Category Archives: London Invertebrates

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.

 

 

 

A Lepidopteran Feast

Red Admiral on ‘feral’ buddleia

Dear Readers, thank you for sticking with me for the past week – this morning I woke up after my first proper nights sleep in ten days feeling about a billion percent better than I did. I will still be taking things easy for a few days, but it’s nice to not feel just like crawling back to bed. And one of the great things about my office is that I can bird and bug watch out of the window. There has been a great collection of new-minted butterflies today, like this red admiral. I always feel that their undersides are every bit as beautiful as the rather brash scarlet and chocolate on their upperwings. Look at the delicate tracery of sky-blue, the hint of crimson, the way the different shades of cream and cocoa and coffee blend. What a splendid creature! And then, as if to prove me wrong when I said that no one liked the much brighter buddleia in the back garden, this beauty turned up.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

The underside of this one is even more magnificent, but what impresses me is that this butterfly has quite possible arrived from Morocco – it’s a long -distance migrant that travels in search of thistles to lay its eggs upon, and ‘breaks out’ every so often when food in North Africa becomes scarce. Some butterflies then make the journey in the opposite direction. This one was so fresh that it actually made me gasp. My husband might have got a picture of it with its orange wings open, providing a contrast with the flower that my Mum would have loved (she always did love magenta and tangerine together). If so, I will pop it into the post. 

And finally, on the way to the shed to top up the bird feeder (yet again – the squirrel has been busy as usual) I disturbed a creature which flashed tomato-red at me before landing on the yew. This is my first Jersey Tiger of the year, the Vulcan bomber of the moth world. This is a moth that used to be all over the place, but is increasingly common in the south of the UK and will no doubt move north and west as fast as climate change will allow.

Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

And here’s a little view of the underside. It reminds me of a stained glass window.

So, here’s to feeling better. There’s nothing like a few days of mild misery to make one appreciate not only how great it is when you no longer have a headache, but how hard it must be to live with chronic problems, and what a special strength it takes to keep going and to make something of a rotten situation. And thanks to all of you for your concern, it really means a lot, and has certainly kept me going!

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot (But Not in a Good Way)

Well Dear Readers, here is sickbed update number seven, and if only my fever would behave itself I feel as if I might actually be on the verge of getting better. I am cautiously hopeful at the moment so keep your fingers crossed! Goodness knows what this is, but I will be very glad to wave goodbye to it.

Anyhow, I was sitting in the garden and something jet- black flew in – I honestly thought it was a smut from someone’s bonfire, or a scrap of black dustbin bag. But then it landed on the hemp agrimony, and I could see that it was a peacock butterfly, as fresh as you like. I didn’t manage to get a photograph of its spectacular eyespots, but in a way that satanic black was so surprising that I wasn’t sorry.

When the light changed, I could see that the ends of the antennae have tiny gold spots on them, and you can see the butterfly’s long tongue probing into the flower.

Lots of other insects are enjoying it as well. Such a raggedy plant and yet every year it’s popular. The purple loosestrife is just coming into flower too, so there will be plenty to keep this lot going until September at least.

And then there’s this plant, which will hopefully provide some autumn sustenance – once upon a time it was called sedum but it’s now a Hylotelephium, though what variety it is I can’t remember – chip in if you know! It’s a most delightful chocolate colour.

Anyhow, to round this off, I thought I’d leave you with a few ‘fever’ songs for your delectation. Firstly, the wonderful ‘Hot, Hot, Hot’ by Arrow – if this doesn’t get a party started, I don’t know what will.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L9jBi7sGsc

And now, two versions of ‘Fever’. What a great song this is! See whether you prefer Peggy Lee or Elvis. I think Elvis has the edge for me, but how I love that you can hear every single word, and the weight of erotic meaning that both artists give to it. Summer is officially here, though if my personal summer could get back to normal body temperature I’d be ecstatic.

‘Fever’ – Peggy Lee Version

‘Fever’ – Elvis Version

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….

A Mid July Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, after a most peculiar day yesterday, when I seemed to run completely out of energy, I felt a bit better this morning, so decided to go for a somewhat truncated walk in the cemetery. I can avoid getting close to people, and felt quite a lot better, so it felt like a reasonable thing to do. Alas, halfway round it seemed like I am still not myself, so I went home to isolate and have ordered a test. I still think it will be negative, but you can’t be too sure.

Anyhow, the first thing I noticed was that the cherry plums, who seem to have been in bloom only about twenty minutes ago, are now dropping their fruit. How quickly the year goes!

And just look at the swamp cypress. After a slow start, it’s now truly magnificent.

The wild carrot is in flower. The young flowerheads are a dusty pink, the older ones bright white.

The white flowerhead has the characteristic single red flower in the middle, and botanists think that this has evolved to convince pollinators to come visit – it looks just like a small beetle already feeding. The pink flowers have one too, but they aren’t as obvious (yet).

it’s certainly persuaded this long-horned beetle to drop by.

The conkers are doing very nicely, though the leaves of the horse chestnut are looking worse every week.

The yellow and white stonecrops are being overtaken by this pretty pink-flowered plant, which I think is Caucasion stonecrop (Phedimus spurius). I am fascinated by the way that some graves form a good habitat for these plants, and others don’t – I’m guessing it’s all down to a mix of soil, sun and exposure.

It really does have a mid-summer feeling to it today – temperature in the ’80’s, sun beating down….

We stop for a most uncharacteristic rest, and a jumping spider pops onto my leg…

The evening primrose is coming into flower.

And what a pleasure it is, on these long, hot days, to walk along a shady lane.

 

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.

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 Mid-Year Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Reflexed stonecrop (Sedum rupestre)

Dear Readers, I have some page-a-day calendars in my office – one with a daily photo of cats, one of dogs, and one of nature scenes. And so, I have to break it to you that today is the day when we reach the mid-point of the calendar year, and all the photos have to be turned around so that I can start looking at the images for the second half of the year. How did THAT happen? It feels like Christmas was about twenty minutes ago. Nonetheless, there are plenty of signs in the cemetery that the year is already starting to think about autumn, although there are still plenty of flowers about too, like these lovely yellow reflexed stonecrop, which are popping up on certain graves where the conditions are right.

On the horse chestnut, the conkers are getting bigger, but the leaves are showing the very first signs of the leaf miners that will have nibbled them to a frazzle by the end of August.

And please forgive me for a few more shots of the fox and cubs (Pilosella aurantiacia) – they are stunning.

Here’s a new plant in flower – generally known as Creeping Jenny, this is a member of the primrose family, and very pretty it is too. It was a very damp day today, which suits this little plant very much – it loves damp places, and in fact I was thinking about getting some for around the pond to soften the edges.

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

I pause to examine the numerous trivial plant bugs (Closterotomus trivialis) on some hogweed – they are everywhere this year! The males are mostly black and red, the females are mostly green, and all of them feed on pollen and nothing else, but help to pollinate the plants as they do so.

There are great frothy masses of white stonecrop (Sedum album) around too.

The yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is coming into flower – quite a lot of it seems to be pinkish this year.

And the goat’s rue is putting in an appearance in both pale mauve and white. This is one of those plants that has gone from being a relative rarity in this part of the world to being pretty much ubiquitous in the cemetery.

Goat’s Rue (Galega officinalis)

I spot my first meadow brown of the year….

Meadow brown(Maniola jurtina)

And here is a very fine black-and-yellow longhorn beetle (Rutpela maculata) – the larvae live in the deadwood of deciduous trees, and the adults hang out on umbellifers, as in the photos below. I advise getting up close and personal to any stands of wild carrot or hogweed that you see – they are a great place to see interesting insects.

What really struck me today, though, was the way that the leaves on some perennial plants were already turning, and how beautiful they were. Look at these dock leaves! The colour may be due to a rust fungus or insect infestation, or it might just be part of the natural cycle of growth and decay (or indeed both of these things).

The leaves on the garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) are going through a similar process, but in shades of purple-red and yellow.

And the herb Robert is starting to display the clearest crimson of all…

And let’s not forget this splendid agent of decay who was obviously enjoying the rain. This is the brown-coloured form of Arion ater, the Great Black Slug. A very fine slug indeed!

And of course, I had to say hello to the Scotsman, who is standing pretty much in a grove of spent stalks and dry foliage at the moment. He doesn’t seem unhappy though, for all that.

What’s Around Now….

yellow-barred longhorn moth (Nemophora degeerella)(Photo by Leo Smith)

Dear Readers, it’s certainly all kicking off on the invertebrate front – my friend Leo over at Barnwood spotted clouds of these yellow-barred longhorn moths ‘dancing’ above a patch of nettles. Just look at those extraordinary antennae! This is technically a ‘micro-moth’ but it doesn’t look that titchy to me. It likes damp woodland, and the adults feed on the pollen of nettles, bistort and ox-eye daisies, while the larvae eat birch litter. The caterpillars hibernate in a cocoon made up of dead leaves and bits of twig, normally in a characteristic violin shape and up to 2 cms long. These can often be found under the plants around which the adults were flying, so it might be good to have a look later in the year.

And this wasn’t the only flying insect that’s been attracting attention. Mike from Alittlebitoutoffocus found these two mayflies mating in Derbyshire. These are some of the oldest species of insect that we have, and probably the first extant family to develop flight, though it is a rather weak, fluttering affair. They are also the only insect group to moult when fully-winged. Whilst the nymphs can live at the bottom of sandy or gravelly rivers for several years, the lifespan of the adult can sometimes be only a couple of days. These two are obviously making the most of their short stay on the earth.

Green Drake Mayfly (Ephemera danica)(Photo by Mike Hawtree)

And finally, we are whizzing back to North London to see Leo’s nursery web spider, also found at Barnwood.

Nursery Web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) (Photo by Leo Smith)

What a handsome spider this is! She was guarding her eggs, which have subsequently emerged as spiderlings, and she will guard them for a few days before leaving them to their own devices. This is the only British spider species where the male presents the female with a gift of a wrapped fly before eating, probably to distract her while mating takes place. There is another nursery web spider species, the fen raft spider, which is semi-aquatic, but ‘our’ spider is a creature of grassland and hedgerows. Apparently this spider can sometimes be seen ‘sunbathing’ with her legs in the air, so let’s hope she has a chance to do that in a day or so when the youngsters are ‘off hand’.

What a fine variety of invertebrates there are out and about at the moment! Let me know if you’ve seen anything spectacular where you are.

A Bit More on the Thick-Legged Flower Beetle

Dear Readers, I was so entranced by these beetles yesterday that I thought I’d seek out a little more information to share with you all. I have seen the common name vary between Thick-thighed beetle, Swollen-thighed beetle and Thick-legged beetle, so hooray for scientific nomenclature, because all of these titles relate to Oedemera nobilis, a false blister beetle in the family Oedemeridae. According to the charity Buglife, they are a fair-weather beetle, usually seen nibbling pollen from open-faced flowers such as ox-eye daisies or yarrow or hogweed. Only the males have those impressive thighs and they remain a bit of an enigma – the males beetles don’t jump, or burrow, or even perform some Coleopteran variation on a Cossack dance. I did notice the sun positively glinting off of these appendages, though, so maybe they are just there to impress the ladies. There is also a theory that the thighs are used to grip on to the female beetles during mating, but then most male beetles get on very well without such enhancements. Maybe it’s one of those things that’s not harmful and so persists.

Incidentally I didn’t see a single female, so maybe the thighs aren’t all that attractive after all. Here is a photo just so that you can compare.

Photo One by By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lmbuga) - Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=935030

Female thick-legged flower beetle (Photo One)

It’s easy to forget that beetles can fly, and when I was watching these beetles I was mildly surprised when one of them flipped open his wing-cases and bumbled over to the next hogweed flower. It’s certainly a lot easier than going down to the ground, running over the soil and then climbing up the next stem. A thick-legged flower beetle seems to have a rather idyllic life, feeding on pollen and nectar and then drifting over to the next plant. The young live in the hollow plant stems of flowers such as thistles, another reason not to be in too much of a hurry to cut back your ‘weeds’ when they’ve finished flowering.

Thick-legged beetle to the right, long-horned beetle to the left….

And if you’ll forgive me another brief digression, I was surprised when I really looked at the flowers of the hogweed to see that they aren’t a mass of symmetrical daisy-like flowers at all – each individual flower looks very wonky, rather like someone in a white-flared body suit. I’m guessing that this is one way of fitting the maximum number of small flowers onto one flowerhead, but who knows?

All members of the Oedemeridae contain cantharidin, otherwise known as Spanish fly – this is a defensive substance which deters predators from eating them, and may be why they can display such fine metallic colours without having to worry about being detected. If handled, the beetles can exude a fluid which irritates and blisters the skin, one reason for the family name being ‘False Blister Beetle’. I’m not sure what the ‘false’ bit refers to though, as it appears that the blisters are very real. However, some naturalists are trying to rename the family as ‘pollen beetles’, which is an adept piece of public relations for sure ( and descriptive, because as adults they eat nothing but pollen and the odd sip of nectar).

Doing my cemetery walk every week has proved to be a fascinating calendar of what appears when – last week I didn’t see a single one of these beetles, but this week they’re everywhere. Or maybe I just didn’t look closely enough? The world certainly becomes a richer place when we spare a few minutes to really look at things.