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Book Review – ‘Outlandish’ by Nick Hunt

Dear Readers, a while back I was waxing lyrical about Nick Hunt’s book ‘Where the Wild Winds Are‘ and so I couldn’t wait to read his latest book, ‘Outlandish’. In it, Hunt goes to four landscapes which are in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them – tundra in Scotland, desert in Spain, the steppe in Hungary and ancient forest in Poland and Belarus. He is a keen and curious observer, who takes delight in the quirky and who finds himself in a variety of ‘interesting’ situations during his travels.

In the section about the tundra, he meets some reindeer, descended from animals first brought to Scotland in the 1950s. He describes them in a passage which captures the otherworldliness of suddenly meeting an animal in its environment, where it is perfectly at home and you are the anomaly.

They approach on soft, splayed feet and cross the little bridge, expressing no more than mild interest in our presence….We stand quietly and watch as they bend their mouths to the montane grass, chewing rhythmically. Snowy ruffs sway at their necks. The silver-greyness of their hair is the colour of cooling metal. We count their antlers, furred like moss: two have two: one one: one none. Their sodden pelts are as matted as the land they eat’.

But underlying the sweetness of occasions like this is a sense of how the world is changing. The travelogue is book-ended by tales of The Sphinx, an ice patch in the Cairngorms that normally stays all year. When it first disappeared during the summer in 1933,

…’the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did, in 1953, 1959, 1996,2003,2006, 2017 and 2019……. Snow patches such as these are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloody-minded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as the planet warms. When their last smudges have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete. The British Isles will be entirely free of snow in summer’.

Will the Sphinx still be there when Hunt returns from his adventures, or will it have melted away completely? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The theme of environmental change and the destruction of these fragile remnant habitats underlies the whole book. In Poland he stays with a group of ‘dirty-handed pseudo-ecologists’, there to defend the Bialowieza forest from government logging. In the desert of Tabernas in Spain, he walks in an unprecedented heatwave, headlined in the local paper as ‘Hell is Coming’. And in the Hungarian steppe country of Hortobágy, he meets a German man and, at the end of a long evening, the man shares what I fear a lot of us are feeling.

I do not have hope any more’, he says, this previously smiling man drinking palinka in a horse-drawn trap His voice is getting quieter, guttering with the candle. ‘These places……these places on earth….there are getting less of them. And no one seems to care. The birds are all leaving, and no one cares. What can we do?’

But I wouldn’t want you to think that this is a relentlessly depressing book. Hunt has a way of capturing a moment that I really enjoyed. Here he is, arriving at the guest house where he is staying in Belarus:

The village seems deserted apart from the place where I am staying, a ramshackle smallholding in which every resident creature stands out with the totemic clarity of a dream: the black puppy, the honey-coloured dog, the ginger cat, the ginger and white cat, the white geese with their orange beaks, the creamy brown clucking hens, the pair of white storks in their absurd, cartoonish nest. And Natalya, with her pale blue eyes, chapped red face and straw-coloured hair, in a green headscarf and red shoes, carrying eggs in a basket.’

And here he is, in the desert at Tabernas, trying to cope with the rising heat.

The heat of the afternoon flattens me, even in the shade. I cannot move or think, can only sit and breathe. The air is heavy, as warm as blood, windless, stultifying. I top up my internal reserves of sweat with sips of water. 

The itchy rhythm of the cicadas switches on and off, an electric circuit being interrupted and reconnected. Impossible to locate, seeming to have no origin point but to be present everywhere, even in the rocks and the air, the manic drill – produced by tymbals, rib-like structures in the abdomen – stops abruptly whenever any creature gets within close range, like a reverse intruder alarm. Never laying eyes on one, I find myself thinking of their noise as a manifestation of the heat itself, as if the temperature has been converted into waveform’. 

And in Hungary, he attends a gathering of the steppe-dwelling peoples from Central Asia and Siberia to China. Hunt describes it as ‘somewhere between a hippy folk festival, a medieval re-enactment fair and, as I will discover, a far-right nationalist rally.’

Later that night, during another performance of thundering guitars, I watch — with a hollow, dawning sickness- the unassuming man beside me raise his right arm at an angle of forty-five degrees, palm down, and hold it there. No one pays him any mind. His wife and teenage daughter giggle, a little embarrassed but not ashamed, and then a younger man joins in, smiling happily. The two of them keep it up for song after song until their arms grow tired; afterwards they embrace, as if a special moment has been shared between strangers‘.

Hunt has many gifts, but one is the way that he is able to pull all these disparate threads together. The book is both a celebration of Europe’s ‘outlandish’ places, a warning about the ways that they are changing, and a eulogy for what is already passing. I found it a fascinating and moving read. Highly recommended.



So That’s What It Was….

Dear Readers, a couple of weeks ago I asked what on earth had popped up in a pot in my garden, because I’d completely forgotten what it was. Some kind soul suggested an allium, and I can see why, because this plant is an allium, but a rather unusual one. Known to its friends as Sicilian Honey Garlic (Allium siculum) it was recommended in my Gardening for Wildlife book as one of the very best for bumblebees, and whoever wrote it wasn’t kidding. After a slow and disappointing start I’m now entertained all through my lunch by the way the bumbles negotiate these rather tricky flowers, which necessitate them hanging upside down. It must be worth the effort, though, as you can see from the photo above. The bees can’t get enough of it.

Furthermore this is not the only insect action in my garden today, because I am tripping over the damselflies. The red ones have been about for a while….

Large red damselfly Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

And the females have been laying their eggs in the pond, whilst grasped around the neck by the males.

But today the azure damselflies have been getting in on the act too. This is all a bit inconvenient as I was going to clear out some of the hornwort, which has gone absolutely nuts as you can see. Now I think I’ll wait for the eggs to hatch and for the little damselflies to migrate to the bottom of the pond.

Azure damselflies Coenagrion puella

Meanwhile, we seem to have another rush of baby starlings after a disappointing May. I wonder how far the parent birds can control when they lay their eggs and raise their young? Do they take one look at the weather and decide to put it off for a bit, do you think? Anyhow, the garden is full of the sound of wheezing once again, and, between that and the bees, I couldn’t be happier.

Young starling

A Quick Walk Around the County Roads

Dear Readers, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve taken a leisurely walk around the County Roads in East Finchley, and I’m not sure why – it would have been a logical thing to do during lockdown, but somehow it seemed as if walking in the local woods or hanging out in the garden was safer, and once a habit has been put in place it’s very hard for me to break it! But on Monday I was happy to have a little walk around and see what was happening, and I was instantly rewarded by this gorgeous, well-loved front garden – it just goes to show how a few well-loved pots can cheer people up.

But the wild plants are very cheering too. I am trying to learn the difference between the two different kinds of bellflower that pop up around these parts. I am fairly sure that this one is Trailing Bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana) – my Harrap’s Wildflower Guide describes the petals as ‘widely spread into a star shape’ so I am feeling fairly confident. It is popular with the bees and seems to grow everywhere, but it came originally from the Dinaric Alps in Serbia.

Trailing Bellflower (Campanula porscharskyana)

And then there’s Adria Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana) – the flowers are described as ‘funnel-shaped’ (much longer than wide). This plant comes from the Dalmatian mountains of Croatia originally. I think the one below fits the bill, though the photo isn’t great for ID purposes. In botanical circles the plants are known as ‘posh and port’ which is a lot easier than getting your tongue around the Latin names. To add to the confusion there is also a Peach-leaved Bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) but I haven’t stumbled across that yet. All three are garden escapes which have happily set up home in the crevices and pavements of North London, and I for one am delighted to see them.

Adria Bellflower (Campanula portenschlagiana)

So, what else is going on? Well, in one front garden I see some scarlet pimpernel, the first time I’ve seen any in East Finchley although I was positively tripping over them when I used to go to Dorset. I wonder if a packet of wildflower seeds was involved, or if it got here under its own steam?

Scarlet pimpernel (Lysimachia arvensis)

There was a truly fabulous large-flowered clematis – I normally think of them as not as good for wildlife as the more discreet, small-flowered types, but there was a honeybee collecting the pollen on this one. And it’s difficult not to smile at those flowers.

Bees were hard at work on some hardy geraniums as well – these were a lovely veined pink. I am still campaigning for more species geraniums in gardens, as you can see – they flower for ages and you can cover most of the spring and summer-flowering periods if you pick the right ones.

I was happy to see that lots of people are growing red valerian(Centrathus ruber) too, though I’d like to put a word in for our native white valerian(Valeriana officinalis), which I shall be having a go at once I can find a spare square inch that isn’t already covered in plants. I have seen hummingbird hawkmoths feeding from red valerian, so if that isn’t a reason for growing it, I don’t know what is.

Red valerian (Centrathus ruber)

And how about this rock rose (Cistus) (I think)? Never was a plant so happy in full sun.

And here’s something else I want to grow – some Columbine, another plant that is popular with bees in spite of its complicated flowers. I really like the smaller-flowered dark blue and pink ones, though I have seen some truly spectacular varieties. Who knew that it was a member of the buttercup family? Not me for sure.

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)

And finally, I lingered in the church yard of All Saint’s Church in Durham Road to watch the sparrows. At this time of year they eat not only the young chard leaves of my dear friend A, but also nectar (I watched them pecking at the flowers on an indigo bush) and, most especially, insects. I am fairly sure that this female sparrow was pecking the aphids off of the roses. If only she would come round and do the same on my buddleia I would welcome her with the proverbial open arms.

Which just goes to show how much there is to see in a walk around my local streets. I heartily recommend it if you’re feeling a bit uninspired or fed up.

The Queen of the Wood

Queen hornet (Vespa crabro)

Dear Readers, is there any flying creature in the UK that is more feared than the hornet? Wasps may induce a bout of counterproductive flapping at a picnic, a bee in close proximity can be loud and intimidating, but the mere sight of a hornet droning like a Lancaster Bomber across a woodland glade is enough to make many people take a step back. I spotted this queen hornet in Coldfall Wood, and very impressive she was too. They are big insects – workers can be an inch long, but a queen can easily be an inch and a half (don’t laugh, folk in tropical climes! It’s what we count as large here in the UK). In spite of their reputation, hornets are actually much less aggressive than wasps, unless you are unfortunate enough to disturb a nest, at which point I would hope I had my track shoes on. Hornets not only emit an ‘alarm pheromone’ which attracts the attention of other hornets in the event of danger, but also perform a dance outside the nest to gather reinforcements. Hornets are mentioned three times in the Bible, and every time they were enlisted to drive out enemies of ‘the children of Israel’, so we can imagine that our ancestors were well aware of the salutary effect of an airborne army of hornets on the rampage. Having said all this, however, hornets generally just want to get on with their business of making a nest and raising their young, pretty much like the rest of us.

This hornet was very interested in the decaying wood on this oak tree, so I suspect she was gathering wood to make her impressive paper nest, which is often made in the vacated nest holes of birds such as woodpeckers or nuthatches. She chews up the wood to make ‘paper’ and then constructs her nest – the proportion of saliva to wood determines how water-resistant the nest will be. All members of the wasp family like to make their nests in dark places, and so if they can’t find a shady spot they will enlarge the ‘envelope’ around the outside to make it darker inside.

Photo One by By Ocrdu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Hornets’ nest (Photo One)

Sadly, everybody these days seems to have read about the Asian hornet (Vespa volutina), which has got as far as France. It is feared because it preys on honeybees, and can destroy whole hives, particularly ones already weakened by lack of food or by disease. All the nests spotted so far have been destroyed, but many of the ‘sightings’ were of European hornets . Nonetheless, folk only have to see a large stripy insect to lose all rational thought. Here, for the record, is an Asian hornet. If you see one, and particularly if you think you know of a nest, do let DEFRA know. As you can see, Asian hornets are much darker in colour than European hornets.

Photo Two by By Siga - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Asian Hornet (Vespa volutina) (Photo Two)

The European hornet is a creature of ancient woodland, and spends much of its time hunting for prey such as caterpillars, moths, and even dragonflies. They are also known to steal food from spider webs, and as some species of wasp will take spiders as prey, arachnids usually keep a low profile while this is going on. It’s easy to forget what beneficial creatures members of the wasp family are: for most of their lives they are carnivorous, taking cabbage white caterpillars and all manner of other larvae by the bucketload.

In ‘Bugs Britannica’ by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, there is this wonderful tale.

‘ I watched a hornet mining its way into a ripe apple’, says Lawrence Trowbridge. ‘Having dug out a tunnel about the width and length of the hornet’s body, it flew to a perch about a metre away. After a short while, flies began to be attracted to the hole in the apple. The hornet waited patiently until several flies were inside feasting on the sweet juice. Then it suddenly darted out, perched on the apple and killed one fly after another as they tried to escape. Soon afterwards it returned to the apple and carried off the corpses, one at a time, presumably to its nest to feed its brood’. 

Whether the hornet had worked out what would happen or was simply taking advantage of the situation, it reminds me that the ability to capitalise on a situation is characteristic of the wasp family – I well remember a wasp returning again and again to the remains of my salmon sandwich to carve off slivers of fish, surely a food that it had never come across before. Soon I realised that it had told its friends too. In the end half a dozen wasps were attending my sandwich in relays, until not a scrap was left.












In some parts of Asia, particularly Japan and China, wasp and hornet larvae have traditionally been eaten, and in the village of Kushihara in Japan they are even ‘farmed’ – small nests are gathered, and ‘grown’ inside special huts. The wasps are fed with raw meat and the nests looked after with great care until the larvae and pupae are ‘harvested’ in autumn, with a special wasp festival, hebo matsuri, being held on 3rd November. You can read more about it here, and fascinating it is too.

I prefer my hornets unmolested though. Watching this one flitting around the oak tree, going about her own business filled me with a sense of wonder, and the feeling that at least some things are still happening in the way that they should. After the coldest May on record, which has led to the failure of so many nests, it’s good to have something to be glad of.

By the way, for anyone  who is interested in wasps, I can recommend this fascinating book by Eric R. Eaton – ‘Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect‘. Excellent bedtime reading.





A Bank Holiday Walk in East Finchley Cemetery

Dear Readers, as you might remember there are two cemeteries within easy walking distance of my house. One is St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, with its many wild spaces, and the other is East Finchley Cemetery, which is a lot more manicured. Both are splendid places for a walk when everywhere else is jammed – parks and the seaside are full to busting this year, what with people not being able to travel abroad very much. During our hour’s visit, we probably saw no more than a dozen people, and two of them were strimming the grass.

We saw this insect dangling above a patch of bramble, and very fine s/he was too, with the sun glinting off the little triangular patch at the base of the wing covers. I suspect that this is a Dock Bug (Coreus marginatus). Apparently it mostly eats dock (as the name suggests) but this one was advancing along the stem of some sorrel. The other member of the family that you’re likely to see is the Box Bug (Gonocerus acuteangulatus), which I spotted in the other cemetery a few weeks ago. It’s funny how once you’ve spotted a particular kind of plant or animal, it seems to pop up everywhere.

Last time I was here, this patch of hedgerow geranium was just coming into flower. Look at it now! it was abuzz with bees, in spite of being in a relatively shady spot. Every UK wildlife garden should have some species geraniums in it, I’m convinced.

Hedgerow geraniums (Geranium pyrenaicum)

And I was much taken by this lovely little tree. We used to call this a Spanish Chestnut, but according to my tree book it’s a Red Horse Chestnut, a cross between Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and a standard Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). The tree guide calls it ‘an abundant plant of rather endearing ugliness’. Hah! I obviously have strange tastes, because I think it punches well above its weight in terms of spectacular blossom.

By the way, has anyone ever noticed how the flowers of ribwort plantain look like tiny solar systems, with the planets all orbiting around the central sun? Or maybe it’s just me.

Then we headed off to the crematorium. What a splendid Italianate building this is! It is owned not by the council, but by the London Cremation Company, who also own the crematorium in Golders Green, which is also very fine.

We weren’t expecting this though!

Sadly no one was at home when we visited. Though this might seem like a most unpleasant place to nest, most birds have no sense of smell (with kiwis and turkey vultures being two notable exceptions), and also some birds used cigarette ends to help to remove parasites, so maybe it wasn’t such a terrible idea.

And here is another splendid tree. I’m thinking this could be Yellow Buckeye, yet another member of the horse chestnut family, but no doubt my North American readers can put me right if not.

And finally, my eyes were drawn to this bank of wallflowers from several hundred metres away. I’ve never seen them in such bold colours, they were so bright that I’m sure they left a shadow on my retina, as if I’d looked at the sun for too long. The bees didn’t seem to mind though. As with geraniums, I think that wallflowers are not always given the respect that they deserve as plants for pollinators – they flower for a long period and, in my garden at least, the bumblebees are always hovering around my Bowles Mauve wallflower, which is two years old and hasn’t completely stopped flowering for a single day in all that time. Sometimes, plants are popular for a reason, and I daresay there are things I’ve planted that were much more expensive that haven’t done as well as my ‘cheap and cheerfuls’.



Large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

Dear Readers, earlier this week I saw my first large red damselfly. Or, to be more exact, I nearly squashed one when I reached for the handrail, and saw it whirling away like a miniature helicopter. I knew that they were the first of the dragonflies to emerge in this part of the world, but for some reason I never connected their appearance with the fact that they had actually hatched out in my pond: I assumed that they’d flown in from somewhere else.

When I went for a wander this evening though, there were not only half a dozen damselflies hiding in the marsh marigold and reclining on the figwort, there were signs of what had happened.

High up on the stem below is the exuvia of a damselfly – the skin that it has discarded as it emerges and turns into the adult insect. The nymphs of this species live on the bottom of the pond for two years before emerging, but they can fly around all summer, so at least they have a few months to enjoy their time in the sunshine. The time when a dragonfly nymph is transforming into an adult is the most dangerous time of the animal’s life, so it’s good to see so many adults about. Beneath the exuvia at the top, you can see a nymph that is probably waiting for its turn to emerge. I shall check in the morning and see what’s happened.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Last year, males set up territories around the pond, and spent lots of time patrolling, checking out visitors and either trying to mate or indulging in ferocious dogfights. You might remember that there were several mating pairs, and apparently the sight of one pair mating can encourage others to do the same.

Ponds really are examples of ‘if you build it, they will come’ – I feel so lucky and so privileged to be visited by so many creatures, and to have had the opportunity to make a home for them.

Another large red damselfly keeping a low profile


But to complete my evening, I was looking at the figwort and thought that I could see a big fat bud. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a small rose chafer beetle, one of my very favourite insects (yes I know you aren’t supposed to have favourites, but look at it! Who could resist?). Apparently the grubs feed on rotting wood, of which I have an abundance in the form of some oak sleepers at the back of the garden that are gradually disappearing, so maybe that’s where this little one came from. It looked very snug curling up in the figwort leaves, and so I left it to rest and grow nice and big. Hopefully it will be very impressed when the angelica blooms…

Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata)

Angelica flowerhead unfurling (Angelica sylvestris)

Wednesday Weed – Angelica

Angelica (Angelica sylvestris)

Dear Readers, I was going to wait until my angelica plant flowered before writing about it, but I was so excited by the size of it that I could not defer gratification any longer. This giant member of the carrot family is native to the UK and my Harrap’s Guide to Wildflowers describes it as ‘very common’. Hah! I am sure I have never tripped over it before. It seems to have grown about a foot in the last week and is starting to be covered in great bulbous flowerheads. It looks strangely edible to me, as indeed parts of it are, though those in the know say that garden angelica (which has the delightful Latin name Angelica archangelica) is rather more delicate.

Angelica – emergent flowerhead!

I know angelica largely as the green candied ‘fruit’ that was plonked on top of a cake to provide a colour contrast to the glacé cherries or the candied orange peel, as in the picture below.

Photo One from

Sicilian cake with angelica topping (Photo One)

If you want to make your own, you can boil the stems, shoots or leaves in sugar syrup, and voila! You might be disappointed by the colour though, as the home-cooked examples that I’ve seen end up looking a kind of olive-yellow colour. The leaves can be eaten as a vegetable, or added to rhubarb. The seeds can also be used as a spice. However, be very careful not to confuse the plant with its close relatives hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort, or you could well end up deaded as my Dad used to say. The leaves of both these poisonous plants are very delicate and filmy compared to angelica, however, so that should help.

That doyen of the herb garden Jekka McVicar has a recipe for angelica jam, which you can find here. Don’t come asking me for any of mine, though, as my main reason for planting this whopper is, as usual, the pollinators that I’m hoping will wing a path to my door to feed on the mass of white flowers.

One in particular is the Norwegian wasp (Dolichovespula norwegica), a rather uncommon critter who can be distinguished from our usual wasps by a rusty band at the top of the abdomen. The adults apparently have a great fondness for the flowers of angelica and giant hogweed. How I would love to grow giant hogweed! But I fear I would be most unpopular with the neighbours, so angelica is a good substitute. The larvae of the wasp (who are fed on ground-up caterpillars, which is one reason why wasps of all kinds are the gardener’s friend) secrete a kind of honeydew to reward their hard-working aunties. The wasps generally make their nests in a tree, so let’s hope they’ve already settled somewhere else before coming to The County Roads to feed.

Photo Two by By S. Rae -, CC BY 2.0,

Norwegian wasp (Photo Two)

The plant is also the larval foodplant of the swallowtail butterfly, but I doubt that one will come all the way to North London just to oblige me. Lots of moths also feed on it, however, so fingers crossed.

Photo Three by By Entomolo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) (Photo Three)

Medicinally, chewing an angelica root before breakfast supposedly reduced heart palpitations and increased urination (though hopefully not at the same time). Irish folklore suggests that angelica could be used as a treatment for epilepsy, and that it could help with hydrophobia, the fear of water that usually accompanies rabies (from the Eatweeds website).

On the Plantlore website, it’s reported that if someone had a cut or graze, an angelica leaf was laid on the wound to heal it. It’s also said that in Devon, travelling people used to smoke angelica mixed with elm as a kind of tobacco.

It seems that angelica was also very much a London plant in days gone by: ‘A Modern Herbal’ by Mrs M.Grieve says of angelica:

In several London squares and parks, Angelica has continued to grow, self-sown, for several generations as a garden escape; in some cases it is appreciated as a useful foliage plant, in others, it is treated rather as an intruding weed. Before the building of the London Law Courts and the clearing of much slum property between Holywell Street and Seven Dials, the foreign population of that district fully appreciated its value, and were always anxious to get it from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where it abounded and where it still grows. Until very recent years, it was exceedingly common on the slopes bordering the Tower of London on the north and west sides; there, also, the inhabitants held the plant in high repute, both for its culinary and medicinal use.”

When I can get back to Central London (in two week’s time, once my second vaccination kicks in) I shall have to see if the plant still grows in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I imagine that things are rather more manicured these days.

Now, I was trying to find you a lovely poem, but while my search has pulled up lots of poets named Angelica, there is not a single poem that actually mentions the plant. And so, instead, here is a song called ‘Angelica’. It’s been recorded by both Gene Pitney and Scott Walker, and there are links to both below (don’t say I’m not good to you :-)). Gene Pitney was really part of my childhood – when we listened to the radio on Saturday mornings, someone always seemed to be requesting ‘ 24 Hours from Tulsa’. which has got to be one of the most overheated ballads ever committed to vinyl (and, in retrospect, a rather strange choice for ‘Family Favourites’).  My Mum used to get furious whenever she listened to it, and indeed it does paint a rather poor picture of the chap involved.

‘Your Dad would never do something like that’ , she said, and I am 100% sure she was right.

By the way, I like the way that the pronunciation has changed from the rather pedestrian ‘Anj-ell-ika’ to ‘Ang- ell- eeka’. Much more dramatic.

‘Angelica’ by Gene Pitney

‘Angelica’ by Scott Walker

’24 Hours from Tulsa’ by Gene Pitney

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two by By S. Rae –, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three by By Entomolo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tuesday Garden Update

Dear Readers, I needn’t have worried about the dearth of starlings, because on Friday last week the little devils arrived in droves. The parent birds seem to practice an avian form of ‘tough love’ – at first they feed the fledglings as soon as they start squawking, but after the first day the gaps between feeds get longer and longer. The youngsters still spend a lot of time watching the sky, but pretty soon they seem to get the hang of that pecking business and are starting to feed themselves. Managing the suet feeder takes a little longer, but by the end of the week this lot will all be pretty much offhand, and their parents can take a well-deserved break.

In other news, the hawthorn is in full flower, and very fine it looks too.

It’s a flowering-year for the whitebeam, too, though the rain has turned the flowers on the rowan a horrible brown colour. Did I mention the rain? It’s been showery rather than persistent, but there is some rain forecast for every day for the next fortnight. The garden will love it.

And now I have a mystery, but please don’t tell me! I planted these bulbs in a pot and have completely forgotten what they were. Fingers crossed it will be something interesting, and I’ll keep you posted.

Mystery bulb!

And I am extremely happy with the way that my angelica is doing. Goodness, what a beast! The flowerheads are just forming, and I’m hoping for lots of happy hoverflies. The RHS reckon that it’s a biennial or short-lived perennial, so it might be that after this year it just disappears, which would be a shame as it looks so spectacular.

Angelica poking through the handrail

Angelica – emergent flowerhead!

Nobody nested in my nestboxes this year, but the nestbox next door is occupied by blue tits, who seem to spend half the day swearing at the cats and the magpies in the garden. I have to brace myself for the emergence of the fledglings, they’re so small and vulnerable.

Elsewhere my perennial wallflowers are doing very nicely, and so are the forget-me-nots, though the woodruff that I planted has keeled over and died in less than a week. What’s up with that, I wonder? Still, as a gardener you win some, you lose some…

And my ‘yellow border’ in the side return is a mass of greater celandine and yellow corydalis and some green alkanet. I could pull them all up and plant something that won’t grow, but what would be the point of that?

The hemp agrimony has grown about six inches in a week (or so it seems). Next to them, the lily of the valley is coming up, and if it wants to take over that entire corner, it’s more than welcome.

The climbing hydrangea is having a very good year, and will be in flower soon, just in time for the ashy mining bees to turn up.

And the lady’s mantle is popping up yet again. I love those hydrophobic leaves!

And finally, I also love a happy accident. I’d completely forgotten about this creamy-white wallflower, and now it’s in flower, next to a herb Robert, and what looks like a red valerian. It’s amazing the way that nature puts things together sometimes.


Expected and Unexpected

Dear Readers, as I was saying earlier this week, the fledgling starlings are the most wide-eyed innocents I’ve ever seen. While everyone else is alarm calling and flying for safety, they often stay perched, looking around to see what all the fuss was about. But there is no call more blood-chilling than that of a young starling in the jaws of a cat, or under the talons of a bird of prey, so when I heard the familiar keening on Tuesday morning I rushed to the window to see what was happening and there, sure enough, was a sparrowhawk standing on a screaming starling.

This didn’t surprise me, though it saddened me – the sparrowhawks have an unerring sense of when there’s easy pickings, though it’s amazing that they can navigate through the tangle of buildings and trees to strike. This is, I think, a male (apologies for the blurry shot, it was the only one I got a chance to take), and he probably has babies in the nest somewhere himself.

What did surprise me, though, was the behaviour of the other animals. Firstly, I was too slow to catch a squirrel on camera, but it approached within striking range of the sparrowhawk. I knew that squirrels were omnivores who will eat carrion, eggs and baby birds if they get the chance, but to try to steal prey from a sparrowhawk seemed pretty daring. However, I’m pretty sure that the squirrel that I saw has babies in the nest, so she probably needs all the protein she can get.

And then, the squirrel ran for it and one of the pair of magpies who’ve been haunting the garden landed. It’s actually bigger than the sparrowhawk and has much more attitude – it would have stolen the newly-expired starling from right under the hawk’s foot. By this stage the raptor seemed to have had enough, as it took off vertically with the starling dangling from one foot and headed off over the rooftops to eat its food in peace.

And a strange, eerie peace descended on the garden, as it always does when a sparrowhawk has paid a visit, but within half an hour everybody was back. Normally all the baby starlings emerge at once, but it’s been a bit more spread out this year, which I think favours the predators who can pick them off more easily. I also worry that I haven’t yet been inundated with youngsters, but maybe that will come later. At any rate, it was a bit less like Disneyland and a bit more like ‘When Animals Attack’ in the garden today, and I’ll be very glad when things get a little less dramatic.

Birds Seen and Unseen


Dear Readers, I was scanning the garden yesterday when I noticed a blur of movement down by the pond. Out came the binoculars! And after a few anxious minutes, I was able to focus on a quintessential ‘little brown job’ – definitely a warbler of some kind, and my money is on a chiffchaff, though it didn’t call so I wasn’t able to identify it for sure. The bird didn’t stick around for long enough to get a photo either, so here is a much better photo from someone else.

Photo One by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) (Photo One)

However, this got me thinking about the birds that have been seen in my garden, and I thought I’d knock up  a quick list. I’d be fascinated to know how this list is different from those of you in other parts of the country, and also in other places in the world – I know that Anne from SomethingOverTea lives in South Africa and has a garden list about four times as long as mine, which just illustrates how birds definitely prefer warmer climes with lots of insect food. But how does it compare with a list from Switzerland, for example? Anyhow, here are all the birds that have been seen in the garden since I moved here in 2010 (I’m not including those that have flown over, so no cormorants or swallows or black-backed gulls).

  1. Grey heron (Ardea cinerea)
  2. Sparrowhawk (Accipter nisus)
  3. Rock dove/Feral pigeon (Columba livia)
  4. Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)
  5. Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  6. Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri)
  7. Great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
  8. Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
  9. Magpie (Pica pica)
  10. Carrion crow (Corvus corone)
  11. Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)
  12. Blackbird (Turdus merula)
  13. Song thrush (Turdus philmelos)
  14. Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
  15. Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris)
  16. Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)
  17. Great tit (Parus major)
  18. Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
  19. Coal tit (Periparus ater)
  20. Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
  21. Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
  22. Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
  23. Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
  24. Common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)
  25. Goldcrest (Regulus regulus)
  26. Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)
  27. Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
  28. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  29. Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
  30. Common redpoll (Carduelis flammea)
  31. Siskin (Carduelis spinus)
  32. Greenfinch (Chloris chloris)
  33. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
  34. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)


So, a few things strike me about this list.

  1. If I  hadn’t had the pond, I wouldn’t have been visited by the heron (or the grey wagtail), and lots of other birds stop by to drink too – the ‘chiffchaff’ yesterday was chiefly interested in the water.
  2. Many of the birds only visit in very bad weather – that would cover the fieldfare (who was grounded during a snowstorm), the siskins (who only come when it’s actually snowing) and the redpolls.
  3. Many of the birds pop over from nearby Coldfall Wood (the song thrush and the great-spotted woodpecker for sure)
  4. I have more of the warbler-type birds since my vines and hedges have grown a bit thicker – the blackcap spent most of her time in the tangle of bittersweet this year.

However, there are also some notable omissions.

  1. Although the waxwings often visit the street trees locally, they never come to see me in the garden – I guess there just isn’t the necessary concentration of berries. The rowan and the whitebeam are having a great year though, so let’s see what happens this winter.
  2. I always hope to see a brambling on its way through, or a bullfinch, but so far neither has stopped by (at least when I’ve been watching). If you see them in your garden, what’s your secret?
  3. Some of the birds that I see regularly in Coldfall Wood (stock doves, treecreepers, nuthatches) never come to see me – I imagine they’re quite happy where they are.
  4. I have a lot of predators for such a small patch – not just the occasional sparrowhawk taking out a collared dove, but magpies and jays and, of course, lots of cats. The cover for the birds can also provide cover for a marauding cat. I’ve learned to listen for the alarm calls, and will go outside and shoo off any felines that I think are rather too interested in what’s going on, but of course I can’t be there all the time. There were lots of babies last year (blue tits, blackbirds, robins, wrens) but it would be fascinating to know how many of them actually survive to adulthood. This year I have been ‘adopted’ by a pair of magpies, and the rest of the bird community are very unimpressed.

So, over to you, readers. What do you get in your garden? What would you love to see? What have you done that has made your garden more friendly for birds? Let’s share our experiences. The birds need all the help they can get.

Nuthatch in the cemetery, but never in my garden 🙁