Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

Oak trees with golden leaves, Big Wood, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Dear Readers, this week I decided to take myself off for a small adventure, in a place that is near at hand but completely new to me. Big Wood is just around the corner from East Finchley, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It is not actually a very Big Wood, but at 7.3 hectares it is bigger than nearby Little Wood, at 1.2 hectares. It was originally part of the Bishop of London’s estate but was leased to many different owners, who coppiced the wood for fence posts and firewood. From 1810, however, it seems that the wood was turned over to oak timber – most of the magnificent oaks date from the 19th century. Furthermore, the understorey is largely hazel coppice, rather than the hornbeams from my local Coldfall wood. The remnants of ancient woodland in North London have been heavily managed since medieval times, and probably for far longer.

It’s not all oak and hazel, however. This tiny wood holds over 80 wild service trees, who spread only from the root of the parent plant in the UK because it’s too cold for the seeds to germinate. They are therefore an indicator of the age of the wood, and also a sign that, however the wood has been managed, some parts have been left alone for centuries. There were still a few of the golden-yellow leaves left.

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

There are also true wild crab apple trees. The thick spiny growth on the trunk indicates that these are not ‘wildlings’, trees which have grown up from discarded apple cores, but original trees – some are over a hundred years old. I shall have to visit again when the trees are in blossom – there are lots of wild cherries here too, some of them as tall (though not as robust) as the oaks.

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

As I walk slowly through the wood, I hear the drumming of woodpeckers. Are the males setting up territories already? I hear one bird and then another, a little further away. There is lots of standing dead wood, perfect for nest holes, digging for grubs and percussion.

Nuthatches are scurrying along the branches, excavating under the loose bark for small insects.

An imperfect photo of a¬† nuthatch (as my photos usually are ūüôā )

But the rowdiest of the forest inhabitants are undoubtedly the ring-necked parakeets, with their squawking and their arguing. I have mentioned before that they are amongst the earliest of the hole-nesting birds, getting themselves settled well before the woodpeckers and the stock doves. A pair in the tree above me were definitely house-hunting, and weren’t above making their own alterations, digging out the hole that they’d found and showering me with bark.

I often find that when I go for a walk I start out at a brisk trot and get slower and slower, eventually coming to a complete halt. And it was while I was sitting on a bench that I noticed how the sun was lighting up the spider silk in the bush opposite me. The more I looked, the more strands I saw.

Onwards! In one part of the wood, the hazel coppice has been cut right down to the ground. The health of a wood depends on having trees of various ages, and the young oak trees here do badly because the older trees completely screen out the light. So, the people managing the wood are transplanting failing young trees into this much brighter area to the north-east of the wood, in the hope that they will thrive there. They have also planted a variety of local woodland flowers in the hope of increasing the biodiversity. I shall have to pop back in the spring to see how it’s all doing.

A coppiced area in Big Wood

As usual, though, it’s often the small things that catch my eye. There are miniature forests of moss on some of the hazel branches.

The holly and the ivy grow together, appropriately as Christmas approaches.

The way that the root of a fallen tree tangles together reminds me of something from the Kama Sutra

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

Big Wood is a well-used spot, full of children and dog-walkers and runners, and yet it retains a certain wildness, even so. It has seen so many generations come and go but here it still is, getting on with the business of photosynthesising and decay. The cycle of life goes on regardless, and on some days that is a comfort. There’s nothing like standing next to an oak tree to give one a sense of perspective.







Bugwoman on Location – Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

Dear Readers, hidden away between the Thames Flood Barrier and the United Emirates Cable Car across the Thames is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, 2 hectares of reedbeds and streams and wetland. You exit North Greenwich station and head along the river, passing all the new apartment complexes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the eye of a very hungry woodpigeon, getting tucked into the rowan berries.

At this time of year, I have to work hard to find beauty on my walks. It’s that in-between time of year – the summer migrants have left, but most of the winter ones haven’t arrived. Most of the trees and plants look a little threadbare and between seasons. But the surrounding buildings are bright and colourful, and the path into the alder scrub looks very inviting. The metallic ‘chink’ calls of goldfinches are everywhere.

On the main pond there are the usual coots dabbling for water plants and bustling about. A sleepy duck of indeterminate parentage is resting on one of the wooden islands.

To my delight there are tresses of traveller’s joy, the wild clematis, tumbling through the shrubs.

There are two main paths, a boardwalk which goes around the edge of the site and which is open 24 hours a day, and an inner path which is only accessible when the visitor centre is open. As I head for the inner path, I get talking to a man with binoculars who tells me that a jack snipe has often been spotted in the reeds, but not today. Similarly there are sometimes herons, but the only one I see today is painted on the side of the building.

I look a little closer. There are some very cheeky magpies, one of whom partly demolished a garden trellis outside one of the flats before taking off into the trees.

The reeds remind me a little of bird of paradise flowers.

And there is a guelder rose, dripping with rain.

What a melancholy little walk this was! I have tried to raise my spirits, and as usual nature has helped, but I have a lot on my mind. As I mentioned last week, Mum and Dad are now in the nursing home, but Mum hates it with an absolute passion. She wants to go home so much that earlier this week she dialled 999 to get the police to come and liberate her. I love her so much for her feistiness and ingenuity, but we are in a bit of a bind. The care that we would need to look after her at home just isn’t available, and the nursing home, Mum and Dad’s GP and the District Nurse all think that Mum, at least, needs residential care. So, there we are. I will go to Dorset next week to talk to everyone involved and see what can be done to make Mum happier. Wish me luck!

On the way home, I notice some people climbing over the Millenium Dome. It doesn’t look too hard from here, but I bet it’s not so much fun actually doing it, especially on a breezy day like today. I guess we all have our mountains to climb….


Bugwoman on Location – The Hardest Week

Dear Readers, last week I described how we had found a nursing home for Mum and Dad. This week, things moved at an extraordinary pace. Mum was rapidly deteriorating – as I travelled down from London, I got a call from the District Nurse who had been visiting Mum regularly to dress her pressure sore.

‘ I think something has changed in your Mum’, she said. ‘I think that her poor body is worn out, and that maybe she doesn’t have the energy to go on for much longer. She might rally, but she might not. There’s nothing medically wrong with her that she doesn’t normally have, but I just wanted to warn you’.

And when I arrived, Mum was wrapped up in blankets in bed, refusing to eat, refusing to take her medication. She was always cold, and her hands shook whenever she tried to hold anything. She had to be helped in and out of the bed to the commode a few steps away.

On Tuesday, the people from the nursing home arrived to do an assessment of Mum and Dad’s medical needs. They asked Dad how he felt about moving in.

‘I’m looking forward to it’, he said, and they were flabbergasted and delighted.

Mum was in no condition to answer anything. When they popped in to see her, she just looked at them with those huge green eyes and went back to sleep.

The admission date was set for Thursday.

‘The sooner the better’, said Dad.

I had a chat with him afterwards.

‘You seem very excited about going into the nursing home’, I said.

‘Well’, he said, ‘it’s for your Mum. I want her to be properly looked after. I wouldn’t be going for anyone else’.

The next few days were a flurry of packing. What do you need for a nursing home? If you’re Dad, you need a couple of blazers, your best shoes and your aftershave. He will be the smartest man in the place. He also brought his beard trimmers. Mum was largely in denial, but she rallied to make her feelings known.

‘I don’t want to go’, she said. ‘I¬† love it here. I love the house. I love the garden. I love Milborne St Andrew. ‘

‘Mum’, I said, ‘I know you do. But you need more care than we give you in the house now.’

‘Me and your Dad have looked after ourselves for 83 years’, said Mum. She is laying on the sofa, and I have adjusted her pillow position half a dozen times because she isn’t comfortable and can’t do it herself. ‘We’ll be alright’.

And then we have a row, and I tell her that the only reason she’s still in the house is because I’ve been up and down from London like a yoyo, and when I’m in London I’ve been organising everything, liaising with carers, sorting out medical appointments, making online food orders.

She blinks. ‘Well, what else would you be doing?’ she asks.

And that, I think, is it in a nutshell. Mum’s world has shrunk until there is nothing in it but her and her needs. Pain and fear have made her self-centred.

Anyhow,¬† there is more argy-bargy and I promise that if she hates the place I’ll do something about it, and she promises that she’ll give it a good go.

The morning of the move seems to last forever. We are all packed and ready to go and waiting for our lift. Every so often, Mum tells us that she doesn’t want to go, but she is asleep for most of the time. I wonder for the thousandth time if this is the right thing to do, but we have pretty much run out of options. The clock¬† ticks, and we sit around and avoid meeting one another’s gaze.

Our lovely neighbours come to give us a run to the nursing home with our suitcases. Dad has his beer and gin packed. We have photos and toiletries and the zimmer frame. Mum sits next to me in the car with her head on my shoulder, holding my hand. I know that she is absolutely terrified. Over the past few days she has developed a horrible infection in one arm, which started as a couple of blisters and turned into a mass of medieval sores. This has been bandaged from top to bottom to try to protect it for the journey. Every so often she winces.

The journey is only about twenty minutes, but it’s the longest ride I’ve ever taken.

And then we get there, and Mum and Dad are shown their rooms. At the moment they’re on different floors, but as soon as a room becomes available Mum will be moved¬† up. The rooms are purposely small to encourage the residents to use the communal areas, but Dad has special dispensation to sleep in the reclining chair in Mum’s room. One of the reasons that I liked this home was that it was very flexible and treated people as individuals. They know how important it is that Dad and Mum can be together.

On the other hand, Dad is very independent. He’s already reconnoitered the place.

‘There’s a fish tank on my floor, they were cleaning it out this morning’, he said, as we went for an exploratory walk, ‘And there’s music and dancing!’.

I could see him eyeing up the proceedings. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he joined in next time.

Someone asked him if he wanted to be part of the Christmas talent show. To my surprise he didn’t turn it down because of course they wouldn’t be there at Christmas, but merely out of modesty.

‘I can’t do anything’, he said. ‘I haven’t got any talents’.

Mum, on the other hand, is resolutely unconvinced.

‘ I don’t like it here’, she said to me after she’d been in the home for thirty minutes. ‘It’s got Bad Vibes’.

I left them at 6 o’clock, Dad in his pyjamas in the reclining chair with a can of San Miguel in his hand. I went to the guest flat where they were staying and plonked on to the sofa with a mix of emotions. Should I just have left Mum where she was and employed nurses to look¬† after her in her last days, if indeed this is what they were? Should I have found a different nursing home?

I went out for a curry and a beer, fell into bed at ten o’clock and slept like a log for the first time in six months.

The morning was bright and clear. The staff told me that ten o’clock was a good time to go in, as all the medical stuff would have been done by then. I wandered about in the grounds taking the photos for this piece. I was struck by what I thought at first was a magnificent holm oak,¬† but then realised that it was two trees growing next to one another, one tree leaning backwards as if they were dancing the tango.

I walked into Mum’s bedroom, expecting a litany of complaints. But Dad had had a good night, and Mum was sitting up. She took all of her tablets. She ate some porridge. She ate half a piece of toast and jam. She looked tired and frail, but not at death’s door, at least not this morning.

‘I don’t like it’ she said. ‘I want to go home’.

I reminded Mum that she’d said that she’d give it a proper try, and that 18 hours was hardly enough time to decide.

‘Alright’, she said, ‘But I still don’t like it’.

‘But there are alpacas coming for a visit this afternoon’ said Dad. The home is visited by therapy alpacas. Who knew there was such a thing?

Mum gave him a look. She is clearly not impressed by the alpacas.

And so we go on. This has been such a quick transition and most people don’t like change, especially as they get older. Mum will need time to get used to the idea of being looked after permanently, and to mourn the loss of her independence and her home.Mum tells me that I don’t understand what those losses mean, and she’s right. What I do know is that this is the best chance that Mum and Dad have to stay healthy, together and out of hospital for the time that remains to them. Whether that will compensate for the loss of autonomy that goes with it, I don’t know.

In a way, so much of Mum and Dad’s ability to make decisions for themselves has already gone. In an ideal world, we would have decided on the future together, and would have gone to visit lots of nursing homes to decide on the right one. Instead, when the crisis came it was an emergency, with the GP saying that they were no longer safe in the house because of Mum’s medical and mobility issues. What Mum did say to me a long time ago was that it was more important that they were together than that they were at home, and that she trusted me to find them somewhere good to live out their days. I hope that at some point, she remembers that conversation. In the meantime I will have to bear the fact that she doesn’t like where she is and that she thinks I’m a terrible daughter. I shall have to harden my heart and rest in the knowledge that I’ve done the very best I can. For now, that will have to do. At least they are safe, warm, comfortable and well-looked after.






Bugwoman on Location – A Glimmer of Hope

Dear Readers, my Dad has always grown roses. They seemed to love the heavy clay soil of London, and all that was needed was some pruning and a bucket of horse manure, and off they went. It has been a little more difficult in the light soil of Dorset, but there are fifteen varieties in flower around Mum and Dad’s bungalow. There is the heavy-headed ivory-pink¬† rose that Mum could see from the kitchen window, when she was able to stand long enough to do the washing up. There are the standard roses, one cerise, one velvet-red, that Dad’s sisters bought for their diamond wedding anniversary. There are blue-grey roses and yellow roses, and an apricot one that doesn’t have many flowers, but makes up for it in the perfection of those petals.

Hidden in the garden are fairies and fawns and meerkats, all peeking up through the undergrowth. There is a model of St Francis of Assisi who often has a live robin perched on his head. The twelve-foot high beech hedge is a-twitter with sparrows, and a blackbird nests there.

This week I went gathering roses in the rain. I found some blooms on the ivory rose that weren’t yet speckled pink from the rain. The red rose was bowed down, the edges of some of the petals dry and crinkled like the pages of an old book. A yellow rose disintegrated as soon as I touched it. I cut the loveliest blooms in the garden, arranged them in a rose bowl and took them into the living room. I put them on the table next to Mum’s reclining chair.

‘Pretty’, she said, ‘But they smell too much, can you put them over there?

Mum has been smelling things that aren’t there – fish, burning, faeces. It’s strange how she never imagines honeysuckle or jasmine or freesia. And normal everyday smells, like a bunch of roses or a roasting chicken, are overwhelming to her. She came out of hospital, after seven weeks, a shadow of the woman who went in, and with a worsened pressure sore, a lot of physical weakness and much increased confusion. Hospital has had a bad effect on both Mum and Dad – after a two week stay, Dad’s dementia symptoms skyrocketed.

So much has been going on, but the general trend is downwards. Take last night, for example. Dad had a doctor’s appointment on Friday, and he was anxious about it, so he popped into my bedroom at 11 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock to ask me if it was time to go yet. Then at four o’clock Mum woke up and was extremely agitated. She wants to get out of bed, then she wants to get back in. She no longer remembers the layout of the house. She no longer remembers how to operate her reclining chair. Sometimes, she doesn’t quite remember where parts of her body were. I managed to hurt my back moving her over in the bed, and when she was solicitous of my pain I had to walk outside for a quick weep and to pull myself back together.

And this morning, dad’s chest is bad (he has COPD) and so he didn’t get to the doctor anyway. As I write this, he is back on the antibiotics and the steroids, and we’re praying that he doesn’t end up back in hospital.

And it is to counteract scenarios like this that I finally talked to the doctor, who advised that finding a nursing home for Mum and Dad was now the best option. In a nursing home they could keep Mum and Dad together, and endeavour to reduce the amount and duration of hospital visits that they required. Plus, they would be looked after properly, 24 hours a day.

I was sceptical at first. I visited one nursing home that had an artificial beach and a dedicated cinema room, and still didn’t feel that it was right for Mum and Dad. I ruled out many on the grounds of their CQC reports. It’s hard to find a home that will look after both people with dementia and who are physically frail, (though this could be a red herring since Mum has been less coherent since she came out of hospital). And then I visited a home in the centre of Dorchester, and as soon as I walked through the door I got the feeling that this was an open, friendly, person-centred place. I talked to the manager, and we clicked straight away. And, unusually, she had two rooms available.

Do you sometimes get a feeling that something is fate?

The reason that I was going to this home was because Mum and Dad’s GP had had a relative stay there until she died, and he had visited it frequently. It soon seemed that everyone had a good word to say for it – one of our lovely carers had worked there, the taxi driver’s partner still worked there, the district nurse had worked there. All of them reported back to Mum and Dad that it was a good place.

Dad went from ‘I don’t want to try that’ to ‘I don’t want to sell the bungalow for less than ¬£300k’ in 24 hours. I’m not sure that Mum really understands what’s going on a lot of the time. But I honestly think that this is the best chance they have for a fourth act in their lives, a chance to have a wider circle of people to talk to and things to do. They have both agreed to give the home a go, and so we have an assessment happening next Tuesday. I hope and pray that it goes well, and that Mum and Dad are prepared to try it, because we are running out of choices.

Certainly I can’t go on the way I am at the moment. I had terrible chest pains that turned out to be nothing when investigated, but which scared me at the time. I am exhausted, and stressed, and not, I fear, the good and patient nursemaid that I was when all this started several years ago. Not enough is written about how caring for people long-term changes the whole nature of the relationship. To me, for much of the time,¬† Mum and Dad are not primarily my parents, but have become patients, a project to be managed. I¬† don’t have time to sit down and actually talk to them because I’m sorting out medications, doctors’ visits, transport to the hospital, the online grocery order, the army of carers and agencies. I would like to be able to spend some real time with Mum and Dad, to listen to them, to hear their stories while there is still time. I want to know them as people again, and I have gradually lost that in the slowly rising flood of other responsibilities.

I am travelling down again next week for the assessment meeting on Tuesday and if all goes well, Mum and Dad could possibly be ensconced by the end of the week. It’s all happening so quickly that I’m struggling to keep up but if something feels right, it seems appropriate to go with the flow. We won’t do anything hasty with the bungalow until we’re absolutely sure that Mum and Dad are happy (in spite of Dad’s encouragement to do otherwise). I recognise that it will be a big transition for Mum and Dad, and that there will be bumps along the way, but it feels like the right thing to do.

And I also have to deal with my own grief that things are changing. A way of life could be coming to an end for me, too. As I cut the roses and bury my face in those soft, fragrant petals, I realise that this might be the last time that I am able to fill a bowl with them. Mum and Dad have loved this bungalow, and especially the garden, and so have I. But if things work out, this garden will soon be someone else’s delight, and that’s as it should be. And I will have to let go of my role as primary carer and organiser, and to let someone else manage all that, and that will be hard too. But everything changes, in nature and in our lives, and so much suffering is caused by grimly hanging on when we could be letting go. There will be much sorrow during the next few weeks, I’m sure, but in my heart I feel the tentative growth of hope.

Still life with medications

Bugwoman on Location – That Condor Moment

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Dear Readers, although my recent trip to Monterey was mainly about the hunt for cetaceans, we would have been remiss not to take time out to  look for the largest land bird in North America, the California Condor. Its wingspan is just a shade under ten feet, it weighs in at 26lbs, and there are just 463 individuals left. This is, however, something of an improvement on its condition in 1987 when there were just 27 birds alive, due to a combination of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction.  In an extraordinary conservation effort, these last remaining wild birds were captured and a breeding programme was started at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. The first individuals from this attempt to reestablish the species were released in 1991, and you can now see this extraordinary bird soaring above the coastal areas of California, the Baja California peninsula and some of the desert areas of Arizona and Utah.

California condors are, in effect (whisper it!) giant vultures. Their larger Andean cousins occasionally kill things, but the California condor is a cleaner-upper, an invaluable part of the ecosystem but not a bird of prey. Close up it looks almost primeval, with its midnight-black plumage and bald face, but it is unquestionably magnificent.

Photo One by CC BY 3.0,

The face of a California Condor (Photo One)

Their role as scavenger hasn’t stopped them the California condor from featuring as both a creator and a destroyer in the legends of Native American peoples: the Yokut people believed that the bird sometimes ate the moon, causing lunar eclipses, whereas the Wiyot tribe of California believed that the condor recreated the human race after it was wiped out in a flood. Many peoples use condor feathers in their headdresses and ceremonial costumes, and the bones of the birds have been discovered in tombs. In many cultures, birds that fly so close to the sun are believed to have an affinity with the gods, and with returning the souls of the dead back to their ‘home’ in the sky.

Back to our trip to Monterey. We had spotted several birds in the distance, but were completely unprepared when we turned a corner to see a condor, in its characteristic legs-down posture, flying not twenty feet above a lay-by. We screeched to a halt in a tangle of cameras and binoculars, just in time to see the bird swooping low into a stand of trees. The guy repairing the overhead cables nearby  shook his head. I suspect he sees a lot of tourists nearly doing themselves a damage on their first close encounter with this extraordinary bird.

All the released birds wear a number tag, which enables them to be identified. The bird pictured at the start of this piece has the id number ‘ red twenty-six’, and has the name ‘Beak Boy’. He was hatched in Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, and was fostered by a pair of Andean Condors. These birds accidentally damaged his beak while feeding him, and although the beak has now healed it has a characteristic ‘lump’ on it.

In 2006 he paired with ‘Solo’ (#208) who was also reared in Los Angeles Zoo. This bird preferred the isolated areas of Monterey County, which are also hunting country. This exposed the bird to the risk of lead poisoning from shot left in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. In 2005 she was spotted in severe distress, and was taken into Los Angeles Zoo for treatment. Fortunately she survived, and was released. In 2008 an act was passed in California which bans the use of lead shot in condor territory, but this doesn’t protect the birds when they fly into other areas. Even the US military doesn’t use lead ammunition, and lead shot for anglers has been banned in the UK for many years. Come on American hunters, get with the programme! It isn’t just condors that are affected but all kinds of birds, from swans and loons to bald eagles.

In 2007, Beak Boy and Solo laid the first fertile condor egg in the wild in Monterey for over a century. Scientists were worried about this first egg, and so it was hatched in captivity. When the bird fledged she was released and joined her parents, no doubt learning all about what it means to be a condor. Beak Boy and Solo have hatched another five eggs since.

All this gives you an idea of the amount of micro-management involved in bringing a species back from the brink. Condors live for a long time (they can reach sixty years old) and breed slowly, not attaining sexual maturity until they are six, and only laying one egg every other year. However, if an egg or youngster goes missing, the birds will lay another egg: this was used by the conservationists as a way of doubling the ‘production’, with the original egg being raised in captivity by humans or condor foster parents, and the parents raising the second egg.

The birds are taught to avoid humans and overhead cables during the rearing process, which has increased their chance of survival in the wild. One of the measures involves feeding the nestlings via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to prevent them associating humans with food. The less these birds come into contact with humans, who have caused them so much harm, the better.

Nestling condor being fed via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to avoid habituation/imprinting on humans (Public Domain)

Let’s have a look at the story of another bird.

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is blue 52 or ‘Ferdinand’. He was hatched in 2012 but is already a large and impressive bird, though apparently with a sweet nature, hence his being named after the gentle bull ‘Ferdinand’ in the cartoon. Apparently when he was released, instead of flying off, he walked up the hill to where the other condors were feeding and joined in without any bickering or argument. He already weighs in at 23lbs and this is not surprising – his father, condor #1 or ‘Topa Topa’ to his friends, was the first condor to be taken into captivity in 1967 and is the largest captive condor ever recorded, at almost 26ibs.

And one last story…

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is green 11, or ‘Big Gulp’. He is a very young bird, hatched in 2015, and was named for his entertaining way of eating, which involved bolting down great chunks of semi-frozen meat. Since his release he has paired up with a much older, more established male #566, or ‘Mike’s Bird’, named for a conservationist who was killed the day after the bird was released. Mike’s Bird is the dominant bird in the area, but has been alone since the death of his mate a few years ago. Condors pair for life, and so maybe in his loneliness he is enjoying palling around with ‘Big Gulp’. The two birds apparently sit together and preen one another. It seems to me that California condors are generally most accommodating and tolerant birds, gentle giants.

The California condor preservation effort is probably the most expensive in US history, costing over $35m since the Second World War, and about $2m per year. I am not sure what price you can put on the sight of these birds soaring above the hills around Big Sur, but for me they are capable of inducing true awe, a sense of the sublime. They are ugly-beautiful, maybe the closest thing that we have to the great pterodactyls of old, in size if not in actual genetic proximity. Preservation of their habitat will protect a whole raft of other, less spectacular but nonetheless vital creatures and plants. The return of the California condor is a story about what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. When we live in an age of such destruction, it’s important to celebrate our successes as well as bewail our failures.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY 3.0,

You can see the biographies of all the Californian birds at the Condorspotter website

Bugwoman on Location – Monterey Bay

Dear Readers, I was due to travel on the 3rd of September, and on the 2nd September I was still not sure if I was going. Mum was in hospital, and Dad had had the paramedics out again for a chest infection. But suddenly everything seemed to settle down. Did I dare take a whole week out from the drama at home? I certainly needed it. I wasn’t sleeping. I was crying at the slightest little thing. I had broken out in a hideous rash. In short, I was on the verge of not being able to cope at all.

‘Go!’ said my brother. ‘I’ll handle things here’.

And so I went to the other side of the planet, to Monterey Bay in California, for a Naturetrek tour. I arrived in a flurry, my head still full of carer timetables and hospital visiting times and contingency plans. And then, I was out on the water, looking towards a grey horizon on a sea that was so calm that it felt as if the boat was bobbing about on liquid metal. The sea fret clouded my glasses and frizzed my hair, and the fog numbed the sound of the engine.

It can look so lifeless, the sea. But Monterey Bay is a cetacean hotspot, where cold upwellings from deep undersea trenches provide a feast of krill for the largest animals on earth, and all the smaller ones too. From that cold water comes the hottest blood in the ocean.

At first the sightings were fleeting. A long grey back broke the water, accompanied by a fountain of steam some thirty feet high. A blue whale, accompanied by her calf, was crossing the Monterey Bay superhighway. From our view in the boat she looked big, but the photograph below shows her true scale – blue whales grow to some 90 feet long here, though the longest ever recorded was 108 feet long.

Blue Whale swimming away from the boat (photo courtesy of Discovery Whale Watch and Slater Moore Photography)

Blue whales are remarkable animals, but because of their immense size they don’t go in for the acrobatics of their smaller relatives, the humpbacks, who measure a mere 50 feet long. There is a population of some 3000 humpbacks in the Monterey Bay area, and watching them made me wonder at their strength, their complexity and their sheer otherworldliness. Even after spending some twenty hours in their company in the course of a week I am still not quite sure if they were a dream, or if I actually saw them. Fortunately, there are photos.

It’s not uncommon to see a humpback ‘breaching’, or throwing itself out of the water. Scientists still don’t know why they expend the amount of energy required to heave that 30 ton body out of the water, but presumably it’s important. There has been speculation that it’s for communication (the noise of the splash carries for miles, and it’s been noted that when one whale breaches, another many miles away may do the same thing when the sound wave hits). Is it for exercise? Young whales seem to do more breaching, but maybe that’s just because they can. Or is it for sheer exuberance?

Incidentally, the angle of the photo below makes the whale look much closer to the boat than s/he actually was. The company that we used for the trips, Discovery Whale Watch  was very respectful of the rules around whalewatching in the area: whales were always given plenty of room, approached from the side rather than from behind, and the engine was cut when we were around the animals. In all the cases that I observed the whales carried on doing exactly what they were doing before we arrived.

Humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

We also saw the extraordinary sight of a mother and calf breaching at the same time – was the mother teaching the youngster how to do it?

Mother and calf humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Generally, when humpbacks breach they land on the back of their heads, which are bony, rather than doing a belly flop. Look at the length of those pectoral fins! When people first found the bones of humpback whales in the Americas, they took one look at those huge ‘hands’ and thought they must be looking at the skeletons of giant angels.

Another humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Humpbacks often feed communally on the huge shoals of anchovy that gather in the Bay to feed on the krill. We watched them blowing a circle of bubbles to make sure that the fish were pushed into a tight ball, before opening their mouths en masse and swallowing swimming pool-sized gulps of fishy water. I’ve watched scenes like this on Blue Planet, but never dreamed that I’d have a chance to see it in real life.

It’s hard to capture the excitement of seeing so many whales together. It felt such a privilege, as animal encounters always do to me. It is so easy to for me to become embroiled in my particular challenges and dramas, but seeing something like this wipes the mind clean until all that is left is a sense of wonder.

Humpbacks lunge feeding (Photo by Peter Dunn)

As the whales fed they were joined by sealions and pelicans, shearwaters and terns, until the whole sea was boiling. The biologist onboard pointed out that if the sealions started jumping, the whales were often going to surface right beneath them, and so it proved. Sometimes the whales seemed to get irritated with all the other creatures and made a trumpeting sound that reminded me of a baby elephant. It must be crowded under the surface with  all those other animals trying to muscle in.

And how quickly the whales gobbled up the anchovies! Sometimes, all that remained were a few sad silvery scales bobbing¬† beneath the boat. The feeding frenzy also gave us humans the dubious pleasure of smelling ‘whale breath’, which resembles a combination of flatulence and halitosis. I guess that if you live on a diet of krill you must need powerful stomach bacteria to deal with it all.

Sealions feeding above Humpback whales (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And as if this wasn’t enough, on several occasions we were joined by a superpod of several hundred Common Dolphin. They love to ride the bows of the boat, and the hashtag bites on their backs are a token of how determined each one is to claim the front spot.

Common dolphins riding the bow of the boat (Photo by Peter Dunn)

There are lots of explanations for why dolphins jump, too. Is it a dominance display, or a way of communicating? Probably both, but to me it also looks like a whole lot of fun.

Common dolphin jumping (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And when I got back to the land (which seemed to heave slightly under my feet) and gazed out to sea, I was left with a sense of profound mystery. In some ways whales are so similar to us (they are mammals after all), but when I think about their lives underwater, their songs, their epic migrations and their bonds with one another that might be maintained over many years and over hundreds of miles, I am astounded. To think that we share the planet with such creatures fills me with awe, and gratitude, and humility.

Humpback pectoral (Photo by Peter Dunn)

The majority of the photographs this week were taken by one of our guides on the trip, Peter Dunn. It was wonderful to be able to just watch and appreciate these remarkable animals without having to worry about whether I was getting the perfect shot. Sometimes, the camera comes between me and what I’m looking at, but this time I could relax into the experience. Thanks, Peter!

The photo of the blue whale with our boat was taken by Slater Moore, using a drone. In case you are worried about this causing disturbance to the wildlife, I should point out that it was used for less than ten minutes during a four hour cruise, and at no point was it flown close to birds or smaller sea mammals who might have been disturbed by the noise. Have a look at Slater’s website for some other remarkable photographs.

Bugwoman on Location – One Hell of a Week in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I was¬† visiting my Aunt Hilary in Somerset last Saturday when I received a call about my elderly Mum in Dorset. Outside Hilary’s window, a flock of fledgling sparrows was gathering in the shrubs and carrying on a conversation that seemed comprised of a single note, uttered with different degrees of urgency. But on my mobile phone, I hear that Mum is in a sorry state, vomiting, feverish and getting on and off the commode every twenty minutes. Paramedics were called in the morning, but had deemed her not ill enough to be admitted to hospital so she was at home, distressed and with Dad not able to help much because of his own infirmities.

When the carer visited again on Saturday afternoon Mum had worsened and the carer called 111. She was informed that a doctor would be with her within two hours. Two hours passed. The carer called again, and was told it would be another two hours. The carer was so worried that she called 999 at 8 p.m. I asked her to call me when the paramedics arrived, however late it was. They arrived at 12.50 a.m. and again didn’t admit Mum to hospital, in spite of a day spent vomiting and passing water every twenty minutes.

I should back up a little here, and explain. For you or I, a urinary tract infection or a bout of norovirus is unpleasant, but usually clears itself in a few days after a dose of antibiotics for the former, and starvation/lots of fluids for the latter. For someone like Mum, with heart failure, diabetes, COPD and a whole host of other stuff, a simple infection can quickly turn into something nasty like sepsis, or at best can cause her condition to deteriorate quickly. But Mum’s vital signs were still good, and so there was not enough cause to admit her.

At 5 a.m. the doctor arrived and gave her some antibiotics and some tablets for the nausea. It’s hard to take tablets when you have nausea, but she managed it somehow.

On Sunday morning I grabbed a taxi from Broadway in Somerset to Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. My taxi driver was a delightful chap in a top hat and shorts. I sat in the front seat and we drove through the rain, while he told me about his life: how he was an engineer and inventor by trade, and how he’d almost succeeded in getting funding for his master project, a way of helping the companies who fill in potholes to operate in the rain. I was happy to let him ramble on with his tales of lasers and oil on surface water and the difficulties of gauging the depth of a pothole when the light is being refracted. It took my mind off the situation that I was walking into.

I¬† got to the house and walked into Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Mum was half asleep. She didn’t have her teeth in, which always makes her look about 105 years old, and changes her voice. She hadn’t eaten, or taken any of her medication, because she felt too sick. She was burning up with fever, but said she felt a little better since starting the antibiotics. Her green eyes looked enormous in that little white face. I helped her onto the commode and realised how very weak she was. I’d no sooner got her settled into bed than she wanted to get out again. She was too hot, then too cold. By Monday morning Dad had decamped to the living room to sleep in his reclining chair because Mum was so restless, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled. I know how awful that feeling of a UTI is, the way you want to keep going to the toilet even when there’s nothing left in your bladder. I also began to understand how hard it is to keep lifting someone off a bed onto a commode, and then get them back into bed when they can do almost nothing to support their own weight. However strong your core muscles are (thank you, pilates!) sometimes the angles that you have to get into to lift someone put a terrible strain on your back.

On Monday the diarrhoea started, but I’ll pass over that quickly. The doctor popped in to visit her, and pronounced her vital signs acceptable. She still wasn’t taking any of her medications and what we now recognise as withdrawal was kicking in: some of her¬† medications are addictive, and without them she was starting to shake and become even more agitated.

On Monday night she needed assistance twice an hour. I would go to bed for half an hour’s shuteye and be roused instantly by sounds from Mum’s bedroom – the sound of the door banging against the bedside cabinet, a sure sign that she was trying to get up, or her cries for help. She would usually have already swung her legs out of bed and was laying at a most uncomfortable angle, which explained the urgency of her cries. No matter how many times I asked her to call out before she started moving, she was determined, even in her weakened state, to be independent. I sensed this was a recipe for disaster, and I was right.

At 1 o’clock in the morning I heard an even more desperate cry for help, and went into the bedroom to find her on the floor. There is no way that Dad and I could lift her back on to the bed, and besides I really wanted the paramedics to take another look. I dialled 999 and explained the situation, and they called me back to get all the details. They warned me that they were extremely busy, and that it might take a while for the paramedics to get to us, because the situation wasn’t life-threatening. I completely understand.

We covered Mum in blankets, tried to get her comfortable with some pillows and turned the heating up. Dad and I took it in turns to sit in the bedroom to keep her company.

Mum wasn’t happy.

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘I’ve got to get up’

‘I’m cold’.

‘I’m too hot’

‘Can you put a pillow behind my head’.

‘Can you take that pillow away it’s hurting me’

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘Somebody help me, please’

‘I want to get up’

‘Can’t you help me to get up?’

There is nothing worse than that feeling of helplessness, which so easily transforms into a kind of rage. I found myself getting inpatient with Mum, and close to tears. I went outside and sat on the bench in the dark to calm myself down.

A tawny owl called from very close at hand, a wild, otherworldly cry. It reminded me of someone calling out from the other side of a great divide,urgent and distressed.

Of course, this suited my mood perfectly, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the owl, who might have been in an excellent frame of mind for all I knew.

The paramedics finally arrived at 4 a.m., got Mum back into bed in a jiffy and, whilst worried about her, didn’t find enough warning signs to admit her to hospital.

I heard one of them say ‘How on earth is she managing?’

‘She isn’t normally like this’, I said. ‘She’s normally mobile enough to get about in the bungalow with her walker’.

And this is another problem – when you don’t know the patient, you may assume that she is always confused, or unable to get about, because you have no baseline to go by. It’s why I make sure to tell hospital staff that although Mum is a little forgetful, she doesn’t usually hallucinate or talk absolute rubbish.

And so Monday faded into Tuesday, and Wednesday. Several times I had to call on a lovely carer who lives locally to help get Mum back into bed when she got herself into a position where I couldn’t lift her on my own. I got better at getting her to and from the commode, but she was getting weaker and weaker. We managed to get her to eat some custard and a little porridge, and she was drinking lots of milk, but it obviously wasn’t enough. She was back on her medication, and at least had stopped shaking. Nurses popped in from time to time to check her blood sugar and see how she was doing.

The doctor visited while Mum was asleep. He took her blood sugar and her blood pressure, and she didn’t stir. He looked at her with concern.

‘I wonder if this is a turning point?’ he said. ‘She’s always been such a fighter. I’ve never seen her like this before’.

‘She’s still a fighter’, I said. ‘You might be surprised’. I was taken aback by the flare of anger that I felt.

Later, when Mum was a bit more alert, I opened the blinds so that she could see the garden, and I heard her call for me. I went in, and sat on the bed beside her.

‘Are they sparrows in the gutter opposite?’ she asked. ‘What are they doing?’

I leaned down so that I could see things from Mum’s eye-level, and we both called out as we saw a spray of water fly into the air.

‘They’re having a bath’, we said, and settled back to watch. When I looked down again, Mum was asleep.

On Friday, I had to leave to go home. I had had about three hours sleep in four days. I was bursting into tears over every little thing. I arranged for carers to be in the house for most of the time. I trialed some overnight adult diapers for when the carers couldn’t be there, because I didn’t want Mum getting out of bed when there wasn’t anyone to help her. I thought Mum would object because of the lack of dignity, but I think it’s a sign of how unwell she felt that they came as something of a relief, and they seemed to be comfortable and effective.

I sat by her bedside and held her hand.

‘I’ve got to go, Mum, but I’ll be back soon’, I said.

‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘I’m getting better. You go home and don’t worry’.

And then I really did cry, which wasn’t very helpful.

‘Earlier on this week, I was laying here thinking that I was 83 and I’d had a good innings’, she said.

‘Mum, you’re only 82’, I said.

‘Oh!’ she said, and smiled one of those toothless grins that I’ve become so familiar with this week, ‘You’ve given me back a year, thank you!’

She thought for a minute.

‘Maybe I’m not ready to go just yet’, she said.

And so I left, and got on a train, and by the time I got to Bournemouth I got a call from the carer who said that she’d called the paramedics again and this time they were going to admit Mum to the hospital. I spoke to one of them, a chap called Alan.

‘Her vital signs are not bad, but there’s obviously something wrong so we’re going to admit her and see if we can get to the bottom of it’, he said.

I could have kissed him.

My train carriage wasn’t busy and so I spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window and being occasionally gripped by paroxysms of crying. It feels as if I am rebounding from one crisis to another, being pinged about like the ball in a pinball machine. I am encouraging the parents to think about getting a live-in carer, but Dad says having someone else in the house would drive him mad, and Mum only wants to do that if they can buy a bigger bungalow, which is completely inpractical – moving is stressful enough if you’re well. I feel as if they are one step away from disaster the whole time, and as if my whole life is on hold because I am trying to keep this little boat afloat by sheer willpower.

I get back to London, walk through to the kitchen, and see this.

The finches have been planting sunflower seeds, and this one has come into bloom while I’ve been away. And here I am crying again, because it is such a cheerful, hopeful plant, and I could almost believe that it’s looking through the window to welcome me back, and to tell me that everything will be well. And the cat comes down the stairs miaowing, and the buddleia that I was planning to cut back this weekend has a second flush of bee-covered flowers. I feel something in me that has been unanchored for days settle and grow still.

I will get through this, whatever it takes.