The Great Slime Kings

I sadly haven’t written here for a while due to some looming university deadlines – the last few weeks have been meted out in a rhythm of research, essays, and library fines. My mind ticks and whirs through word counts with only the odd moment reserved for writing. But a recent encounter on the streets of London has spurred me to take a break from schoolwork and surrender to the temptation to write here which has been nagging me on the stroke of every hour in the library. Walking home late from a long day of work, when the sun had set and the streets were dark, a curious little shape suddenly flitted past my feet. Of course, my inquisitive self couldn’t just carry on walking home after that, so I turned and followed in the direction I saw it go. It was a tiny thing, so within a few strides I had caught up to it – it was a little brown frog, with bright amber, quivering eyes, and with a quick movement I swept it up onto my palm.

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Funnily enough, this has happened a couple of times in London. Frogs and toads get in a very sociable mood on days when the air is heady with the smell of rain, and they eke out adventures in the newly-formed puddles. On the way home from a night out in Camden I once caught a young toad, much to the surprise and admiration of the friends I was with (if it’s such an impressive skill, perhaps I should add ‘frog-and-toad-catching’ to my CV!). What I got from my friends in that chance amphibian meeting was a lot of questions: how did I know it was a toad, how on earth did I manage to catch it, is it true that frogs and toads are allergic to human skin. So, I’ll answer a few of them now – frogs and toads have already started laying eggs in ponds and small rivers, so you may well come across some in the near future.

If you find an adult, it’s easy to tell if it’s a frog or a toad – I have always thought that frogs are a bit nicer to look at. Toads are rounder and squatter, frogs more delicate and less warty. A sure-fire way to tell is to give the creature a gentle prod – a frog will hop away, but a toad will crawl.

As for catching the little things, I honed my skills over some serious frog-catching training in my childhood. My mother’s friend, Ann, had a huge garden, rambunctious with overgrowing tree-roots, wild-flowers and long grass, cut with a patch of water in the middle. Whilst mum and she would sit and drink tea whilst chatting, Ann’s husband would sit with me by the pond and help me to catch the frogs that had made it their home. Of course, it wasn’t easy – I had to coat my hands in pondwater (which I’ll explain a bit later) which made them about as easy to hold onto as warm butter, and with but a few hops they could reach the protective arms of the wild grass never to be seen again. The power of their hind legs has been a perennial source of fascination, propelling this little thing so far that it can escape the heavy-handed clutches of clumsy humans. But with trial and error came a timeless tactic: to cup our hands over them and gently scoop them up whilst keeping our palms closed, before slowly opening our hands. Then the frogs would sit happily with us, the strange pink giants who found them so endlessly fascinating.

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It is crucial to remember, however, that frogs and toads are extraordinarily fragile. They have very sensitive skin that absorbs chemicals easily – if you smoke, or have used soap or handcream in the last few hours, you should really leave them well alone, as harmful toxins can pass from your skin to theirs. Like I said, I always used to dip my hands in pondwater first, although the creatures are so covered in mud and water usually that it’s okay to handle them with dry hands, so long as you don’t hold onto them for too long. They are far more likely to be hurt by jumping and falling out of your hands, so do keep close to the ground to avoid any death-defying leaps.

I mentioned a little earlier that frogs and toads are laying eggs round about now. To spot frogspawn, look for clumps of clear jelly, smattered with black dots, in ponds and streams that are thick with algae and weeds. In similar habitats you may also find toadspawn, which are long, clear tubes with the black dots inside. When they become tadpoles, take a good look at their colouring – dark brown tadpoles will grow into frogs, whilst black means little toads.

The life cycles of frogs and toads were also an integral part of spring in my younger years. Wellies were donned, dungarees pulled over knees scraped from tree-climbing, and with a jam jar in one hand and a net in the other, I was ready to go off tadpoling, catching the little critters with sticklebacks before releasing them when it was time to go home. One year, my father let me keep a few of the tadpoles I had caught so that I could watch them grow. The trusty jam jar, not longer looking sad and empty,  was placed on my windowsill with an array of other natural objects – a tiny bird’s skull, a shark’s tooth, pebbles and twigs. I would watch the jar carefully, drawing out its contents into notebooks with bright colours and bold sweeps of a pencil. I would think of all the famous frogs and toads from my storybooks – Toad of Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, and all the fairytales that promised a magical transformation if I plucked up the courage to kiss one. Every morning sleepy legs were pulled out of bed and directed to the jar, marking how the hind legs grew out of the body, from tiny lumps at the back reaching further and further out like strange tendrils until they became spindly limbs. I watched the tail shrink and googly eyes grow, until that black blob of cells became a minute, perfectly formed, creature. And then they would grow mischievous, escaping out of the jar and dancing across the window sill and its keep-sake obstacles to the sounds of my mother’s horrified gasps ad my delighted giggles. When that happened, we released them into the wild, to live lives taking after one of the storybooks sitting on my bookshelf.

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Luckily, my experience of these wonderful creatures was much happier than Seamus Heaney’s, whose poem Death of a Naturalist I’ll finish with. I have always loved this poem despite being unable to relate to it – my inner naturalist has always indeed been alive and kicking! So much for the ‘plop’ and ‘slap’, I have always found frogs and toads to be charming and delicate delicate little creatures, bodies and flesh like wet tissue paper clumped over a hair-breadth wire carcass. But anyway, I think it’s time for me to get back to my essays, so here is his beautiful poem.

Death of a Naturalist

All the year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampots full of the jellied
Specks to range on the window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like snails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

– Seamus Heaney

Bats

Daubentons Bat

Daubentons Bat

Blossom, daffodils, blue, green, pink; my wool winter coat has been cast to back of my wardrobe, the windows beam with sunlight and birds chatter at dawn. It seems that spring is finally blooming here in London, drawing out shy flowers from the hard winter soil and gently waking up a whole range of animals from hibernation. Snakes, hedgehogs, bats, frogs, and bees all (very sensibly, if you ask me) escape the cold winter weather by hibernating in special habitats, before spending the balmy afternoons of springtime seeking food, a place to roost, and a mate. Bats will be struggling the most in this transition – according to the Bat Conservation trust, all of Britain’s species are endangered. It is a very sad thought that they are struggling to maintain their numbers: bats are intelligent and unusual animals, and an integral part of British wildlife. The image of a cloud of bats flitting in great arcs over roofs at the arrival of dusk is something that is quintessential of the British countryside; an important part of the landscape we must do our best to preserve.

Bats have gained an unfair reputation as blood-sucking, rabid little vermin, but really they are lovely, shy creatures who mind their own business and actually play an important part in keeping natural spaces healthy and thriving. None of the 17 British varieties of bats will sink its fangs into you and drink your blood – ours are all insectivores – and the three vampire bats that do exist (in Central and South America) are harmless, painlessly extracting inconsequential amounts of blood from pigs, chickens and other livestock. The association between bats and all things spooky and supernatural stems from the ancient Celtic summer festival of Samhain, when huge bonfires would attract insects and, naturally, their predators – the bats. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead were present at these events, so they instinctively linked bats to messengers or signs of the spirit world.

Long-eared Bat

Long-eared Bat

Some cultures say that it’s lucky to have a bat in the house, but you’d be just as fortunate to have them in your garden. Just one of these little mammals can eat 2,000 – 6,000 insects in a single night, and even the teeny tiny pipistrelle bat can get through about 3,000. As for calling somebody “blind as a bat” – I suppose it could be taken as a compliment! Bats can actually see perfectly well in black and white, and have evolved echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey. [‘Echolocation’ is a system used by animals whereby the creature emits a (usually high-pitched) sound that reflects off the object and returns to the animal’s ears. The animal then works out the distance of the object from the time it takes for the echo to return.]

You can make your garden bat-friendly, helping to boost their dwindling population and thrive post-hibernation, in a number of simple ways. You can encourage insects by extending the flowering season for as long as possible, and plant hedges, trees, and bushes to provide navigation aids and good roosts. Ponds and standing water without fish are a haven for insects like hoverflies, mosquitoes and midges, and you’ll soon see bats swooping over the water’s surface to catch their prey. For the ambitious, installing bat boxes on mature trees or the side of buildings is the ultimate bat-friendly act, and you can find out more on the Bat Conservation Trust website. Such small acts pile up to form a barricade around these elusive and misunderstood creatures and allow them to thrive, flinging their tiny bodies over the horizon at dusk and darting like tadpoles through the growing gloom.

'Ophelia' by Arthur Hughes, 1852

‘Ophelia’ by Arthur Hughes, 1852

A Daubenton’s bat is added to the corner of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelite painting to portray a scene of rural English whimsy. Daubenton’s bats are sometimes known as water bats as they feed insects on the surface of the water. This one hunts in the bottom-left corner underneath the willow tree.

Magpie Moth

I have always been strangely fond of moths – where most people react with annoyance and a swift swipe with a rolled-up newspaper whenever one traipses in from outside, I’m always very glad to see one. I like their tiny feet, phantom wings, and silent flight. When I was at university in Durham I often used to sit with window open, trying to catch one as it flew into the light cast by my desk-lamp. I once caught a buff ermine moth down by the river Weir – after goading it into my hands I began the insurmountable task of trying to get my friends to touch its soft and fluffy coat, though my efforts were met with shrieks and flurries of feet pounding in the opposite direction.  Many of the moths in England are truly beautiful creatures – you’d be forgiven for thinking that all British moths look like those little brown things that tumble over the window sill like scraps of parcel paper, but many are astonishingly striking and exotic-looking.

 

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Magpie Moth (Abraxus grossulariata)

The magpie moth is a common sight throughout the summer, and loves light and shiny objects as much as its corvine namesake. These pretty moths were once a great favourite with collectors because they could easily be bred to create forms with new and unusual patterns – they were the perfect guinea pig. Their black spots and yellow splodges to me look like the ink splodges one might find in a psychiatrist’s office, or the print of a dress, reminding me of how often silly images can overlap human and nature.

 

 

[Small elephant hawk moth (Deilephila porcellus), caterpillar, and pupa].Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

This colourful little splodge is widespread in our gardens, parks and open country, cutting through the gloom with its rich pink and green colouring. The most astounding thing about these moths is their eyesight, which is perfect colour-vision, even when it is too dark to see at all. Its young larvae are especially striking – the moth gets its name from their long, trunk-like noses.

 

 

tumblr_lzxtrlQpyW1qk931ho1_500Death’s Head Hawk-Moth (Acherontia atropos)

A summer visitor from Africa, you may recognise these creatures from a certain well-known movie poster. If you look closely, you’ll spot an astounding pattern on the moth’s back, an eerily distinctive skull-shaped pattern. This huge (and huge they are – we found two in our garden shed last summer and my mum mistook them for mice!) and relatively rare moth loves honey, and will often sneak into beehives in search of its favourite treat. Once there, it displays another peculiar characteristic: it squeaks. It’s thought that this noise pacifies the bees, but if you pick one up it will make the same noise, so it may also be a defence mechanism. Or perhaps it just has a very excitable personality!

 

 

images (2)Large White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

The white plume moth looks like a wispy, skeletal fairy; a moth shape cut out from tissue paper. Its feather-like wings and long, spindly legs can be found especially dotted on wasteland.

The London Naturalist Pt. One

Living in London, it can be rather difficult not to feel completely cut off from the natural world. Most of the greenery I see all week comes from walking down a tree-flanked dual carriageway towards the Strand, and the abundance of wildlife in the capital can really be limited to an overgrown population of pigeons and the odd mouse scrabbling about on the tube-tracks. Luckily, though, the city becomes a wealth of fascinating natural history once you know what to look for. So here’s the start of a sequence of blogs on exactly that – little things to keep an eye out for that small enough for you to catch on your way to work or outside your window, but big enough to give you an idea of what’s going on in another world besides our human one.

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Firstly – the budding shoots of wildflowers, a sure sign that winter is singing a bitter swan-song. Taking a walk recently I was cheered to discover a green stalks, white flowers and dots of orange and purple of a cluster of snowdrops and crocuses all braving the odds in an old abandoned flower-pot. Bluebells clung to long grass like glitter to wool along the woodland paths, and  the crocuses and snowdrops splattered the old greens and browns of the countryside with rolling trails of colour. As soon as these wild-growing flowers start appearing, you can be sure that warmer weather and longer days are on the way, and best of all, that we are one step closer to summer.

Another thing I’ve been noticing recently are big clumps of twigs and grass in the skeletal winter branches, about the size of basketballs. I saw a lot of these in Regent’s Park, which is incidentally one of my favourite places to catch up on nature’s projects and indulge in some wildlife-spotting in the middle of the bustling city – as well as its famous collection of rare and exotic waterfowl, here (even in my limited experience!) you can catch glimpses of herons, butterflies and the odd hedgehog. It’s a lot quieter than the other royal parks in the centre – presumably because everyone is looking at the exotic animals in London Zoo next door rather than bothering with the quotidian offerings of  the park. Anyway, a bit of research told me that these constructions are made by magpies, and are the beginning of these birds’ especially impressive nests. These nests are amazing, really: huge, spherical, layered, intricately woven, and incorporating thousands of miscellaneous pieces. They are big messes but they’re strong – some smaller mammals,such as foxes, will live in them for years when they have fallen to the ground.

Magpies are also a very underrated bird, I have always thought. They have an absolutely terrible reputation as pests – their populations are soaring at a time when songbirds and garden regulars are struggling to survive. Their hoarse, cackling call  doesn’t endear them either, imitating their literary and folkloric associations with evil and misfortune .

Magpies will always remind me of my dad – when I was little, he told me a silly story about it being very good luck to salute whenever you saw one and greet them with “Morning Major!” (I still have to clamp my tongue down now to avoid any public embarrassment).The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified”, which I think is quite a perfect description. They are opportunists and scavengers – inquisitive, curious, talkative, and skilled in disclosing things that have been concealed. If they were people, they’d undoubtedly be journalists or academics, picking and picking at whatever they can find, putting together scraps of information to build strong and artful projects.

Everyone knows what magpies look like: they are truly striking birds. Look out for its bright patches of white off-setting an elegant black iridescence of bronzes, greens, blues, reds, and purples, like colours rippling on the surface of a deep lake.

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And next time you see one, remember to count them – you can read your future with this rhyme! (Yet another of my silly dad’s stories!)

“One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Starling

I suppose I should start this blog with an introduction of sorts. Hello! This is a blog I’ve just started up to share my life-long love of nature and wildlife. It’s not exactly the coolest thing for a 21-year-old to be writing about, and like most people whilst a mildly embarrassing hobby I completely blame my upbringing. My father, a maths teacher by trade, was a true naturalist at heart, and his influence, combined with a heavy dose of Ted Hughes and the Romantics from my English-teacher mother, meant that my childhood self forsook Barbie dolls and real friends for a life of fishing, bird-watching and spider-hunting. Whilst the spiders and I haven’t really seen eye-to-eye since one rudely ran up my sleeve when I was ten, my love of nature and the great outdoors has continued throughout my life. For me, being able to understand and interact with a world beyond the confines of human construction is a great gift. I moved to London last September and am slowly learning to cope with the dearth of green here by exploring the city’s parks and gardens and writing about them whenever I can. I also love literature, writing, and art.

For my first post, I thought I’d introduce one of my favourite birds; the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). I was going to save this one for a bit later, but a lovely I story heard today changed my mind, and pushed this little bird to the front of my th0ughts.

tumblr_mfc8zwCqI61qjnbwdo1_500The New Yorker Eugene Schieffelin is famous to many for introducing starlings to North America: he released sixty starlings into Central Park in 1890, and another forty in 1891. The birds, tough cookies as they are, were hardier than any other species Schieffelin tried to introduce: his attempts with bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks all led to nothing (except a lot of dead birds in New York). Perhaps a pretty boring story so far. But, his reason behind the release is, I think, really touching in its simplicity: he wanted Americans to hear and see every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. For Schieffelin, the starling, who we often dismiss as a nuisance, or overlook in it ubiquity, was a way to match ideas of literature and science, and to bring the stories of Shakespeare alive.

How can you spot a starling? Well, luckily its looks take after its name – look for a bird whose plumage reminds you of a beautiful night sky, nourishingly deep and full of stars. There’s your starling! If starlings weren’t so numerous, I’m convinced it would be treasured exotic. Its plumage shines with green, blue, purple and turquoise when it catches the light, and it is a dazzling flier. The female of the species is not so pretty – they are plain, brown birds and a little smaller. But all starlings are brilliant mimics – it has 15-20 imitations of other bird calls, and has even been known to imitate phones ringing and car engines. There are also local dialects of imitations, which is such an odd thought!

Yet for all its beauty and intelligence, the starling is a bit of a yob. It will push smaller birds out of its way to get food, and chuck seed around before it eats it. Starlings’ nests are just as messy, often being just a jumble of twigs and grass. They are very noisy neighbours, too – the female will choose the male with the loudest and most complicated song for a mate, and even when they flock together, the synchronised movement of their wings makes a ‘whoosh’ sound loud enough to be heard hundreds of miles away.

StarlingStarlings are one of my personal favourites for their pretty plumage and flock displays, which pull and gather in the sky like great elastic clouds. I befriended one in my first year of university, which has given me a real fondness for them (sounds like the start of a Pixar movie, right?). I was allocated a ground floor room in the spring term which overlooked a patch of land at the back of the college; a green lawn protruded by an oak tree that sprung up like a wizened finger and hushed the surroundings into soft quiet. My Dad, a life-long naturalist, used to send me big bags of bird seed in the post to feed the birds out of my window, which, painfully uncool as it seemed to my peers, I took great delight in doing. All sorts of birds would gather around my window like a circus of old friends – blackbirds, sparrows, blue tits and robins would weave ribbon paths around the shape of the old oak. But they were very shy and always kept their distance from me – except for one, a starling. After a few weeks this little one began to really trust me (or became increasingly desperate in his quest for food, who knows), and would perch on my thumb to eat seed from my hand. When some of the trees nearby blossomed, petals became his favourite food – they were like chocolate to him! So, they have been one of my favourite birds ever since.