Category Archives: London Amphibians

All Change in Bugwoman’s Garden

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The whitebeam tree, pre-trim. The squirrel drey in the top right was uninhabited.

Dear Readers, every five years I have some work done in the garden that fills me with trepidation. My whitebeam and hawthorn trees are very beautiful, but are also a bit big for a smallish suburban garden, and so I ask the tree surgeons to come in and give them a good trim. I know it sounds strange, but I feel guilty about it every time, and always apologise to the trees in advance, and try to explain what’s going to happen. I know that both trees will take a while to recover, and that the birds will be confused about where their favourite perching places have gone. But, nonetheless, if I want to preserve good neighbourly relationships, and also to get maximum light to the (north-facing) garden, it has to be done, and early in the year before anything has really started to grow.

So, the tree surgeon Michael, and his sidekick Scott, arrived, and Michael spent the next six hours in the whitebeam. In the pouring rain. He is something of an artist, taking a drawing of the tree before he starts, and preserving its character and shape as he goes (something that some of the guys employed by the council could do well to learn, though I have no doubt that those poor souls are up against a ferocious timetable). And this is the result.

IMG_5669Not pretty at the moment, I know, but all the fundamental features of the tree are still there. And he’s even left me some branches to hang the bird feeders on, which is very important. The chaffinches and collared doves and robins were very upset at their absence, but I think they’re happy again now.

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The robin has just learned how to use the bird feeder!

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Male Chaffinch

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Dunnock

By the time Michael went home, he was absolutely dripping wet. I do hope he doesn’t come down with some evil disease as a result.

And in the evening, an annual event occurred. As the drizzle continued, a little army of heads popped up in the pond. It was as if they’d been waiting for the temperature to go up a few degrees.

There had been a few males around for several weeks, but no frogspawn. And yet, when I got up, all this had been laid in one night.

IMG_5650The frogs seem to like the shallow end of the pond, and once one female has laid her eggs, everyone else tries to lay theirs on top. At first, each egg seems pumped full of fluid, fit to burst, but over time the eggs seem to lose their rigidity and become softer, eventually releasing the tadpoles into the pond.

IMG_5656I had never noticed frogs’ eyes before. I love the almond shape and the golden iris.

IMG_5664IMG_5665There is something so benign about that gaze, so utterly harmless.

IMG_5663And yet, something has killed one frog per night ever since they started to breed. I find their little corpses, hands together as if in prayer, their white bellies exposed. They seem to have one tiny bite behind the head. Usually, they aren’t eaten, but today I found one that had been partly dismembered. It could be a cat, a fox, or even a crow (though I suspect that they scavenge the dead ones rather than hunt the live ones). But still, there are probably a hundred frogs in the pond at the height of the season, all so intent on breeding that everything else is an afterthought. No wonder their croaking and squirming and skirmishing attracts the attention of predators. It would be strange if it didn’t.

And, while this is not a cat blog, or a dog blog, I do have to share two photos with you this week. One is of my cat, Willow, who is under the impression that she is a panther.

IMG_5643And the other is of a dog that I met in Coldfall Wood. This little one might be a ‘toy dog’ but he has the heart and spirit of a Newfoundland. I salute you, sir! He was undaunted by the sudden increase in depth and volume of the Everglades pond, and was determined to go swimming. His owner told me that he often tries to stalk the ducks, who can see him coming a mile off and fly just when he comes within sniffing distance. I only hope that his owner had a fine collection of towels. This was one very wet dog.

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The Liminal Frog

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Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) in amplexus

Frogs are mysterious creatures, neither land-living nor water-dwelling, but a bit of each. For a long time we didn’t know exactly what they were. In 1694, in France, it was described as ‘an insect that commonly lives in marshes’. Until the late nineteenth century, they were classified as reptiles, and it was only fairly recently that they were grouped as amphibians – animals which need water in which to breed, but which may live on dry land for the rest of the time. Frogs are certainly associated with damp conditions, which they need to prevent their skins from drying out, but they can be found quite a distance from water once the breeding season is over.

All through the winter, the male frogs have been hibernating, either in piles of deadwood, or under my wooden raised path, or in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Then, one morning, I’ll look out of my bedroom window to see a cat sitting next to the water, taut with attention, and I’ll know that spring is coming, and the first frogs have woken up.

IMG_1210The male frogs emerge first, and wait around for the females to show. These are more likely to hibernate outside the pond – very sensibly because, as we’ll see, once they’re in the water they’ll be extremely popular.

The male frogs develop special bulges on their thumbs called ‘nuptial pads’. These help to hang onto the female during mating, and seem to have some kind of modified mucous gland inside, although there is no evidence that I’m aware of that they actually ‘stick’ to the females. No, grabbing and hanging on to a female (called ‘amplexus’) seems to be down to brute force and perseverance.

 

A splendid illustration of a nuptial pad, courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A splendid illustration of a nuptial pad on an Edible Frog (Pelophylax esculentus), courtesy of Christian Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The male frogs sing to attract a female, and on a warmish spring night I can hear the little calls while I’m washing up. Once a female has arrived, it’s every frog for himself. Usually, a relaxed relationship seems to develop. The female carries the male everywhere, and gets on with her day to day business. She is often full of spawn, but it might take her weeks to decide where, and when, to lay her eggs. As soon as she does so, the male frog releases his sperm, and the spawn is fertilised.

Two relaxed frogs waiting for a happy event.

Two relaxed frogs waiting for a happy event.Note how plump the female is! Hopefully it will be any day now.

Sometimes, however, things go wrong.

Oh dear.

Oh dear.

This froggy sandwich has been going on for several days, and none of the participants seem very happy. Look at that tangle of limbs! My heart goes out to the frog in the middle.  I have rarely seen so much pushing and shoving outside of a Northern Line tube train at rush hour. Frog hands are shoved under frog chins, legs kick and the whole group goes round and round in circles. I managed to capture one such attempt at resolving the situation. If you turn your sound up, you will even hear them singing.

There is much about frogs which is decidedly human in appearance. Their long, muscular legs and elegant fingers have something of the supermodel about them, whilst their big eyes and down-turned mouths always look a little disappointed to me, as if life has not turned out at all as they expected. And for many frogs, dissected in school labs, used in experiments or thrown, legless into a bucket after their limbs have been harvested for cuisses de grenouille, this would be a reasonable conclusion to come to. But for millions of other frogs, living out their lives in the relative peace of back gardens, lakes and ponds across the country, spring is a glad season, full of sex and excitement. It’s followed by a chance to retreat back into the undergrowth and do nothing more strenuous than munch on slugs and flies for the rest of the year. Happy is the garden with resident frogs, chilly-skinned, golden-eyed, and unchanged for 200 million years.

By Bernie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Bernie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Much of today’s information came from ‘Frog’ by Charlotte Sleigh, one of the wonderful Reaktion series on the cultural history of different species. Highly recommended!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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