Category Archives: Uncategorized

Learning to be a starling


Dear Readers, I have mentioned before that my garden is inundated with fledgling starlings every year. To start with it’s just one or two but by the end of May every bough is bending under the weight of squawling youngsters. When I look up, I see adult starlings with their offspring in hot pursuit. It’s a difficult few weeks for starling parents, to be sure. To start with, the youngsters are completely clueless, standing ankle-deep in food without knowing what it is.


Somehow the adults seem to know which ‘child’ is theirs, and they only ever feed their own offspring, regardless of the pitiful cries of other youngsters. I wonder if they know by the tone of voice, or by some subtle visual signal? The little ones all look the same to me. Most starling parents seem to have two fledglings on average, though some exhausted parents have managed three – they probably started off with four eggs.  And they might not even be their own chicks – starling mothers will sometimes lay an egg in a neighbour’s nest for them to rear. This makes me wonder if this is part of the evolutionary process by which birds like the cuckoo learned to give up nest-building and chick-rearing altogether.


During the next few days, the chicks follow hard on the heels of their parents, or wait impatiently on a tree branch for food to arrive. I’ve noticed that they start to peck at anything that looks the slightest bit edible.


Are unripe rowan berries edible?


How about hawthorn flowers?


Maybe this is food?

I suspect that most birds are ‘hard-wired’ to peck, and so, following the example of their parents, will learn what’s edible and what’s not, just as most young animals, humans included, will pick up anything and put it straight in their mouths.

Some of the fledglings are definitely faster studies than others, not just in this question of feeding themselves, but also in paying attention to the social cues of the other birds. I’ve noticed that some youngsters will head off as soon as a much larger bird lands on the bird table, while others have to be practically knocked off of it. Some stay quiet when there’s a mass scatter of the birds to the safety of the trees, while others carry on calling. I suspect that again you could probably track the process of evolution here – the quicker a youngster is on the uptake, the more likely it is to survive to pass on its genes. There is also some evidence that animals in cities that have a variety of threats and opportunities to contend with become more ‘intelligent’ (by our standards) than country creatures – in fact, animals in any particularly challenging environment may evolve to have a wider range of strategies for survival than those who live where food is plentiful. The article here has a number of interesting examples, from mountain chickadees to raccoons.


Over the next few days, the adult starlings will gradually make their youngsters independent. They will bring less food to them, and take a longer time between visits. They will become more inpatient with infants who follow them, and will sometimes try to escape their demanding offspring. This is a hard period for the fledglings, who will now have to try to fend for themselves – approximately 50 – 80% of all nestlings fledge, but only 20% of these will survive to breed. Everything eats fledgling starlings, from jays, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks to that most dedicated of predators the domestic cat, who takes more fledglings than all other predators put together. At this time of year it’s imperative to bell any outdoor cats, or at least keep them in at dawn and dusk.

The winter will also take its toll – many starlings no longer migrate, especially those in urban areas where there is usually enough food. The fledglings need to learn where to feed, drink and roost now, so that they will be prepared for the colder weather. They offset some of this difficulty by forming into flocks of adolescents, both because many eyes can identify sources of food more quickly, and because the bonds formed now will give them an advantage when they come to breed themselves next year.

The adults will have a brief period of rest and foraging for themselves before they ‘decide’ whether or not to try for a second brood.

I had always thought that the only way of ‘sexing’ adult starlings is by the small patch of colour at the base of the beak, but apparently the irises of the birds are different colours – rich brown in the male, a lighter, more mousey brown in the female. Now all I need is good light and my binoculars handy.


And soon the hubbub will have died down for another year, as the adult birds moult and everything goes quiet in the garden. At the moment, though, I am awoken every morning at 5 a.m by the sound of young starlings looking for their breakfast. I imagine the neighbours are delighted.






Public Enemy Number One?

When I was growing up, there was a children’s programme on ITV called ‘Magpie’. The theme tune was an  version of the old folk song about the bird:

‘One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl and four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told’.

And for anyone who wants to glory in their youth, you can find the whole thing here.

In truth, ‘Magpie’ was a little self-consciously trendy for me – I preferred Chris Noakes’s Fair Isle jumpers, and Valerie Singleton’s sensible dresses over on the BBC in ‘Blue Peter’. But the name ‘Magpie’ referred to the bird’s supposed habit of collecting little bits of treasure and taking them back to the nest, and harked back to a time when magpies were valued by farmers for the number of leatherjackets and other insect pests that they ate.

Nowadays, the bird has been so vilified that I doubt that anyone would name a programme after it. When did this happen? How did a common member of the crow family get to be Public Enemy Number One? And what is the truth behind its reputation?

In recent weeks, I have encountered several people who have been doing battle with the bird. In Costa Rica, I met someone who had captured one magpie in a Larsen trap, and had used this as a way to dispatch twelve others who came down to see what was going on. At the weekend I was on a very interesting Field Studies Council birdwatching walk in Regent’s Park, and the appearance of a pair of magpies led to a lively discussion about the bird’s role as a despatcher of songbird eggs and nestlings. In short, the blame for the demise of thrushes and blackbirds, black caps and tits has been laid at the scaly black feet of this noisy hooligan of a bird.

It is true that magpies will take baby birds from the nest, and  destroy eggs, but they are not alone in this. Great Spotted Woodpeckers will peck through a nest box and pull out the pink hatchlings one at a time. I have watched a jay snatch a fledgling starling by the wingtip and lay it open like the pages of a book before pummelling it to death. And don’t get me started on cats. I suspect that it is the sheer visibility of the magpie that makes them so hated. The way that they skip about, their distinctive plumage, their cackling calls and their habit of gathering in gangs, especially when young, means that they are difficult to ignore. And they have increased in numbers, especially in cities where there are more sources of food, and they are (generally) less likely to be shot.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major)

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

But magpies have been in the British Isles for millenia, and have presumably been eating songbird young for a few months every year for all this time. They are omnivorous, adaptable birds: everything from chips to earthworms is grist to their mill. The RSPB did a study of 35 years of data, and concluded that there was no relationship between the increase in magpie numbers and the decrease in the number of songbirds. Correlation is not causation, as any scientist will tell you.

If we really want to know why our songbirds have declined, why lapwings no longer tumble above our fields, why the call of the curlew and the exultation of the lark are becoming increasingly rare, we need to look for causes more complicated than a single species.

We need to look at the impoverishment of our soils, which no amount of fertiliser will cure. We need to look at the way that those fertilisers are polluting our watercourses.

We need to look at the use of agricultural and garden herbicides, which diminish the range of plants that grow, and hence the diversity of insects upon which those songbirds depend to feed their young.

We need to look at the way that ancient hedgerows have been grubbed up and replaced by fences, because they are cheaper to maintain.

We need to look at the relentless use of pesticides which kills not just the insects that they are aimed at, but the creatures that feed upon them.

Hedgerow in Somerset

Linnet on a barbed wire fence in Milborne St Andrew

We need to look at the destruction of old barns and outbuildings that were once a place to nest, and at the design of newer houses that allow nowhere for these creatures to raise their young or to rest their heads. We need to consider the way that our gardens are paved over and decked out to make room for our cars. And we need to look at our need for tidy garden spaces that are ‘low maintenance’.

Blackbird nesting in an old farm building in Milborne St Andrew

These things are not so simple to sort out. It’s much easier to scapegoat a species that is certainly guilty of occasional nestling murder. But an ecosystem is complicated. Take out the magpies, and I would bet a pound to a penny  that they’ll be back within a year, because these are territorial creatures, and a vacant territory will not stay empty for long.

There is a strong instinct in humans to protect their territory too. I know how furious I have been with a local cat who sits for hours in my garden looking for something to torment. The cat is well-fed, and rarely eats what he kills. The magpie is taking food home for its offspring, or to feed itself. Much as I pity the blackbird or the blue tit, I know that many of them will breed again later in the year. A blue tit can have up to twelve nestlings in a single nest. If every one of those survived, we would soon be up to our waists in balls of fluff. I bow to no one in my urge to keep the more vulnerable creatures in my garden safe, but nature has other urges, and survival is one of them.

Blue tit visiting the suet feeder

So next time a magpie visits the garden, I would invite you to really look at it. Admire the green and purple iridescence of its plumage, that long, ungainly tail. Take the time to look at the relationships between individual birds – a more dominant bird will always sit higher up a tree, and the length of the tail is one clue to how dominant the bird is. Watch when the magpie chicks leave the nest, with their incessant calling for food and their chubby innocence. We do not build a healthy ecosystem by knocking out a major predator, we do it by making sure that all the constituent parts, soil, plants, insects, birds, thrive.

We mulch, compost, use organic matter. We plant hedges and perennials that are good for pollinators and other insects. We lay off the pesticides and herbicides. We try to build spots suitable for nesting, roosting, sheltering. We provide a water source. We don’t cut everything back at the first sign of untidiness. Gradually, our gardens become havens for all sorts of creatures, and the drama of life plays itself out under our noses, in all its joy and occasional brutality. We cannot do everything, but if we are lucky enough to have a garden, we can do this.

Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica (Tortuguero)

Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)

Dear Readers, Costa Rica is a place that I have longed to visit for many years now. It isn’t just the extraordinary diversity of plants, birds and invertebrates that throng its rainforests, but the country itself. In an area of the world racked with poverty and corruption, it manages to provide free healthcare and free education to its population, in part through the abolition of the army. Hunting is forbidden. There is 100% renewable energy. I wondered how such a country would feel to the casual tourist, and what it would be like to spend a brief ten days exploring its varied landscapes.

We started in Tortuguera, right up by the Nicaraguan border. Our guide, Walter, was very much in favour of immigration: Nicaraguans do most of the coffee harvesting (and are paid a minimum wage), and other places in Central America and the Caribbean provide doctors, lawyers and teachers.

”We are a small country’, Walter said, ‘And we need people to come and work. It benefits everybody’.

And what a refreshing outlook that was.

Tortuguera has a river full of crocodiles on one side, and the Atlantic on the other. We travelled to our lodge by boat, and the female guide who made the safety speech demonstrated the Costa Rican sense of humour.

‘In Costa Rica’, she enunciated carefully, ‘lifevests are MANDATORY and this is because if you fall in the river, there are crocodiles, and they will eat you but you will FLOAT and so we can ship your HEAD back to your relatives for identification’.

American crocodile looks on hopefully….

Our lodge consisted of separate ‘bungalows’, and the grounds were full of heliconias and other tropical plants. Within 5 minutes I was getting acquainted with the local wildlife.

Green iguana

I had begged the other people on the tour to let me know if they found any interesting creatures in their rooms, and even volunteered to be on call for such purposes.

‘Room 54!’ I said. ‘Don’t forget!’

But in fact the place was remarkably insect free, maybe because at night there were bats of all sizes flittering and fluttering about.

My favourite birds here, though, were the Montezuma’s Oropendolas (Psarocolius montezuma). These are the world’s largest weaver birds, and they were in the process of constructing a huge communal nest. This involved a lot of squawking and arguing, and occasionally one bird would hang upside down, open his or her wings and let loose a sing-song cry.

Montezuma’s Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma)


Of course, a lot of the wildlife action here in Tortuguero is on the river, and we took a boat trip to see what was going on. The rainforest here is quite a narrow band along the bank in some places, and occasionally our excursion took us along the edge of someone’s garden, where Costa Rican music blared out from a transistor radio and a party of puppies pounced on one another. Tortuguero was originally exploited for logging, and the ‘canal’ that we visited was used to haul out the rosewood, teak, lacewood and tigerwood from the forest.

‘All the most beautiful trees were taken’, said Walter.

There is evidence for this in the village of Tortuguero, a short walk from where we were staying. Nowadays it had plenty of coffee bars and small restaurants for the tourists, but it also has a school, a clinic and a little supermarket. Everywhere there are the rusty machines that were used to process the logs, being gradually reclaimed by the forest.



Our guide Walter pointing out a bird


Logging is now banned in Costa Rica, except for where it’s sustainable, but there are large areas of secondary forest, where the trees are gradually coming back. Fortunately this seems to be enough for the sloths.

IMG_3338 (2)

Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth (Choloepus Hoffmanni)

I always wondered why sloths come down to the ground to defecate, when they do everything else from the treetops. There are two theories. One is that a pile of poo under your favourite tree will attract more predators, so it makes sense to come down from your tree and walk a little way before doing your business. The second theory is that there are chemical messages in the poo about the breeding condition and dominance of the sloth that are so valuable that it’s worth risking getting eaten by a jaguar. Things in nature are never simple, and so it could well be both, or neither.

The river bank was rich in birds and reptiles. I loved the plumed basilisks (Basiliscus plumifrons), who have the common name of ‘Jesus Christ Lizards’ because if disturbed they will run on their back legs on the surface of the water.


Plumed basilisk (Basilicus plumifrons


There was a Bare-throated tiger heron sitting on her nest, and relying on her extraordinary camouflage to keep her and her eggs safe.


Bare-throated tiger heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)

A yellow-crowned night heron sat very obligingly on a fallen tree while we all took our photos. I wonder if the birds are so much less worried about humans because they aren’t hunted? I’ve certainly noticed a difference in the behaviour of the birds in London and in Dorset, where the woodpigeons scatter as soon as I raise my camera.


We watched metres from a great egret as it spotted and caught a fish. I had never noticed before that the eyes of these birds look down their beaks and are slightly hooded, maybe agains the glare. The combination of stillness and sudden coiled speed is exciting to witness.


And then we headed back to shore. As we left the boat, there was an enormous kerfuffle, and a cloud of dust, and it became clear that an enormous iguana was enacting his territorial rights. In full breeding colours, with orange spines and a huge dewlap, he was a creature to be reckoned with.


And you can see him in action (briefly) here:

So, after a few days in Tortuguero it was time for us to move on, to our next location close to Mount Arenal in the centre of Costa Rica. I had already fallen in love with the country. What would we see next?






Bugwoman’s Fourth Annual Report – Part Two

August 2017

Dear Readers, one of my most popular posts from last year was created during a deluge. ‘Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Rainy Day’ was so much fun to write. The main challenge was keeping the camera from getting water-logged during the downpour…

It hasn’t been a particularly ‘foxy’ year, unlike 2016 when I was spending a lot of time with the foxes in the cemetery, but I did spot this little darling, sleeping under the whitebeam in the garden.

And I also spotted some common carder bees buzz-pollinating in the garden, a first!

September 2017

The month started a visit to the new gardens around Kings Cross station, for an assessment of how helpful they were to wildlife. The answer was that it’s early days, but the signs are very hopeful. Sparrows, vanishingly rare in central London, have already moved in, and there was an active wasps’ nest. I shall have to visit again soon to see how things are shaping up.

The month continued with my friend A bringing me a Knotgrass caterpillar for me to identify. What a fine creature! It has now pupated, and is back in A’s garden, with a barricade of twigs for protection. One day, no doubt, it will emerge and fly away, probably when no one is looking.

A theme throughout last year was my Mum and Dad’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. At times it was all very stressful, and it was good to go for a walk around their village, Milborne St Andrew, and to reconnect. There’s always something wonderful to spot, and slowing down to actually see things is a very fine way of gaining perspective.

The party was held on 21st September. Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, so every bit of hassle about table-settings and whether or not to have a photographer was worth it.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….


A few days after the party, we had the heart-breaking news that one of the people who had attended, someone who had battled for years with depression, had killed themselves. It was so hard, especially after the event had been such a good one. I wrote this piece in the days afterwards, and believe every word.

I also took a visit to Dundee. I worked as a carer in a night-shelter for homeless people in the city when I was in my twenties, and wondered how things were going. The shelter is about to be converted into luxury flats, the pub where we used to drink is now a college, and there’s a new branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum going up on the quayside, but there are still people asking for change on the streets. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

The garden was visited by an amazing visitor in October: a female emperor dragonfly, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs.

And some birds in the garden had a narrow escape when we had another visit from the sparrowhawk…

November 2017

November saw me back in Milborne St Andrew, following Mum and Dad’s spectacular double fall down the front doorstep. Fortunately neither of them were seriously damaged (though after spending two and a half hours waiting for an ambulance while laying on the front lawn Mum was a little less sanguine than usual). But once in hospital, they were delighted to be placed in adjacent beds, and even more delighted to be sent home after a couple of hours. Suffice it to say that my visit the next day was well-timed. But I did manage to get out for a walk, and finally got photos of a buzzard, and my first ever meadow pipit.

We even managed to make the Christmas cake. By the time we ate it, Dad had fed it with so much brandy that I’m glad I wasn’t driving.

Once home, I went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery, where I found a strawberry tree, some greenfinches, a handsome jay, and this lovely gravestone. How I would love to find out a bit more about Muriel….

I also had a few thoughts about the use of fruit trees as street trees: there is a crab apple on our street which causes all kinds of mess, but which does attract such exotic creatures as this one.

What are you looking at?

I finished off the month with some thoughts about the passing of time, which seems to be have been a theme last year. With so many people that I love in their eighties and nineties, and with my own seventh decade approaching, I suppose that it’s inevitable that mortality should be on my mind, along with other existential thoughts, such as ‘what’s it all about’? ‘How do we live a good life, and what is a good life anyway?’ All this was prompted by watching a band of sunlight move across the garden in the space of a few minutes. I had a similar sensation last week as I watched the moon rise with Mum, and we both realised that you can actually see it moving,  and wondered why we’d never noticed before.

December 2017

December saw Mum and Dad struck down with a chest infection, and so I headed West again. It was a stressful time: the carer who normally looks after Mum and Dad was struck down by her own health emergency, and so I had to negotiate to try to get Mum and Dad to accept a carer who came from an agency, rather than someone that they already knew. I found it unbearable to think of them struggling on, sick, without someone to help them, and so I took myself off to the frozen fields for a walk and a think. Oh, the light on those December days. It felt like a blessing.

Then we had a spot of snow, the first that’s fallen and stayed for about five years.

Pied wagtail

And then it was Christmas, on the County Roads...

and in Dorset. We hadn’t expected to be in Dorset (Mum and Dad usually visit us in London) but they were both still too sick from their chest infections to travel. This didn’t reduce their appetite fortunately, and ridiculous quantities of the aforementioned Christmas cake were eaten, along with chocolates, roast potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts. Just as well we were able to get out for a walk.

It’s a pig!

January 2018

So, now we’re nearly back to the present day. January saw me exploring Hampstead Village, and falling in love with an angel.

It saw the very welcome arrival of a song thrush in the garden (still here as I write in February), and the continued presence of a single pied wagtail, who has been here since November. We are all hoping that he or she soon has some company.

And I took a bus ride down to Tate Modern, and a tube ride back.

So, readers, that’s the end of the review of the past year. Thank you for all your input  – I read every single comment, and love the community that we’ve built together. Don’t forget that if you’re on Facebook, you can find me here. I look forward to ‘meeting’ with you all in the year to come. And during the next few weeks, you will find that Bugwoman has been on a very exotic adventure, and has been living up to her name, for once. Stay tuned…..







Wednesday Weed – Fourth Annual Report – Weeds of the Year Part Two

Dear Readers, here are the remaining contestants for ‘weeds of the year’. Let me know what you think!


Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)


I might not like fennel very much, but I am a great fan of tomatoes, what with their health-giving lycopenes and all, and so I was delighted to find a couple growing beside a lamp post in Muswell Hill. It appears that they ‘escaped’ from a vegetable delivery van, and were doing very nicely though, knowing the association of dogs and lamp posts, I was not going to harvest any from this particular site. Tomatoes, like all plants in the family, need to be ‘buzz-pollinated’ by bumblebees, and in some countries with no bumblebees of their own, people are paid (a tiny amount) to go to every tomato flower and pollinate it using a special device. I had no idea. And in a piece of most excellent synchronicity, I witnessed buzz-pollination myself only a few days later.


Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)


Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

I have chosen mugwort as my September weed because it is such an unassuming plant that it’s very easy to walk right past it and not notice, surely the defining characteristic of a true ‘weed’. Yet, it has a very long association with the people of the UK – it’s been smoked, turned into beer (the ‘mug’ part of the name may refer to the days before glass tankards) and it is said that, if you stuff it into your shoes, it will stop you from tiring on a long journey. It may, of course, give you blisters, but that’s another story.


Fig (Ficus carica)


My choice of fig for October is because it gave me the opportunity to talk about the delights of eating the fruit (in spite of the possibility of each succulent morsel bearing a few crunchy wasps). Even more excitingly, I was able to report that, in Victorian times, plaster figleaves were created which could be hung from naked Classical statues in the event of a visit from Queen Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting. Rarely has a factoid made me so delighted.


Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)


The Gingko is 270 million years old and the very last of its kind.Its leaves are reputed to fall all at once, overnight, leaving the bare tree standing in a golden pool. They survived the bombing of Hiroshima, and there are trees that are over a thousand years old and still producing new shoots. Ok, so the rotten fruit smells of vomit, and the pollen is highly allergenic, but this looks like a very special tree indeed.


Red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria)


On a grey December day, the orange and yellow flowers of the red-hot poker, or torch lily, were just what I wanted. It brings a touch of African heat to the cold of winter, and I could just imagine a sunbird perched on top, or feeding from the tubular blossoms. I love the way that our native bumblebees have learned to navigate the flowers: they truly are the Einsteins of the insect world (although who knows what other six-legged geniuses are waiting for their chance at an intelligence test? Let’s hope that we haven’t made them extinct before we grow to appreciate them).


Winter-flowering heather (Erica carnea)



And so we come to the beginning of this year, and I would like to celebrate the charms of the winter-flowering heather, boon for sleepless bumblebees and the subject of a rather amusing April Fool’s Day joke in The Independent newspaper a few years ago, when the flowers were described as ‘natural Viagra’. I cherish anything that is in flower during these cold, dark days, and this plant really hits the spot.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Do you have a ‘Weed of the Year’  from the twelve posted over the past two weeks, or is your favourite plant something completely different? Are there any plants that I’ve never covered that you think deserve a bit of attention? Just let me know. And thank you for all your comments and ideas, and your never-ending support. It makes all the difference.


Wednesday Weed – Fourth Annual Report – Weeds of the Year Part One

Dear Readers, goodness only knows what happened to the formatting of my photos this week! Here is an amended version with what I hope are the correct photos.

Dear Readers, as we come to the Fourth Anniversary of the commencement of this blog,  I thought it might be fun to nominate a few ‘weeds’ as my favourites of the past year. As you know, my definition of ‘weed’ is any plant that I haven’t planted deliberately myself – the Wednesday Weed has been an excuse for me to learn something about the plants that surround me here in East Finchley, whether they’ve been planted on purpose or have sprung up of their own accord. After four years it’s become increasingly difficult to find truly wild plants that I haven’t already discussed, and so you might have noticed an increase in ‘domesticated’ plants this year. Personally, I’ve found it fascinating to discover the histories of some of our garden plants, though my heart does belong to wildflowers, especially those who survive, like many city dwellers, in impoverished and difficult habitats. With that in mind, let’s have a quick gallop through February 2017 to July 2017, (August 2017 to January 2018 will appear next week), to see who’s made my (extremely biased) list of Weeds of the Year. To find the original pieces, just click on the links in each section.


Stinging Nettle (Utrica diocia)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)


I know, I know. Most of us have had a close encounter with stinging nettle at some point in our gardening lives, and as I get older I find that the stings seem to persist for ages, even after an application of dock leaves (as recommended by my Dad, who knows what he’s on about). But who could resist a plant that feeds peacock and red admiral butterflies, that has been woven into cloth, and which can be turned into a delicious nettle risotto? I rest my case.


Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis)

Lungwort(Pulmonaria officinalis)


This was a difficult month to judge, but what tipped it for lungwort was the way that the flowers change colour from pink to blue once the plant has been pollinated, possibly giving an indication to bees that they shouldn’t waste their valuable time on blooms that have gone over. Plus, the spotted, lung-shaped leaves were said to indicate that the plant was useful in the treatment of pleurisy and other pulmonary complaints (hence the Latin name Pulmonaria officinalis). I have even succeeded, for one year at least, in growing this in my garden, and I will be delighted beyond measure if it pops back up this spring. Fingers crossed.


Windflower (Anemone nemerosa)

Windflower (Anemone nemorosa)


I love this plant because it is an indicator of ancient woodland, because it is so ephemeral, and because it seemed to welcome me when I first came to East Finchley and discovered Coldfall Wood. Its flowering was said to mean that the ‘March winds’ were on their way and Pliny believed that it only opened on windy days. In another story, the flowers sprang from the tears of Aphrodite as she mourned Adonis, killed by a wild boar. Its brief flowering is a result of it taking advantage of the sunshine before the leaves on the trees shade out the forest floor. If I wanted to take a lesson from it (and experience tells me that plants and other living things have much to teach us if we have ears to listen) it would be to grasp opportunities when they present themselves, because it might be a while before they come round again.


Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis cambrica)

Welsh Poppy (Papaver cambrica)


I do love a ‘new’ urban weed, and Welsh poppy is a plant that has escaped only recently, and is spreading through the neighbourhood with great enthusiasm. It is a native plant, but is listed as ‘nationally scarce’ in its original habitat. Not here in East Finchley, where it has taken to the shale and gravel front gardens of the County Roads as if they were the shady dells of Snowdonia. There is a legend that the plant doesn’t flourish away from Welsh soil, but it has obviously not read the book. It is the symbol of Plaid Cymru, and is closely related to the Himalayan Blue Poppy. Pollinators of the hoverfly and beetle variety seem to love it, so I am content.


Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

This little beauty erupted from some spilled birdseed, and I have not been so excited about a plant in a long time. After all, when your Latin name means ‘really, really, really useful’ it’s worth doing some research. Flax is used to make linen, linseed oil, flaxseed (as sprinkled on your muesli in these health-conscious days), and, best of all, linoleum! Plus the flowers are exquisite and delicate, and much beloved by equally exquisite hoverflies. I am very pleased to have made its acquaintance.


Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Dear Readers, I actually loathe things that are aniseed or licorice flavoured: I can just about cope with fennel seeds, or the domesticated fennel bulb if roasted gently until the taste is somewhat constrained. But who can argue with the pollinators who were hovering above this fennel flower in the N2 Community Garden next to East Finchley Station? They were positively queuing up for some of that delicious pollen and nectar, and in these difficult times for insects that is a great thing. Plus, fennel is one of the ingredients of absinthe, that mainstay of French poets and artists for years immemorial, so it well deserves its place in the Hall of Weedy Fame.


So, what do you think so far? Stay tuned for the August to January ‘weeds’ next week!








The Great Garden Birdwatch 2018

Dear Readers, the last weekend in January is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) annual citizen science event, the Big Garden Birdwatch. All over the country, people sit and watch the birds in the garden or local park, and record the maximum number of each species that they see. It started in 1979, and was aimed at junior members of the society, but when the event was featured on Blue Peter, the most popular children’s TV programme at the time, more than 34,000 school children submitted their forms. Today, over 40 years of data has been collected, and over half a million people, from residents of care homes to private individuals (like me) take part.

Usually, for whatever reason, the birds opt to stay away in my garden for the hour of the count, only to come back in their dozens as soon as I submit my results. I did wonder if this was because of my presence looming at the kitchen window, but this year, the birds didn’t care. As soon as I started my timer, a great flock of starlings descended. I have noted before that I’m convinced that they watch from one of the big trees on East Finchley High Road and swoop down as soon as the feeders and bird table are topped up.

I had recorded 17 starlings when a charm of goldfinches flew into the whitebeam. I love the way that they approach at speed, jinking at right angles as if to confuse any passing predators. And what splendid birds they are!

A wren has recently taken up residence in the garden, and stayed long enough for a brief portrait. Everything about them seems explosive: they burst from cover like feathery bullets, and their whole bodies vibrate with song. I was very lucky to get any photograph at all.

The chaffinches appeared, a group of six, with their elegant mothy flight.

But then, something flew in fast over the roof, and seemed to wipe the whole garden clean of birds with a stroke of its wing.


It sat in the tree for a few minutes, surveying the garden with monomaniacal yellow eyes. Where do the little birds go, I wonder, it was as if they had dematerialised. I was able to walk out into the garden and get a few shots of this juvenile (there have been a pair of adults around for a while). I suspect it was only the inexperience of the bird that protected his prey, for other visitors have been much luckier in their pursuit of something to eat.

Well, I thought, that puts the kibosh on my bird count, and indeed for a full ten minutes there was not a single visitor of a feathered variety, though someone popped in to take advantage of the peace and quiet.

But then, the birds started to drift back. Of course, the starlings were first, bold characters that they are.

And then the resident robin.

And one of the pair of blackbirds. A few years ago, a male fell prey to a sparrowhawk, but the territory was reoccupied the following year. So far, so good.

The pond has always been a great draw for creatures of all kinds, and the blue tit often perches on the branch that I’ve partially submerged to attract dragonflies, and has a little bath.

The finches are back on the seed feeder. Although the chaffinches are larger, the goldfinches are more aggressive, and usually win any perches that they contest.

And then, something catches my eye down by the pond.

A blackcap! This is a kind of warbler that has historically been a summer visitor, but increasingly blackcaps from central Europe have been overwintering here. I was visited by a female a few years ago, but this is my first male. They have a lovely song, described in my Crossley Bird Guide as ‘somebody cheerfully whistling as they walk through the wood’. See what you think.

And so, my hour came to an end. Of the twenty species on the list that were seen as ‘general’ garden birds, I’d recorded ten, and some regular visitors, such as the long-tailed tits and the coal tit, hadn’t put in an appearance in the hour. On the other hand, I’d had two species, the sparrowhawk and the blackcap, who weren’t on the list at all, and that always makes me happy.

I have two thoughts at the end of my hour. Firstly, this was a lot of fun, and gave me an excuse to do nothing but watch, listen and record for an hour. Did anyone else do the Birdwatch, or do you have an equivalent where you live? Or do you take part in any other citizen science events? In the UK there are recording events for everything from moths to earthworms.

And secondly, I wonder what else I would see if I took an hour a week, maybe at the same time of day, to sit and watch and record? I have an urge this year to look at things in more depth, rather than being distracted by the sheer wealth of things that there are to pay attention to. Does anyone else keep some kind of record of what they see, maybe a diary or a photo album? The blog encourages me to pay attention and to share what I see, but I am very curious about what you get up to. Let me know what helps you to appreciate nature, and what helps you to make the most of your garden or local area. I am definitely up for new ideas.