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.
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.
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’.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 :-).
Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when I review what’s been going on during my fourth year of producing the Bugwoman blog. What’s been happening in the past twelve months? This week, we’ll be looking at February 2017 through to July 2017 – the rest of the year will make an appearance next week. Stay tuned!
We started the Bugwoman year in a celebratory mood. After a year of no blackbirds (following the death of a male at the hands of the local sparrowhawk) a new couple moved in, and it was such a pleasure to hear the song of the male from the rooftop in the evening. I’m pleased to report that I still have a pair of blackbirds in 2018, and I’m hoping that they’re the same ones.
In March London suffered the first of several terrorist attacks last year, when a car was rammed into pedestrians as they crossed Westminster bridge. I was on the South Bank when it happened, and wrote a piece about it here. I find that nature has a way of restoring balance to our troubled minds in times of trouble, and it was especially consoling during my walk, the arrival of spring coinciding with the terrible injuries and loss of life.
And I also made a visit to Crossbones Graveyard, close to London Bridge. This is a site for the outcast dead, and they are remembered in a ceremony every month at the main gates. It is a very special place, and it felt entirely appropriate to be making my first visit there in the week after the terrorist attack. I hope to visit it again soon.
The gates at Crossbones Graveyard
‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2 1725 – one of the ribbons from Crossbones Graveyard
April kicked off with a garden visit from a female sparrowhawk, who plucked and ate a collared dove that she’d knocked out of the whitebeam tree. A spectacular but discomfiting event.
And then some Bohemian Waxwings visited a tree at the end of my road, something I hadn’t seen for years.
April also found me on my annual visit to Canada – my husband John is Canadian, and I love observing the wildlife on the other side of the Atlantic. The similarities and differences always intrigue me. For example, we have no grackles in the UK.
And our goldfinches are not North American goldfinches…
And we don’t have any cardinals..
But we do have house sparrows.
And these guys of course….
At the beginning of May I was still in Canada, and paid a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington (just outside Toronto). I met up with my lovely friend M, who lives in the States but had motored across the border. She is also a writer and a nature-lover. We had a wonderful day!
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Back in London, I took a walk to look at the street trees of Archway, just down the hill from where I live. It was based on one of my favourite books from last year, ‘London Street Trees: A Guide to the Urban Forest‘ by Paul Wood, and it was so much fun that I plan to do another walk later this year. You can read about the walk here and here.
Chinese Lacebark Elm
A Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides) just off Holloway Road in North London.
A Bragania visited by a carder bumblebee in Dresden Road, a few hundred metres from the hubbub of the Archway junction.
June saw my monthly visit to my elderly parents turning into something of a drama, after Dad got a chest infection and had a fall. Still, spending time in Milborne St Andrew in Dorset is always a pleasure, and even if I didn’t have much time to admire the scenery, I did get a few brief minutes to look at the garden and take a deep breath.
White-tailed bumblebee on the ceanothus in Mum and Dad’s garden
….and in the garden itself. It was lovely to go travelling, but it’s always nice to be home.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
I also spent some time posting about my amazing artist friend, Robin Huffman, and her portraits of the monkeys and apes that she cares for when she volunteers at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. I think her work is absolutely stunning, and to see more of it you can visit her website here. She is currently in Cameroon at the Ape Action Africa sanctuary in Mefou, looking after several baby monkeys. I imagine that she’s covered in poo, bitten half to death and dreaming of Japanese food, but I bet she’s also deliriously happy.
Sunshine, Olive Baboon (Robin Huffman) (after a photo by Perrine DeVos)
Diva, moustached guenon
Ayla, vervet monkey
So, Dear Readers, that’s the end of part one of my annual review. Stay tuned for next week!
There are many signs of spring. The first time that I get up at 6.30 a.m.to catch a train to Dorset and it’s not pitch dark. The first time that I notice the snowdrops in the garden. The increased urgency in the song of the blackbird, the way that the blue tits and robins seem to have paired up. The lambs in the fields, and the slight softness of the air. The way that my husband has started to need his hayfever medication. But for me, early spring only starts with the sound of a plop in the pond, and the first small heads gathering at the shallow, stony end. It’s not until the first frog croaks that spring is truly on its way.
You can hear it most clearly in the evening, when the other sounds have died down. The frogs suck air into their bodies, so that they swell up, and then let the air out. Each species has a different call. In the tropics, the song of the frogs can be almost deafening, and the ‘spring peepers’ of North America don’t do a bad job either. The common frogs in my garden are a little more discrete, almost as if they feel embarrassed to be making such a fuss. But as the females are attracted to the loudest and longest ‘croaks’ they soon get over their hesitation.
The males acquire a greyish-blue tinge during the mating season, and also develop handsome white throats, which help to emphasise their appearance when calling. They also develop ‘nuptial pads’ on their ‘hands’ which help them to grip the females. When I took the photographs, there only appeared to be one female in the pond, but the huge quantity of frogspawn that has appeared since makes me think that there have been other visitors.
The male frogs tend to hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the pond, so that they can be on the spot when the females (slightly larger and allegedly browner/redder in colour at this time of year) appear. The females are more inclined to hibernate away from the pond, and seeing the way the males behave when one makes an appearance makes me think that they are absolutely right. A lone female can be absolutely mobbed by eager males, who are in a frenzy of lust. I have been watching the frogs from my upstairs window as they clamber over the heaps of frogspawn and attempt to attach themselves to anything that moves. One male frog even entered the water riding piggyback on a female, but he was soon booted off by a bigger, tougher frog. The male frogs take two years to reach breeding age, so every year counts.
Last year, the death toll was staggering in my pond. There was a heap of dead frogs under the hedge on several mornings, whether fished out by a cat, or taken as a stash for a fox, or even plucked out by a crow or magpie, I have no idea. This year, fortunately, I have not seen any casualties so far – I decided not to cut back the dead waterplants around the pond until spring, so maybe this has given them a bit more cover. Anyway, I am keeping my fingers crossed that this happy situation continues.
The fresh-laid frogspawn is always delightfully turgid, as if it’s going to burst at any moment, and I love seeing the tiny tadpoles already developing in the jelly. The outer layer of the spawn gradually breaks down, so that the tadpoles are released into the water after about two weeks. In the meantime, it’s fortunate that almost no warm-blooded predators like a snack of frogspawn, although there are videos of cats tucking in on the internets, and I have known of ducks who would visit a pond once a year to tuck into the eggs.
I have one rather idiosyncratic frog in the pond at the moment. One of his eyes is cloudy, and I’m sure that he’s blind on that side. It doesn’t seem to bother him as he croaks away as part of the froggy chorus, but I suspect it will make him more vulnerable to predators. I just hope that he manages to breed – I always have a soft-spot for the underfrog.
It’s no wonder that frogs have long been symbols of fertility. The ancient Egyptians had a frog goddess called Heqat, and I can well imagine that the annual flooding of the Nile brought a great chorus of frogs, signalling another year of good harvests.
Statue of Heqat, the Frog Goddess, from pre-Dynastic Egypt (approximately 2950 BCE) (Photo One – Credit Below)
The Chinese frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng is associated with good luck and prosperity in business, but many cultures also have proverbs about frogs such as ‘sitting in the well, looking to the sky’, which means a person who knows little of the world and has a very limited outlook. I much prefer the delightfully characterful Japanese frog in the illustration below, who looks as if he has had too many worms for dinner.
Frog and Mouse by Getsuju, a Japanese artist of the Edo period (Public Domain)
The presence of frogs signals the great rush to breed that is taking place all around us at this time of year. We tend to think that spring kicks off in April, but by then many animals will already have bred. We humans are a little on the sleepy side with regard to what’s going on around us, but frogs have a limited window to get on with passing on their genes – they are cold-blooded, and the tadpoles need the water to be warm for them to mature, something that can take a good few months in these unpredictable times. In fact, when I reared some tadpoles in a tank a few years ago, they matured a good month earlier than the ones in the much colder waters of their natal pond. So I wish my frogs success in their breeding, avoidance of predators and disease, and a warm summer. The world would be a much sadder place without the annual frog chorus.
Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph! It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.
March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.
So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to. In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.
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