cooked it, I am on the hunt for recipes! Also in the box was this…

And here we have some chervil, which I shall need to use up at great speed because it looks very fragile. Maybe in an omelette? Again, all suggestions welcome.

And finally, these little chaps. Kumquats are tiny members of the citrus family, apparently favoured in the colder areas of East Asia because the trees are frost-hardy. Who knew? I have a Gary Rhodes recipe for chocolate pudding with kumquats which I shall find hard to resist.

Anyhoo, in case you thought all I got for my birthday was a bunch of fruit and veg (though that would have been very fine), it will be no surprise to regular readers that I also got some books.

My reading pile is getting higher and higher – I no sooner  read one than I add another two to the pile it seems. I am still struggling with ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree – it’s inspirational for sure, with lots of really valuable information, but maybe it’s not ideally suited for night time after a hard day sorting out management overheads and trying to nail currency conversions. Let’s see how I get on. I have certainly learned a lot from ‘Wilding’ but to me it reads more like a text book.

And my lovely husband got me a few more books in the British Wildlife series. How I love them! And how I’d like to head off to a salt marsh or a rocky shore. One day soon, I hope.

And finally, a lovely friend bought me the tea towel below. The giraffe is my totemic animal ( I was a tall skinny child and I identified with these lanky beasts from a very young age) so this is perfect. Much too nice to dry up with though I think.

And so, on a rainy day in North London in the middle of a pandemic, I feel extremely lucky. I have made my own birthday cake (oats, pecan nuts, chocolate, bananas) which is baking as I write this. And to top it all, I have new slippers. After ten years in the house in which I swear I didn’t end a single winter’s day without frozen appendages, here, I hope, is the answer.  There’s nothing like toasty toes to celebrate being another year older. Onwards!

 

Wednesday Weed – Snowdrop Revisited

Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive this cheekiness, but as I have been toiling away over a hot spreadsheet all day I figured that I could do with some snowdrops, and you probably could as well. I have a tiny clump emerging under the whitebeam tree in the garden, but it’s too dark and rainy to take a photo of the blooming (literally!) things so that will need to wait until the weather is a bit more clement.

I also wanted to alert you to the fact that the Devon Snowdrop festival, which usually attracts thousands of visitors, is now online due to the lockdown. I have been thoroughly enjoying it on Facebook and rumour has it that it’s also on the new-fangled Instagram.I often think that I should post there, but keeping up with the blog generally plus Facebook plus (very occasionally) Twitter is quite enough social-media-ing for one person, although there are some wonderful things to see. 

And finally, tomorrow is my birthday, and I plan to make myself a cake, though I shall hold fire on the 61 candles that it would require. I am thinking orange and almond, but chocolate is also calling. Maybe I could combine the two :-). What do you think, Readers? Let me know your favourite cake so that I can be inspired. Snowdrops in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Galanthus nivalis)

Snowdrops in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Galanthus nivalis)For me, the sight of the first snowdrops of spring is like a long drink of cold water after a hot, dusty walk. The dazzling white flowers and the fresh green-grey foliage seem fresh and toothsome, as delicious as the first asparagus.

IMG_1353This is especially true in a woodland setting, and in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery there are a number of unkempt, wild areas, where the graves have become overgrown with moss and lichen. Here, the Snowdrops have naturalised, creating a wash of white that glows in the dim spaces.

IMG_1359Some vernacular names for the Snowdrop include February Fairmaids, Candlemas Bells and, my own particular favourite, Snow Piercer. This last has a fine Saxon edge to it, as if the plant were a well-loved sword. And yet, there is much debate over whether it is a native plant or naturalised. The answer is probably that it is both. As Richard Mabey points out in Flora Britannica, it is native to Continental Europe, and grows wild in northern Brittany, so it may be that the colonies in the south-west of England are native, arriving while the UK was still part of the European mainland, while those elsewhere are the result of garden escapes, albeit from hundreds of years ago. The Snowdrop has long been associated with purity, and may have been deliberately planted in monastery gardens and churchyards.

St George's Churchyard, Near Damerham, Hampshire, UK ( © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

St George’s Churchyard, Near Damerham, Hampshire, UK ( © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

IMG_1354I have found Snowdrops extremely difficult to grow in my garden, and I have the feeling that they are not a hundred percent at home in our climate. They emerge too early for most pollinating insects, which makes sense if you consider that they probably come from an area with warmer winters and earlier springs. Because of this, they spread by division of the bulbs, rather than by seed. Many cultivated varieties are also sterile. Chelsea Physic Garden runs Snowdrop Days during February, to show off the sheer variety of cultivars: to read the Gentle Author’s account of a visit, and to see photos of some of them, have a look here.

IMG_1363The Latin name for the Snowdrop genus, Galanthus, means ‘milk-flower’, and the nivalis species name means ‘of the snow’. So, even if you had never seen a snowdrop you would have the definite impression that it was white. And such a white! But each flower also has exquisite green markings on the petals, and also inside the flower itself.

IMG_1355In Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, a priestess, Circe, turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. To protect against her enchantments, Odysseus is given the plant Moly by Hermes, and there is some agreement that Moly was, in fact, the Snowdrop. One theory is that the transformation of the crew was a metaphor for the euphoria and hallucinations induced by plants such as Deadly Nightshade and Datura. It just so happens that the Snowdrop contains a chemical called Galantamine, which can counteract the effects of these plants. I love the way that story and science mix here, as they so often do. In the painting below, Circe is offering Odysseus a nice refreshing drink, though the pig on her left-hand side is something of a warning. Just as well Odysseus has his Snowdrop to protect him.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse. Note the tell-tale pig on the right hand side. Just as well Odysseus has his Snowdrops!

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse.

Snowdrops at Welford Park, Berkshire ("Welford Park Snowdrops 1" by Chris Wood (User:chris_j_wood). - Photograph by myself with original filename DCP_3674.JPG. Unmodified.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welford_Park_Snowdrops_1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Welford_Park_Snowdrops_1.jpg)

Snowdrops at Welford Park, Berkshire (“Welford Park Snowdrops 1” by Chris Wood (User:chris_j_wood). – Photograph by myself with original filename DCP_3674.JPG. Unmodified.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

Because of their association with purity, the flowers were sometimes used in Victorian times to warn off over-passionate lovers – a few Snowdrops in an envelope might be enough to dampen a young man’s ardour. But Snowdrops have also been considered unlucky, and in some parts of the UK a single flower is still seen as a death-token, perhaps because, as Mabey explains, Victorians felt that the flower looks ‘for all the world like a corpse in its shroud’. But to me, the bloom looks more like a beautiful white and green moth, and, coming from Bugwoman, there is no higher praise.

"Snowdrop 'Viridi-Apice'" by Schnobby - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg

“Snowdrop ‘Viridi-Apice'” by Schnobby – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Snowdrop_%27Viridi-Apice%27.jpg

 

 

New Scientist – Domesticated Dogs, A New Giant Dinosaur and Guess What the Oldest Image of an Animal Ever Found Shows?

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5996125

Wolf on the look out (Photo One)

Original article by Michael Marshall here.

Dear Readers, domesticated dogs split genetically from wolves at some point between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, but we don’t know where it happened, or why. Some scientists believe that the wolves helped humans to hunt, and the relationship developed from there. Others think that wolves scavenged around waste dumps, and so became used to humans.

However, Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority has another explanation. She and her colleagues estimated how much food was available during the Arctic winters, and has calculated that humans probably ended up with more meat than they could eat – humans have a limited capacity to process protein, which would have led to food being available to feed to orphaned wolf cubs. To my mind, this is part of an explanation rather than the whole thing: after all, lots of animals eat meat, but only wolves ended up becoming domesticated. Maybe the cubs were recognised as being useful in the hunt, and so were treated as working animals rather than pets? It’s an interesting theory, however, and helps to fill in the mosaic of reasons for why dogs rather than wolverines or badgers or otters ended up becoming ‘man’s best friend’.

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Argentinosaurus with human for size comparison (Photo Two)

Stop press! Scientists in Argentina are excavating a fossil that they *think* might belong to the largest land animal that ever lived. Known as Argentinosaurs or titanosaurs, these huge animals lived about 98 million years ago. They are sauropods, more familiar to old ‘uns like me via animals like the brontasaurus and brachiosaurus – all of them have small heads, a long, long neck and tail, and four pillar-like legs. When I was growing up, it was assumed that they had to be at least semi-aquatic to bear the weight of their bodies, but these days scientists think that, while they probably lived in wet and coastal areas, they had plenty of physical adaptations to ensure that they could wander across the landscape like so many gigantic reptilian giraffes.

So, how big were they? The scientists, led by researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, are saying that, from the remains that they’ve discovered, they think that their sauropod is ‘bigger than Patagotitan’, a creature that measured 37 metres (121 feet) long, and weighed 85 tonnes. However, everyone is a little nervous about definitively stating that this is ‘the big one’, as researchers have been found to have overestimated the size of ‘their’ critter before.

One very interesting thing is that there were sauropods of various sizes walking around 98 million years ago – some were a mere 6 metres long (which is still bigger than a car of course). It’s likely that each species had a particular ecological niche, preferring specific plants or types of habitat. Oh for a time machine, to go back and see these amazing creatures in action! Though I’ve watched enough science fiction films to know what happens if I accidentally drop a hair pin or a pair of nail scissors, so it’s probably not a great idea.

The original article by Joshua Rapp Learn is here

Cave paintings showing three pigs (one complete, two vestigial) plus two handprints (Photos by A. A. Octaviana)

And finally, cave paintings found in Indonesia show the oldest known image of an animal in the world – they are at least 45,000 years old, and could be older. The paintings, in Sulawesi, show a complete life size Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), an animal that was extremely important to the early hunter-gatherers of the region. The painting has been partly covered by a mineral deposit, and it’s this that gives the approximate date although, as the deposit overlaps the image of the pigs, the image itself could be much older.

The hand prints in the top left-hand corner are usually made by someone taking a mouthful of paint and blowing it over the hand, so the researchers hope that they can extract some residual saliva for DNA analysis.

The date of the paintings, which makes them as old as those found in Europe, raises interesting questions about the routes taken by humans when they left Africa – it used to be thought that eastern Asia was inhabited rather later. There is a scarcity of human remains in the area, so there are some thoughts that the paintings could actually have been made by Neanderthals, rather than humans. It will be very interesting to see how this story develops, but what it does point up, to me, is the extremely close observation of animals by early societies, and the significance that such creatures had in the lives of humans.

You can read the original story, by Ibrahim Sawal, here, and there is also a short film which gives an idea of the scale of the painting

Photo Credits

Photo One By Gunner Ries Amphibol – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5996125

Photo Two by Dinosaur Zoo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A Sunny Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

New growth on the weeping willow

Dear Readers, there was a definite touch of spring in the air this morning, so off we went for our usual trot around the cemetery. I always love the entrance with its cedars of Lebanon and stately weeping willow. Apparently the cemetery used to have a lovely lodge which was demolished in 1850 and replaced by a very functional brick building. The quest for modernity in the 1960s and 1970s seems to have involved many acts of vandalism, but at least the trees are still here. They make me feel more peaceful as soon as I see them.

One of the gravestones along the first path that we walk has fallen over, and turned into an impromptu birdbath. I often see crows taking advantage of the shallow water.

The spring weather seems to have kicked off a whole lot of corvid activity. There was a family of magpies in the ash trees, calling to one another and cheerfully picking through the twigs. I imagine there are lots of little insects who are having their hibernation brought to an abrupt end.

And then further on, I see a pair of crows, one of whom has what looks like a chocolate brownie in his beak. At least I hope that’s what it is. I suppose it could be something more unpleasant, but I don’t know of any animal that produces rectangular droppings, so I’m going with the brownie theory.

Down by the eastern entrance I notice a parakeet, perched up in a high branch. There seemed to be a lot of these birds around today, enjoying the sunshine.

Walking along Withington Road within the cemetery, I was struck by how the sun illuminated some of the angels.

And suddenly I had a sense of being watched.

And yes, it’s the statue of the Scotsman that I’ve mentioned before. He must only be visible from this point at the very turning point of the year, when all the leaves have fallen but the new growth hasn’t got going yet. There’s always something new to see here. And how splendid the rosehips are looking! There are still so many redwings here that I’m surprised there are any left at all.

Earlier, I’d seen two or three crows chasing the poor old kestrel. But as we were leaving there was a right old ruckus, with crows flying in from all points of the compass. Nowadays I always look up and try to get my camera ready.

And there, right in the middle of the whirl of wings was the buzzard. Poor thing, I am beginning to feel almost sorry for it. It’s the bird in the lower centre with the paler mottled underwings. The angle is deceptive, but it’s at least half as large again as the crows. I still haven’t worked out where it roosts, but I can’t imagine it’s popular in the cemetery.

The crows, on the other hand, seemed to be having the time of their lives. They’ll fly at anything – kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard or their particular favourite, the heron (which of course looks like a gigantic bird of prey in flight. As far as I know, none of these birds will take crow eggs or nestlings, so it seems almost visceral. Plus, crows generally hang out in family groups or pairs and aren’t supposed to be particularly social: however they’ll happily join in when a mob starts forming. I wonder what studies there have been? Let me know what you’ve noticed, readers: I’m intrigued.

A Bit of a Bubble

Dear Readers, I’m still trying to get out for a walk every day, although with the dark mornings, the Year End (which I fear will be a theme for the next few weeks) and the habit some companies have of scheduling meetings for the Crack of Doom, it’s been a bit trickier than it was in spring. Plus, hauling oneself out of bed on a freezing cold morning takes more willpower than being woken by the sound of the dawn chorus. Nonetheless, I found myself in Coldfall Wood on Friday, and I was very pleased that I did. Although it is still muddy, it is now alive with the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on the trees. I listened to one as it drummed, flew to another tree, drummed on a thinner branch which resulted in a higher pitched sound, and then whizzed back to its original tree. A few weeks ago I reported on a study in San Francisco that found out that white-crowned sparrow females  preferred a deeper- pitched call so maybe female woodpeckers feel the same? At any rate, it’s a joyful sound and, along with the yaffle of green woodpeckers and the male song thrushes testing out their spring songs it gives me some hope that the world is still turning. Plus, the rose-ringed parakeets are getting very over-excited, as well they might – they start selecting nesting sites long before anyone else gets round to it, and some of them are now actively courting.

If you haven’t heard any of these sounds before, here they are. Firstly, a great spotted woodpecker drumming in the Highlands of Scotland.

Secondly, a green woodpecker ‘yaffle-ing’

And here’s a song thrush.

And finally, the sound of rose-ringed parakeets in flight. It’s becoming as much a sound of English woodland as any of the three above, although the sight of those elegant bright-green birds munching on horse chestnuts is still strangely exotic.

Anyway, on we go. You might remember that last year the seasonal pond in the woods overtopped all of the bridges and boardwalks. This year, there has been some work done on the drainage, and the water is flowing freely. Hopefully we’ve found a happy medium, so that there is water enough for the plants and animals that rely on the dampness, while also not turning the whole site into a lake. Let’s see how we get on.

But what is this?

There is foam on some of the rivulets and streams. It doesn’t have the tell-tale soapy odour of pollution, but I’m intrigued nevertheless. So I have a look at the Environmental Agency website, which tells me that the foam (which is made up of millions of tiny bubbles) occurs when molecules such as fatty acids (known as surfactants) interact with the surface tension of the water, and allow air and water to mix more easily. Sometimes these surfactants are natural – they can occur when there is a high volume of organic material, such as dead leaves, in the water. Fatty acids are also released in small amounts by living organisms. When these organic compounds are dissolved in water, they’re known as Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC). The majority of foam in rivers and streams is natural, and has the following characteristics:

  • It might start off white but quickly becomes cream-coloured or brown as it picks up matter and sediment
  • It has a natural, earthy, fishy or grassy smell
  • It occurs in many locations and accumulates in eddies and sheltered areas

  • The foam can persist for some time, but will gradually diminish in size
  • It’s often found where the water is turbulent or agitated (the majority of the foam in Coldfall was along the streams running into the main pond)
  • It’s often seen on windy days or following heavy rain that washes down leaves etc.

So, this seems very like natural foam to me, though I will keep an eye on it – the streams are often contaminated with run-off from the roads round about, and many of the nearby houses have been wrongly connected to the water system.

Just so that we know the difference, man-made foam

  • Appears white in colour, but often has a perfumed or soapy odour
  • Usually appears over a small area, near the site of discharge
  • Doesn’t usually occur over long distances
  • Foam disappears quickly, as modern detergents are biodegradable and will dissipate once the source of the surfactant is removed
  • Generally not related to natural events.

However, when foam-pollution events do occur they can be devastating – the River Ouse was contaminated by a soapy substance that killed thousands of fish in 2018. In 2019 a long stretch of the river Irwell in Salford turned into a ‘bubble-bath’ after someone disposed of something down a surface drain. Rivers have long been thought of as being a way to get rid of something liquid that we don’t want, with little thought for the other creatures and people who rely on it. And I haven’t forgotten the day back in 2011 when the stream in Coldfall turned bright green following someone deciding to get rid of something noxious. Some recent water testing in the Wood showed that the quality was actually surprisingly good, so let’s hope that we can keep it that way.

Sound Credits

Great Spotted Woodpecker by Simon Elliott from XC593993 Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Green Woodpecker by Ramya from XC610865 European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Song Thrush by Rombout de Wijs from XC611036 Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Rose-ringed Parakeet by Stanislas Wroza from XC606442 Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Saturday Quiz – Musical Plants

Dear Readers, after the high culture of last week here’s something a bit more tuneful. All you need to do is match the plant to the lyrics from the (hopefully) popular song below. Normally I would knock up some photos, but as it’s year end at work (and some of you will know what that means!) I am just going to give you 10 plants and 10 lyrics, and all you have to do is match one to t’other. An extra mark for the full name of the song (or thereabouts)  and a discretionary mark if you can name the singer/band (though some of these are ancient, rather like me, and will therefore have been knocked up by multiple folk).

So, if you think that lyric 1 is about blackberry, your answer is 1/A

Now, if I spot that you have answered in the comments (and some of you are very very quick) I will send you a quick message and then unapprove your answer so that it doesn’t influence anyone else. However, if you think you might be influenced I would be inclined to write them down on a piece of paper first.

Answers on Friday next week, so get your ideas in by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 21st January if you want to be marked.

Lyrics

  1. ‘And you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle made for two’

2. ‘I beg your pardon…’

3.  ‘And then worst of all (worst of all)

You never call baby when you say you will (say you will)

   4. ‘Small and white, clean and bright,

You look happy to greet me’

   5. ‘Tiptoe, through the window,

By the window, that’s where I’ll be’

   6.  I lost myself on a cool damp night
I gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotized by a strange delight.

7.You gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion
You’ll be scratchin’ like a hound
The minute you start to mess around

8. Ooh, I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew
‘Bout your plans to make me blue

9. Absolutely going down the drain
It’s a terrible day
Up with a knock
Silly girl I don’t know what to say
She was running away

10. I was working part time in a five-and-dime
My boss was Mr. McGee
He told me several times that he didn’t like my kind
‘Cause I was a bit too leisurely

Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing
But different than the day before
That’s when I saw her, ooh, I saw her
She walked in through the out door, out door

Plants

A. Blackberry

B. Lilac

C. Grape

D. Tulip

E. Poison Ivy

F. Daisy

G. Raspberry

H. Rose

I. Buttercup

J. Edelweiss

Onwards! Make me proud!

 

 

Saturday Quiz – The Poetry of Plants – The Answers

Some frosty fennel

Dear Readers, you really know your poems! On the basic quiz, Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus got 7 out of 10, while FEARN, Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove all got 10 out of 10 on matching the plants to the poems. Fran and Bobby then went the extra mile by also getting some of the poets, giving them a total of 16 out of 20. But runaway winner this week, with an amazing 20 out of 20 was Anne. Well done Anne! A fantastic result, but you should all be very proud of yourselves, and thank you for playing. Now, I wonder what will happen tomorrow?

1.C) Daffodils – ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ by William Wordsworth. My Mum used to know this by heart, as she did many poems.

2. E) Cuckoo-pint/Lords and Ladies – ‘Cuckoo-pint’ by Blake Morrison. I love some of the imagery in this – the brown matchstick, the half-unrolled umbrella. Blake Morrison is better known as a writer of prose, but I think this is a most creditable work.

3. H) Ivy – ‘ To the Ivy’ by John Clare. I doubt there was ever a better poet of our  ‘weeds’, and I make no apology for including Clare twice.

4. J) Himalayan Balsam – ‘HImalayan Balsam’ by Anne Stevenson. What a great description this is! The whole poem is a feast.

5.D) Saguaro (Giant) Cactus – ‘To the Saguaro Cactus Tree in the Desert Rain’ by James Wright. Wright is a new poet to me, but I love that opening image of the owl peering from a hole in the tree.

6.A) Autumn Crocus – ‘Autumn Crocus’ by Ruth Fainlight. Such lovely close observation, and I love the way that the religious and natural imagery seem to infuse one another.

7. G) Yarrow – ‘The Yarrow’ by John Clare. Look how he notices the leaves of the yarrow, and the way that the colour of the flowers varies! The man was a genius.

8. B) Daisy – ‘To a Mountain Daisy – On Turning One Down With the Plough, in April 1786’ by Robert Burns. I love how Burns can move from the tiniest daisy to the existential fate of all human beings in a few verses. You might not want to read all of this if you’re already feeling glum.

9.I) Thistle – ‘Thistles’ by Ted Hughes. What a ‘male’ poem this is! I love Ted Hughes’s imagery in this, though, what with all those Vikings.

10.F) Gorse/Whin – ‘Whinlands’ by Seamus Heaney. Oh Seamus. What a poet. His poems always seem to involve an opening-out to me. At the end of them I just want to stare into space for a bit.