Category Archives: London Birds

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming Down, Going Up…

Dear Readers, this might look like a perfectly normal staircase, but until a few days ago it had a stairlift on the left-hand side. We had hired this back in 2013 when Mum and Dad could no longer walk up the stairs, what with Dad’s breathlessness and Mum’s arthritis. We knew that it would probably only be used once a year, at Christmas, but it seemed well worth the investment. At least they could have a family Christmas with us.

The first time Mum used it, she took to it straight away, but Dad was more unsure. I heard Mum and Dad talking in the bedroom as they unpacked on that first afternoon.

‘I don’t like it, Syb’, said Dad. ‘It doesn’t feel safe’.

‘Well, you’ll have to get to like it, Tom, because otherwise we can’t come to visit’, said Mum.

In the end, Dad quite got to like it, riding up and down the stairs to collect his tablets and his walking stick (which was always in the wrong part of the house). But last year, we went to Milborne St Andrew to stay with them because they had had a chest infection, and were too ill to travel. And this year, we will be visiting them in the nursing home.

it seemed like time to remove the stairlift. After all, I told myself, if there was a miracle and they felt a bit better, we could always get it installed again.

What surprised me was the speed with which it went. I sent off an email, and the engineer phoned me the next day, to say that he was in the area and could he pop in and dismantle it?

A few hours later, I had my staircase back.

My heart has been very heavy this past few weeks. After all the effort of organising the nursing home for Mum and Dad, it seems strange not to be constantly occupied with carer rotas and medical appointments and trips up and down to Dorset. Mum is still very unhappy in the care home and that weighs heavily on my mind. But today I actually looked out of the kitchen window. This is kind of difficult because my two ‘pet’ orb-web spiders have been busy while I’ve been so preoccupied and have built a kind of spider metropolis between the ceiling and the windowpanes. But outside, whirring and clicking and fighting and bickering, were the starlings.

Their feathers really are star-spangled at this time of year. I wondered how many of them were this year’s dull-brown babies, all spivvied up for the winter? As the breeding season approaches in the spring, the bills of the adults will turn bright-lemon yellow, with the area of the beak closest to the face turning blue-grey in males, pinkish-white in females.

The colder weather this week has drawn them all together, and the flocks that descend onto the bird feeders ebb and flow all day. Starlings used to migrate south in the winter but, thanks to the suet pellets and fat balls provided by humans, many now stick around all year. The ones in East Finchley are certainly a constant presence.

And as is often the way, a few minutes spent with starlings seems to give me an injection of energy. Depression stalks me as it has for many years, but there is help in the sight and sound of these birds, fizzing and chuckling and arguing, reminds me that there is a big, complicated world out there. For a few moments, I’m not living in my head, and that is such a relief. And, just to give you an idea of the starling’s vocal range and ability to imitate, here are two rescued starlings mixing it up…

http://www.lloydbuck.co.uk/2018/06/11/beatboxing-starlings/

 

Bugwoman on Location – Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park

Dear Readers, hidden away between the Thames Flood Barrier and the United Emirates Cable Car across the Thames is the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, 2 hectares of reedbeds and streams and wetland. You exit North Greenwich station and head along the river, passing all the new apartment complexes. If you’re lucky, you might catch the eye of a very hungry woodpigeon, getting tucked into the rowan berries.

At this time of year, I have to work hard to find beauty on my walks. It’s that in-between time of year – the summer migrants have left, but most of the winter ones haven’t arrived. Most of the trees and plants look a little threadbare and between seasons. But the surrounding buildings are bright and colourful, and the path into the alder scrub looks very inviting. The metallic ‘chink’ calls of goldfinches are everywhere.

On the main pond there are the usual coots dabbling for water plants and bustling about. A sleepy duck of indeterminate parentage is resting on one of the wooden islands.

To my delight there are tresses of traveller’s joy, the wild clematis, tumbling through the shrubs.

There are two main paths, a boardwalk which goes around the edge of the site and which is open 24 hours a day, and an inner path which is only accessible when the visitor centre is open. As I head for the inner path, I get talking to a man with binoculars who tells me that a jack snipe has often been spotted in the reeds, but not today. Similarly there are sometimes herons, but the only one I see today is painted on the side of the building.

I look a little closer. There are some very cheeky magpies, one of whom partly demolished a garden trellis outside one of the flats before taking off into the trees.

The reeds remind me a little of bird of paradise flowers.

And there is a guelder rose, dripping with rain.

What a melancholy little walk this was! I have tried to raise my spirits, and as usual nature has helped, but I have a lot on my mind. As I mentioned last week, Mum and Dad are now in the nursing home, but Mum hates it with an absolute passion. She wants to go home so much that earlier this week she dialled 999 to get the police to come and liberate her. I love her so much for her feistiness and ingenuity, but we are in a bit of a bind. The care that we would need to look after her at home just isn’t available, and the nursing home, Mum and Dad’s GP and the District Nurse all think that Mum, at least, needs residential care. So, there we are. I will go to Dorset next week to talk to everyone involved and see what can be done to make Mum happier. Wish me luck!

On the way home, I notice some people climbing over the Millenium Dome. It doesn’t look too hard from here, but I bet it’s not so much fun actually doing it, especially on a breezy day like today. I guess we all have our mountains to climb….

 

The Golden Hour

Dear Readers, it has been a difficult few weeks. Mum was in hospital until yesterday (Wednesday) but has been weeping because she wants to come home for at least a fortnight. At one point I honestly thought that Dad would ‘spring her’ from the hospital and drive her home, in spite of his dementia. Now she is home, and I am trying to make sure that we have the correct care at the correct time. My worry is that whatever we plan it still won’t be enough. Mum is intermittently confused, extremely weak, and seems to have forgotten many of the things that she was able to do just a few short months ago. Getting off the toilet is a problem, for example, not because Mum is too weak to do it, but because she has forgotten the sequence of physical actions necessary to make it happen. I hope that the muscle memory will come back, but in the meantime it is a worry for all of us.

Meantime, Dad has been ringing me up more or less every night in the wee small hours, asking me where Mum is, where the carers are, when the cab is coming to take him to hospital. At least now that Mum is home I might get a little bit of a break from all that, though it’s possible that all that will happen is that the questions will change.

The situation is evolving faster than we can respond. I am up and down to Dorset visiting nursing homes ‘just in case’. It is very hard to find somewhere where Mum and Dad can be together with their different needs, but I shall keep trying. As much as anything else, I want to be prepared for the next emergency. So far in the last few months they’ve spent 9 weeks apart because one or the other has been in hospital. At least in a nursing home they wouldn’t have such frequent admissions, and would be released more quickly.

In short I am at my tether’s end, and beyond.

However, outside my rapidly shrinking world of care rotas and supermarket orders and medical appointments, the world goes on.Between 17.30 and 18.30 on a fine day in October, the light has a quality that is unlike that at any other time. Photographers call it ‘the golden hour’, that short window when the sun’s rays are low and diffuse, and everything is lit up as if from within. On Wednesday my husband came home early, and more or less dragged me out of the door, onto the County Roads in East Finchley and down to Coldfall Wood.

I hadn’t noticed that the trees had started to redden, but it must have been going on for ages. And look at the berries! My heart lifts at the thought of redwings and waxwings and blackbirds having something sweet(ish) and natural to fatten them before winter comes.

I hear the chuckle of jackdaws overhead, and it puts me in mind of Dorset, where they are commonplace. Here in North London, a pair moved in a few years ago, and this year I was visited by a family of five. The crows are still more commonplace though, perched on the television aerials and surveying the scene for a feeding opportunity.

And then into the woods. By the main entrance the colours are subdued and muted, shadowy and understated, but as we walk west, everything is touched with the setting sun. The leaves of the twisted hornbeams catch the last rays and shimmer.

The sun hits some trees like a searchlight, illuminating every detail of bark, revealing the corrugations, the crisscross stems of ivy, the spikes of holly.

A single leaf dangles from a strand of spider silk, and is transformed.

And when I look back, I see that the sun has painted a long pathway into the woods that seems to open for a few short moments before the sun sinks too low, and it’s gone.

I have been so busy, moving quickly because I think that I can outrun what’s coming for me, and for Mum and Dad. The last thing I want to do is meander through the trees and let myself be caught. But here in the woods there’s the sense of life proceeding on a scale that is far greater and older than our human span. The sun goes down whether I want it to or not, and sometimes all there is to do is to drink in both the poignancy and the beauty of that  moment.