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The berries of the Mahonia outside my front window are mostly over. In the past few weeks they’ve attracted the appetite of many birds. Mostly Blackbirds who have stuffed beakfuls of the blue fruit before flying off.


But there were, fleetingly, Blackcaps, and Starlings have visited on occasion.

IMG_3329 (2)

And to my excitement, I also spotted Song Thrushes, a bird I’ve never seen in this area let alone on the Mahonia. This isn’t to say that they weren’t here before, just that I’ve never noticed them. I know their song, but haven’t even heard them..

I’m not a keen birder – I wouldn’t have the patience to sit in a hide and wait… I prefer to spot them when I’m doing other things, like gardening or sitting at my computer. In a way, I think I feel more connected, each of us going about our business, rather than hunting them with a twicher’s gaze.


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Keep Still!

In an earlier post, I wrote about wanting to get more familiar with the different bees. I’ve been trying to identify them all year, and the only ones I can say I know with any certainty are the first to fly –  the Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes). I thought taking pictures would help with identification but those bees just won’t keep still and blurry pictures aren’t very good for identification! Occasionally, though, I do succeed in taking a good photo or two. These pictures were taken in May on the way to a job.

I was walking past Hampstead Heath and saw the bramble flowers and Hogweed umbels literally buzzing with activity. Great, I thought, I’m sure I will be able to i.d these bees. But when I looked them up, I realised there are cuckoo bees also, which resemble the others. Argh! I said to myself, pulling my hair out. Identifying bees isn’t easy! One of my lovely friends sent me a bee i.d. book, and I must say, I’m even more confused! So many bees, and there are even hoverflies which look like bees!! I will just keep looking at the book and reading bits here ‘n’ there. I’m sure it will click … eventually..

Last week, when volunteering at a local community kitchen garden, I managed to snap an action shot –  a bee mid-flight. And it didn’t turn out blurry. A fluke, to be sure! I like the way the sun is glancing off the hind tibia.


Here’s another bee pic taken that same morning..


Incidentally, for those people out there wishing to help bees by planting lots of lovely pollinator friendly plants, beware! The majority of plants purchased from garden centres have been treated with pesticides to make them look at their most appealing, and these chemicals may well persist in the plant when you plant them out in your garden. While trying to help, many gardeners may well be contributing to the problem of bee decline, even if they work organically. I have been guilty of this – the Lobelia that did so well for me last year in my shady growing space was bought from a local garden centre. But I bought them as bee-friendly plants. Oops!

For more info, follow this link..

There is hope though. From February 2018, no flowering plants sold by home improvement retailer  B&Q will have been grown using neonics, the pesticide most implicated in bee decline.

Of course, another alternative is to grow plants from seeds yourself – if you have room, that is. I only have two sunny windowsills, and these get overcrowded with seedlings as it is.

However you do it, bee kind, bee friendly, bee happy.


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Transpontine.. or Beyond Blandscapes

A chance and eclectic chat with a man on a bus taught me a new word: transpontine. The stranger told me it was particular to the Thames but when I checked the online dictionary, I was disappointed to find it actually refers to oceans (especially the Atlantic, when viewed from the British side).

The supposed specificity appealed to me, and resonated with the book I was reading around that time: Landmarks, by Robert MacFarlane. In it, he writes about the loss of language pertaining to nature, as technology and urbanisation has become an overwhelming feature in our daily experience. The in-depth understanding of our natural surroundings with its associated specialised vocabulary has given way to nonchalance and detachment, making us “indifferent to the distinction between things”. He documents a huge number of rare and obscure words. I had a geeky thrill at those words I knew, such as spuggie and sparrow-grass; but there was an equally nerdy delight at many of the words unknown to me.

There were, of course, words not recorded in Landmarks, and MacFarlane leaves space for “Glossary X… for future place-names and the reader’s own terms”. To this I have added gill woodlandthe stade, and net shops, terms either new to me or long-forgotten having never really learned them properly to begin with. Two of these are very particular to Hastings, a place I visited a number of times as a teenager but had remained in my past until recently. The stade derives from an archaic Saxon word for “landing place”, and is aptly applied to the shingle beach in the Old Town of Hastings, which has Britain’s largest shore-launched fishing fleet. Net shops (as in workshops) relate to the distinctive tall black wooden huts used by the fishermen to store their equipment.

MacFarlane recognises that neither language nor nature is static, and so he also observes new words and readers’ made-up terms. As the grey, urban blandscape (a generic unit, such as field, hill, wood) is my local environment, I suggest some germane splicings of my own, referring to those easily overlooked plants of pavement and wall:

strimpet (from street and limpet, also encompasses imp)

i.e. a paving weed, especially those with persistent roots that are fiendish to winkle out.

Variations which are less satisfactory, but I’ll put out there anyway:

streed (from street and weed)

walleed (from wall and weed)

And a word to describe the paving itself which can become slippery in the rain:

yicey (from York stone and icey)

Returning to transpontine.. A slight alteration based on the old pronunciation of Thames (i.e. rhyming with James) could make it relate specifically to London’s main river: transpontame. Worth a punt?


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Bee Rescue

Yesterday was one of those deceptive early spring days – lovely and sunny but with a bite to the wind. Warm enough for bumblebees to be out foraging though..

It’s a new year’s resolution of mine to gain a better understanding of bees. Dare I say it? I have a bee in my bonnet about it! Seriously. I often read about, and observe, which  plants are “good for bees”, but last year it occurred to me to ask, which bees? The catch-all phrase good for bees was suddenly unsatisfactory. I know the difference between bumblebees and ‘skinny bees’ as I think of them i.e. honey bees and the solitary types. But I don’t really know how to distinguish between those skinny bees, or the various species of bumblebees. So I have begun a curve: a Learning Curve. And last morning provided a perfect opportunity..

I was working in a client’s garden, pruning roses, and doing the general tidying up typical of winter’s close. I was putting the garden waste in bags to be collected by the council (there is a compost bin atop an old Anderson shelter which is a bit precarious to get to, and I didn’t fancy that particular excitement today!) when I noticed buzzing emanating deep from within the bag I was using. Oh no! I’d accidentally buried a bee under a pile of cuttings. Having managed to rescue the bee in distress, I then wondered where to put it to recover. To begin with, I thought of the Mahonia aquifolium flowers, but these were mostly still in bud, and the nearby Viburnum tinus didn’t seem to provide any appeal when I tried depositing the bee on the open flowers there. Next to try were the butter yellow crocus onto which the bee did crawl, but didn’t act enthusiastic about.


Maybe it was in shock! Finally, I tried the flowers of Bergenia cordifolia, and thankfully the bee perked up on these. I was then able to take photos so that I could try and identify it. Not that I took great pictures as the bee kept moving! But I took enough for spotting distinguishing features; namely, the ginger bum (quite easy to miss as this band of colour wasn’t prominent) and the yellow stripe on the abdomen and thorax. So my guess is that this was the Early Bumblebee, Bombus pratorum.


Further investigation tells me that this is a short-tongued bee, and while they cannot access vetches, they are able to forage on allium, lavender, sage, white clover, thistles and other flowers of the daisy (composite) type.

Today is grey and wet; mild but with the kind of chill a damp day brings. I doubt I’ll see any bees.


Chinery, Michael, Complete British Insects (Collins: 2005)

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The Big Garden Birdwatch


Starling on Boston Ivy

Today I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch. I’m not really a twitcher, as I don’t have the patience to sit in a hide and wait for birds to put in an appearance. But I have been seeing some intriguing things in the overgrown shrubbery outside my fire escape (“The Wilderness Beyond” as I like to think of it) and this encouraged me to send off for a pack.

I wasn’t sure what time of day would be best to conduct the survey. I couldn’t persuade myself to get up really early, around dawn chorus, when I thought the birds would be most active, but I’ve spotted some of the most interesting things later in the day. However, we were forecast rain, and I didn’t think I’d see many birds out with their brollies! So I settled for the hour of 9.30 – 10.30am.

I must say, I was quite disappointed by my results, because they didn’t represent the most exciting of what I’ve spotted nor even the most typical of what I regularly observe. Where were the robins and blackbirds that I always spy? I didn’t see a single one of these! The most I saw were three magpies. I also saw a male chaffinch, a long-tailed tit, a blue tit, a couple of wood pigeons, and I questioned-marked a dunnock and a couple of house sparrows. Outside of the birds listed on the survey sheet, I also saw a blackcap.

So what have been the exciting things I’ve noticed generally? On the 17th December, there was a particularly active twenty minutes, when I saw individual robins, blackbirds, starlings and blackcaps, all of which visited the berries of the Parthenocissus tricuspidata clinging to the back wall of the building I live in. There were also greenfinches, chaffinches, goldfinches, and great tits hanging about, and a blue tit even came to my railing and seemed to eyeball me. One bird baffled me so much that I had to look it up. Handily, I managed to get a photo. Turns out it was a female blackcap..


Female blackcap

I noted in a previous post ( The Early Bird ) that I’d spotted blackcaps on the Mahonia flowers, and speculated that they were slurping the nectar. I have also more recently seen blue tits doing the same. I’m not sure what they’re up to really. I don’t know if they are picking at insects, or if indeed they are drinking nectar (do birds do that?)

All in all, the Big Garden Birdwatch is a good thing to take part in, as are all Citizen Science Projects – the boffs can’t be everywhere all the time, so the ordinary person’s observations can help fill in the gaps.  It’s just a shame my birding snapshot was so boring!

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A Theory of Relativity


Size. It’s a relative thing. Take the lowly cyclamen: an ankle-biter to you and me, but not to this chap. It’s the equivalent of a giant sunflower to him.

The context? One of the gardens I work in is used by children, and inevitably the occasional toy gets left lying about. Cyclamen sometimes pops up in unexpected places too, like in the lawn, and I dodge these when I’m mowing so I don’t decapitate them. Today, I found this toy and plonked him next to the towering cyclamen. I wonder if the Jimmy the kid will actually notice the pairing…?


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Phone Home..

Here’s a delightful way to retain a heritage feature without it being totally obsolete..


Not so good if you’ve dropped your mobile phone down a drain, though!

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