Monthly Archives: May 2021

Tuesday Garden Update

Dear Readers, I needn’t have worried about the dearth of starlings, because on Friday last week the little devils arrived in droves. The parent birds seem to practice an avian form of ‘tough love’ – at first they feed the fledglings as soon as they start squawking, but after the first day the gaps between feeds get longer and longer. The youngsters still spend a lot of time watching the sky, but pretty soon they seem to get the hang of that pecking business and are starting to feed themselves. Managing the suet feeder takes a little longer, but by the end of the week this lot will all be pretty much offhand, and their parents can take a well-deserved break.

In other news, the hawthorn is in full flower, and very fine it looks too.

It’s a flowering-year for the whitebeam, too, though the rain has turned the flowers on the rowan a horrible brown colour. Did I mention the rain? It’s been showery rather than persistent, but there is some rain forecast for every day for the next fortnight. The garden will love it.

And now I have a mystery, but please don’t tell me! I planted these bulbs in a pot and have completely forgotten what they were. Fingers crossed it will be something interesting, and I’ll keep you posted.

Mystery bulb!

And I am extremely happy with the way that my angelica is doing. Goodness, what a beast! The flowerheads are just forming, and I’m hoping for lots of happy hoverflies. The RHS reckon that it’s a biennial or short-lived perennial, so it might be that after this year it just disappears, which would be a shame as it looks so spectacular.

Angelica poking through the handrail

Angelica – emergent flowerhead!

Nobody nested in my nestboxes this year, but the nestbox next door is occupied by blue tits, who seem to spend half the day swearing at the cats and the magpies in the garden. I have to brace myself for the emergence of the fledglings, they’re so small and vulnerable.

Elsewhere my perennial wallflowers are doing very nicely, and so are the forget-me-nots, though the woodruff that I planted has keeled over and died in less than a week. What’s up with that, I wonder? Still, as a gardener you win some, you lose some…

And my ‘yellow border’ in the side return is a mass of greater celandine and yellow corydalis and some green alkanet. I could pull them all up and plant something that won’t grow, but what would be the point of that?

The hemp agrimony has grown about six inches in a week (or so it seems). Next to them, the lily of the valley is coming up, and if it wants to take over that entire corner, it’s more than welcome.

The climbing hydrangea is having a very good year, and will be in flower soon, just in time for the ashy mining bees to turn up.

And the lady’s mantle is popping up yet again. I love those hydrophobic leaves!

And finally, I also love a happy accident. I’d completely forgotten about this creamy-white wallflower, and now it’s in flower, next to a herb Robert, and what looks like a red valerian. It’s amazing the way that nature puts things together sometimes.

 

Professional Whistler

Dad at the Marina close to Minnesota

Dear Readers, whatever happened to whistling? When I was growing up, everyone seemed to do it. Paperboys whistled on their rounds. Van drivers wolf whistled out of their windows at any female between 11 and 65 (these days they yell obscenities which is hardly an improvement). To attract a friend’s attention, you put two fingers in your mouth and emitted a startlingly loud blast (which I could never do, but was impressed by those who could). Nowadays the paper boys (those who are left now that we all read the news online) listen to music on their phones rather than making it, and I suspect most people never learn to whistle in the first place. The only living things whistling on my street are the starlings.

Dad was a long-established whistler. He would put a Nana Mouskouri or Demis Roussos record on the player, and would tap along for the first thirty seconds. My brother and I would wait for the inevitable. Dad would pucker up and join in, invariably half a bar late and with a tune that only roughly approximated what was actually happening. Sometimes he would stop and give it another bash, and on other occasions he would rush to try to catch up. We were often in silent stitches by the end of the performance, but Dad would always look quietly content, as if the race had been difficult but he’d got there in the end.

I don’t remember the last time I heard Dad whistle. It might have been around the time that he was diagnosed with COPD, but for years he’d barely had the breath to sit in his reclining chair comfortably. As his health, and Mum’s, declined, there was precious little to whistle about. But when I had lunch with him in the home in March last year, they were playing Spanish music and serving Spanish food, and I saw him tapping along with Julio Iglesias. He puckered up at one point, as if about to start, but then the Spanish chicken turned up and he set to with enthusiasm. It was the last time that I ever ate with Dad, or had a proper conversation with him, because he died on 31st March. The tuneless whistler was finally silenced, and there will never be a performance like it again.

How amused Dad would have been to hear that there is such a thing as a professional whistler! I thought of him when I read this piece in The Guardian yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Sitting by the deathbed of the Hollywood veteran Harry Dean Stanton, professional whistler Molly Lewis delivered her most poignant performance to date. The Australian-born musician whistled otherworldly versions of Danny Boy and Just a Closer Walk from Thee, the gospel ballad Stanton croons in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. “He kissed my hand – it was such a beautiful moment”, remembers Lewis of her intimate 2017 performance”.

So, naturally I had to have a listen myself. For your delectation, here is the video for Lewis’s 2021 single ‘Oceanic Feeling’. I think the sound is utterly beautiful, but it might be better listened to rather than watched – it’s difficult not to be distracted by the comic appearance of someone whistling.  See what you think!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ6vuWFxvGM

 

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, we didn’t walk in the cemetery last week because there the rain was blowing horizontally across the garden, but I couldn’t wait to get there this week. A fortnight is a long time when it’s spring, and already most of the dandelions are shedding their seeds. Those ‘dandelion clocks’ really are entrancing, especially if you look closely. I love the way that the seeds detach one at a time and head off to find somewhere to put down their roots…

When all the seeds are gone, I love the spirals of little holes where they were once attached. And I’d never noticed how the ‘parachutes’ of the seeds are angled backwards, maybe so that the plant can produce more seeds per seedhead?

But it was to be a day of floral and avian wonders. A magpie decided to have a bath in a muddy puddle, as one does.

There were germander speedwells….

An ocean of cow parsley…..

Lots of red campion….

Cowslips…..

English bluebells…

And the buttercups have taken over from the lesser celandine in the yellow flower competition.

The flowers on the horse chestnut are pretty much full grown now and how enticing they look!

Even the grasses have gone berserk. That combination of lots of rain and longer day length has really kicked everything off.

We walk along the narrow path that connects two parts of the cemetery, and the cow parsley has sprung up to waist high.

But then there’s one of those moments that make the cemetery so special. I hear a familiar yaffling call, and there, posing on a headstone, is a green woodpecker.

These birds always remind me a bit of tiny dragons. There is a close-mown area nearby where they often search for ants, pounding away into the earth with their beaks. Unlike the great-spotted woodpecker, they don’t drum on dead trees to establish territory. This one was exceptionally obliging. This one is a female – the ‘moustache’ at the side of the face is all black in females, but has a red stripe in males. I found this description a bit confusing as I associate a moustache as being in the middle of the face, but for ornithologists it’s more of the ‘muttonchop’ variety.

 

 

Anyhow, this was a real delight, and well worth getting damp for. I normally hear the green woodpeckers, but they rarely stand still long enough for a photo. The wet weather has kept most of the visitors away, which makes the birds bolder.

Next, it was a wander along the road which is right next to the North Circular. The traffic noise is so loud here that it’s hard to make yourself heard, but the flowers are worth it. The ragwort is in full flower…

Last year’s salsify is in flower again….

And how about this lovely tangle of vetch? Some of my favourite plants are in the pea family.

One of the pleasures of a walk like this is seeing familiar plants, but noticing something new about them. Last year I was crunching through acorns as I passed these trees, but today I saw that they were in flower. I’d never even thought about oak trees having flowers (doh). The catkins are the male flowers, and there are tiny female flowers that look like buds amongst the leaves.

The comfrey is in flower, and the bumblebees are delighted. Along by the stream there is creeping comfrey and the larger common comfrey.

Common comfrey

 

And for some reason, in the middle of all this wildness there is a Japanese acer, just about holding its own.

There is bugle and great stitchwort….

Bugle

Greater stitchwort

Cuckoo flower and shining cranesbill…

Cuckoo flower

And a great big patch of three-cornered garlic, with its triangular stem. I can’t resist having a little nibble as we march on through the woody bits of the cemetery. Overhead a buzzard is mewing and suddenly appears above us, pursued by a huge flock of crows – I count at least thirty, and more are joining from all directions. A sparrowhawk flies over, fast and low, and goes unmolested. The crows take such glee in the mobbing that you’d almost think they enjoyed it. I wonder if it’s one of those visceral reactions to anything that looks like a bird of prey? I always wonder this, and I still have no answers. And neither does the lovely Scotsman statue, standing in the spring woods with the bluebells dying back and the greenery rising all around him.

 

 

 

Saturday Quiz – Endemic

Title Photo by By https://www.flickr.com/photos/francesco_veronesi/ - https://www.flickr.com/photos/francesco_veronesi/15101234309/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36447354

Helmet Vanga, endemic to Madagascar (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, an endemic species is one that is found in only one country or geographic region, and nowhere else in the world. So, for this quiz, can you match the photo of the animal to the country? I will give an extra point if you can name the species, so there’s a total of 30 points to be won. I think this is mega-difficult though, so if anyone gets all the countries right that will be deserve a huge round of applause.  So, if you think photo 1 is from Sri Lanka and that the animal is a flugel hound your answer is 1) A) flugel hound. You might want to check the species though :-).

All answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Thursday (20th May) please. I’ll post the answers on Friday 21st May. As soon as I see your reply in the comments I shall hide it away so it can’t influence the easily-swayed (like me) but write your answers down first if you don’t want to be affected by the brilliance of others.

Onwards!

Countries

A) Sri Lanka

B) Colombia

C) Mexico

D) South Africa

E) USA

F) New Zealand

G) China

H) Japan

I) Mauritius

J) Ecuador

K) Australia

L) India

M) Madagascar

N) Phillippines

O) Seychelles

 

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12262604

1)

Photo Two by By Giovanni Mari - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24185462

2)

Photo Three by By Jorge Obando Nature Photo - Mangrove Hummingbird ♂, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66096010

3)

Photo Four by By The original uploader was Wragge at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4338587

4)

Photo Five by By @rawjeev / Rajeev B / Rawlife - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57143447

5)

Photo Six by By V31S70 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/veisto/8558671034/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25261635

6)

Photo Seven by By JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.org - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3152673

7)

Photo Eight by By Paula Olson, NOAA - http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/porpoises/vaquita.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30588208

8)

Photo Nine by By Department of Conservation - https://www.flickr.com/photos/docnz/4015891720/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48081940

9)

Photo Ten by By colin houston - originally posted to Flickr as Mauritian (echo) parakeet(Psittacula echo), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3816850

10)

Photo Eleven by By Gregg Yan - Low resolution derivative work from original photograph personally provided by photographer., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19210444

11)

Photo Twelve by By Maureen Leong-Kee from Boca Raton, FL, United States - file369 Seychelles Kestrel side vies, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7419527

12)

Photo Thirteen by By Bl1zz4rd-editor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79060869

13)

Photo Fourteen by By Carlos Delgado - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34667538

14)

Photo Fifteen by By Jörg Hempel - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45026917

15)

Saturday Quiz – Of Cabbages and Kings – The Answers!

Title Photo by Terren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Ornamental Cabbages (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, we have a three-way split for First Prize this week, with Mal from FEARN, Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove all identifying all 15 of the plants correctly. Well done all of you! I shall have to think of something fiendish for tomorrow 🙂 you’re all too good at this stuff…..

Photo One by Bob Jones 

1) F) Sea Kale (Crambe maritima)

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

2) I) Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri)

Photo Three by Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3) J) Charlock (Sinapsis arvensis)

Photo Four by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4) A) Oilseed Rape (Brassica napus)

Photo Five by Tony Atkin / Garlic Mustard - Alliaria petiolata

5) O) Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

Photo Six by Niccolò Caranti, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) M) Horseradish (Amoracia rusticana)

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

7) N) Hoary Cress (Lepidium draba)

Photo Eight by Nick Moyes at https://www.flickr.com/photos/21874898@N05/2120901133

8) B) Danish Scurvygrass (Cochlearia danica)

Photo Nine by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) H) Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)

Photo Ten by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=133378

10) C) Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Photo Eleven by Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

11) D) Cuckooflower/Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Photo Twelve by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107188

12) G) Honesty (Lunaria annua)

Photo Thirteen by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

13) E) Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

Photo Fourteen by Anneli Salo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

14) L) Dame’s Violet (Hesperis matronalis)

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

15) K) Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

Photo Credits

Title Photo by Terren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo One by Bob Jones 

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

Photo Three by Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Tony Atkin / Garlic Mustard – Alliaria petiolata

Photo Six by Niccolò Caranti, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Photo Eight by Nick Moyes at https://www.flickr.com/photos/21874898@N05/2120901133

Photo Nine by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=133378

Photo Eleven by Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107188

Photo Thirteen by Stefan.lefnaer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fourteen by Anneli Salo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Expected and Unexpected

Dear Readers, as I was saying earlier this week, the fledgling starlings are the most wide-eyed innocents I’ve ever seen. While everyone else is alarm calling and flying for safety, they often stay perched, looking around to see what all the fuss was about. But there is no call more blood-chilling than that of a young starling in the jaws of a cat, or under the talons of a bird of prey, so when I heard the familiar keening on Tuesday morning I rushed to the window to see what was happening and there, sure enough, was a sparrowhawk standing on a screaming starling.

This didn’t surprise me, though it saddened me – the sparrowhawks have an unerring sense of when there’s easy pickings, though it’s amazing that they can navigate through the tangle of buildings and trees to strike. This is, I think, a male (apologies for the blurry shot, it was the only one I got a chance to take), and he probably has babies in the nest somewhere himself.

What did surprise me, though, was the behaviour of the other animals. Firstly, I was too slow to catch a squirrel on camera, but it approached within striking range of the sparrowhawk. I knew that squirrels were omnivores who will eat carrion, eggs and baby birds if they get the chance, but to try to steal prey from a sparrowhawk seemed pretty daring. However, I’m pretty sure that the squirrel that I saw has babies in the nest, so she probably needs all the protein she can get.

And then, the squirrel ran for it and one of the pair of magpies who’ve been haunting the garden landed. It’s actually bigger than the sparrowhawk and has much more attitude – it would have stolen the newly-expired starling from right under the hawk’s foot. By this stage the raptor seemed to have had enough, as it took off vertically with the starling dangling from one foot and headed off over the rooftops to eat its food in peace.

And a strange, eerie peace descended on the garden, as it always does when a sparrowhawk has paid a visit, but within half an hour everybody was back. Normally all the baby starlings emerge at once, but it’s been a bit more spread out this year, which I think favours the predators who can pick them off more easily. I also worry that I haven’t yet been inundated with youngsters, but maybe that will come later. At any rate, it was a bit less like Disneyland and a bit more like ‘When Animals Attack’ in the garden today, and I’ll be very glad when things get a little less dramatic.

Wednesday Weed – Bird Cherry

Bird Cherry (Prunus padus)

Dear Readers, those of you who read my earlier post about Cherry Tree Wood might have guessed which way my Wednesday Weed was tending this week! I have often walked past these trees without paying them much attention, and yet they are glorious at this time of year, with their spikes of white flowers going off in all directions like little fireworks. The plant likes damp conditions, and there are plenty of streams and rivulets arising in the wood, so I think it feels very at home.

In other parts of the world the tree is known as Hackberry, Hagberry or the Mayday tree. It’s native to Eurasia but has been naturalised all over the world. It was apparently planted by home owners in great quantities in Anchorage, Alaska, which goes to show how hardy it is.

The tree was probably planted for its beauty, but it is popular with bees and other pollinating insects, and although the fruit is generally too tannic for human tastes, birds don’t care (as the name of the plant might suggest).

Photo One by By Anneli Salo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5084318

Fruits of the bird cherry (Photo One)

However, it wouldn’t be true to say that no one has ever eaten the fruit. Herodotus, writing 2500 years ago, describes a race of people known as the Agrippeans, who were all bald from birth and appear to have lived in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. They used the fruit of what appears to be the bird cherry as a staple food, pressing the cherries for their juice and then making a kind of cake from the residue. They sound like rather lovely people – in the winter they made their yurts around the bird cherries, using the trunk as a kind of living tentpole. According to Herodotus:

They dwell each man under a tree, covering it in winter with a white felt cloth, but using no felt in summer. These people are wronged by no man, for they are said to be sacred; nor have they any weapon of war. These are they who judge in the quarrels between their neighbours; moreover, whatever banished man has taken refuge with them is wronged by none.

– Herodotus, Ἱστορίαι (The Histories) Book IV, Chapter 23

In Siberia the berries are milled for flour, which is again baked into a kind of cake, and jam is also made from the fruit. For further details of this, I was fascinated by Professor Gordon Hillman’s website ‘Wild Food Plants of Britain’, which explains how the pits of bird cherry contain various toxins (including cyanide), but their preparation by native peoples living in the Amur valley of Far Eastern Russia eliminates the poison – the fruits are pounded in a pestle and mortar and then laid out in the sunshine to dry. Cyanide is a rather unstable compound, and so exposure to the sunlight and air makes it safe to eat. The berries are then turned into a kind of fruit ‘leather’ for consumption right through the winter.

In Scotland, the fruit is sometimes made into brandy.

Photo Two by By Oleg Bor - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80467614

Bird Cherry Pie from Siberia (Photo Two)

According to my Harrap’s Wild Flower guide, Bird Cherry is largely found in the north of the UK, and it’s here that we find most of the folklore about the plant. In the north-east of the country it was considered to be a witches tree (which is presumably where the common name ‘hagberry’ came from), and this meant that the branches should never be used for staves or walking sticks, and the flowers should never be taken into the house. However, confusingly, in Wester Ross in Scotland, a walking stick made from bird cherry was supposed to mean that you would never get lost in the mist, so I suppose it was a choice between upsetting a witch and falling into a bog. I think falling into the bog was probably the wiser choice, but as I’m getting into my own ‘crone years’, maybe that’s just me.

In Wales, Bird Cherry is said to be considered unlucky, as it’s ‘the tree that the devil hung his mother from‘. Has anybody ever heard the details of this legend? Goodness, even the Kray Twins were good to their mother.

In the north of England, the tree was sometimes known as ‘Yorkshire lilac’, and indeed it does bear a passing resemblance to my white lilac bush, which is in full bloom at the moment.

The bark of bird cherry has an acrid smell, and it used to be believed that nailing it to your front door would keep the plague away. The bark was also used as a pesticide to deter insects and rodents from eating crops, and a dye derived from the bark was used to colour fishing nets brown.

Medicinally, Bird Cherry was used to treat many ailments, including conjunctivitis, fevers, kidney stones, anaemia and bronchitis.

And finally, a poem. Am I the only one who sees a similarity to the ecstatic poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins here? Let me know, readers.

And I Was Alive

by Osip Mandelstam

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflike and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

(4 May 1937)
Translated from the Russian by Christian Wiman.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Anneli Salo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5084318

Photo Two by By Oleg Bor – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80467614

First Fledglings…

Dear Readers, I had my second vaccination yesterday (Astra Zeneca, bit of a sore arm but so far none of the flu symptoms that sent me to bed last time). As I walked back to the house, I heard a familiar wheezing sound and there, on the handrail, was the first of this year’s starlings. What a fluffy little dude s/he is! And how completely lacking in any sense of danger. As I’ve noted before, the starlings that survive are the ones that pretty quickly pick up on the alarm calls and the behaviour of the birds around them (and not just their own species either – I’m pretty sure that the alarm calls of robins and blue tits put them on high alert too).

The adult starlings seem to be able to identify whose chick is whose, but the chicks will beg from any passing adult. Who could resist them? They couldn’t be any more plaintive. Anyone would think that they hadn’t eaten for weeks. Just as well I’m well stocked up with live mealworms and suet pellets.

By the time they’ve finished I’ll have to take the wire wool to the hand rails again – the fledglings love to perch here, and to run along it like some toddler on a low wall, and to basically crap everywhere. It won’t take them long to begin pecking at things themselves – last year I was astonished at how quickly they learned to get the pellets out of the suet feeder, which requires a fair measure of dexterity.

 

This will be the tenth generation of starlings that I’ve fed in the garden. The Breeding Bird Survey shows a decline of 63% in London from 1995-2018, and places where they used to gather in their thousands (such as Leicester Square and St James’s Park) seem to be bereft of them these days. I remember watching a murmuration in St James’s Park with Mum back in the ’80s, when great flocks of the birds reeled and turned over the islands in the middle of the lake, before settling down to roost. You can still see birds in the low thousands at places like Rainham Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Beddington Farmlands, but ‘proper’ murmurations seem to be rarer and rarer. And so, every noisy, messy youngster is precious, especially as they are taken in huge numbers by cats and corvids, and as they are forever getting tangled in things and drowning themselves.

This spring has been cold compared to last year, so I suspect the amount of insect prey is lower – no self-respecting caterpillar is going to hatch while there is still frost on the ground. What will happen to our bird life as the seasons, so delicately tuned, start to become more unpredictable? In towns and cities, feeding softens the blow, and because these places are warmer than the surrounding countryside the effect might not be felt quite so severely. And soon there will be hawthorn berries, and it looks like a good year for the fruit on the rowan and the whitebeam. There are things that we can do to help our besieged wildlife, and the sight of the fledglings always gives me hope.

 

Birds Seen and Unseen

Robin

Dear Readers, I was scanning the garden yesterday when I noticed a blur of movement down by the pond. Out came the binoculars! And after a few anxious minutes, I was able to focus on a quintessential ‘little brown job’ – definitely a warbler of some kind, and my money is on a chiffchaff, though it didn’t call so I wasn’t able to identify it for sure. The bird didn’t stick around for long enough to get a photo either, so here is a much better photo from someone else.

Photo One by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) (Photo One)

However, this got me thinking about the birds that have been seen in my garden, and I thought I’d knock up  a quick list. I’d be fascinated to know how this list is different from those of you in other parts of the country, and also in other places in the world – I know that Anne from SomethingOverTea lives in South Africa and has a garden list about four times as long as mine, which just illustrates how birds definitely prefer warmer climes with lots of insect food. But how does it compare with a list from Switzerland, for example? Anyhow, here are all the birds that have been seen in the garden since I moved here in 2010 (I’m not including those that have flown over, so no cormorants or swallows or black-backed gulls).

  1. Grey heron (Ardea cinerea)
  2. Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus)
  3. Rock dove/Feral pigeon (Columba livia)
  4. Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)
  5. Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  6. Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri)
  7. Great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
  8. Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
  9. Magpie (Pica pica)
  10. Carrion crow (Corvus corone)
  11. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
  12. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  13. Song thrush (Turdus philmelos)
  14. Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
  15. Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)
  16. Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
  17. Great tit (Parus major)
  18. Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
  19. Coal tit (Periparus ater)
  20. Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
  21. Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
  22. Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
  23. Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
  24. Common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
  25. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)
  26. Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)
  27. Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
  28. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  29. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  30. Common redpoll (Carduelis flammea)
  31. Siskin (Carduelis spinus)
  32. Greenfinch (Chloris chloris)
  33. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  34. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Blackbird

So, a few things strike me about this list.

  1. If I  hadn’t had the pond, I wouldn’t have been visited by the heron (or the grey wagtail), and lots of other birds stop by to drink too – the ‘chiffchaff’ yesterday was chiefly interested in the water.
  2. Many of the birds only visit in very bad weather – that would cover the fieldfare (who was grounded during a snowstorm), the siskins (who only come when it’s actually snowing) and the redpolls.
  3. Many of the birds pop over from nearby Coldfall Wood (the song thrush and the great-spotted woodpecker for sure)
  4. I have more of the warbler-type birds since my vines and hedges have grown a bit thicker – the blackcap spent most of her time in the tangle of bittersweet this year.

However, there are also some notable omissions.

  1. Although the waxwings often visit the street trees locally, they never come to see me in the garden – I guess there just isn’t the necessary concentration of berries. The rowan and the whitebeam are having a great year though, so let’s see what happens this winter.
  2. I always hope to see a brambling on its way through, or a bullfinch, but so far neither has stopped by (at least when I’ve been watching). If you see them in your garden, what’s your secret?
  3. Some of the birds that I see regularly in Coldfall Wood (stock doves, treecreepers, nuthatches) never come to see me – I imagine they’re quite happy where they are.
  4. I have a lot of predators for such a small patch – not just the occasional sparrowhawk taking out a collared dove, but magpies and jays and, of course, lots of cats. The cover for the birds can also provide cover for a marauding cat. I’ve learned to listen for the alarm calls, and will go outside and shoo off any felines that I think are rather too interested in what’s going on, but of course I can’t be there all the time. There were lots of babies last year (blue tits, blackbirds, robins, wrens) but it would be fascinating to know how many of them actually survive to adulthood. This year I have been ‘adopted’ by a pair of magpies, and the rest of the bird community are very unimpressed.

So, over to you, readers. What do you get in your garden? What would you love to see? What have you done that has made your garden more friendly for birds? Let’s share our experiences. The birds need all the help they can get.

Nuthatch in the cemetery, but never in my garden 🙁

 

A May Walk in Cherry Tree Wood

Dear Readers, regular visitors to the blog will know that we are lucky enough to have two remnants of ancient woodland in East Finchley – one is Coldfall Wood, and the other is Cherry Tree Wood. On Thursday I decided to have a little trot around Cherry Tree Wood – for one thing, last time I was there the grassy area was under so much water that someone decided to have a little kayak there, and secondly it punches above its weight in terms of natural history interest. This is particularly surprising as it’s so well used – it has a children’s playground, a café and tennis/basketball courts. Still, I’ve noticed some very visible green woodpeckers on previous visits, mistle thrushes nest here (and I’ve never seen them in Coldfall), and even here you can get away from people if you take some of the secondary paths.

Down by the café there was this lovely patch of almost-English bluebells. The pollen is white, which often indicates that they are English rather than hybrids, but there is something about the colour and shape that looks as if there might have been a bit of shenanigans going on. They are rather lovely nonetheless.

And look at the hawthorn! It’s going to be a bumper year for this plant I suspect, I have never seen so much blossom. Maybe our cold spring suits it. I rather think this is Midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) – the leaves are described as ‘shallowly three-lobed’, and as the plant is typical of ancient woodland I’m feeling fairly confident. As usual, let me know what you think, botanist friends! I am learning all the time. Like the bluebells, hawthorns can also hybridise.

There is going to be lots of honeysuckle later in the year too, I came across these patches right at the back of the wood close to the back fences of the neighbouring houses, so whether the plant has jumped out of the garden or will shortly be jumping in is anyone’s guess.

The oaks, hornbeams and horse chestnuts are just coming into leaf, and the grassy area has changed from quagmire to dust. There’s lots of rain forecast for the next few days, though, so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Next to the toilets and the tennis courts is a patch of yellow flag iris, growing very happily. This part of the wood is also positively boggy for much of the year. The Mutton Brook rises somewhere around here, and is captured and culverted and directed under the railway line at the southern edge of the Wood.

The culvert that takes the Mutton Brook into Hampstead Garden Suburb

Why, though, do you think this area is called Cherry Tree Wood? Actually, in its early life it was called Dirthouse Wood – night soil was collected from North London and left at the Dirthouse on the opposite side of the road, where the White Lion pub  is now. This was then spread as fertiliser on the nearby hay meadows. But there are lots of bird cherries in the wood, and very pretty they are too at this time of year.

The trees have previously been home to the netted webs of bird cherry ermine moth, but no sign this year – again, maybe it’s been too cold for them.  Plus, looking back at my photos from 2018 I have a feeling that these guys are probably cyclical breeders, with a big outburst every few years. It’s good to see that the trees are none the worse for the onslaught.

Ermine moth caterpillars from 2018

And so it’s good to see the wood looking so good. The tennis and basketball courts have been resurfaced and repainted, and are looking very spruced up, just in time for the summer. The rickety old pavilion has finally been demolished, and I assume that some sort of café will spring up soon as well. My heart really does belong to Coldfall, but this area is a really valuable community resource, enjoyed by many people. Every little bit of green space has been a godsend during the lockdown, and I suspect that it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to what’s happening right on their doorstep.

I also suspect that our good friends the N2 Community Gardening Group have been at work close to the entrance opposite the station – some lovely scabious have sprung up as if by magic! I’m sure the bees will be very grateful.