Monthly Archives: March 2022

A Post Covid Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it felt very strange walking in the cemetery yesterday; although I am now past the worst of my covid infection I am still a little slow and breathless, and everything feels most peculiar. I first realised that brain fog was ‘a thing’ after my Dad died and I realised that I could no longer calculate percentages without having to think about it first. Fortunately my mental faculties gradually came back, but at the moment I’m still a bit hazy about many things. Still, it was good to get a bit of fresh air on the most beautiful spring day. I especially love the way that the Scotsman is standing in a pool of lesser celandine. I’ve remarked before that it seemed not to be having a very good year, but clearly I was just too early. It was everywhere on my walk, turning its shiny yellow face to the sun, and hoping for an early bumblebee to pop along, I’m sure.

The petals of many flowers in the buttercup family are shiny – there is a special layer of reflective cells which intensifies the yellow colour and makes the flowers even more attractive to pollinators. As the flowers grow older, this layer may rub off, leaving the petals white, as in the one on the far left hand side of the photo. There are some rather lovely buttercup photos (though not lesser celandine) on this microscopy-uk webpage, well worth a look.

I was surprised to see how much of the cherry plum blossom was gone (after all I’ve only missed one week on my walks), but it has been very windy. On the other hand, the horse chestnut buds are pushing through already.

And although the bluebells look a  long way off, there’s one tiny patch of woodland where the Scilla have naturalised, and their blue is almost as intense. What a pretty and delicate flower this is, and it’s obviously happy even in deep shade.

And so it was with some relief that I got home and had a sit down, but it was great to see something outside my four walls for the first time in ten days. For anyone who is getting over covid, or indeed any infection, I’d say ‘be a little more gentle with yourself than you think you need to be’ – it’s good to give yourself time for your body to adjust to getting back to ‘normal’ rather than throwing yourself in with enthusiasm, especially as you’re getting older. When I was in my twenties and thirties I thought I was immortal and indestructible, but sadly now I know a bit better.

Sunday Quiz – Mellow Yellow

Dear Readers, it seems to me that if nature has a preferred colour in the South of England, it’s probably yellow – maybe this is because it’s a hue that can be seen by all kinds of pollinators, from bees and butterflies to the hard-working but underappreciated hoverflies. But how good are you at identifying yellow plants? Below are photos of twelve yellow flowers. All you have to do is to match the species to the photo.

You have until 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 25th March to put your answers into the comments, and the results will be published on Saturday 26th March. I will disappear your answers when I see them (if I manage to get myself organised – Covid has left me a bit brain-foggy this week, though I am generally very much on the mend).

So, if you think that the plant in Photo A is a Yellow Corydalis, your answer is 1) A)

Species

  1. Yellow Corydalis (Pseudofumaria lutea)
  2. Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus)
  3. Goldilocks Buttercup (Ranunculus auricomus)
  4. Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
  5. Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
  6. Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsis)
  7. Evening Primrose (Oenothera glazioviana)
  8. Turnip (Brassica rapa)
  9. Touch-me-not Balsam  (Impatiens noli-tangere)
  10. Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum)
  11. Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon)
  12. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Photos

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

A)

Photo B by Tatters ❀ from Brisbane, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

B)

Photo C by Ian Cunliffe 

C)

Photo D by Randi Hausken from Bærum, Norway, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

D)

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

E)

Photo F by By Stemonitis - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15723196

F)

Photo G by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

G)

Photo H by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

H)

Photo I by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I)

Photo J by Peter O'Connor aka anemoneprojectors from Stevenage, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

J)

Photo K by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129770

K)

Photo L by AnemoneProjectors, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

L)

 

 

Sunday Quiz – What’s In a Name? – The Answers!

Ivy (Hedera helix) – ‘helix’ means ‘twisted’ or ‘spiral’

Dear Readers, what a splendid crop of answers we had this week: Claire, Mal from FEARN, Rosalind Atkins, Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove all proved their mettle with a score of 12 out of 12, well done to all of you – you were undefeated by Latin binomials, and there was a fine discussion about the merits of scientific names over on my Facebook page, for those of you who indulge. Suffice it to say that much as we love vernacular names, we can all see the value of having a name for each species that’s recognised across regions and countries. 

Let’s  see what I can come up with for tomorrow. 

Species Name and Meaning

  1. J) Officinalis means a traditional healing plant
  2. E) Verna means ‘of the spring’
  3. K) Rupestre means ‘wall or rock-loving’
  4. F) Sativa means ‘found on cultivated land’
  5. L) Pratense means ‘meadow-loving’.
  6. H) Sylvestris means ‘found in forests/woods’
  7. A) Repens means ‘creeping’
  8. B) Palustre/palustris means ‘found in marshes and bogs’
  9. C) Corniculata means ‘horned’ (the seed capsules of plants named ‘corniculata’ often have two tiny horns on them
  10. G) Lutea means ‘yellow’ as in Yellow Corydalis, Pseudofumaria lutea.
  11. I) Maculatum means ‘spotted’
  12. D) Hirsutum means ‘hairy’

 

 

Yet More Frogs

Dear Readers, I hope you’re not all bored to death by the frogs yet – I am still fascinated by the goings-on in the pond. This is clearly the biggest aggregation of frogs that I’ve seen in the pond in over ten years, and I am trying to work out why this year is so special. In the south-east it’s been a remarkably mild winter – I only remember the pond freezing on one day – and so I’m guessing that more of the amphibians have survived. Plus, the pond will have recovered since it was cleaned out a few years ago, so it’s probably at peak production. But even so, it’s like a froggy Serengeti out there. I just sat in the twilight and listened to them singing yesterday, which was a bit of a treat following a few foggy-minded days.

Every time I venture into the garden there’s a mass splashing as all the ‘double-frogs’ disappear under the water, though there’s so much frogspawn that it’s difficult for them to dive to the bottom. Then if I sit quietly they gradually resurface, and after a while some brave soul will start to sing, followed by another frog, and then another. It’s not a particularly musical sound to our ears but it clearly works with the ladies.

The white vocal sacs of the males must be quite an attraction too, especially in the half-light – I noticed how they shone out in the twilight yesterday. Apparently the females are attracted to the males with the longest and loudest calls. I remember one female sitting on a rock last year, surveying a choir of wildly croaking males, before entering the water and getting jumped on by the whole lot of them. Fortunately she was a big girl and managed to kick most of them off.

The males, once they’ve found a female, will hang on for grim death until she releases her eggs, which can take several days. Apparently the egg-laying nearly always happens at night, and that’s been my experience – I’ve never seen a female actually producing the eggs, but in the morning there are the big clumps of spawn. Once the female judges that the time is right to release her eggs, the male releases his sperm and voila, fertilisation. I suspect that the temperature of the water might have something to do with the actual release of the eggs – activity has certainly picked up now that the weather has warmed a little. The male may leave the female to try to find another mate once spawning is complete, but competition is intense in my little pond so I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope.

And in a day or so it will all be over and done with, and in about three weeks the spawn will melt and tiny, comma-shaped tadpoles will emerge. I hope there’s enough food in the pond for them – they like algae but I know they’ll also eat lettuce, so if they seem to be struggling I’ll know what to do. Probably one in a thousand of the eggs will survive to be an adult frog, which looking at the volume of frogspawn is probably just as well. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the 1970s eco-horror film ‘Frogs’, but if all of these eggs turned into an adult frog I think I’d need a bigger house. I rather like the idea of ‘When Nature Strikes Back’ though. ‘A Croak! A Scream!’ indeed. Ray Milland was a good actor, but he was certainly in some stinkers.

Jealous Siblings and Domesticated Geese – Snippets from New Scientist

Photo One by By Emily Walker from Sydney, Australia - Goose FamilyUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11981636

Chinese Geese (Photo One)

Dear Readers, it is my fifth day since I tested positive for Covid and I’m feeling a lot better physically, though my brain is all over the place. What a strange disease this is! I read an article stating that it seems to cause brain shrinkage, and as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised. Hopefully it will spring back like a cushion at some point in the near future. It could also be because of cappuccino withdrawal, our local coffee shop will be missing us, especially as my husband is still testing positive and it’s now day 10. So I am finding myself entertained by little things in New Scientist.

First up, scientists who study the domestication of birds have been dealt a curveball by the discovery of some goose bones in the Chinese Stone Age village of Tianluoshan, which was inhabited between 5500 and 7000 years ago. 232 bones were found, and some belonged to geese who were less than 16 weeks old, so too young to have flown in from elsewhere. No wild geese breed in the area now, and the scientist interviewed, Masaki Eda from Hokkaido University Museum, thinks it very unlikely  that it was ever a suitable habitat for geese. Furthermore, analysis seems to show that the adult geese were bred locally (the chemical analysis  of the bones can show where the water they drank came from), and that they were all roughly the same size, indicating captive breeding. Carbon dating the bones puts them at about 7000 years old, making them the first birds to be domesticated.

I must admit that I thought that chickens were the most likely candidate for oldest domesticated bird – they are a bit more amenable for a start. A 2014 study reported finding domestic chicken bones from as early as 10,000 years ago. However, the bones weren’t directly dated, and many scientists believe that the bones come from pheasants that were hunted. So, for the minute, it looks like geese might have been our earliest avian companions.

And secondly, as an elder sibling myself I can vouch for the pain of suddenly no longer being the apple of my mother’s eye, so it’s no wonder that scientists studying wild bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo have found that their stress levels go through the roof when a new sibling is born, and stay high for up to seven months. Scientists observed the behaviour of the weaned infants when their new brother or sister was born, and also analysed urine samples for the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol levels jumped to five times their normal level, and the youngsters were seen to be much clingier with their mothers than usual, though scientists weren’t sure whether this was because they wanted to see the infant or because they wanted their mother’s reassurance.

Because bonobos are so similar to us – the offspring stay with their mother for a very long period and are totally reliant on her, even after a new sibling is born – it’s somehow not surprising that the youngsters behave in much the same way that I did. My mother solved the problem of sibling jealousy by making me feel that my little brother was ‘ours’ rather than ‘hers’, and so from very early on I was involved in his care. It would be interesting to know what different strategies bonobo mothers have for keeping their offspring happy – I’m sure that they have such strategies. And also, is the effect less marked when yet another sibling comes along? After all, you can only cease to be an only child once.

Bonobo mother and baby – Photo by Kokolopori Bonobo Research Project https://www.bonobo.org/news-and-knowledge/baby-boom

And finally (and this is not from New Scientist, but from The Guardian)  a couple in New Zealand are heartbroken to discover that the world’s biggest potato, weighing in at 7.8 kilograms, is not, in fact, a potato. Nicknamed ‘Dug’, it was found by Colin Craig-Brown in their garden, but DNA analysis by the Guinness Book of Records has revealed that it is, in fact, the tuber of a gourd. Craig-Brown still has ‘Dug’ in the freezer:

“I say ‘gidday’ to him every time I pull out some sausages. He’s a cool character,” Craig-Brown said. “Whenever the grandchildren come round, they say, ‘Can we see Dug?’”

“He is the world’s biggest not-a-potato.”

And I don’t know if it’s just the Covid or the brain shrinkage, but I just love this story.

Dug, the world’s biggest not-potato

The Mosquitoes of the London Underground

Photo One by Walkabout12 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47027176By Walkabout12 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47027176

The London Underground Mosquito (Culex pipiens f. molestus)(Photo One)

Dear Readers, I was much taken by an article in New Scientist about the evolution of urban species by Rob Dunn this week, and in particular his thoughts about the infamous London Underground mosquito. During the Second World War, unfortunate civilians who spent nights on the platforms of Underground stations to avoid the Blitz complained about being bitten unmercifully, but it’s only recently that genetic technology has advanced to a point where we can really work out what’s going on.

Photo Two by By US Govt - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 195768., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3458515

Sheltering in the Underground (Photo Two)

The original LU Mosquito came from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East and lived above ground. These insects are active only during the warmer months, require a meal of blood before they can reproduce, and feed mainly on the blood of birds. However, as the mosquito spread north into colder climes, it survived by living in cities, particularly their underground regions such as sewers. The insect evolved new genetic characteristics, such as odour recognition, digestion and immunity, that would be useful in environments rich in organic waste.

However, it wasn’t just the genes that changed, behaviour did too. Both the underground and the above-ground mosquitoes are thought to be the same species, but the underground ones are active all year round, can reproduce without a blood meal, and prefer to feed on mammals: rats and mice in particular, but humans where they can find them. The underground mosquitoes are isolated from other mosquitoes, and their habitat can be compared to an island, as Dunn points out: the mosquitoes cannot disperse, and so they become more and more specialised. Cities such as Paris, Minsk, Tokyo and New York all have their own ‘Underground Mosquitoes’.

However, the isolation can have another, even more extreme, effect – it’s been shown that where LU Mosquito populations are isolated within the Underground network, they can start to become genetically distinct from one another. So, it was found that the mosquitoes found on the Victoria Line were different from those found on the Bakerloo Line. It’s quite possible that every underground line could have its own mosquito, though I suspect that lines with a larger proportion of stations which are above ground might be less distinct, because their mosquitoes can actually disperse and interbreed.

For us, though, as humans, it means that the old Petula Clark song ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ has never been better advice.

 

 

A Bumper Year for Frogs…

Goodness, Readers, it took the frogs a while to get going, but this morning there was more activity in the pond than I’ve ever seen. As soon as I opened the front door I could hear the males croaking, and there is frogspawn everywhere. The frogspawn that you can see is only the tip of the iceberg, as it were. The water starwort, which didn’t take off last year, has flourished and is providing the frogs with a bit more cover than they usually get.

The local cats are showing rather a lot of interest, but the frogs are relatively safe while they stay in the pond. It’s when they leave it that the cats don’t seem to be able to resist them. Fortunately they usually move about at night when all well-behaved cats are tucked up in bed.

It’s funny to think that in a week or so the majority of these frogs will be gone, though goodness knows where. Some do stay in the pond all year, some of the males return to hibernate, but the females I think make the trek to the woodpile beside the shed, where they’re well protected and there are lots of invertebrates to eat.  I am just happy to see that the wheel of life is still turning,  The spawning of the frogs marks a turning point in the year, an indication that spring is actually now in full swing.

On the Covid front, I am feeling slightly better, though my throat is very sore and I have an irritating and persistent cough. I also learned that a dear friend of mine who caught Covid in January this year has come down with it again in March in spite of being triple vaxxed like me. I had been feeling that one of the upsides of catching Covid now would mean that I’d be unlikely to catch it again in the short term, but clearly this is not the case. Still, one challenge at a time is quite enough! So now I’m off for a hot drink and a lie-down. See you all tomorrow!

Some Green Visitors….

Dear Readers, I put some peanuts out for the jays and the possibility of a nuthatch, but instead I got this lot. Ring-necked parakeets are always so chatty that they make their presence felt straight away, and so I was able to run to the kitchen window and take a few shots before they headed off to some other parrot-y appointment.

I wondered if they’d start to unpick the wire of the feeder, but instead they seemed more interested in manipulating little pieces of the peanuts through the grid. These two must be closely related, I think, as they were extremely tolerant of one another. even affectionate. Neither of them had the dark ring around their neck that denotes a breeding male, so maybe they’re siblings, or mother and daughter.

I know that these birds are a mixed blessing, but goodness they cheer me up! They always seem to be up to something. And look how acrobatic they are! They could be performers on Cirque du Soleil, if there was ever a parrot version.

In other news, my Covid seems to have mainly set up home in my throat and upper chest – I have a really sore throat and an irritating and unproductive cough. But I took some Night Nurse and had a good night’s sleep, so I’m confident that in a few days I’ll be on the mend. I intend to take it very easy, have lots of hot drinks and have a nap whenever I fancy one. I shall be modelling myself on this drowsy duck rather than these hyperactive parakeets, for now at least.

Sunday Quiz – What’s In a Name?

Ivy (Hedera helix) – ‘helix’ means ‘twisted’ or ‘spiral’

Dear Readers, a lot of people get very hot under the collar on the subject of ‘Latin’ names for plants and animals – there are regularly rows on the many Facebook groups that I’m involved in when someone quotes the scientific name for a plant or insect.

“What’s the common name?” people ask. “And why do you lot need to be so snobby?”

Well, because a lot of creatures don’t have common names, especially insects. And also, if you call an insect a ‘daddy-long-legs’, you might mean a cellar spider (Pholcus phalangoides) or a cranefly (Tipula maxima) or a harvestman (Phalangium opilio) according to where you live in the country or the world. So using the ‘Latin’ (more specifically the binomial name) means that you all know what you’re talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love vernacular names for plants and animals – they tell you a lot about the relationship between humans and the natural world, and they are often extremely local, as a glance at Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora or Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica will reveal. There’s room for both precision and imagination in this world, and, at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I sometimes wish that we could all just get along.

Anyhow! This brings us to our quiz. And as I have just tested positive for Covid (no surprise after my husband has been coughing and spluttering for a week) I am going to go for a quiz that’s easy for me to prepare this week :-). Below are twelve common scientific names for plants, and an example of each. Can you tell me what the ‘Latin’ name is telling us about the plant? You can choose from the list of possible meanings below.

So, if you think species name 1, Officinalis, means ‘Creeping’, your answer is 1)A)

As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time next Friday please (18th March), and the results will be posted on Saturday 19th March. I will ‘disappear’ your answers as soon as I see them.

Species Name

  1. Officinalis (Example – Common Fumitory, Fumaria officinalis)
  2. Verna (Example – Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna)
  3. Rupestre (Example – Reflexed Stonecrop, Sedum rupestre)
  4. Sativa (Example – Common Vetch, Vicia sativa)
  5. Pratense (Example – Red Clover, Trifolium pratense)
  6. Sylvestris (Example – Narrow-leaved Everlasting Pea, Lathyrus sylvestris)
  7. Repens (Example – Common Restharrow, Onanis repens)
  8. Palustre/palustris (Example – Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia palustris)
  9. Corniculata (Example – Procumbent Yellow Sorrel, Oxalis corniculata)
  10. Lutea (Example – Mountain Pansy, Viola lutea)
  11. Maculatum (Example – Cuckoo-pint, Arum maculatum)
  12. Hirsutum (Example – Great Willowherb, Epilobium hirsutum)

Meaning

A. Creeping
B. Found in marshes and bogs
C. Horned
D. Hairy
E. Of the spring
F. Found on cultivated land
G. Yellow
H. Found in forests/woods
I. Spotted
J. A traditional healing plant
K. Wall/rock-loving
L. Meadow-loving

 

Sunday Quiz – What’s That Feather? – The Answers!

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

Dear Readers, firstly very well done to everyone who took part this week: Claire, Joanna and Fran and Bobby Freelove all got a perfect 12/12 for their feather identification so a big round of applause is coming your way from East Finchley. I shall have to dream up something devilish for tomorrow, you’re all getting much too good. 

And secondly,  I hope that you enjoyed looking at these feathers as much as I did – they are miracles of adaptation and evolution, and differ so much from species to species, according to the bird’s requirements. They all come from the Featherbase website – links to the individual photos are at the bottom of the post. It is a most extraordinary resource, and I’m very glad to have found it!

A) 8 Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

B) 4) Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

C) 11) Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

D) 1) Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula kramerii)

E) 5) Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

F) 9)Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandiarus)

G) 12) Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

H) 2) Magpie (Pica pica)

I) 6)Little egret (Egreta garzetta)

J) 7) Barn owl (Tyto alba)

K) 10) Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

L) 3) Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Photo Credits 

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

Featherbase links

  1. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/003452_full.jpg
  2. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images5/004723_full.jpg
  3. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/002298_full.jpg
  4. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/003450_full.jpg
  5. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images5/000463_full.jpg
  6. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images5/004387_full.jpg
  7. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images5/005208_full.jpg
  8. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/001691_full.jpg
  9. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/001691_full.jpg
  10. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/003206_full.jpg
  11. http://media.featherbase.info/images/images4/002050_full.jpg
  12. stockente10-2.jpg (1750×1194) (featherbase.info)