Category Archives: London Birds

Primroses and Red Kites and Babies!

Candelabra primula (Primula bulleyana)

Dear Readers, as you might imagine I have been pretty swamped with work since getting back from Canada, but it was such a beautiful day today that I actually managed to pop out to see what was happening in the garden. First up, I noticed that some of the candelabra primulas that we planted last year have actually survived, and are coming into flower – these are orange and yellow, but we have some purple ones for later in the year. The patch at the top end of the pond is often a bit bleak at this time of year, before everything else gets going, so it was lovely to see them. We have put in supports for the hemp agrimony this year, so hopefully they won’t be overwhelmed before they’ve finished for the year.And then, I was having a cup of tea when I thought I heard the sound of baby birds. The blue tits have been all over the hawthorn this year gathering caterpillars, and then one of them shot past me and headed for the nest box that we put up on the balustrade of our loft.

And here’s a shot of his or her tail disappearing into the nest. I am so excited! We will keep the curtains on the room drawn so that we don’t disturb them. I feel like a proud surrogate parent.

I am hoping that at some point the climbing hydrangea will reach the balustrade, it would provide some extra cover and hiding places. I reckon about another two years at the rate it’s growing. Believe it or not, we cut it back level with the ground floor window (above the green door) in January 2020.

And then, finally, after looking for them for the past year, I saw a red kite in the sky over East Finchley.

At one time, these birds were so valued as scavengers that to kill one was a capital crime. But over time, with habitat destruction, cleaner streets, less carrion about and the rise of egg-collecting as a hobby, the bird became extremely rare, retreating from its range across the whole of the UK to a few sites in Wales, where it was never able to raise enough chicks to expand.

By the 1930s there were only 30 birds in the whole of the UK, all derived from one female bird. It was decided to bring in birds from Sweden and Germany to improve genetic diversity, and the birds were released in various sites around the UK. This was so successful that there are now an estimated 10,000 birds, and their range is increasing every year. They are the most elegant of birds, with their forked tails and narrow wings, and it was a real joy to see one so close to home. The main risks now to the birds are poisoning from rodenticides used to kill rats (this also kills many other birds of prey and mammals, including domestic dogs and cats). They also have a habit of colliding with power cables. Still, this is a real success story, and we could all do with one of them!

An Easter Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolaria)

Dear Readers, after a few weeks of having a break from the cemetery, it was such a pleasure to be back on a sunny spring day with not a cloud overhead. I was pleased to see the garlic mustard coming into flower, and was keeping a keen eye open for orange-tip butterflies, who lay their eggs on the plant. Well, I didn’t see any, but I did see several citrus-coloured brimstone butterflies, whose caterpillars  feed on buckthorn. There is a view that the name ‘butterfly’ came from these  bright yellow beauties.

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

Male brimstone butterfly in flight (Photo One)

I seemed to be scaring up butterflies at every step, like this peacock: red admirals, peacocks and the odd speckled wood were all warming themselves up on the paths. It wasn’t quite the swarms of lepidoptera that I remember from our walks in the Austrian Alps, but it wasn’t bad for East Finchley.

The Tibetan cherry tree is coming into flower, and very fine it is too.

This jay was a little less shy than usual…

But this green woodpecker was rather more reticent than of late…

And we saw the Official Cemetery Cat, who is very splendid…

And an unofficial cemetery visitor, who we’ve seen before, and who looks like a little panther.

But loveliest of all, against that clear blue sky, was the buzzard, peacefully riding the thermals and unharried by the crows for once. Maybe they’re all off on holiday.

Mustn’t it be lovely to fly like that! The closest thing that I can think of is swimming, which is something I haven’t done for way too long. Maybe I’ll find somewhere over the summer.

Oh, and the lesser celandine is still in flower….

 

….and there was this patch of pink sorrel close to the North Circular Road boundary. I hadn’t noticed it before, but no doubt it will soon be everywhere. All sorts of mysterious things grow in this rather ‘weedy’ area, including the mysterious salsify that I was so astonished by a few years ago. Although you can hardly hear yourself think for traffic noise, it is always full of surprises.

A Spring Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, three weeks after the onset of my Covid I’m finally feeling like myself again, and so it was such a joy to head out to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery to take in the glory of the Lesser Celandine. Just look at them! Could they be any more joyful, I ask myself.

And if you watch closely, you can see them being appreciated by a whole mass of bees and tiny pollinators.

The primroses are out in force too.

I heard the buzzards mewing, and saw one being hotly pursued by the usual gang of crows. And, for your delectation, here is a sparrowhawk’s backside, shortly before she exited stage left, also pursued by crows. Note those distinctive bars on the stomach.

Blackcaps were singing their heads off, as was this chaffinch, who was making a most uncharacteristic volume of sound.

And the blackthorn is in flower.

I have mentioned before that the lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favourite flower, but I’d never read the poem that he composed to it. I had expected some cheery paean to the first flower of spring but, as so often with Wordsworth it’s rather more thoughtful than that. So here, for your delectation, is Wordworth’s Lesser Celandine. See what you think.

The Lesser Celandine

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

They’re Back….

Dear Readers, these ring-necked parakeets really are most intriguing birds. They seem to be very set in their habits – during this past few weeks, we’ve been woken on several mornings by their squawking, and they often pop in on the way back to their roosting sites in the evening – yesterday they were most perturbed because Bear, the big black fluffy cat from across the road, had settled himself down on the patio and showed no inclination to move.

Normally, the pair of parrots seem to get on very well, but I am coming to the conclusion that either they aren’t the same two birds, or one of them is getting their breeding colours, and getting very tetchy to boot. Normally they feed very happily side by side on the peanuts, but today this male got very crotchety with the other bird who tried to feed. You can see how his ‘rose-ring’ is starting to appear, and very fine it is too, though it did cross my mind that it looks as if someone has tried to garrotte him. See what you think.

Anyhow, he was being very butch with the other poor parakeet, who had to sit at the top of the whitebeam until he’d eaten his fill.

Eventually the male flew off, and this one was allowed down to feed. All very intriguing. Parakeets are such characters, and this is building up to being a proper soap opera. I shall keep you posted.

Some Green Visitors….

Dear Readers, I put some peanuts out for the jays and the possibility of a nuthatch, but instead I got this lot. Ring-necked parakeets are always so chatty that they make their presence felt straight away, and so I was able to run to the kitchen window and take a few shots before they headed off to some other parrot-y appointment.

I wondered if they’d start to unpick the wire of the feeder, but instead they seemed more interested in manipulating little pieces of the peanuts through the grid. These two must be closely related, I think, as they were extremely tolerant of one another. even affectionate. Neither of them had the dark ring around their neck that denotes a breeding male, so maybe they’re siblings, or mother and daughter.

I know that these birds are a mixed blessing, but goodness they cheer me up! They always seem to be up to something. And look how acrobatic they are! They could be performers on Cirque du Soleil, if there was ever a parrot version.

In other news, my Covid seems to have mainly set up home in my throat and upper chest – I have a really sore throat and an irritating and unproductive cough. But I took some Night Nurse and had a good night’s sleep, so I’m confident that in a few days I’ll be on the mend. I intend to take it very easy, have lots of hot drinks and have a nap whenever I fancy one. I shall be modelling myself on this drowsy duck rather than these hyperactive parakeets, for now at least.

An Exciting Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, there was lots to see in the cemetery on Saturday, most of it centred around the bird life. We were barely through the gates when we noticed this crow, getting stuck into a mystery fruit. At first I thought  it might be a mango, but on balance I’ve decided it was an orange. Who knew that crows had a taste for citrus? I love the way that the crow is keeping the fruit under control with his or her foot.

Normally the crows are pretty shy, but this one was clearly too involved in eating to be put off by me and my camera.

Then, I was looking at the blossom (which is rather fine at the moment) when my husband said ‘what’s that bird with the red head?’

And yes it was a green woodpecker, usually a very elusive bird. This one was digging up ants as if they were going out of fashion – the wet weather has made the soil a bit easier to hammer into. The bird was completely engrossed in its task, but was moving so quickly that it was hard to get a decent shot. Some birds seem to live on a slightly faster timescale than us, and this one definitely did that. If  you look carefully in the video below you can see the bird’s long tongue flickering out to lick up the ants. It looks in some of the photos as if the beak is malformed but the bird looked healthy and was clearly feeding, so hopefully it can still look after itself. It’s a hard life bashing yourself against hard surfaces all day, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t sometimes some collateral damage.

Then we spotted a small panther, clearly watching out for mice or other small rodents.

In the more open part of the cemetery there were several flocks of redwings, probably several hundred in total. They are starting to gather for the flight back north, but it was the first time I’d seen them in such numbers.

Round we go, and here’s another panther – this one is a bit chunkier than the earlier one.

And everywhere, the daffodils and various narcissi have taken over from the crocuses and the snowdrops.

The primroses are coming into their own as well.

And one of my favourite cherry-crabs is almost at the peak of flowering.

And finally, someone has given the lovely Scotsman on Kew Road some new flowers, and some twigs. I think this is probably the finest sculpture in the cemetery, and he never fails to move me, standing there so proud amongst the trees. When he was alive, someone clearly loved him very much.

The Big Garden Birdwatch 2022

Starling

Dear Readers, it was the Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend, and for once the weather, at least in East Finchley, was bright and sunny. It’s always a pleasure to just top up all the feeders and watch to see who turns up. The starlings were looking particularly splendid today I thought, with that iridescent sheen on their plumage showing to great advantage.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing a lot of blackbirds , so it was good to be able to sit and actually watch them. It seems that my garden is on the intersection between two pairs of the birds. One pair has a very dapper, fully adult male, who was flying off with beakfuls of mealworms. The other pair has a much younger male, who is a bit less confident.

The younger male blackbird

The more confident male

 

There are also two females, but I haven’t yet worked out which is paired up with which male.

All very confusing! We shall have to see how it all plays out.

There were the usual goldfinches and chaffinches.

Goldfinch

Chaffinch

And of course, a grey squirrel.

There were blue and great tits, a robin, and  a pair of magpies who visited briefly before noting me, watching through the kitchen window with my binoculars, and flying off.

But as always when I pay attention, there was also a male blackcap lurking in the foliage. He very rarely comes to the feeders, but I’m surprised how often he shows up when I do the Birdcount. He’s probably around a lot more than I notice. I rather like these shy little warblers, who bring a touch of wildness to the garden.

Male blackcap

So, here’s my count for the hour in full – for those of you who aren’t familiar with how the UK Birdcount works, you record the maximum number of birds of each species that you see in the garden at the same time. I suspect for me this is an underestimate, what with me wrestling with binoculars, a camera, the recording app on my phone and keeping an eye on the lunch all at the same time.

Blackbird – 4
Blue Tit – 2
Chaffinch – 6
Collared Dove – 3
Goldfinch – 4
Great Tit – 1
Magpie – 2
Robin – 1
Starlings – 10

A lot of the usual suspects didn’t show up (as usual) – no woodpigeons or coal tits, no long-tailed tits or great spotted woodpeckers. But this wasn’t a bad showing for a Big Garden Birdwatch day – usually all the birds seem to lurk elsewhere until exactly one minute after the count ends, before reappearing. Little devils!

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I was in the mood for a brisk walk on Saturday – the fog had just cleared but it was a damp, dreary day that didn’t really encourage my usual drifting along. So it was not until I reached the ladies ‘convenience’ on the far side of the cemetery that something finally caught my eye. What was this in the corner of the building? Well, it appears to be a group of hibernating harlequin ladybirds (they are much too large to be any other species). I love the way that the ones in the middle have piled on top of one another for warmth. I am slightly surprised that they haven’t woken up yet, what with it being so mild, but maybe they know something that I don’t. There certainly aren’t many greenfly about yet, and as that’s mainly what they eat, maybe it makes sense to snooze on for a little longer.

There was lots of crow activity today – this magpie was throwing the leaves about in much the same way that a blackbird does. I think it gives an indication of how many invertebrates use the leaf litter as a place to spend the winter, and how important it is to leave at least some leaf piles in the garden.

The crows are super-curious, and are always investigating the graves to see if there’s anything edible. I sometimes see them picking up the artificial flowers and then throwing them over their shoulders as if in frustration. This one eventually flew off with what looked like a chrysanthemum flower. Maybe there are some seeds or insects inside. The magpies will also take shiny objects and fly off with them, so the old adage about magpies being ‘collectors’ still seems to hold true.

The first primroses are starting to emerge…

And there are still some rather damp-looking fungi around.

Mystery fungus! All suggestions welcome.

But what does this hogweed think it’s doing? It’s at least four months too early. It was flowering away in splendid isolation, with not a single fly to pollinate it. There were a few winter gnats around, but as far as I know they don’t act as pollinators. This is a high risk strategy, but as the winters get milder, who knows whether early-flowering plants might be the winners in the end?

And finally, we were accosted by this enormous squirrel. I am 99% sure that she is pregnant, rather than just well-cushioned – I noticed squirrel mating behaviour back in December, so although she’s a bit early, she’s not that unusual. I imagine that there’s lots to eat in the cemetery, so let’s hope that she gets enough nutrition to provide for her kits. She looks in excellent condition.

And so it’s back home, to get stuck into the chemistry module of my Open University degree. Studying the Periodic Table reminds me of why I loved chemistry at school – what an elegant and precise way of starting to understand the material world it is! No doubt I shall be waxing lyrical about it soon. For now, I’m just grateful for the way that science provides a way of asking questions about the world that is calm and rational. It feels like just the bracing intellectual exercise that I need.

A Winter Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

Hazel catkins

Dear Readers, today was a perfect time for a walk around Walthamstow Wetlands – it was cold but not too cold, and there was a perfect crispness about the light that made everything so cheerful. Look at those bouncy hazel catkins, which look just like the tails of the lambs that will be born soon.

The twigs of the weeping willows were a perfect mellow yellow colour, and I think that the electricity pylon actually adds something to the scene. We are so lucky to have so much green space in London – the city certainly punches above its weight in terms of biodiversity.

There was a solitary coot rooting amongst the reeds, and not a hint of wind to ruffle the surface of the reservoir.

A tufted duck glided serenely away, before diving and leaving nothing but ripples.

The gorse is in flower (so kissing must still be in fashion, as they say).

Herons glided over the path, looking positively prehistoric. In a few weeks time they will be setting up their nests on one of the islands, and the serenity will be broken by the sounds of heron chicks, but for now the main sound is the chorus of robins. This one was singing, then listening out for a rival, then singing again.

And a great-crested grebe patrolled the water. No sign of a mate today, but probably she or he is very close.

It was one of those days when I feel delighted just to be alive, and clearly I wasn’t the only one – one woman, who had been admiring the view over the water, just turned to us and remarked how beautiful it was. It was a day for pausing, and looking, and soaking it all in. They say that nature is restorative, and today it felt as if every breath was medicine. I felt so lucky and privileged just to be able to enjoy it. I wish the same for all of us.

In Praise of Climbing Hydrangea

Dear Readers, my climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris) is really excelling itself this year. The leaves are shades of custard-yellow and lime, and it’s finally beginning to provide some cover for the nest box in the corner.

This is a dark, damp, murky corner of the garden, but this plant just doesn’t seem to care. In the spring it’s covered with big lacy heads of tiny cream-coloured flowers, and I think they’re rather fine even when they’ve gone over.

But it’s the leaves that have really caught my eye.

And while I’ve been standing there photographing the leaves, lots of small birds have been visiting the newly-filled seed feeder. Here’s a rather blurry chaffinch…

And now a great tit….

And here’s someone I didn’t expect to see using a bird feeder…..s/he did actually snaffle a quick seed, though I imagine the suet would be more to their taste. Does anyone else have robins using their feeders?

Meanwhile, there is one brave marigold still in flower…

And finally, next door’s hebe has come back into flower for about the third time this year. It is such a boon for bumblebees when they decide they need a nectar top-up during the winter.

And so, spending ten minutes away from my spreadsheets was well worth it! And good for my poor old back, too.