Category Archives: London Amphibians

Bugwoman’s First Annual Report

IMG_1194Dear Readers,

A year ago today, I created my first ever blog post for Bugwoman’s Adventures in London. At that time, I had no idea what I was doing, except that I had a passion for my local wildlife, and wanted to write about it, so I set myself the task of investigating the creatures that lived within a half-mile of my North London house. I wondered if anyone else was interested in the overlooked, under-reported animals that inhabit our gardens, our streets and sometimes even our houses.

Indoor Woodlouse 002

Woodlouse galloping over the duvet

In a world where the creatures and plants that live with us have so often been pushed to the margins, it was a relief to see that they are not going quietly. Once I started to pay attention (and of course I had to, because I needed something to write about), I found animals everywhere. There were foxes, frogs and snails in the back garden.

The Gardener's Friend

The Gardener’s Friend

Cropped Fox

A very confident fox hoovering up the suet pellets from the bird table

There were mistle thrushes on the local playing fields, and crows, parrots and woodpeckers in the tiny remnant of local wood around the corner.

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Ring-necked parakeet setting up house

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Crow bathing in Coldfall Wood

Jays stole the peanuts that I’d intended for the tits, and finches ate a 25kg bag of sunflower seeds every month.

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Goldfinches

There were damselflies and butterflies, Spanish slugs and froghoppers, early bees and leafcutter bees.

Red Admiral Cropped 2

Red Admiral on Ivy

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Leaf Cutter bee on Elecampane in the garden

To begin with, I concentrated on writing, but soon I discovered that I wanted to photograph the creatures that I saw, to put together word and image. I grew to love sharing the sounds of nature with the people who read the blog, and even experimented with video. It fulfilled a deep need in me, but also seemed strangely familiar. And then I remembered why.

When I ten years old, I was in charge of the nature table at school. Do schools even have nature tables these days, I wonder? It was always full of bits and pieces that the children had found, acorns and feathers, seashells and stones, even, in pride of place, a shrew’s skull. But this wasn’t enough. I created a weekly nature magazine, eight pages every week, full of competitions and animal stories and accounts of creatures spotted. The other children read it mainly, I think, for the bars of chocolate that I bought with my pocket money to offer as prizes, but for me it was a chance to share what I had discovered with anyone who would listen.

“Look”, I wanted to say. “Isn’t that extraordinary?”

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The trunk of the Totteridge Yew, over 2000 years old and still going strong

It isn’t enough for me to know something, or to have seen something. I need to share it, to help other people to see it, to hear about what’s going on in their gardens or parks. I want to be told stories too, and so often that’s what I get. A fox or a robin or a magpie shared, sometimes across continents, knits a community that does see, does care. Mine is not the only heart to leap at the sight of a heron, or at the sound of the first frog-song from the pond.

Heron Blog 22

But the real revelation for me this year has been the Wednesday Weed.

Yarrow

Yarrow

I started off knowing very little about the plants that grow in my neighbourhood – there were maybe a dozen that I could identify by sight. So, when I started writing about them, I thought that it would be a short-lived phenomenon. But instead, I realised that I was falling in love with the diverse, often scruffy, always overlooked plants that were everywhere around me. Like Londoners, they came from every corner of the world. Like Londoners, many of them were scratching out a living in the poorest of habitats, but surviving nonetheless. And like people everywhere, each species had its legends, its history and its place in the fabric of things. I loved unearthing the strange and wonderful stories of Herb Robert and White Deadnettle, of Groundsel and Yarrow, of Feverfew and Cuckoopint. It made me humble to realise how little I knew that would have been second nature to my recent ancestors. It reinforced my sense that so many people are alienated from the world around them, including myself. But it filled me with a kind of joy that it was so very easy to find out about the plants, to start to know them.

White Dead-nettle (Lamium album)

White Dead-nettle (Lamium album)

Trailing Bellflower

Trailing Bellflower

Pineapple Weed

Pineapple Weed

There is still something of the Ancient Mariner about me as I grab passers-by to encourage them to look at some bird or plant that I’ve found. An unfortunate young man got out of a council van outside a derelict house last week, only to have me inform him that the patch of Annual Mercury in the front garden had both male and female flowers, and, look, this is how you told them apart.

“Cool”, he said, in a way that made me think that perhaps he was either very slightly interested in what I’d told him, or very polite.

Annual Mercury (Male)

Annual Mercury (Male)

The mood of the media is unrelentingly negative. I don’t have to watch it for long before I feel my anger and grief turning to helplessness and depression. What, after all, can ‘ordinary’ people do? Fortunately,  ‘ordinary’ people are not ordinary at all. ‘Ordinary’ people get off their backsides and save the local woods that they love. ‘Ordinary’ people put up bird feeders, grow plants for pollinators, protest, sign petitions, fight for their communities. Only today, a report showed that urban gardens provide a haven for bees and other pollinators, and have more species than farmland. An indictment of farmland, to be sure, but how heartening for anyone with a garden or a window box or space for a container, no matter how small! Writing the blog has shown me how many people, all over the world, are noticing, caring and acting. Let’s not be downhearted, dark as things often seem. A lot of people, doing small things, can change everything.

Tadpoles Emerging

Tadpoles emerging 002As if they all received the signal at the same time, the tadpoles in my pond are emerging from the frogspawn. The surface of the water is a-wriggle with tiny tails as they try to break free from the confiness of the jelly that’s held them for the past few weeks.

The membrane that surrounds each egg allows the water from the pond to pass through it – this means that the embryos develop at the same rate, and will all hatch at the same time. There is safety in numbers for such little creatures, who at this stage can be eaten by anything from dragonfly larvae to diving beetles to water boatmen. It also helps to prevent cannibalism, which tadpoles are not averse to once they develop legs and become carnivorous.

In the film, you can see that there are some water snails hanging about – these have probably helped by cleaning any algae that started to grow on the frogspawn. In the bottom right-hand corner, though, there is a pond-skater – although it can’t eat a whole tadpole, it is quite capable of puncturing one and injuring it. Life is hard for frogs, right from the start.

Good luck, tadpoles. Out of all of this seething mass, one in a thousand will return next year to breed. The rest will sustain a whole generation of dragonflies and other aquatic insects. Nature is abundant, but rarely wasteful.

Goings On in the Pond

Male frog waiting for the females to arrive

Male frog waiting for the females to arrive

A week ago, as I headed out to the shed, I heard the smallest of croaks coming from the pond. Just a single ‘ribbit’ and then silence. But that little sound was as much a harbinger of spring as all the crocuses erupting into flower. For it meant that the frogs were waking up.

At first, the males appear. They are smaller than the females, and have spent all winter in the silt at the bottom of the pond. They can breathe through their skin if they are not very active, but as the days lengthen and the temperature increases, they need to come to the surface to breathe. The second sign of spring is the increased interest that the local cats show in the pond. All winter they’ve ignored it, but now they can sit and stare at it for hours. Jarvis is a newcomer: a very fine cat and (fortunately) not one to get his paws wet if he can help it.

Jarvis waiting to play Whack a Frog

Jarvis pretending that he isn’t interested in the frogs. Not at all.

The males are hyped-up. Their hormones start to change in the autumn, so that they are ready for action the instant the weather gets warm enough. While they are waiting, they sing to attract the females, and sometimes attempt to mate with other males. The males make a very particular grunting noise if propositioned in this way, the frog equivalent of ‘try that again and I’ll wallop you’. Once the female has laid her eggs, she will make exactly the same sound if a male tries to grab her again.

Male frog hanging around

Male frog hanging around

Eventually the females turn up – in my garden, females arrived within a day of the males’ serenade. They seem to be able to find their way back to their natal pond by smell, as the combination of the particular plants that grow there seems to be unique for each water body. Once the females arrive, there is a thrashing, roiling orgy of froggy copulation. The males hang on to the females, clasping their front feet together under her armpits in a grasp called ‘amplexus’. This can last for anything from a few hours to several days. Even capturing the frogs for a quick attempt at a picture is not enough to put them off their stride.

Two frogs in amplexus, refusing to be separated even when the paparazzi arrive

Two frogs in amplexus, refusing to be separated even when the paparazzi arrive

The purpose of all of this is so that when the female lays her eggs, the male can fertilize them right away, without any other male getting a chance to do the same. Female frogs are very swollen prior to egg-laying, and look a little saggy afterwards, and no wonder – the mass of eggs being ejected is enormous for such a small animal.

Frogs mating at the edge of a mass of frogspawn

Frogs mating at the edge of a mass of frogspawn

In my pond, the frogs have chosen to lay all of their eggs in the shallow end, where the water barely covers the pebbles. The sun warms the eggs, and hastens the development of the tadpoles inside. Each clump of frogspawn represents one mating, and can contain between a thousand and four thousand eggs.

Frogspawn so far

Frogspawn so far

Frogs are invaluable for the garden. Up to twenty-five percent of their diet is snails and slugs, with caterpillars, gnats, and other insects making up the rest. However, the garden is not always good for frogs. Research shows that they are extremely vulnerable to pesticides, which they both ingest by eating affected insects, and absorb through their skins, which are delicate and porous. Not only are they directly poisoned by these substances, but they also affect the immune system, making the frog more prone to fungal diseases and parasites. It seems ironic that our use of artificial pesticides is killing one of the creatures most able to help the gardener.

The Gardener's Friend

The Gardener’s Friend