Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in the Ferwalltal

Dear Readers, after our rather easy and domestic walk to the Sahnesturberl last week, this week we’re trying the slightly more difficult trails. But nothing should be attempted without a cappuccino and a biscuit with ‘Otztal’ on it. There are limits.

There are five valleys all leading away from Obergurgl, and today we were aiming for the Ferwaltaller, one of the more difficult areas to reach. If you look at the photograph above, you can see our path leading up away from the service road. As is usual, it zig-zags backwards and forwards across the slope, so that every time you think you’ve reached the summit, you discover there’s a bit more climbing to do. Still, off we went….

After about twenty minutes stiff climbing, we stopped for a break, and to admire the hills on the other side of the valley. This area is called the Seenplatte, and is part of the national park. There is no skiing development there, and so it is much wilder, and snow lies in pockets for a long time. One of these days I’ll be in good enough shape to attempt it, but my knees are a bit dodgy this year.

The cable car is just a little dot below. I love the way that its shadow seems to hang from it.

I like to look back and see how far we’ve already come. In the foreground above there are the last of the alpenroses, the diminutive rhododendrons that have just stopped flowering here. Obergurgl had a very hot June, and so there are marmots everywhere, but never when I have my camera unfortunately.

A male chaffinch makes his presence felt in the arolla pine trees below.

There are butterflies and moths everywhere. Six-spot burnet moths fizz about, like red blurs.

I’ve noted before that the butterflies love salt, and can  often be found in swarms on any kind of fresh dung. But I didn’t know that they’d feed from sweaty humans as well. My husband had a particularly friendly Meadow Brown.

And so we walked on up, and crossed under the chairlift which they are testing for the winter. Every chair is weighted down with a dozen filled water canisters. The air was filled with beeping from the machinery and cursing in Austrian by the operators. But soon we were far away from all such goings-on.

This is the start of the Ferwalltaller – a stream runs through it, and also a strange clay pipe half-buried in the bank. Who knows what it’s for? But the worst of the climb was over, and we could start to enjoy the scenery.

There are some boggy areas, squelchy with moss and dotted with these white-flowered succulents which I think are a kind of saxifrage. The seedheads of the mountain avens (Geum montanum) remind me of little clematises.

The spiniest thistles (Cirsium spinosissimum) are just coming into ‘flower’. From a distance they look as if each one has been touched with an individual sunbeam.

Close up, however, they are most unprepossessing, and are largely pollinated by clouds of alpine flies. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

The weather forecast for the day was decidedly dodgy, and so, as the clouds started to gather, we decided to head for home. It’s possible to feel very exposed out here in the mountains when there are storms forecast. The official advice if caught in a storm (of which there have been several in the last few days) is to separate yourself from anything metal (i.e. your walking poles), avoid any trees , large boulders or other ‘prominences’, and lay on the ground on top of your rucksack. I figured that this would be a most undignified position to be in, and so we made all reasonable haste to get back down to the village, hotly pursed by most unpromising thunderheads.

And when we got back to village level, it was to discover that the wind had dropped, the sun had come out, and all was delightful. And so there was nothing for it but to return to the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel for an Eiscaffe (coffee and icecream with whipped cream on the top). What a tough life I have.

On Saturday, we head back home. I cannot wait to see what’s happened in the garden. I think a machete might be in order so that  I can get to the shed.

In the meantime,  here is a question for you all. What on earth do you think this machine does? It was parked on the road and looked like some kind of alien. I’m thinking some kind of road-sweeping, but do let me know if you have a more imaginative answer…..


Bugwoman on Location – A Walk to the Sahnestuberl

Large Copper (Lycaena dispar) on yarrow

Dear Readers, today I would like to take you on one of my favourite early holiday walks in Obergurgl, Austria. It isn’t very rugged, or very challenging, though as I arrived with a sore throat and cough, and as the sole of one of my boots has decided to drop off, it was quite challenging enough. I love it because of the sheer variety of terrain, from meadow to pine forest to scree to mountain hut. I also love it because it has some uphill and some downhill, and so my muscles can start to get into the swing of things.

The village of Obergurgl

Here is the view back to the village at the end of the first climb. Obergurgl is at the end of the Oest valley, which is one reason why we love it – it doesn’t have through traffic, the curse of many an alpine village, and it is the epicentre of numerous side valleys. One of the glories of the surrounding hills are the meadows, at their very best at this time of year, just before the first hay cut. And I am in my element – the sheer variety of insects makes my head spin.

A very fine ichneumon wasp

Bright pink yarrow!

Flies are important pollinators in the Alps, but these two are thinking of other things…

Hoverfly on rampion

Clouds of butterflies descend on the dusty paths to feed on the salts in animal droppings, whirling up as we pass.

We look to see what cows are about, and as usual there are some fine Highland Cattle, who seem to do very well in spite of the Austrian summers being considerably warmer than the Scottish ones.

And then it’s on into the woods. These are mostly Arolla pines, and at this time of year you can hear the local jay, the spotted nutcracker, leading the fledglings through the branches. The youngsters make a call a bit like a car alarm.

By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Spotted nutcracker (Photo One – see credit below)

The woods are cool and quiet after the meadows, apart from the occasional sound of cow bells from the Tyrolean blue cattle that graze here, and the roar of motorbikes from the road below. Many biking folk choose to go into Italy via the Timmelsjoch pass, just half a kilometre from where we are walking, and there is also a Motorcycle Museum beside the tollroad.

Soon we reach a little lake called the Pillersee, which has a most attractive duck house in the middle, though I have never seen a single duck take advantage of it. You might think that this would be an ideal spot to stop for a sandwich, but be careful, gentle traveller! On our last visit, we stopped here for the time it took to eat a cheese sandwich (approximately four minutes in my case) and I acquired 12 mosquito bites. My husband didn’t get one. I have recently read that mosquitoes prefer people who have Type O blood, and as my husband has Type A maybe this is the explanation. Or it could just be that I was sweatier than he was. Anyhow, take this as a warning, and glance at the duck house while rushing past at speed.

Just a little further on, we found a patch of early flowering orchids popping up among the buttercups. There are lots of orchids here. In fact, the whole flora is so diverse and plentiful that it makes me weep for our intensively managed, vanishing meadows  in the UK. Nearly all the plants here can also be found at home, but I rarely see such variety.

Then, it’s over a moderately scary bridge. There are a variety of scary bridges in these parts – there’s a delight in bridges that you can see through, which doesn’t help my slight vertigo.

However, this is as nothing compared to the new suspension bridge, just opened on Thursday, over the nearby Gurgler glacier. Methinks I will be giving this one a miss.

Copyright Berger and Brunner

The new Obergurgl suspension bridge (Photo Two – credit below)

Once over the bridge, we walk alongside the glacial river which is in full spate at this time of year, making it difficult to hear. The plants along the path are lush and green, with lots of meadow cranesbill.

Soon, we come to a much more substantial bridge, below the main road, which is protected from avalanches and landslides by a rather attractive ‘avalanche gallery’.

The rocks roast beside the river, and there are very few plants – tiny willows and rosebay willowherb survive in the flood zone, but that’s about it.

But now we are nearly at the Sahnestuberl, which bakes the best cakes in the valley in my opinion. We always come at least once, and sometimes twice.

The very welcome sight of the Sahnestuberl

Last year’s cat is still in residence.

And here is the cake of the day. Apple cake. Note the two forks. We’re not greedy.

Four minutes and thirty seconds later. And no, we didn’t fight.

So, my throat is now better (thanks to some very fine throat lozenges), I have new boots (after spending a week patching the old ones up with glue I decided that they really were done for), and we have another week here in Obergurgl. Who knows what we will get up to this week?

Photo Credits

Photo One (Nutcracker) – By Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Photo Two (New Suspension Bridge) – Copyright Berger and Brunner



Bugwoman on Location – The Blue Shed

Dear Readers, this week I have been in Milborne St Andrew  in Dorset with my parents, trying to help them to deal with the heat. For my Australian and many of my North American readers, I’m sure that my complaining about 90 degree temperatures will be met with a hearty chortle, but for folk with breathing difficulties, even these levels of warmth can cause problems. Plus there was no relief even at night. The fan was on full blast, windows were opened and closed according to where the sun was, lots of drinks were imbibed, and Mum and Dad spent most of the time resting. And so, we got through it, and even got the invitations for the 60th Wedding Anniversary party out, and the menu chosen. Progress was made, in spite of everything.

And one late afternoon, when everyone was dozing, I found a seat in the shade in the back garden next to the blue shed, and decided to stay put and see what I could see.

I love the weathered paintwork on this shed. There is something beautiful about the way that the wood is beginning to show through, and the dance of shadows across the slats.

The shed props up a cotoneaster, and a ceanothus has draped itself over the roof.

I am determined to sit on this seat, like Buddha, until I am….well, if not enlightened, at least lightened. A buzzard wheels across the sky, and just as I get it focused in my camera it folds its wings and dives, disappearing behind the bungalow roofs. And so, I start off feeling disappointed. How often I regret what I didn’t manage to capture on camera, instead of being grateful for what’s right under my nose. So, I settle down again, and decide to look properly.

Take the cotoneaster, for example. The flowers are gone, and instead the berries look like tiny apples, patrolled by ants.

A hoverfly rests in the shadows, flexing her abdomen, though there are no eggs that I can see. Maybe this female is resting from being chased by males every time she tries to feed. A visit here makes my heart very vulnerable. Maybe it’s because I  do things at the pace of two not-very-well 80 year-olds, and all the feelings I can cover up with busyness at home catch up with me. I find myself overwhelmed with tenderness for something as simple as a fly, resting in the shade.

The sparrows are hunting for insects in the ceanothus. They are insectivorous at this time of year, instinctively knowing that their youngsters need protein to grow. They are argumentative and tetchy, and I wonder if the heat bothers them as well. I have promised to get the parents a birdbath, I think it would supply hours of entertainment for everyone, feathered and unfeathered.

Something lands on the shed door. I have only a second, but this one I do catch on camera, albeit badly. A ruby-tailed wasp(Chrysis rubii)! And look at the size of her shadow. She was probably looking for a nest-hole to lay an egg. These are solitary wasps, quite rare in the UK and so I was very lucky to spot one, even for a second.

Ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ruddii)

And here is a much better photo so you can see what I was getting excited about. There are twenty-odd species of ruby-tailed wasp in the UK with differing patterns of red, blue and green.

Kentish Plumber (

A very fine ruby-tailed wasp (Photo One – Credit below)

And looking more closely at the shed, it seemed it was a habitat for lots of other creatures, too. There were red velvet mites gliding over the surface – these are relatives of spiders and scorpions, and while some species are detritivores, this species is predatory, galloping across the blue wooden plains in search of other even smaller animals to eat.

Red velvet mite (Eutrombidium sp.)

I wonder who has made their home in the keyhole?

There is a ribbon of gossamer under the eaves.

And an intrepid snail, one of the humbug- coloured ones that seem to out-number all the others in the garden.

The soundscape is a combination of someone power-washing their patio, the cockatiel across the way getting very excited at being out of doors, jackdaws chuckling and the puffed-up cooing of collared doves as they chase one another backwards and forwards across the garden.

And then, as I hear the familiar theme tune of Pointless, the TV quiz show, coming from the house, I gather up my camera and head back up the path. I always watch Pointless with Dad – I am a little in love with Richard Osman, plus we always like to see how many answers we can get (much easier now Dad has had his cataracts done and can actually see the screen). We are formidable General Knowledge foes, and I am not at all put out when Dad gets more questions right than I do. Not at all put out. Seriously.

But as I get to the kitchen door, a flash of red shoots past me. Glory be. A Scarlet Tiger. How I love those delta wings, and the way that the moth only reveals his scarlet under wings and abdomen in flight.

Scarlet Tiger (Callimorpha dominula)

The next day, Mum is trying on a few jackets that she’s bought online to wear for the party. She had a fall in May, and pain in her hip is added to the pain from the osteoarthritis in her back. She shuffles to the bedroom, tries on the jacket, and looks out of the window.

‘I can’t even get outside to cut some roses for my bowl’, she says, and, turning her head away, sobs silently and fiercely.

‘Oh Mum’, I say, uselessly.

And then she gathers herself together.

‘I’ll be alright,’ she says, ‘don’t worry’.

‘You could feel better tomorrow’, I say.

‘Yes, I might’, she says, wiping her eyes, straightening herself up, looking in the mirror. She can’t decide between the two jackets.

‘Get both of ’em’!’ shouts dad from the living room.

‘You know,’ says Mum, ‘I think I will’.

And I cut roses from the garden  and put them in the glass bowl that Mum found in the charity shop, and give thanks for having legs that work, and for the fortitude of my mother, a diminutive woman warrior shaking her spear against despair.

Photo Credit

Photo One (Ruby-tailed wasp) – by the Kentish Plumber (


Bugwoman on Location – Things Can Change in a Second

Dear Readers, last week I was on my montly visit to Milborne St Andrew to see my 81 year-old parents. It felt like the beginning of summer: for the first time this year, I didn’t bring a raincoat and felt very daring. Dad took me for a walk around the garden, and I treated myself to thirty minutes taking photos of the plants and insect life. I adore the ceanothus, with its heavy honey-scented flowers. For three months it thrums with the sound of bumblebees, as if it was singing quietly to itself.

We had already removed three queen wasps from the house: Mum and Dad had previously had a wasps’ nest just outside the bathroom, so this was quite concerning. Although they have such a vicious reputation, I have always found wasps to be relatively mild-mannered and tolerant. I think that they are somewhat attracted to the cotoneaster outside the front door, not so much for the flowers at this time of year as for the possibility of caterpillars or other small creatures.

Teeny jumping spider on the cotoneaster

And there were many bees on the geraniums and the centaurea, and a fine long-legged spider as well.

I had such a feeling of well-being that afternoon. We had chosen, personalised and ordered the invitations for the 60th Wedding Anniversary party in September. I had spoken to the venue and found details of photographers and bakers and florists. Mum had even started looking for her outfit for the party.

Mum; ‘Maybe I could wear what I wore for my Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary Party’.

Me: ‘Blimey, Mum, if you can’t get a new outfit when you’ve been married for sixty years I’d like to know when you can’.

Mum: ‘You’re probably right’.

And then, just after dinner, Dad announced that he was cold, stood up and nearly fell over. It was 75 degrees outside, but I closed the door and Mum wrapped him up in her shawl while he sat there, shivering. After half an hour of this, he decided that he wanted to go to bed. Mum put the electric blanket on and he shuffled off.

Now, Dad has COPD, or emphysema as we used to call it. He had been a bit chesty, but not more than usual. He’d been admitted to hospital while I was in Canada with early signs of sepsis, but had been sent home, to all intents well, after 24 hours.

‘Shall we call a paramedic?’ I asked Mum.

‘No hospital!’ came a feeble little voice from the bedroom.

The night wore on. Dad became increasingly confused. This is never a good sign. Normally he is as sharp as a tack. When Dad (or Mum) are admitted to hospital, I have to keep repeating the mantra that they aren’t usually confused, and don’t have dementia, otherwise it’s assumed that they’re always this way.

At 11 o’clock, Dad announced that he was getting up and going to work. He’s been retired for 25 years. He actually had his shirt on when Mum went through and persuaded him back to bed. I could hear her telling him off from the living room in spite of Hercule Poirot being on at significant volume.

There is something deeply distressing about seeing someone you love in a state of delirium. It’s as if the person themselves has disappeared under a welter of strange beliefs and impressions, as if you’re no longer living in the same world. And, in some ways, you aren’t. It’s very hard for Mum, but with a mixture of exasperation and humour she normally manages to get Dad to do what she wants.

At this point, we really should have rung for an ambulance, and Mum and I both recognise this now. But no one wants to panic, or to be a burden on the already over-burdened health service. Dad dozed off, and sometimes he’s better in the morning. Come the morning, he was no longer confused, but he did say that he felt terrible, and believe me, that’s not something Dad normally says.

We rang for an ambulance. A bearded paramedic called Ian arrived, checked up Dad’s vital signs and pronounced that he didn’t have sepsis, but he did have a chest infection on his left lung. He reassured Mum that she’d done the right thing in calling him, and said that she should always ring 111 if she was a bit worried, and 999 if she was very worried. The paramedic also got Mum and Dad’s GP to come home for a visit. He prescribed some antibiotics, and within a few hours Dad was looking a bit less pale, and was talking sense again.

It is always such a relief when someone that you love is on the mend. For me, there’s the sense that things can start to get back to normal. I try not to catastrophise, but I can’t stop myself imagining stays in hospital, deteriorating conditions, and worse. Over the past five or ten years I’ve become hypervigilant – if the phone rings and it’s Mum and Dad’s number, my heart starts to thump. It’s much worse for them, of course.

The following morning I was packing to leave when there was a heart-stopping thud from the living room, a sound that had me running down the passage. Dad was sprawled out on the floor, having tripped over his slippers (they are alarmingly carpet-coloured and difficult to see). He peered up.

‘I’ve dropped me antibiotics’, he said.

And indeed, tablets were scattered like so much confetti all over the floor. Of course, that was the least of our worries.

Fortunately, Dad wasn’t hurt, but he was horizontal, and getting up from that position can be tricky, especially when one of you is 81 with a bad back and the other is 57 with a bad back. We managed to get Dad propped up against the chair, but there was no way that, even between us, we could get him any further. Plus, we were worried in case his fall had been because he had deteriorated further, and that he might have hit his head. Mum sighed and rang 111.

20 minutes later, two handsome, burly ambulance guys came in, checked that Dad hadn’t broken anything and got him into his chair. They made sure that the sepsis wasn’t coming back and one of them reassured Mum that she’d done the right thing – it was always as well to check when someone elderly had had a fall, he said. Not that Dad was really elderly, of course, he interjected when Mum gave him what I would describe as ‘an old-fashioned look’.

And so, what have I learned from my latest visit to Dorset? Firstly that when you are getting on a bit (not elderly, obviously) and have multiple health problems, an infection that a younger, healthier person might shrug off can come on like a tornado, and always needs to be taken seriously. Secondly, that dialling 111 is a good thing to do, because they will make the decision about whether or not to call out the paramedics, and then the paramedics make the call about an ambulance. But thirdly, what a remarkable institution the NHS is, and how much we all have to be grateful for. Everyone that we dealt with was kind, patient, competent and good-humoured. Everyone treated Mum and Dad with respect and helped them to maintain their dignity (even when Dad was stranded on the floor).

The NHS is the envy of the world. We are so lucky to have it. It will be one of the major factors influencing my voting next week on June 8th. If you would like to see what the main parties are promising in their manifestos, there’s a link here. Let’s not take the NHS for granted.

The Street Trees of Archway Part One

Japanese Pagoda Trees (Styphnolobium japonicum) outside Archway Station

Dear Readers, we are surrounded by street trees but they go largely unnoticed, flowering and fruiting and developing autumn foliage without so much as a glance from us as we hurry past. Yet our built environment would be so much poorer without their shade and freshness, and so would our wildlife. I was very excited to find that, in Paul Wood’s new book ‘London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest‘, there are a number of walks to follow. One of them is in Archway, just a mile or so down the road from East Finchley. And so, on a day of volatile weather, I took myself down the hill to explore this familiar place with a new focus.

The area outside the station is newly pedestrianised, and there are a variety of young trees, including some Japanese Pagoda trees. Wood points out that these are easily identified by the green bark on the new growth.

Note the green bark on some of the twigs

This tree is a member of the pea family, and, when it’s all grown up, it may have racemes of white flowers. I say ‘may’ because you can wait 30 years for a tree to flower. In the meantime, it has soft, feathery foliage and an elegant, graceful habit. The tree is Chinese rather than Japanese, and in Chinese legend it is believed to attract demons. Let’s hope that this isn’t the case, as the area around the station attracts many lost souls as it is.

By Penarc - -, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The flowers of the Japanese Pagoda Tree (in case you can’t wait for thirty years to see them) (Photo One – see credit below)

In fact, the space around Archway has been somewhat ‘tarted up’ over the past year. All the bus stops have moved, a source of considerable irritation to folk like me who haven’t worked out where the 143 goes from. Also, a cycle lane runs right across the middle of the pedestrianised area, so we will see how that works out.

Newly modernised blocks around Archway (pedestrianised area to the bottom left)

Japanese Pagoda Tree. Is the cage to keep the demons in, or out?

Following the route in the book, I head along Junction Road. Here, I see a splendid example of all the things that street trees have to put up with.

A pit a metre deep has been dug around this tree, and this is currently full of bits of yellow plastic drain pipe, drinks cartons and cigarette ends. No one was working there when I visited, so I will be interested to see how long the poor tree remains with some of its roots exposed. Plus, there is a lot of traffic here, so the plant also has to contend with a lot of pollution. No wonder London Planes are the trees of choice for so many of London’s big roads, what with their resilience and the way that they regularly shed their bark, along with any unpleasant chemicals.

I turn left onto St John’s Grove and there, towards the junction with Pemberton Road, I see two Dawn Redwoods (Metasequioa glyptostroboides).

I must have walked past these trees on my way to the Cat Protection shelter on Junction Road hundreds of times when I was a fosterer, and yet not noticed them. Dawn Redwoods come from a single Chinese forest, where there are less than 5000 individual trees left, and they were only discovered by scientists back in 1946. In its native Lichuan the plant is known as the Water Fir.  It is related to the Giant Redwoods, and though not quite as much of a goliath as these trees it can still grow to 200 feet. It is unusual in being deciduous, and has a light, delicate appearance. It came as a surprise to me to see a tree that is classified as Endangered in the wild is doing well just off the Holloway Road, but then life is full of surprises.

Foliage of the Dawn Redwood

Looking back down Pemberton Road, I see that the council tree surgeons have been hard at work.

The pollarded plane trees always look to me as if they are raising their fists to the sky in fury. They appear to be almost indestructible, however.

Pollarded tree coming into leaf

Paul Wood explains that the main reason that trees are pollarded is prevent the tree from becoming too large. A big tree is a thirsty tree, and it may drink up all the water in the soil. This is known to lead to subsidence, a particular problem, I imagine, in the hilly environs of Islington. If the trees are pollarded every three years, then a court will most likely throw out any claims by a householder, on the basis that the tree always takes the same amount of water. At any rate, although the pollarding looks ugly, it seems to only encourage the trees (at least if the behaviour of my whitebeam following its pruning eighteen months ago is anything to go by – every time it’s cut back, it grows through more vigorously).

Onwards! I cross Holloway Road, and head along St John’s Villas, the scene of much tree-related drama a few years ago.

Sand Pear trees (Pyrus pyrifolia)

There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here.

As I walked along Prospero Road, I was literally led by the nose to the most beautiful show of jasmine and climbing hydrangea I’ve seen in a long time. It perfumed the air for tens of metres in every direction. I only wish that this blog were scratch and sniff, I’d love to share it with you.

On the corner of Lysander Grove, Wood points me to another unusual tree, the Chinese Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Remember the name, because we will meet another of these trees next week.

This elm is largely resistant to Dutch Elm Disease ( I posted about the English Elm here ) and has a kind of splendid grace and poise. It seems to be very popular for Bonsai, but I rather like it as a ‘proper’ tree, bringing a touch of elegance to a North London Street corner.

During a mistaken detour along Lysander Grove, I spot an over-enthusiastic Clematis montana, sharing its beauty with everyone. I wonder where it will end up? Crouch End at this rate.

Once back on the correct path, I see the most splendid green roof on top of a garage, full of red campion and ox-eye daisies. Well done, that home owner! It goes to show that even a small space can provide some beauty and interest.

The garage green roof

Up past the Village Garage on Cressida Road (yes, there’s a Shakespearean theme in these parts), and there are two Photinia ‘Red Robin’ trees. What a shame that I’ve missed the height of their flowering. I must pop back when they’re in their autumn colour. Photinia are much more often grown as shrubs, but these two are very striking in their tree form. The plant is a member of the rose family and is related to the apple: the fruit is said to be popular with birds such as thrushes and waxwings, a good example of how valuable street trees can be for wildlife.

Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’

And now, as I hit the halfway point of my walk, I look back towards the towers of Canary Wharf, with the pyramid of One Canada Square reflecting the fleeting sunshine. I had no idea of the sheer variety of the street trees here, and the walk has thrown up a number of surprises. As I head towards what Wood describes as ‘one of the street tree hotspots of London’, Dresden Road, I wonder what else I will find.

London friends, if you want to know what the street trees are in your area, have a look at this map. It’s not perfect, but put in your postcode and see what’s on your streets….

Photo Credits

Photo One (Japanese Pagoda Tree flowers) – By Penarc – naturalezaysenderos.com, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Paul Wood’s fascinating blog is here, much recommended.



Bugwoman on Location – The Escapees

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me as I relate the tale of two intrepid capybaras, now behind chicken-wire at the High Park Zoo in Toronto. For those of you who have never made the acquaintance of the world’s largest rodent (the males are about the size of a retriever), these creatures normally live in South America, and are usually found in wetland areas, where they graze on water plants and provide a perch for all manner of birds.

By Charlesjsharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

White-throated kingbird utilising capybara (Photo One – see credit below)

In May 2016, a pair of capybaras were delivered to High Park Zoo from Texas. The zoo already had one capybara, named Chewy,  but these rodents live in groups of up to twenty in the wild. However, Chewy didn’t have company for long, as both capybaras escaped within 24 hours, and disappeared into the 400 acres of surrounding parkland. And who can blame them? The park is studded with ponds and lakes and shrubbery. Given a choice between a lawn surrounded by goggling passersby and the peace of a secluded stream, I know which I’d go for.

Chewy, the original capybara, with Toronto mayor John Tory (Photo Two – credit below)

There were frequent sightings of the two capybara, as they eluded all manner of techniques to recapture them, from food bait to recordings of capybara calls. The pair, instantly dubbed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ were spotted all over the park, enjoying their freedom. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Capybara on the loose (Photo Three – credit below)

Not since Rob Ford was Toronto mayor has the city had such international coverage – the story even made The Guardian, and memes popped up everywhere….

Via Amyfstuart on Twitter – full link below

But the capybaras’ freedom was not to last. One was recaptured after 19 days, by using a trap baited with corn and fruit. The other was to remain free for two months, but was eventually caught too.

However, there is a coda to this story.

Earlier this year, the female capybara gave birth to three pups. When I saw them, they were frolicking in the sunshine, chasing one another around the pen while Bonnie looked on. Clyde (or was it Chewie?) sat by the fence unperturbed, inasmuch as anyone can judge. But I couldn’t help feeling sad. It could have been an environmental disaster if the capybara had stayed on the loose and taken to the waterways of Canada, but more likely the animals would have been killed by cars, or dogs, or would not have survived the Canadian winter. Bonnie and Clyde were deliberately bred to be incarcerated, rather than being taken from the wild. And yet, how we love an escapee – the peacock that wakes up an entire village every morning, the eagle that breaks out of her cage, the tales of strange carnivores wandering on Exmoor. In our hearts, we know that what we do to animals is not what they would choose, if they were given an option. And yet our desire to be close to them, to see them, to pet them, is more important to us than what the animal wants most, which is get on with his or her life unmolested. We are not creatures who are prepared to rein in our desires, whatever the result for our animal neighbours. I wonder if it will eventually cost us the earth.

Photo Credits

Photo One (capybara with kingbird) – By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two (Chewie with Toronto mayor John Tory) –

Photo Three (capybara on the loose) –  (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Photo Four (Capybara in car) –

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Bugwoman on Location – A Walk in the Woods at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Dear Readers, there is something about the woodland and wetland area at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, just outside Toronto, that reminds me of a Disney film. No sooner did my friend M and I reach the entrance on Wednesday when birds, chipmunks and squirrels appeared from all directions. It’s been a cold, wet week here, and today was the first day with any sunshine, and hence any people. No wonder we were mobbed by hungry critters.



M had brought a bag of birdfood for chickadees and nuthatches with her, and the birds certainly recognised it. At one point, she was even visited by a female downy woodpecker. There’s something about the slight scratch of those tiny feet on my fingers that moves me: how trusting these creatures are, and how brave.

A female downy deciding whether to join the feast.

And of course the chipmunks don’t want to miss out: it’s astonishing how much food they can get into their cheekpouches. They remind me of Hammy, my pet hamster, who was capable of stuffing an entire small carrot into her mouth.

I hadn’t been to the woods in the spring before, and I loved the variety of woodland plants that are emerging. The coltsfoot is almost finished.

M showed me the mayapple, which I’d never seen before. The green ‘apples’ which you can see in the photo below are the flower buds, with the ‘apples’ being produced later in the year. The green pods are poisonous, but apparently they can be eaten in small quantities when they go yellow. Native Americans use the fruit as an emetic, and as a worming agent.

May Apple

I was fascinated by the range of woodland plants: the diversity seemed much greater than in a similar UK wood. The trout lilies were in full flower: they are named for their speckled leaves, not for their delicate yellow flowers. They don’t flower for their first 4-7 years of life, and spread very slowly: a single colony of trout lilies can be 300 years old. They rely upon ants to spread their seeds (normally they reproduce via their corms), and each seed has a special structure called a eliasome (a new word for my collection). The eliasome is a fleshy overlay full of fat and protein which the ants take home to feed their larvae. As trout lilies like their seeds to be buried very deeply, this works well: the ants eat the eliasome and discard the seed, which may eventually germinate.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

But the highlight for me was the trilliums.

Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

I don’t think that I have ever seen a flower so white. This is another very slow-growing plant, which might take ten years to become big enough to flower (there seems to be a strong relationship between the surface area of the leaves, and the flowering time). Like the trout lily, the trillium is normally spread by ants, but can also be distributed by white-tailed deer, as the seeds survive the deer’s digestive system and can  be deposited, in a handy pile of fertilizer, some distance from the original colony.

As the name suggests, trillium is a plant of threes: three petals, leaves in a set of three, three stigma, six stamen in two whorls of three. It is the Provincial Flower of Ontario, and so I was especially pleased to see a plant that is so specific to the area. I  loved the deep venation on the leaves and the petals, and the way the blooms glowed in the semi-darkness of the under storey. In a few weeks they will be gone for another year, but what a way to herald the spring.

The Canada Geese has already got on with breeding, and there were several territorial scuffles in the tea-coloured water. These geese seem to be largely unloved, but I rather like them for their feisty nature and opportunistic intelligence. You would not want to get on the wrong side of one, but hey, we had enough grain for everyone, so we passed unhindered.

And then we saw a Carolina Wood Duck in a tree. Although many of us have seen the documentaries where ducklings leap from the hole in the tree trunk where the mother duck has made her nest, it’s still a bit of a shock to see one perching precariously on a branch.

Female Carolina Wood Duck sussing out a nest site

Everywhere we went, it seemed that birds were courting. There were the usual red-winged blackbirds.

There were some very fine brown-headed cowbirds, the first that I’ve seen: the females lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds (much like the European  cuckoo), However, unlike the cuckoo, who mainly parasitises warblers, the brown-headed cowbird has been recorded laying its eggs in the nests of over 220 species, including hummingbirds and raptors. As the female can lay up to 36 eggs in a season I imagine that the failure to thrive of some nestlings is not the end of the world: the house finch, for example, feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is not suitable for a cowbird, and I cannot imagine that a hummingbird would make an effective foster parent either. However, many of the cowbirds do survive, a testament to maternal instinct.

Incidentally the brown-headed cowbird is another icterid, like the red-winged blackbird and the grackle, as mentioned in my last piece about Collingwood.

Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)

And so, as my visit to Canada draws to a close, I wanted to leave you with one of the finest birds of the region, the cardinal. I love that blast of red among the fresh new leaves of spring.

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

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