Category Archives: London Birds

A Summer Walk in East Finchley Cemetery

Bhutan Pine (Pinus wallichiana)

Dear Readers, today I pulled out all the stops and headed to East Finchley Cemetery for a quick look at what was going on. I feel a bit as if I’m in Wonderland at the moment – all the colours seem brighter and the sounds of the birds are enchanting.

There are some spectacular specimen trees in the cemetery, such as this Bhutan pine (Pinus wallichiana). Its original home is the foothills of the Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindu Kush, but it seems strangely at home here in North London, amidst the monkey puzzle trees and the cedars of Lebanon.

On a smaller scale, I love the community of tiny plants living on this wooden roof. What look like bird droppings are, in fact, lichens.

And then a streak of greenish-yellow catches my eye, and a young green woodpecker poses very nicely for a few minutes.

We hear a young bird of prey calling from one of the big cedars, but no amount of patience will persuade it to emerge from the foliage, and its parents are clearly not in the mood to indulge it, so I might never know what it was. Very frustrating, but then that seems to be how nature works – some days everything falls into your lap, and some days you have to sigh and walk on.

There are some lovely unused buildings in the grounds of the Cemetery, which seems to mostly use the Italianate crematorium or the big Anglican chapel at the main entrance. The Glenesk Mausoleum is a lovely building, now completely fenced off and in danger of being engulfed by the nearby trees.

The Glenesk Mausoleum

There is a hopeful kneeling saint on the right hand pediment, but the one on the left has disappeared under a tangle of ivy.

The non-conformist chapel is in better shape, though the two small heads on the doorway have seen better days.

I’m not sure how much this chapel is used, but according to the cemetery’s management plan to 2012 it was thought to be a feeding roost for brown long-eared bats, so maybe a little seclusion is not a bad thing. There are lots of bat boxes mounted in the trees around the cemetery, but as it closes at 4 p.m. I guess I will never take a twilight walk to see what’s going on. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the summer air is criss-crossed with bat flight.

And, as I am midway through my Leith’s Online Cookery Course (it’s pasta week!) my eye was drawn to this grave. Jean Baptiste Virlogeux was chef at the Savoy during the 1930s, and was then Head Chef at the Dorchester for ten years, where he catered for the Queen and Prince Phillip. Whilst at the Savoy he invented the ‘Omelette Arnold Bennett’, a mixture of smoked haddock, eggs and gruyere in honour of the famous author. At the Dorchester, Virlogeux came up with the idea of the ‘Chef’s Table’, a private table for very special guests who could watch the chef work and no doubt ply him with confusing and impertinent questions while he wrestled with their dinner.

On our way back to the entrance we encounter this cheeky squirrel, who is clearly of the view that if he stays still enough we won’t notice him.

But then, how about this? Most of the beds in the cemetery are rather formal, but this is so bright that it seers the eyeballs, and none the worse for that. There is a sweet smell, I think from the salvia. How it cheers me up, especially on a dull day like today.

And just when you think the colours couldn’t get any brighter, look who drops in.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

And now it’s time to head home for a cuppa and a few hours with my feet up (once I’ve done my blog of course). As usual the cemetery has provided all sorts of delights. What fine spots they are for reflection and for nature!

Oh The Irony….

Dear Readers, there is something a little ironic about having gotten through 18 months of a pandemic without even being pinged by the NHS app, only to catch something and end up self-isolating when ‘Freedom Day’ is today, 19th July. On the other hand, ‘Freedom Day’ won’t be freedom for vulnerable people, people who have compromised immune systems because of chemotherapy, elderly people or anyone else who has reason to fear the devastating potential effects of this virus. With only 50% of the country double-vaccinated, would it really have hurt to keep things on an even keel for another month or so? I don’t doubt that most people will continue to be sensible, but there has been a leadership vacuum of colossal proportions in this country. My heart goes out to people working in the NHS who are seeing the numbers of the hospitalized rising inexorably. We have been abandoned. No wonder so many people are filled not with joy at the unlocking, but with trepidation.

Anyhow, I have done my Covid test and posted it, and now I wait to see if what I have is something known or something unknown. I feel a bit tired, but basically much better, so I will just have to be a patient patient. Thank you for all the good wishes, and in particular to the person who reminded me that even if  it’s not Covid it doesn’t mean that  I should rush headlong back into my usual frantic round of activity – I think the phrase was ‘other viruses are available’, which made me hoot.  That is excellent advice. I feel tired to my bones somehow: it’s sometimes a struggle just putting one foot in front of another. But then, there’s always the garden, and it’s too blooming hot to do any actual work so I just sat in the shade and tried to pay attention, as that is the cure for most ills.

If you look very carefully at the picture below, you can just see a tiny plane about to enter the clouds. Who remembers that feeling when you’re on a flight and the plane starts to judder as you enter the clouds, as if it’s flying through something viscous? Or that extraordinary sensation when you get above the clouds and there’s the sun and that perfect blue? It always reminds me of that Buddhist sense that behind all our nonsense there is that clear, vast ‘mind’ that is available to all of us if only we could put other things aside.

I wouldn’t want you all to think that I was being too lazy, so I actually got up and wandered over to the pot of ‘wild flowers’ that we planted about a month ago. It’s fair to say that they haven’t been a stunning success, but what’s with the brassica? It looks like oilseed rape to me.

But all is not lost, because I did notice a small white butterfly hanging around earlier this morning, and when I bent down for a closer look, she has laid a single egg. Now, if you’re a gardener I can imagine you not being that impressed, but at least Small Whites only lay one egg, as opposed to 50 like a Large White. I shall have to see if this one survives, and shall have to remind my poor long-suffering husband not to water too enthusiastically this evening when he gets the hosepipe out.

In other news, the Great Willowherb is just opening. Every year the buds are parasitized by some little moth, and every year it seems to make not a jot of difference to the flowering.

And the collared doves are huddled in the whitebeam for shade. I think these birds are underestimated on the looks front, with their subtle shades of cinnamon and fawn and dusty grey.

And so, there you have it. I expect a few more garden posts in the next few days, but the weather looks gorgeous. Stay safe out there, UK people, and avoid any idiots….

Five Minutes in the Garden

Dear Readers, it’s been one of those days when what I’ve mostly done is compare and contrast two spreadsheets and try to bring them together as one coherent whole, so what a pleasure it was to get up, stretch my legs and see what was going on in the garden. There are still a few damselflies about, I rather like that this one has a bar-code on her tail. This one is a Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) and I know that it’s female because you can just about see a yellow band between some of the segments on the abdomen. She’s probably thinking about laying her eggs somewhere in the pond if she hasn’t done so already.

This plant has just popped up (as they do), and it’s a willowherb, probably Hoary Willowherb (Epibilium parviflorum),  a common willowherb of damp places. It’s so delicate that it’s hard to imagine how it held its own amidst the more vigorous plants, but here it is.

And over in the bittersweet there’s a bumblebee with bright orange pollen baskets on her legs. She looks as if she’s wearing a pair of tangerine-coloured bloomers.

This bee is carrying grey pollen, and interestingly you can tell what plant a bee has been foraging on by the pollen colour. Grey pollen can come from hazel or elder (probably elder at this time of year), and orange can come from lime – there are masses of lime trees in flower at the moment.

And having mentioned that I hadn’t seen any chaffinches for a while, a young one popped up on the seed feeder.

And finally, look who turned up on the guttering this morning while I was half-way through (yet another) Zoom call! The garden has been full of sparrows all week, and some were even belatedly examining my sparrow nesting boxes. Let’s hope they remember them next year.

LNHS Talks – ‘Are Gardens Good For Birds’ by Mike Toms

Dear Readers, this is a topic that will be close to all of our hearts, I’m sure. Are we actually helping birds when we feed them in our gardens? Should we be doing it all year round? What are the pitfalls of attracting large numbers of birds to a small space? I was eager to hear what Mike Toms had to say – he wrote the ‘Garden Birds’ volume of the New Naturalist series, one of my favourites, and currently works at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), so he’s a man who knows of which he speaks. I’ve given quite a lot of detail  here as I found it absolutely fascinating.

Toms started by explaining that the BTO is a research-based organisation that looks specifically at bird populations – changes in distribution and numbers, and the reasons for those changes. The bird that has been studied the longest is the grey heron – BTO have data going back to the 1930s and were able to map a correlation between cold, hard winters and declines in the heron population. Increasingly, though, the BTO studies birds in urban environments. In 2008 the world reached a point where half the population now lives in towns and cities, and this is expected to increase to two-thirds of us in 2050. Urbanisation has consequences not just because of the footprint of the areas themselves, but because of the resources that are needed to support them. Globally, some of the areas that are urbanising most rapidly are also those with the highest current levels of biodiversity, such as south-east Asia and the Horn of Africa.

In the UK, some species can adapt very nicely to the urban environment (Toms showed a photo of two herring gulls looking hopefully at somebody sitting on a bench with a sandwich). Such species have a broad diet, and are not too specific in their requirements, which is one reason why dove and corvid species do so well in our towns and cities. In the garden environment, you’re likely to see a lot of seed eaters, such as sparrows and finches, but far fewer insectivores.

London is particularly well-blessed with green space, however, and although we think about this in terms of parks and woodland, private domestic gardens are by far the biggest space. Taken together, the gardens of the UK cover a larger space than all of the land set aside for nature reserves. At this point, Toms did a survey on whether the live audience thought that gardens were good for birds, and over 90% thought that they were.

Toms then started to look at gardens in more detail. One trend, especially since lockdown, was that people wanted to make their little bit of greenspace more wildlife friendly – he showed a slide of a garden from the Chelsea Flower Show which was contemporary but had a bird feeder, lots of pollinator-friendly plants and some small trees and shrubs – it seemed like a nice combination of the aesthetic and the useful.

The big draw for birds in our gardens is clearly food – Toms had the staggering figure that across the UK we spend £200m per year on bird food (and about half of that is me 🙂 ). For birds to stay in our gardens, and not just use them for food, there need to be nesting opportunities too.

Toms showed an interesting graph which illustrated the reporting rates for robins – volunteers at the BTO record which birds they see in their gardens every week. It showed firstly that reporting rates for rural and suburban gardens are higher than those for urban gardens overall, but that all three types of garden showed a drop off during the breeding season – this seems to indicate that while robins will use gardens during the winter season as a food resource, they prefer not to nest in them.

Why is this? One reason is that most birds feed their nestlings on insects, and these are just not plentiful enough in gardens. Blue tits, for example, will nest in deciduous woodland where there are lots of caterpillars given the choice. This year was particularly devastating for birds as May was so cold, and June so wet, so there were lots of reports of nests failing and nestlings starving in the nest. However, a significant proportion of birds (over 50% of starlings and sparrows, a third of jackdaws and blackbirds and, surprisingly, 25% of song thrush) do breed in gardens, so the habitat is clearly important for these species.

Rural gardens in particular can also be important for birds such as the yellowhammer, tree sparrow and reed bunting, who are seedeaters  –  Toms showed a graph of farmland birds who visit gardens  with a seasonal peak in April, when all the natural food that the birds would normally eat has finished. In days gone by, there would be grain amongst the stubble, but with more efficient farming methods, the birds have taken to visiting feeders. This is especially important in the case of the cirl bunting, a very rare species in Devon, where garden feeding has really helped to reinforce the population.

Turning to blackbirds, Toms showed a graph of the reporting rate of the birds which showed a marked fall-off in the autumn every single year. He explained that this is partly due to the birds becoming more secretive during the moult, but also that they often move out of gardens during the glut of berries that are available in parks and the countryside.

With blue tits, Toms spoke about ringing exercises (where individual birds can be identified), which shows that it isn’t just the same old three or four birds visiting the feeders, but a succession of birds – you could have thirty different blue tits visiting the feeder in the course of a day.

Toms moved on to coal tits – these little birds largely feed on the seeds of coniferous trees, and so have done very well with the planting of sitka spruce plantations (one of the few creatures that have, I imagine). Again, the data from the recorders showed an annual peak and trough, but the peak was supressed in years when the spruces were ‘masting’ (producing their seed) – this only happens every few years, so that there is so much seed that the predators can’t eat it all, and the tree has the best chance of reproducing. In other words, if the spruce seed is available, the coal tits will eat it in preference to visiting the garden, but they will use the gardens if it isn’t so plentiful.

Then, Toms looked at longer term studies. One of them, on goldfinches, has showed a massive increase in the use of gardens by the species. Interestingly, there seem to be two ‘spikes’ in the data, which might indicate that firstly resident birds are using the gardens for food during the breeding season, and then a second wave of migrant birds comes in to take advantage of the resource.

Feeding is not an unalloyed good, however – Toms gave the example of trichomonosis and the greenfinch. This protozoal parasite is spread in saliva and faeces from infected birds, and is a very good reason for making sure that feeders are cleaned regularly. What I hadn’t realised was that the ‘spillover event’ probably came from woodpigeons, who have been carriers of this parasite for years, and one place where pigeons and greenfinches come into contact is at seed feeders in gardens. Greenfinch and chaffinch populations have been horribly affected, with Toms describing the chaffinch population as being ‘in freefall’. It made me think about the last time that I saw chaffinches in the garden, and it’s been quite a while ago.

The ‘pox’ that we sometimes see on blue and great tits seems, according to the BTO research, to have actually come from blackflies which have jumped across from the European mainland, thanks yet again to climate change.

Finally, Toms looked at blackcaps. These birds are increasingly using our gardens in the winter time (probably migrating in from Eastern Europe), and interestingly they prefer urban gardens, which are warmer because of the urban heat island effect (all that concrete stores heat during the day and releases it at night, increasing the ambient temperature). Blackcaps also prefer gardens where food is available every day.

So, it seems that the food that we provide is changing the behaviour of some birds, but by attracting them to our gardens we also increase their exposure to some diseases, and to different predators, such as cats and grey squirrels, which might not be so common in the countryside.

So, what were the conclusions? It’s very clear from the BTO’s studies that the birds who are visiting our gardens have become more diverse over time. We’re also putting out different foods – many of us are feeding not only seeds and peanuts, but suet products. Apparently, too much fat can affect a bird’s feather condition, but the addition of Vitamin E can counteract that. Where do I get suet products with Vitamin E, I wonder?

Living in an urban area brings a whole selection of risks and opportunities. There is pollution in cities that especially affects birds with their delicate lungs, glass windows claim billions of bird lives globally every year, and night time lighting can be confusing and destructive. Some studies have shown that blackbirds living in urban environments have shorter telomeres (the sections of their genetic code that protect the core genes), indicating that they have increased stress levels. Robins have to sing at night because they can’t make themselves heard over the traffic noise. Woodpigeon populations have gone through the roof, and may be contributing to disease in other species.

To sum up, Toms indicated that gardens are probably good for birds on balance, because they provide feeding opportunities and help to offset some of the damage that humans have done elsewhere. But it isn’t straightforward. Toms put in a plea for more research on what birds need, and especially pointed out the BTO’s Garden Bird Watch

To watch the whole talk, click here

How the Mighty Have Fallen….

Dear Readers, those who’ve been following this page for a few weeks might recognise this plant as the nine-foot tall angelica that popped up this spring. Well, the flowerheads have gone over and the plant has been looking a bit precipitous for a few days, but the rain and wind on Sunday night finally blew it over altogether. What a shame! But it’s clearly become handy for some of my local visitors, who find it very convenient.

The garden is still full of fledgling starlings – by this time in a normal year they’d be much more independent, and the garden would be falling silent. This year, the little devils are still everywhere. Each time I walk out to the shed they positively explode out of the surrounding trees and shrubs, followed by the woodpigeons, collared doves, goldfinches etc etc.

I’ve taken to saying “Calm down guys, it’s only me” every time I go out, but I’m not convinced it’s working.

And then, I had a very nice surprise this morning.

Fledgling sparrow marching along the hand rail.

Look at this fledgling house sparrow! I haven’t really seen sparrows in the garden for months, apart from the odd fleeting visit, but this morning the place was full of them. Here’s a Dad feeding his youngster…

For an enchanting ten minutes they seemed to be everywhere. Perching on the hemp agrimony….

..hanging out on the greater willow herb…

or just chilling on the hand rail waiting for some food….

…and every so often getting lucky…

Mum used to love sparrows.

“They’re so friendly!” she’d say. “You never see them fighting”.

Well, all I can say is she must have been watching a different species from the one that I observe, because I see sparrows squabbling all the time though, to give Mum her due, it does normally seem short-lived and non-serious. And today it was all about the difficult business of rearing these hard-earned balls of fluff to maturity. I always feel so privileged to host the local birds, especially when, like sparrows and starlings, they’ve become so much rarer than they were when I was a girl. The garden might look a bit wild and woolly, but goodness a lot of wildlife pops by, and that makes me much happier than a manicured plot would ever do.

A July Visit to Barnwood

Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis)

Dear Readers, Barnwood, a Community Forest in East Finchley, has become a real treasure-trove for biodiversity. I’d been sent a photo of a nursery web spider a few days ago, so I couldn’t wait to go and have a look for myself. In the photo above the proud Mum was looking after two balls of tiny spiderlings – a ladybird was roundly told off, though the spider clearly knew that the beetle wasn’t very tasty.

Nursery Web Spiderlings

The romantic life of a nursery web spider is fraught with danger for the male, who must woo the female with a wrapped gift of a fly or other tasty morsel. While she’s getting tucked in, he will hope to mate with her. If he’s lucky, he’ll make his getaway before she eats him. Then, the female lays a number of eggs which form a white ball – she will carry this around with her, and will also form the ‘nursery web’ that you can see in the photos. This is not used to catch prey – the spider hunts for these in the undergrowth – but for protection. The mother retreats into the sanctuary with her egg sac, which soon hatches to produce a mass of tiny spiderlings. At this point the mother stands guard outside until they disperse. 

I love the way that Barnwood has become not just a haven for wildlife, but a real community resource. Many of the fruit and nut trees are doing well, and the over-55s group has been making soup from foraged ingredients too. Here’s just a selection of the edible delights that are popping up…

Beech nut

Currants

Gooseberries

Apples

Medlars

One new development since my  last visit has been a lockable ‘shed’ – only someone who has had to lump garden tools backwards and forwards from their house without any way to store them on site will appreciate what a tremendous asset this is. And very fine it looks too.

The shed/lock-up

I tried to help ID some moths that had been caught in the trap overnight, but identifying these slightly worn noctuid moths is always a nightmare, at least for me. They will all be released into different places in the undergrowth so that the birds don’t learn where to find them. My friend L at Barnwood is going to ask a more experienced moth-er for some help with the ID. I am full of admiration for people who can understand the nuances of appearance between the different species.

We think that the tree growing by the entrance to Barnwood is an osier willow (Salix viminalis) – the plant’s flexible stems were historically used for basket weaving. It’s also a very useful plant for wildlife, and like all willow species can decontaminate heavy metals in soil.

Osier willow (Salix viminalis)

The prickly sowthistle and the common knapweed are in full flower – both are much favoured by bees and hoverflies. 

Prickly sowthistle (Sonchus asper\0

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

And a speckled wood butterfly is basking in the sunshine. 

While we had a rest on the new benches in one of the clearings, a buzzard flew up from the locust tree opposite and soared off towards the cemetery. I wonder if it’s one of those that I regularly see over the cemetery? L remarked that he’d seen a red kite from Barnwood several times, and so we sat in companionable silence for a few minutes to see if one would cooperate and appear. We didn’t see one, but still, Barnwood feels like a place of great biodiversity, full of opportunities for all kinds of invertebrates and birds, and yet also a place that welcomes human diversity too. There is something for everyone at Barnwood.

For a great piece about Barnwood and its history, have a look here.

A Legal London Tree Walk from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part 2

 

Dear Readers, after saying goodbye to the falconer and his Harris hawks yesterday, I made my way across the Strand and into the Middle Temple via a twisty little lane called Devereux Court. Wood describes this as ‘entering another world’, and so it is – the sound of traffic falls away, to be replaced, in Fountain Court, by the splashing sound of the oldest fountain in London, dating from 1681.

The two twisted trees to either side of the fountain are black mulberries – although they look ancient, they were planted for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. I was just a little early to see them in fruit, so a return journey is definitely in order! Although James I is credited with trying to kickstart the British silk industry by importing mulberries back in the 1600s, Wood explains that archaeologists have found Roman-era mulberry seeds in remains in the city, so the berries have probably been on the menu since well before the silk link was established. Incidentally, black mulberries are the wrong species for silk worms, who prefer white mulberries, but black mulberries are apparently infinitely better eating.

Leaves of the black mulberry

One of the black mulberries being given a helping hand…

The gardeners in the various parts of the Temple are obviously extremely busy people, as we shall shortly see. I love that they have adopted that most insect-friendly of plants, the echium, as a statement in some of their beds – they crop up everywhere, and I am possessed with a need to try to grow one, after my success with my giant angelica this year. Echiums are in the borage family, and viper’s bugloss is an echium, though this plant is probably Echium pinana from the Canary Islands, otherwise known as Giant Echium, for obvious reasons.

On I go, past some more magnificent plane trees and the Middle Temple Hall, said to be central London’s finest Elizabethan building. This is probably where the first ever performance of Twelfth Night was held, and Shakespeare himself is thought to have been in attendance.

Middle Temple Hall

I have a quick look at Middle Temple Garden, which is a lovely spot, notable for its splendid acers and a particularly lovely peach-coloured climbing rose.

Middle Temple Gardens

A splendid rose…

Then it’s off into Pump Court. I am rather taken by the geometrical branches of the Tree Cotoneasters in this gloomy spot – they seem to be trying to sketch out a Mondrian painting.

A pump in Pump Court

Some very geometrical cotoneaster branches

I pause briefly at Temple Church (where a barrister friend got married), and am very taken by the pale blue clematis (possibly Blue Angel, but feel free to put me right) growing up the banisters to the Master’s House. This is my kind of garden, and I know how much effort it takes to make something look this informal. However, I haven’t seen anything yet.

Steps up to the Master’s House

Clematis (Blue Angel?)

 

Then it’s a quick turn into King’s Bench Walk, which is mostly a car park, though again the London planes are magnificent.

London Planes in King’s Bench Walk

There is a heap of building work going on, and I felt a little sorry for these poor echiums peering out over a hoarding…

But then I entered Inner Temple Garden. Oh my goodness! If you have never been here before, do make time when you come to London – it’s one of the most idyllic, beautifully designed gardens that I’ve ever come across. It has a breezy informality and romanticism that must take a shedload of work. It’s extremely pollinator-friendly which of course keeps me happy, and, as you would expect from a tree walk, it has some magnificent trees.

So, here we go. First up is a hybrid strawberry tree with rust-red bark, which was full of fledgling blue tits when I visited.

Hybrid Strawberry Tree

Mexican fleabane and ox-eye daisies have seeded themselves in the cracks on the steps.

The entrance/exit to the gardens

On one side of the path, euphorbia and verbena and a host of other flowering plants pour over the gravel….

Euphorbia

…while on the other side, there is a meadow of mixed grasses, poppies, ox-eye and other daisies.

There is a magnificent Atlas Cedar with blue-grey foliage, and the sound of goldcrests coming from the branches…

Atlas Cedar

…and the bed on the other side of the path as I turn towards the Thames is themed in dark red and white, with the largest scabious I’ve ever seen….

…some amazing white foxgloves with deep magenta centres and a kind of lacy frill around the edge (much appreciated by bumblebees as you can see)…

and some deep purple poppies…

There is a very unusual Manchurian Walnut…

Manchurian walnut

And although the alliums are going over, their seedheads are still very striking.

Allium seedheads

There is a magnificent dawn redwood….

Dawn Redwood

And then there’s an avenue of London planes. I defy anyone’s blood pressure not to drop as you walk along this green passage, regardless of the traffic belting past just over the wall.

There are 3 enormous plane trees planted in the lawn which are thought to date to the 1770s, but the avenue is younger – Wood thinks that the trees on the northern side (on the right-hand side of the first photo above) are probably nineteenth century, the ones on the southern side (closest to the river) are early twentieth century. When you look at the girth of the trunks you can see that those on the left are clearly still slim and youthful, while middle-aged spread has taken the ones on the right.

There is a lovely little fountain with the waterlilies just coming into flower.

And a splendid view back to the Manchurian Walnut.

The next border is a positive cornucopia of different varieties of hydrangea – it’s not my favourite plant, but some varieties are attracting bees who are after the pollen.

I have just missed the flowering of the tulip tree, but it does gift me with one blossom. This is a very fine tree. Its branches look like a cupped hand. I also appreciate the way that the gardeners have left a wide circle unmowed under pretty much all the trees in the lawn.

Tulip Tree

Tulip Tree flower

Tulip Tree

I walk past a young woman who has posed a china tea set with a shortbread biscuit on a tiny miniature table with a gingham table cloth against a backdrop of pink hydrangeas, and who is clearly taking a photo for her Instagram feed. I imagine it will be very pretty.

I am rather taken by this enormous plant. The chair underneath it is full-size. It looks a bit like Gunnera but not as spikey – some giant version of Rodgersia perhaps? I obviously have a thing for giant plants currently….

And then there’s this very unusual fuchsia.

A final turn, and I’m heading back towards the gate. It’s like being kicked out of Narnia…..

…because just a few hundred metres out of the garden I come to the Embankment, and this is the sight that awaits me.

Holy moly, what’s going on? Well, apparently it’s the Tideway Super Sewer, which aims to collect and transport more of London’s sewage (the current Bazalgette sewer was built when London’s population was only half the size). Every year, millions of tonnes of raw sewage end up in the Thames and its tributaries, so if this can be cleaned up it can only be a good thing. At the moment it looks a bit of a nightmare, but it will no doubt be great once the carpet’s down, as my Nan used to say. In the meantime, I would stick to the peace and tranquillity of the Inner Temple Garden if I was you. It’s open from 12.30 to 15.00 on weekdays (nb not weekends or public holidays), and I would check before making a special journey as I think it’s sometimes closed for special events. Well worth a look though, and another splendid walk from Paul Wood’s book.

London Tree Walks by Paul Wood is available here.

One of the older plane trees, probably dating back to about 1770.

A Legal London Tree Walk from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part 1

A Venerable London Plane on Kingsway

Dear Readers, doing Paul Wood’s ‘arboreal ambles’ has been a lovely way of reacquainting myself with London, after an absence of nearly eighteen months. I had forgotten how much I loved the city, and how a leisurely walk can bring so much more than you expect. So it was today, when I had a splendid and totally unexpected encounter with two species of birds of prey, discovered a ‘secret’ garden in the heart of the legal district, and met some of the most extraordinary London plane trees that I’ve ever come across. I’ve lived in the capital for my entire life, and yet there’s still so much to discover.

Anyhow, we commence on Kingsway, which runs past Holborn station. The road is lined by London plane trees and a few Trees of Heaven, all of which seem to lean out away from the buildings, presumably to catch more sunlight. These are not old by plane tree standards – these were planted after the Second World War, in 1947.

Next, I duck through a narrow lane towards the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The square is lined by some fine early nineteenth-century buildings, including the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I haven’t yet visited (some Londoner I am, but isn’t it always the way?)

The Sir John Soane’s Museum – a treasure chest of collected antiquities

I have to stop to admire a crow who is trying to work out how to get into the litter bin, and is trying to pretend that he isn’t.

‘Nothing to see here!’

Then it’s into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. For a while there was an encampment of homeless people here, in the middle of the biggest square in London, and one of the richest areas. In 1993 the fences were raised, and the people were booted out. Since then, the gates have been locked at dusk, but I noticed some people sleeping on the benches, and one soul curled up in a sleeping bag behind one of the shrubs. During the Covid lockdown we managed to provide a place to sleep for all the homeless people in London, which proves that it can be done, but as everyone seems to think we’re getting back to normal, it’s business as usual for the destitute.

There is a fine Canadian Sugar Maple enclosed in it’s own little paddock, as if the park keepers are afraid that it will uproot itself and catch the first plane back to British Columbia (though with temperatures in the 40s at the moment I would advise it to stay put). It was planted by Jean Chrétien, and as it’s a source of maple syrup it occurs to me that maybe the fencing is to keep sugar addicts out. It’s true that I would certainly do a lot for maple syrup, food of the gods.

The plane trees in the square are some of the oldest in London , and are certainly some of the stoutest. Many of them look as if all the weight has settled on their bottom halves. I can relate.

This one, to the left of the path, is particularly splendid. I had no idea that plane trees could grow into such robustness.

At the bottom of the path there’s an area planted with some very unusual tropical plants. As I nearly needed a machete to get through it’s safe to say that it isn’t much populated. My eye was much taken by this furry plant, hiding in the grove like a skinnier version of Chewbacca. If you know what it is, please tell!

And then, I leave the Fields and head towards Lincoln’s Inn itself.

The gates to Lincoln’s Inn

And I couldn’t have been more astonished to see this handsome chap.

This is a Harris hawk, one of two that are regularly flown in the area to try to deter the seagulls who have been digging up the lawns for worms and dive-bombing the lawyers on their way to and from their chambers. I had a great conversation with  the falconer who flies the birds, and found out a good deal about them. For one thing, they are weighed before being flown, because this gives an indication of how hungry they are, and how ready they will be to fly – a heavy hawk is more likely to disappear into a tree or not fly at all. The male hawk is very fond of the leather falconer’s glove (the falconer thinks that the bird likes the glove more than him), and comes readily to the hand of anyone who wears it, while the female bird is much more nervous around strangers, gloved or not.

The female is in moult at the moment, hence her slightly shabby look. Female hawks are always a good bit bigger than the males.

The female Harris hawk

These birds really are built to take small mammals rather than birds – the male hawk was recovering from a bite on the leg from a rat which he had taken before the falconer was able to separate them. Look at those talons! The beak is built for tearing, the eyes are protected by a ridge of bone which both keeps the sun out of their eyes and gives some protection from thrashing prey.

And then I got a chance to actually fly the bird! Glove on the left hand and arm outstretched (away from the face, just in case), I watched as the bird swept in and landed on the glove to tear into a morsel of food. The falconer said that there always has to be food, otherwise the bird (particularly the female) feels as if a deal has been broken. It’s not unheard of for her to head off into a tree and sit there for hours until she feels that her point has been made. It’s all about trust: these are never really tamed, these birds. After all, they could just fly off if the urge took them. They come back because their primary motivation is food, and the falconer is the main supplier.

For wild birds, though, it’s more complicated. The falconer mentioned that peregrine falcons were nesting on the spire of the building behind Lincoln’s Inn, and that the Harris Hawks were very interested when they heard them. As I headed off on the rest of my walk, I heard the familiar mewing sound of peregrines, and took two photos on the off chance that they would at least show something. I got more than I expected.

In the picture below, you can see that there are three birds, one at the top, one to the right, and one perched at the bottom. I’m assuming that this is either a pair of peregrines and a fledgling, or an adult and a couple of fledglings.

And then there was another bout of mewing and I got a second shot. I showed it to the falconer and we both think this is a food drop, where a parent is teaching a youngster to hunt by dropping food for it, or where the male is dropping food for the female. Peregrines are the fastest animals in the world (achieving up to 200 mph in a full stoop) and have been known to attack eagles to force them away from a nest site. I was so lucky to see them, and so lucky to catch even these images.

So, what a spectacular day! And it’s not over yet. Tomorrow we’ll discover one of the loveliest London gardens that I’ve ever seen, and meet some more very venerable trees…

A Late-June Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Well, Dear Readers, there were no mammalian foxes in the cemetery today, but there was certainly lots of botanical fox and cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca), which is fast becoming my favourite June flower. Just look at it! Absolutely beautiful….

 

But there are lots of new things happening as well. The horse chestnuts have gone from upright to hanging down, in preparation for ripening and dropping to the ground.

And I noticed this rather fine lichen growing on an angel’s arm. Funny how it’s just in the one spot!

But this week really is insect week. The hogweed is attracting all sorts. Firstly, there are the trivial plant bugs that I wrote about last week. Apparently if they have white spots on the carapace and are largely green, they’re female (which I think these two are).

Some Trivial Plant Bugs (Closterotomus trivialis)

And then how about this handsome fellow? This is a male swollen-thighed beetle (Oedemera nobilis) – the female has much less impressive legs. The beetles feed on the pollen of the hogweed, and the young live in hollow plant stems.

Then they were joined by a long-horn beetle who was twice their size, but is equally harmless, feeding on pollen. I think this is a four-banded longhorn beetle (Leptura quadrifasciata).

We got great views of the buzzard riding the thermals today. For a good five minutes the bird circled in splendid isolation…

Until the crows started to appear to chase it out of town…

The salsify has gone over, leaving these fluffy seedheads…

But when we pop round to the toilets, there is fluff absolutely everywhere. There’s a hybrid black poplar, and the female catkins produce prodigious volumes of cotton wool.

Hybrid black poplar is (not surprisingly) black poplar crossed with American cottonwood. It makes for a rather lovely tree.

And here, for your delectation, is a film of the seeds falling, with an accompaniment of North Circular Road traffic. If you listen carefully, you can hear a wren bellowing above the din.

So, what else? There was this male Adonis blue butterfly (Polyammatus bellargus), which you can tell from the common blue by the chequerboard effect on the edges of the wings.

And there was this rather worn small copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas) – this species packs three generations into every year, so I’m thinking that this was a first generation insect who had already bred, and is now enjoying the sunshine.

On the plant front, there is the first of the meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) joining the many other cranesbills that are in flower at the moment.

And some of the graves are covered in sedums: there’s the white stonecrop (Sedum album) that looks like seaspray…

and reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre). These two plants are confined to graves that have been covered with decorative stone chippings or gravel, which must make the perfect substitute for the scree slopes and shingle banks where you would normally find the plant.

And finally, another favourite member of the clover family, common birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), adding its yellow and orange flowers to the riot of colour in the grassy areas. I feel as if this week really has hit the peak for flowering in the cemetery. Let’s see if next week can outdo it!

A St Pauls Perambulation from London Tree Walks by Paul Wood – Part Two

London plane tree in Bow Churchyard

Dear Readers, the second part of my tree walk features lots of plane trees. This is hardly a surprise in the middle of London, but what was startling was the size of some of them. Look at this one for example, in the courtyard of St Mary Le Bow, thought to be the ‘Bow Bells’ that Cockneys need to be born within the sound of (rather than the church at Bow in East London). However, spectacular as this is, there is another a few hundred metres away on the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street. This is the Cheapside Plane, a landmark for several hundred years, and a truly venerable tree.

The Cheapside Plane

In London Street Walks, Wood is of the view that the tree is likely to have been planted in the eighteenth century (there are older planes in the capital), and not only is it protected by local bye-laws, but the shops underneath it are too. The square that the tree stands in was the site of one of the 37 churches that was destroyed during the Great Fire of London: the tree also survived a direct hit during the Second World War. It stands with its roots in a very tiny, dark, damp square, surrounded on three sides by the fire escapes and air conditioning units of the adjacent buildings, but it looks healthy and strong. According to ‘The Great Trees of London’ it used to hold a rookery, but rooks are a very rare sight in even Greater London these days: it’s thought that the rooks left when the horses did, and when people no longer raised sheep locally. The rooks used the fur from these animals to line their nests, and the fact that the last major stronghold of rooks in the capital is close to Richmond Park, with its large herds of deer, supports this theory.

The shadows of the branches of the Cheapside Plane on nearby buildings.

At the end of Wood Street lies a most peculiar tower: this is St Alban Wood Street, all that remains of a Wren church destroyed in the Blitz. The tree at the bottom is a nettle tree (Celtis australis) which can live for 1000 years in its native Southern Europe, but is often seen off by the frosts in the UK. I imagine that living in the middle of an urban heat island must be helping this one to survive, The building is now a private residence, and I would give several eye teeth to have a look inside and see how they’ve managed to make it  habitable.

 

I love how the new and old buildings in London suddenly come into stark juxtaposition. Sadly I haven’t noted down which church this is, but I’m sure you get the general idea.

On I go to St Mary Aldermanbury, close to the Guildhall and site of a rather splendid copper beech.

But I managed to miss the Judas Tree, which I’d written about in an earlier post. Still, it’s looking very healthy, and there’s always next year. I’ve always wanted to see the magenta flowers bursting out from the branches and even the trunk. My tree book describes them as ‘budding endearingly’, and who could resist such a description? I must make a date in my diary.

Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum)

And now, here’s a thing, and many thanks to Wood for pointing it out. As you walk around the corner onto Aldermanbury Square, there are some plane trees which are being trained into a kind of pergola, akin to a wisteria or a vine. I imagine that this is a phenomenal amount of work – as we know, plane trees seem to want to grow up, rather than out. The shadows are very fine, however, and several people were enjoying a sandwich and a coffee under their shade. I was a little flabbergasted that plane trees could be ‘persuaded’ to grow in such a way, and I did wonder why the planners hadn’t chosen something more amenable to this kind of treatment, but I guess that only time will tell.

There are some Himalayan birch on the other side of the square, bang smack up against the hoardings for a major refurbishment of the Brewer’s Hall, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London so probably in need of some tender loving care. I have a strong suspicion that a couple of the birches have been removed to make room for the skips, though.

Himalayan birch plus skip.

On the other side of the passageway that skirts the Brewer’s Hall I stopped to listen to a blackbird singing from somewhere very high up. I thought that it might be in the Honey Locusts that shaded the spot, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it was on top of one of the many, many cranes. I paused to look at this statue of ‘The Gardener’, by Swedish sculptor Karin Jonzen. It looked very familiar to me, and when I did some research I discovered why – he used to be in the gardens at Moorgate where I would often meet Mum before we travelled home together. Now he’s in this shady spot next to a building site, serenaded by blackbirds.

On I go, under the Terry Farrell-built Alban Gate and past Richard Rogers’s ’88 Wood Street’ with its brightly coloured steam-ship inspired heating outlets.

Air conditioning by Sir Richard Rogers

I pause to have a quick look at the Roman Wall on Noble Street, uncovered by war damage in the Second World War and now surrounded by a rather nice mixture of wildflowers of various kinds and ferns.

The Roman Walls

Trailing bellflower on part of the Roman Wall

On the roundabout there are some Chinese Red Birches, which Wood explains can be distinguished by the reddish-brown bark on the younger branches. They are a welcome sight in this traffic-heavy, intensely urban area.

Chinese Red Birch (Betula albosinensis)

But, Dear Readers, there is one more thing that I want to share with you, but to do it justice, I’m going to leave it until tomorrow. Not far to go now, I promise!