Category Archives: London Birds

At Walthamstow Wetlands (Again)

Dear Readers, there is a condition known as pareidolia, in which we see faces in inanimate objects. But, really, how could one resist this little fellow, who is actually an old meter, set into the wall of the Engine House cafe in Walthamstow Wetlands? I almost offered him a bite of scone. But soon it was time to walk out amongst the reservoirs, and so I had to leave him behind.

The air was zipping with house martins feeding on the gnats that were rising from the water. Soon, the birds will be heading off to Africa, so I hope that they got a decent number of calories. Dragonflies were patrolling the paths too. I felt sorry for the prey insects as they were picked off, but I suspect there are many more that passed unharmed. You really do get a feeling for the importance of invertebrates as the basis of many food chains.

And everywhere, it was autumn.

I spotted some tansy, which may well appear as a Wednesday Weed, so I shall say little about it now, except that I was delighted to see it.

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

There were lots of chaps fishing in the reservoirs as we wandered past: some of them had masses of equipment, and two-wheeled trollies to help them get all their stuff down the steep banks to the fishing spots. They were positioned, one by one, like so many herons, each with their ‘spot’. I wonder how much of this time spent in quiet contemplation helps to calm the spirit after a long week at work. Personally, I’d rather not harass the fish, who I think have quite enough bother as it is, what with the herons and the cormorants and the constant risk of pollution, but I can see what folk enjoy about it.

Along the fence posts of the island opposite there was a whole row of other anglers.

Gulls and herons

But what really amazed me this time was the large number of great-crested grebes. What handsome birds they are, set against that mercury-silver water. They are always up to something – fishing, diving, preening, and even having a little practice of courting behaviour – I watched two birds performing a kind of ritualistic dance, bobbing their heads, swimming alongside one another, rising up and bowing down. This is only a shadow of what will happen in the spring, but maybe it’s a way of pair-bonding, of reminding one another who they are in the absence of parental duties.

As we headed down towards the Coppermill (about which I wrote on my last visit) I spotted a very fine cormorant, who flew low over our heads and plopped into the water. S/he walked laboriously up the concrete slope that led to the bank, raising each foot carefully and keeping a blue eye on us the whole time. I hadn’t realised how stiff the tail feathers were, or how wet the bird gets – cormorants don’t seem to be completely waterproof, hence their need to spend a long time drying their wings. They nest on one of the islands in the reservoir, so it’s yet another reason to visit in the spring – between the cormorants and herons nesting, and the great-crested grebes doing their mating dance, it must be quite the scene.

And finally, as we turned for home, a mute swan flew overhead, wings swishing, neck outstretched. Swans are at the upper limit for size when it comes to flying – the bigger you are, the more powerful your chest muscles need to be to operate your wings. However, muscle is heavy, and so a bird the size of a swan or pelican is about as big as you can get unless you are able to just launch yourself from a mountain top – this is what scientists assume that the giant flying reptiles used to do. But aside from the science, a swan in flight always seems magical to me, as if the laws of the universe have been briefly put to one side.

It is good to come back to a place that has difficult memories. Last time I was at Walthamstow Wetlands, I was in the middle of the painful process of settling Mum and Dad into their nursing home. Mum was determined to go back to their bungalow, even though she was much too sick, and the choice was actually between being in the nursing home or being in hospital. Dad just wanted Mum to be happy, and if that meant going home, that was what he wanted too. I honestly felt as if my heart was broken, with no way forward and no way back. Mum eventually made her peace with being in the home, and Dad is now about as happy as he can be, but as I trudged those paths last year everything seemed dark and desperate. Even then, though, I found myself distracted by the plants and animals that I saw, and I went home feeling just a little lighter. Today, I feel sad but peaceful, which is a definite improvement. I am glad to have overlain the remembrance of my last visit with the joy of strutting cormorants and dancing grebes. Things are in constant flux, much like the weather, and if you just hang on in there and wait, you might be surprised at what happens.

 

 

 

 

The Nimble Musicians of the Air (Isaak Walton)

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

Dear Readers, I am currently reading Joe Harkness’s ‘Bird Therapy’, which describes how the author found birdwatching to be a solace following a breakdown. I am finding it inspirational, because it not only tells the author’s story (which is fascinating), but is also full of lots of practical advice. Harkness has structured the book around the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ which have been endorsed by the mental health charity MInd. They are: to connect, to take notice, to give, to keep learning and to be active. The author points out that these five things are intrinsic to birdwatching, and it also felt like a helpful way for me to think about my relationship to my blog.

I have long thought that contact with nature is deeply healing: one problem with the way that most of us live these days is that we are lonely and disconnected from the world around us in a way that even our grandparents weren’t. Before I started this blog, I couldn’t have named more than half a dozen of the ‘weeds’ that grow in the garden. Trees were a mystery. The great benefit of Bugwoman the Blog is that it has been an incentive to actually go out and use my senses, and one thing that has delighted me to excess is that I have learned to identify the calls of some of the birds that surround me. There is a meditative quality to sitting in the garden and just listening that is deeply calming, and there is something exciting about hearing a bird that I haven’t heard before. I thought that, today, I would share with you a few of the experiences that have raised my spirits over the past few years. Do let me know what birdsong has meant to you!

It was a wet Easter Friday morning in 2015, and I was trudging around Coldfall Wood, my head full of worries. Already Mum and Dad were unwell, and I felt thoroughly weighed down. It took a good half an hour before I noticed the birdsong. It was a virtuoso performance, with each refrain being repeated several times, urgently. I could hear another bird answering some distance away. Finally, I managed to actually spot the bird. It was the first song thrush that I had ever noticed, and I was entranced. I stood and listened with rain pouring off my kagoule, all alone in the wood, and for a few moments everything stopped. A few years later a songthrush visited me in the garden, but it is that song in the wood that I remember – I know that I marched out of the woods with my heart lifted.

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) visiting in the garden

The song thrush was a new bird to me, but the robin is ubiquitous. Yet, I feel as if I have spent the first fifty years of my life paying no attention what so ever to the bird’s song. In Coldfall Wood, in spring, you pass from one songster’s territory to another, without ever being out of earshot of that tumble of melody. Furthermore, robins sing with such gusto and confidence that they will carry on even while you stand underneath ‘their’ tree. Although robins sing all year, they are never so vocal as in spring. I filmed the one below in March, when the year had already turned towards the sun, although we humans might not have noticed.

A sound that I always find exciting is not really a song – it’s the soft ‘tseep’ contact call of a flock of long-tailed tits as they clamber like miniature monkeys through a shrub. If you’ve never heard it (and it’s one of those sounds that you need to ‘tune in’ to ) you can have a listen here. Once I hear it, though, I have to stop and look around. My very best experience of these birds was in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, when I unexpectedly came upon this little group. Newly fledged ‘bumbarrels’! If there is a more adorable bird in the UK I have yet to meet it.

And finally, there is the song that tells me that, for many birds, the hard work of the year is almost over. Every May, there is a morning when I am woken up by the feeding calls of dozens of fledged starlings, all waiting for their poor patient parents to feed them. The first time I heard it, I had to rush to the window to see what on earth was going on, what with all the wheezing and squealing. I love the way that the birds come every year, and I wonder if the local starlings remember that there is always food here. That sense of continuity, of the wheel of the seasons still turning, is reassuring, especially in these tumultuous times.

But I couldn’t leave this subject without mentioning the healing effects of birdsong, even when the birds are not present. Long-time readers of this blog might remember that my mother was hospitalised at Christmas when she came to visit me in London back in 2016. The Whittington Hospital in North London saved her life, and she lived for another two years, during which time she celebrated her sixtieth wedding anniversary to my dad. Here is what I wrote about it at the time.

‘It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.

At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.

‘Open that’, she said.

He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.

The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.

‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’

And he ‘played’ the song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow’

Another Year

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers , it seems impossible that I was writing about the new cohort of fledgling starlings a whole year ago, but here we are again. A couple of weekends ago we were woken at stupid o’clock by the insistent, wheezy calls of young starlings, fresh out of the nest and eager to be fed. The sky was alive with parent birds flying fast and low, hotly pursued by their ravenous offspring. I have noted before how the parents ‘park’ their freshly emerged youngsters in a tree, or on the ground, and then fly off to gather food for them. Left to their own devices, even briefly, the youngsters get into all kinds of mischief, and every year there’s something new. For example, I had never seen a starling sunning itself before. This one looked as if s/he was enjoying being able to stretch her wings. Maybe it was a very cramped nest.

Another group decided to bathe in the bird bath.

One fell into the pond and had to be rescued – I fished him out with a leaf-rake and he sat under the hedge looking very bedraggled.

I expected the kerfuffle to attract some predators – in the past I’ve seen fledglings killed by jays, cats and a sparrowhawk. But the afternoon went on, and the parents flew back and forth with mouthfuls of tasty caterpillars and suet pellets. It interests me that the babies will beg from any adult, but the adults are most particular about who they feed. They aren’t going to let all that work of incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings go to waste now.

The period when the parents look after their offspring is vanishingly short, however. In the course of a few hours, the parents seem to move from feeding their fledglings every ten minutes to returning about once every half hour. I would almost swear that by the end of the day, the youngsters are left largely to their own devices. They certainly seem to pick up this pecking thing pretty quickly. By the end of the week, there were ‘gangs’ of adolescent starlings, but scarcely an adult to be seen. I’m wondering if the adults are just desperate for a break, and to get on with moulting. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.

How vulnerable the fledglings look, though. I wonder if they feel at all nervous, out in the big wild world? What they seem to resemble most is some Dickensian ingenue, fresh to the Big City and ready to be fleeced by any passing rascal. Let’s hope they’ve learnt at least the minimal street smarts from their parents.

I was extremely surprised by the suddenness of the ‘switch’ in maternal behaviour when I was fostering cats for Cats Protection. We only had one mother cat who gave birth in the house, and this was Rosa.

Rosa

She was the most diligent mother to her four kittens: they were born on the 4th November and on the 5th November there was a massive firework display outside, complete with house-shaking explosions. I was afraid that Rosa would desert the babies in order to find safety for herself (she was nursing right under the window) but not a bit of it. The kittens were the centre of her life for ten weeks, during which time she fed them, cleaned them, protected them and taught them how to behave.

Rosa with her babies

And then, one morning, one of the kittens tried to suckle and she walloped him with a paw, sending him rolling across the floor. She had been moving away and allowing them to suckle less, plus they were all eating solid food by then, but had allowed them to ‘comfort-feed’. From then on, she was grumpy with the kittens, getting away from them whenever she could. She was extremely affectionate with us, though, and it became clear that she was coming back into heat. It was as if she’d decided that her work on this bunch of kittens was done, and she was getting ready to make some more. The kittens were rehomed soon after this, in pairs so that they wouldn’t be lonely, and once Rosa had been through her heat she was spayed and a new home was found for her too. It was a sharp lesson for me in how unsentimental nature is, and how quickly young animals can be ‘cast out’ to fend for themselves.

Incidentally, it also made me think that most kittens are rehomed much too young – 8 weeks feels too early for me, with ten weeks being the ideal. Mothers still have a lot to teach their kittens before they get fed up with them!

And although this isn’t a cat blog, here are the kittens. We gave them descriptive names so that we ‘wouldn’t get too attached to them’. That went well, as you can imagine.

Mostly White at ten days

Mostly White at five weeks

Stripey at six weeks

Stripey Tail at ten days

Mostly Black at eight weeks

Stripey Tail at 2 weeks

The whole gang…

And, of course, all this makes me think about human mothers and their children. I remember how desperately I wanted to be independent when I was in my teens, how hard I fought to break away from what felt like suffocation to me, though my mother saw it as love and protection.I am sure it’s a battle that is repeated in some form or another in most households, with a greater or lesser degree of heartbreak. And yet, when I did remake my relationship with my Mum when I was in my forties, it was all the stronger because of the previous fracture, because the lines had been largely redrawn. We came back together, tentatively at first, as adults meeting and  appreciating one another as if for the first time. Of course Mum was always my mother, and she always told me to put a coat on when she felt cold, but we had a new and enduring respect for one another. She encouraged me to be a writer, and when I was clearing through her things last week, I discovered a plastic file full of the stories that I’d sent to her, pieces that I don’t even remember writing, and yet here they are.She believed in me long before I believed in myself, and it is probably the greatest gift that she gave me.

When animals insist that their youngsters move on, it’s usually permanent – there frequently aren’t the resources to enable two generations to share the same territory. How lucky we are, as humans, to be able to make those decisions for ourselves, and to have the choice to have a new kind of relationship with our parents once we are no longer dependent upon them. The redrawing of boundaries and the conversations that need to be had can be excruciating, but they do open up new possibilities, if (and only if) both parties are willing to try. This is not to say that some relationships  between parents and children are not too toxic, too damaging, to be redeemed. But we often seem so lonely and exposed, so unprepared for what’s to come. As I have learned, there will be a time when there are no ears to hear the things that we meant to say, and the stories of our parents will go with them into the dust.

As the Buddha said, ‘the problem is, you think you have time’.

 

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.

The RSPB Big Birdwatch 2019

Dear Readers, the Memorial service for my Mum is taking place this Saturday (2nd February) at 11 a.m. at St Andrews Church in Milborne St Andrew.  I will write a little more about this soon, but in the meantime I just wanted to say thank you for the kindness and support that you have shown to me during this awful time. It has been such a comfort.

Dear Readers, every year it seems to be the same. I settle down to record the birds in my garden for the Big Garden Birdwatch (which is in its fortieth year this year), and all the unusual critters disappear. But data is data, and so I am only mildly irritated when one of the two feral pigeons who use the garden turns up and claims the ‘bird table’ for 30 minutes. I have named this one ‘Gladys’, for reasons that I find it difficult to explain. She is a very elegant bird (and may indeed be a male, though I have spotted her being courted by another pigeon so I am hedging my bets). She is, however, something of a dog in a manger. When she has eaten her fill she just sits there, and sees off all comers. Yes, even the starlings.

I have a great fondness for pigeons, as regular readers will know, but I only have an hour to get my beak count up, so I wish she’d get a move on. For those of you who don’t know about the Big Garden Birdwatch, you watch the birds in your garden, or in a local park, for an hour and record the maximum number of each species that you see. It is always on the last weekend in January, so over the years a lot of data has been collected. It highlights the relative gains and losses in Britain’s gardens, and has recorded the sad decline in species such as the house sparrow, starling and, particularly, the greenfinch. It will be interesting to see what trends this year’s Birdwatch reveals.

At the moment a flock of four chaffinches are regular visitors, and what a delight they are. At least Gladys doesn’t dissuade them.

Male chaffinch (Fringilla coeleps)

Female chaffinch

It is a particularly blustery day, and the birds that turn up in the garden seem to be blown in by the wind. I am always moved by how resilient they are, and how energetic. Gladys hasn’t moved, but there are a few other visitors. A great tit appears, and some blue tits are zipping in and out of the hedge. The coal tit who always visits the suet feeder decides not to put in an appearance until one minute after the Birdwatch is finished.

Great tit (Parus major)

As it is such a quiet time for birds, I have plenty of time to reflect on how my garden was neglected last year. Regular readers will know that my mother died towards the end of last year following a long period of ill health, and that my father was diagnosed with dementia which has gotten increasingly serious. As I look out at the pond (which should have been cleared in autumn) and some of the shrubs (which could have done with a prune) and as I notice the bramble that has advanced over the back fence and is now rooting next to the shed, I realise that there is plenty to do as soon as the weather warms up a little, and that I am rather looking forward to getting things back into order. I find myself drifting off into a reverie about what to do first and how to improve things, and I realise that when all else fails, there is always gardening. It is one of those projects that never ends, and which is all the better for it.

And then I notice a tiny movement in the bittersweet vine, and get a fleeting glimpse of a male blackcap rooting around amongst the berries. It’s too short a visit to get a photo, but it does give me the pleasure of manually adding a species to the list of ‘normal’ garden species on the Birdwatch form. I love how intensely black the cap of this bird is, like soot, and I have also spotted an attractive redheaded female blackcap, so maybe there is a pair. I saw a blackcap during last year’s Birdwatch too, so it gives me great pleasure to see the species again.

A blackcap from the 2018 Birdwatch

The regular goldfinches turn up amid a flurry of chime-like calls. I love the chequerboard pattern on their wings. Resident goldfinches are supplemented by visitors from Scandinavia in the winter. They are always such a pleasure to have in the garden. They are reputed to love nyger seed, but in my garden they  always head straight for the sunflower hearts, which I suspect are easier to eat than all those tiddly little black seeds. What I love most, though, is when I see goldfinches feeding on teasel or thistle. I might give teasel another go this year.

Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)

Young goldfinch feeding at the Olympic Park, Stratford

It does seem to be a bumper year for blackbirds, though. There is at least one pair, and a few random males, who are seen off by the resident male if they get too close to the female but are otherwise pretty much tolerated. I believe that all this will change soon when breeding gets going: blackbirds breed early, so it probably won’t be much longer, though the current cold spell will have slowed things up.

The resident female blackbird (Turdus merula)

Finally, Gladys gets bored, and everyone else gets a look in. I count 17 starlings in the lilac bush, waiting to see who will be brave enough to feed first. I imagine that having a range of personalities in a population of animals is a great advantage – sometimes fortune will favour the bold, and at other times it’s wiser to hang back. During last years Big Garden Birdwatch, I was visited by a sparrowhawk, and at that time discretion was definitely the better part of valour. This year, though, all was peaceful, and this starling had a couple of minutes of peace before the inevitable onslaught.

A contemplative starling

I did manage to record one species that I hadn’t been able to ‘catch’ in previous years. I took a look at the cherry tree that overhangs the garden (and so is fine for recording purposes as far as I’m concerned), and there was a song thrush in it. I found an empty snail shell on the path this morning, so I am very hopeful that the bird is eating my molluscs, though it could just be coincidence. Here is a photo from last year. Could it be the same individual, I wonder?

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos)

And so, the hour draws to a close, and I am not unhappy with my tally. As is always the way, a dunnock and a wren pop up five minutes later and a more unusual group of visitors, some long-tailed tits, swarm the whitebeam a quarter of an hour later. There is something so soothing about just sitting and looking out of the window, and all in the name of science. I enjoyed it so much that I shall be keeping my eyes open for other ‘citizen science’ projects this year. Do let me know if you are involved in any such shenanigans!

And to close, here is one of the photos that I’m most proud of in all my years of being Bugwoman – some fledgling  long-tailed tits spotted in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery. It’s too early for the birds that I saw today to be breeding just yet, but I am hopeful for later in the year. These are the most adorable bundles of fuzz, and I was so glad to be in the right place at the right time for once. It’s always good to take the time to really look, whether it’s during a walk or in my own garden. I honestly never know who is going to turn up.

 

The Sea Raven

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

Dear Readers, once I returned to London after having a very subdued Christmas with my Dad, I felt a desperate need to reconnect with both my physical self and the world around me. I have found that grieving involves both a closing down and an opening up – I spend a lot of time with my memories, but I am also vulnerable to the world around me, as if all the emotional bludgeoning of the past few years had tenderised me like a steak.

For example, I was travelling on the tube the other day when a woman got on with a small, elderly dog. He was a grizzled creature, slightly wobbly on his legs, his eyes bulging in their socket, his tongue lolling out as he peered around the carriage. And then he staggered over to me and looked up with an expression of such trust and hope that I started to cry all over his innocent head. Fortunately there are many deranged people on the Northern Line, and so my outburst went unnoticed and unremarked, except by the dog,  who tried to lick my tears and wagged his tail so vigorously that he fell over.

And so, the next day,  I went to Hampstead Heath for a brisk walk and there, on the boating pond, I saw a cormorant and realised that I had never really seen one before.

Look at that extraordinary frosting on the bird’s head, the red chin! My camera was at the limit of its magnification, but the bird is blue-eyed. In North Norway the bird is considered to be the incarnation of souls lost at sea, whose bodies have never been recovered.  Their Latin genus name, Phalacrocorax, is said to mean ‘bald raven’ and the name ‘cormorant’ may be a direct contraction of the Latin ‘corvus marinus, or ‘sea raven’. There’s something about black-plumaged birds, whether crows or cormorants,  that awakens the Gothic imagination, and for many people the birds represent the spirits of the departed. Plus, as Adam Nicholson remarks in his wonderful book  ‘The Seabird’s Cry‘ , the bird is invoked in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as the very incarnation of Satan:

Up he flew, and on the Tree of Life

The middle tree, and highest there that grew,

Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life

Thereby regained, but sat devising Death

to them who liv’d.’

Cormorants are regarded by many anglers as direct competition, and in spite of the bird’s protected status it is often illegally killed. This is, as so often, a pointless exercise: if a prime fishing site becomes vacant, other cormorants will move in. Plus, for such a big bird the cormorant’s daily food requirements are quite modest, with each creature requiring less than a kilo of fish. The birds are exquisitely designed to hunt fish underwater, and have jaws which they can dislocate to eat much bigger fish than you’d think, but they spend much of their time perched up, drying their wings and surveying their kingdom with a haughty air. In summer, with babies to feed, the birds catch all the fish that they can but in winter they hunt more strategically, waiting for larger, more torpedo-shaped fish, so as to not waste valuable energy that could be used to keep themselves warm.

The UK has a resident cormorant population of about 9,000 pairs, who live mostly in coastal regions, and who are extremely faithful to their nest sites, building up their nests with twigs year after year. However, in the winter their numbers are swollen by a further 41,000 birds who spend the cold weather on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. There is a huge cormorant nesting site on one of the islands in Walthamstow Wetlands, however, so to see the dinosaur-like nestlings of this remarkable bird, it’s worth bringing your binoculars to north-east London.

Why, though, do the birds spend so long with their wings outspread? Other water birds who dive, such as tufted ducks and gannets, have no need to do this, and indeed some species of cormorant don’t do it either, particularly the wonderfully named Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps bransfielden). There has been much heated debate on the subject in the scientific community, but the conclusion as far as I could see seemed to be that the plumage of cormorants is not as water-repellent as that of some other birds and so, in suitable climates, they need to dry out their feathers before they are able to fly. For our friend the Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag, however, hanging around revealing your wingpits would have the added effect of lowering body temperature due to exposure to the icy blasts of the Antarctic wind, and would not help significantly with the speed of drying, and so the bird sensibly keeps its wings shut. Animal behaviour is often much more nuanced and cued to context than we understand, unless we take the time to really look.

If this posture looks a little familiar, it may be because the cormorant is the model for Liverpool’s emblem, the Liver Bird.

Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1894728

A Liver Bird atop the Liver building in Liverpool (Photo One)

There are actually two Liver birds on the Liver building, but they face away from one another. One was designed to watch the sea (‘our prosperity’) and one to watch the city (‘our people’). The legend goes that if that two birds actually mated and flew away, it would mean the end of Liverpool, and that’s why they are chained to their perches. The birds are officially known as Bella and Bertie, and they are eighteen feet long, ten feet high and each carry a sprig of laver seaweed in their beaks (a pun on ‘Liver’).

In the interests of illuminating a trap for the unwary, I should point out that the ‘Liver’ in ‘Liver birds’ rhymes with ‘fiver’, whereas in ‘Liverpool’ it rhymes with ‘hither’. Go figure.

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1240339

The Royal Liver Building (Photo Two)

And for any folks ‘of a certain age’, who could forget the weekly antics of The Liver Birds on BBC1, as they tottered around Liverpool in their Afghan coats, mini skirts and knee-length white patent boots, looking for love and trying to cope with the vagaries of work and their social lives? Like so many British comedies of the period, it was very much about class. Beryl, played by Polly James, was the ‘common’ working-class one,  and Nerys Hughes played Sandra, who was the more softly-spoken, refined one.

Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41896196

Polly James and Nerys Hughes on the set of The Liver Birds (Photo Three)

The programme ran for 9 series, from 1969 right through to the end of the seventies, and it was a fixture in our household. We watched agog with our dinner plates on our laps (we didn’t really have room for a dining table). If we were lucky, Mum would have made ‘spammy hedgehogs’. This was a pile of mashed potato with spam ‘quills’ and tomato ketchup for eyes. Sometimes we would have eggy sunflowers, which was a fried egg surrounded by chip ‘petals’. My Mum was such a creative person that even a cheap dinner would be transformed into a masterpiece.

But I digress, as usual.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Ted Hughes. I know a lot of Hughes’s poems, and admire the way that he can conjure a creature with a few lines, but I didn’t associate him with humour. However,  I find this hilarious. It speaks to me of how humans, adaptable as we are, are actually the clumsiest, most ill-adapted animals on the planet. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…

A Cormorant by Ted Hughes

Here before me, snake-head.
My waders weigh seven pounds.

My Barbour jacket, mainly necessary
For its pockets, is proof

Against the sky at my back. My bag
Sags with lures and hunter’s medicine enough

For a year in the Pleistocene.
My hat, of use only

If this May relapses into March,
Embarrasses me, and my net, long as myself,

Optimistic, awkward, infatuated
With every twig-snag and fence-barb

Will slowly ruin the day. I paddle
Precariously on slimed shale,

And infiltrate twenty yards
Of gluey and magnetized spider-gleam

Into the elbowing dense jostle-traffic
Of the river’s tunnel, and pray

With futuristic, archaic under-breath
So that some fish, telepathically overpowered,

Will attach its incomprehension
To the bauble I offer to space in general.

The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low — sea-serpentish.

He’s thinking: “Will that stump
Stay a stump just while I dive?” He dives.

He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish-action, becomes fish,

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself. Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me.
Leaves me high and dry in my space-armour,

A deep-sea diver in two inches of water.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1894728

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1240339

Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41896196

Bugwoman on Location – Big Wood

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

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

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

Leaves of wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

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

Trunk of a wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris)

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

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

An imperfect photo of a  nuthatch (as my photos usually are 🙂 )

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

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

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

A coppiced area in Big Wood

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

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

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

And through it all, the dappled sunlight.

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