Category Archives: London Invertebrates

A Mid-June Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ Swamp Cypress

Dear Readers, with the temperatures expected to be in the mid-eighties this week, it seemed that a walk in the shadier parts of the cemetery would be a good idea. However, first I wanted to say hello to ‘my’ swamp cypress, one of my (many) favourite trees. It’s looking very splendid at the moment, even though it’s a good few weeks later than I expected in greening up – the cold May certainly held it back.

It’s the changing of the guard again this week – as you can see from the photo above, the cow parsley is almost finished, but the hogweed is just getting going.

I always think that it looks as if it’s exploding from the stem like a firework.

This shieldbug seemed to be enjoying it as well – it’s the creature with the triangular patterns on it towards the centre of the photograph. Pretty sure it’s a hawthorn shieldbug (Acanthosoma haemorrhoidale) though they’re normally brighter coloured than this one.

The real star of the show this week, though, is the grass, which is waist-deep in some places. The chaps who do the strimming are having a real job keeping up. I quite like it wild, but for people visiting graves it can be a source of some distress. One lady that we spoke to had lost her mother to Covid a few months earlier, and not being able to keep her Mum’s resting place neat and tidy was a real source of distress.  Getting the balance right between the wild spots and the more neatly-groomed one is always going to be tricky, especially with council cutbacks, and such a large area to look after.

Grasses are definitely not my area of expertise, but these have piqued my interest. Let me know if you know what they are, readers! I shall do some research and get back to you. Just about the only grass I’m confident on is wall barley.

Perennial rye-grass (Lolium perenne)??

Cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata)??

It’s interesting to see how this year’s conkers are already forming on the horse chestnuts…

And the haws are already coming on the hawthorns.

However, spring isn’t quite finished for the birds – I saw a few unusual goings-on in the garden today, which I shall report back on tomorrow, and there was a song thrush singing his head off, so I thought I’d share the moment with you all. You can’t actually see the bird, so you can just relax and listen.

Along by the North Circular Road was a tree that looked like bird cherry, but is evergreen, with very shiny leaves. I’m thinking that it’s a close relative of cherry laurel, Portugal laurel (Prunus lusitanica) – it’s flowering just as the cherry laurel is finishing.

The ox-eye daisies are in full swing, too.

And look at this path. Doesn’t it just make you want to walk along it?

The hogweed always seems to know exactly where the sunny patches are.

And the Scotsman has the sun on his back too.

 

And all this abundance rather made up for what has happened on our road at home in East Finchley’s County Roads, because the council has been round with the glyphosate and have sprayed not only all the ‘weeds’, but the tree bed where my next door neighbour was growing some California poppies, and the poppy that had self-seeded under my lavender. We shouldn’t blame the people who are doing the spraying, because they are just doing what they’ve been told to do and are probably earning minimum wage for walking the streets all day, but Barnet Council should be listening to the locals, who largely don’t want weed killer sprayed willy-nilly around the places where they live.

My neighbour’s tree pit.

The weeds along the road

My ex-California Poppy

My California poppy last week (Eschscholzia californica)

The only good thing is that most of these annuals have already set seed, and so they’ll be back within a couple of days. And also, the man from the council missed the most enormous sow thistle that is hiding amongst the lavender flowers, which gives me a certain degree of glee. I feel a campaign for no-spraying coming on…..

 

 

 

Tuesday Gardening Update

Dear Readers, I thought you might like to see my angelica aka ‘the triffid’ – the handrail is about three feet high, and the ground is about a foot below the stairs, so I think this plant is about ten feet tall. What a beauty! It’s still abuzz, mainly with honeybees but bumblebees and some tiny wasps/hoverflies have got in on the act too.

My plant guide suggests that in the wild it can grow to about eight feet tall, so this is clearly an outlier, but then I seem to have picked the perfect spot for it, largely by accident – it’s right by the pond, so it’s nice and damp at the root, but it gets sun for most of the day. Plus by the time it goes over the hemp agrimony will be coming into flower, so I’ve extended my flowering season. I just love it when there is a happy accident.

If you look very closely at the middle of the first photo you’ll see that there’s a little wasp/hoverfly, but I need him/her to stay still for a bit longer so I can get a better view. I do love the way that each individual flower on the angelica looks like a tiny acorn though.

 

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m so enamoured by the angelica that I’ve forgotten everything else. My blue water irises have buds on them now, which is very exciting, and one of the yellow flags has produced a flower too, the first of many I hope.

Blue water irises

And at the end of the garden, the mock orange is smothered in flowers and bumblebees, and the scent is extraordinary. In fact, there are so many bumblebees that I’m wondering if there’s a nest close by. That would really be a bonus.

I did see one ashy mining bee earlier on (typically when I didn’t have my camera handy), but I’m hoping that they’ll discover the climbing hydrangea flowers, which were a big favourite a few years ago. I’m seeing lots of ladybirds about too, but masses of aphids which are taking over the buddleia in the front garden again as they did last year. I think I’ll send my husband out with the hosepipe to give them a good dousing, that seems to slow them up a little bit.

And so, with the heady scent of the mock orange blossom indicating that summer is truly here, I shall bid you adieu until tomorrow.

An Early June Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, this might not look like much but it gives me hope for the future. Traditionally, cemetery lawns have always been close cut and relatively lifeless, but I noticed that, in the sweeping sward of the green closest to the entrance, some little patches of grass have been left unmown, and the daisies, buttercups, speedwell and cut-leaved geranium were all the happier for it. Well done, L.B. of Islington!

Cut-leaved geranium in the sward.

It’s definitely dog rose time too, with bushes bursting into flower all over the cemetery.

However, I have officially designated this week as buttercup week. Just look at them! And they are popular with bees too, something that I’d never noticed before.

And look at this handsome little chap, sunning himself in the woodland grave area – it’s a small copper (Lycaena phlaeas), and at this time of year the males establish territories close to areas where females might want to lay their eggs (usually on sorrel, of which there is a plentiful supply). The male flies up in the hope of intercepting any passing females, but will also see off other males, and butterflies of other species. This one was particularly brightly coloured, and for a moment I imagined myself amongst the alpine meadows of Austria, which is where I usually see these creatures.

The elder is in flower too, and in the sun there was that faint smell of gooseberry. There seems to be salsify everywhere as well – last year it was just along the path next to the North Circular, but this year it’s busting up all over.

Two other great pollinator favourites are the flowers on the pyracantha (firethorn) which are now studded with bumblebees, and the various forms of comfrey in the damp areas close to the stream.

Sadly the Japanese Knotweed continues to gather pace right along the stream and the edge of the playing field. It really is such a thug – there are thickets twenty or thirty feet deep in some places now. I am a little intrigued by the leaf damage on this plant though. Could it be leaf miner damage? I shall do some research and let you know. It would be great if some creature decided that it was dinner and started to bring it into check.

There was a rather tired-looking speckled wood butterfly along one of the walks. I hope that it has done its duty by the next generation and can have a bit of a rest now. It flew up at another butterfly but seemed a bit half-hearted, I thought. Spring is tough on all kinds of animals, and this spring has been colder and harder than many.

As we left a woodland path and started walking in the sunshine, something enormous shot past. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, but then I spotted it perching in the long grass. It wasn’t until it flew up and started quartering the grass again that I realised it was a male broad-bodied chaser, using this spot to survey its kingdom with those enormous eyes before setting off on patrol again. I always get a frisson when in the company of large dragonflies – this one circled us with what I’d describe as curiosity before returning to exactly the same place on a sturdy stem. I like this shot because you can see the way that the wings are stacked on the body.

Now, have you ever noticed the way that teasels develop little ponds at the base of their leaves after it’s rained? I hadn’t this week, but I was very curious about it. I had no idea that an alternative name for the plant is ‘Venus’s Basin’, and that the water was said to have healing properties. In one experiment, where some plants were allowed to ‘keep’ their water and others had it emptied out, the plants where the water was allowed to stay set more seed and were taller.  There is one theory that teasels are on the evolutionary path towards becoming insectivorous although this is usually an attribute of plants that live in extremely inpoverished soils such as bogs. More likely is a second theory that the water acts as a way of stopping insects climbing up the stem, though as aphids in particular can fly I wouldn’t have thought that this was so much of an advantage. What do you think, readers? All theories gratefully considered. If only there was a little frog that could live in the pools, like the tree frogs in the tropics who live in the middle of bromeliads.

Water at the base of teasel leaves.

I am going to make a point of taking a photo of the Scotsman so that I can see how the wood changes during the year, so here is this week’s shot. Lots of tree cover but no lesser celandine or crocuses. The next plant to put in an appearance will be hogweed I suspect.

And so we meander home, past the daisies, pausing only to look at the sculptural form of some ivy working its way up a tree. The cemetery is about the only place round about here where you can walk for a couple of hours and see just a handful of people. Unlike so many of our green places, which have been trampled relentlessly for the past eighteen months, the cemetery retains a kind of serenity that is very pleasing in these fraught times. Long may it remain so.

A Tiny Visitor

Celery Fly (Euleia heraclei)

 

Dear Readers, I was absolutely fascinated by this tiny fly on my angelica yesterday. I know that it’s a celery fly, and that its larvae will happily mine the leaves on what is currently my favourite pondside plant, but what a performer it is! My photo is far from perfect, but hopefully you can see that it has a shiny black body, wings rippled with chocolate, a bright yellow head and green eyes. All this in a critter smaller than my little fingernail.

It seemed to be displaying, though I couldn’t see anyone apart from me who was enjoying the show. The fly twisted its wings from side to side, hopped from one leaf to another, investigated the fallen pollen from the angelica flowers, disappeared briefly and then hopped back again.

And to my delight, a bit of research showed me that this male fly is actually displaying, and furthermore you can watch it too:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Euleia_heraclei_-_2015-06-17.webm#file

Celery flies lay their eggs on the leaves of the host plant, and the larvae burrow in and mine the inside, leaving a brown or yellow blotch. After four weeks, the larvae drop to the ground and pupate in the soil, with a second generation emerging later in the summer. I found it very interesting that the first generation of larvae burrow to a measly four or five centimetres down into the ground, but the second generation, who have to survive through the winter, will dig down to about 10 centimetres. Nature really is quite remarkable.

I would never have seen this fly if I hadn’t grown my angelica, and so it seems that whenever yo you plant something, you don’t just get the flora, you get the fauna that it attracts too. The angelica is now taller than me, and is attracting not just bees, but an early blue butterfly too – this one is a holly blue, and I hope that it’s found the ivy that’s overtaking my shed for its eggs. I am so delighted with this plant, and if you have a damp patch in the garden and don’t mind something huge, I’d definitely plant this beauty.

Laying in Wait….

Honeybees on angelica

Dear Readers, for about twenty minutes today the sun shone, and so I wandered outside to take a few photos. My angelica flowers are just opening, and are already a hit with the local honeybees, much to my delight. There is such a feeling of accomplishment when you plant something to attract pollinators and it actually does.

I imagine that the recent wet weather has kept all the pollinators at home, so they will all be playing catch-up. The tadpoles have been very happy though – it’s rained so much that it’s raised the level of the pond, and they are able to forage for algae on the parts of the pond that are usually just a beach. They look very fat and happy to me, but I’ll have to make sure that none of them get stuck as the water level goes down (it’s supposed to be much warmer and drier for the next week or so). The water snails are happy too.

But who is this lurking on one of the other angelica flowers?

This is a young male running crab spider (Philodromus sp.) (many thanks to the British Spider Identification Group on Facebook for the ID). This is a group of fast-moving arachnids who hunt flies and other insects, and who also guard their eggs, which are enclosed in what looks like the tip of a medium-sized cotton bud. I shall have to keep my eyes open to see if any females turn up, and also if the male reappears, because when I popped down to see if I could get another photo he had, true to his name, done a runner. If I was a honeybee or a hoverfly, I would be very careful. Incidentally, these spiders spend the winter hibernating beneath loose bark, yet another reason to not be too tidy in the garden.

In other news, I have about 150 honesty seedlings pinging up from the seeds that my friend J gave me last year. I suspect that the good people of the County Roads in East Finchley where I live are going to have an opportunity to put them all over their gardens if the urge takes them. Now all I have to do is prick them out. I know what the bank holiday is going to hold in store for me!

 

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, we didn’t walk in the cemetery last week because there the rain was blowing horizontally across the garden, but I couldn’t wait to get there this week. A fortnight is a long time when it’s spring, and already most of the dandelions are shedding their seeds. Those ‘dandelion clocks’ really are entrancing, especially if you look closely. I love the way that the seeds detach one at a time and head off to find somewhere to put down their roots…

When all the seeds are gone, I love the spirals of little holes where they were once attached. And I’d never noticed how the ‘parachutes’ of the seeds are angled backwards, maybe so that the plant can produce more seeds per seedhead?

But it was to be a day of floral and avian wonders. A magpie decided to have a bath in a muddy puddle, as one does.

There were germander speedwells….

An ocean of cow parsley…..

Lots of red campion….

Cowslips…..

English bluebells…

And the buttercups have taken over from the lesser celandine in the yellow flower competition.

The flowers on the horse chestnut are pretty much full grown now and how enticing they look!

Even the grasses have gone berserk. That combination of lots of rain and longer day length has really kicked everything off.

We walk along the narrow path that connects two parts of the cemetery, and the cow parsley has sprung up to waist high.

But then there’s one of those moments that make the cemetery so special. I hear a familiar yaffling call, and there, posing on a headstone, is a green woodpecker.

These birds always remind me a bit of tiny dragons. There is a close-mown area nearby where they often search for ants, pounding away into the earth with their beaks. Unlike the great-spotted woodpecker, they don’t drum on dead trees to establish territory. This one was exceptionally obliging. This one is a female – the ‘moustache’ at the side of the face is all black in females, but has a red stripe in males. I found this description a bit confusing as I associate a moustache as being in the middle of the face, but for ornithologists it’s more of the ‘muttonchop’ variety.

 

 

Anyhow, this was a real delight, and well worth getting damp for. I normally hear the green woodpeckers, but they rarely stand still long enough for a photo. The wet weather has kept most of the visitors away, which makes the birds bolder.

Next, it was a wander along the road which is right next to the North Circular. The traffic noise is so loud here that it’s hard to make yourself heard, but the flowers are worth it. The ragwort is in full flower…

Last year’s salsify is in flower again….

And how about this lovely tangle of vetch? Some of my favourite plants are in the pea family.

One of the pleasures of a walk like this is seeing familiar plants, but noticing something new about them. Last year I was crunching through acorns as I passed these trees, but today I saw that they were in flower. I’d never even thought about oak trees having flowers (doh). The catkins are the male flowers, and there are tiny female flowers that look like buds amongst the leaves.

The comfrey is in flower, and the bumblebees are delighted. Along by the stream there is creeping comfrey and the larger common comfrey.

Common comfrey

 

And for some reason, in the middle of all this wildness there is a Japanese acer, just about holding its own.

There is bugle and great stitchwort….

Bugle

Greater stitchwort

Cuckoo flower and shining cranesbill…

Cuckoo flower

And a great big patch of three-cornered garlic, with its triangular stem. I can’t resist having a little nibble as we march on through the woody bits of the cemetery. Overhead a buzzard is mewing and suddenly appears above us, pursued by a huge flock of crows – I count at least thirty, and more are joining from all directions. A sparrowhawk flies over, fast and low, and goes unmolested. The crows take such glee in the mobbing that you’d almost think they enjoyed it. I wonder if it’s one of those visceral reactions to anything that looks like a bird of prey? I always wonder this, and I still have no answers. And neither does the lovely Scotsman statue, standing in the spring woods with the bluebells dying back and the greenery rising all around him.

 

 

 

A May Walk in Coldfall Wood and Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, after many months of trudging through the mud during the winter, it’s astonishing how the wood has now dried out. It’s true that we haven’t had any serious rain for several months (though some is forecast overnight), but even so the clay soil has turned into a miniature relief-map of ruts and runnels. Still, the place is alive with bird song – robins, song thrushes, blue tits and nuthatches to name but a few.

Someone has moved some branches to protect this multi-coloured group of hybrid bluebells from trampling, and very pretty they are too. There’s not a sign of the wood anemones that I remember from back in 2011 when I first arrived in East Finchley, though – maybe they’re hiding out in some of the less-trodden corners.

The hornbeam is flowering – it’s monoecious, which means that it has male and female flowers on the same tree. In the photo below, the prominent catkin right in the middle is the male one, but on the lower right-hand side you can see a collection of green slender outward-pointing ‘seeds’ which are the female flowers. As in many trees which have both male and female flowers, all the trees in the area are likely to set seed at the same time, so that there will be at least some cross-pollination. There might also be a slight time-lapse between the different sexes on the same tree, to prevent self-pollination. The sex-lives of plants are extremely confusing, and don’t even get me started on fungi.

 

 

Male and Female hornbeam catkins/flowers

In fact, there are flowers and catkins everywhere today. The crack willow has ridiculously long catkins (these are the female ones)

And here are some completely different catkins – this is black poplar (Populus nigra), though I’m not sure whether it’s the vanishingly rare native subspecies (ssp betulifolia) or the more commonly seen hybrid black poplar. It would be great if it was the first, as this is our rarest native tree, but let’s see – I’ll keep you all posted.

And what a fabulous year it’s been for the blackthorn. I have never seen so many flowers.

Blackthorn

And I rather like the catkins on the sycamore too.

I had to have a quick look at what I’m beginning to think of as ‘my’ wildflower bed in the far corner of the fields, although I am a bit nervous about the encroachment of the Japanese Knotweed, which seems to increase year on year. It looks to me as if children have been thrashing their way through it, which will only help to spread the stuff. Still, there are plenty of plants in flower already:

White Deadnettle

Green alkanet

Forget-me-not

Red campion

More green alkanet

However, it was on the walk home that I noticed that the whole path was full of flies. What a twit I am! I’ve been hoping to see St Mark’s Flies (Bibio marcii) – these jet-black, slightly hairy flies are so-called because they normally emerge around about St Mark’s day, which is 25th April. The males have enormous eyes, largely because they fly around at head height looking for females to mate with. The females have much smaller eyes because presumably all they have to do is avoid predators. Look at the beautiful iridescence on the wings of this chap – like pastel-coloured stained glass.

St Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci)

I soon realised that the flies were all over the path, which led to some very delicate ‘tiptoe through the tulips’ type manoeuvres.

I think the fly on the grass is just sorting out his wings preparatory to his maiden flight….

And here is some wobbly film of one of the St Mark’s Flies having a little wash and brush-up. You’re welcome 🙂

And now I realise that the ‘little hoverfly’ that I mentioned in my Saturday post was actually a St Mark’s Fly, and furthermore, the reason that the starlings have been behaving in a most peculiar manner (hawking and diving around very energetically) is because they’re catching these little chaps by the beakful. Doh.

A blooming St Mark’s Fly.

A Blossom-Filled Walk in East Finchley Cemetery

Goodness Readers, although East Finchley Cemetery is a much posher, more manicured cemetery than my favourite, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, it certainly has some very trees. Today, the rose-garden was looking a bit bare, but the trees more than made up for it.

One of the disadvantages of roses is that, although they look and smell wonderful when they’re in flower, they are very uninteresting for the rest of the year (and many varieties need a fair bit of looking after as well, what with the pruning and the feeding and the keeping an eye open for black spot). Furthermore, this part of the cemetery, which has an ornamental pond and then a small stream running down the middle, has been a bit of a problem for the landscape gardeners – the bit at the bottom was a quagmire earlier this year, though the weeping willows loved it.

However, there are some very pretty trees here. There is the usual Kanzan cherry tree, not my favourite but very ebullient.

Kanzan cherry. Look at all those petals!

There are some magenta-coloured crab apples too – I think this is purple crab (Malus x purpurea) but am happy to be corrected, as always.

But I think my favourite is this tree, which I think could be Siberian crab (Malus baccata), possibly the Lady Northcliffe variety? I think that it might be the prettiest blossom tree I’ve ever seen, what with those cherry-pink buds. Let me know what you think, you clever people!

Elsewhere, I find an Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica) – it has much narrower, more dainty leaves than ‘our’ horse chestnut, and is smaller and more delicate. I love the way that this cemetery makes a feature of its specimen trees – some of those in St Pancras and Islington are rather swallowed up with undergrowth, though this is much better for wildlife. I’m lucky to have both types of cemetery within a twenty-minute walk.

Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica)

And the pollen from this fir tree is absolutely everywhere. No wonder my husband’s nose is twitching. I’m thinking it looks most like a Nordmann Fir (i.e. the one that’s used as a Christmas tree), and if so these are the male flowers.

The ‘willow garden’ is coming on nicely, with lots of spring flowers, including this rather nice white Dicentra.

And the tree below rather caught me out – it’s a bay tree. I’d never seen one in flower before. What a twit.

I always stop to pay homage to the Cedar of Lebanons as well. What magnificent trees they are, planted when the cemetery first opened in 1854. I love the barrel-shaped cones, which gradually disintegrate, allowing the seeds to fall.

And the monkey-puzzle tree is putting on lots of new growth too – look at those cones! Apparently they will break up on the tree, rather than falling on someone’s head.

While I was admiring the monkey puzzle, my husband spotted that I had a hitchhiker – this bee. I’m thinking that it’s an orange-tailed mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) but these are tricky critters to ID to species level. As it likes south-facing grassy slopes to nest in, there will be plenty of opportunities for it in the cemetery – in some places the turf is kept very short, but there are also areas that are more overgrown.

The cemetery is a hot-spot for bats, too. What a shame that it closes at 4.30 p.m! But then there are signs outside prohibiting alcohol and barbecues, so I imagine that it has been the site of what I loosely describe as ‘urban vibrance’. Maybe it’s just as well that the bats, birds and bees have the whole place to themselves as dusk falls.

A fine array of bat boxes

 

An Insect-Filled Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was the most beautiful spring today, and while the cherry plums in the cemetery have mostly lost their blossom, the heavy candy-floss pink flowers of the cherry trees are just starting to emerge. It’s a shame that many of the prettiest are behind fencing at the moment, while the cemetery tries to turn yet another area of rough scrub into a site for graves, but nonetheless the tree is still exuberant. The blossom on these trees can sometimes seem almost too much: I suspect that these trees are of the Kanzan variety, with each blossom having up to 28 petals. There is a road close to where I used to live in Islington which was lined with these trees on each side: when the blossom started to fall, it could be like scuffling through a thin layer of pink snow.

The cherry plums have lost every last flower now, and are instead glorying in their copper foliage.

The cow parsley is just starting to flower in the woodland grave area, and is already attracting pollinators, like this little hoverfly. The photo is not good enough to identify the species, but it does give an indication of how varied this group of insects can be – at first glance you’d think this was a flying ant.

I had to pause for a quick look at the swamp cypress, which appears to have been in suspended animation for weeks. Not for much longer, though! I can’t wait until it’s decked out in fluorescent green.

I had to pause for a quick look at the cherry laurel by the main path – it is covered in strange, spidery flowers, and has a most nose-tingling smell, somehow dusty and honey-ish at the same time.

Another hoverfly was sunning itself on the leaves. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that this is probably a female Eristalsis pertinax. The males of this fly defend territories around flowering plants, and I imagine that the cherry laurel must be a very appealing site. The young go by the appealing name of ‘rat-tailed maggots’, and live in drainage ditches and other stagnant water: the ‘tail’ is actually a breathing tube.

And here’s an insect that I haven’t come across before. Superficially it looks rather like a shield bug, but it is narrower in the body and has much thicker, more pronounced antennae. This is a box bug (Gonocerus acuteangulatus) and it isn’t named after the plant directly but after Box Hill in Surrey (which was, admittedly, named after the box hedges that grew there).  The bug was considered endangered, and in 1990 it was known only in the area around the eponymous Box Hill, but since then it has expanded its range to most of south-east England. It seems to have expanded the variety of foodplants that it eats to include hawthorn, bramble and rose, and I predict a sunny future for it as it munches its way northwards.

The dandelions are still out in force.

The leaves on the horse chestnut are getting bigger every week.

And the first flowers are opening on the hawthorn.

But what I’ve really noticed this week are the bluebells. The vast majority of the ones in the cemetery are hybrids, and they come in the most astonishing array of colours. I doubt that the cemetery was ever a pristine environment for bluebells, and in fact I suspect that if there weren’t hybrids here, there wouldn’t be any bluebells at all.

  The primroses are doing their hybridizing thang as well. In the beds at the entrance to the cemetery there is the most extraordinary range of primulas and polyanthus, and I suspect that they are all cross-breeding and coming up with multiple varieties across the rest of the area. Genetic exuberance is certainly in evidence here.

In one of the sunnier parts of the cemetery I saw, in quick succession, a brimstone butterfly, a peacock butterfly, and a male orange-tip. I managed to get photos of two out of the three, which wasn’t bad considering how quickly the brimstone was flying. They apparently emerge from hibernation from March onwards, and will only be on the wing till May, so I cherished this glimpse of a butterfly in a tearing hurry!

Brimstone butterfly(Gonepteryx rhamni)

And then we almost trod on two peacock butterflies in quick succession, both of them sunning themselves on the path. These adults will have been hibernating over winter, and are now looking for someone to mate with, and somewhere to lay their eggs. They looked very ragged and tired, poor things.

The orange-tip will have been very happy to see the abundance of garlic-mustard which has popped up everywhere, and is now coming into flower. It’s good that there is so much of the stuff, as the caterpillars are cannibalistic and so the female normally lays each egg on a different plant – when an egg is laid, the female also deposits a pheromone which will prevent other females from laying there. Furthermore, the females will only lay their eggs on plants which are already in flower, but will also refuse to lay if the flower is starting to age. This is an insect which wants to give their young the very best start in life, for sure.

Photo One by By Charles J. Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48875414

Male orange-tip (Anthrocharis cardamines) (Photo One)

Garlic mustard and lesser celandine

I couldn’t resist getting a photo of this watchful crow, and I rather liked the backlit dandelions too.

And for my final butterfly of the day, here’s a newly-minted speckled wood (Parage aegeria). These are woodland butterflies, flitting through the dappled shade. The males are fiercely territorial, and spend a lot of time flying into the air to investigate every insect that goes past. If it’s another male, an aerial battle will take place that could last up to 90 minutes. The battles are fiercest if the incumbent male has already been visited by a female – presumably this proves that his territory is a good spot. What a lot of hard work this reproduction business is.

Speckled wood (Parage aegeria)

And so, it seems that, with the arrival of flies and bugs and butterflies, and with bluebells and garlic mustard springing up all over the cemetery, we are now into what I think of as ‘mid-spring’, the period when the battle to mate and rear young and get pollinated is at its height. All I need now is the arrival of the house martins to know that spring is fading, and summer is beginning.

 

Sunday in the Pond

Dear Readers, after a chilly couple of weeks I was delighted to see that the tadpoles are finally emerging from their spawn. What extraordinary little question marks they are! In the photo above you can see some tadpoles that are quite well grown and others, like the one with the straight tail that seems to be ‘crossing swords’ with the one above, who have just struggled out of the egg. Most of them are currently hanging around the plants, but one or two brave souls have crossed the pond to feed on the abundance of algae growing on the liner.

In the photo below I love the way that the shadows of snail and pond skater can be seen on the bottom right, while a lone tadpole keeps a very low profile. The pond skater went over to investigate the snail, but these insects are largely scavengers, who will take advantage of any invertebrate unfortunate enough to fall into the water. You might sometimes notice ‘rafts’ of pond skaters all feeding on a dead bee or clumsy fly. They have the piercing mouthparts of all bugs, and will make short work of any little corpses.

Pond skaters are superbly adapted to living on the surface of the water – their bodies and limbs are covered in tiny hairs which increase the insect’s surface area and make it easier for it to stay on the surface. If the creature is submerged by a wave (not likely on my pond where all is currently tranquil) the air bubbles trapped in the hairs will help the insect to right itself. The long middle legs are used for ‘rowing’, the back ones for steering, but to the naked eye they seem to move across the water by magic.

For pond skaters it’s all about the vibrations that they can feel through their limbs – they take a while to settle down if I walk past, even if I tiptoe. Once they’re relaxed again, you can see all sorts of shenanigans going on. Pond skaters signal to one another using different frequencies: one to repel, one as a threat, and one to signal amorous intentions. When two pond skaters notice one another, one will send out a ‘repel’ signal. If it isn’t responded to by another repel signal, or even a threat signal, the pond skater knows that it’s happened upon a female, and will send out a courtship signal. A receptive female will respond with a courtship signal, and the male will then mate and stay with her until her eggs are laid. This means that the female (who is larger than the male) will have to ferry her lover about, possibly for weeks.

Photo One by By Markus Gayda, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198901

Pond skaters in flagrante (Photo One)

When the young hatch, sometimes they will have short wings, sometimes long wings,  and sometimes no wings at all. Wingless forms obviously can’t leave the water body where they were born, but this isn’t a problem if there is plenty of food – I suspect that ‘my’ pond skaters hibernated in the pond over the winter to get a head start this spring. However, if a pond gets too crowded, or dries up, it’s useful to have wings so that the young can disperse – short wings enable a local flight, long wings can carry the new pond skaters to exciting new ponds and lakes. However, this has to be balanced against the disadvantages of wings for a surface-living insect like a pond skater – wings are extra weight, and can get tangled. It’s likely that because my pond is stable and the water level is lovingly tended by a mammal (me) most of ‘my’ pond skaters will be wingless. I shall pay attention over the next few months and see what happens.

Although pond skaters in the UK are modest little chaps, the Giant Pond Skater of Vietnam (Gigantometra gigas) has a ‘legspan’ of twelve inches, and you can read all about them here.

While I was sitting on a stone with my camera trained on the pond skaters, who should pop by but Bailey King of the Cats. He is now twenty years old, and so a little bit stiff, but he is still every bit the monarch that he was previously, so much so that his minions (aka his owners) popped by to pick him up and take him home.

Bailey asking where his taxi is.

And finally, here is a little film of the goings on in the pond. Do not be alarmed (overly) by the appearance of two leeches from under the edge of the plant pot – this species lives by funnelling up tiny invertebrates and so the tadpoles will go unmolested.