Monthly Archives: October 2023

Nature’s Calendar – Wind Swirls Through Fallen Leaves

Dear Readers, I am still catching up with Nature’s Calendar (this is the topic for 23rd to 27th October, oops), but I was intrigued to hear that Vita Sackville-West, garden writer and poet, had a phrase ‘top-note through leavery’ – this meant the simple pleasures to be had on stomping through leaves in the autumn. She was very definite about what this meant though, as Lulah Ellender describes in the book:

the small but intense pleasure of walking through dry leaves and kicking them up as you go. They rustle; they brustle; they crackle – and if you can crush some beech nuts underfoot at the same time, so much the better. But beech nuts aren’t essential. The essential is that you should tramp through very dry, very crisp brown leaves’. 

Well, it’s all very well and good, Vita, but clearly autumn was a bit drier in the 1930s because when I went out for today, what we basically have in the County Roads is a kind of leaf paste. We have just finished Storm Babet (though people in the north-east and Scotland are still suffering) and later this week it’s our turn as Storm Ciaran comes careering in from the Atlantic and wreaks havoc along the south coast. Not much chance of a rustle or brustle around here, more of a squelch.

Still, there is something rather fine about the leaf fall in autumn regardless of the weather, as all that now unneeded biomass falls from the branches and ends up in the gutter. Along  the road there are shades of chestnut and copper, ruby and saffron. The crab apples are a bit of a trip hazard, but no doubt they will soon mulch down and disappear. The clocks went back yesterday, and the sun won’t set after 6 p.m. until 24th March 2024.

The view along Huntingdon Road here in East Finchley

And so, if the leaves aren’t as pleasing to scuffle through as maybe they used to be, what sensory pleasures can we look forward to? Here are a few of my favourites, feel free to add your own…

  • Drawing the curtains and putting on the ‘little lights’ – my Mum was a great believer that every room should have a ‘rosy glow’ in the corner somewhere to make it a bit more welcoming
  • Snuggling up in front of Masterchef the Professionals, and laughing uproariously at Gregg Wallace every time he says exactly what Markus Wareing said 10 seconds earlier.
  • Reading! When it’s bright and sunny I always feel as if I should be out and about doing something energetic, but autumn and winter mean that I can get stuck into my book mountain. I’ve just finished Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad (I don’t know why I love this brutal tale of a bunch of men-children, but I do) and will shortly be getting stuck into a book about art in Venice.
  • Knitting – I have lots of projects for friends to complete and I have been a bit lax lately, so it’s time to pick up the needles again
  • Watching the birds on the feeders, and hoping that some actually use the teasel heads that I’m leaving on until next spring. I usually cut everything back about now, but I’ve decided to take my own counsel and leave it until early spring next year. Let’s see what happens.
  • Hot chocolate! If you can’t drink hot chocolate in November, I don’t know when it’s permissible. No skin on the top though, please. That’s an abomination.


Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – November Updated

Crow in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, November 2020

My goodness, Readers, the year is turning fast this year! My Mum used to say that things sped up as you got older, and that’s certainly been the case in 2023. Let’s see what November has in store for us!

Dear Readers, by the time November rolls around there’s usually no doubt that it’s winter, what with the long nights and the morning chill, and often the rain. All the more reason to make the most of the few bright hours. While we were in lockdown we’d go out for a walk every single day – somehow the fact that we were only supposed to go out once a day made it imperative that we took advantage of the opportunity, whereas now, when we can walk whenever we like, I’ll sometimes sit at my desk all day. Still, there are many subtle beauties to be enjoyed in November, and if all else fails it’s a chance to snuggle up with a good book.

Things to Do

  • November is really the kick-off month for Christmas in London (though some shops have been selling mince pies since September), so many gardens and stately homes will be launching their light trails. It’s an interesting way to experience places at night, though I do wonder about the impact on wildlife. I’m not sure I’d want a bunch of people marching through the undergrowth if I was a roosting wren, but hopefully most of these places are big enough that the animals can find somewhere quieter. There’s no denying that they’re often magical. One of the best is at Kew Gardens, but there is also a trail at Kenwood. New for this year is a trail at Eltham Palace, which is well worth a look at any time of year, for its gardens and for its extraordinary Art Deco interior. Syon Park is not holding an event this year.
  • Personally, I always get in the Christmas mood by having a look at the completely free Christmas light and window displays around Piccadilly, New Bond Street and Regent Street. I also have a great fondness for the Dickensian alleyway that is Camden Passage (in Islington), though most of the antique shops are foodie destinations these days.
  • This is a great time of year for fungi, and there’s a foray on Hampstead Heath next Sunday (5th November), organised by the London Natural History Society, well worth a look. There are also some online talks: one on Hampstead Heath and Hounslow Heath on Thursday 9th November at 18.30, and one titled ‘What Have Trees Ever Done for Us‘ on Thursday 23rd November at 19.00. Both are likely to be recorded too.

Plants for Pollinators

  • Most bees are tucked up for the winter by now, but you may well see common carder bumblebees buzzing about well into November, and overwintering queen bumblebees will wake up on a mild day and look for nectar to top up their internal reserves. The RHS plant of the month is winter-flowering honeysuckle, and I’d have to agree – it’s often alive with bees on a warmish winter day.

Queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on winter-flowering honeysuckle

Other recommended plants are Fatsia japonica (otherwise known as Japanese aralia or false castor-oil plant), which is also a queen bee magnet.

Fatsia japonica and bee

The RHS also recommends sweet box (Sarcococca confusa), autumn-flowering crocus and Elaeagnus x submacrophylla. I’ve personally seen bees on the first two plants, but haven’t yet stumbled across the Elaeagnus – let me know if you’ve had any success with it.

Ivy flowers might still be about if it’s been mild, but if there are already berries they will attract other animals, such as blackbirds and wood mice.

Bird Behaviour

  • November brings a time for settling down – as the nights get longer, the time for foraging gets shorter, and so a small bird like a coal tit can spend ninety percent of its waking hours just trying to get enough food to last through the night. All the more reason for making sure that bird feeders and tables are stocked, especially as most of the berries will have gone by now.
  • Many birds store food in their crops overnight in winter – pigeons are often full to busting, but finches do this too.
  • If you have nestboxes, you might notice them being used as overnight roosts, especially by tiny birds like wrens who might cram together to preserve body heat.
  • However, the long nights favour one type of bird – the owl. The tawny owl eats everything from mice and rats (hence the need not to poison rodents) to earthworms – you might, if you have a lawn, spot a tawny owl digging for worms after a wet day.

Plants in Flower

  • In addition to the plants for pollinators mentioned above, you might see the odd wildflower such as yarrow, daisy, ragwort or even dandelion. In general, though, this time of year is all about the last berries and autumn leaves, and some of the seedheads on the traveller’s joy and the spiky heads of teasel.

  • Ash tree seeds (‘keys’) are at their most evident in November
  • Spindle, with its pink and orange seeds, can brighten up the dullest November day

Spindle berries

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Ring-necked parakeets will be pairing up in November, and will start looking for nesting holes in trees, which can lead to some very noisy arguments. They can start to breed as early as January
  • If you are lucky enough to live close to a wetland or coastal area, November brings whooper swans, turnstones, barnacle geese, purple sandpiper and migrant pochard in huge numbers, to join the waders and wildfowl who have already arrived. In a few lucky marine sites you might also see grey seal pups, who are mostly born during November.

Grey Seal Pup at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire – Photo by Aaron Bee at

  • This is still a great month for fungi – a walk in the woods might bring the typical red and white toadstool (fly agaric), or even an earthstar.

Collared Earthstar in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  • There’s still a lot of young fox activity, as this year’s cubs leave their parents’ territory and try to work things out for themselves. But on a cold night you might hear the first yips of the adults as they start the breeding cycle all over again.
  • Full moon is on 27th November, and is known as the Darkest Depths Moon, the Mourning Moon, or the Moon Before Yule

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 1st November – Samhain (beginning of winter) – Gaelic/Pagan
  • 1st November – All Saints Day (Christian)
  • 2nd November – All Souls Day (Christian)
  • 5th November – Guy Fawkes Night (check those bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs)
  • 11th November – Martinmas. St Martin of Tours was the 4th century patron saint of beggars, drunkards and the poor, and also of wine growers and innkeepers.
  • 11th November – Armistice Day/Remembrance Day
  • 12th November – Remembrance Sunday
  • 13th November – Diwali – Festival of Lights (Hindu/Sikh/Jain)
  • 16th November – Beaujolais Nouveau Day
  • 23rd November – Thanksgiving (USA)
  • 26th November – Stir-up Sunday (when Christmas puddings/Christmas cakes/mincemeat are supposed to be started). And also, my Mum’s birthday.
  • 30th November – St Andrew’s Day (patron saint of Scotland)

The Cubbington Pear Tree – Hope at Last?

The Cubbington Pear, England’s Tree of the Year 2015

Dear Readers, you might think that being ‘England’s Tree of the Year’ would be some protection for a 250 year-old pear tree. You might think that being the second-largest pear tree in England would help. You might think that a ten-year campaign by local people and a petition with 20,000 signatures would help to prevent it from being cut down to make way for HS2, the UK’s premier transport white elephant. But you would be wrong, of course. The Cubbington Pear was cut down on 20th October 2020, to the dismay of those who knew the tree.

You might think that that’s the end of the story, but not quite. For a start, 40 grafted cuttings were grown from the original tree, which means there are saplings which are almost the same as their parent. To spell it out, however, you cannot compare a ten year-old sapling with a 250 year-old tree in terms of the carbon that it sequesters or the biodiversity that it supports. This is not a like-for-like situation. Plus, 38% of the replacement trees planted along the HS2 route have already died. HS2 bosses are saying that it was cheaper to replace those trees rather than water them during the drought conditions of last year. What makes them think that the replacement trees won’t also be susceptible to drought? Words fail me. There is so much greenwash about, and so many people who think that everything can be bought and paid for. Some things are beyond price.

‘Cubbington’ pears grown at Crowder’s Nursery

But what is interesting is that after the public outcry leading up to the cutting-down of the Cubbington Pear, the stump and root ball were moved to a field 100 metres away from the original site, and replanted. There, in what local people describe as a ‘2 fingers to HS2’, the plant has survived the drought and is cheerfully resprouting new shoots and leaves. Of course, it will never be the same again – I suspect it will end up more like a pear shrub than a pear tree – but it gives me a lift to see that the original tree lives on, and will hopefully outlive those who decided that the destruction of 2 hectares of ancient woodland could be recompensed by some dying saplings.

You can read about the way that the Cubbington Pear is fighting back here.

A New Spider for Coldfall Wood (Almost)

Ant-mimicking spider (Micaria sp) Photo by Phil from

Dear Readers, after our spider walk a few months ago, the walk leader, Edward Milner, was investigating some dead wood on a tree opposite Coldfall Wood in East Finchley when he found a small spider. Uncertain of what it was, he took it home and was able to identify it as a species of ant-mimicking spider that had only been found once in London before – Micaria subopaca.

Ant-mimicking spiders look very like ants, as you can see from the photos above, and can often be found running around ‘in a manic, ant-like fashion’ according to my Collins Field Guide to Spiders. Sometimes they associate directly with the insects – as far as we know, the spiders don’t actually eat ants, but it may be that they look enough like them to deter predators (many ants are aggressive and will bite or spray formic acid as a defence). The spiders have iridescent abdomens that are said to gleam in bright sunshine. They hunt during the day, and although little can move extremely fast.

Micaria subopaca can usually be found running about on tree bark – it’s particularly fond of pine trees. The spider that Edward found wasn’t on a pine tree (he thinks it was could have been a rowan) but sadly we shall never know, as the tree has been cut down and now there’s just a stump. It’s easy to forget how many tiny creatures might depend on a single tree, and this is a particularly sad case, owing to the rarity of the spider. This species loves trees in warm, dry positions, so let’s hope that it’s transferred to a nearby tree with a similar microhabitat. Edward hasn’t given up hope of finding another one of these spiders, maybe in Coldfall Wood itself, and if anyone can find one, he can, so fingers crossed.

Footnote: the different species of ant-mimicking spider look extremely similar, so it’s sometimes only possible to identify to species level using a microscope, which is how this spider was identified.  In this case there are two other species (M.pulicara and M. micans) which are much commoner, but look almost identical. It’s one reason why having people who are experts in taxonomy is so important – if we don’t know what species are about, how can we even hope to protect them?

Fungi in Coldfall Wood

Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans), not King Arthur’s Cakes!

Updated – several keen-eyed readers have advised that the black fungi in the photos are Black Bulgar (Bulgaria inquinans) not King Alfred’s Cakes – they’re flatter, and look more like buttons. It’s been noted that they look like liquorice, but are definitely inedible. They’re frequently found on fallen oak trees, as this one was. We didn’t see any King Alfred’s Cakes on this trip, but they are pretty common so I’ve included an account anyway!

Dear Readers, I was in Coldfall Wood on Wednesday with my friend S and Alastair from The Conservation Volunteers. We were looking at the condition of the woodland, but it was impossible to ignore the sheer variety of fungi that seemed to be popping up everywhere. There’s a lot of dead wood, which is the perfect habitat for all kinds of creatures, and which is steadily broken down by the fungi (all the more reason for leaving it alone and not using it to build dens which seems to be a popular occupation).

These are King Alfred’s Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) Photo by Walter Baxter

First up is this coal-black fungi known as King Alfred’s Cakes or Cramp Balls. They’re named after the legend of King Alfred, a 9th century king of England, taking refuge with a peasant woman, who asked him to keep an eye on the cakes she was baking. Alas, being a bloke his mind was on other things and the cakes burned to a crisp. Interestingly, the fungus has also been used as kindling to start fires, with evidence from a 7,000 year-old Spanish settlement showing that this practice has been around since at least the Stone Age.

King Alfred’s Cakes also seems to form a natural home for over 100 different species of invertebrate and the caterpillars of one moth, the Concealer moth (Harpella forficella) are known to feed on it (which I guess makes them fungivores). They have particularly splendid antennae.

Concealer moth (Harpella forficella) Photo by By Adam Furlepa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The photos below are  of Black Bulgar – I was very taken by how splendid the fungi looked, dotted all over a fallen branch – the individual fungi look like black leather buttons to me.

Black Bulgar – Photo by Alastair McKinlay

Black Bulgar – Photo by Alastair McKinlay

Black Bulgar – Photo by Alastair McKinlay

Then there was this fungus, found growing around the base of a living oak tree. This is Spindleshank (Gymnopus fusipes).

This fungus is also known as ‘Toughshanks’, because the central ‘stem’ can  become bloated, and the whole fungus is thought to be stringy and inedible. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of it about. It is usually associated with the roots of beech or oak trees, and is parasitic, though the tree that it was attached to seemed pretty healthy to me, at least at the moment. A healthy plant or animal can shake off a moderate parasite load, it’s when the organism is sickly that many fungi start to take advantage.

Spindleshank (Photo by Alastair McKinlay)

And then there was this fungus, spotted growing towards the top of a dead silver birch stump. There is precious little silver birch in Coldfall Wood, it being mainly a hornbeam and oak wood, but there were four in this spot, planted in the shape of a rectangle. What was going on,  I wonder? Anyhow, this is Birch Polypore, or Razorstrop Fungus (Piptoporus betulinus).

Photo by Alastair McKinlay

Here’s a photo showing Birch Polypore fungus from above (none  of us were up to shinning up the tree, which is probably just as well).

Photo by Walter Baxter / Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus)

This fungus was actually used to sharpen knives, having a tough, leathery exterior, hence the name ‘Razorstrop’. Incidentally, I wondered if the word ‘strop’ was the origin of ‘stroppy’, but apparently not: ‘strop’ comes from the Latin word ‘stroppus’. This was a  piece of leather that could be used in a harness, or to attach an oar, but which came eventually to mean a piece of leather used to sharpen a knife or cutthroat razor (think Sweeney Todd here). ‘Stroppy’ as in ‘teenager’ comes from obstreperous, apparently, also from the Latin words meaning ‘to make a noise’.

But I digress, as usual. Apparently wood that is decayed by the fungus apparently smells distinctly of green apples, though we didn’t notice it in this case. It will completely break down the timber of the birch, but it can lie dormant for decades in a healthy tree, only appearing if the tree is weakened. Birch polypore is eaten by the caterpillars of another moth (the creatively named Fungus Moth (Nemaxera betulinella)), shown below in an illustration from British Entomology by John Curtis (1843)

And finally, how about this sweet little fungus? I rather think that it’s an Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) though clearly it’s only a baby.

Photo by Alastair McKinlay

This is one of my favourite fungi, mainly because purple is one of my favourite colours (I also confess to a penchant for turquoise and teal), but also because although common it often goes unnoticed – the fungus turns from delicate lilac to brown very quickly as it matures. Although it’s considered to be edible, it picks up arsenic from the soil and concentrates it, so you might not want to snack on one. Recent research has also shown that it’s an ‘ammonia fungus’ – i.e. it grows where there is a high concentration of ammonia in the soil. I am inclined to wonder if the large number of dogs in the wood is contributing to this – post lockdown there are endless dog walkers with positive packs of canines, all marking their territory. I don’t think that a fungal survey of the wood has ever been done, but it would be very interesting to see if there has been a general uptick in this kind of fungus since the pandemic.

Whatever the causes, this is a lovely fungus to finish on, and makes me feel very happy that I’m retired (did I mention that I’m retired?) and that I have the time to really appreciate the pleasures of a walk in the wood in autumn. If you have a chance, go and see what you can see – I feel as if this might have been a very good year for fungi generally. Let me know if you see anything interesting!

Amethyst Deceiver – Photo by By GaryGMason – Photographed 20151027, CC BY-SA 3.0,


An Early Morning Mystery

Dear Readers, every Wednesday morning, very early, we get a delivery of organic eggs and some fruit and veg (so North London, I know). The box of eggs is always put gently on top of the other boxes so that it doesn’t get squashed or broken.

Well, this morning when we opened the front door we got a bit of a shock. The cardboard box containing the eggs was in two pieces.

One of the eggs was in two pieces.

One egg had been broken into, but the contents had vanished (see the photo at the top). And the other four  eggs had disappeared completely.

Well, it took me a couple of minutes (well, it was very early) but then I realised that we had probably been raided by one of these chaps/chapesses.

I imagine that the four missing eggs have been hidden away somewhere, and maybe the others broke when the fox pulled the box to the ground, or maybe s/he was very hungry and decided to have a quick snack straight away. The intelligence of this amazes me though – could the fox smell the raw eggs right through the box? Was s/he just messing about and the box fell off? Oh for a trail camera.

I know that foxes like eggs (and will steal them when they find them), and also that kind people sometimes leave hard-boiled or even raw eggs out for the foxes, but they’ve never nicked our eggs before. I suspect, however, that this won’t be the last time, unless I can get up early enough to thwart them. I shall keep you posted. But a lot of young foxes will be trying to fend for themselves now that it’s autumn, so it’s hard to begrudge them a bit of sustenance. I mean, just look at that face.


The Fairy Ring

A fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis mushrooms

Dear Readers, as autumn rolls around I find myself becoming nostalgic – this has always been a time of new beginnings for me and this year, as I ease myself into retirement, there have been more changes than usual. But this morning I was remembering one of those moments in my life when magic became not just a word, but a feeling.

We had just moved house, from a tiny two-up, two-down in Stratford to the relatively palatial surroundings of a four-bedroomed house in Seven Kings, in the London Borough of Redbridge. It wasn’t an enormous house, but it was the first time that we’d had not only a bathroom but a shower room as well, and my brother and I got a whole separate room for ourselves, rather than a single room divided by a plyboard ‘wall’ that Dad had constructed. That first night, we huddled together in the middle of the ‘through-lounge’, which felt uncomfortably cavernous after the confined spaces that we were used to. The dog had no doubts, however, running from one end of the lounge to the garden and back again, scuffing up the lawn on every turn and tracking mud across the carpet.

The garden wasn’t enormous either, but it has an ancient apple tree, a bit of lawn, and (to my Dad’s delight) a shed. But we were town dwellers to the core – the first time Mum heard a vixen scream, she was horrified, and stood there with her hands over her ears.

“Make it stop!” she yelled, eyes tight closed. “Someone’s being murdered! Make it stop!”

And then there was the time that my brother put his trousers on only to discover that there was a live bat in them. That was an entertaining twenty minutes.

But the thing that came to mind this morning was when I walked downstairs very early one morning to luxuriate in a long shower before anyone else got up. I looked drowsily out of the window, only to notice something that hadn’t been there the night before.

In the lawn, there was a perfect circle of little white mushrooms, poking their heads through the turf like so many tiny bald men. Some of them were quite well-grown, some of them were barely apparent, but they hadn’t been there the night before, and that was what gave them their singular magic. Like so many fungi they just seemed to appear from nowhere. I wandered out into the half-light  in my dressing gown, and bent down. The fungi seemed to glow, some of them fretted with dew drops, one or two already criss-crossed with slug trails. I still remember the smell of the earth, the silence, and then the faint song of a robin. I was struck by how mysterious the world was, and how little I knew about it. Maybe that was one of the defining moments for me, when I realised that I would be trying to understand the natural world for the rest of my life, and what a privilege it was to be part of it.

A fairy ring in Brisbane, Australia

Nowadays, I realise that a fairy ring is caused by the way that the parts of the fungus that are able to absorb nutrients from the soil, the mycelium, moves out from the centre of the fungus. As the nutrients are exhausted, the mycelium continues to move outwards in all directions. The mushrooms themselves indicate how far the mycelium has travelled from the centre. Some fairy rings can be 33 metres across, and they may become stable over time, with sufficient nutrients present for the fungi not to need to expand any further. I suspect that ‘my’ fairy ring was connected to the roots of the apple tree, which toppled over and died a few years after our arrival. The fairy ring disappeared after that.

As you might expect, there are lots of legends about fairy rings. In the Tyrol, it’s believed that the rings were caused when the curled-up tails of a sleeping dragon scorched the earth so that only toadstools could grow. In the UK it used to be believed that the circles were caused by fairies dancing, and that if a mortal observed them and was drawn into the ring, they would be lost and invisible to the human world, and might even be made to dance until they dropped dead from exhaustion. If this should happen, a person could be released if someone outside threw wild marjoram or thyme into the circle, as the scent of the plant would befuddle the fairies. A stick from a Rowan tree could also be used to help the person out of the ring, and a touch from something made of iron would also do the trick.

An Arthur Rackham illustration from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer NIght’s Dream’

And finally, there is a lovely Welsh legend concerning fairy rings. Welsh people seem to have regarded fairy rings as more benevolent places than folk from other parts of the UK, and in the 13th and 14th centuries, inhabitants of the town of Corwrion apparently watched fairies dancing around a glow worm every Sunday after church in a place called Pen Y Bonc. The humans sometimes joined in the revels, and there is even a rhyme about it:

With the fairies nimbly dancing round / The glow-worm on the Rising Ground.

A woodland fairy ring (Photo by By Josimda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

While we’re still reminiscing, I was reminded recently of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig, which was compulsory reading for us back in the 1970s. It was fundamentally an exploration of the Romantic and Classical ways of looking at the world, comparing the emotional and the rational perspective, and coming to the conclusion (if I remember it correctly) that we needed both. And so we do! And furthermore, the joy of seeing something like a fairy ring, or a jay, or a rainbow, or a hummingbird hawkmoth, is enhanced by understanding something of how it came to be, and how it’s related to the other phenomena that we see around us. That first heartfelt response to something extraordinary is made deeper and more lasting by an appreciation of the connections between it and the rest of the world. That moment of astonishment as a sixteen year-old seeing a fairy ring for the first time is not one jot diminished by understanding how it came to be. Love and knowledge are not mutually incompatible, but form a virtuous circle that raises us higher than just an emotional or scientific response on its own ever can. And if ever we needed our hearts and minds to work together, this is the time.

Nature’s Calendar 18th to 22nd October – Acorn-caching, Forest-planting Jays

Dear Readers, apologies for the late arrival of this piece – I got rather carried away with the wonders of Venice and lost track of the date. But here we are again, working through the year with Nature’s Calendar and its 72 micro-seasons, and I’m finding it very thought-provoking.

Jays are a very occasional visitor to my garden, and can usually only be seen if there aren’t many acorns about, and I’ve put out some peanuts.  Like many trees, oaks will produce a huge abundance of acorns in one year, followed by not very much at all for a couple of years, and the birds and squirrels and other animals that rely on them have to adapt.

I’m particularly impressed with this photo of a jay making off with a peanut.

An abundance of acorns in 2022

One way that jays try to even out their food supply is by gathering acorns and caching them, normally in ground with loose soil in open areas where mice and other rodents won’t find them. They have been shown to be very tactical about where and how they bury their stash: if they think they’re being watched by another jay they’ll find somewhere discreet to hide the acorns, and if they know that another jay can hear but not see them, they’ll avoid substrates like gravel that make a noise. Like all members of the crow family, these really are intelligent birds – some would argue that they have a ‘theory of mind’, which means that they can understand what another bird is thinking. This is a high bar for animals to leap over as far as behaviourists are concerned – only a select group of animals are accepted as being able to do this, which includes apes, macaques, parrots, ravens and, interestingly, scrub jays, a species closely related to ‘our’ jay.Of course, when the jays forget where they’ve planted the acorns, the seeds may germinate and turn into the next generation of oak trees, especially if they’ve been deposited away from the shade of their mother trees. Just like the nutcracker jays in Austria, they extend the range of forests and ‘plant’ trees in places that would otherwise remain treeless.

The best site for jays around where I live in East Finchley is definitely St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where they can be heard screeching and arguing at this time of year, as they fight over the acorns. However, I was lucky enough to see a whole family of jays in East Finchley’s community orchard at Barnwood earlier this year. I get the feeling that there are a lot more of these birds  about than we think, which gives an idea of how secretive they can be.

Fledgling jay in Barnwood

Another interesting study that’s mentioned by Kiera Chapman in Nature’s Calendar investigated the way in which male jays feed their female partners – this is an important part of the way that the couple bond. The pairs of jays were separated and the females put into three groups – one group was just fed on mealworms, one on wax moths, and a third group were fed a mixed diet. The males could observe what the females were being fed. When the pairs were reunited, the males presented the females in the first two groups with the kind of food that they hadn’t previously been eating (so if the female had had a boring old diet of mealworms she’d be offered wax moths, and vice versa). If the male hadn’t been able to see what the female was being fed, the offerings were much more random. Does this mean that the males thought that the females would be bored and wanted to offer them something novel? It’s an intriguing thought, and certainly plays into the argument that jays can intuit what another bird is thinking.

Jay in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

One joy of seeing a jay is how spectacularly brightly coloured it is compared to most crows (and indeed to most British birds). I love the pink-ish feathers (they’re a colour that my Mum would have called ‘ashes of roses’) and that bright turquoise flash on the wing. They are splendid birds, and they certainly brighten up my day. Have you seen many about this year? Let me know!

Jay on an icy roof, December 23rd 2021

Home Again!

Building works for the new EV chargers on Huntingdon Road

Dear Readers, it’s true that wherever you wander, there’s no place like home, so we were very happy to be back in East Finchley, even though it has no canals and there’s not a gondola in sight, in spite of Storm Babet having caused flooding in other parts of the country. Still, there is progress in the form of lots of additional Electric Vehicle chargers being installed at each end of the road, though it’s a pain for pedestrians at the moment, especially anybody with a pram or mobility issues.

Putting in the charging points (which I wrote about previously here) involves digging a trench:

…putting in the individual charging points, which lie flat to the pavement:

and linking them all up to a control box.

It’s a lot of work, but the end result is about a dozen new charging points at each end of the road, which will surely be a good thing, though for many people the link between the outrageous weather north of the border and climate change still seems to be tenuous.

A completed Trojan charging point.

Anyhow, on we go down to Cherry Tree Wood. The Leicester Road bollard is still vertical – this must be a record.

All of the various Virginia Creepers/Russian Vines are bursting into autumnal colour, and very fine they look too.

The sun is so bright that it’s lighting up these seedheads like little lanterns.

And Cherry Tree Wood is looking particularly fine.

A quick trot along the Unadopted Road shows a flowering ivy that is absolutely a buzz with hoverflies and honeybees. How important this plant is for pollinators! On this warmish day I also saw a queen bumblebee that was easily the size of my thumb joint.

The poor Tibetan Cherry tree below wasn’t quite so happy though – it’s oozing resin from multiple places on the trunk. The bark is still beautifully shiny in some places, but in others it’s clearly very damaged.

This is, I think, something called canker disease, and it results when a fungal or bacterial infection starts in damaged wood. Street trees have a terrible time of it, as we’ve seen – they’re weakened by drought or by water saturation, their roots are often cut or squashed, and there always seems to be some twit taking a branch off with the edge of a skip. Pruning at the wrong time of year, or doing it badly, can also set up the conditions for the infection. So I fear for this tree – it looks as if the infection is well advanced, and I doubt if cutting out the damage will leave a viable tree. Apparently oozing resin in cherry trees is so common that it has a name – gummosis. And the resin was used as a form of chewing gum by Native Americans, though I would be a little bit careful as cherry tree bark also contains the precursor chemicals for cyanide. So, this is an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t noticed before, but I would much rather this little Tibetan Cherry wasn’t quite so ‘fascinating’.

Bugwoman on Location Day Seven – A Few Recommendations

Looking seawards along the Cannaregio canal

Dear Readers, just a few thoughts and recommendations from our trip to Venice. Firstly, stay in Cannaregio if you can! It’s close to the railway station and Piazzale Roma (which is where the buses from the airport arrive) but it’s still very much a neighbourhood, with easy access to all the usual tourist sites, on foot or by Vaporetto.

The Al Parlamento bar and restaurant has become a regular watering hole – tourists, locals, professors and students from the University and workmen moving stuff about on the boats all pop in. Plus the flatbreads and coffee are fab, and they will serve you an Aperol Spritz at 8 a.m. if that’s what you fancy. It’s right on the main Cannaregio canal, and it’s great for if it’s cold and raining and you need cheering up.

On the other side of the canal from Al Parlamento is MQ10, which I think of as more of a nice summer day breakfast place – you can watch all the life on the river, and the coffee is great. Pretty terrible reviews on Tripadvisor, but we didn’t have any problems. I think folk sometimes forget that these are largely neighbourhood bars, and the service isn’t always as snappy as it might be in some chain restaurants.


If you fancy somewhere a bit fancier for a prosecco, the Radisson now has a converted palazzo very close to the Guglie bridge. The room rates at this time of year are eye-watering, but it’s fine for a mint tea or a cocktail if you’re feeling flush.

For our one special dinner (John’s 60th birthday for example) we like this place on the Fondamente della Sensa – Osteria Anice Stellato. Booking essential though…The menu is largely fish and vegetarian. The chocolate and pear cheesecake is a real winner!

For something a bit different from the usual Italian/Venetian food, I recommend Gam-Gam, a kosher restaurant right on the edge of the Ghetto. It serves great shawarma and hummous and falafel, and the apple cake is another highlight (can you sense a theme here?) It gets very busy, so again it’s worth booking.

And here is our favourite café on Campo Santa Margherita, over in Dursoduro. It looks out at the fish stall (and all the seagull-related excitement as they steal whole slices of pizza from unsuspecting tourists), it doesn’t serve food until midday, even though there is food at the bar, and it is one of the best places for people-watching in the sestiere.. In short, if you want to while away a few hours before your next museum. or the long trek home, this is a great place. Just keep an eye on your pizza.

Restaurant Margaret Duchamp at 3019 Dursoduro