Category Archives: London Amphibians

Sunday Quiz – Aliens!

A Martian in Woking (Photo by Colin Smith ) This is a metal sculpture, based on H G Well’s book ‘The War of the Worlds’

Dear Readers, this week we had Claire with 11 1/2 out of 15 and Fran and Bobby Freelove with 13 1/2 out of 15, so well done to all of you! The next quiz will be tomorrow, and I am wondering why I didn’t have the idea for it ages ago…I hope you enjoy it!

‘Alien’ animals can cause a range of reactions, but the history of how they got to the UK, and what their impact has been, fascinates me. In most cases, they arrived because we wanted them, and didn’t realise quite how keen they’d be to get back to the wild. Sometimes, they were hitchhikers, a result of the international trade in plants and artefacts. Very rarely, they flew here of their own accord and found the conditions to their liking. With climate change, and with our inadequate biosecurity regulations, we are going to have to get used to all manner of plants and animals arriving and setting up home. As always, it will be interesting to see how such encounters play out.

Photo One by Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Edible dormouse (Glis glis)

This attractive little rodent was deliberately released into the wild in 1902 (it comes originally from southern and central Europe). It is considered a menace because it can wreak havoc in lofts and roof spaces, and damages trees by stripping the bark. The Romans used to have special pots for keeping edible dormice until they were fat enough to eat. I must admit I thought that they had brought them to the UK, but it seems that if so they became extinct, and were re-introduced much more recently.

Photo Two by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

2. American mink (Neovison vison)

Farmed for their fur, some escaped while others were deliberately released, sometimes by well-meaning animal activists. However, these creatures are efficient predators, and their presence has been linked to the decline of the water vole and various ground-nesting birds. Their numbers might be decreasing slightly as the larger otter becomes more common.

Photo Three by Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

3. Sika deer

Originally introduced to populate the grounds of stately homes and estates, the sika was established in the wild by the 1930’s. It interbreeds with native red deer and can cause serious damage to crops, trees and sensitive habitats. There are lots in Dorset, and on our way back from Dorset last week our train nearly ran over two who were on the tracks.

Photo Four by Prue Simmons, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

4. Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

This animal (which is a canid not a raccoon) was introduced to the UK from East Asia for its fur. it isn’t established in the UK yet, but it is well established in many other parts of Europe so watch this space. Where it has established a foothold, it is a predator of birds and amphibians, and competes with native carnivores such as the fox and badger.

Photo Five by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Ring-necked/rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

Did Jimi Hendrix release a pair of these while he was on an acid trip, resulting in the many thousands of birds that are now common in London? It’s more likely that there were escapes and releases from multiple sites over a period of years. At any rate, the parrot is now moving north and west at an inexorable rate. It strips orchards and may compete with other hole-nesting birds, but personally I think that it brings a touch of the exotic to North London.

Photo Six by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401

6. Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

This medium-sized goose has been breeding in the wild after escaping from wild fowl collections since the early 1800’s, but has increased like billy-o since the 1980’s. It is well-established in the wild in Suffolk and Norfolk, and seems to be going west at a rate of knots. It can cause crop damage and pollute water bodies, but to be honest so can most wildfowl at high concentrations. Plus, to be complaining about pollution of water bodies when there’s so much agricultural and industrial run-off seems a bit hypocritical. Interestingly, they often seem to nest in hollow trees, which is quite a feat for a large aquatic bird.

Photo Seven by By Rhondle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16504721

7. Red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)

I was only writing about these animals earlier this week. They can’t breed in the UK (yet) because the winters are still too cold, but individuals can live for up to thirty years, and there seems to be no limit to the number of people prepared to throw their pets into the nearest water body when they get too big. They are voracious predators of amphibians and invertebrates, even taking ducklings when they are tiny.

Photo Eight by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

8. Marsh Frog  (Pelophylax ridibundus)

Deliberately introduced by the end of the 19th century, this chap is also known as the laughing frog because of his loud call. The frog is now well-established in Romney Marsh in Kent, the Somerset levels and the area around Tamworth. The species is apparently becoming more common, so keep an eye open….

Photo Nine by Dieter Florian (To contact the author, ask the uploader or take a look at tauchshop-florian.de.), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis)

This enormous fish, which can grow to 5 metres long and weigh 300kg, was deliberately introduced as a food fish. Hah! By the 1950’s it was swimming happily in managed stillwaters used by fisheries, and in some deep lowland rivers. It eats anything and everything, from frogs to water voles to ducks, and as you can see, there’s nothing in UK rivers that can outcompete it.

Photo Ten by Liquid Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhyncus mykiss)

The trout that made river fish available to the general public when fish farming really took off in the 1970s in the UK, rainbow trout seem to have problems breeding in the wild in the UK, and are still usually out-competed by the local brown trout. However, climate may be a factor in keeping them in check, and this is changing as we know. Again, watch this space.

Photo Eleven by David Perez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

11. Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)

Introduced from North America in the 1970s, this crayfish quickly found its way into the wild, and has caused the rapid decline of the native white-clawed crayfish through competition for food and other resources. It also spreads crayfish plague (who knew there was such a thing?) As if that wasn’t enough, it makes its burrows in the banks of water bodies, causing them to collapse, and eats the eggs and young of fish. There is a move afoot to persuade the UK public to eat more crayfish.

Photo Twelve by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

12. Harlequin ladybird

This much-maligned beetle comes originally from Asia, and was deliberately released in Europe as a biological control, presumably against aphids. Sadly, the harlequin ladybird is much more of a generalist predator than that, and when the aphids are gone it will turn its attentions to other insects, including the much smaller native ladybirds. It arrived in the UK in 2004 and made itself very much at home ever since. I think personally that it outcompetes other ladybirds than rather than actually eating them, but that’s anecdotal, based on a couple of years observation of one aphid-infested buddleia.

Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

13. Asian hornet (Vespa volutina)

Oh lord the column inches devoted to this insect! It is true that it eats honeybees, but I suspect that it has been the cause of the death of more European hornets, hoverflies, wasps and native bees than any other creature. It is seen fairly regularly in the Channel Islands now, and I believe it’s also been spotted in Cornwall. It arrived in south-western France in some pots imported from Asia. It’s most likely to be spotted in areas where honeybees are kept, but it is still very unlikely to be seen in most of the UK. It is much darker in colour than our native hornet.

Photo Fourteen by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

14. Horse chestnut leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella)

This is the tiny creature responsible for our horse chestnut leaves become dry and crinkly and dropping off early every year. Little is known about it, except that it arrived as recently as 2002 on some imported plants, and has been spreading north and west ever since. Though it makes the trees look ugly, it doesn’t yet appear to affect their long-term health.

Photo Fifteen by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

15. Oak processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumetopoea processionea)

This little darling appeared in 2006 as a contaminant of imported plants and trees – it’s native to northern France. London appears to be the epicentre of its population at the moment, maybe because of a concentration of oak and hornbeam forest, which it seems to like (our local Coldfall and Cherry Tree woods have both had infestations recently). The insect can be a major defoliator of trees, and its hairs can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation. It can also cause the eradication of populations of innocent caterpillars such as those of the ermine moth (which forms nets in bird cherry and some other trees, but causes no long term harm). Don’t just take a flamethrower to your tree, people!

Photo Credits

Photo One by Bouke ten Cate, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Prue Simmons, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six  By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401

Photo Seven By Rhondle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16504721

Photo Eight by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Nine by Dieter Florian (To contact the author, ask the uploader or take a look at tauchshop-florian.de.), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Liquid Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by David Perez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Twelve by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Thirteen by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fourteen by David Short from Windsor, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Fifteen by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Laying in Wait….

Honeybees on angelica

Dear Readers, for about twenty minutes today the sun shone, and so I wandered outside to take a few photos. My angelica flowers are just opening, and are already a hit with the local honeybees, much to my delight. There is such a feeling of accomplishment when you plant something to attract pollinators and it actually does.

I imagine that the recent wet weather has kept all the pollinators at home, so they will all be playing catch-up. The tadpoles have been very happy though – it’s rained so much that it’s raised the level of the pond, and they are able to forage for algae on the parts of the pond that are usually just a beach. They look very fat and happy to me, but I’ll have to make sure that none of them get stuck as the water level goes down (it’s supposed to be much warmer and drier for the next week or so). The water snails are happy too.

But who is this lurking on one of the other angelica flowers?

This is a young male running crab spider (Philodromus sp.) (many thanks to the British Spider Identification Group on Facebook for the ID). This is a group of fast-moving arachnids who hunt flies and other insects, and who also guard their eggs, which are enclosed in what looks like the tip of a medium-sized cotton bud. I shall have to keep my eyes open to see if any females turn up, and also if the male reappears, because when I popped down to see if I could get another photo he had, true to his name, done a runner. If I was a honeybee or a hoverfly, I would be very careful. Incidentally, these spiders spend the winter hibernating beneath loose bark, yet another reason to not be too tidy in the garden.

In other news, I have about 150 honesty seedlings pinging up from the seeds that my friend J gave me last year. I suspect that the good people of the County Roads in East Finchley where I live are going to have an opportunity to put them all over their gardens if the urge takes them. Now all I have to do is prick them out. I know what the bank holiday is going to hold in store for me!

 

Sunday in the Pond

Dear Readers, after a chilly couple of weeks I was delighted to see that the tadpoles are finally emerging from their spawn. What extraordinary little question marks they are! In the photo above you can see some tadpoles that are quite well grown and others, like the one with the straight tail that seems to be ‘crossing swords’ with the one above, who have just struggled out of the egg. Most of them are currently hanging around the plants, but one or two brave souls have crossed the pond to feed on the abundance of algae growing on the liner.

In the photo below I love the way that the shadows of snail and pond skater can be seen on the bottom right, while a lone tadpole keeps a very low profile. The pond skater went over to investigate the snail, but these insects are largely scavengers, who will take advantage of any invertebrate unfortunate enough to fall into the water. You might sometimes notice ‘rafts’ of pond skaters all feeding on a dead bee or clumsy fly. They have the piercing mouthparts of all bugs, and will make short work of any little corpses.

Pond skaters are superbly adapted to living on the surface of the water – their bodies and limbs are covered in tiny hairs which increase the insect’s surface area and make it easier for it to stay on the surface. If the creature is submerged by a wave (not likely on my pond where all is currently tranquil) the air bubbles trapped in the hairs will help the insect to right itself. The long middle legs are used for ‘rowing’, the back ones for steering, but to the naked eye they seem to move across the water by magic.

For pond skaters it’s all about the vibrations that they can feel through their limbs – they take a while to settle down if I walk past, even if I tiptoe. Once they’re relaxed again, you can see all sorts of shenanigans going on. Pond skaters signal to one another using different frequencies: one to repel, one as a threat, and one to signal amorous intentions. When two pond skaters notice one another, one will send out a ‘repel’ signal. If it isn’t responded to by another repel signal, or even a threat signal, the pond skater knows that it’s happened upon a female, and will send out a courtship signal. A receptive female will respond with a courtship signal, and the male will then mate and stay with her until her eggs are laid. This means that the female (who is larger than the male) will have to ferry her lover about, possibly for weeks.

Photo One by By Markus Gayda, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198901

Pond skaters in flagrante (Photo One)

When the young hatch, sometimes they will have short wings, sometimes long wings,  and sometimes no wings at all. Wingless forms obviously can’t leave the water body where they were born, but this isn’t a problem if there is plenty of food – I suspect that ‘my’ pond skaters hibernated in the pond over the winter to get a head start this spring. However, if a pond gets too crowded, or dries up, it’s useful to have wings so that the young can disperse – short wings enable a local flight, long wings can carry the new pond skaters to exciting new ponds and lakes. However, this has to be balanced against the disadvantages of wings for a surface-living insect like a pond skater – wings are extra weight, and can get tangled. It’s likely that because my pond is stable and the water level is lovingly tended by a mammal (me) most of ‘my’ pond skaters will be wingless. I shall pay attention over the next few months and see what happens.

Although pond skaters in the UK are modest little chaps, the Giant Pond Skater of Vietnam (Gigantometra gigas) has a ‘legspan’ of twelve inches, and you can read all about them here.

While I was sitting on a stone with my camera trained on the pond skaters, who should pop by but Bailey King of the Cats. He is now twenty years old, and so a little bit stiff, but he is still every bit the monarch that he was previously, so much so that his minions (aka his owners) popped by to pick him up and take him home.

Bailey asking where his taxi is.

And finally, here is a little film of the goings on in the pond. Do not be alarmed (overly) by the appearance of two leeches from under the edge of the plant pot – this species lives by funnelling up tiny invertebrates and so the tadpoles will go unmolested.

The Return of the Frogs

Dear Readers, there are certain events during the year that mark the passing of the seasons. The Great Garden Birdwatch at the end of January always reminds me that we are past mid winter, and that spring will soon return. The arrival of the fledgling starlings in May marks the very height of summer’s activity for me, regardless of the fact that the school holidays haven’t even started. But the most exciting event of the year is when I first hear the frogs singing for the first time. It’s never very loud – usually just an apologetic little high-pitched wheeze – but it tells me that the males have come out of hibernation, and are hoping for a lady frog to visit.

I actually saw my first frog almost a month ago, but the beginning of March was very cold, and so I think everyone gave up and went back to bed. But the first frogspawn appeared earlier this week, and the courting rituals are now in full swing. Strangely enough, this year the frogs have chosen to spawn in the plant pots at the side of the pond – the water level is a bit lower, so maybe they feel more comfortable here amongst the marsh marigolds and the water mint. At any rate, it looks like being a bumper year.

I am always surprised by the size and colour differences between the frogs. There are some whopping big females, and some titchy males (the females are generally larger, but there are some very diminutive chaps this year). The reflections on the water don’t help with judging size, I know. 

I imagine that they frogs don’t have the facial muscles to be very expressive, but they always look so placid regardless of what’s going on.

They are mysterious creatures, frogs. Where do they go to once they’ve bred, and where do they come from in the first place? I have some frogs in the pond for most of the year, but the others disperse to goodness only knows where. I suspect that they are having a party under the wooden steps, or hanging out in the woodpile by the side of the shed. I don’t know where they lived before I made the pond, but the first frog arrived within six weeks of it going in. They are such common creatures, and yet we know so little. I’m just glad that they turn up every year, to cheer me up with their impassive faces and mating shenanigans. If you have a garden it is so worth putting in some water for the critters, even if it’s only a tiny pool. You will be amazed at what turns up.

New Scientist – Tadpole News

Photo One by Miika Silfverberg from Vantaa, Finland, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Frog Tadpole (Photo One)

Dear Readers, following all the excitement about frogs and newts yesterday, I thought I’d dig into the archives of New Scientist and see what I could find to share with you on the subject of tadpoles. One question that I’ve always had is – why do some tadpoles mature as expected and turn into baby frogs or toads, and why do some seem to spend the winter as tadpoles? This very question was asked in New Scientist in 2018, and the answers were most interesting.

One obvious answer that occurred to me is that, as climate change makes for warmer winters, amphibians overwinter as tadpoles simply because they can: if they can get a jump (see what I did there) on the newly-hatched spring tadpoles, they will have a ready source of food (sadly many species of frogs are cannibals). However, I know from my own endeavours that frogs seem to mature according to the water temperature – when I brought some tadpoles indoors because there were problems in their pond, they grew legs several weeks before their ‘wild’ relatives. So can frogs ‘choose’ when to metamorphose?

It also seems to me that in a population of tadpoles, if some mature quickly and some slowly they are covering all eventualities – whatever the winter weather, some will survive. That’s how evolution works, after all.

Another suggestion was that the rate of maturation can be delayed by imperfect conditions in the pond – overcrowding, and hence lack of food, or low water temperature will all slow things down.

But finally one lady, who is definitely a soulmate, used to observe the development of the tadpoles in her garden over seventy years ago. She returned home after the school holidays to find that the tadpoles all had four legs but still had a tail, and that it was long past time when they should be fully-developed. She had a nature book by Enid Blyton (better known for Noddy), and found that tadpoles needed iodine to mature, presumably because of its influence on thyroid hormones. Medicine cabinets used to hold iodine for cuts and grazes in those days, so she put a few drops into the pond.

Days later, the garden was teeming with froglets’.

Fascinating stuff. I remember treating a goldfish who had a fungal disease with a few drops of iodine, and it cleared that up too.

Now, here’s something amazing.

Newly-hatched tadpoles need to breathe air, but are too weak to puncture the surface tension of the water. So, instead they suck at the surface of the water from below so that they break off a bubble which contains fresh air from the outside world. They breathe this in to their lungs and then exhale it out. And furthermore, you can watch it in the article below.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2234062-watch-tadpoles-breathe-by-sucking-in-air-bubbles-at-waters-surface/

Photo by Kurt Schwenk

And finally, it appears that in Egyptian hieroglyphics, a tadpole represents the number 100,000. Who knew?

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/yara_haridy/status/1200769342952083456

A hieroglyphic tadpole (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by Miika Silfverberg from Vantaa, Finland, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/yara_haridy/status/1200769342952083456

 

Amphibian Arrival!

Dear Readers, this morning I spotted my first frogs of the year. There were three in total, two already mating, although whether one of them was actually a female is open to doubt at this point – usually in my pond the males come out of hibernation over the period of about a week, followed by the more prudent females. Still, it’s lovely to see them, and in a few days the short-lived frog chorus will probably start up.

In other excitement, I spotted the first pondskater of the year. Who’d have thought that the whole pond was frozen solid only a week ago? These insects will be a problem for the tadpoles when they’re tiny, as they can stick them with their needle-like mouth parts, but at the moment the frogs definitely have the upper hand.

However, the highest excitement of the weekend didn’t come from my pond, but from my friend A’s woodpile. Her husband was tidying it up when they discovered this creature. At first. A thought it was dead, but then it started moving its arms and legs and by the time she’d popped it into a cardboard box it was positively lively.

 

Now, I’m not a newt expert but my best guess is that this is a smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris). My friend doesn’t have a pond, but then most amphibians don’t spend all their time in the water, and they choose a pile of stones or a woodpile as a place to hibernate. My friend popped the newt back into the woodpile where she’d found it, making sure that it was both well-covered and able to wriggle out if it wanted. I’m fairly sure that this is a female as, strangely enough, male smooth newts have a crest, but are not Great Crested newts (Triturus cristatus). Great Crested Newts are larger (up to 17cms long) and generally more flamboyant. Smooth Newts  are rather splendid though, and according to my Garden Wildlife book by Richard Lewington, the males perform an elaborate courtship dance when they leave

‘…crossing in front of the female and posing dramatically, with his tail folded double and trembling urgently’.

You can see the male displaying here.

Photo One by By Mark Hofstetter - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32482036

A male smooth newt (Photo One)

After fertilisation, the female newt lays up to 300 eggs individually, wrapping each one in the leaf of an aquatic plant. The newt larvae, or efts, have external gills for breathing, and so look rather like axolotls .

Photo Two By Piet Spaans - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1860341

A smooth newt eft (Photo Two)

Once they’ve left the pond, the young newts try to find a damp crevice or a wood pile or heap of stones, venturing out at night to eat invertebrates, including snails and slugs. All garden amphibians are good for the garden, eating a wide variety of nocturnal creatures that might be munching your seedlings.

When they emerge from hibernation the newts will try to return to the pond that they were hatched in: it’s extraordinary how many amphibians show such strong loyalty to the place where they were born. I wonder where A’s newt will head for, once she has woken up properly?

I have only seen newts once or twice in my pond, but then they are elusive creatures, most active at night and unlikely to be seen splashing around like frogs. I did once see a newt hanging in the water though, just drifting along in a ray of sunlight. It looked like some miniature mythological creature, a tiny dragon, something far too exotic to be living in a suburban garden pond. But that’s the wonder of a garden. You never know who is going to pop up.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Mark Hofstetter – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32482036

Photo Two By Piet Spaans – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1860341

 

Home

The flowers on the whitebeam tree

Dear Readers, I have thinking a lot about home this week, as I sift through my parents’ belongings and make decision after decision about what to keep, what to give away, and what to dispose of. How do you distill the essence of a life into two cardboard boxes? There is photo after photo of Dad standing with a group of the besuited men that he worked with. He is always grinning when everyone else is looking serious. There are photos of Mum looking stiff and awkward, but then very occasionally there is one where she looks like herself, caught unawares before she could put on her ‘formal’ face. There are clothes that were never worn, ornaments that were never displayed. As the rooms empty, as the shelves come down, it is as if the bungalow is shedding its personality and becoming a blank canvas for someone else to paint their preferences upon.

It was such a happy place, for all the horror and sadness of the last days. When I walk around the garden, which seems to have been taken over by forget-me-nots and cerinthe, I see the stone fairies and fawns and frogs that Mum hid among the plants, so that any visiting children could try to find them. The beech hedge that was always so full of sparrows, is silent now, probably because nobody is filling up the bird feeder. The rotary washing line is completely covered in rust, but the climbing rose that Mum would look out on from the kitchen window is smothered in buds.

I get on with it, because getting the place ready for sale is a project, and one that will benefit Dad. The amount of memories that flood back would be overwhelming if I didn’t keep busy. But it is so quiet, without ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the television, without Mum and Dad snoring gently in their reclining chairs. In one of his books John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and writer, asks if it isn’t just that we miss ‘home’ when we leave, but that the building, in some strange way, misses us. I feel as if the bungalow always did its best to shelter Mum and Dad, and they looked after it and loved it in return. Who am I to question what is embedded in its breeze blocks and roof tiles, its cobwebs and the very soil in the garden? Mum and Dad’s DNA is all over the carpets and the curtains. There is a kind of symbiosis going on, an interrelatedness that reminds me that we don’t just ‘make’ a home, a home also makes us. Maybe we feel ‘at home’ when the partnership is working, where we are doing what the house and garden ‘need’.

And then I return to my home, and see the garden as if for the first time. I have been trying to be gentle with it, to appreciate what it needs as a community of plants and animals. I have learned many lessons along the way, and sometimes I’ve wasted time and money trying to make it ‘do’ things that the aspect, the soil and the light wouldn’t support. How much better to go with the flow in these things.

White lilac, hawthorn and whitebeam

On the left hand side there is an ancient white lilac that I am gradually renovating, a hawthorn tree and a whitebeam. I had the hawthorn and the whitebeam trimmed by a tree surgeon about five years ago, because the canopies of both had become very dense. I was told at the time that the trees would only grow more vigorously to compensate, and this has proven to be true, but goodness, how beautiful all three plants are this year.

What has astonished me this year is the way that the whitebeam has burst into flower. We have had occasional blossoms, but it is absolutely covered. I am so proud of it. It makes me sad to think of how I butchered it previously. Whitebeams are going to have dense foliage given half a chance, and going forward I think I will just sit back and appreciate those grey-green leaves, and the way that they spark silver in the wind.

Another plant that is doing well, growing at the foot of the hawthorn, is the dusky geranium (Geranium phaeum). I have tried other species geraniums, but no others seem as tolerant of the dark, dry conditions on this side of the garden. And the bees adore those dark-chocolate flowers, in spite of their modest nature.

Dusky geranium

A pendulous sedge has planted itself beside the pond, and provides lots of cover for the baby frogs when they emerge from the pond. I was delighted to see three adult frogs today, so it appears that the heron didn’t get the lot after all. I know that pendulous sedge can be an almighty thug, but I just pull up its many, many ‘babies’ and let it get on with being magnificent and solitary.

Pendulous sedge (Carex pendula)

And I am also pleased that the meadowsweet that I planted last year is doing well this year, and maybe it will even flower! Watch this space.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

The water hawthorn now has half a dozen flowers, and the marsh marigold is just finishing.

Water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyon)

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

In my very shady side return, the ferns are uncurling their croziers.

And the climbing hydrangea is just about to burst into flower.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris)

And all this, of course, is temporary. I suspect that when we sell the house (hopefully in about twenty years) the pond at least will go – no family with small children would want to risk it. Someone else might not want the big, shady trees, or they might want a lawn. We cannot legislate for everything that happens when we are no longer here. Sometimes I feel my heart contract at the thought of the frogs coming back to a deck or a conservatory rather than their traditional breeding grounds. But I also know that this is a complete waste of my emotional energy, and part of a desire to control the uncontrollable. You would think that I would have learned about what I can and can’t influence during this past twelve months, but somehow it only makes me cling on more.

I could learn a lot from Dad. I went to see him while I was in Dorset sorting out the bungalow, and he was very happy sitting in his recliner. One of the new residents reminds Dad of Mum and while on one level he knows that his wife is gone, on another i think that he is always hopeful that she’ll turn up. The new resident actually booted me out of my chair so that she could sit next to Dad, so maybe he reminds her of someone in her life. Dad seems to be completely in the moment. He can’t remember who has been to see him,  or who I am, but if someone is kind to him, or interested in him, he opens up like a flower in the sunshine. He is not worrying about the future, and the past has fallen away behind him, and yet he takes the opportunity to be happy when it presents itself. I left him munching on a bar of Dairy Milk and breaking off a chunk to share with his new friend, no mean feat considering he fractured his wrist a few weeks ago. He might not be in charge of a distillery or the head of a household now, but I have never seen him so content. Maybe home, or at least the ability to feel at home,  is something that we carry in our hearts.

Cirsium atropurpureum

On Mother’s Day

On the first Mother’s Day since Mum died, I wander around the house like a ghost, unable to settle to anything. I would always have rung Mum to see if she liked whatever pretty thing I had sent her, and to see if the Mother’s Day card had hit the spot. Everywhere I look  there are signs of happy families, complete with live mothers. We can’t get into our usual place for Sunday breakfast because it is completely full up from 8 a.m. Muswell Hill is full of young people carrying bunches of flowers.

I have joined yet another ‘club’, the ‘Problematic Mother’s Day’ club. For those who have lost their mothers, those who wanted to be mothers and weren’t able to, those who had abusive or alcoholic or troubled mothers, today, like Christmas, throws up the contrast between what things are ‘supposed’ to be like, and how they actually are. Real life is messier, infinitely more complicated. This year, Mother’s Day is about gritting my teeth and getting through, one hour at a time.

I do still have one parent alive though, and so I  ring the nursing home to see how Dad is  getting on.

‘I’m on a boat’, he says. ‘I’ll be gone for forty days’.

‘Where are you going, Dad?’ I ask. I’ve learnt that it’s easier for everyone if I join Dad in Dadland rather than attempting to drag him into the ‘real’ world, where he has dementia and his wife of 61 years is dead.

‘Northern China’, he says, emphatically.

‘You’ve not been there before, have you? It will be an adventure. I hope the food is good!’

I’m not sure if Dad is remembering the business trips that he used to take, or the cruises he went on with Mum, or if this is a metaphor for another journey that he’s taking. But I am sure that it could be all three explanations at once.

‘And I’ve done a picture of a rabbit with a bird on its head’.

‘That sounds fun Dad, I know you like painting and drawing’.

‘It’s with crayons’.

‘Well, they’re a bit less messy’.

Dad laughs. There’s a pause.

‘I haven’t been able to talk to Mum. I ring and ring, but she never answers’.

I wonder if he has actually been ringing the house and getting Mum’s voice on the answerphone. He is convinced that she is cross with him because one of the ‘young’ female carers at the home ( a very nice lady in her fifties) helped him to have a shower. He went to the funeral, and was in the room when Mum died, but he doesn’t remember.

‘She’s away at the moment Dad’, I say, ‘But she loves you and she knows that you love her’.

‘That’s all right then,’ he says. ‘But I have to go now’.

‘Love you Dad’.

‘Love you n’all’.

It’s as if, in his dementia, Dad is returned to some earlier version of himself – more placid, less anxious. His calls to my brother have gone from 43 in one day to once or twice a week. I am not sure if this peacefulness will last, or if it presages a movement to another stage in the progression of the disease, but I am grateful for his equanimity. Somewhere inside this frail, vulnerable man there is still my Dad, and I feel such tenderness for him.

I walk to the bedroom and look out of the window. There is something totally unexpected in the garden.

A grey heron is in the pond, and, as I watch, s/he spots the rounded head of a frog. Once the bird is locked on target, there is no escape. The heron darts forward, squashes the frog between the blades of its bill and waits, as if uncertain what to do. The frog wriggles, and the heron dunks it into the water, once, twice. And then the bird throws back its head and, in a series of gulps, swallows the frog alive.

I don’t know what to do. I feel protective towards the frogs, but the heron needs to eat too. The frogs have bred and there is spawn in the pond, so from a scientific point of view there is no need to be sentimental. But still. I have been away in Canada for two weeks, and I suspect that the heron got used to visiting when things when quiet. The pond must have had a hundred frogs in it when we left. Hopefully some of them quit the water once the breeding was over, because on today’s evidence the heron could happily have eaten the lot.

What a magnificent creature, though. It is such a privilege to have a visit from a top predator. Close up, I can see the way that those yellow eyes point slightly forward to look down the stiletto of the beak, and the way that the mouth extends back beyond the bill, enabling an enormous gape. The plume of black feathers at the back of the head show that this is an adult bird, perhaps already getting ready for breeding. S/he leans forward, having spotted yet another frog, and I decide that I’ll intervene. I unlock the back door and open it, but it isn’t until I’m outside on the patio that the bird reluctantly flaps those enormous wings and takes off, to survey me from the roof opposite.

I know that I won’t deter the bird for long – after all, I will leave the house, and the heron will be back. But there has been so much loss in my life in the past few months that I feel as if I have to do something. The delicate bodies of the frogs seem no match for that rapier-bill and there is something unfair about the contest in this little pond that riles me. We are all small, soft-bodied creatures, and death will come for us and for everyone that we love with its cold, implacable gaze, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes throw sand in its face. I am so lucky to have the graceful presence of the heron in my garden, but today, I want to tip the balance just a little in favour of the defenceless.

They’re Back Again….

Yep, it’s that time of year again. My pond is full of hooligans singing all night and having sex. Of course, the male frogs have been here all along, resting in the mud at the bottom of the pond. The females generally spend the winter elsewhere, in crevices between the stones or under the oak sleepers that make up the steps down to the bottom part of the garden (there’s more than a metre drop between the back of the house and the end of my plot). But come spring, the water is full of hopeful little faces.

I am a great admirer of  frogs’  legs. They are just built for jumping, and have all the elegance of those of a ballet dancer. Whenever I have held a frog (usually when rescuing it from an over-curious cat or trying to remove it from an area of heavy foot-traffic) I have been surprised by how strong they are – all that pent-up energy in that clammy little body. Incidentally, amphibians generally don’t like being handled because it damages their delicate skin, whereas lizards and snakes, if used to humans, seem to quite enjoy the warmth that they borrow from our bodies.

As usual there seem to be more males than females, which can lead to the females being rather more popular than is optimal for their well-being. I have heard of so many males attaching themselves to a female that she drowns. My pond is not quite that much of a free-for-all, but there are a few menage a trois where I’m sure the female would rather be in a pair.

I think this is probably why this pair were out of the pond, sitting on the sidelines. The male has little say in the matter, but actually I am a bit worried about him – he seems to have blisters on his back which are hopefully just frogspawn but could also be herpes – this is not transmittable to humans, and doesn’t appear to harm the animal (except for marring his exceptional good looks). He also looks rather bloated but it might be that he just puffed himself up to sing, or he may be suffering from a hormonal imbalance that causes water to flow into his body. This also seems to right itself over time. For anyone wondering how I have suddenly become a frog veterinarian, the Froglife website has the answer to every frog question that has ever occurred to me.

The female is an extraordinary shade of chestnut – common frogs come in a wide range of colours, but this is exceptional.

I am giving my pond a bit of a squinty look this year, and trying to decide how much of a clear-out to give it in autumn. Last year it was completely neglected, what with Mum and Dad being so sick and all, and although we have done a bit of a tidy up of the reeds and other peripheral plants, I know that the water-lilies need dividing and there must be a fair bit of ‘stuff’ on the bottom. As it’s nearly a metre deep I’m going to need some waders for sure. Anybody else out there with a pond? I’d love to know what your routine is.

I remember how excited I was when the pond was first filled with water back in 2011. First it went green overnight. Then a host of midges suddenly appeared. And then, three days after it was built, I heard a ‘plop’ and there was my first frog. Where on earth had s/he come from? As far as I know there is not a water feature for half a mile. According to Froglife, if there are ponds within a 1000 metre radius they should turn up of their own accord, so I guess that’s what happened. Also, frogs normally only spend the breeding season in water, and the rest of the time hiding in vegetation or compost heaps, so the whole area could have been alive with frogs just waiting for some water to turn up.

Froglife also say that garden ponds are often now the most important redoubts of the common frog. Agricultural ponds and waterways are often polluted with nitrates and phosphates, and although frogs aren’t as sensitive to this as the common toad, they much prefer cleaner water. I love the thought of the pond hosting another generation of frogs, and I must say that it has brought me as much pleasure as anything I’ve done in the garden, for all the wrestling with duckweed and blanket weed over the years. If you have any room in the garden, and are wondering what to do this year, I would recommend popping in a pond. You never know who is going to turn up!

 

Some Very Resilient Frogs

Dear Readers, those of you who have been following the blog regularly will know that I have a great fondness for frogs – their arrival in my garden pond signals the start of spring as far as I’m concerned. That first ‘plop’ as I head out to the shed after dark is as evocative as the first crocus. I pause, looking around to see if I’ve imagined it, and if I stay still long enough, I might hear the trill of the male frog’s song. At first, the sound is almost apologetic, but as the days go on, more and more male frogs appear, until there is a veritable chorus in the shallow end.

The male frogs have largely spent the winter tucked up in a bed of dead leaves and silt at the bottom of the pond. Where the females come from is a little more uncertain. To start with, it’s a bachelor party, but this year, after a few days of gradually rising male frog numbers, I saw one female sitting on a flat stone, while twenty tiny frog heads gazed up at her adoringly.

‘Don’t go in the water, girl’, I muttered as I past by on my way to top up the bird feeders.

But lust will have its way, and not an hour later I peered into the pond to see a large female frog with a male clasped to her back, tumbling over and over in the water while several other males tried to get in on the action. It’s no fun being the first female in the pond, for sure.

Then, I spotted a female with a single male riding on her back. The pair of them were sitting under the lilac bush, unperturbed. What to do? Were they lost, or was the female just seeking a break from all the action? They were certainly vulnerable to cats and, after dark, to the foxes. I picked them up and was, as always, surprised by the strength of those muscular legs as they tried to kick their way to freedom. I gently lobbed them both back into the pond. I hope the female frog will forgive me.

And so the frog breeding season was going along merrily until the temperature plummeted. We had a week of the coldest temperatures that I remember since I moved to East Finchley eight years ago. The pond froze solid. Every day I broke the ice, every day it had frozen again within a couple of hours. My only consolation was that no one had actually produced any frogspawn yet. When I broke the ice I would occasionally see a completely torpid frog at the bottom of the pond. When the temperature goes below freezing amphibians often go into stasis.

When the weather broke, it took a few days for the frogs to revive, and then they came back with great enthusiasm. More and more frogs came to the party. They started to lay great quantities of frogspawn in the shallower parts of the pond. One favourite area was on top of some reeds that I’d cut back – maybe the prickly stems afford the eggs some protection. Once frogspawn is laid, the other frogs seem to take a shine to the same area – maybe if there are thousands of tadpoles in one place, it increases the chances of ‘your’ youngsters being missed in the case of predation. Oh, everything was going swimmingly (sorry)!

And then, the temperatures plummeted again, and we got another bout of snow. What to do this time?

Froglife, the UK amphibian charity, had an emergency post on its website, stating that any spawn laid above the water line would be vulnerable to ‘winterkill’ if it froze. The advice was to take the spawn and put it into an unheated shed or similar for the duration of the coldspell. The problem was the location of the frogspawn in my case – it was so entangled with the reeds that it would have been impossible to remove it.

And then I came up with what I hoped would be a solution.

My birdfood comes in some very irritating, unrecyclable plastic buckets, which I’ve been storing for some unspecified future use. Their moment had arrived! I plonked the buckets over the piles of frogspawn that I could see, immersing the lip of the bucket below the water line. My hope was that even if the surrounding water froze, there would be a small temperature difference which would prevent the frogspawn from freezing.

On the face of it, it seems to have worked. Today, the frogs are back hard at it, and the mound of spawn is as large as I’ve ever seen it in the garden.

I wonder if there’s a maximum number of frogs that the pond will support, and if after that the population will collapse? A few years ago we had ‘the great frog massacre’, in which piles of dead frogs were left by the side of the pond, but so far this year I’ve only seen one poor deceased amphibian. This is very lucky, as judging by the fox footprints all over the frozen pond last week, we have frequent and active vulpine visitors.

So, hopefully soon we will have tadpoles, followed by the hopping of many, many tiny feet. At the moment the pond is delightfully clear and I am preparing for my annual battle with the duckweed. The duckweed nearly always wins, but I intend to hold it off as long as possible.

We owe so much to frogs.  Who knows how many millions of these creatures have been used as subjects in school biology labs and university science projects? And yet, when I spend a bit of time beside the pond it becomes obvious that each frog has a different character – some are bold, some are shy, some are aggressive, some are quick to withdraw from a fight. They are resilient, driven creatures, and even two bouts of sub-zero temperatures haven’t dampened their enthusiasm to pass on their genes to the next generation. And in my garden, no one will pull them from the water and experiment on them for the sake of getting a grade in an examination. I had never really thought of a garden pond as a sanctuary, but I suppose in a way it is.

Now I just need to get the pond declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest so that I can protect it in perpetuity :-).