Breakfast in the Garden

Huge buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) on bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara)

Dear Readers, I love to take a leisurely breakfast in the garden when I’m not working – it’s interesting to sit alongside the other creatures as they start their day. The table is close to the bittersweet and honeysuckle: I planted the latter but the former just appeared, and has proved to be so popular with wildlife that I’ve let it stay. The low-pitched buzzing of the bees as they arrive, followed by the high-pitched whizzing sound as they buzz-pollinate the flowers has been a source of much delight to me. I was most intrigued to see an enormous queen buff-tailed bumblebee attempting to buzz-pollinate one of the flowers – she was about as big as my thumb to the first joint, and I’m guessing that she’s fattening up before finding somewhere to hibernate. She certainly seems like a well-fed individual to me. For a size comparison, there’s a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) below, and a quick video of some buzz-pollinating.

Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) with Common Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

I’ve mentioned before that the birds are noticeable by their absence, but I have continued to put out the live mealworms, and they’ve all disappeared (though part of me hopes that some of them have escaped into the undergrowth). However, today I noticed a tiny movement in the jasmine, and for once I actually had the camera ready.

I have heard wrens lots of times in the undergrowth, but rarely see them, and they are very hard to capture on film as they are so active, always bobbing about and intensely wary.

I suspect this one is a youngster – it still looks a little fluffy and has the yellow skin at the base of the beak which helps the adults know where to stick the caterpillars. I’m glad to know that the mealworms are providing a readily-available source of protein, as most young garden birds in the UK are fed on insects, even if they’ll be gramnivorous as adults.  As we know, wrens punch well above their weight in terms of the decibels that they produce. This one had no sooner landed and picked up a few mealworms than it zipped back into the lilac, scolding at the top of its voice.

And what could the reason be? It appears that my cat, usually terrified to venture outdoors, had decided that now was a perfect time to take a hesitant stroll around the patio. Readers, meet Willow – she’s fourteen this year so looking a little scruffy but apart from high blood pressure she’s doing very well. She was rescued when she was three, and was a real scaredy cat when she arrived as a foster cat with her brother, who was a real bruiser. When he was rehomed (much to her relief) she really started to blossom, and we decided that she was the cat for us. She is pretty much perfect (says the proud mother).

Willow

So, after a brief tour the cat heads back indoors, and it’s time for me to go indoors too, but not before sussing out the butterfly that’s landed on the hemp agrimony. The twin eyelets on the upper wing tell me that it’s a gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), and furthermore it’s a female – the male has a dark band across the upper wings.

Now, for all you citizen scientists in the UK it’s the Big Butterfly Count at the moment – it started last Friday so I’m a bit remiss, but it runs until 9th August so there’s still plenty of time. You can download an app for your phone from the link above, or go old-school and use a chart. And this year you can record as many times as you like – all you need to do is watch a specific patch for 15 minutes and record what you see. This is a relief for me because I get different butterflies at the front of the house (buddleia and lilac) from in the back garden (at the moment, hemp agrimony and honeysuckle mainly), and I suspect my lovely patch alongside Muswell Hill Playing Fields will have yet more species. I think it’s been a bumper year for butterflies and moths, so let me know what you find, and I will post on the subject some time next week. Have fun, everybody!

Friday Book – ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’ by Nick Hunt

Dear Readers, like many of us I have been working my way through my reading pile during lockdown, and this book, ‘Where the Wild Winds Are’ by Nick Hunt, has been such a pleasure. Partly it’s been the joy of reading about travel at a time when the furthest I’ve been is Hampstead Heath, but it’s also because Hunt has introduced me to all sorts of things that I’d never thought about.

Firstly, why is it that in the rest of Europe there are so many named winds? In the UK there is only one, the Helm, which is an extremely local phenomenon . If we go onto mainland Europe we find the Foehn of the Alps, the Mistral of southern France, the Bora of the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic Sea, and the Halny of Slovakia and Poland.

Hunt decides to go and find four of these, starting with the Helm which blows from the east over the top of Cross Fell in the northern Pennines. It was described by the Reverend William Walton as producing

‘ ..a loud noise like the roaring of distant thunder; and it is carefully avoided by travellers in that district ….as being fraught with considerable danger‘.

A sign of an approaching Helm wind is the Helm Bar, an unusual cloud formation ‘polished smooth on the underside, that wallows above the top of the range in an otherwise empty sky‘.

Hunt is full of hope on his first trip, but is soon to be disappointed:

Twice I thought I heard a roar that might be the wind picking up, but in this I was disappointed too: the first turned out to be an HGV on the A66, and the second a black bull bellowing in a field’.

Hunt turns out to be an entertaining and enlightening guide to the winds of Europe: in previous theologies the winds were gods, and they each have their own characters. The Bora, for example, is a clean, clarifying wind, and the author has many adventures en route to finding it. He starts his journey in Trieste, which is one of the ‘mouths’ of the wind, where the cold air bottled up from the north east erupts over the Karst plateau and through gaps in the mountains. The city is immensely proud of the wind, which seems to be in contrast to its otherwise rather prim, melancholy nature:

Every guidebook I’d read, every article, every internet travel forum, mentioned the Bora as a kind of local celebrity, invariably listed alongside the city’s other famous visitors – Casanova, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, Stendhal, James Joyce – but far more wild, melodramatic and frequently returning. Much is made of the ropes and chains slung along pavements at intersections for people to cling on to on Bora days – many have been removed as people kept stealing them for souvenirs- and shops sell postcards of flying hats, uplifted skirts and pedestrians bent at forty-five degree angles. The Bora is, as Morris says, ‘fundamental to Trieste’s self-image’.

Photo One by By Angusprain - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15269321

The Bora on the Molo Audace in Trieste (Photo One)

Sadly, hats remain firmly on heads and skirts remain demure during Hunt’s time in Trieste, so he heads south, through Slovenia, to another ‘mouth of the wind’, Senj.

Photo Two by By Roberta F., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18336862

Effect of the Bora in Senj, Croatia (Photo Two)

The Bora, named for Boreas, god of the north wind, is largely seen as a cleansing wind,

‘Burja (Bora) is a healthy wind. People who live on the Kras (Karst) are strong. In the wind, they grow thick skins’.

This is in strong contrast to the Foehn, the wind of the Alps that Hunt looks for next. It has a reputation as a wind that makes people sick with depression, and there is even a name for the disorder; Föhnkrankenheit. . In Liechtenstein, a lady in the tourist office describes how the wind makes her feel:

‘I get very bad headaches’, said the buxom lady behind the desk in flawless English. ‘They start a day before each Foehn. You can feel the pressure in the air. Oh God, I cannot stand it’.

Hunt feels the full effect of this himself:

A nameless apprehension gnawed at me, a feeling that somehow, something had gone extremely wrong. I thought of the journey still to come, and felt only exhaustion. The rucksack-pain in my shoulders, and the boot-pain in my feet: I simply wanted them to stop. I was sick of this restless travelling, of endlessly meeting and parting from people. I was sick of the mountains, the valleys, the light: I was sick of wind. But mostly I was sick of myself. What the hell was wrong with me? I had come all this way to meet the Foehn, and now that I had found what I wanted – or it had found me – I felt completely wretched.

And then a lightbulb went on in my head. This was how I was meant to feel. ‘

Maybe the effect is because, unlike the Bora, the Foehn is a hot wind, known in Alpine regions as ‘the snow-eater’ because it can melt snow in a matter of hours. It is also a terrible spreader of fire, and Hunt mentions several instances of whole villages being reduced to ashes because the Foehn carried the sparks from one building to another.

Photo Three by By Depunity - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58262284

What causes a Foehn wind (Photo Three)

And finally, Hunt goes in search of the Mistral, following the Rhône river south from Valence to the Crau country, on the east of the river. The Mistral is associated both with mystery and with madness, and one particular kind of madness seems to crop up on every walk that Hunt does: a deep fear of the other. On every walk, he has a discussion of some kind about immigrants, but on the Mistral walk he stays overnight with a French- Algerian man who is living in Avignon:

He had lived in England for a year , ‘by the sea in a house which was called Mistral.This is the French word for the wind…..’ I nodded and said nothing. ‘In that house I felt at home. I felt so free in England. You can go to a nightclub wearing what you like,  you can even go in your pyjamas and no one will stare at you. In France it’s different. Especially in the Midi,  they will not let me into a nightclub even if I put on a suit, because of my skin. They see my clothes, they say ‘come in’, they see my face, they say ‘no thanks’. People in Provence are very small in the mind’.

Photo Five by By Nick Stahlkocher - Stahlkochers collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909719

Oak bent by the Mistral in Sardinia (Photo Five)

I’d have to say that there are plenty of people in England who are also very ‘small in the mind’, but the theme is one that continues to appear wherever Hunt goes, much to his discomfiture. However, not all his encounters are so difficult: he talks to some extremely interesting people, such as the man in Trieste who runs a ‘Museum of the Bora’, and has a collection of jars of other samples of the wind from all over the world. Then there are the people who descend on a mountain hut in the Dinaric Alps with brandy, cheese, bread and meat and throw an impromptu all-night party in the midst of the Bora.  The walks manage to thread together science, history, the natural world, geology, and the intensely personal. His final few pages on the Mistral reach a kind of catharsis that is rare in writing of this kind, and I found myself intensely moved. He is camped on the bare plain of the Crau country, and night, and the Mistral, have come.

‘Deprived of sight, I could only feel. The world was simplified even more. It was just the Mistral and me.

The dry tide ebbed towards the sea, and I was just another rock caught within its current. For the first time on these walks I understood – for a second at least – what was actually going on around my body, under my skin; the molecules of air rushing from high pressure to low pressure, with their cargo of charged ions, righting an atmospheric balance knocked off kilter. What felt like violent, tearing force was actually the restoration of peace; what felt like furious motion an attempt to reach stillness’.

What a wonderful book this was – I cannot recommend it highly enough. And I would love to know if you have a local wind where you live, and if they seem to have an effect on the culture, or on the mood, of the people who experience it. I am positively wind-powered at the moment!

Incidentally, Nick Hunt also co-wrote one of my favourite recent books, ‘The Parakeeting of London‘, which explores the history of our feral parakeets and discovers that the attitudes towards them are nearly as diverse as the humans who observe them.

Photo Six By SiefkinDR - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3443498

The bell tower of the church of La Cadiere d’Azur is open to allow the Mistral to pass through (Photo Six)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Angusprain – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15269321

Photo Two by By Roberta F., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18336862′

Photo Three by By Depunity – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58262284

Photo Five by By Nick Stahlkocher – Stahlkochers collection, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=909719

Photo Six By SiefkinDR – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3443498

 

A Visit From The King of the Cats

Dear Readers, I allowed myself a whole half hour in the garden before the third part of my Zoom Away Day today. What a pleasure it was to see a Big Cat drinking from the pond! I have written about Bailey before – he is a magnificent creature who lives a few houses up the road from me. This year he will be eighteen years old and so he is a little slower and more arthritic than he was when we first moved in, but he is still a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

Bailey has previously drunk water in our kitchen direct from the tap, but today he seemed in the mood for something more ‘natural’. I suspect he is getting a bit deaf, because he didn’t turn a whisker when I crouched down to take his portrait. Or maybe he just doesn’t care. He has always been a most implacable cat, who knows exactly what he wants and where he’s going, regardless of other cats or humans.

He still has the world’s loudest miaow, and after a drink he made it very clear what he wanted.

Sadly, i have a very nervous little cat of my own these days, and so Bailey is no longer allowed in the house. He used to wander in and sit in the armchair for hours. Today, he just looked a little put out, and went to a sunny corner of the garden for a doze.

It is always sad when we see those we love, human or animal, becoming slower and older, but there is a kind of beauty to it too. There is something dignified and thoughtful about this cat, and we could learn much from his calm demeanour and direct but gentle ways. There is no doubt that he is in the autumn of his years, but he is still undeniably himself, a cat with his own way of doing things and no desire to change. I wish for all of us such a peaceful twilight.

 

Wednesday Weed – Mugwort – An Update

Dear Readers, I have what is officially known as ‘the week from hell’ this week, with another two half-days of Away Day and a whole gamut of ‘stuff’ to sort out. So, having been most intrigued with the mugwort that I found last week, I thought I’d give my post another airing. And, so that you don’t think I’m slacking off completely, here are a few new photos from the weekend. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to write about a very common and widespread ‘weed’, especially one that may have slipped under our radar. So it is with Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a member of the Daisy (Asteraceae) family. It has sprays of little, unobtrusive flowers, deeply-cut leaves that look silver underneath, and it is said to be faintly aromatic, though as usual I forgot to check out the scent.

Mugwort looks like a quintessential ‘weed’ – not the kind of thing that you’d want to pop up in your garden for its good looks. Indeed, Richard Mabey reports that in Lancashire it’s known as ‘Council Weed’ because it always seems to appear after the local council have sprayed everything else. And yet, it was once known as Mater Herbarum (the Mother of Weeds) and is one of the Nine Sacred Herbs of the Anglo-Saxons:

‘Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.’

Medicinally, it seems to have been mainly used in two ways: to ease period and childbirth pains, and to lessen the shaking of ‘the palsy’. It was thought in Wales that a bunch of the plant tied to the left thigh of a woman in labour would ease her distress, though the plant had to be removed immediately after delivery to prevent haemorrhage.  The dried leaves were used to ease ‘hysterical fits’, and were also thought to be a cure for epilepsy. It was probably these  medicinal properties that resulted in it being imported into the UK in ancient times (it’s native to mainland Europe, Asia, North Africa and Alaska, and is naturalised throughout North America).

One of Mugwort’s alternative names is ‘Poor Man’s Tobacco’, and the dried flowers have been smoked by young people since time immemorial. Smoking the plant is said to cause vivid dreams. As if being an intoxicating drug wasn’t enough, it has also been used to flavour beer (much like ground ivy), and some think that this is where the name ‘mugwort’ originated, beer being drunk from a pottery mug in those days rather than a glass. If you would like to have a bash at creating your own Mugwort beer, there’s a recipe here.And if you get very keen, there’s a recipe for an ancient gruit beer here: gruit beers predate hops, and so are closer to what our medieval ancestors might have glugged down, just before they fell, singing, into a hedge.

An alternative reason for the name might be that ‘mug’ is a variant on the old word ‘mouchte’, meaning moth – the leaves have long been thought to be efficacious against clothes moths.

In Cornwall, the leaves were used as a tea substitute when ‘real’ tea grew too expensive during World War ii. It is also used as a culinary herb for stuffing roast goose on St Martin’s Day in Germany, although as it is  closely related to that bitterest of herbs, Wormwood, I suspect it may be an acquired taste. Mugwort is used extensively in Korean and Japanese cuisine, but  the plant they use is not ‘our’ mugwort. Some members of the genus Artemisia are much more bitter in flavour than others.

Mugwort has a long association with St John the Baptist, and with travellers. The saint was said to have worn a girdle of the plant for protection when he was in the wilderness, and stuffing your shoes with mugwort is said to be a talisman against everything from fatigue to being attacked by wild beasts. In Holland and Germany, the plant was gathered on St John’s Eve (23rd June) as a protection against misfortune in the year to come. I note that this is very close to the Summer Solstice, and may be yet another example of the blending of Christian and Pagan beliefs.

You might think that the Latin name for Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, links the plant back to Artemis/Diana, the goddess of hunting in Greek and Roman traditions. However, there is some thought that it is actually named after Artemis II of Caria, a botanist, medical researcher and naval strategist who died in 350 BC. She managed to hold off the navy of Rhodes, who advanced on the little island of Caria because they thought that a female ruler would be easy to defeat. She soon showed them their marching (sailing) orders. However, she is best known to history as the woman who drank her dead husband’s ashes in a goblet of wine every day as an act of extravagant mourning. The fact that her husband was also her brother adds a salacious frisson to the whole tale. Many artists took to their brushes to depict this scene, rather than her naval victories.. Women are so much less threatening when they’re imbibing their husbands and looking mournful. Especially when their blouse is dropping off.

Artemisia Prepares to Drink the Ashes of her Husband (attributed to Francesco Furini, circa 1630- Public Domain)

And to end, here is one of the last poems of Edward Thomas. I don’t recall the honeycomb smell of ‘mugwort dull’, but there is something about this work that captures that moment, poised between summer and autumn, between hope and despair, that I feel in my bones. I’ve read it once, and then again. It haunts me. Strange days, indeed.

The Brook

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.
Last Poems, 1918.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Quiz – A Moth Medley – The Answers

White ermine moth ( Spilosoma lubricipeda)

Dear Readers, there are some splendid results from this week’s quiz, with Fran and Bobby Freelove, Leo Smith and OKthislooksbad all getting a handsome 15 out of 15, and with Alittlebitoutoffocus getting a respectable 11 out of 15. Welcome to our first-time posters, and thank you for taking part.

Dear Readers, let’s see how we got on with this little challenge. The answers are below. I hope you had fun! Deciding which moths to include certainly had me thinking about the variety of forms and habits of this fascinating group of insects. I could easily have found another fifteen to include, so sorry if I missed your favourites this time. And I managed to resist the urge to include a clothes moth.

Photo One by user B. Schoenmakers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

1)h) White plume moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

Photo Two by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

2)a) Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

Photo Three by Rob Mitchell / CC0

3)k) Angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa)

Photo Four by Rob Mitchell / CC0

4)j) Box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis)

Photo Five by Yusuf Akgul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

5)f) Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

Photo Six by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

6)d) Buff tip (Phalera bucephala)

Photo Seven by Nzhymenoptera / CC0

7)g) Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

Photo Eight by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

8)c) Mint moth (Pyrausta aurata)

Photo Nine by By Lairich Rig, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13619082

9)o) Six-spot burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)

Photo Ten by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

10)i) Blood vein (Timandra comae)

Photo Eleven by Rob Mitchell / CC0

11)e) Red underwing ( Catocala nupta)

Photo Twelve by Rob Mitchell / CC0

12)n) Magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata)

Photo Thirteen by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

13)b) Brimstone (Opisthograptis luteolata)

Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

14)m) Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)

Photo Fifteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

15)l) Large emerald (Geometra papilionaria)

Photo Credits

Photo One by user B. Schoenmakers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Photo Two by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Photo Three by Rob Mitchell / CC0

Photo Four by Rob Mitchell / CC0

Photo Five by Yusuf Akgul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Photo Six by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Seven by Nzhymenoptera / CC0

Photo Eight by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Nine by By Lairich Rig, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13619082

Photo Ten by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Eleven by Rob Mitchell / CC0

Photo Twelve by Rob Mitchell / CC0

Photo Thirteen by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Fifteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Sunday at Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Greater knapweed (Centaura scabiosa)

Dear Readers, I realise that I forgot to mention the ‘closing date’ for the Moths Quiz yesterday – I will be posting the answers tomorrow morning, and if you want to be ‘marked’, please pop your answers into the comments by 5 p.m. UK time today. As you were!

Dear Readers, Sunday has become the day for visiting my favourite spot for wildflowers along the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. One gift of the current lockdown has been the chance to experience a single place repeatedly over the progress of the seasons, and I am becoming attuned to the way that plants and insects have a natural succession, with one fading as others come into flower. And so it is that the greater knapweed are just starting to go over, although their seeds may attract finches later in the summer.

White Comfrey (Symphytum orientale)

The white comfrey is almost finished too, but there are still common carder bees visiting the flowers.

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense)

The creeping thistle has taken over from the greater knapweed as the plant of choice for all the bees at the moment, but even here we can see it going to seed.  The seedheads always remind me of tiny shaving brushes.

I always check the ragwort for cinnabar moth caterpillars, but actually there isn’t much of this plant about – I think it’s out-competed by some of the other plants.

The white deadnettle is in full flower now, and there are little patches along the edge of the ‘border’, as I’ve come to think of it. If you planted up a garden bed for pollinators and other wildlife, you couldn’t do much better than this.

White deadnettle (Lamium album)

There are a few open spots where the birdsfoot trefoil is growing. I love the raindrops on the leaves, and the different colours on the flowers and buds.

Common birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

The fennel is in flower, and when you look at the shape of the ribs that support the flowerheads, they look just like upside-down umbrellas, hence the old name of the group – umbellifers (from ‘umbel’, a parasol or umbrella). It’s little things like this that help me remember what group a plant belongs to.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

And now we have some white campion, to succeed the ragged robin and bladder campion that I noticed earlier in the year.

White campion (Silene latifolia)

And here is something really interesting (to me at least). You might remember that when I first discovered this area, I was speculating that it might have been the remains of a cottage garden, and it’s certainly the case that this area was a farm up until the mid 1850’s. Why else, I wonder, would there be a beet plant collapsed in the middle of all the thistles and knapweed? Whether this is a sugar beet or a beetroot I have no idea, but if you have any notion, do let me know. I am still holding onto the idea that this was once the farmhouse garden, but they are unlikely to have been growing sugar beet.

Beetroot or sugar beet?

Beet flowers, but which kind?

Another passing pleasure is the development of the greater burdock flowers. I love the way that, if you look closely, you can see that the buds are covered in tiny hooks. This plant was, after all, the inspiration for Velcro.

Greater burdock (Arctium lappa)

The mugwort is just coming into flower too. This is such an inconspicuous plant that it took me nearly four years of the ‘Wednesday Weed’ to notice it. But it was one of the most powerful of all ‘weeds’ according to Anglo-Saxon lore, and it seems to me that we need those powers now. She was known as the Mother of Weeds, and this is what the Nine Herbs charm has to say about her:

‘Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.’

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

And finally, there is the enduring mystery of what on earth some lambs-ear (Stachys byzantina) is doing here. This is a garden plant, much loved by wool carder bees who take the hairs from the silvery leaves for their nests. It looks so out of place here, amidst all the ‘weeds’, but then there’s that beet. This is a most puzzling piece of wild edge, neither one thing nor another, incapable of categorisation. Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

Lambs-ear (Stachy byzantina)

Sunday Quiz – A Moth Medley.

White ermine moth ( Spilosoma lubricipeda)

Dear Readers, there are moths everywhere, but they are amongst our most underappreciated insects. This week, I am aiming to put things right! True, some of them are pests, but all of them have their place in our complex ecosystems. Where would our bats be without a mothy mouthful? Here are fifteen species for you to identify. Have fun!

Choose which moth is which from the list below. So, if you think moth 1) is a Jersey tiger, your answer will be 1) a)

a) Jersey tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

b) Brimstone (Opisthograptis luteolata)

c) Mint moth (Pyrausta aurata)

d) Buff tip (Phalera bucephala)

e) Red underwing ( Catocala nupta)

f) Hummingbird hawk moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

g) Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

h) White plume moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

i) Blood vein (Timandra comae)

j) Box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis)

k) Angle shades (Phlogophora meticulosa)

l) Large emerald (Geometra papilionaria)

m) Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)

n) Magpie moth (Abraxas grossulariata)

o) Six-spot burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)

Photo One by This image is created by user B. Schoenmakers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

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Photo Two by AJC1 from UK / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

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Photo Three by Rob Mitchell / CC0

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Photo Four by Rob Mitchell / CC0

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Photo Five by Yusuf Akgul / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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Photo Six by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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Photo Seven by Nzhymenoptera / CC0

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Photo Eight by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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Photo Nine by By Lairich Rig, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13619082

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Photo Ten by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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Photo Eleven by Rob Mitchell / CC0

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Photo Twelve by Rob Mitchell / CC0

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Photo Thirteen by Patrick Clement from West Midlands, England / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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Photo Fourteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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Photo Fifteen by nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

15)

 

 

A Pleasant Surprise

 

Dear Readers, as you might remember it was part one of my team’s online Away Day today. It started with a ‘fun activity’. I am usually allergic to ‘fun activities’, because one thing I learned very early in life is that what is ‘fun’ for one person can cause acute embarrassment in somebody else. But, as it happened, this was fine, and the rest of the afternoon was stimulating enough to keep me going. Nonetheless, it was a relief to go and sit out in the sun for twenty minutes midway through. I had been sitting for a bit when I noticed the male blackbird looking quite agitated: he was making a series of soft contact calls. Furthermore, he stuffed his beak full of mealworms. Now, he had my attention.

And then I noticed a small movement in the lilac bush.

The blackbird flew into the hawthorn bush and continued to call.

And then, look who popped out!

Fledgling blackbird

As you might remember, the male blackbird has been hard at work for the past month, gathering mealworms and suet and taking it off to his nest, and here is the result of all his labours – a healthy, almost adult blackbird, who still obviously expects to be fed at the moment, but will hopefully pick up the knack of survival from their hard-working parent.

And, to add to the joy, here is another baby.

Fledgling robin

A new robin – looks like the robins must have successfully reared at least one from their second brood. It really has been a spectacular spring for lots of birds. With all the misery that this year has brought, I find myself taking such solace from new life.

A Little Bundle of Fluff

Fledgling goldfinch

Dear Readers, today we were visited by a single fledgling goldfinch, who sat stuffing their face with sunflower seeds in a most indecorous way. They spent a while trying to work out how to get the seeds out, before realising that they could put their whole heads into the hole and extract a selection of seeds. Then, they munched on them in a most reflective way, with bits of feed dropping to the ground and getting stuck in their feathers. Let’s hope they find a more efficient way of eating before the winter comes.

I’ve spoken before about the naivety of young birds, the way that they just sit there when all the other birds are making alarm calls and generally freaking out. This one just sat there when I went outside with the camera, although the pigeons were exploding from the other feeder with wing claps and general brouhaha. I wondered if this one was unwell, but suddenly it seemed to wake up and flitted off into the lilac.

If Francis Bacon painted a goldfinch it would look a bit like this…

And then it’s back upstairs to get stuck into doing a few more project reports for the climate change organisation that I work for these days. Tomorrow, we are having an online Away Day, and we have to find ourselves a ‘fun accessory’. I think that my leech socks would be ‘fun’, but I don’t want to have to wave my legs about in front of a bunch of folk, so it might have to be my Tilley hat. Let’s see how much ‘fun’ 3 hours on a Zoom call actually turns out to be.

Where Have All the Birdies Gone?

Dear Readers, the hubbub in the garden has stilled, the suet feeders swing empty, the mornings are bereft of birdsong and the most excitement that we have at the moment are a couple of woodpigeons beating one another up on the seed feeder. The change is so sudden, so extraordinary, that it’s easy to forget that this happens every single year, and in a way it’s good news – it’s proof that birds aren’t completely dependent on us, and that they can still find their own food when they want to.

But why does it happen?

Firstly, for most birds, the breeding season is pretty much over, the youngsters have literally ‘left the nest’ and the parents no longer have to worry about provisioning them. Even my live mealworms are left wriggling on the bird table, and I suspect that a fair few escape to freedom which is only fair. I think it’s no coincidence that the only birds who stick around in my garden are the ones who breed all year, such as the collared doves and the aforementioned woodpigeons. These birds can feed their offspring on ‘milk’ that they generate themselves in their crop, so are not so reliant on seasonal food and so can reproduce whenever the fancy takes them (which is frequently judging by ‘my’ birds, who spend most of their time chasing one another around with a lustful glint in their eyes).

Woodpigeons beating one another up.

Secondly, there is a lot of ‘natural’ food around for the next few months. Many insects are out and about, the hedges are already full of brambles, and there will be a positive feast available for younger birds to learn about. Fledglings need to learn where the other food sources are locally (and sometimes not so locally – blackbirds, for example, often have a place where they breed and a place where they overwinter). Plus, many young birds will be off finding territories of their own, which will push them further afield. All in all, it’s holiday-season for many creatures, and unlike us, they don’t have to worry about the impact of Covid-19 on their planned destinations.

But finally, many birds will be in moult at this time of year. Feathers don’t last forever, and they are of such vital importance to everything from insulation to flight that they have to be looked after and eventually replaced. For many birds this is a slow process, as the bird needs to retain enough feathers at any one time to make sure it can keep warm and make an escape if necessary. The birds tend to stick to a well-protected area with plenty of food available, and something like a bramble hedge is perfect. No bird wants to risk fluttering to a feeder if there is insufficient cover to pop back into. Plus, creating new feathers takes a lot of energy, so birds tend to do this after breeding and before the need to migrate or to put on fat for the winter.

If you are lucky enough to see a baby starling at this time of the year, you might notice that it has some juvenile, dull-brown plumage, and some of the darker, more iridescent adult plumage.

Starling with full adult plumage

One type of bird that has a particularly tough time of it during the moult is the duck. Ducks, geese and swans lose all their feathers at the same time, which means that they can’t fly but have to stick to the safety of the water. To reduce the vulnerability of the more brightly-coloured drakes, they lose their brightest feathers first, which can lead to a variation on our main question: where have all the male ducks gone? The rather dowdier- looking drakes are said to be in their ‘eclipse plumage’ and this, my friends, is why identifying duck species at a wildfowl reserve is something of a challenge in the summer months. Female ducks, who may still have ducklings to care for, often lose their feathers later. One species, the shelduck, actually makes a ‘moult migration’, leaving their breeding grounds all over Europe to descend in vast numbers on the German Waddensea coast. Hundreds of thousands of shelduck arrive in July, and will leave to migrate to their wintering grounds once the process is complete. Although most European shelducks head to Germany, some spend the moulting period much closer to home, in Bridgewater Bay, Somerset.

Shelduck in January looking very pristine!

And so, although our gardens might be empty of birds, it’s a relief to know that they haven’t deserted us because they’re fed up with the quality of the food that we provide, or the way that we always seem to be at home these days. They are going through a perfectly natural process and, believe me, when the weather takes a turn for the worse they’ll be back, en masse, looking for mealworms. We just need to turn our attention to the other, smaller, less obvious critters in our gardens: keep an eye open now for queen bumblebees of many species, fattening themselves up prior to hibernation. And of course, the slow reddening of the berries, and the ripening of the blackberries. It looks as if it might be a bumper year!

Two siskins and a chaffinch in the garden in December 2017

 

 

Scene in May