Category Archives: London Birds

Sunday Quiz – Aliens!

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

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

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

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

1. Edible dormouse (Glis glis)

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

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

2. American mink (Neovison vison)

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

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

3. Sika deer

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

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

4. Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

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

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

7. Red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)

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

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

8. Marsh Frog  (Pelophylax ridibundus)

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

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

9. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis)

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

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

10. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhyncus mykiss)

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

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

11. Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)

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

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

12. Harlequin ladybird

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

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

13. Asian hornet (Vespa volutina)

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

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

14. Horse chestnut leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella)

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

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

15. Oak processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumetopoea processionea)

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

Photo Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Late Summer Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

The Engine Room at Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, last time I was here with my friend S, the site was closed due to flooding, so it was a relief to actually be able to see the reservoirs and lakes this time. The whole place was full of dragonflies, not one of which sat still long enough for me to get a photo. Still, they are such a delight, zipping about like those toy planes powered by elastic bands that you used to get for about a shilling when I was a girl. 

They currently have a Moomin trail for the children. I was never a great fan of the little critters, but my lovely friend Susie, who died much too young, was an avid collector of all things Moomin, so I had to take a few photos for her.

On the ‘real’ wildlife trail, though, my Birdnet app proved its worth again. I heard some calls coming from what I thought were small birds in one of the goat willows. Well, I was half-right – they were small birds, but they were Little Grebes, or Dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis). According to my Crossley Bird Guide, their ‘very well-known call is like whinny of tiny horse or slightly insane giggle’. I love this book!

The young birds can apparently retain the stripes on their head through their first winter, which I think is what is going on with this bird. It has a fluffy tail too, which leads Crossley to describe the bird as a ‘floating rabbit’. All in all it’s a slightly bedraggled-looking little bird, but it bobs under the water with all the efficiency of its larger relatives and then bounces back up like a cork. Dabchicks eat insects and larvae, so any baby dragonflies had better watch out.

On one of the other lakes, I spotted an adult bird, looking a bit more dapper. That splendid chestnut neck is diagnostic for the species, and I’d have though that the white mark below the bill was a good indicator too.

Adult Little Grebe

What’s going on with the water, though? Although in some places it looks like one of those Venetian marbled papers, it does look a little alarming. It’s not duckweed, and it doesn’t seem to be chemical pollution, so I’m assuming that it’s algae.

And how about this fabulous spider, who was floating in mid-air half way across the path and wasn’t best pleased when we accidentally undid all his/her hard work by walking right through the web…

There’s also some flowering Japanese knotweed (though as we know there are only female plants in the UK so it’s not the seeds that are the problem, but the roots) and! apparently some Giant Hogweed though I couldn’t see it. For those of you who don’t know, the sap of this plant can cause blisters, and it also makes the skin photosensitive so that it becomes red and sore on exposure to sunlight, sometimes for years afterwards.

There are lots of rosehips about too, including this sweetbriar( Rosa rubiginosa) – the hips have much longer sepals than on a dog rose.

A lot of the paths are out of action at the Wetlands at the moment – when ducks moult they lose all their flight feathers at once, and so are extremely vulnerable and need places to hide without disturbance. It’s always a great place to wander around, though, with lots to see if you’re patient. Today felt like summer’s last gasp, with temperatures in the high twenties, and so it was good to make the most of it. Plus, the cafe does the most delicious sandwiches and cakes, so it makes it easy to just ‘hang out’. What a great addition Walthamstow Wetlands is to the green spaces of London!

Falling Down in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Swamp cypress leaves

Dear Readers, those who’ve been following me for a while will know that I have a strange tendency to trip over the smallest of imperfections in any surface. Some people think that I could stumble over a misplaced molecule, and they are probably right. However, today I fell in spectacular fashion over a pothole in one of the paths that could have been seen from space. Fortunately both my camera, my knees and my ankles survived, though my hands smarted for a while and I think my poor husband will be traumatised for the rest of the week.

I suppose it’s something to do with the fact that we are finally holding my Dad’s memorial service in a fortnight’s time – I have always found myself rather distracted when significant days that relate to Mum and Dad are coming close. The service will be at St Andrew’s Church in the lovely Dorset village of Milborne St Andrew, and it will be a chance to see some people that I haven’t seen for well over a year. Covid numbers are rising, which is concerning, but the vicar is asking for social distancing and face masks, and I suspect that things will get worse as the year wears on, rather than better. At any rate, while I hate the word ‘closure’ because it implies drawing a line under an event that can only be integrated rather than tidied away, it will feel as if Dad has been honoured properly, and that people who have not had a chance to mourn communally will have been able to do so. I shall keep you all posted on how it goes.

Anyhow, although it’s a very damp, drizzly day, there is much to enjoy in the cemetery today. Everything seems to be on pause, but there is such bounty in the shrubs and trees.

This is why a cherry laurel is called a cherry laurel. Don’t eat these though, they contain cyanide.

I am watching the progress of the conkers and the leaf miners on the horse chestnut trees with equal interest. The conkers are growing nice and fat, but seem to have some kind of rust growing on them.

The leaf miners are having a great time. I’m starting to see the little holes where the tiny moths have exited (as at the end of the long brown streak on the left-hand side of the central leaf). I just hope that some Southern Bush-Crickets find the tree soon.

I was rather taken by this lonely Fox and Cubs (Pilotella auriantica)…

and I love the constellations on the flowers of the ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)…

But this plant stopped me in my tracks completely. It’s so perfect that at first I thought it was plastic. It’s a houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) though I’m not sure which variety. How splendid it is, and how utterly perfect.

There is a smaller plant in the other corner of the grave. Clearly this one isn’t in such a prime location but I have a suspicion that it will do its best to catch up.

It’s going to be a great year for hawthorn, my tree is bowed down with them.

It’s a good year for pyracantha, too.

And finally a long-standing mystery has been solved. I have been puzzling over this shrub for months – it has silvery, strap-like leaves. But finally I’ve seen the berries and all is clear. This is sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides), rare as hen’s teeth in the wild but flourishing here alongside the North Circular Road. You honestly never know what you’re going to see in this uninspiring little strip of shrubs and wildflowers.

Sea buckthorn berries have featured heavily in the menus created for cookery show ‘The Great British Menu’, where established professional cooks compete to have a dish at a banquet to honour a particular group of people – D-Day veterans, health and care workers, musicians, children’s authors. Sea buckthorn is universally hated by the judges, but the chefs seem to think that if they can only come up with the right dish, they will win. It hasn’t happened yet, sea buckthorn berries being something of an acquired taste – Wikipedia describes them as ‘astringent, sour and oily’, which doesn’t sound like a winning combination. They do have medicinal qualities, however, so all is not lost.

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Anyhow, by now it’s pouring with rain, and so we turn for home. I’m aware of a sudden chorus of agitated crows and jays screeching and cawing, and turn just in time to see a heron flying over, probably headed for the Dollis Brook or the lakes of Hampstead Heath. It looks more like a prehistoric animal than a bird, but of course birds are basically little dinosaurs so this isn’t surprising. What I need now is a cup of tea and some arnica for my grazes.

Expect the Unexpected

Walthamstow Wetlands – the weir

Dear Readers, I met up with a dear friend for a walk and a coffee at Walthamstow Wetlands yesterday. When we arrived at the main gate, it said that the main part of the wetlands was closed due to flooding. Gosh! Walthamstow was one of the areas badly flooded in the torrential rains last month, but there had been no rain overnight, so we were a bit taken aback. But fortunately, the other, smaller part of the wetlands was still open, so off we went to see what we could

One thing that you can definitely see is the extensive building at Blackhorse Road. I wonder how much of this is on the floodplain from the rivers around the wetlands? Hopefully none of it, as it seems to be on slightly higher ground, so fingers crossed. I’m hoping that at least some of these new flats and townhouses are ‘affordable’, though as affordability = 80% of the market price, they’ll still be out of the reach of most people.

There were lots of men with binoculars walking along the raised reservoir, so I made enquiries. Apparently there were two greenshank on the edge of the water on the other side. I hadn’t brought  my binoculars as a camera is distraction enough when you’re catching up with a friend, but here’s a photo of a greenshank so you can see what we missed.

Photo One by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41975685

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) (Photo One)

The edge of the reservoir is a haven for wildflowers, and many a Wednesday Weed has been discovered along this stretch of uninspiring-looking concrete.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)

Bladder campion (Silene vulgaris)

Common Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

But who else is here?

A fine collection of mute swans, all happily preening and dozing.

These are likely to be young birds or those not yet paired up and territorial – once a pair have a territory they will guard it zealously, as anyone unfortunate enough to accidentally disturb a mute swan on its nest will attest. I was once chased along a country lane for a hundred metres by an irritate bird after I almost fell over its nest.

Apparently mute swans are so-called because their wings make a whistling, humming sound in flight, which means that they don’t need to have a flight call like other swans. Who knew? Not me for sure.

Two swans were swimming in parallel. One would raise its head, then the other one followed suit. One would dip its head under the water, and then the other would do the same. I always wonder what strange and subtle signals birds send to one another that we can’t read. How close are you allowed to stand to one another if you’re not a pair? Do you preen synchronously too?

And so, although it wasn’t quite the morning we’d planned for, it was still a good walk, full of plants and animals and interesting Victorian architecture, like this water tower. Those Victorians didn’t do things by halves.

And as we headed back to Blackhorse Road tube station, I spotted this bush. It’s clearly some kind of vetch, but I’m puzzled by the way that the seedheads seem to have exploded. Can any of you gardeners out there a) identify the plant and b) tell me if the seedheads are supposed to look like that? All information gratefully received..

Mysterious yellow bean-plant

Seed capsules of mysterious yellow bean. Are they supposed to look like deflated balloons?

Photo Credits

Photo One By Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41975685

 

An August Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ swamp cypress

Dear Readers, I didn’t get to the cemetery last week because of the interminable rain, so it was a real pleasure to see what was going on this week. For a start, the swamp cypress was looking extremely fine. I know you’re not meant to have favourites, but this tree is very close to my heart.

But then, how about the trunk on this oak? It seems to have been much-lopped in its early years, and it’s covered in puckers and scars, but is no less characterful for its troubles. It reminds me of one of those many-breasted statues of Artemis that you can see in museums, and, like all oaks, this tree probably has been ‘mother’ to many, many other species. Or maybe it’s just me. See what you think

Photo One by Son of Groucho from Scotland, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Artemis from the Ephesus Museum (Photo One)

In other news, one of the cherry laurels has become a refuge for snails of all kinds. I guess that the waxy leaves provide an excellent protection against drying out, though the snails don’t appear to be eating them. This brown-lipped banded snail (Cepaea nemoralis) reminds me rather of a mint humbug.

I think that this is probably a rather worn garden snail (Cornu aspersum). It looks like an elderly snail to me, battered by life but clinging on.

And this is another brown-lipped snail, though not quite as pristine as the first one. Isn’t it interesting how we (generally) view snails as small characters, rather lovable in their way, but don’t extend the same tolerance to slugs? Maybe the shells help to offset the general sliminess.

Late summer is already shading into autumn, with bountiful supplies of conkers…

Elderberries….

And rosehips….

But there are some new plants in flower as well, such as this musk mallow (Malva moschata)…

and these lovely common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris). I love this plant, with its lemon and orange flowers. In fact, I have a great fondness for all toadflaxes – they are often great for pollinators and their flowers just ask for a bee to land on them.

There has been a whole lot of strimming going on on the banks where I’ve seen green woodpeckers in the past, but at the moment the magpies are there, working over the dried grass for tasty insects.

We take a quick run around the field and have a look at the Himalayan balsam. This is such an attractive, showy plant. I can see why people planted it in the past – it’s like having a giant moth orchid in your back garden. What a shame it’s such a thug – the bees seem to love it.

I spot a sparrowhawk flying overhead. I also see a recently-fledged blackbird, looking very small and vulnerable. Fortunately I could hear at least one adult bird in the tree overhead, so I moved quickly on, keeping my fingers crossed that this little one would soon be fully equipped for life in the cemetery. At least there are very few cats.

This crow was pecking at a piece of cellophane that had been used to wrap flowers with great determination, and even tried to fly off with it when we approached.

We couldn’t see anything of food value, and so my husband put the cellophane back in the bin. I reminded him that experiments have shown that corvids don’t forget someone who has done them a disservice – it’s been shown that they can identify someone who has wronged them even if they change their clothes and wear a mask. Let’s hope that this act of kindness won’t be misinterpreted, or our walks in the cemetery are about to become much more ‘interesting’.

Photo Credit

Photo One by Son of Groucho from Scotland, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Goldfinches and Squirrels…

Dear Readers, there really seems to be no limit to the acrobatics that our local squirrels will perform to get at the sunflower seeds. Look at those toes, just about hanging on! I’m guessing that it’s all worth it. When the leaves fall off of the whitebeam I’m fully expecting there to be at least one drey, and possibly two. I think that the mother squirrel has had a pair of babies for the last two years. After all, with food and water available on your doorstep, why would you move?

But prior to the arrival of the squirrel, there was a largish party of goldfinches, including two fledglings.

One of the fledglings

Now, people sometimes ask how to tell the difference between a male and female goldfinch. In species such as chaffinches it’s very straightforward – males are pink and females are beige. But in goldfinches, it’s a bit more subtle. If you look at the photo below, however, it’s fairly clear (even though the photo is a bit on the murky side). The bird on the left of the photo is a male – the red colour on his face clearly extends above and beyond the eye. If the photo was clearer, you could also see that the feathers just above the beak are black (they are usually grey in the female. The bird on the right is a female – the red coloration doesn’t extend back beyond the eye. However, be warned – it’s practically impossible to sex juvenile birds, like the one on the top perch, and there can be lots of variation between individual birds due to their condition, whether they’re moulting or not and their age.

Male to the left, female to the right, juvenile at the top.

What I am really hoping, though, is that at some point the goldfinches take advantage of the teasels that I’m growing. I do like the idea of having wild food in the garden, but maybe the sunflower seeds are just too easy. Let’s see what happens as the year progresses.

And it’s still raining.

A Wet Saturday in East Finchley

Rain dripping from the awning outside Coffee Bank

Dear Readers, our usual Saturday walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery was terminated abruptly today in favour of a flat white in Coffee Bank on East Finchley High Road. What a morning! It poured down relentlessly, and I look forward to the statistics which are going to announce that this was the wettest August ever. Even in the rain there are still things to see, but I wanted to start by showing you who popped into the garden yesterday.

This little one is very skinny but otherwise healthy – her tail looks mangey in the photo but it’s actually just a lighter silvery colour. She is all legs, and ears,  and is clearly one of this year’s cubs. Normally they haven’t been visiting until it’s properly dark,  but I imagine this one was very hungry. After about five minutes she loped off into the undergrowth and disappeared. It always feels like such a privilege to be visited by these animals.

Back to the High Road!

Coffee Bank stands right next to what is known as Carol’s Crossing. A wonderful local woman, Carol Jackson, was killed in a car accident at this spot in 2019. There had been many complaints about the difficulties for pedestrians who wanted to cross the road at this point, and it was very sad that the refuge in the middle of the road which makes things so much easier was constructed literally weeks after her death. Flowers are often left here in memory of Carol.

The ‘Carol’s Crossing’ embroidered sign

The crossing that makes life so much easier for East Finchley pedestrians

While I was watching the rain, I suddenly noticed the terracotta panels on the houses opposite. It’s these little details that make the mixed architecture around here so interesting. Clearly Tudor roses were very much in vogue.

And there are some fine floral swags too.

At least the plane trees are enjoying the rain, after the long dry periods of the last few summers.

And above the shop there’s a ‘ghost sign’ for an off licence – it’s interesting that there is still an off licence on this spot.

Then it’s off for a brisk trot along Leicester Road. Someone has planted borage and corn cockle in their front garden, and once it gets a bit drier I’m sure the bees will be delighted. I see some enchanter’s nightshade in there too – for the longest time I never saw this in East Finchley but suddenly it’s appeared.

All Saints Church looks rather forbidding against the grey sky….

But as we turn into my road, there’s a patch of blue sky.

And there is also something of an Alfred Hitchcock moment. Look at all these starlings! What are they waiting for?

They are all clicking and preening and whistling and generally discussing something I’m sure.

Maybe one of these days East Finchley will have enough starlings to have its own murmuration. Wouldn’t that be exciting? As it is, my conscience is unwrung because I topped up the bird feeders before I went out. In the film ‘The Birds’, I don’t think it was ever clear why the birds started to attack humans, but goodness knows they have enough cause. Let’s hope they don’t ever get it into their heads to take revenge.

 

A Bit of a Racket

Dear Readers, over the years I have learned to tune in to what’s going on in the garden by the sounds that the birds make, and today there was a positive cacophony of clicking and wheezing and squeaking. I followed the sound around the garden, and eventually came across this handsome chap sitting on the fence. His name is Bear (very appropriate I think), and while I have occasionally seen him patting a frog on the head, he is generally much more interested in just hanging out.

However, this didn’t put off the little family of wrens. Have a listen here! I managed to get a fleeting glimpse of one on camera, but there were probably four or five of them, making a combination of loud clicks and much softer contact calls.

Seeing a wren in the garden used to be a cause for some celebration, as it was such an unusual sight. Since lockdown, however, I’ve realised that the garden is positively inundated with the little darlings, creeping through the hedge and the bittersweet like so many adorable flying mice. Such feisty characters, and such big voices! I have rarely managed to get a decent photo, as they are so hyperactive, but here are a couple of photos by John Humble, a long-term Facebook friend and wonderful photographer.

And here is an excerpt from Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas poem, The Wren Boys, from 2015. It makes me think about all the things that we project onto animals, all the stories that we tell ourselves about them, and how they matter not a jot to the creature involved. It also makes me think about the Helen Macdonald book that I’ve just finished, ‘Vesper Flights’. A review will be making an appearance soon!

Hedge-bandit, song-bomb, dart-beak, the wren
hops in the thicket, flirt-eye; shy, brave,
grubbing, winter’s scamp, but more than itself –
ten requisite grams of the world’s weight.

And here’s the craic: that the little bird
had betrayed a saint with its song,
or stolen a ride on an eagle’s back
to fly highest; traitor and cheat.

But poets named it Dryw, druid and wren,
sought its hermit tune for a muse;
sweethearts thought it a foolproof blessing for love.
Which was true for the wren? None of the above.

 

Small Pleasures in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

A hoverfly’s bum. You’re welcome!

Dear Readers, after missing last week’s walk in the cemetery because I was still feeling poorly, it was a great pleasure to have a stroll around today, enjoying the little things that have changed since I was here last. In truth, the end of July/beginning of August is a quiet time for nature, with the babies fledged, the caterpillars growing and all manner of creatures fattening up for the autumn, but there are still lots of interesting things going on if you look closely. The woodland graveyard site is full of blowsy thistles, wild carrot, ragwort and knapweed, and the hoverflies are taking full advantage.

Drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a honeybee mimic

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Marmalade hoverfly (hopefully) (Episyrphus balteatus)

Hoverfly larvae are some of our most voracious aphid-eaters – we might be more familiar with ladybirds and their youngsters as they plough through a ‘herd’ of greenfly, but hoverfly maggots, though not the most appealing of creatures to look at, are basically aphid hoovers. The mimicry which means that these insects resemble bees or wasps is possibly also their downfall where humans are concerned – some people only have to see a flash of yellow and black stripes before they reach for a rolled-up newspaper. However, I’m sure that lots of predators leave them alone because of their colouration, so hopefully it all evens out. And look, here are some Common Red Soldier Beetles (Rhagonycha fulva), living up to their popular name of ‘bonking beetles’.

The conkers are continuing to fatten up.

Now, there’s a rose bush growing out of this conifer. So far, so unusual.

But here is something even more interesting…

This shaggy mass is the gall of a wasp, Diplolepsis rosae, which laid its eggs in the buds of the rose in the spring. Otherwise known as robin’s pincushions, each of these structures is woody inside and covered in long red or green hairs. The gall will contain many chambers, each of which contains a well-protected wasp larva. Male wasps are very rare, but the females can reproduce without needing sperm, so this is no problem. The new wasps appear in the spring, just in time to find new buds to parasitize. In Germany, these galls are known as ‘sleep apples’, and putting one under your pillow is supposed to be a cure for insomnia.

Photo One by By Frank Vincentz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2623501

The inside of a robin’s pincushion, showing the chambers and larvae (Photo One)

I was having something of a gall-ing day though because I also found these galls on some crack willow. Someone has clearly been having a very good time! These are caused by a sawfly rather than a wasp: the female injects a chemical into the leaf that causes the plant to make the gall. She usually also lays an egg, which eats its way out of the gall over a few weeks, but occasionally a gall won’t have an egg, because for some reason the female didn’t lay one. This tree was positively peppered with galls but looked very healthy nonetheless. Healthy plants can put up with a great deal of nonsense from insect ‘pests’ without any detriment.

I spotted this lovely fresh female Gatekeeper butterfly (the males have a brown stripe across the forewings).

Rather less welcome is the positive plantation of Himalayan Balsam that I’m seeing next to the cemetery stream. This is such an attractive plant – it bears more than a passing resemblance to a huge moth orchid, and it comes in a whole range of pink, white and coral. However, it is going to be taking over this stream if folk don’t watch out, and as the cemetery already has a massive problem with Japanese Knotweed I hope that it will be kept under better control.

As we were walking through the trees, I heard the sound of young birds, probably raptors of some kind, hidden in the branches overhead. It was so frustrating not to be able to see them! But then I remembered a tip from Mike over at Alittlebitoutoffocus – he’d recently uploaded an app where you can ‘listen’ to birdsong with your phone, and it will then tell you, to a reasonable degree of accuracy, what you’re listening to. So, in the middle of the cemetery I downloaded the app, recorded the birds and lo and behold, it returned a result of ‘sparrowhawk’ with 95% certainty. Two minutes later, a sparrowhawk flew overhead. Result! I spent the rest of the walk recording various birds to see how good I was personally – I identified a song thrush, a green woodpecker and a blackcap, but would have missed a greenfinch (even though I know that they’re present in the cemetery because I’ve seen them). So, I can recommend this app if you want to improve your id skills, or even just want to find out what birds are about – there are definitely lots more than you ever see.

And finally, I had to stop to smell the lime blossom. I think it’s one of my favourite perfumes – not as heady as jasmine, not as floral as rose. What a delight it is to feel almost normal again.

Photo Credit

Photo One By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2623501

A Late July Walk on Hampstead Heath

Dear Readers, there has been all sorts of shenanigans at the Bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath during the past few years. Charges were introduced for swimmers at the Women’s Pond for in 2004 (though I note that over sixties can still swim for free before 9.30 a.m.), and were increased recently. Works have taken place to dam some areas around the men’s pond due to flood risk – there are a lot of flood mitigation works in the pipeline in several of the green spaces in North London, and with the recent flooding following storms during the past month it looks as if something will need to be done. Balancing the future needs of the area against present amenities is always tricky, especially as, with climate change, things look so uncertain. One thing is certain – Hampstead Heath will always provoke strong, passionate feelings from those who use the area regularly, and who want to protect it. Long may this continue.

It was very quiet in the woods today: on a summer weekend during lockdown the crowds were everywhere, but today seemed like a welcome return to some kind of normal. The ivy roots dangling from this horse chestnut put me in mind of those great trees of the Southern USA with the Spanish Moss dangling from their branches.

There are little patches of Small Balsam (Impatiens parviflora) – I haven’t noticed this elsewhere in North London. At least it isn’t as bold and invasive as the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) that’s popped up in other places, such as the Cemetery.

This very fine hoverfly was on the creeping thistle – I can’t pass a patch of thistle without stopping for a look, there’s always someone interesting popping in for a feed. This very handsome chap is the Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens), a close relative of the Hornet Hoverfly(Volucella zonaria) that I mentioned in my post about Cherry Tree Wood earlier this week. The Great Pied Hoverfly has a most interesting lifecycle. The adult female walks into the nest of a common wasp, and somehow gets away without being stung to death. She lays her eggs, and when they develop into larvae they feed on detritus in the nest, and dead and dying wasps and their larvae. When they are ready to pupate, they leave the nest and burrow underground, reappearing the following spring in time for the whole cycle to begin again. Never underestimate a fly, that’s all I can say.

And here is some Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus),  a plant that I hadn’t noticed on the Heath before. I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

And here is some Musk Mallow (Malva moschata), a much more delicate plant than the Common Mallow that I’m usually finding all over the cemetery. Another Wednesday Weed, maybe?

Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)

I always love my first glimpse of Kenwood House through the trees. That way lies coffee and a brownie!

Now, have a look at this absolutely magnificent sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). I am clearly getting better at identifying things, because one factor in identification of mature sweet chestnuts (over 60 years old) is that the bark starts to spiral around the tree, usually in a clockwise direction, though I’m not convinced that this isn’t anti-clockwise (says she, scratching her head). I do love being able to put a name to things, it seems more respectful somehow. Also, I must remember to take a big sniff towards high summer, as the male catkins are said to smell of frying mushrooms.

When we finally get our coffee and brownie, we’re joined by this very fine pigeon. He is not at all deterred by the fact that my husband’s flapjack is vegan, and I swear he’d be sitting on our knees waiting for crumbs if he was allowed. He breaks off only briefly to huff and dance around a female he lands nearby before he’s back on flapjack watch.

A crow flies up onto the roof of the building opposite with what appears to be an entire scone – possibly someone wasn’t paying full attention in the tearoom gardens next door. The crow is soon joined by a fledgling. I can’t see for certain, but I suspect that the adult is dunking the cake into some water in the gutter to soften it up a bit for the youngster – I’ve seen them do this before. You are always being watched by some sort of avian beady eye when you sit here with a sandwich. Be warned.

The flowers outside the gift shop are all supersized, be they the white hydrangeas, the dahlias or the ten-foot-tall sunflowers.

And there was a brief moment on the path back to the ponds when there was no one around at all – not a jogger, not someone having a conversation on their mobile, not a gaggle of small children or a dog walker with various hounds. There was just us, and the sunshine, and the trees for about 90 seconds.

Long enough to notice how the Enchanter’s Nightshade, normally such a weedy little plant, can actually also be magical in the right light.

Back to the boating pond. Oh dear.

And just in case it isn’t clear….

No one told the ducks and the black-headed gulls though, and the swifts were skimming the surface for insects. I haven’t seen a single swallow or house martin yet this year though, I hope things are better where you are.

Tufted duck and black-headed gull having a rest

And how about this female/juvenile Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata)? I’ve never seen a male here, but I know that many of them have escaped from wildfowl collections. There are a lot more protected, reedy areas around the boating pond now, and the duck nests in tree holes, so it would be nice to think that they might have made a home here.

We head back, stepping carefully around a painted lady butterfly that’s picking up salts from the path.

I’m delighted to see the ragwort doing so well – this must be one of the UK’s most maligned plants, but it’s the foodplant of the cinnabar moth, and is much beloved by all sorts of pollinators.

We stop for a few minutes to watch the dogs swimming in the doggy part of the pond. Some dogs are clearly into it, and others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Guess which heading this hound falls under.

And then it’s back to the 214 bus stop, with a brief pause to admire this sign on the side of what is now an Italian restaurant. How I’d love to stop for a Bean Feast!