Author Archives: Bug Woman

The Front Gardens of East Finchley

Dear Readers, today was a gloomy, drizzly day, and so I decided to go for a brisk walk around the County Roads in East Finchley, just to see what was going on. During the lockdown I’ve been mainly going to our two local woods, or to the cemetery, but I’ve missed the quirkiness of the tiny front gardens round about. I love how individual they are, and this year it feels to me as if they are even prettier than usual. To start with my garden, the lavender has just come into flower, but it isn’t warm enough for bees today. I notice that my buddleia also has flowers on it – they seem to be coming earlier and earlier every year.


The flowers on the cabbage palm next door have been exquisitely scented – when the window of my office is open the perfume wafts in deliciously. They’ve been  full of honeybees as well.

And in many windows there are the rainbows and other drawings of children.

I notice, for the first time (well I have only lived here for ten years) that there are attractive terracotta plaques in the bay windows of some of the houses, and rather fine ‘things’ on the top of the gables as well. If anyone knows what the ‘things’ are called, do tell – I know they probably have some architectural name but goodness only knows what.

A male sparrow was feeding a younger one on one of the windowsills, which always gladdens my heart – these birds are so much rarer nowadays.

And on the subject of scent, the smell of this mock orange can be inhaled from several houses away.

I love how ‘bunny-rabbit flowers’ (antirrhinums) pop up unannounced every year. This one is a splendid deep pink.

And then the rain starts properly pouring down, so I take cover under a neighbouring street tree. I spot the most perfect rose blooming in the garden of the house next door.

The rain makes an abstract painting on the wall.

The bellflower is everywhere – it self-seeds into the tiniest cracks. There are two species, trailing bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) from the Dinaric Alps in former Yugoslavia, and peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) from the Italian/Austrian Alps, and you can find both in North London. Both are garden escapes, but pretty and resilient nonetheless.

I am seeing lots of Mexican Fleabane, and I can see why people plant it – it’s long-flowering, trouble-free and (from my point of view) a magnet for hoverflies.

I love the clashing colours of the pelargoniums and the roses, they are so cheering to look at.

And how about these bear’s breeches?  Otherwise known as acanthus, the plant adorns the capitol of many a Roman pillar.

I adore the tiled pathway of this house as it makes its way through the lavender to that sky-blue door.

Someone has pruned the false acacia, but it’s fighting back!

I love the juxtaposition of the golden  leaves of the mock orange and the purple of the mallow here, but apologies for the raindrops on the lens. I was fighting a losing battle with the weather.

I thought the plant below was an evergreen clematis, but now I’m thinking evergreen jasmine, if there is any such thing. What do you think, Readers?

I love these blood-red hollyhocks against the whitewashed wall.

And this is the most magnificent magenta-pink mallow, next to a California lilac that’s just finished flowering. What a spectacular plant the mallow is, and something of a London speciality – it seems to love our claggy clay soil.

I have a great fondness for this lady’s ‘wild’ front garden. She popped out to tell me that the Mexican fleabane has sowed itself and I love the way that it has infiltrated the lavender. There is always something of interest here. I must stop by more often.

Further down the road I stop to take a photo of this perfect dandelion clock. I see lots of blackfly too – it has certainly been a great year for aphids, as I’ve mentioned before.

The front gardens outside these new-build flats are very small, but this one shows what can be done, with a lovely mixture of lavender, gaura, purple osteospurmum and Bowle’s mauve perennial wallflower.

And how about these fantastic red and black poppies!

Finally, as I turn for home I spot this front garden, with its mixture of foliage plants – there are various colours of heuchera here, plus a heavenly bamboo and a fern and several other interesting things. It goes to show that you don’t need to have full sun to grow something attractive and interesting.

Well, all things considered this was a most satisfying walk, and I only managed to do two and a half County Roads. Just when you think you’ve gotten to know your neighbourhood, a whole new set of interesting plants and gardens pop up. The lockdown is helping me to pay attention to the small things locally that I would otherwise miss, in my rush to head off to pastures new, and I think I’m all the better for it. I’m at a time of life when I’d rather dive deep than just skim the surface.

Friday Book – Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland

Dear Readers,

Who would have thought that a field guide to caterpillars could invoke a trip down Memory Lane? When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of my time in our pocket-handkerchief sized garden in Stratford, East London, looking for caterpillars. How I loved them! I could watch the way that they ate ever-increasing half-circles out of the leaves for hours. I adored the feeling of the little hook-y legs at the front of their bodies, and the slight pull of the suckers at the back. We often had garden tiger moth caterpillars, who were as furry and sleek as kittens, and I had no worries about letting them walk all over my hands. I feel so sad for the many children who don’t get to mess about in the dirt these days: I invented all my own games, and was forever finding various creatures and putting them into sandwich boxes with their food plant to see what would happen.

Sometimes, what happened was horrific. I well remember the shudder that went down my back when one of my tiger moth caterpillars, who I had thought was just about to pupate, erupted instead into a mass of parasitic wasp grubs. What an education into the relationships between the different animals that inhabited the garden, though! I’m sure my parents didn’t know half of what I got up to. They were certainly displeased at the slug invasion that followed me popping some interesting-looking eggs into the air-brick under the house, but I’m not sure if I ever confessed to that one.

My most successful rearing was of four cinnabar moth caterpillars – these tiger-striped larvae eat ragwort, which was a plentiful weed in the East End. I remember running around our local street and picking the plant from the few remaining bomb sites round about. I did everything right with these guys, and watched them slow down and then turn into lacquer-red pupae, as beautiful as any Japanese netsuke. I put them in a big sweetie jar with some twigs so that they could climb up and stretch their wings when they finally emerged. I remember that I put the jar with the gas metre under the stairs, so that it was cold and dark. I checked on them every day. And one day, when I looked, the jar was filled with three perfect military-green and red moths, and one poor dead one, who seemed to have emerged but then somehow got stuck between the side of the jar and a twig.

What a palaver ensued! I felt horribly guilty. First we released the living moths close to a patch of ragwort which I’d been protecting from Dad’s weed-eradication instincts for several months. Then I dragged my brother into a funeral ritual for the remaining moth, who was buried in a Woodbine cigarette packet under a fragment of tile remaining from the creation of our 1950’s fireplace. I seem to remember a poem written on the tile in wax crayon. Looking back, I reckon that a 75% survival rate was probably better than the moths would have done in nature, but, as always, I remember the failure, not the success.

And sometimes, caterpillars can give us a shock. My Mum was on her way to work one day when she found a most surprising creature on a twig in one of the gardens in the City.

“It was waggling its tail”, she said, “and it was as fat as my finger!”

“So what did you do, Mum?” I asked.

“Well, I thought it looked a bit vulnerable standing there where anyone could see it”, she said, “so I tried to get it onto another twig and it stood up on its back legs and spat at me!”

Yes, Dear Reader, my Mum was trying to rescue a puss moth caterpillar who clearly didn’t want to be rescued. They can spit formic acid if they feel they are being harassed, however kindly the intent. They used to be a fairly common (if spectacular) sight on willow and aspen, but I haven’t seen one for many years. Maybe I need to spend more time just mooching about without an agenda, rather than hurrying through my gardening tasks.

And so, this book is highly recommended. The illustrations, by Richard Lewington who also did the drawings for the Guide to Garden Wildlife, give you an idea of the sheer range of caterpillar forms and colours. The text tells you exactly what you can see, when, and where. Most Lepidoptera are caterpillars for much longer than they are adults, and so it can be a way of finding out what you are nurturing in your gardens. There is a lot of attention paid to growing plants for pollinators, but growing plants for their caterpillars is at least as important, and the book also contains a list of foodplants. All in all a worthwhile investment if you have any spare cash laying about (as if) and currently on sale at the NHBS bookshop.

Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland by Barry Henwood and Phil Sterling




A Whole Lot of Processioning Going On

Oak processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumeetopoea processionea) (Photo by Joanne Jordan)

Dear Readers, the poor old woods have taken a right battering over this past few months. Firstly, I would say that footfall is up by about 300% as people go for a walk before, after and probably during work. Then, it’s been extremely dry. Add to that the flooding in the spring, and the amount of litter that some people think it’s ok to leave after a picnic on the fields, and it’s all been very trying. I imagine the oak trees have seen it all before, so I can only imagine how delighted they were when a bunch of oak processionary moth caterpillars emerged and started, well, processioning.

They look cute and fluffy, but the hairs can be very irritating, both when in direct contact with the skin, and if they are inhaled.  Furthermore, a heavy infestation can seriously defoliate a tree – the caterpillars prefer pedunculate and turkey oaks, but on the Continent, where they originated,  they will also munch their way through beech (although they can’t complete their life-cycle without oak). Unfortunately, the ‘treatment’, which involves a heavy dose of insecticide, can be as almost as bad as the insects themselves. Normally this treatment is most effective when young caterpillars are sprayed – later in the year it can be just as efficient to remove the nests, which will be full of pupating caterpillars and will hence help to prevent the adults from flying off and affecting other trees.

OPM (as I will call the insect from now on to save my typing fingers) was ‘accidentally’ introduced to the UK on some imported oaks in 2005, and is largely London-based at the moment, so the plan is to try to prevent it from spreading to the rest of the UK. To give you an idea of how quickly they are spreading, there were fifteen nests on Hampstead Heath, Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood in 2005: by 2018 there were over two thousand nests. These are prolific little devils, to be sure. From 2019 we have implemented much stronger restrictions on the import of oak trees, but the words ‘stable’, ‘horse’ and ‘door’ come to mind, though not necessarily in that order.


The caterpillars live in a nest of silk, usually high up on the trunk of a tree.

OPM nest (Photo by Joanne Jordan)

But in the evening they head out in search of tasty leaves. Each one follows a silken strand left by the one in front. They are actually rather attractive caterpillars in my view, with their wizard-like flowing white hair, but it’s the little short hairs underneath that cause all the problems – they float down from the trees and irritate people’s skin and eyes, and can also be problematic for dogs and cats.

Photo by Joanne Jordan

Where one OPM goes, they all seem to go – they feed together, they pupate together in the original larval nest, and when the adult moths lay their eggs they do that in a solid, single-layer of eggs called a plaque. The adults only live for four or five days, so they have to get down to business at great speed.

Photo One byBy Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, - This image is Image Number 5371232 at Insect Images, a source for entomological images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.(cropped), CC BY 3.0 us,

Adult Oak Processionary Moth (Photo One)

In the Netherlands, an alternative control method that’s being tried is to set up lots of nestboxes in affected woods for great tits to use: these birds apparently greatly enjoy the younger caterpillars, before they get those irritating hairs. You can also, apparently, use a special vacuum to hoover them up, which must surely be more environmentally friendly (unless you’re an OPM of course).

And so, the UK’s history of lax biosecurity continues. Dutch Elm disease (in timber), ash dieback, chestnut blight and box tree moth, xyllela and bleeding canker have largely been introduced with imported plants. Climate change is making it easier for these various organisms to flourish, and is causing stress to plants more accustomed to a colder, wetter world. I suspect that our landscape is going to look very different in a few decades’ time. Who can say with any certainty who the winners and losers will be?

Photo Credits

Photo One By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, – This image is Image Number 5371232 at Insect Images, a source for entomological images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.(cropped), CC BY 3.0 us,



Wednesday Weed – Corncockle

Corncockle (Agrostemma githago)

Dear Readers, it isn’t often that one comes across a plant that is ‘more or less extinct’ in the UK according to Harrap’s Wildflowers, but here it is – a corncockle, in full bloom. Of course, it hasn’t just popped up by magic – someone has planted a packet of wildflower seeds and very pretty they are too, a mixture of poppies and cornflowers and scented mayflower. But it was the corncockle that caught my eye, because it has been one of humankind’s companions since the Iron Age, and is now gone.

Corncockle was one of the weeds that used to pop up when ever a field was sown. It’s an annual, so it relied on being harvested with the crop and re-sown with the seed saved from the previous year. It was so common that for centuries it was regarded as a pest, as it was said to make bread taste bitter.   According to Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora, there was a whole ceremony in Herefordshire on Easter Day based around the separating of the corncockle seeds from the seed corn:

At Easter the rustics have a custom of corn-showing. Parties are made to pick out cockle from the wheat. Before they set out they take with them cake and cider, and, says my informant, a yard of toasted cheese. The first person who picks the first cockle from the wheat had the first kiss of the maid and the first slice of cake’.

Sadly, as humans got better at cleaning the seed that they saved, and more prone to use broad-based herbicides, so corncockle became rarer, with its decline starting to be noticed from the 1950’s onwards.

Nowadays, you might occasionally come across it in fields which have not become heavily industrialised, or which have been recently ploughed, turning up the seeds. However, you are more likely to see it, as I did, in a tiny urban meadow planted by someone who wants to see some wildflowers.

Corncockle is part of the Caryophylaceae or campion family, and is instantly recognisable because those long green sepals (the part of the flower that used to protect and encase the bud) protrude a long way beyond the petals. Those green ‘teeth’ gave it the delightful name of ‘Puck the Goblin’ in Sussex. As you might expect for a plant with such a long association with humans, it has a whole variety of vernacular names: in Dorset it was known as ‘little-and-pretty’, in Northumberland it was called ‘hard heads’, in Somerset it was ‘cockles’, and in Scotland ‘popille’. However, even though it has been here for such a long time, it is still not ‘native’, and is classed as an archaeophyte (a plant which arrived in the UK before 1500 CE).

There was a bit of a kerfuffle a few years ago when the TV programme Countryfile sent out packets of wild flower seeds which contained corncockle: the plant was described as ‘poisonous’ and in Royal Wootton Bassett a patch of seedlings planted by the local Brownies was fenced off to prevent a calamity. It is true that if you ate large quantities of the seeds (as in the aforementioned poisoned bread), you might suffer a stomach ache and vomiting, but that’s about as far as it goes. Plus, as the plant contains the soap-creating chemicals called saponins, it apparently tastes awful. The Daily Mail and Daily Express have a lot to answer for for their scaremongering about this plant and many others: our gardens are full to busting with poisonous plants, from yew and foxgloves to poppies and lilies, not to mention daffodil bulbs. Our children are much more likely to be mown down by a car than they are poisoned by a plant, especially if they are taught not to put random things in their mouths once they are old enough to understand. Harrumph!

In spite of being poisonous, corncockle was also used extensively in folk medicine – like many mildly toxic plants, it was useful as a treatment for intestinal worms (though no doubt you had to get the dosage right). It has been used to treat jaundice, oedema, constipation and gastritis, and the powdered seeds mixed with honey were used as an expectorant and a diuretic. Like so many wild plants it was both blessing and curse, depending on how it was used, and who was using it. In the Language of Flowers it was seen as representing gentility, innocent charm and daintiness, and was considered to be a good luck charm for a woman.

And finally, here’s something a bit different. The Moravian composer Leos Janacek (please forgive the absence of accents on some of the letters, my keyboard is not obliging me at the moment), had a deep passion for folk poetry and songs – he believed that

the dance song should choke in sweat, in people’s vapour and steam, while the melancholy weeping of the bride should be reflected in wedding songs.

He wrote a number of songs with plant names, and one of them was ‘corncockle’ (otherwise known as ‘into the woods’), which definitely sounds like a song that could be sung in a barn once the crop had been gathered in. . You can have a listen to it below, but you might want to hang on for the next track, too, called ‘Guelder Rose’, which is a deeply romantic tune. See what you think!

Moravian Folk Poetry by Janacek – Corncockle


Sunday Quiz – Tricky Trees – The Answers

Dear Readers, didn’t we do well again! First place this week goes to Sarah, with 17/18 correct, take a gold star! Fran and Bobby Freelove were very close behind with 16/18, and then we have Alittlebitoutoffocus with 11/18 and Andrea with 9/18. Thanks to everyone for taking part, and I hope you enjoyed it!

Dear Readers, let’s see how you did! The correct answers are below.








See the photos for more details!

Photo One by Innocenceisdeath / CC BY-SA (

1) London plane fruit (b)

Photo Two by Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) - fruit cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Evelyn Simak -

2) Sycamore samaras (winged seeds) (e)

Photo Three by This illustration was made by Matthieu SontagEnglish: This photo has been taken by Matthieu Sontag (User:Mirgolth) and released under the licenses stated below. You are free to use it for any purpose as long as you credit me as author, Wikimedia Commons as site and follow the terms of the licenses. Could you be kind enough to leave me a message on this page to inform me about your use of this picture.Example: Photo : Matthieu Sontag, Licence CC-BY-SA.Français : Cette photo a été prise par Matthieu Sontag (User:Mirgolth) et placée sous les licences ci-dessous. Vous êtes libre de la réutiliser, pour n'importe quelle utilisation, tant que vous me citez en tant qu'auteur, Wikimedia Commons en tant que site et suivez les instructions des licences. Pourriez-vous avoir l'amabilité de me laisser un message sur cette page pour m'informer de votre utilisation de cette image.Exemple : Photo : Matthieu Sontag, License CC-BY-SA.Vous souhaitez faire apparaitre cette photo sans crédit ? Contactez moi ! If you want to use the photo without credit, please contact me. / CC BY-SA (

3) Ash leaves (d)

Photo Four by Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA (

4) Lime leaves (f)

Photo Five by David Hawgood / Beech mast on trees, Cockshoots picnic site

5) Beech leaves and mast (h)

Photo Six by Chiswick Chap / CC BY-SA (

6) Hornbeam leaves (a)

Photo Seven by Mehmet Karatay / CC BY-SA (

7) Pendunculate oak leaves (g)

Photo Eight by MPF at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (

8) Silver birch catkins (c)

Part Two – Identify the same trees from some more difficult bits!

Photo i) by Philip Halling / Ash tree buds

i) Ash twigs and buds

Photo ii) by Sten / CC BY-SA (

ii) Lime buds

iii) London plane bark

iv) Hornbeam bark

Photo Five by Chris Reynolds / Bark on Old Silver Birch tree

v) Silver birch bark

Photo Six by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (

vi) Sycamore leaves with tar spot fungus

Photo (vii by © El Grafo / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / CC BY-SA (

vii) Beech bud

Photo viii) by Bj.schoenmakers / CC0

viii) Knopper gall on pedunculate oak.

An extra point for recognising the tar spot fungus and another one for the knopper gall.

Thanks everyone! Hope you enjoyed it, and all comments gratefully accepted as always.






A Windy Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, during the lockdown one of the highlights of my week has been a walk around the local cemetery. It’s only open to visitors at the weekend from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday is generally very busy, so Saturday it is. Today was overcast and breezy, and indeed we even got a drop of the wet stuff for the first time in weeks. Still, I love seeing the way the plant life is changing.

The cow parsley has given way to the hogweed, so I know that spring is officially over.

Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)

And all the meadow flowers, the ox-eye daisies and the red campion, are in full flower in the wild part of the cemetery.

Ox eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and red campion (Silene dioica)

The dock is doing well too. This one is about seven feet tall.

Curled dock (Rumex crispus)

There is one little patch of red valerian that reminds me so much of Dorset, where it grows out of every wall.

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber)

The red clover is in full bloom.

Red clover (Trillium pratense)

The tormentil is growing all over the sunnier graves.

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

The elder is magnificent this year. I have never seen so many flowers. You can smell the gooseberry twang of the blossom from 2 metres away (if you are socially distancing 🙂 )

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

I have become intrigued with what thistles look like when you photograph them from above. It’s as if a whole new world has opened up.

Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

And here is something fairly unusual – goat’s rue, a member of the pea family, but with white flowers rather than the usual lilac ones.

Goat’s rue (Galega officinalis)

It’s fascinating to see how the seasons are moving on. In the space of less than a fortnight, the shining cranesbill has flowered, and the foliage has turned a stunning crimson.

Shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum)

The salsify has changed from attractive purple flowers to big fluffball seedheads.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)

The white flowers of the firethorn are changing into bright orange berries. It will definitely be worth checking for waxwings here in the winter, for some reason they love the fruit of this shrub.

Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea)

It sometimes feels as if the cemetery is the only place around here open enough to really see the sky. My Mum, after she’d been slaving away at some embroidery or crochet, would often go outside to ‘stretch her eyes’. I know what she meant.

And then onwards. Past the first patch of this year’s yarrow (new to me, anyhow), and past the strangely sculptural flowers of the teasel.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Teasel (Dipsacum fullerum)

But here’s a surprise. Who should be sitting next to the tiny stream (which has been reduced to a trickle by the lack of rainfall) but a very handsome mallard drake? I thought he would scoot off as we approached but instead he sat there, looking very pleased with himself, whilst standing on one leg.

And then we turned for home. How I love the woody pathways on the route back to the entrance gate. I always keep an eye open for foxes, but they seem few and far between this year. I suspect that they are about much more during the week, when there are fewer visitors.

How I love the cemetery! I find such peace there; even though Dad isn’t even interred yet, and his ashes will stay in Dorset, I can somehow feel his presence here. He was always at home amongst plants and trees, and in another life I think he’d have been a gardener, or a farmer. He was never happier than when he was digging up potatoes, preferably without his shirt on and with the sun blazing down. Wherever he is now, I hope that there are beans and strawberries for him and Mum to pick.


Sunday Quiz – Tricky Trees

Dear Readers, as last week’s quiz was a bit of a doozy, I am going for something a little closer to home this week. Firstly, see if you can identify the trees from the photos below (multiple choice as usual). And then, see if you can identify them from some other, trickier part – buds/twigs/bark/parasite!

Part One – Identify the tree in spring and summer.

So, if you think tree 1) is a hornbeam, your answer will be 1)a)

Photo One by Innocenceisdeath / CC BY-SA (


Photo Two by Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) - fruit cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Evelyn Simak -


Photo Three by This illustration was made by Matthieu SontagEnglish: This photo has been taken by Matthieu Sontag (User:Mirgolth) and released under the licenses stated below. You are free to use it for any purpose as long as you credit me as author, Wikimedia Commons as site and follow the terms of the licenses. Could you be kind enough to leave me a message on this page to inform me about your use of this picture.Example: Photo : Matthieu Sontag, Licence CC-BY-SA.Français : Cette photo a été prise par Matthieu Sontag (User:Mirgolth) et placée sous les licences ci-dessous. Vous êtes libre de la réutiliser, pour n'importe quelle utilisation, tant que vous me citez en tant qu'auteur, Wikimedia Commons en tant que site et suivez les instructions des licences. Pourriez-vous avoir l'amabilité de me laisser un message sur cette page pour m'informer de votre utilisation de cette image.Exemple : Photo : Matthieu Sontag, License CC-BY-SA.Vous souhaitez faire apparaitre cette photo sans crédit ? Contactez moi ! If you want to use the photo without credit, please contact me. / CC BY-SA (


Photo Four by Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA (


Photo Five by David Hawgood / Beech mast on trees, Cockshoots picnic site


Photo Six by Chiswick Chap / CC BY-SA (


Photo Seven by Mehmet Karatay / CC BY-SA (


Photo Eight by MPF at the English language Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (


a) Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

b) London plane (Platanus x hispanica)

c) Silver birch (Betula pendula)

d) Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

e) Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

f) Lime (Tilia x europaea)

g) Pedunculate (English) Oak (Quercus robur)

h) Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Part Two – Identify the same trees from some more difficult bits!

For this part, we have to recognise the same trees from the bits that remain after the summer, which is a bit on the tricky side.

So, if you thought photo one was a hornbeam, and that the twigs in photo i) are also hornbeam, your answer is 1)a)i)

Photo i) by Philip Halling / Ash tree buds


Photo ii) by Sten / CC BY-SA (




Photo Five by Chris Reynolds / Bark on Old Silver Birch tree


Photo Six by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (


Photo (vii by © El Grafo / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / CC BY-SA (


Photo viii) by Bj.schoenmakers / CC0


As always, put your answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday – the answers will be posted on Tuesday. Two extra points if you can tell me what is going on in photos vi) and viii).

NB Write your answers down before you look at the comments if you don’t want to be influenced by those speedy peeps out there 🙂




Garden Bird Titbits

Jackdaw ( Corvus monedula)

Dear Readers, I have just acquired (yet another) new book. This one is ‘Garden Birds’ by Mike Toms, and it’s in the much beloved New Naturalist series. So, I thought I would share some of its wisdom with you, in the form of a single fact about some of my favourite garden birds.


Unlike most birds, Jackdaws start to incubate their eggs part-way through the laying process rather than when all the eggs have been laid, which leads to chicks of different sizes being in the nest at the same time. The oldest, largest chicks are most likely to be fed, so in times of shortage, the youngest chicks will probably die (though when pickings are good all will probably survive). When there isn’t much food about, the male chicks (who are larger than the females) are most likely to die because they require more calories. Broods produced at the end of the season when conditions were poor were also more likely to have more female chicks both hatched and reared.

It seems to be the case in many species that when times are hard, nature favours females.

Young starling (Sturnus vulgaris)


A major food for starlings during the breeding season is the larvae of craneflies (leatherjackets) – I often see the birds marching across Muswell Hill Playing Fields, probing about for these tasty morsels. Changes in agricultural management, largely due to the use of sheep rather than cattle for grazing, and the draining of meadows and wetlands where adult craneflies used to congregate, are thought to be responsible in part for the decline in numbers of starlings by 89% between 1967 and 2015. An additional pressure has been changes in building regulations, and the movement towards plastic rather than wooden barge boards (the boards used on the gable end of a house), which means that new houses are significantly less friendly to nesting birds than old ones.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)


Goldfinches in the wild feed on the seeds of plants such as thistle and teasel, and while they might at first have been attracted to gardens by the provision of nyjer seeds, there seems to be a pattern emerging whereby they prefer sunflower seeds to nyjer when both are offered. This is certainly something that I’ve noticed in my garden, and I’d love to know if you’ve seen something similar! In the wild, goldfinches apparently prefer seeds that are still under-ripe and ‘milky’.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)


Robins are prone to nesting very low down in a shrub, and sometimes even nest on the ground. This makes them one of the three most vulnerable garden species to cat predation (the other two are the house sparrow and the dunnock). However, they are very wary around their nests: they have been seen to drop the food that they are carrying for nestlings if they think they are being watched, and may even make a visit to a ‘false site’ to confound the observer. This seems to me to show that robins have a ‘theory of mind’ – they have a sense of what the watcher might be thinking (i.e. that they want to know where the nest is) and act accordingly to protect it.

Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Collared Dove

The first pair of collared doves bred in the UK in 1955. Today, there are 990,000 breeding pairs. This remarkable expansion has been powered, in part, by the collared dove’s ability to breed year round: a pair can squeeze as many as five breeding attempts into a single year. Each nest holds only two chicks, but these are much more likely to survive than a larger brood. The species is also making headway in North America, where 50 birds escaped from a bird breeder in the Bahamas. Some soon turned up in Florida, and they are currently advancing north and west.

House sparrow

House sparrow

In house sparrows, the dominance of a male within the colony is indicated by the size of the black ‘bib’ under his throat. More dominant males not only do proportionately more of the work of nest-building, provisioning and incubation than small-bibbed males, they also do more in the way of defending the nest from predators, probably another good reason that females tend to choose more dominant males as partners. A higher proportion of the nestlings in the nests of large-bibbed males fledge, too.

And a second fact that I cheekily wanted to sneak in: sparrows make a ‘chirrup’ call when they find a food source that is large enough to be shared, but stay silent when there’s only enough for them. Very sensible!

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caerulus)

Blue Tit

Although you might think that you’re seeing the same couple of blue tits on your bird feeders, studies on ringed birds have shown that you might in fact be seeing up to a hundred different individuals – blue tits in the region will make a ‘tour’ of the local gardens, dropping in for a quick bite at each one. This really shows up the importance of the continuity of habitats – blue tits are reluctant to cross busy roads or other unsuitable habitat, but will happily make a short hop from tree to tree.

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

In a few weeks’ time, there will be a sudden drop in the bird activity in the garden. Many species will be moulting and taking a hard-earned rest after the breeding season, but some blackbirds take off on holiday – many will move into the countryside to feast on berries. However, some just seem to fancy a change of scene: one ringed blackbird bred in a garden in Norfolk but spent her winters in a Devon garden every year, probably to escape the wind that blows in straight from the Steppes.

Incidentally (says she, sneaking in yet another second fact) blackbirds will eat tadpoles, pulling them out of the pond and bashing them on the ground. The birds will also be struggling to find enough earthworms to eat at the moment, as the soil is so dry and the worms will be keeping a very low profile. You might want to do some watering (or watch after rain) and see what happens.

So, that’s just a few garden birds. What a great book! The New Naturalists never let me down. I am waiting with great anticipation for one on ‘Ponds and Puddles’ that is promised for 2022. I think I will have to keep working until I’m eighty simply to fund my book buying.

Friday Book – Europe’s Dragonflies by Dave Swallshire and Andy Swash

Dear Readers, every month when I get paid I allow myself a small indulgence in the form of a book, and it will come as no surprise to regular readers that it’s usually something to do with nature. For June, I have gifted myself Europe’s Dragonflies. Why, you might ask, did I not go for one that was just about the dragonflies of the UK? Well, just lately I am filled with a great urge to travel (probably because I can’t), and I find myself dreaming of the bogs on the Hochgurgl path in Austria, or the sunlit, dusty gorges of southern Crete.

Hochgurgl path, July 2019

If I’d been paying attention in Austria, for example, and if it had been sunnier, I might have seen the Alpine Emerald (Somatochlora alpestris)  with its bright-green eyes and, if I took a quick trip to the Lech valley, I could find the only European representatives of the Siberian Bluet (Coenagrion hylas) – the remainder of the species are found, not surprisingly, in Siberia. It’s noted that this last species has rather more black on its body than other members of the genus, probably to help it warm up.

Siberian bluet

If I went to Corsica or Sicily, I might see the black pennant (Selysiothemis nigra), whose body is completely black. I am not sure how that fits in with the black-for-warming-up thesis, but most adult dragonflies don’t live for very long, and it’s only the male who is night-hued (in nature, males are often more expendable than females).

Black pennant

In southern Spain I might spot a violet dropwing (Trithemis annulata), surely one of the most colourful dragonflies of the lot. The males adopt what is known as the ‘obelisk position’ with their abdomen straight up in the air when it’s hot, maybe to limit exposure to the heat.

Violet dropwing

In southern Greece I might find the only example of the Greek Goldenwing (Cordulegaster helladica), which haunts the Castalian spring at Delphi. On Rhodes, I might find the magnificent emperor (Anax immaculifrons) with its blue eyes and six-inch wingspan. On Crete, I might stumble across the Cretan spectre (Boyeria cretensis), who prefers fast-flowing rivers, and who lays their eggs in moss or tree-roots overlooking the water.

Greek goldenwing

But if I went to the Azores, I would find the only population of parthenogenic dragonflies anywhere in the world: the citrine forktail (Ischnura hastata). The bright-yellow males are what gives the species its name, but these are not found in the Azores – presumably, long ago, a female was blown across the Atlantic from the Americas, where the species normally lives, and somehow adapted by being able to reproduce without mating. The females start off bright orange, but become duller over time. When the scientist in Jurassic Park suggests that ‘nature will find a way’, he had no idea how right he was.

Citrine forktail

So, this book is full of wonders. There are damselflies that look like dragonflies, dragonflies that migrate over the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean to breed in East Africa (the wandering glider (Pantala flavescens)) and who may crop up in Europe as their offspring make the return journey, and dragonflies in every colour of the rainbow. I am not surprised that many birdwatchers make the switch to the dragonfly (Odonata) family – these creatures are relatively easy to spot and identify (though don’t get me started on blue damselflies), and can be watched through binoculars. Plus, some of them are extremely confiding – I remember a common darter landing on my arm and using it as a perch for half an hour a few years ago.

There is also something about dragonflies that is unsettling (after all, H.R. Giger used the mouthparts of a dragonfly as inspiration for his creature in Alien). As I’ve noted before, when you’re circled by an emperor you have no doubt that you’re being observed and summed up. Some of them are large enough to be disconcerting at close quarters, and they are certainly too big to pop under a glass and remove from a room. They remind me that a lot of wildness can be contained in a small package, and I am very glad to witness and admire them as something that seems to sum up the spirit of wet and billowy places, of unpeopled woods and gently-bubbling bogs.




A Weedy Walk in Muswell Hill

Prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper)

Dear Readers, today I walked over to the Halifax Building Society in Muswell Hill to finalise the last transfers from Dad’s bank account, so that I could tie up his estate. What a journey it’s been! I must have been on the phone for a full day during the past two weeks trying to find someone who would close his account so that I could distribute the funds and pay his final debts. Every single person that I’ve spoken to has been lovely, and none of them have been able to make it happen. How hard is it to close an account? Very hard, as it turns out, especially in the middle of a lockdown. So I walk over to my local branch, and the staff sorted it all out in fifteen minutes.

I’m in tears at the end of it, partly with relief, but partly because this is it, almost the last thing that I can do for Dad. He and Mum were always so responsible with money – Mum’s idea of a ‘blow-out’ spending spree was to buy two teeshirts in different colours, or a packet of three Magnum ice creams. I think of how Dad would always insist on paying me for my train fare when I went to visit them, pulling out the notes with hands that were numb with peripheral neuropathy. The dialogue always went the same way:

Me: You don’t have to do that Dad, I love coming to visit you and Mum.

Dad: I know I don’t have to, but I want to. Here! (Shaking the money in my direction)

The woman who has been helping me asks if my Dad had been very sick, so I tell her a little bit about him, and notice that her eyes are welling up too.

‘I lost my Dad a year ago’, she says.

And we both stand there helpless. I suspect in another world we’d have hugged, but all we can do in this one is share a moment of fellow-feeling. Perhaps that’s enough, under the circumstances.

And on the way home, I find solace in the weeds, as usual. Nobody at the council has been out with the weed-killer, so there are a great variety of plants taking advantage of the scant soil at the bottom of the walls. The houses along Queen’s Avenue are splendid, but many of them were hotels, so now they stand empty and unloved, all the sadder because a lot of money has been spent on some of them over the past few years. I have taken all these photos on my phone, so please forgive the quality of some of them!

A positive ocean of Phlomis in the front garden of one of the hotels

Weeds seem to fall into a variety of categories. There are the usual suspects, such as the sow thistle in the first photo. Then there are Muswell Hill specialities, such as the mallow which seems to pop up around here, but in few other places locally – I suspect someone planted it in a garden and it’s been advancing forth ever since.

Common mallow (Malva sylvestris)

There is ivy-leaved toadflax growing out of the nooks and crannies. This is one of my favourite weeds, and it seems to be doing well this year, maybe because it doesn’t mind the dry conditions, being something of an Alpine plant in habit. The photo has overexposed a bit, but the flowers were much paler than usual.

Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)

And here we have a veritable forest of sow thistle. Although this has to be the most raggedy, insect-bitten sad-looking weed of the lot, it is such a survivor, and those yellow flowers turn into a mass of wind-blown seeds which will soon be populating the rest of the street.

I have always been very fond of sun spurge (Euphorbia helioscopia) with its exotic acid-yellow flowers, and here it is, growing amongst the knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare agg.) I am not quite sure about the other plants, they look almost like tree saplings – does anyone have any bright ideas?

And here is some caper spurge, which I suspect has jumped the wall from the neighbouring gardens, alongside some nipplewort.

Caper spurge (Euphorbia lathyris)

And here is another garden escape – one  of the multi-coloured decorative grasses that have become so popular over the past few years. I think that a row of these along the bottom of a wall might actually be rather attractive. What do you think?

And the most surprising bottom-of-the-wall plant of all was this one, a stone’s throw away from Muswell Hill in the rather classy Twyford Estate.

I rather think that this might be a baby false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), self-seeded from its parent opposite. I seem to remember that a huge clump of these seedlings were turning into a small forest on the corner of the road, blocking the view of the drivers trying to turn left. I imagine that at some point this little chap will also meet with his demise.

Of course, fancy street trees are not the only trees that pop up in unexpected places. There are some sycamores finding themselves very at home on the alleyway next to All Saints’ Church, along with some cherry laurel and a smidgen of bramble.

And there is a small field of wall barley just along the way too.

And so, nature is cheerfully flourishing as the lockdown (more or less) continues. It’s a reminder that life goes on in spite of our personal griefs and problems. At some point the weed-spray man will reappear, with his tank of toxic chemicals and his lack of protective equipment, but in the meantime, plants are literally making hay while the sun shines. And I, for one, find it strangely comforting.