Category Archives: Old Bugwoman’s Almanac

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – February Updated

World Wetlands Day (2nd Feb)

Dear Readers, here’s my updated post for February. It can feel like a very bleak month, but actually spring is stirring all over the place. Here are a few suggestions to warm the cockles…

Things to Do

  • The snowdrops should be in full swing by the early part of February, and there are several places in London where you can really enjoy them. They really raise my spirits, and I hope they will do the same for you.
    • Chelsea Physic Garden normally has a snowdrop trail from when they re-open at the end of January, and you can buy many, many varieties in their shop. In my experience, the only way to get the little darlings established is to plant them in the green, after many, many attempts to grow them from bulbs, so this might be a good way to enlarge your stock. The bees much prefer the simpler single-flowered varieties, by the way….
    • Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield usually have a fine show of snowdrops in their Alpine Meadow, if you live in North London, or Eltham Palace is another excellent choice if you live South of the River.
    • If you’d rather not pay out to see these plants in all their glory, I’d head off for your nearest not-too-well-manicured cemetery. My local, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, has a glorious selection of naturalised snowdrops in some of the wilder areas, and Tower Hamlets Cemetery is said to be a great spot too.
  • If it’s too blooming cold to be out and about (and goodness knows this is often the case), February is usually a relatively quiet month at the Natural History Museum (though if you aren’t taking the children I’d avoid half term, when the queues outside can be most alarming). The museum itself is free, but I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which has apparently been re-staged this year (I shall report back when I’ve been). I always find it inspirational.
  • Thursday 2nd February is World Wetland  Day: there aren’t a lot of things going on, surprisingly, but there is this walk at Wicken Fen in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and this walk at my favourite bit of wetland in Walthamstow (looks like it might be fully booked, but maybe worth ringing for cancellations).
  • The Orchid Festival at Kew opens on 4th February – I’m booked for a date in March, and I couldn’t be more excited. This year the festival is featuring orchids from Cameroon, where I spent a month at the Ape Action Africa chimpanzee and gorilla sanctuary, so I’m hoping to meet a few old botanical friends. You can read about my adventures, and about my good friend Robin Huffman, an extraordinary painter of animal portraits, here.

Plants for Pollinators

For February, the RHS is suggesting goat willow (Salix caprea) and I can see why –  a tree at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that I visited a few years ago was absolutely abuzz with feeding queen bumblebees and honeybees. One of my big regrets is that I had a self-sown goat willow next to my pond, but took it out because I have so many trees in my small garden. Maybe I should have left it. (And now I have one that my friend J bought me for my birthday, so I am delighted!)

A few of the earlier solitary bees will also be out and about now, including several of the mining bee species.

Honeybee and goat willow

However, there is hope, as my front garden containers are full of early-flowering crocuses, another favourite. In my experience these bulbs are happiest in full sun – they are always a bit sad in my north-facing back garden, where the woodland bulbs such as fritillaries and wood anemones seem fine. Other plants suggested by the RHS are snowdrops (hooray!), the cherry plum, and Erica x darleyensis (also known as Darley Dale heather), another plant for full sun.

Bird Behaviour

Spring comes to the birds much earlier than it does to us mere humans, and although birds are unlikely to be actually breeding yet, they will certainly be pairing up and trying to stake out a territory. Woodpigeons will be singing their breathy songs, and collared doves will be chasing one another around, tooting like miniature trumpeters. One of my lasting memories of being a child in bed is waking up to the sound of the pigeons cooing on the chimney pot, their songs echoing down the chimney.

Collared doves and a furry visitor in the background

It’s worth watching out for breeding displays, too.  A male chaffinch performs a fluttering, moth-like flight beside a female that he’s hoping to impress, and then perches beside her and leans over to show her his belly. At this point the female can either stay for some more shenanigans, or leave to find someone with a more attractive abdomen.

Blue tits also perform a little display flight, usually from one perch to another – a male might flap his wings a little more quickly than seems strictly necessary, or even glide, quite a feat for such a small bird. These displays are so easily missed, but once seen they’re an obvious show of prowess.

And it’s worth keeping an eye open for the male dunnock’s ‘armpit’ display as well, plus all the general goings on with the females mating with multiple males and the males beating one another up.

And finally, crows might already be flying about with twigs in their mouths. They might not actually get down to egg-laying yet, but that nest isn’t going to build itself. You might also be witness to confrontations between crows and magpies over nest sites and building materials. There is a lot of drama going on in February, and it’s worth tuning into.

Plants in Flower

In addition to the plants mentioned above, keep a nose attuned for the sweet smell of Daphne, one of the most gorgeous of winter-scented flowers in my opinion. Some camellias will be coming into flower, but the rain damages the blossom, so if you see a pristine one it’s something to celebrate. Hyacinths will be bursting forth too, and sweet violets, and primroses. And the first shy white flowers of blackthorn will be putting in an appearance.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • By now, most female foxes are pregnant, and there might be a brief break from the shrieks and carrying-on of January. Vixens will be looking to find a safe place to have their cubs, and will also be very hungry. If you have foxes visiting your garden, keep an eye open for them looking a little thicker around the middle than usual. Males will also be beginning to look for food for the vixen, and later for the cubs, who are mostly born in mid March.
  • Towards the end of February the first frogs will emerge if the weather isn’t too cold – the males arrive first (they’ve usually been hibernating at the bottom of the pond) followed by the females, who tend to overwinter in other places in the garden (probably to avoid being drowned by all the amorous males). You might even hear the first faint sound of frog-music in the evening.
  • This is the best time of year to see the great grey shrike – they are a very rare winter visitor, but if they are going to turn up (and they will sometimes revisit sites year after year) it’s likely to be in February.
  • Alexanders is a very early bloomer, earlier even than cow parsley – it has yellowish flowers, and may already be in bud.
  • Great spotted woodpeckers are already drumming and setting up their territories.
  • Nuthatches will also be more active, running up and down the branches and trunks of trees.
  • You might see the odd peacock or small tortoiseshell butterfly stirring – many of these insects hibernate over winter, and a mild spell might tempt them out. Fingers crossed that they don’t emerge, however, as there’s precious little for them to feed on at this time of year.
  • Mallards are getting ready for the breeding season – the males often display in groups, bobbing and quacking and beating one another up, before descending on any female who isn’t fast enough to get away. With luck, most females will pair up with a male who will protect her from such nonsense.
  • Full moon is on the 5th February, and is known as the snow moon, the ice moon or the storm moon.

Holidays/Celebrations

    • Ist February is Imbolc, the Gaelic/Pagan spring festival. It’s also the Christian festival  St Brigid’s Day (St Brigid is the patron saint of Ireland). It’s said to be the day when ewes were first milked – sheep were more likely to survive the winter in good condition than cows, and also they would produce their lambs in the very early spring. Fresh milk would have been a necessity at this point, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and traditionally one of the hungriest times of the year.
    • 14th February is St Valentine’s Day, traditionally the day when restauranteurs rub their hands, fill their establishments with twice the usual number of tables and double their prices for menus that invariably include a chocolate dessert, some kind of seafood and the smallest piece of steak that you have ever seen. Not that I’m a tired old cynic or anything :-).
    • 15th February is Parinirvana Day for Buddhists. It celebrates the day upon which the Buddha was said to have achieved Nirvana, or enlightenment. It is said to be a day to meditate upon impermanence and death.
    • 20th February is known as Collop Monday, Peasen Monday or Nickanan Night in various parts of the UK – it’s the Monday before Lent. In Cornwall, it was a night for mischief, with local boys knocking on doors and running away (though this was also a common practice all year round in the East End when I was growing up). On one occasion, Dad and his mates tied a piece of string to all the door knockers on the road so that they could all be knocked simultaneously, and very amused Dad was too. This was known as ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for some reason lost in the midst of time. Anyhow, in many parts of the country, pea soup was eaten on ‘peasen Monday’, along with foods such as eggs and bacon which would not be allowed during Lent.
    • 21st February is Shrove Tuesday – get out those frying pans and knock up a few pancakes! My Mum always loved them with lemon juice and sugar (granulated not caster for a bit of crunch).
    • Lent falls on February 22nd this year. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting and self-denial, and I find it interesting that it often coincides with the time of the year when there would be little food available – the autumn stores would be used up, and the spring crops wouldn’t yet be ready. Anything that reminds us that being hungry is not a choice for everybody is likely to be a good thing, I think.

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – June

Fox and Cubs in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, June 2021

Ah June. It’s hard to imagine the abundance of flowers and insects and birds from the viewpoint of a dull, rainy day in late December when there’s barely a blossom to be seen. But before we know it, June will be here. This is the highpoint of the year for many creatures – if birds have been successful in breeding, their youngsters will be leaving the nest. Our gardens should be abuzz with bees, and soon it will be the longest day, before the year tilts back to a time of rest. Let’s see what it may have in store for us.

Things to Do

  • A lovely thing to do if you’re in London is to visit some of the ‘Open Gardens’ – these are normally private gardens that are open to the public on the weekend of 10th-11th June 2023. They include the garden at British Medical Association, which concentrates on different medicinal plants, and the Jamyang Buddhist Centre garden, which includes a café (always a splendid thing). There’s everything here from allotments to formal gardens and you can find a list of the gardens that are currently expected to be open here. Tickets (which give entrance to all the gardens) here.
  • It appears that Superbloom at the Tower of London will be back, and the team at Historic Royal Palaces are also working with schools to create mini superblooms in their own communities. Not many details yet, but watch this space.
  • On June 13th, the London Natural History Society is organising a ‘Pot Luck in the East End’ botany walk from 18.30 to 21.30. John Swindells is leading the walk, and he really knows his stuff! The East End has some extraordinary and unusual ‘weeds’ due to its diverse history, and you never know what you’re going to find. Details here.

Plants for Pollinators

It really does feel as if we’re spoilt for choice in June. The RHS’s featured plant is Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), largely because wool carder bees use the hairs on the leaves to make their nests. Male wool carder bees will patrol the plants, head-butting much bigger bees out of the way but welcoming any females. I think I will definitely grow a clump of the stuff this year.

Lambs-ears (Stachy byzantina)

Wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) on lavender

The RHS also suggest Alliums (in full sun – I have some in my front-garden pots, let’s see how they get on), foxgloves, thyme (and indeed marjoram and oregano), cardoons (so glorious if you have room!) and good old-fashioned brambles.

Bird Behaviour

In my garden, May is actually the peak month for fledglings, but June is also pretty crazy. In the past I’ve spotted young wrens, blue tits, collared doves, woodpigeons and house sparrows during June, and their parents are wearing themselves ragged. By the end of June, though, a lot of youngsters are fending for themselves and are even being booted out of their parents’ territories. You might notice a gradual tailing off of birdsong in the garden, but so much depends on the weather, and as we know, this is extremely unpredictable these days. Let’s hope that the caterpillars, the nestlings and the weather all contribute to a successful month.

Young blue tit in the garden

All those vulnerable young creatures mean that you may well spot more birds of prey, including buzzards riding the early summer thermals, kestrels and sparrowhawks. Jays and magpies will be showing rather too much interest in any naive youngsters too. And great spotted woodpeckers are notorious robbers of nest boxes, hammering in through the side and pulling out the chicks. Nature can be hard to watch sometimes.

Buzzard over St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Plants in Flower

Lots! You might notice that hogweed is starting to take over from cow parsley in the woods and lanes, and lots of meadow flowers, such as meadow vetchling and meadow cranesbill are in flower now. Plus keep your eyes open for fox and cubs (first photo) – it is stunning, and one of my favourite wild plants.

Meadow Vetchling

Meadow Cranesbill

Hogweed

In the garden the high spots are roses of all  kinds, lavender, many of the hardy geraniums, borage, lilies and fuchsia. It really is a lovely month, before everything starts to look a bit tired. My most successful plant of recent years was my angelica, aka the triffid. If I don’t see any seedlings I might plant another one to flower in 2024.

My dear departed angelica.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Tadpoles may be developing legs, and some intrepid individuals may even be leaving the pond.
  • Have a look at any hogweed that you pass – this plant is a magnet for all kinds of beetles, including the thick-legged flower beetle, which looks like it’s been doing rather too many squats, and various kinds of long-horned beetle, plus a whole panoply of hoverflies. June is insect heaven!

Thick-legged flower beetle

Long-horned beetle to the left, thick-legged flower beetle to the right….

  • Young foxes are still being fed close to their den, and the adults will be looking exhausted. The days are long, the nights are short, and so foxes have to take more chances. There’s more opportunity to see them during daylight than at most times of year, especially if you’re up very early in the morning. My local greengrocer said that he would watch the vixens patrolling the streets at 4 a.m. when the food waste recycling caddies had been put out. He said they’d become very adept at opening the caddies to get at the food.
  • The full moon is on 4th June, and is known as the Rose Moon or Dyad Moon

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 1st June is the start of Pride month, and also the start of Gipsy, Roma and Traveller History Month
  • 18th June is Father’s Day
  • 21st June is Summer Solstice, which technically starts at 15.57. It’s the longest day of the year – in Northumberland, the sun rises at 4.30 a.m and doesn’t set until 9.30 pm. Further north, there’s barely any night at all.
  • 24th June is Midsummer/the Feast of St John the Baptist. It’s traditionally the day for cutting and drying herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and for hanging them up to dry.

 

 

 

 

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – May

Fledgling starling

Dear Readers, there is so much going on in May that it’s positively dizzying – all that preparation during March and April should, in a good year, have led to the emergence of fledglings all over the country during May, when insect numbers should be at their height. In my garden there’s the familiar wheezing of starling fledglings, and the first shrieks of swifts overhead. The pond will hopefully be full of tadpoles, and the hedgerows will be bursting with cow parsley. It’s a great month for the naturalist and the flaneur, and it seems to me to be the most hopeful month of the year.

Cow parsley in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Things to Do

  • This is a great month for exploring parks and local green spaces – there’s something going on wherever you look. And if you have the time to survey an area for bumblebees for about an hour every month (and May is a great month to start) you could contribute to the research for Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Beewalk project. I am seriously thinking about doing this this year.  Ideally this should start in March, so I might include it in the March Almanac post that will appear at the end of February.
  • For those of us who don’t have a garden, Chelsea Physic Garden is hosting a talk on ‘The Indoor Garden’ with Jade Murray. Lots of people began to realise how wonderful house plants were during lockdown, but this sounds like a great course on how to really understand how to look after these organisms with their complex and varied requirements.
  • The London Natural History Society has a botanical expedition to Kensal Green Cemetery on Saturday 27th May – I imagine that this will be a great opportunity to examine the plants in this unique location.
  • The free virtual talk offered by the LNHS in May is on the restoration of Hainault Forest – I used to live quite close to this area, so I shall probably watch this one. All talks are recorded if you can’t make the actual date(19.00 on Thursday 11th May), and are available on the LNHS’s Youtube channel.

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS is suggesting nettle-leaved bellflower for this month, which surprised me a little until I realised that this species has two bees of its own – the bellflower blunthorn bee (Melitta haemorrhoidalis) and the small scissor bee (Chelostoma campanularum). Goodness! Both these species will apparently shelter inside the flowers of this plant, and the small scissor bee actually mates in there as well. Who knew?

The plant looks extremely pretty, and it’s a native, so it will be no hardship to grow it if I can find some somewhere. The name ‘trachelium’ comes from a belief that the plant could be used to cure a sore throat.

Nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium)

The bee itself is one of those inconspicuous little solitary bees that goes about pollinating our flowers without being noticed. Apparently it will also visit other kinds of bellflowers, but the nettle-leaved species is the one that it loves the best.

Small scissor bee (Photo by Lukas Large at https://www.flickr.com/photos/99278910@N00/50065628713)

Other valuable plants in flower now include bird’s foot trefoil, Californian Lilac (Ceanothus), Comfrey, Rosemary, Hawthorn and, for hoverflies, the ubiquitous cow parsley.

Bird Behaviour

  • Well, it’s all going on in May! As already noted, the swifts should have arrived by mid-May, the starling fledglings are out by the end of the month and all sorts of other young birds will be putting in an appearance, including blackbirds, robins and many young finches and tits.
  • Swallows and house martins (and swifts) will be returning to the nests that they occupied last year, so long as some anti-social householder hasn’t taken them down because they are ‘too messy’ (don’t get me started). If you’re very lucky, you might see house martins gathering beakfuls of mud to patch up their existing homes, or to start new ones if it’s their first time breeding.
  • Long-tailed tits will have finished making those beautiful nests that we talked about in a previous post, but they do have a habit of making them in places that are too conspicuous – I found one nest low down in a shrub in a well-used Islington Square, full of dogs and squirrels and ever-watchful magpies. Interestingly, if a nest fails, the couple may assist another couple in provisioning their youngsters – often all the birds in an area are related, so it makes sense to help out Mum and Dad, or your siblings. The ‘helper’ birds will then join the flock in the winter, which is a great advantage when it comes to finding food. Long-tailed tits are the only British birds that cooperate in this way, and it makes me love them even more than I already did, if such a thing is possible.
    • Fledgling long-tailed tits in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
    • Plants in Flower
    • It might be easier to list what isn’t in flower in May, but just to add to the list above, the lilac should be in flower, tulips should be busting forth along with the purple Sputnik flowers of alliums, the first foxgloves will be full of bumblebees, sweet woodruff and bluebells are amongst the last of the spring ephemerals to flower, elderflowers are just asking to be made into cordial, marigolds are adding a welcome touch of orange, and the air is heavy with the feral smell of hawthorn (or May blossom if you prefer). In the cemetery the new arrivals for May include red campion and germander speedwell, red clover and wood avens, and the mysterious salsify flowers that pop up every year, having come from goodness only knows where.
    • Horse chestnut trees should be in flower, always an impressive sight with their ‘candles’ of blossom.

Germander speedwell

 

Salsify

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

    • This is prime cuckoo time. I grew up hearing these birds in Wanstead Park every single year, but these days I’m most likely to hear them in Austria.
    • The fox cubs are a lot noisier and more boisterous in May, though they are still unlikely to move far from the earth unless they’re disturbed and their mother moves them.
    • In the pond, the large red damselflies will be emerging, followed by the azure damselflies a few weeks later. If we’re lucky, we might get a visit from a ‘proper’ dragonfly, such as a broad-bodied chaser.

Large red damselflies mating

  • If the last few years are anything to go by, the buddleia will be smothered in greenfly, and the ladybird larvae and even some of the birds (goldfinches, sparrows and blue tits in particular) will be feasting on them. The honeydew will be raining down so much that it glues the lid of the wheelie bin shut. Sigh.
  • The full moon will be on the 5th May, and is known as the Mother’s Moon or the Bright Moon.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • 1st May is Beltane, and International Workers Day, so there are plenty of excuses for having fun
  • 7th May is International Dawn Chorus day, keep your eyes open for crack-of-dawn walks in your local woodland (or sit in the garden with a cup of tea as it’s getting light and drink it all in)
  • 14th May is Rogation Sunday, and also the day for ‘Beating the Bounds’ – we did this around Coldfall Wood last year, and great fun it was too!
  • In the UK the first and last Mondays in May are Bank Holidays, but this year the 8th May is also a Bank Holiday in honour of King Charles III’s coronation. Bank Holidays are like buses just lately, you wait for five months for one and then three come along at once (not that I’m complaining).

 

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – April

Two April nuthatches in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, April is when everything really kicks off in the natural world – birds are singing and nestbuilding and raising their youngsters, the woods are full of spring ephemerals, the nights are shorter and even us oldies have a surprising bounce in our step. So let’s see what the month should have in store for us here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Things to Do

  • An exhibition by Slovak artist Maria Bartuszová runs at Tate Modern until 16th April – she is inspired by the natural world and produces delicate plaster sculptures inspired by everything from seeds to raindrops. Well worth a look.
  • Camley Street Natural Park is running two family weekends in April, on Sunday 9th and Sunday 23rd April from 1.00 p.m to 4 p.m. Both are free, and you don’t need to book. Pond-dipping seems to be involved! Camley Street punches well above its weight in terms of biodiversity and interest, and there’s a splendid café, which also helps
  • A walk in any of the Royal Parks should be rewarding in April, as the trees come into blossom and the bulbs put on a show.
  • Kew is spectacular at any time, but spring is really something. Plus, they are running a one-day course called ‘Right Plant, Right Place’ on 4th April which sounds very interesting.
  • Bluebells! There are several places around London to spot them, including the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, Wanstead Park in East London, Eltham Palace Gardens and good old Highgate Wood, which is just around the corner from me. I just hope that the bulbs survived the Covid trampling.
  • The London Natural History free virtual talk this month is on ‘The Marine World’ by expert Dr Francis Dipper, and you can book here.

Plants for Pollinators

Apple blossom is the RHS’s suggested key plant for pollinators this month, and the bee to watch out for is the red mason bee, a small bee that nests in crumbling masonry and holes in bricks, along with bee hotels. This species is very important for the pollination of orchard fruit.

Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis/rufa)

Other suggested plants for April include Phacelia, Aquilegia (Granny’s Bonnet), Bugle, Wood spurge, Berberis and Cherry.

Bird Behaviour

  • The dawn chorus (and indeed, singing throughout the day) is in full swing now – it’s been estimated that for many species, such as blackbirds, a break in this territorial singing of more than a day will result in another as yet unpaired blackbird taking over the territory. I was a bit rude about the male wren yesterday, but of course losing the territory holder can be disastrous for females already with eggs or chicks, as in some species the youngsters will be killed by any incoming males, and in others the female relies on the male to provision her during incubation and chick rearing.
  • Many hole-nesting birds, such as stock doves, the nuthatches in the photo at the top of the post and ring-necked parakeets will be competing for hollow trees, often with a lot of shrieking and general carry-on.
  • Great Spotted Woodpeckers will be drumming – this isn’t about excavating a nest, it’s all about announcing territory.
  • Listen out for the chiffchaff. These inconspicuous little warblers are amongst the first migrants to arrive, probably because it’s only travelling from the Mediterranean rather than Africa, and soon the countryside will be ringing with their repetitive songs.
  • The first swallows should arrive early in April, with the House Martins appearing towards the end of the month.
  • Blackcaps, whitethroats, yellow wagtails and cuckoos can all be seen towards the end of the month if the weather is favourable. Of course, some blackcaps are now choosing to stay put (there are a pair in my garden as I write this), so they won’t all have travelled a long way, but their song is always such a joy.

Just in case you’re missing April birdsong, here are a few to listen out for later in the year.

First up, the chiffchaff (Recording by Michel Veldt in the Netherlands)

Next up, the blackcap. What a lovely song this is! The recording is by Ulf Elman in Sweden.

And finally, here’s a common whitethroat, again recorded by Michel Veldt.

I wish I had a better ear for birdsong – I find the warblers generally very tricky to tell apart, except for the simple song of the chiffchaff. Do let me know how you do it, if you are able to differentiate between the different species in the field! For me, it’s a kind of superpower.

Plants in Flower

All the spring ephemerals should be out by now – crocuses, lesser celandine, wood anemone, bluebells (which will continue until May in a good year) and primroses and oxlips. Cow parsley, garlic mustard, blackthorn, wayfaring tree, three-cornered garlic and ramsons, alexanders and hawthorn, stinking iris and grape hyacinth, forget-me-not and marsh marigold should all be in flower, if previous years are any guide.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Tadpoles should be numerous by now, and if you are lucky enough to have newts in your pond you may see them courting, the males whipping their tails backwards and forwards
  • Brimstone and orange-tip butterflies are around, plus speckled woods and peacock butterflies emerging from hibernation
  • Fox cubs are just emerging from their den, so if you are extremely lucky and know where an earth is, you might catch sight of them sunning themselves or playing.
  • Full moon is on 6th April, and is known as the Seed Moon, the Budding Moon or the New Shoots Moon. It’s also known as the Paschal Moon, and in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the Paschal Moon. So, in 2023, Easter Sunday will be Sunday 9th April.

Holidays and Celebrations

  • Passover begins at sundown on April 5th
  • 9th April is Christian Easter Sunday
  • 14th April is St Tiburtius’s Day, and is officially when cuckoos start singing, so keep your ears open!
  • 16th April – Orthodox Easter Sunday
  • 21st April – Eid al-Fitr (Islamic celebration of the end of Ramadan) starts on the first sighting of the crescent moon.
  • 23rd April – the start of the English asparagus season. Hooray!

 

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – March

Loddon Lily aka Summer Snowflake(Leucojum aestivum)

Dear Readers, March is an inbetween month – it can be mild, it can be windy, it can pour with rain, it can even snow. But underneath the earth, all kinds of things are stirring, including these lovely Loddon lilies, which look superficially like giant snowdrops. I spotted these in our local cemetery in mid March a few years ago, so clearly the designation ‘summer’ doesn’t apply in the milder parts of the country.

March is also when you might first notice that the nights really are getting shorter – the first time that I used to leave work at 5 p.m. to find that it was still daylight was normally in early March, even before the clocks go forward by an hour on 26th March.

But what else should be going on? Let’s see.

Things to Do

  • The Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens this year features the orchids of Cameroon, and it actually starts on 4th February, so make a note if this is something that you fancy – the last date is 5th March.
  • On Sunday 12th March, the Centre for Wildlife Gardening in Peckham (part of the London Wildlife Trust) is holding a Toad Day, which looks as if it’s lots of fun for all the family.
  • On Thursday 9th March, the London Natural History Society is holding a free virtual talk on ‘Bees and Garden Plants’ by Rosi Rollings – these talks have been of a consistently high quality, and certainly kept me from getting bored during lockdown. Rosi Rollings runs the nursery from which I get all my bee-friendly plants, Rosybee, and has been studying bees for six years. Well worth a look, and a good date for the diary.

Plants for Pollinators

The RHS’s featured plant for March is lungwort, or Pulmonaria, and very popular with the bees it is too – you might spot an Early bumblebee (Bombus praetorum) which is one of the first bumblebees to set up its nest and start to produce workers. Early bumblebees have two yellow stripes, one on the thorax and one on the top of the abdomen, and a rusty tail. However, in my garden the first bees to really appear in any numbers are the hairy-footed flower bees – the females are jet black, the males gingery with a yellow face, and both are very, very speedy. I would really recommend flowering currant for these guys, they don’t seem to be able to get enough of it. The other plants mentioned include hellebores (though not the fancy double-flowered ones) and good old-fashioned dandelion, which I always tolerate because it’s such a good source of nectar.

Male hairy-footed flower bee on flowering currant

Bird Behaviour

  • March is the kick-off month for many birds to start breeding in earnest. In most populations, the older, more experienced birds will already be paired and will have sorted out a territory, but the timing of producing youngsters is a tricky one – there will need to be food available, otherwise the whole thing will have been in vain. The advantage of early breeding is that if it fails, there will be time for a second brood.
  • Birds that may be laying eggs and starting to incubate in March include tawny owls (as many small rodents are becoming more active now), mistle thrushes (the theory is that by starting early they avoid predation by crows, sparrowhawks etc who might be busy elsewhere and have not yet gotten into nest and fledgling robbing) and rooks. Rooks feed their young mostly on earthworms, and by later in the year the earth will (in a ‘normal’ year) be too hard for them to find them, so rookeries will be abuzz with excitement.

A Somerset rookery in spring, close to my late Aunt Hilary’s house

  • Long-tailed tits, who have been seen in little gangs all through the winter, pair up in March and build their beautiful nests, constructed of moss and spiders’ webs, lichen and feathers. In his book ‘The Secret Life of Garden Birds’, Dominic Couzens points out that those feathers are often taken from chicken coops or even from the carcasses of roadkill, so it’s worth keeping an eye open for long-tailed tits doing peculiar things.
  • Wrens will be singing their heads off – the males build a number of ‘starter homes’ in their territories, and hope that they can entice females to come along, mate with them, finish off the nests and then do all of the chick-rearing. I guess that after all that loud singing, the males haven’t got much energy left for domestic duties.

Long-tailed tit building its nest (Photo by Alan Shearman)

Plants in Flower

In my garden, the first of the fritillaries and grape hyacinths, some shy daffodils, wallflowers, and possibly some scillas. Elsewhere, magnolias spread their magnificence for a few days, the green flowers of stinking hellebore are out, and there might even be some cherry blossom.

Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • Frogs should be mating by now, and you might hear them singing in earnest in the evening (though you have to sneak up on them because the frogs in my garden are very shy). With any luck, there will be the first frogspawn and even the first tadpoles if it’s mild enough. The first pondskaters will be floating on the surface, hoping to spear a stray tadpole before it gets too big. Plants will be growing and insect life will be resurrecting itself. Yay!
  • Fox cubs are usually born in mid-March – as they are born blind and helpless, the vixen won’t leave them, and will be provisioned by the dog fox and any ‘helpers’ that the couple might have (sometimes a son or daughter who hasn’t found a territory of their own).
  • Full moon is on 7th March, and is known as the Chaste Moon, Plough Moon or Lenten Moon.

Holidays and Celebrations

6th March – the Hindu festival of Holi starts at sundown

8th March – International Women’s Day

19th March – Mothering Sunday

20th March – Vernal Equinox – at 21.24, days and nights are exactly the same length, wherever you are in the world, in a rare moment of balance. Moments after this, days in Norway will start to lengthen towards the ‘white nights’ of high summer, while the days in New Zealand will shrink towards autumn and winter. The pagan festival of Ostara, also on 20th March, marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. You can almost feel nature breathing a sigh of relief, as those who have survived realise that they’ve come through winter, and are still here.

 

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – February

Dear Readers, February can feel like a very bleak month, but actually spring is stirring all over the place. Here are a few suggestions to warm the cockles…

Things to Do

  • The snowdrops should be in full swing by the early part of February, and there are several places in London where you can really enjoy them. They really raise my spirits, and I hope they will do the same for you.
    • Chelsea Physic Garden normally has a snowdrop trail from when they re-open at the end of January, and you can buy many, many varieties in their shop. In my experience, the only way to get the little darlings established is to plant them in the green, after many, many attempts to grow them from bulbs, so this might be a good way to enlarge your stock. The bees much prefer the simpler single-flowered varieties, by the way….
    • Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield usually have a fine show of snowdrops in their Alpine Meadow, if you live in North London, or Eltham Palace is another excellent choice if you live South of the River.
    • If you’d rather not pay out to see these plants in all their glory, I’d head off for your nearest not-too-well-manicured cemetery. My local, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, has a glorious selection of naturalised snowdrops in some of the wilder areas, and Tower Hamlets Cemetery is said to be a great spot too.
  • If it’s too blooming cold to be out and about (and goodness knows this is often the case), February is usually a relatively quiet month at the Natural History Museum (though if you aren’t taking the children I’d avoid half term, when the queues outside can be most alarming). The museum itself is free, but I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which has apparently been re-staged this year (I shall report back when I’ve been). I always find it inspirational.

Plants for Pollinators

For February, the RHS is suggesting goat willow (Salix caprea) and I can see why –  a tree at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that I visited a few years ago was absolutely abuzz with feeding queen bumblebees and honeybees. One of my big regrets is that I had a self-sown goat willow next to my pond, but took it out because I have so many trees in my small garden. Maybe I should have left it.

A few of the earlier solitary bees will also be out and about now, including several of the mining bee species.

Honeybee and goat willow

However, there is hope, as my front garden containers are full of early-flowering crocuses, another favourite. In my experience these bulbs are happiest in full sun – they are always a bit sad in my north-facing back garden, where the woodland bulbs such as fritillaries and wood anemones seem fine. Other plants suggested by the RHS are snowdrops (hooray!), the cherry plum, and Erica x darleyensis (also known as Darley Dale heather), another plant for full sun.

Bird Behaviour

Spring comes to the birds much earlier than it does to us mere humans, and although birds are unlikely to be actually breeding yet, they will certainly be pairing up and trying to stake out a territory. Woodpigeons will be singing their breathy songs, and collared doves will be chasing one another around, tooting like miniature trumpeters. One of my lasting memories of being a child in bed is waking up to the sound of the pigeons cooing on the chimney pot, their songs echoing down the chimney.

Collared doves and a furry visitor in the background

It’s worth watching out for breeding displays, too.  A male chaffinch performs a fluttering, moth-like flight beside a female that he’s hoping to impress, and then perches beside her and leans over to show her his belly. At this point the female can either stay for some more shenanigans, or leave to find someone with a more attractive abdomen.

Blue tits also perform a little display flight, usually from one perch to another – a male might flap his wings a little more quickly than seems strictly necessary, or even glide, quite a feat for such a small bird. These displays are so easily missed, but once seen they’re an obvious show of prowess.

And it’s worth keeping an eye open for the male dunnock’s ‘armpit’ display as well, plus all the general goings on with the females mating with multiple males and the males beating one another up.

And finally, crows might already be flying about with twigs in their mouths. They might not actually get down to egg-laying yet, but that nest isn’t going to build itself. You might also be witness to confrontations between crows and magpies over nest sites and building materials. There is a lot of drama going on in February, and it’s worth tuning into.

Plants in Flower

In addition to the plants mentioned above, keep a nose attuned for the sweet smell of Daphne, one of the most gorgeous of winter-scented flowers in my opinion. Some camellias will be coming into flower, but the rain damages the blossom, so if you see a pristine one it’s something to celebrate. Hyacinths will be bursting forth too, and sweet violets, and primroses. And the first shy white flowers of blackthorn will be putting in an appearance.

Other Things to Watch/Listen Out For

  • By now, most female foxes are pregnant, and there might be a brief break from the shrieks and carrying-on of January. Vixens will be looking to find a safe place to have their cubs, and will also be very hungry. If you have foxes visiting your garden, keep an eye open for them looking a little thicker around the middle than usual. Males will also be beginning to look for food for the vixen, and later for the cubs, who are mostly born in mid March.
  • Towards the end of February the first frogs will emerge if the weather isn’t too cold – the males arrive first (they’ve usually been hibernating at the bottom of the pond) followed by the females, who tend to overwinter in other places in the garden (probably to avoid being drowned by all the amorous males). You might even hear the first faint sound of frog-music in the evening.#
  • Full moon is on the 5th February, and is known as the snow moon, the ice moon or the storm moon.

Holidays/Celebrations

    • 20th February is known as Collop Monday, Peasen Monday or Nickanan Night in various parts of the UK – it’s the Monday before Lent. In Cornwall, it was a night for mischief, with local boys knocking on doors and running away (though this was also a common practice all year round in the East End when I was growing up). On one occasion, Dad and his mates tied a piece of string to all the door knockers on the road so that they could all be knocked simultaneously, and very amused Dad was too. This was known as ‘Knock Down Ginger’ for some reason lost in the midst of time. Anyhow, in many parts of the country, pea soup was eaten on ‘peasen Monday’, along with foods such as eggs and bacon which would not be allowed during Lent.
    • Lent falls on February 22nd this year. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting and self-denial, and I find it interesting that it often coincides with the time of the year when there would be little food available – the autumn stores would be used up, and the spring crops wouldn’t yet be ready. Anything that reminds us that being hungry is not a choice for everybody is likely to be a good thing, I think.

Old Bugwoman’s Almanac – January

Dear Readers, when I was growing up (not in 1875 I hasten to add) we usually got a copy of ‘Old Moore’s Almanac’ every year. Inside it was everything from the tide tables (very useful for us in Stratford, East London), the phases of the moon, predictions for the next year and all manner of other miscellanea and trivia. My grandmother, in particular, was insistent that we buy a copy – she was capable of charming warts and performing faith healing, but was also extremely superstitious (no new shoes on the table (not that we had a table), green was an unlucky colour, no lilacs in the house because they would cause the annihilation of every living creature within the walls etc etc). Old Moore’s Almanac gave us the delusion that, because it predicted the future, it somehow gave us some sort of control. Hah! If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the only control we have over many events is how we react to them.

But I digress, as usual.

This year, I thought that I’d look at various things related to the natural world throughout the months: things that we can get involved in, plants to look out for, animal behaviours that we might witness, and, in general, things that will link us to the cycle of the seasons. Let’s see how we get on.

January

Things to Do

  • From 31st December to January 3rd, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland asks if we would spend a few hours (maximum) recording plants that are in flower – this has been invaluable in tracking the earlier flowering times of many plants due to climate change. You can download the app from here . I will probably do it this year for the first time, so let’s share any experiences! Apparently you can see the results on the website as they come in, so it could be quite exciting. You can also join an organised Plant Hunt if there is one in your area (again, details on the website).
  • The Great Garden Bird Watch will be from 27th to 29th January this year. What a great opportunity to watch all the rare and unusual birds disappear from your garden for the hour that you’re recording, only to return as soon as you’ve sent in your data (at least that’s usually my experience :-)). This data is useful for measuring the rise and fall of species, and as we know from my Red List posts, a lot of what we think of as common birds are actually in trouble. You can find out all about it here.

Plants for Pollinators

  • My RHS magazine this week has a very helpful list of possible plants for bees for each month of the year. For January, it’s suggesting winter-flowering heather, winter aconite, Clematis cirrhosa (otherwise known as ‘Freckles’ and various other varieties), Viburnum tinus and good old fashioned hazel, as its pollen is collected by bees. At this time of year, bees will be limited to the odd honeybee and an occasional queen bumblebee, but it’s still good to have something for them to eat if they do pop out. Let me know if you’ve spotted any bee activity in this most unlikely of months

Bird Behaviour

  • As January progresses, you can sense a speeding-up of bird activity – at the moment the only bird regularly singing is the robin, but as the days grow longer, the thoughts of most birds will turn to reproduction, especially on milder days when the higher temperatures reinforce the message that spring is on the way. In particular, birds such as great tits, dunnocks, wrens and song thrushes will be singing before the month is over.
  • The residents in the garden may well be joined by lots of visitors from Scandinavia, and the usual highly territorial squabbles may be put to one side if there’s a spell of bad weather, though not as the end of the month approaches, as blackbirds are some of the earliest birds to breed.
  • It appears to be a very good year for waxwings, which have been spotted all over the east coast of the UK as they irrupt from Scandinavia, so keep your eyes peeled, they certainly seem to be heading south and west (though I note that when some waxwings turned up in East Finchley it was in April, so you might need to keep them peeled for a while :-)). They are particularly fond of berries from plants like pyracantha, so they are sometimes known as the ‘supermarket car park’ bird.

Waxwing on the County Roads in East Finchley in 2017

Plants in Flower

  • Well, as recent studies have shown, a lot more plants are in flower in January than there were a few decades ago, but the old reliables, such as snowdrops and winter aconites should be putting in an appearance by the end of the month. There are already catkins on my hazel bushes, plus the earliest crocuses, witch hazel, sweet box, mahonia and winter clematis. There may, by some miracle, still be berries on pyracantha and cotoneaster, if the birds haven’t stripped them (see above)

Other Things to Listen/Watch Out For

  • Foxes – it’s peak breeding season, and you might hear the screams of vixens and, my personal favourite, those little barks that foxes make to keep in touch with one another. There’s a fine selection of different calls here.
  • This is the best time of the year for star-gazers to see Mars, which should be high in the southern sky (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) early this month. You might even be able to see that it’s red.
  • Full moon will be on the 6th January, and is called the Wolf Moon or the Stay at Home Moon.

Holidays/Celebrations

  • January 9th – Plough Monday. Traditionally, this was when the farmer workers went back to the fields following the Christmas celebrations. In The Almanac, compiled by Lia Leendertz, it’s explained that during the 15th century a plough would be pulled through the streets to raise funds for the parish – this would pay for ‘parish lights’, candles that were kept burning in church to bless those working in the fields, upon whom so much of the subsequent year’s abundance would depend.
  • January 22nd – Chinese New Year. This is the year of the Black Water Rabbit, and it is apparently going to be a peaceful and relaxing year for all of us, but particularly if we are Goats, Pigs or Dogs. I am a Pig (no comments please) and so the world is clearly my oyster in 2023. If you’re unsure what sign you are, and would like to check, there’s a handy calculator here (scroll down a bit :-))