Category Archives: London Invertebrates

A Moth Like a T-Bar

Beautiful Plume Moth (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla)

Dear Readers, I am always happy to see a plume moth, especially as the last one that ventured in was squashed by my cat – I only wish she had such success with the clothes moths. You might be more familiar with the Hemp-Agrimony Plume moth (Adaina microdactyla) or maybe that’s just me, what with having the plant in the garden. I always find these sitting on the front door.

Photo One by This image is created by user Wouter van der Ham at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hemp-Agrimony Plume Moth (Adaina microdactyla) (Photo One)

The wings are unusually constructed, as you can see – at rest the wings are rolled up like a Venetian blind. Plume moths are closely related to the many-plumed moths, which take the wing construction to a whole new level –  (Alucita hexadactyla) has wings that look like feathers.

Many plumed moth (Alucita hexadactyla)

Although these wings probably aren’t ideal for flight, they do seem to be useful for camouflage – both the beautiful plumed moth and the hemp-agrimony plume moth look like pieces of dead grass when they are in their natural habitat. Alas, they are rather more noticeable against a plain wall, as my cat will attest.

The beautiful plumed moth on my kitchen wall is probably looking for a place to hibernate, as the adult moths spend the winter dozing away, before heading off in spring to mate and lay its eggs. The larvae have wide and varied tastes, and will munch on mints, thistles, heathers and geraniums, but rarely reach pest status in this country. Besides, my water mint has gone berserk this year, so if these little critters will keep it all in check I will be only too happy.

Sunday Quiz – Aliens!

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

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

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

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

1. Edible dormouse (Glis glis)

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

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

2. American mink (Neovison vison)

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

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

3. Sika deer

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

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

4. Racoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus)

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

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

7. Red-eared terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)

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

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

8. Marsh Frog  (Pelophylax ridibundus)

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

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

9. Wels catfish (Siluris glanis)

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

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

10. Rainbow Trout (Oncorhyncus mykiss)

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

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

11. Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)

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

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

12. Harlequin ladybird

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

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

13. Asian hornet (Vespa volutina)

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

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

14. Horse chestnut leaf miner moth (Cameraria ohridella)

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

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

15. Oak processionary moth caterpillars (Thaumetopoea processionea)

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

Photo Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Late Summer Walk at Walthamstow Wetlands

The Engine Room at Walthamstow Wetlands

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

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

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

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

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

Adult Little Grebe

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

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

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

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

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

A Bank Holiday Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it was extremely quiet in the cemetery today. I’m guessing that lots of people are away, what with it being the August Bank Holiday and all, but it meant that I spotted two handsome foxes (though they dashed away too quickly for me to get a photograph), and also saw two buzzards circling overhead, mewing to one another. I expected the crows to rise up in umbrage, but they didn’t for once – maybe they’re all on holiday too.

Some Japanese anemones are just coming into flower in the woodland grave area, along with some most unlikely-looking plants – they remind me of one of my house plants. Let’s hope they survive.

Look at the swamp cypress, people! I am waiting for the first hints of rust to appear. There is a definite increase in tempo this week, with the coal tits and blue tits cheeping and the robins starting to announce their winter territories. I love autumn though, it’s probably my favourite season – there is strangely more of a sense of possibility and new beginnings for me at this time of year than in the spring. Maybe it’s all those years of education, when the school year started in September, but it’s always been pivotal for me – I got married in September, as did my mother and father, and I started my most recent job in September too.

The swamp cypress

Anyhow, I’m starting to see a lot of wasps drifting about. I wonder what this one was after on this conifer? Maybe there’s something sweet and resinous being produced.

The Cedars of Lebanon are looking particularly magnificent, and several of them are producing their female flowers, which will be shedding pollen and irritating the noses of hay fever sufferers for the next few months.

 

The conkers are filling out nicely, and there are plenty of berries on the holly.

And here’s a holly-blue butterfly, sunning itself. This one is a female (you can tell by the black edges to the wings).

I always stop and give the Tibetan Cherry trunk a little rub as well, to keep it nice and shiny.

There is a definite meadow-ish feel to some parts of the cemetery at the moment – the gardeners are out with their strimmers and, I regret to say, their leaf-blowers, but it’s been such a wet summer that everything is springing up as fast as it’s trimmed. Some grave-visitors have taken to bringing in their own strimmers. Still, I thought I’d try to take a couple of grasshopper-eye views of the plants while they’re still around.

Red clover and ribworth plantain

Other notables today were the hedgerow geranium, with its intensely mauve flowers..

…the common toadflax…

…the bristly oxtongue…

….the nipplewort…

…and the Japanese Knotweed in full flower. Just as well it doesn’t spread by seed in this country, there’s quite enough of it in the cemetery as it is.

And in other signs of autumn, there’s the tarspot fungus in all its glory on the sycamore leaves…

and the hogweed seeds, which are rather pretty close up. I’m sure someone on Masterchef actually used these in a dish recently, I shall have to check (though the umbellifers are a tricky family with several, such as hemlock, being extremely poisonous).

And finally, it’s funny what you don’t notice, until you do. I walk this way every week, but never saw that the ivy had covered a whole row of graves just by one of the woodier parts of the cemetery. It’s amazing the way that ivy just reclaims things. Was this part of the cemetery once pristine and neat, I wonder? I know that I prefer it the way it is now. Although a lot of the wilder parts of the cemetery are being dug over for new graves, I imagine that there will always be older parts where it’s just not economical to cut down the trees. I hope so, anyway.

Graves disappearing under the ivy.

Danger Lurking!

Dear Readers, there is always drama going on in the garden. Sometimes it’s spectacular, as when the heron visited a few years ago, or when the sparrowhawk wreaks mayhem with the woodpigeons. But normally it’s on a tiny scale, and I have to stand still and ‘get my eye in’ to notice it. Take this spider lurking on the hemp agrimony, for example. It looks like a blob of Tippex, but it has pale green markings on its abdomen and thorax – it’s on the right of the plant, towards the top. If you look closely, you’ll see that it has its ‘arms’ wide open, as if hoping to embrace an old friend. Well, clearly what it’s actually after is a tasty meal, because I only noticed it when it got very excited and moved after a honeybee landed. Oh the suspense!

Fortunately for the bee, it never got quite close enough for the spider to pounce, and so it made its getaway unmolested. The little moth on the left-hand side is a mint moth, also known as purple-and-gold, which is probably having a break from all the water mint that has taken over my pond this year. It shouldn’t be too relaxed, though – the spider will happily chomp a moth if one comes within reach. I think I now understand why I found a dead and desiccated brimstone moth tucked into one of the hemp agrimony flowers last week.

I’m pretty sure that this is the Common Candy-Striped Spider (Enoplognatha ovata), as a very similar spider was identified in the garden a few weeks ago. Why candy-striped when it’s clearly mostly white and green? Well, there are three colour forms, with varying degrees of  pink stripy-ness. I was lucky enough to spot this one, which illustrates the point rather better.

What fine spiders these are! Apparently the females have a bluish egg sac, which they hide away in a rolled leaf. I shall have to have another look. The garden is always full of surprises.

Careful Does It….

Dear Readers, today I decided to do a little bit of judicious pruning – my buddleias hang over the road a little, so I try to be a good neighbour and keep the pavement clear. Then, I noticed that some bindweed had infiltrated the hardy geraniums, and I finally paid attention to the elder that was trying to grow out of the wall. I chopped up all the bigger stems and was just about to go indoors when I noticed this shieldbug. My Facebook friends think it’s the last instar of a Hawthorn shieldbug, which makes a lot of sense what with me having a giant hawthorn tree in the garden.

And then these insects started to emerge – there were three of them in total, but they don’t hang around. I think this is probably a Southern Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema meridionale) – the ‘spike’ sticking out at the end shows that this individual is a female, and this is her ovipositor, for laying her eggs into rotten wood. Look at the length of those antennae!

All of the bush-crickets bounced away into the undergrowth. They can jump many times their own body-length, and just as well – being bright green they are far too conspicuous. You can tell this is a Southern Bush-cricket by the yellow dorsal stripe. This is another recent arrival, first recorded in Southern England in 2001. As the animal is flightless, it has probably been ‘hitching a lift’ in plant material that’s transported by vehicle. But here’s a thing – it is said to be a predator of the horse-chestnut leaf miner, the moth that is turning all the horse-chestnut leaves to crisps as we speak. It generally lives in trees, so I’m wondering if it is currently living in the whitebeam? Or was it hanging out in the buddleia, which is now the size of a small tree?

When I remove plant material from my pond, I always put it on the side for a couple of days to allow the little critters to wriggle back into the water, but I’ve always just plonked the lid onto my wheelie bin once I’ve done the pruning. It occurs to me that I should leave the lid open for a few hours, just to allow insects to escape as the vegetation starts to wilt. I’d already removed a two-spot ladybird and a very pregnant spider, so hopefully other creatures will also have a chance to escape.

So this is basically a plea for anyone who has their garden waste recycled, or who has a tightly-enclosed compost bin (like some of the plastic ones I’ve seen) to consider leaving the lid open for a little while, to avoid condemning invertebrates to death. It’s something I’d never thought of until all the action today, and I’d love to hear how you deal with such things.

In other news, the garden is a jungle. Once the angelica fell over and everything around it collapsed, it’s been a tangle of meadowsweet, hemp agrimony and greater willowherb. Chelsea Flower Show it ain’t, but how I love to watch all the pollinators, especially as the plants are at a very convenient height for observation.

The pond has water mint and figwort, with the bees and hoverflies being especially partial to the former.

Water mint

And the bumblebees continue to home in on the bittersweet.

It’s true that soon there will be some tidying to do, but I am just starting to realise how many species the garden supports. I will try to be sympathetic to what the creatures need, while also trying to keep my own sanity. Still, this is all a problem for September. For now, my tidying is done.

Small Pleasures in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

A hoverfly’s bum. You’re welcome!

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

Drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), a honeybee mimic

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

Marmalade hoverfly (hopefully) (Episyrphus balteatus)

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

The conkers are continuing to fatten up.

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

But here is something even more interesting…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit

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

A Late July Walk on Hampstead Heath

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

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

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

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

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

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

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

Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the boating pond. Oh dear.

And just in case it isn’t clear….

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

Tufted duck and black-headed gull having a rest

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

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

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

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

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

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!

First Walk for a Week

Dear Readers, how different the world outside looks after even a few days! I positively skipped around East Finchley today, there seemed to be so many things to see. First up was this bumblebee, who couldn’t have gotten herself anymore covered in pollen if she’d tried. I wondered if she’d been caught in a shower and then visited something very pollinaceous. At any rate, she was going to be popular with any larvae left in the nest for sure.

I stopped for a look at the tree which had a branch knocked off in an unfortunate event last year. It appears that nothing much has been done, and I suspect (though I’m no expert) that damp will penetrate the wound, along with fungi and all manner of other organisms. At the moment it suddenly seems to be abloom with lichen. I note from my previous piece, though, that this is nothing new. Let’s hope the tree is resilient enough to withstand even this.

I stop to note the pretty orange berries on a rowan cultivar just down the street…

…and that the infamous bollard at the bottom of Leicester Road appears to be upright at present.

Leicester Road bollard in 2018

We turn into Summerlee Avenue, which has some of my favourite plants. There is one front garden with a mauve and white buddleia that are both abuzz.

White buddleia

Further down the road, one of my two favourite Japanese maples has tiny ‘keys’ appearing, reminding me that it’s a relative of the sycamore, even if it’s rather more refined.

But what on earth is this plant, heavy with scent and so full of insect activity that I could hear it one house away? It looks and smells a little privet-y, but the flowers don’t look right. Someone has suggested Pittosporum but I think they flower a lot earlier. Help me out here, people!

But wait, what’s that on the first photo? It’s my find of the day, a perfect hornet hoverfly (Volucella zonaria). It’s a big beasty, and the colours are a perfect match for a hornet, though the shape and those massive eyes are a bit of a giveaway. Hornet hoverflies are the largest hoverflies to be found in the UK, and it’s always a thrill to see this impressive, harmless beast. I do hope that its mimicry doesn’t result in more pointless swatting than usual.

A real hornet

Off we go into Cherry Tree Wood. It’s very green at this time of year, and the slow-motion dance of the hornbeam trunks seems even more marked than usual.

Lots of the hornbeams are setting seed….

And someone is working on the cafe, where I think a pop-up is planned for later in the summer. There’s been some nice planting around by the tennis courts too, and some areas are unmown, which is great for the butterflies.

On the way home we take a walk along the unadopted road, which is always great for ‘weeds’ and insects. There is a splendid red admiral who poses very nicely. I had never noticed those blue marks on the lower wings before! I must get back to doing some nature-drawing, it really helps to focus attention on the detail.

People have clearly planted wildflower seeds outside their back doors, and there are some very nice combinations. This one has some phacelia and what I think might be ‘proper’ valerian.

This house has corncockle and corn marigold and poppies. It always feels so generous to plant where you can’t even see the results.

And finally, when I get home (in dire need of a cuppa) I see that someone has been committing murder in the hemp agrimony. There are the bodies of several tiny hoverflies already trussed up amongst the flowers.

This is confusingly known as a candy-striped spider (Enoplognatha sp.) Some of them have a very attractive pink stripe or two on their abdomen, but mine only has some tiny dots. Nonetheless, what an efficient little hunter this is! She seems to spend some time under the flowers, waiting for prey of a suitable size to land – at the moment there are some tiny black hoverflies about, which seem to be a particular favourite. Then she seems to grab them from below, truss them up and give them the killer bite before retreating for a well-earned rest. I love having plants that grow to just below eye level in the garden, it makes the invertebrate-spotting so much easier.