Category Archives: London Mammals

Babies and Some Cheekiness

Dear Readers, blue tits always sound a bit flustered to me, but for maximum anxiety you need to be present on fledging day. Goodness, the poor parents! I couldn’t work out exactly how many babies there were, but I’d estimate at least six, and they were all over the place. For the adults it must have felt like herding cats, plus they were intent on feeding all the little ones.

 

Fortunately the fledglings soon get fed up with waiting around and start pecking at things at random, until eventually they learn what’s edible and what’s not. And as at today, none of the babies had managed to drown themselves in the pond, which is always a result.

I decided to put out some suet and live mealworms just in case the blue tits would find them. Sadly, everyone else found them first. Firstly the starlings, with their latest broods of youngsters….

And then an occasional visitor, who always scatters everyone else. The jackdaw spent a good five minutes meticulously searching out the mealworms before flying off. S/he must have a nest somewhere, I’m sure. Look at that face! No wonder no one messes with the jackdaw (except for the magpie).

And finally, I have planted some packets of seeds in some of my pots, and every day someone digs them up. I had my suspicions, but today they were confirmed.

And then another squirrel ran into the garden. Would there be war?

Well, these two obviously knew one another because they touched noses and then sat happily together, squashing my wildflower mix under their furry bottoms. If there was ever evidence that once you have a wildlife garden you have no control whatsoever about who turns up, this is it. And honestly? I don’t begrudge them. There’s plenty in my garden for everyone.

LNHS Talks – ‘Bats in Churches’ by Claire Boothby

Dear Readers, when I hear the phrase ‘Human/Wildlife Conflict’ I think of villagers fighting off elephants who are raiding their crops in Sri Lanka, or oil plantation workers chasing orang utans with machetes. But there are plenty of occasions in the UK when our hard-pressed wild creatures come into rather more contact with humans than is good for either party. I do love a talk that makes me think about something that I’d never considered before, and so it was with this one. Claire Boothby, who works for the organisation ‘Bats in Churches’ has the remit of trying to mitigate the problems that occur when bats roost in churches, and she had some very interesting things to say on the issue.

Bats have always used churches as roosts – they seem to prefer older churches with wooden roofs. One conservationist suggested that those timber beams reminded the bats of ancient woodland, which is where they would probably roost preferentially if there was enough of the habitat left. If the church is surrounded by a nice big churchyard with lots of flying insects, so much the better. In the summer, the female bats like the warmer part of the church as it’s ideal as a maternity roost. In the winter, they may favour places like crypts and undercrofts as hibernation sites.

Many churches have voids in the roof with direct access to the outside world, and in these cases the parishioners might not even know that there is a bat roost. The trouble comes if the bats have access to the interior of the church. My heart is obviously with the bats, but Boothby showed how the droppings from the bats can damage brass memorial plaques, marble tombs and stained glass windows. Many of the volunteers who clean churches are elderly, and the church can lose significant income from weddings and events if the building is soiled. One church in the study closed because of the damage from a substantial bat roost.

What to do? The bats are protected (thank goodness) but the buildings are part of our heritage, and are often also the centre of a small community. Fortunately, Bats in Churches works with all the parties involved. Funded by the National Lotteries Fund, it brings together the Bat Conservation Trust, the Church of England, Historic England and the Church Conservation Trust, and it works very closely with the parishioners and clergy at the church.

It’s easy to demonise those in the churches who are complaining about the bats, but in the video interviews with them, they were all quietly apologetic about even mentioning the problems that they were experiencing. They wanted to conserve the bats, but they were also worried about the churches, one of which was an extremely rare brick-built Tudor church. They were also worried about the cleaning burden that fell on a group of volunteers who might scrub for hours only to find that, when they returned a few days later, things were just as bad.

Photo One by By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8684692

St Nicholas, Chignal Smeally (Photo One)

So, what to do? In churches where the bat population wasn’t causing too many problems, such as Holy Trinity Tattershall, the bats were turned into a feature, with a bat information board inside the church, bat walks outside it, bat teeshirts and a ‘Tatty Bat’ mascot that people could buy.

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/BatsinChurches/status/955473780750594049

‘Tatty Bat’ merchandise from Holy Trinity, Tattershall (Photo Two)

In churches where the problem was worse, however, there were capital works on the building. Bat surveyors would get an idea of the size of the roost, the species involved and their entrance and exit points. They would be watched to see how they were behaving, and then a plan was drawn up that would minimise the damage in the church without affecting the bats. In some cases, this could involve something as simple as a screen so that when the bats left the roost they were funnelled towards the outside exit, rather than flying around in the church first. In another, a bat box with heraldic symbols on it was created so that the bats had a perfect roost with the same entrance as previously. In the most expensive example, St Lawrence Radstone church had so many bats, and so many droppings, that the church had actually been closed. Part of the church had a twelfth century ceiling, but the bats were in the much later Victorian part of the roof. A plan was drawn up to create a false ceiling in the Victorian bit, so that the bats still had a void to fly around in, but could enter and exit from their original points. This was so successful that the church was able to reopen in 2020, without any damage to the bats. You can watch a video about the project here.

Photo Three by By Ben Nicholson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9246139

St. Lawrence Church, Radstone (Photo Three)

All of the projects mentioned are subject to monitoring for at least three years, and hopefully longer, to ensure that the bat populations haven’t been harmed by the changes. I must say that I was impressed by the imagination and dedication shown by all parties, who clearly wanted to achieve a solution.

Bats in Churches would really like some help surveying churches: you don’t need to be a qualified bat surveyor, and it sounds like an interesting and worthwhile project. They are trying to survey a sample of 1000 churches (they ground to a halt during the pandemic along with everybody else) and, excitingly, you get the loan of a bat detector and are taught how to submit bat droppings for DNA testing. Who could resist? If you think you fancy it, all the details are on the Bats in Churches website here.

Claire Boothby was a very engaging speaker who is clearly passionate about finding solutions to the tricky problems of bats, people and medieval buildings. It was a real pleasure to watch her talk, and if you’d like to do the same, you can find it here. These LNHS talks have been so fascinating and varied that I hope they continue even after the pandemic – it’s clear that they can reach and educate a much wider audience than their London evening in-person events did. Fingers crossed that we can soon have both!

Photo Credits

Photo One By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8684692

Photo Two from https://twitter.com/BatsinChurches/status/955473780750594049

Photo Three By Ben Nicholson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9246139

A May Walk in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood

Sunlight through hornbeam leaves

Dear Readers, sometimes when I walk through one of North London’s ancient woodlands, I am reminded of how much I have learned through writing the blog over this last 7 years. Although there is still so much to find out, it makes me happy that I can look at the muscular trunk of a hornbeam and identify it, and that I can imagine it as a younger sapling, a mass of twigs that were probably cut back once or twice when the tree was a baby, before coppicing was abandoned and the tree was left to grow.

The tree above has five distinct trunks growing from the same ‘stool’ – they interweave with one another in a kind of slow-motion dance as they reach towards the light. I love the silvery bark of hornbeam, and the way that it is covered in a web of ‘veins’ and ‘sinews’ like a weight-lifter’s arms.

There is so much to notice, and yet so often we don’t, absorbed in our thoughts or in our phones.

And here’s a horse-chestnut seedling, optimistically growing in a patch of sunlight.

Last time we walked in these woods it was Boxing Day, we were ankle-deep in mud, and there were hundreds if not thousands of people on the paths. But today it’s a weekday, the children are back at school, most folk are at work and it feels as if the woods are breathing again.

There is a new dead-hedge around the little pond, though whether this will keep an enthusiastic golden retriever out of the water remains to be seen.

A pair of great tits have made their nest in this dead tree stump, a great advert for leaving dead wood where it is.

The coppiced areas in the middle of the wood really show off the oaks as they reach for the sky.

But hang on, who is that on the path? My keen-eyed husband spots a creature just past the ‘cross walk’ in the picture.

There are rats in all of the woodlands that I’ve visited this year. There are always a few around, but with more people also in the woods they’ve been noticed a bit more. In Cherry Tree the council have put down poison, so there are now dead rats. Let’s hope that they don’t become food for foxes, dogs, cats, crows, buzzards, magpies, owls etc etc.

Rat populations (like pigeon populations) are almost entirely governed by availability of food. There has been a huge increase in littering in wild places and parks all over the country, with people seeming incapable of taking their rubbish home. Lots of creatures have taken advantage. Plus there is a kind of hysteria about rats. We have become so detached from wildlife that some people seem to feel that if their toddler sees a rat they will keel over with Weil’s disease. I understand that you wouldn’t necessarily want to share your house with wild rats, but in a woodland?

Someone recently posted a short film on our local community Facebook page of an elderly rat being harassed by crows, so let’s not forget that in the natural world these rodents are way down the food chain. However, this crow was rather more interested in something in the stream.

I wonder if the crow is looking for invertebrates in the mud at the bottom of the rivulet? They are such intelligent animals generally, but all members of the crow family seem to be super-attuned to possible food. You can almost see them working out what’s what.

There is a little drift of wood anemones here too, an indicator of ancient woodland because they don’t travel very far over the generations. They are partially protected by the fence, which is probably why they’ve survived the huge growth in footfall in the woods during the lockdown.

And then, there is a patch of hybrid bluebells in the sun, close to where the boundary of the wood meets the local housing. Sometimes people throw their garden rubbish over the fence in these situations, which is why there is often such diverse non-native flora in these places. The evidence seems to show that in a ‘real’ bluebell wood, hybrids can’t outcompete the native bluebells, though they may still make incursions at the edge where there is normally more light. At any rate, these are pretty and have some value to pollinators clearly. In an urban wood such as this I suspect any increase in biodiversity isn’t to be sniffed at.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, I often get a glimpse of a fox in the cemetery, but today we had quite a long encounter with this vixen. She looks in fabulous condition, and was cheerfully trotting around the area at the entrance to the cemetery, sniffing at twigs and occasionally squatting to scent-mark. However, when I got home and looked at the photos properly, it’s clear that she’s had a close encounter with something very recently.

My guess would be that she’s narrowly avoided being run over by a car, poor thing. However, the fact that she’s still alert and moving normally makes me think that it’s probably just a flesh wound. I do hope so. She looks a bit thick around the midriff to me, so it may be that she’s pregnant (or just well-fed, which is another good sign). The main road that surrounds the cemetery is a death trap as the young foxes try to disperse, but fingers crossed that this one will be ok. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that foxes are extraordinarily resilient creatures, and seem to bounce back from things that would fell a human.

I know that people are still feeding the foxes in the cemetery, so she’s in a good place at any rate, and the cemetery security guys have a soft spot for all the wildlife, so they’ll keep an eye on her.

As we walk on, I have a quick look at the swamp cypress to see if it’s getting any spring growth yet. Not much yet, but these things happen very gradually, and I’m sure this cold snap will have put everything back a bit. Next week the temperature is supposed to be up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit at the weekend, which will feel positively spring-like. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will bring the frogs in my garden out.

Nothing very exciting happening on the swamp cypress

I spotted a rather exciting new grave today, simply by taking a quick detour to the left instead of the right. The memorial is for Francisco ‘Frank’ Manzi, born in 1913 and died in 1962. He was the chairman of the Amusement Trades Association, and appears to have been married to Elizabeth Paolozzi, but only for three months in 1934. Therein hangs a tale, I’m sure. And I couldn’t find any indication of who sculpted the memorial, which is really rather remarkable.

As we took the perimeter path around the edge of the cemetery, closest to the North Circular Road, I noticed that some of the twigs were absolutely covered in lichen. Then I remembered an LNHS talk by Jeff Duckett about the flora of Hampstead Heath, in which he noted that there are lichen which actually thrive on the nitrous oxide from car exhausts. I wonder if this species is one of them? It certainly loves this area, and I haven’t noticed it in anything like as much profusion anywhere else in the cemetery. I have a feeling that this might be golden shield lichen, and if so it’s known to love nitrogen – it’s often found in areas where there are lots of bird droppings which are rich in ammonia. Who knew that being a nature detective could be so much fun?

Someone has put up a little bird house next to Randall’s Path in the cemetery, and I was delighted to see a pair of robins checking it out. In fact, in even more exciting news (for me anyway) I saw a pair of blue tits checking out the bird houses that I’d put up for sparrows last year. They might not meet with the approval of the prospective tenants, but it’s the first interest that anyone’s shown in almost two years, so at least my hopes are raised a little.

I loved this statue too, swathed in ivy and holding artificial flowers.

And also this modern cross, with the red stems of dogwood glowing behind.

The snow has almost gone in some places, but is clinging on in others. The places where it remains are the least trodden, and so the most interesting.

And finally, four graves that caught my eye today. The first is of Thomas Hollyman Nicholls, a despatch rider for the Royal Engineers, who served in the First World War and who finally passed away in 1930 as a result of his war service. I have found some information about his war record, and it seems that he was discharged with heart and lung trouble, caused by being gassed at Ypres. Poor man.

The second is this one, with its beautifully carved anchor and chain. Walter Hugh Price was in charge of a motor boat during the raids on Zeebruge and Ostend, a campaign that ended up costing 200 British lives. However, it wasn’t enemy fire that killed him: according to an article on the history of Friern Barnet (where Price lived), he caught a cold during the raid which turned into something worse, and he actually died on a hospital ship in Dover harbour.

Thirdly, there’s another anchor, this one broken by frost and time. Robert Samuel Nodes was Chief Officer on board HMS Vesuvio when she was torpedoed in 1914. On his pension card, his death in 1916 is described as being due to ‘shock caused by explosion on ship’. In the War Graves records, his death is said to have been caused by ‘acute laryngitis’. On his grave, it says, more explicitly, ‘shell shock’, though I wonder if, at this point, it refers to what we now think of as shell shock (i.e a mental breakdown), or if it means the physical effects of being caught in a confined space when there’s an explosion. Whichever it is, Robert Samuel Nodes died at 27 years old.

And finally, I found the austerity of this grave, with its broken column, rather affecting. John Stuart Alexander was born in Alnwick in Northumberland, and was married to Maria, who was from Scotland. He seems to have been a secretary in a private company, and the 1881 census finds them living in Barnsbury, Islington, at 52 Mildmay Grove. They shared the house with their son, Stuart, who worked as a commercial clerk, and their servant, Mary. John was only 53 years old at this point, and I imagine that dying was the last thing on his mind. However, he did at least leave his widow and son well provisioned: probate records show that he left an estate of £2417 0s 7d, which would have been a sizeable amount in those days. And could there be a better epitaph?

‘He was one of the best of husbands, and the kindest of fathers’.

Storm Darcy Arrives in East Finchley

Dear Readers, well I’m not having to shovel my way out of the front door, but we do have snow this morning, and so it’s on with the walking boots and woolly hat, and out into the garden to make sure there’s food and water for the birds. A blackbird was pecking over the bird table before it was even light, so the critters are definitely hungry. Sure enough, the robin was down pecking at the mealworms before I’d even left the garden. And then the starlings arrived.

 

And the chaffinches.

I’ve noticed before how more tolerant birds are of one another in the winter, but even I was surprised when this little gathering on the bird table didn’t end up with ‘pistols at dawn’.

It doesn’t take much to spook them though.

And it turns out that one of the starlings has ‘cracked’ the nut butter feeder. I’ve seen coal tits feeding on the other one (which is hidden away next to the bittersweet) so at least somebody likes them.

But the height of the excitement was spotting a female blackcap working over the bittersweet. At least I’m thinking that it’s a female – juveniles look similar. Some folk have found that these birds are aggressive at the bird table, but this one couldn’t be more reclusive. I love that she’s eating the berries – at one point she hung upside down on a twig to get one. I hung a roosting pouch in the hedge so I wonder if she’s using it?

And it’s still snowing, though just wispy little flakes. The temperature isn’t expected to get above 30 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of the week, so I’m glad that I stocked up on birdfood. And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and see a fox like we did last time.

Winter Comes to East Finchley

Dear Readers, on Sunday the snow that the rest of the country has had for weeks finally arrived in London. I still find something magical about it, the way that it covers up all the imperfections for a while, the way it falls so silently. It seems to put the birds into some confusion though: for a few minutes they disappear, as if trying to work out what this white stuff is, and then they’re back.

Starlings queueing up in the hawthorn

Male chaffinch on the sunflower seeds

Female chaffinch and goldfinch

I had been saying that I hadn’t seen a blackbird in the garden this winter when, as if by magic, one appears in the cherry tree next door.

But then the magic really happens.

This beautiful, well-fed little vixen puts in an appearance. She sniffs out all the suet we’ve thrown down for the birds and then goes for a wander.

Occasionally she spots a bird and decides to try her luck.

But mostly she’s just pottering. How do I know it’s a vixen? Because females squat to scent mark, while males raise a leg. She’s in beautiful condition. Look at that lovely long fur.

I wonder if I’ll get a portrait, and then she looks up. Look at that face. She has absolutely made my day.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Redwing about to fly off

Dear Readers, the cemetery is full to busting with redwings at the moment – these small thrushes are extremely shy, so getting any kind of photo has proven to be a challenge. The one in the photo above headed off as soon as it saw my camera. I wonder if they are hyperalert to people raising metal objects in their direction? I know that the woodpigeons in Dorset were always much more worried when I tried to take a photograph than the ones in London, and I put this down to the fact that the country ones are much more likely to be shot. Anyhow, even seeing a redwing was a nice start to the walk.

As usual, I suddenly notice things that I’ve been passing every week. This grave, in quite a well-manicured part of the cemetery, is completely covered in ivy. I wonder what’s under there? Quite the conundrum.

We loop through the woodland cemetery site, and I stop to say hello to the swamp cypress, now completely denuded of its leaves. But look, it has buds! Spring will soon be here.

And as we walk along our normal path, I suddenly notice an outbreak of snowdrops. What a particular joy they are this year! They must have been pushing up for ages, but I’ve only paid attention to them now that they’re in flower. Years ago, I imagine someone planted a few bulbs, and now they’re colonising the whole area. I love their delicacy and their strength.

Once I’ve noticed them in this spot, I see them all over the cemetery.

And by the stream, in the usual stand of ash trees, a robin is announcing his territory to the world.

These little puffed-up balls of feistiness are in full song: if you listen above the rumble of the traffic from the North Circular you can hear them challenging one another right through the cemetery.

We head towards the woody part of the cemetery. I hear a buzzard mewing, and crows cawing, but don’t see anyone overhead this week. However, there is a fine gathering of crows and magpies, and they are happily picking up chunks of bread that someone has left them under one of the trees. They are joined by at least two foxes, who are too fast for me to catch properly on camera, though there is the faintest suggestion of one in the photo immediately below.

Fox just to the right of the road sign.

We came into the cemetery at about 10.15 (it opens at 10 o’clock) and a car shot past us on the way out – maybe this was the person who feeds the birds. I’m sure they need it in this cold snap. Anyhow, now we know where to head for. Maybe next time I’ll have more luck getting a photo of the foxes.

I was rather moved by this Victorian cherub, on the grave of a child who died at six years old. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in terms of health: my grandmother lost three of her four children, one to scarlet fever, one to diptheria and one to a late miscarriage, before she gave birth to my Mum. This wasn’t unusual in the East End. But just because early death was so common it didn’t make it any easier; my Nan remembered the poems on the remembrance cards for her dead children for her whole life. I suppose that being in a pandemic is, for many of us, our first experience of a disease that curtails our activities and fills us with fear, one where medical science doesn’t immediately have all  the answers. As recently as the 1950’s people lived in dread of their children contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung. We have been very lucky, and you don’t have to walk far in this cemetery before you start to realise how unusual we’ve been. It makes me very humble when I see what previous generations have gone through, and what I’ve taken for granted, at least until now.

The great spotted woodpeckers don’t care about our troubles  though, they’re much too busy drumming and staking their claims to the best trees. I watch two woodpeckers chasing one another past the chestnut trees, and then get this most excellent photo of one. Yet another candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I feel.

And then I wander down for a quick look at the Mond mauseleum. I’ve mentioned it before, but it really is an extraordinary thing: my book ‘London Cemeteries – An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer’ by Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons describes it as ‘the finest classical building in any of the London cemeteries (along with the Ralli mortuary chapel at Norwood’). It was designed by Darcy Braddell, later a vice-president of the R.I.B.A, and was built in 1909. I’ve mentioned before that Ludwig Mond was a major industrialist and philanthropist. I must confess that I don’t love this building: it seems a bit overbearing and austere to me.

But I am very fond of this little tree that stands at the road junction opposite. I am thinking that it’s a weeping cultivar of silver birch, maybe ‘Tristis’? No doubt you lovely people will put me right. There was no angle from which I could avoid the sign pointing to the crematorium and pick up the purple of the shoots and the snaky twisting of the branches, so this will have to do. But what a pretty little tree this is! I shall have to pay it more regular visits to see how it’s coming along.

A Busy Walk in Highgate and Queen’s Wood

Bark!

Dear Readers, it’s Boxing Day and all those who have been at home, eating turkey and watching Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special on the TV have suddenly burst out of their abodes and headed for the woods. We made the mistake of heading to Highgate Wood ‘for a change’ but it was so packed with people that ‘the dance of two metres’ became trickier and trickier, especially as the paths had been so trampled that there was thick mud on either side. It’s wonderful that people feel such a need to get out into nature at the moment (and I’m one of those people) but it does point up how much of ‘nature’ we’ve lost, when the small areas that remain are so overcrowded.

The love of the woods is clear, as seen by this bench, with its bowl providing water for dogs and its bunch of roses. The inscription reads:

I sit here with memories for company

Knowing  that if life were moments 

we’d all have a good time’.

Sean Hughes (1965 – 2017)

Sean Hughes was born in North London but raised in Ireland – he was a very successful comedian (the youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award for stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival) and was one of the team captains in ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, the TV music quiz (not that that exactly sums up the complete anarchy that characterised the show). He was a vegetarian and a lifelong animal rights activist, but had a long struggle with alcohol, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver in Whittington Hospital at Archway in 1917. I remember his cheeky grin and his way with a one-liner, and had no idea that this memorial bench was here. RIP Sean. The doggies love their water bowl.

On we go, side-stepping the runners and choosing paths largely based on which large groups are approaching. I do take a detour to admire some fungi. I’m thinking this is probably not the hairy curtain crust that I spotted in Coldfall earlier this week, but maybe something exciting like Stereum ramaele, which is often found on oak.

Anyhow, just after this point we give up and head into the slightly quieter and wilder environs of Queen’s Wood. For some reason this doesn’t attract quite the footfall of Highgate Wood, I guess because there is no children’s playground or grassy area for little ones to play. I like its slightly eerie atmosphere, and I find myself admiring the way that the trees grow into strange contorted shapes in order to reach the light.

There has been a lot of coppicing here over the years, which has helped to bring light into some of the darker areas. I must definitely come back in spring and see what appears (before it’s trampled into the ground anyhow).

And by one of the entrances there’s a warning as to why dumping garden rubbish can introduce all kinds of plants into ancient woodland. I think that this is probably yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeabdolon ssp argentum), a popular garden plant and one which is widely naturalised in many hedgerows and woodlands across the UK. While the plain-leaved variety of the plant is a native, this variegated garden variety is not and, as it flowers earlier than the native plant it often out competes it. However, I am reserving judgement because I have no idea if the native species grows here, and this is still a useful plant for pollinators. David Bevan, who was the Conservation Officer for Haringey for many years, was relaxed about ‘introduced species’ in his recent LNHS talk, and my instinct is to agree with him.

By this time Queen’s Wood is getting a little busy for my taste as well, and so we head back towards Muswell Hill and home. On our way along Connaught Gardens I spot this street tree, which is covered in pink catkins. I rather think that this is a grey alder (Alnus incana var ‘Ramulis coccineis’) – if so it will have red shoots when spring comes. I must have a wander along and check.

Home we toddle, through Fortis Green, where we meet this very friendly cat. He does that ‘slow blink’ thing that cats do when they’re attempting to be chums, so I stand there like an eejit and do the same until my husband reminds me that it’s lunchtime.

And finally, I notice this single cyclamen in someone’s front garden, glowing like a small candle flame. I know that it’s not a fancy wild one, but it still cheered me up. And then it’s home for toast, and a cup of tea, while we wait for Storm Bella to arrive (70 m.p.h winds! Torrential rain!).

Yep, 2020 has definitely been a year for grabbing pleasures when you find them.

 

A Christmas Eve Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, by the time you read this it will be Christmas Day, so for those of you celebrating I hope you have a peaceful time, especially as for many people it won’t be the kind of Christmas that you were hoping for. I am hoping that 2021 will be a lot less ‘interesting’ than 2020 was.

Onwards!

The temperature dropped overnight to the high 30’s (which is coldish for us – don’t laugh, people in Scotland and Canada and other chilly parts of the world). But it was sunny and DRY hallelujah. We decided to go for a quick mooch around Coldfall Wood, which has saved the sanity of many people this year, including me. Every time I go I notice something new, and I think that lockdown has heightened my appreciation for the gradual changes of nature. How about you?

So, on the way I noticed this little posse of starlings. For once they were eerily silent – normally they’re whistling and clicking and generally making a racket. From the amount of suet that they eat every day I’d say that the inhabitants of East Finchley are single-handedly preventing them from migrating. Who’d want to fly all the way to Africa when there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet in the County Roads?

Is it just me or is this one looking a little portly?

And then we stroll into the woods. We’re a little later than usual, so the place is full of dogwalkers and small children and people going for a walk. For many of us, the Christmas preparations are a lot simpler this year. While for me this is a source of sadness, it’s also rather nice not to be run ragged. It makes me wonder what I could have dropped during previous Christmases to make it a bit easier on myself (and to make me a bit less stressed and easier to be with).  Worth pondering if you’re in the middle of a Christmas frenzy I think. 

I noticed how the holly trees often spring up when a tree has fallen or been pruned – that little bit of light seems to help them to lurch into action. I wonder what seedlings are stirring under the fallen leaves even now?

Little holly and yew trees growing in an unshaded spot.

The cyclamen is doing very well behind its stockade of branches. How sweet that someone has cared enough to try to protect it. I think that it might need a bit more room next year though.

And here is another, more advanced holly tree growing up in a gap.

And here’s some ivy, to complete the picture.

I’ve mentioned the mud before, so here’s a photo to give you an idea of how we’re doing (though it’s much better in the wood than it is on the field – at least in the wood there are lots of trees to drink up the excess water, though they are less thirsty without their leaves).

Some little hoodlum has been graffiti-ing the trees with this time-honoured fertility symbol, though why the testicles appear to have little faces is anybody’s guess.

Does anybody see the face of the elderly man in the trunk of this tree? I suspect he’s annoyed about the phallic symbol.

The little streams that run through the wood are making their way down to the wettest area of the wood. This year, so far, it hasn’t risen too far.

The wet woodland – bulrushes dying back, and the boardwalk well above the surface of the water so far.

I rather liked this completely surreal photo of a crow flying overhead. To some people it might be a blur, but to me it’s abstract art.

The crows are bathing in the stream, and turning over the leaves to find morsels to eat.

Squirrels seem to be chasing one another around and one was investigating the hole in a hollow tree. They don’t normally nest in holes, so I wonder if it was caching food, or looking for something to eat? They are very inquisitive and adaptable animals, so nothing would surprise me.

And when I look at the hornbeams in the wood now I am reminded of David Bevan’s talk about the ancient woodland of North London, in which he speculated that although the oak trees are probably several hundred years old, the hornbeams, cut back year after year for firewood, could easily be much older. When you see a hornbeam ‘stool’ like this one, you get the idea of how long the original tree could have been around, throwing up new stems every year only for them to be regularly cut back.

Hornbeam ‘stool’

And in some places in the wood which have been coppiced, allowing the light to get to the forest floor, young hornbeams are growing up as single-stemmed trees.

And so that was our walk for the day, and we headed back so that I could write the blog. Later we’ll be watching the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College on the television, filmed under social distancing rules and without a congregation. Will I manage to stay dry-eyed as those first notes of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sung by the boy soloist soar through the church? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Another Year

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers , it seems impossible that I was writing about the new cohort of fledgling starlings a whole year ago, but here we are again. A couple of weekends ago we were woken at stupid o’clock by the insistent, wheezy calls of young starlings, fresh out of the nest and eager to be fed. The sky was alive with parent birds flying fast and low, hotly pursued by their ravenous offspring. I have noted before how the parents ‘park’ their freshly emerged youngsters in a tree, or on the ground, and then fly off to gather food for them. Left to their own devices, even briefly, the youngsters get into all kinds of mischief, and every year there’s something new. For example, I had never seen a starling sunning itself before. This one looked as if s/he was enjoying being able to stretch her wings. Maybe it was a very cramped nest.

Another group decided to bathe in the bird bath.

One fell into the pond and had to be rescued – I fished him out with a leaf-rake and he sat under the hedge looking very bedraggled.

I expected the kerfuffle to attract some predators – in the past I’ve seen fledglings killed by jays, cats and a sparrowhawk. But the afternoon went on, and the parents flew back and forth with mouthfuls of tasty caterpillars and suet pellets. It interests me that the babies will beg from any adult, but the adults are most particular about who they feed. They aren’t going to let all that work of incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings go to waste now.

The period when the parents look after their offspring is vanishingly short, however. In the course of a few hours, the parents seem to move from feeding their fledglings every ten minutes to returning about once every half hour. I would almost swear that by the end of the day, the youngsters are left largely to their own devices. They certainly seem to pick up this pecking thing pretty quickly. By the end of the week, there were ‘gangs’ of adolescent starlings, but scarcely an adult to be seen. I’m wondering if the adults are just desperate for a break, and to get on with moulting. Nature is nothing if not pragmatic.

How vulnerable the fledglings look, though. I wonder if they feel at all nervous, out in the big wild world? What they seem to resemble most is some Dickensian ingenue, fresh to the Big City and ready to be fleeced by any passing rascal. Let’s hope they’ve learnt at least the minimal street smarts from their parents.

I was extremely surprised by the suddenness of the ‘switch’ in maternal behaviour when I was fostering cats for Cats Protection. We only had one mother cat who gave birth in the house, and this was Rosa.

Rosa

She was the most diligent mother to her four kittens: they were born on the 4th November and on the 5th November there was a massive firework display outside, complete with house-shaking explosions. I was afraid that Rosa would desert the babies in order to find safety for herself (she was nursing right under the window) but not a bit of it. The kittens were the centre of her life for ten weeks, during which time she fed them, cleaned them, protected them and taught them how to behave.

Rosa with her babies

And then, one morning, one of the kittens tried to suckle and she walloped him with a paw, sending him rolling across the floor. She had been moving away and allowing them to suckle less, plus they were all eating solid food by then, but had allowed them to ‘comfort-feed’. From then on, she was grumpy with the kittens, getting away from them whenever she could. She was extremely affectionate with us, though, and it became clear that she was coming back into heat. It was as if she’d decided that her work on this bunch of kittens was done, and she was getting ready to make some more. The kittens were rehomed soon after this, in pairs so that they wouldn’t be lonely, and once Rosa had been through her heat she was spayed and a new home was found for her too. It was a sharp lesson for me in how unsentimental nature is, and how quickly young animals can be ‘cast out’ to fend for themselves.

Incidentally, it also made me think that most kittens are rehomed much too young – 8 weeks feels too early for me, with ten weeks being the ideal. Mothers still have a lot to teach their kittens before they get fed up with them!

And although this isn’t a cat blog, here are the kittens. We gave them descriptive names so that we ‘wouldn’t get too attached to them’. That went well, as you can imagine.

Mostly White at ten days

Mostly White at five weeks

Stripey at six weeks

Stripey Tail at ten days

Mostly Black at eight weeks

Stripey Tail at 2 weeks

The whole gang…

And, of course, all this makes me think about human mothers and their children. I remember how desperately I wanted to be independent when I was in my teens, how hard I fought to break away from what felt like suffocation to me, though my mother saw it as love and protection.I am sure it’s a battle that is repeated in some form or another in most households, with a greater or lesser degree of heartbreak. And yet, when I did remake my relationship with my Mum when I was in my forties, it was all the stronger because of the previous fracture, because the lines had been largely redrawn. We came back together, tentatively at first, as adults meeting and  appreciating one another as if for the first time. Of course Mum was always my mother, and she always told me to put a coat on when she felt cold, but we had a new and enduring respect for one another. She encouraged me to be a writer, and when I was clearing through her things last week, I discovered a plastic file full of the stories that I’d sent to her, pieces that I don’t even remember writing, and yet here they are.She believed in me long before I believed in myself, and it is probably the greatest gift that she gave me.

When animals insist that their youngsters move on, it’s usually permanent – there frequently aren’t the resources to enable two generations to share the same territory. How lucky we are, as humans, to be able to make those decisions for ourselves, and to have the choice to have a new kind of relationship with our parents once we are no longer dependent upon them. The redrawing of boundaries and the conversations that need to be had can be excruciating, but they do open up new possibilities, if (and only if) both parties are willing to try. This is not to say that some relationships  between parents and children are not too toxic, too damaging, to be redeemed. But we often seem so lonely and exposed, so unprepared for what’s to come. As I have learned, there will be a time when there are no ears to hear the things that we meant to say, and the stories of our parents will go with them into the dust.

As the Buddha said, ‘the problem is, you think you have time’.