Monthly Archives: November 2023

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – December Updated

December 2022

Dear Readers, well here we are, and this feels like the fastest year in recorded history. My Mum really was right that things speed up as you get older. And it looks as if we could be in for a bit of snow this week, here in the UK, which is always a mixed blessing – lots of fun if you’re young and mobile, not so much if you find it difficult to walk on ice or snow. But hey, the Christmas lights are being switched on, the shops are full of Christmas songs, and the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg are omnipresent. Let’s see what’s going on!

Things to Do

A brief visit from a brambling in the garden

  • Have a look at the plant catalogues and sites online, early December (before the Christmas mayhem starts) and after the Big Day are great times to think about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to start making some plans. If money is tight, seeds are always a good bet for cheering the place up, and if you or someone you know is a member of the RHS you can get up to 15 packets of seeds gathered from their gardens for a tenner.

Plants for Pollinators

  • The RHS’s plant for December is Mahonia, and I can see why – it flowers for a long time in the middle of winter, it smells great, and although it’s an awkward, spiky plant it’s very forgiving of heavy soil, shade and neglect. In particular they are recommending Mahonia japonica,¬†but I’ve seen bees on the other varieties too.

Mahonia

  • Winter-flowering honeysuckle should still be in flower, along with stinking hellebore, and gorse may be in flower too.

Bird Behaviour

  • December is the moment when all sorts of unusual birds might pop into the garden if there’s bad weather – I only ever see siskins when it’s snowing, for example (they’ve become ‘snow birds’ to me.

Siskins in the snow in 2017

  • The first winter for many birds is the crucial time – if they can get through to spring, they will probably go on to breed. It can be a sad time, though, with many birds succumbing to cold and lack of food, especially those who don’t visit gardens. This is a peak month for finding dead birds in the garden (though with bird flu this year, it’s been terrible for many areas)
  • That song that you hear on an iron-hard morning is probably a robin – robins establish their pair bonds during December (normally), although they won’t actually breed until the spring. How do you know that you’ve got a pair of robins? If they’re feeding within a few metres of one another without beating one another up.
  • If you’re able to get out to some wetlands, December is the best month to see goldeneye ducks, surely some of the most handsome of our winter visitors.

Common Goldeneye – Photo by S. Bern at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbern/

  • Similarly, if you’re close to the Wash or Morecombe Bay, the number of knots (small wading birds) can put on a show that’s every bit as exciting as the more well-known starling murmurations, as they take to the air to avoid the incoming tide that covers the mudflats where they feed. You can have a look at a lovely film of them here. Worth a trip to Norfolk, I think!
  • The bad weather seems to bring wagtails into closer contact with people too – there’s a pied wagtail that I only ever see in bad weather outside our local Kentucky Fried Chicken, and there was a grey wagtail beside the pond a few winters ago. These birds prefer to be close to water in the summer, but the pied wagtail in particular is spending more time in town, and there are massive roosts in the street trees in some parts of the country.

Pied wagtail in East Finchley

Grey wagtail at the Barbican of all places

Same grey wagtail

Plants in Flower

  • Precious few, but around these parts (North London) you might see hazel catkins, winter jasmine with its yellow flowers, witch hazel, some varieties of daphne with their exquisite scent, and the 365 days-per-year flowers of the daisy family and yarrow.

Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • The tiny muntjac deer is inconspicuous for most of the year, but with the foliage so sparse you might catch a glimpse in December. There are rumours of a muntjac in East Finchley, so watch this space!

  • If you look at a London plane tree, you should see that it has its very own Christmas baubles, in the shape of the round fruits (technically called achenes). The fruits are full of tiny seeds that are prone to irritate the nasal passages of anyone with hayfever, but for now they just hang there, looking festive
  • Look out for masses of hibernating snails (bless them), all sealed up in their shells and just waiting for the warmer weather. I often find them tucked away under the overhanging edges of my cheaper flower pots. Slugs, on the other hand, bury themselves away underground.
  • Cemeteries are great places to look for hibernating ladybirds, who often find the crevices in old gravestones or tombs a perfect place to hide from the weather. Some, however, seem to like the public conveniences – not so picturesque, but presumably a few degrees warmer.

Blurred photo of harlequin ladybirds hibernating in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery toilets. You’re welcome ūüôā

  • It’s not a good time of the year for mothing, but you might see December moths attracted to light – they don’t feed at this time of the year (so don’t have to worry about flowers) but they are looking for a mate.

 

December moth (Poecilocampa populi) Photo by By Walter Schön Рhttp://www.schmetterling-raupe.de, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2822349

  • Very few UK animals turn white in the winter, but if you’re out and about you might, if you are very, very lucky, see a stoat that’s turned into an ermine (i.e. white with a black tip to the tail). I recently saw a ceremonial robe edged with ermine, and there must have been the skins of fifty of these little animals, judging by the tail tips.

Stoat (Ermine) in winter – Photo by By Mustela_erminea_winter.jpg: Steven Hintderivative work: Guerillero (talk) – Mustela_erminea_winter.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14519034

  • Another animal that goes white is the mountain hare, now only found in the Highlands and parts of southern Scotland, the Peak District and a few islands. The animal was widely culled as a threat to grouse moors (don’t get me started) but this was banned in 2020. Hopefully this will give this enigmatic animal time to recover.

Mountain hare in winter coat . Photo by Bouke ten Cate

  • The December full moon is on 27th December, and is known as the Oak Moon, the Full Cold Moon or the Moon After Yule.

Holidays/Celebrations

  • 7th December – Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) begins at sundown
  • 22nd December – Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year)
  • 25th December – Christmas Day
  • 26th December – Boxing Day/St Stephen’s Day
  • 31st December – New Year’s Eve

 

Nature’s Calendar – 27th November – 1st December – Teasel Brush Silhouettes

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren. 

Dear Readers, it might appear that I’ve become teasel-obsessed, but clearly I’m not the only one! In Nature’s Calendar, Lulah Ellender has an interesting piece on teasels. While I was familiar with some of it (see the ‘Wednesday Weed’ piece below), I had no idea that teasels had so many vernacular names, from ‘barbers’ brushes’, ‘donkey’s thistle’ and ‘brushes and combs’ to ‘Venus’s basin’ because of the way that the water gathers in the little ‘bowls’ at the bottom of the leaves. I had been intrigued by thoughts that the plant was on its way to insectivory, because one study showed that plants with drowned insects in the ‘basins’ did better than others. Ellender points out that a second study hasn’t borne this out, though, so more research is needed!

And here’s a poem by John McCullough, written in 2008. I remember seeing something very similar to this in Dorset when I used to visit Mum and Dad – the teenagers wreaking havoc through the quiet rural lanes, so full of energy that it felt as if they might burst. The ‘quivering teasel’ really reminds me of how the plant stands as a sentinel in a variety of unloved, damp places – ditches swamped with Himalayan balsam and rusting farm detritus, those strange rubble-y piles beside gates where something was dumped and is slowly returning to the soil.

NIGHT WRITING
In humid months, at the estate’s unwatched edge
the boys hook up for an after-hours cigarette

before trashing field gates. Dazzle of white Reeboks, bling,
practised geezer-laughs rev-revving

with the engines of graffiti tagged bangers.
Customised stereos thump out this week’s garage,

the race kicking off in a blizzard of chalk dust,
a bouncing charge up the crumbling, fossil-built rise.

Death and dew ponds can’t stop them while they swerve
past quivering teasel, conquer the bone ridge’s turn,

skeins of wool lifting from gorse as banners
for the night’s whooping, fist-raising winners.

Further off, the crews unite for a slow drift, melt into hills
but leave the empty sky with headlamp trails:

blazing ghosts still performing their necessary work,
still scribbling their names on the dark.

And now, here’s a revisit of my Wednesday Weed on teasel, from (gosh) 2015.

On a grey, damp day at the end of February, I went with my friend Ann to see what weeds I could find in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. A stream runs along the far north-eastern edge of the area and there, silhouetted against the sky, we found the unmistakable seedheads of the Teasel.

IMG_1369Teasel, for all its grass-like appearance, is in fact a member of the Scabious family, and like scabious, it has a lot of wildlife value – I have seen whole families of goldfinches dangling from the stems and pulling out the seeds, and in summer, the flowers are loved by bees and other pollinators.

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Blue Tits on Teasel by Archibald Thorburn

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

Hoverfly on Teasel flower by Rawdonfox via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/34739556@N04/14773481592/)

The Teasel flower itself is remarkable. In July, a band of flowers opens around the middle of the head, as below:

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Teasel flower at beginning of flowering period (By D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Then, gradually, the band separates into two ‘stripes’, one moving up the seed head, the other moving down.

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence )

The band of flowers has now separated into two bands ( © Copyright Gerald England and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

For some truly beautiful close-ups of the Teasel, have a look at the photos by Brian Johnston here.

A close relative of ‘our’ teasel, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus sativum) was extensively used in the¬† textile industry. The plant was used to ‘raise the nap’ on woollen fabric, particularly for such delicate jobs as treating the green baize covering on billiard tables (and indeed they are still used for this purpose, having proved to be the most efficacious way of performing this task). For anyone who would like to know more about the process, and about the history of baize, I can heartily recommend the Pegs and Tails website, which is full of arcane and interesting facts and photos.¬† The seed heads were attached to a machine such as the Teasel Gig below, from the Somerset Levels.

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Teasel Gig from the Somerset Levels ( © Copyright Noel Jenkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Dried teasel head ("Teasel" by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) - Own work. )

A single dried teasel head (“Teasel” by Loggie-log (aka Loggie) – Own work. )

By the twentieth century, the Teasel gigs had been largely replaced by metal combs. However, many weavers still swear by the Teasel heads – they don’t tear the cloth as metal items sometimes do, and are, of course, cheaper to grow or to harvest. And the Wild Teasel that I saw in the cemetery has also had its part to play – though the spines are weaker than those of Fuller’s teasel, they have still been used for gently carding wool, a process that ‘teases’ out the separate threads for spinning.

Fuller’s teasel was taken to Virginia in the USA by the early settlers for their woollen industry, although there it has proved to be something of a thug. It can grow surprisingly tall given half a chance.

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Deer up to her ears in teasel (Hagerty Ryan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In a winter garden, or in floristry, Teasels also have a kind of sculptural majesty, especially in autumn, where the low sunlight shows them to their best advantage.

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

Photo by William Radke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public domain)

One very interesting feature of the teasel is that when young, the leaves of the plant form a kind of continuous cup, which holds water when it rains. This prevents insects from climbing up the stem, and drowns a good number of those who try. There is some evidence that the insects that are thus left rotting are absorbed by the plant, in a form of partial carnivory – plants that have such ‘food’ seem to have a larger seedset than those who don’t.

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant ("Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Water storage at the base of the teasel plant (“Dipsacus-fullonum-water-storage”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It’s also interesting that this is the very water that is said to have rejuvenating powers: it has also been used to remove freckles, and as an eye bath for those suffering from hay fever.

IMG_1370The structure of the Teasel seed head fascinates me. It looks a little like a small hedgehog, or some kind of many-spiked sea creature. It doesn’t surprise me at all that there is an Irish belief that a teasel head left on a grave will distract the Banshees, who will use it as a hairbrush. It is one of those plants which look almost otherworldly, a spiky character full of strange secrets and a most particular beauty.

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Radio Tonreg from Vienna, Austria (Dipsacus fullonum Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

The Years Roll Past, But Love Never Dies

Dear Readers, Sunday was Mum’s birthday and this year she would have been 88 years old.¬† My brother sent me a photo of the family gathered for Mum’s birthday dinner at a local pub in 2016. We had booked a table at the restaurant¬† but sadly, though they took our reservation, when we rolled up the place was in darkness. Much hammering on the door resulted on it being opened, and the beleaguered woman who answered it was horrified that we were in our glad rags and expecting dinner. Nonetheless, she made us welcome, and the few staff who were there went into the kitchen and knocked us up something with chips, which we ate in solitary splendour. They even turned on the Christmas tree lights. Looking at the photo now, I’m struck by how pale Mum and Dad both look – by this point, life was a constant stream of hospital stays and antibiotics and steroids for chest infections. But if I could see which way the compass was pointing, I chose to ignore it. After all, Mum and Dad had both survived so many illnesses that would have killed lesser mortals that I fully expected that that would continue to be the case.

This was just a month before Mum and Dad came to stay with me in East Finchley for  Christmas, and Mum ended up nearly dying of a chest infection in Whittington Hospital. In 2017, Mum and Dad celebrated 60 years of marriage, but in 2018 Mum died, followed by Dad in 2020.

I have the scarf that Mum is wearing in the photo in my wardrobe, along with so many other things that she made. Every so often, I pull something out and wear it. It feels as if she’s giving me a hug. She taught me so many things – how creativity is sometimes easier if you share what you make with other people, be it a scarf or a piece of writing. How everybody is interesting in their own way. And most importantly of all, how to be kind, and how to put aside judgement and work on the basis that everyone is doing their best. I don’t always manage it, but she makes me want to try, even now.

And here is the piece that I wrote last year, and here is the piece that I wrote in 2019, the year after her death. It’s interesting to see how grief morphs and changes as the years go by. We are never truly ‘over it’, but somehow joy returns, and the memories of the last awful years no longer overshadow all the good times.

And, as I said last year, I am sending love out to everyone who finds this season painful. There will be people reading this who have lost someone close to them this year, and for whom this will be the first Christmas without their loved one. Be gentle with yourself. Do what you need to do. Don’t strive for perfection, there’s no such thing under the sun. Follow the old family traditions where they bring comfort, but be prepared to ditch them if they no longer make sense, or are too painful. Grief is a process that never truly ends, and there is no right way to feel or not to feel: don’t let anybody tell you something different.

Mum at the Royal Oak pub in Milborne St Andrew 2012

 

 

A Christmas Kakapo and Other Unlikely Adoptions

Sinbad the Kakapo (Photo by Jake Osborne at https://www.flickr.com/photos/theylooklikeus/36213329345

Dear Readers, no sooner had I finished my post about New Zealand birds than I was invited to ‘adopt a kakapo’. Sadly, I soon discovered that the adoptions were ‘ symbolic, non-exclusive and do not entitle you to ownership of the birds’. Sniff. I’d rather fancied watching television with a kakapo beside me on the sofa, but nonetheless this did alert me to the sheer number of creatures that you can sponsor/adopt/fund, and of course everyone is very excited about this, what with Christmas coming up.

If you fancy adopting a kakapo, have a look here. It’s fairly pricey even with an exchange rate of .48 NZ $ to the ¬£, but there we go. There aren’t many kakapos left, so every one counts.

If you fancy adopting an African animal, the Sheldrick Trust has plenty of orphaned elephants and rhinos for your delectation (and a couple of giraffes!)

Raha the Rhino

Ape Action Africa is a charity very close to my heart (I volunteered here in 2010, and the money is spent on the best possible care for the apes in the sanctuary). You can sponsor a chimp or a gorilla, and some of the stories really are heart-rending. Shufai the gorilla was injured when his mother was shot, contracted meningitis and ended up having part of his arm amputated, but he has grown into a strong and confident ape, with little sign of the trauma that he’s been through.

Shufai

Another important way (some would argue the most important way) to support wildlife, however, is habitat preservation. While it’s not as immediately fun to sponsor a bit of a bog or a tiny bit of rainforest that you’ll never see, it probably does more to look after a whole ecosystem than sponsoring an individual. It’s fair to say that even when you sponsor an individual creature that money will go into a pot that looks after all of the animals in the charity, but there’s more scope when it’s attempting to restore or preserve an area, with all of its ecosystem. The Wildlife Trusts enable you to adopt a bit of a meadow, a crab apple tree, a holly tree or an ancient tree in several locations across the country. Plantlife has an appeal for people to donate towards preserving its nature reserves, which are plant-rich areas across the UK. Buglife is trying to create more¬† joined-up habitat for pollinators (which it’s calling B-Lines) and you can sponsor an area. I rather like the World Land Trust too – you can buy an acre of whichever rainforest they are currently working to preserve (mostly in Central/South America and East/South Africa) or buy a tree. And finally, if UK wetlands are your thing (and what’s not to like) you can adopt a wetland (or, unless you’re very rich, a tiny bit of one) from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust here.

Bewick’s Swan – Photo by DickDaniels (http://theworldbirds.org/), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

And so that’s just a short list of ideas if you have any spare change rattling about (though I’m fully acknowledging what a hard time Christmas is for many people). If you have any local animal/environmental charities that might need a hand, do pop them into the comments – you never know what’s going to appeal to people, and a little can often go a long way. Over to you, Readers!

 

Nature’s Calendar – 22-26th November – Even the Light Grows Cold

Claude Monet’s ‘The Magpie'(1868-1869)

A series following the 72 British mini-seasons of Nature’s Calendar by Kiera Chapman, Lulah Ellender, Rowan Jaines and Rebecca Warren.

Dear Readers, in this ‘mini-season’, Rowan Jaines investigates the way that there are subtle chromatic shifts in the light in the northern hemisphere throughout the year, and the way that the Impressionists in particular tried to use colour in their paintings to show this. Certainly, for me, blue is the colour of winter, and I love how Monet has used subtle shades of violet and blue in the shadows in his work ‘The Magpie’. Can’t you almost hear the crunch of snow underfoot, and the metallic cry of the bird as he calls to his mate?

Jaines also mentions Pissarro’s ‘White Frost’, and again I can imagine¬† how hard it is to walk across that ploughed field, laden down with firewood, the furrows touched with frost and the wind nipping at the bones. And again, I’ve just noticed the shadows. Fascinating. Maybe when I’ve done my Open Science degree with the Open University I should go back to do History of Art. So much to learn! So little time!

White Frost by Camille Pissarro (1873)

This all got me to thinking about how artists have depicted winter. It’s interesting how one person’s attempt to really show how winter looks, to capture its essence, can be another person’s attempt to summon up a mood, as in this image by Caspar David Friedrich. It’s difficult to see, but the painting shows a man who has thrown aside his crutches and is propped up against a boulder, praying in front of the crucifix. A symbolic cathedral looms in the background, though what it’s doing out here in the middle of nowhere is anybody’s guess.

Caspar David Friedrich Winter Landscape probably 1811Oil on canvas, 32.5 x 45 cm Bought, 1987 NG6517
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6517

Peter Doig is a Scottish painter who has a fascination for snow (amongst many other subjects). On the Tate website, he is quoted as saying:

‚ÄėI often paint scenes with snow because snow somehow has this effect of drawing you inwards and is frequently used to suggest retrospection and nostalgia and make-believe‚Äô (quoted in Bonaventura, p.13)

The painting below, ‘Ski Jacket 1994’ was based on a photograph of people learning to ski on a Japanese mountain. There’s something much gentler and more festive about the colours. It looks like fun, rather than something that would freeze you to death at the first opportunity.

Ski Jacket 1994 Peter Doig born 1959 Purchased with assistance from Evelyn, Lady Downshire’s Trust Fund 1995 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06962

And I guess I can’t end this without what is probably the first painting of a winter scene – Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565). I can never look at it without hearing the first lines of T.S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ in my head:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The hunters look footsore and have brought little home, and the crows and magpies gather in the trees. You can almost imagine the iron grip of winter, the pond frozen solid. But people are roasting corn over a fire on the left, and below people are skating, and playing games, and gossiping on the ice. The sign on the inn to the left has almost fallen off, and this has been interpreted as an omen of troubles to come, yet the mood, to me at least, seems pragmatic – winter is here, but life goes on. It’s thought that the painting was one of a series depicting life throughout the year, and there is a whole room dedicated to Bruegel’s paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Two other things spring to mind. One is a wonderful book by Toby Ferris called ‘Short Life in a Strange World – Birth to Death in 42 Panels‘ In it, Ferris attempts to track down all 42 of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s remaining pictures – Bruegel died aged only 42, and Ferris has recently lost his father and is thinking about how to be a good father to his own sons. The book is almost impossible to describe, but features memoir, art history and criticism, philosophy and a lot else besides. It is stunning. Do hunt it out if you have even the vaguest interest in any of these things.

The second is that last year, the BBC showed a documentary about winter art called ‘Tales of Winter – The Art of Ice and Snow’. It’s no longer on I Player, but it is on Youtube, broken down into 6 15-minute chunks.

The first one is here. See what you think – it talks about the Bruegel painting, and lots of others as well.

The Garden in Late November

Lilac, simultaneously losing its leaves and coming into flower

Dear Readers, there is a fair bit of weirdness going on in the garden at the moment. First up, my white lilac tree is simultaneously losing its leaves and producing tiny flowers. Goodness only knows what’s persuaded it that this is a good thing to do. I did chop it back a bit a few months ago (it was the wrong time of year, but things were getting a little out of hand) so maybe that’s something to do with it, though the bits that are flowering are not the chopped bits. Is anybody else’s garden having a bit of a turn? Do share! Confusion abounds.¬†

Teasel with seedlings in situ

Secondly, whoever said that once you’ve had one teasel in your garden you will never be without them was one hundred percent right. And not a single finch has visited them, at least not while I’ve been watching. This year I am sitting on my hands and not madly cutting everything back in the autumn, in the hope that the insects that hibernate in the hollow stems of the hemp agrimony and the teasel and various other plants will stand a better chance of getting through the winter. Let’s see how it goes.

The seedlings germinating in the seedheads are apparently a result of wet conditions (having had four named storms already this year I can see where the dampness would have come from). You can winkle them out and plant them up, but mine need no encouragement. I do rather like them though. They look like the punk hairdos of my youth.

The magpies are still very defensive of their nest site, even though the fledglings are long gone. I suspect they’ll be back in the spring, and in the meantime the poor old squirrels (all four thousand of them (or at least that’s how it sometimes seems)) must be hanging out elsewhere. There was quite the scene this morning when the squirrels and magpies briefly joined forces to shout at a very impressive new cat – it looks like a long-haired fluffy Siamese cat, so I suspect it’s a Birman, a very fine breed. I shall see if I can get a photo if it reappears, but in the meantime here’s an example.

Birman Cat (Photo by Thomas G√ľnther, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s the nest/drey in question.

And finally, the hazel in the hedge has gone berserk this year, having been vigorously cut back last year. Some branches already have catkins, which is nice to see, and the hedge has filled out enough that I can sometimes hear small birds rustling about in it, without being able to see them. Hooray! I shall have to have a trim very, very early in the spring, before the birds start nesting just to tidy it up.

Hazel catkins

So Readers, in the midst of all the leaf fall and general sense of anarchy, what’s going on in your garden? Keep an eye open for autumn migrants, and keep watching the sky for waxwings – there still seem to be quite few in Norfolk and Suffolk. Move south, little birds! There are plenty of berries in East Finchley!

Something For the New Year….

Dear Readers, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) have been holding an annual plant hunt every year for the past thirteen years. All you have to do if you live in the UK is to get out between 30th December 2023 and 2nd January 2024, and record the wild plants that you see in flower (they have a handy spotter sheet of the twenty most common plants for you to tick off). The results are used to identify patterns in flowering plants in response to our changing climate and also to local weather conditions and other factors. Plus it looks like fun! And there are lots of resources if you’re new to plant identification. I shall be doing it this year, so here’s how to get involved.

  1. Register your interest here.
  2. Once registered, you will be sent a link to an online form once it’s ready.
  3. There will be an interactive map, a daily blog, and once all the results are in, an analysis of what the data reveals.

Here are just a few things that you might see in flower, but there are always lots of surprises…

Chickweed (Stellaria media) Photo by Kaldari

Hazel catkins

Gorse

Snowdrops

Green alkanet

Let me know if you decide to do it, and maybe we can compare notes!

Some Elderly Birds

Newly-fledged House Sparrow

Dear Readers, over the years I have become a subscriber to many august and academic journals, from the offerings of the British Arachnological Society to the detailed papers in British Birds. And I am frequently surprised and enlightened by the stories that pop up, from the tale of the Garden Centre Spider and a lady who was rescuing and reviving spiders from her swimming pool to the remarkable account of a blue tit feeding a family of great spotted woodpeckers. However, i have recently subscribed to BirdGuides, who promise to alert me to any unusual birds spotted in my vicinity, along with providing me with Birdwatch magazine (as fast as I unsubscribe to one thing I seem to have resubscribed to something else, ahem). And this week it has provided me with some fascinating data about the longevity of some familiar birds.

Ringing birds is something for the specialist, with a small number of ornithologists trained and permitted to do it – it should involve minimum stress to the bird if done properly, but it does provide some fascinating facts about the migration, age and condition of birds. The study by the British Trust for Ornithology revealed that a 31 year-old avocet had been found – this is a bird that was once so rare that it became the symbol for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Who knew that it lived for such a long time? These look like such delicate birds that I’m always surprised that they can survive for decades.

An avocet at RSPB Minsmere (Photo by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, what I found even more fascinating was the recovery of a 13 year-old house sparrow. The average lifespan of a wild house sparrow is only three years, so this was an ancient and venerable bird. House sparrows very rarely venture far from where they were hatched: they may occasionally ‘take a holiday’ as a flock during the early autumn, but in general they are very loyal to a nesting and roosting site. There are a couple of locations locally with thick hedges or with ‘old-fashioned’ roofs where the sparrows can nest, and I suspect that generations of sparrows have used and re-used these sites. How distressing it must be for them when someone new comes in and cuts the hedge, or repairs the roof!

Mum and Dad’s bungalow in Milborne St Andrew had an eight-foot high beech hedge all around it, and an old holly tree that was as thick in prickly leaves as any I’d ever seen. Every year the blackbirds and sparrows nested in the hedge, while the wily robin nested in the holly. Mum will have been dead for five years in December this year, but it was only on my last visit that I plucked up the courage to walk past their old home, fully convinced as I was that everything would have changed. But as I turned the corner I could see that the hedge was still there, beautifully trimmed, and as I past the entrance I saw that Mum and Dad’s roses were as abundant and as well-cared for as they’d been when my parents were alive. I’d like to think that the new owners enjoy the chirruping of the sparrows every bit as much as Mum and Dad did.

The beech hedge at Mum and Dad’s bungalow

And so we continue to learn more and more about the birds that we share our lives with. When we understand a bit more about a species it makes it easier to consider what they might need to thrive. When I think about a sparrow living for thirty years, I wonder what changes it has seen in its long life. Let’s hope that the sparrows fledged this year will have more to celebrate than the ones that have been born in previous decades.

Solastalgia Part Two – What’s New?

Jersey Tiger Moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

Dear Readers, without wanting to be Pollyanna-ish, and without wanting in anyway to understate the crisis that faces us regarding the natural world, I have found it interesting to think about all the creatures that are becoming common in the UK now, and which were unheard of when I was a child. First up are some of the insects that are now not only hopping over the Channel for an occasional visit, but seem to be breeding, largely due to the milder, wetter winters that we have in the south of the UK. The Jersey Tiger would be one case in point, this year we have been positively tripping over them, and very fine they are too.

Then there’s this remarkable beastie, the UK’s largest hoverfly: usually known as the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria). It’s a very fine fly indeed, The fly lays her eggs in the nests of wasps and other social insects, where the larvae hatch and spend their time cleaning up the detritus in the nest. I have a brief image of them wielding a tiny dustpan and brush, probably while wearing an apron and a headscarf. Clearly I should be writing children’s books.

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

And who can forget the ivy bees (Colletes hederae) who occupied my attention so thoroughly last month? Again, these were rare as hen’s teeth, but have now made themselves very much at home. I draw your attention to the remarkable film of the ivy bees in reader Philip Buckley’s lawn.

But it’s not just insects. How about these birds? They have made themselves very much at home over the past thirty years, but I don’t remember ever seeing them as a child. The first Collared Dove was seen in the UK in 1952. There are now an estimated million breeding pairs. There is some thought that they are moving into rural territories vacated by the vanishingly rare Turtle Doves, but this probably isn’t the cause of the latter bird’s decline – agricultural practices seem to be more likely to be the reason, as rewilding efforts at places like Knepp have managed to increase their breeding success.

Collared Doves are extremely adaptable birds, and I have a great fondness for the way that they sound like a child’s trumpet when the males are chasing the females around. I was about to say ‘during the breeding season’, but Collared Doves breed all year round, another reason for their success.

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocta)

And then there are these chaps. If you had told me when I was a child that I would be watching ring-necked parakeets feeding in my garden I would have been amazed, but here we are.

The first ring-necked parakeets bred in the UK in 1971. In 2022, the British Trust for Ornithology estimated that there were about 12,000 breeding pairs in the UK, largely in the London area at the moment though they are clearly moving into other areas at some speed. The jury is out concerning their impact on other wildlife, especially tree-nesting birds, but to be frank at this point it’s too late to be worrying. Monitoring is continuing, but habitat protection and restoration is key to ensure that there’s enough dead wood about for everybody.

And finally, here’s someone that I never saw in town when I was a child, let alone in my back garden. Urban foxes really have become part of the landscape of London and many other cities. Foxes were first seen in London in the 1930s but they are much more obvious than they used to be, and I suspect more numerous – we are much more wasteful creatures than we were in the 1930s, and our leftover food is what attracts these animals. Plus, in many cases we urbanised around foxes who were already there: in other words, we moved into their territories. It’s good to see another adaptable animal living alongside us. In our nature-deprived country, we need all the reminders of wildness that we can get.

Solastalgia Part One – What We’ve Lost

‘Woolly Bear’ caterpillar

Dear Readers, when I was writing my piece about starlings yesterday it seemed to strike a chord with quite a few people. ‘What’s happened to the starlings, and the sparrows?’ they asked, with genuine distress. There’s now a word for this, solastalgia – it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005, and it describes the feeling, akin to homesickness, that we get when something in our home environment changes. It can be something as dramatic as a earthquake or volcano, or even when someone has built all over your history. This happened to me when I returned to my home town of Stratford in East London after Westfield and the Olympic Park had been built, and I could barely find my way from the old shopping centre because so much had changed. However, the deep meaning of the word is the sense of being disconnected with where we live because the natural environment has changed.Increasingly, we’re mourning for the fall in abundance and the loss of species of creatures that we shared our childhoods with. For me, there’s a real sadness about the woolly bear caterpillars, technically the larvae of the Garden Tiger moth. Although we had a tiny garden you could guarantee to see some of these furry beasties galloping across the cement path, in search of something or other to eat. If you picked them up, they curled into a little ball, just like the one in the photo, but if you were patient they’d uncurl and head off up your arm. You could feel the difference between the little suckers on the back legs and the hooks on the front ones. Every so often, the caterpillar would lift its head and wave around in search of a plant to munch on. I would always pop them back after a few minutes.

I don’t remember the last time that I saw a woolly bear caterpillar in London.

Garden Tiger larvae (Photo by TigerTatoo, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

These are not particularly picky eaters, and they’d certainly gobble up most of the ‘weeds’ in our garden. If I remember correctly, they had a particular taste for docks of all kinds, and could sometimes be found in the little patch of nettles right in the corner. So what’s happened to them? Butterfly Conservation blame weedkillers and the habit of ‘tidying up’ everything from hedgerows to gardens. It makes me happy that more and more people are tolerating wild corners in their plots, because these are just the kinds of spaces where caterpillars of all kinds thrive. While it’s nice to have plants for adult pollinators to feed on, they also need places to lay their eggs and for their larvae to feed on.

It would be lovely if the next generation of children could also make friends with, and learn lessons from, invertebrates of all kinds. These creatures are on a child-friendly scale, and children seem to have a natural affinity with creepy-crawlies of all kinds, at least before they get older and a bit more squeamish and easily influenced by ideas of what’s cute and what’s not.¬† We had a fungi walk in Coldfall Wood this weekend, and the children were enthralled with a leopard slug, and even more fascinated with a blob of slug eggs. That curiosity and natural empathy might be what saves all of us, in the end.

I would not want to diminish in any way the scale of the environmental challenge that faces all of us. To return to the starlings that I wrote about yesterday, the size of the murmuration at Brighton Beach has dropped from over 100,000 individual birds to just 8,000 in the past forty years. But I have to believe that it’s possible to help by the pressure that we put on our governments, the way that we live and the opportunities that we provide in our homes and gardens and parks for animals and plants to make their home. Tomorrow, I’ll write about the creatures that have appeared during my 60-odd years, animals that I would never have dreamed of seeing up close and personal when I was a child. In the meantime, let me know what has been lost of the creatures that you used to see. We can honour and grieve them together.

Fledgling starling