Nature is coming

ears

Dear Wood Warbler,

I’ve been extremely slack in my nature watching lately. But whenever I’m too lazy to go out and find nature, nature just says: ‘Don’t worry! I’ll come to you!’ It keeps turning up in unexpected places. There was the barn owl hunting in my mum’s back garden on a sunny afternoon. The avocets wading through the marsh near her house. The terrapin who has just taken up residence on the New River Walk. The young foxes playing in my road at night. The delightful cockchafers, with their Michael Heseltine eyebrows, landing on my laptop…

Fats Bassoon

And the wood ear mushrooms, growing on trees, that demanded to be eaten. (See pic above. They were delicious).

And then there were the newts.

Spotty ones, smooth ones, nearly transparent ones, and lovely Great Crested ones who have turned my in-laws’ swimming pool into Newt City.

great crested newts

Is there anything more relaxing in the world than looking at newts? It’s something about the way they sleep, drifting through the water, arms and legs outstretched, totally unconcerned about the world.

On the evening after I’d seen the newts, I sat on the steps of the house, and looked up at the stars, enjoying the peace of the spring evening. A peace which was disturbed pretty thoroughly when a RAT scurried out from under my feet, and zoomed off across the grass. I say rat – it was really the size of a small horse.

A couple of nights later, I was in my bedroom at my mum’s house, reading a book, when I noticed a large bug circling around the light. The windows were shut, so I was just wondering how it had got in, and whether it was a hornet, when it flew towards me and I realised that it was, in fact, a bat. A magical, beautiful bat. By the time I’d got the window open, it had flitted off on a tour of the house. After opening all the windows and doors I could find, (damn you, window locks!) I watched it in the hall, turning circles in perfect silence, until it finally disappeared into the night.

So. What’s next? At this rate, I’m expecting a badger under my pillow any day now. I’ll update you.

Love,

London Pigeon

PS Once Great Crested Newts have been discovered, it is illegal to disturb their habitat in any way. So if you hear of any evil property development going on, all you have to do is sneak into the site and ADD GREAT CRESTED NEWTS. And a pond. I feel like this would make a great plot for a children’s book/actual hobby.

PPS This doesn’t count as nature spotting, but the other day I went to a drawing class and met this lovely creature. He is called Chester. He is a five week old tawny owl. He eats between ten and twelve mice a day.

chester

Springtime is for stealing

 

Dear London Pigeon,

Any sign of your missing frogspawn? Because exactly the same thing happened here. No sooner had spring sprung than the spawn sank. At least, I think that’s what happened as it ALL VANISHED. We were very distressed. We too suspected the fish. But a tense month or so later, hundreds of tadpoles appeared around the shallow edges of the pond. And then, naturally, I did what all sensible people do… I stole some.

Because spring, I’ve realised, is all about stealing.

In winter, living in the countryside is actually quite horrible. It is very cold and very wet and it’s not like the cold and wet stays outside, like it does in cities; this cold uncomfortable wetness INVADES YOUR HOUSE. My toes have been bitten by cold as I’ve slept. My floor disappears beneath a sea of muddy footprints. My nose turns red and stays that way from November to February and the log fire only pretends to give out heat whilst really warming its selfish self. So I see spring as PAYBACK TIME. Nature owes me.

It owes me in the form of tadpoles swimming about my kitchen in the old fish tank, tails jauntily waggling. It owes me in great bunches of bluebells snatched from the woods when no one is looking. It owes me in cow parsley snaffled from the roadside and bowls of floating yellow dandelion heads before they start telling the time. It owes me in forget-me-nots and primroses and unfurling ferns and anything else I can gather up from outside and squash into a jam jar so I can say, “yes, living in the countryside was a really good idea.”

I am a spring thief, just like your greedy carp.

 

 

 

 

The Aventure of the Missing Frogspawn

carp

Dear Wood Warbler,

Spring is definitely here. Delightful spring things I have seen include:

-fat, dozy bumblebees

-cherry trees and magnolias everywhere, their confetti spraying all over the streets

-two lovely butterflies, a little white one, and a dusky reddish brown one, flitting about on the New River Walk. (Sadly I’m not R.L.E.Ford and couldn’t identify them more accurately than that).

A pair of delicate long tailed tits, hopping about, upside down on a cherry tree. (Not really that spring specific, just delightful).

Best of all, I’ve seen clouds and clouds of frogspawn, in the New River. There were so many clumps of it, if every egg was destined to turn into a frog, London would be facing an Old Testament Plague type situation.

At first, the frogspawn was guarded zealously by about fifty frogs. (I didn’t see this myself, but was told it by extremely reliable sources). Then all the frogs left (maybe they weren’t that bothered about their offspring after all). Then…

It disappeared.

All of it. Yards of it.

GONE.

It’s possible that all the tadpoles have hatched. But if they have, where are they? The water is crystal clear. Unless they’re playing an extremely committed game of hide and seek, I’m a little concerned for them. Apparently tadpoles get eaten by all sorts of creatures.  Blackbirds, magpies, cats, even the innocent looking hedgehog quite likes the occasional mouthful. They’re the quick and easy snack food of the wildlife world. They’re tiny, canal-based Pringles.

Personally I have my suspicions about the extremely gloomy carp who I often see lurking in the vicinity. (See above). But could he have consumed that many frogspawn dinners?

I am baffled. But hopeful.

I’m going to keep watching out for them.

Love

London Pigeon.

 

 

 

 

Spring!

deformed frog

 

Dear Pigeon,

Today I want to write, quite predictably about SPRING! Ever since dark, dank, cold, boring, dementorish February I have been desperately seeking signs of SPRING! everywhere. Every year I am fooled by the snowdrops. They emerge out of the hard, frosty ground and I say, ‘Hooray! Spring is here!’ Only of course it’s not. There’s more biting cold to come. Then the crocuses pop-up, flourishing their fancy purple heads on their silly spindly stalks and I say ‘Hooray! Spring is here!’ all over again, only to gaze, dismayed, as they’re squashed flat by a shower of icy rain. But yesterday, I think quite officially, SPRING came. Here is what I saw:

  1. One bumblebee, flying fatly across the path in front of me
  2. Skylark, trilling high, in all its profuse strains of unpremeditated art (that last bit was Shelley, not me).
  3. Most exciting of all, FROGS, mating, in the pond. There’s a clutch of them, gripping each other with all four legs, the males croaking madly, bodies clenched, poor females pushed to the bottom. Already globby lumps of slimy spawn are bubbling over the surface. Last year, we had to pull out a couple of bloated drowned females, their bodies white and startling, filled to bursting with water. This year, there is also one deformed frog, hunchbacked, sadly croaking alone on the pond’s edge. I have included a Victorian freak-show style photograph of Humpy.
  4. One bright yellow Brimstone butterfly
  5. Sweet-smelling blackthorn in blossom

Hooray for SPRING!

What have you seen?

Anyway the wind blows

doris-day

Dear Wood Warbler,

It’s Doris Day! I know that technically, this is bad (bridges shut, trains cancelled, trees crashing down on cars and people), but to be in it, walking to the park, the wind swooshing me all the way there, feels just wonderful.

The wind roars, leaves are scuttering along the pavement, alarms and sirens go off, bins fly across the street, but none of the wildlife looks particularly bothered. The deer in the park look only as nervous as usual, the blue tits and goldfinches flitter about as per, the coots are as deadpan and implacable as they always are, like members of a sinister security detail. The ruffian dogs have come into their own, racing along after the leaves. Only one dog, a tiny, froofy, Parisian looking creature looks bewildered – infact almost personally insulted – by the unusual weather.

How is Doris Day with you – and Fred?

Love,

London Pigeon

PS I loved reading about Larger Moths, and imagining the lovely, patient, careful life of the mysterious R.L.E.Ford. Recently my soothing book of choice has been My Family & Other Animals. There’s almost nothing better, when it’s dark and freezing outside, than being lulled by a description of a sunlit day wending through a reef on Gerald Durrell’s boat, the Bootle-Bumtrinket

As the boat’s turtle-shaped shadow edged across the seabed, the multi-coloured, ever moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded. In the patches of silver sand the clams were stuck upright in small clusters, their mouths gaping. Sometimes, perched between the shell’s horny lips, here would be a tiny, pale ivory sea crab… 

Larger moths

Dear London Pigeon,

I too have been seeking refuge from the news, though not in squirrel sex chases or violent great tit fights. Instead, I’ve been getting my consolation from larger moths, or to be even more specific, The Observer’s Book of Larger Moths.

The book is small and rectangular, clearly made to fit a capacious coat pocket and to be taken out into the field for purposes of identification. And it’s full of the most alluring names: Satin Lutestring, Ruby Tiger, Frosted Green, Pale Tussock, Peach-Blossom, Pebble Prominent and Chocolate-Tip.

These moths sound like a cross between rock star children and Farrow & Ball paint. My favourite, though, is Old Lady Moth, who looks just like Miss Havisham in her faded and decaying wedding robes,  speckeldy-grey with fraying at the edges.

But the book’s soothing powers really come from the voice of its author, the mysteriously initialled R.L.E. Ford. The best way to convey this is to quote him. Here he is on the Fox Moth:

“It is virtually impossible to collect fully grown larvae in the autumn and keep them yourself through the winter.”

Don’t you love the way he says this? As if anyone reading this book might be about to attempt it. He then goes on in more detail: “The larvae pupate on the ground; often the cocoon will be under a flat stone or piece of tin lying on the ground. Larvae kept during the winter die, probably from a fungus disease, but now and then a collector succeeds in bringing a number through.”

Who are these collectors? Do they still exist? Are there collectors out there now, struggling to bring Fox Moth larvae through the winter? I hope so.

I’ve also learnt that the Oak Eggar Moth is one of the best species to watch “to see the females attracting the males by means of their scent glands” and that blowing cigarette smoke down a tube into a tree is a good way to collect insects. But the best story of all brings us back to the Old Lady Moth:

“Once, during an air raid in the last war, I disturbed a fine variety of Old Lady Moth from under some tiles I was replacing after a bombing. Unfortunately, as I was astride a coal-shed roof at the time, I could not give chase. I tried sugaring in the garden around, but the moth did not return.”

Reading this book is like diving into a lost world, in which people watched these fluttering creatures of the dusk with sincere and avid interest, a lifetime of natural knowledge at their fingertips.

I feel greedy for it, that world. I want my head to be filled with bands of yellowish colour in the hind wings, houses spun from leaves and brown cocoons made with coarse silk fibres. Sometimes, if I’m having trouble sleeping, I take it out and read a short paragraph to myself, luxuriating in the minutiae of its prose. It’s the exact opposite of a post-truth Trump tweet or a white paper on Brexit. It confounds the idea you can ever have enough of experts.

And next time I see a moth go by, I’ll reach for my book and see if I can identify it – infuse myself with some of Ford’s love and learning. That is, of course, provided it’s one of the larger varieties.

From troubles of the world I turn to ducks

2017-02-05-18-22-28

Dear Wood Warbler,

The more frightening the news, the more I fancy a nice wildlife distraction. Uncertain Brexity future? Why, just look at that lovely oak tree, it’s been there for seven hundred years! Scared of Putin? Look, lovely ducks. Ducks don’t care about Putin.

At the moment, I’m not sure what kind of wildlife event would be a good enough distraction. Maybe an undiscovered species landing in my garden, or a baby moose turning up in my hall.

In general, I’d like to recommend that terrifying world events should be scheduled in the summer, when there’s so much more lovely & consoling wildlife around.

Anyhow, here are the things I’ve seen this week.

Two squirrels, doing what is scientifically known as a sex chase on the New River Walk. It went like this: chase, pause, chase, a bit of tail biting, chase, break – for both parties to eat nuts. This went on for a while. Finally, (maybe through boredom) the chasee gave up, and the chaser straddled her. Whatever was being done to her, it didn’t seem to have that much of an impact. She carried on eating a nut for the duration.

The second wildlife event was a proper great tit fight in my garden. By the way, if you want to find out more about great tit behaviour, I highly recommend that you don’t google the phrase ‘great tit fight’. I was busy reading depressing news working in my kitchen when I heard all this high pitched cheeping. The two great tits were fighting by the bird feeder – then one managed to pin the other one to the ground. They flew up in the air again, darting around each other, whirring through the garden, before one pinned the other to the garden wall. It was vicious. It was thrilling!

I really thought I liked nature as a tonic against nastiness and violence, but it turns out I’m actually just quite up for watching a massive fight.

This week I’ve also seen lots of tiny shoots and buds appearing on bare branches. They make me think that maybe we’re not in the end times, after all. My favourites are the sloe saplings I’ve got on my windowsill. More of their light green leaves keep bursting out every day. They make me think that the future will contain good things, like life and colour and gin.

Love

London Pigeon