The final croak
September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
A dark day in the sun
The heron ate my frogs.
Not “a heron”, but “the heron”. In Ireland, serious threats are accorded the definite article: the fox, the blight, the whooping cough, and — on that fine day last spring — the heron.
Or rather, it was a fine day for the heron, but not so for the frogs. They had already had a stressful year. Spring had come early, and gone away again. January was so mild that the frogs had spawned on the 7th (the earliest date yet in my twenty-one-year stint in this garden). They spawned again at the end of the month, and then, spring retreated and winter blew back in with flurries of sleet and snow.
When spring finally reappeared in March, they were in the pond again — glorious, tumbling bundles of fornicating frogs. I left them to their work, undisturbed by my camera. After the difficult start to the year, they deserved some privacy and peace.
The heron thought otherwise.
My phone rang. It was a neighbour: “Are you looking out the window?”
No, I wasn’t (for once).
“There is a huge bird eating the frogs — like a crane or something. It’s amazing!”
I was torn: should I reach for my camera, or should I shout at the dogs to scare off the intruder? A quick look out the window revealed that it wasn’t a crane (a very rare visitor to Ireland), but — as I suspected — a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the largest heron in Europe, which is native to Ireland, Britain and much of Europe and to parts of Asia and Africa. My glance revealed also that it was too late for the frog, dangling darkly from the bird’s brutal bill, so I grabbed the camera.
I felt like a traitor towards the amphibians with whom I had shared many summer afternoons by the tiny pond, but I wanted the picture. I am, after all, keen on wildlife, and here was wildlife — and wild death — happening right in front of my lens. Still, I felt affronted and angry. I had nurtured the frogs, thinking of them as “my” frogs, although they were nobody’s frogs but their own. But now, it was apparent, they were the heron’s.
The frog that was in the heron’s bill, and that would soon be in its stomach, was old enough to breed, so it was three or four years old. What a way to go. One minute in the throes of reproduction, and the next in the jaws of death.
I moved closer and closer to the heron. Was there a touch of annoyance in its golden, predator’s eye? Eventually, it unfolded its massive wings and flapped off to perch on a tree in a neighbouring garden, the frog still hanging from its bill.
It swallowed it whole (and still alive?), and moved to the top of a swing set, perhaps contemplating its next move. Would it be able to cram in another frog? It was the heron’s own breeding season, so perhaps it was stocking up on food to regurgitate later for its chicks. A magpie arrived, sat next to it on the wooden bar, and then dive-bombed it several times. Maybe the magpie, a ruthless predator itself, was worried what might happen to its future offspring if the heron got too comfortable in this place.
The big bird came back to rest on the wall of my garden, but I saw it off too. I felt mean scaring it away, but it had already helped itself to several frogs. I thought it would probably be back before I managed to get some netting for the pond.
And indeed it was: a while later it was swishing its yellow bill around in the weedy water, as if stirring a pot of porridge. After I had rigged up an unlovely wire grid over the pond — with room for songbirds and frogs to scoot under — the heron returned several times, puzzled at this barrier to its food source. It sat on the greenhouse roof (where it made a striking finial ornament), waiting to see if the wire mesh might somehow disappear. It didn’t. In making the pond inviting for the frogs, I felt I had a duty of care for them. The heron, I decided, could go somewhere else.
The Month of Froguary
February 22, 2012 § 23 Comments
I’ve been in full voyeuristic mode recently: peeping out of an upstairs window with binoculars, and then, when the moment is right, rushing out the door. My camera is raised in the shooting position as I barrel down the steps and I’m firing it off rapidly, papparazzi-style. But, mostly I’m drawing a blank. Or, if I’m lucky, getting something like this:
Which is nice, because it’s always cheering to see photos of frogs lolling around, nonchalantly taking the air. Or, I might get something like this, which is also nice, because it’s arty and amusing, and it gives you a warm feeling about this particular character:
What I’m really after, though, is a good, juicy photo of frogs mating. But that’s not easy. Although there are at least two dozen amphibians making whoopee in our tiny garden pond, they are desperately shy. Oh, I can see them bashing away and the pond rippling like a bubbling cauldron when I’m at a safe distance. But as soon as I get within a few paces, there is a split second of furious detangling and rapidly churning water. And then, they’re all gone. Except for a few innocent heads poking out of the water.
Frogs are impossible to sneak up on. Their bulging eyes give them near all-round vision. And our pond is not the most secure place. While crouching behind the Bergenia ‘Wintermärchen’ and hoping to get a better photo, I am assailed by an eye-stinging pong of fox urine. Our neighbourhood foxes, I imagine, are partial to the occasional frog dinner, and have been patrolling the garden more than usual.
So, I decide to leave them in peace and to sit a while where they can’t see me, and I can’t see them, but I can listen to their fluty croaking. Actually, the sound they make is far more melodic than a croak. It’s more a soothing, sonorous purr.
For me, watching the frogs may be entertaining and thrilling, but every year, after trying yet again to get photos of them in flagrante, I have to remind myself that this annual mating spree is a crucial part of their lives. Each female Rana temporaria produces around two thousand eggs, and she may mate with many males (often several at a time) in a process called amplexus. But only a few of her blobby eggs will reach adult froghood, three years down the line. Along the way, most of the tadpoles will be eaten by other water dwellers, or even each other (a gruesome sight to behold when you’re idly gazing into the depths of the pond). And baby froglets — no bigger than a pea with legs — perish if they can’t quickly reach a nearby cool and leafy sanctuary when they first venture out of the water.
So, I’m hanging up my frog-shooting camera until next year, when I’ll probably try again. My best bit of spawnography yet was taken two springs ago. Here it is, an uncommonly busy bundle of common frogs.
January 17, 2012 § 18 Comments
At this point in January, it really should be winter. But the balmy weather has fooled plants and animals into thinking that we’ve moved into spring. So, I’m re-naming this month Springuary, the first month of Sprinter.
The blackbirds and the greenfinches have been dawn-chorussing for days now. They crank up at around 7am, which is a much more civilised hour than the rowdy 4.45am reveille in May. And occasionally, I hear a lone blackbird practicing its wobbly notes in the dead of night. Apparently the young males take advantage of these quiet hours when there is no other competition: they can perfect their warbles and riffs without it turning into territorial oneupmanship (or oneupbirdship). A pair of collared doves — a species that can mate for life, and mate all year round — are looking decidedly frisky, in a beige and puritanical sort of way.
The little redpolls, who arrive in winter and depart in spring, are still visiting. So there is a jumble of birdlife at the feeders.
On the floral front, there is a crazy collision of seasons. The snowdrop, Wordsworth’s “venturous harbinger of Spring, and pensive monitor of fleeting years”, is flowering weeks early, while the last rose of last summer, a long-blooming Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is still hanging on palely. Shasta daisies and hardy geraniums are also popping out the occasional, surprise flower.
Many plants that normally bloom in mid or late spring are already flowering. Among them is the little bronze-leaved celandine, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, discovered in an English wood by the late Christoper Lloyd. And, on our boundary, the evergreen Ceanothus ‘Trewithen Blue’ has been blooming for months. Usually it takes a break in winter before throwing its energy into a proper late-spring display.
I have to admit that although it is fascinating, I find this hodge-podge of a season disturbing. I wonder am I alone? What’s flowering in your garden that shouldn’t be?
And now, two bits of exciting news:
1. My book, The Living Garden: a place that works with nature, is to be published in Germany by Verlag Freies Geistesleben in 2013. I’m very happy about this, especially since it is a nod to my many German ancestors, who account for at least three-quarters of my blood, and who enjoy euphonious names such as Seberger, Muller, Strobel, Zilberstorff, Routzong and Wahl.
2. I have a new job, as gardening correspondent for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. I’ve enjoyed the last few column-free months, but it’s time to put on my opinionated garden lady bonnet again. Next weekend, on January 22nd, the Sunday Times is launching a new forty-page section, called “Sunday”, which will feature Irish content exclusively. So, besides my weekly gardening spot, there will be restaurant and wine reviews, cookery (from Mary Carney, winner of MasterChef Ireland), a motoring column, outdoors and lifestyle features and loads of other things — all from Ireland. I’m quite excited. At a time when most newspapers are slashing and burning, it’s very heartening that the Sunday Times has taken on a raft of new contributors (anyone know what is the collective noun for journalists? A cliché of journalists?)
The Sunday section is available exclusively in Ireland (not in the UK, alas). Why not stroll into your local newsagent next Sunday, January 22nd, and give it a go?
**UPDATE** I’ve just heard that the Sunday section will be online on the Times website. Hurrah!
Life on Rozanne
September 19, 2011 § 25 Comments
One of the best hardy geraniums is ‘Rozanne’. It has large purple flowers that bloom from early summer until autumn. In a good year, it performs for six months. It is a tremendous sprawler, and isn’t recommended for small gardens. Even though we don’t really have the room, we grow it in several of our borders. We control its conquistadorial tendencies by hacking chunks off the clumps — which is really a form of extreme dead-heading. It looks frightened for a few days, and then it quickly pulls itself together and produces a fresh flush of flowers.
For years, ‘Rozanne’ was confused with the very similar ‘Jolly Bee’, and only gardeners-in-the-know professed to be able to tell the difference. One was more sprawly than the other. Or maybe not. [Warning: unless you have a burning desire to watch a nomenclatural tangle being unravelled, you might want to skip the next paragraph. But, do click on all the photos in this post: they’re quite interesting. I’ve a novel surprise for you at the end, as well.]
Both are hybrids of G. wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’, with G. himalayense providing the other parent for the first, and G. shikokianum var. yoshiianum for the second. And both are patented plant varieties, which means that they have brought in wads of revenue for the patent holders — Blooms of Bressingham and Dutch breeder Marco Van Noort, respectively. However, in 2010, a court ruled that they were too similar to be distinguishable, and that ‘Jolly Bee’ should cease to exist as a separate variety — bad news for Van Noort, who would no longer receive plant breeder’s royalties. To confuse matters further — and such are the convolutions of plant nomenclature — the original name of ‘Rozanne’ is ‘Gerwat’ (the first appellation under which it was registered) although it is known as Rozanne® in the trade.
The thing that is rarely written about ‘Rozanne’ though (or ‘Jolly Bee’, for that matter), is that it is a complete hit with invertebrates. Honeybees, bumblebees, flies, hoverflies, ants and other small creatures flock to it, to drink its nectar and to pluck the bits of pollen that are tucked into its stamens.
The marmalade fly (above) is one of the few hoverflies that actually eats pollen. Before ingesting the grains, it crushes them between its front legs (I nearly said “paws”, as I have a huge affection for this particular species and find it easy to get a little woolly about it).
‘Rozanne’ is sterile, that is, it produces no seed. This characteristic allows it to bloom for a very long period. Normally, a plant’s biological clock tells it to stop flowering when it has made enough seed to perpetuate itself, but a sterile plant has no “stop” for the blooming mechanism. It flowers until colder weather and lower light levels say it’s time — finally — to quit. So, the gooey amber pollen grains that you see stuck to the furry stigma below have fallen on barren ground, as it were.
I’ve noticed more insect varieties on ‘Rozanne’ than I have on any other plant in my garden. Here is a pretty common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum):
In my patch (and in many other Irish gardens) it is the most frequent bumblebee visitor. One of its identifying features is its furry, ginger-coloured waistcoat. In sunny weather, the hairs can become bleached, turning it into a blonde bumbo. If you look closely while it is feeding, you’ll see that it has quite a long tongue. It is one of only two bee species that feeds on our native foxglove. The other is the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), which has the longest tongue of any bee in the UK and Ireland: 1.5 to 2 centimetres when at full stretch. It often leaves it extended when it is flying between foxglove blooms, as below:
But back to ‘Rozanne’. It is also, as I mentioned earlier, very popular with flies. I’ve seen loads of different species visiting. I’m not sure of this one’s name (if there are any dipterists reading this, please do help), but it didn’t mind standing quietly and having its picture taken:
Let’s take a closer look at that:
Yes, the fly is blowing a bubble. Slowly, slowly out and slowly, slowly in. I’m not sure why it does this, but I have read that it may aid food digestion. In any case, it was so focussed on bubble-blowing that it stayed perfectly still while it was having its portrait taken. Isn’t it lovely?
It’s a Jungle in There
July 28, 2011 § 11 Comments
This blog post, planned for weeks, was supposed to be a warm and cosy one, coming to you from my kitchen. It was going to be about growing and pickling my own chillies, something I’ve been doing for years.
However, this comfortable, domestic idea was swept aside when, after noticing that the chilli leaves were a little mottled, I started looking at them with a loupe. I suspected an infestation of red spider mite (which loves the hot dry conditions in our conservatory). This tiny pest is usually deterred by frequent misting with water — but not in this case, it seemed. A closer look was required.
When magnified eight times, the surfaces of the leaves showed themselves to be thronged with livestock. I knew that there would be plenty of aphids (those are easily seen with the naked eye), but I could not see a single red spider mite — minute eight-legged characters that look like the tiniest ticks imaginable. However, rambling between the aphids were small green sausages on legs. Thrips! I had thrips! A new pest! It was exciting and disgusting in equal measure.
I can’t show you a thrip, as they are too small for my camera lens to capture, but I can show you the damage that their larval sausages do, when they rasp away at the leaves with their mouthparts.
I’ve nearly defeated them by spraying the afflicted plants regularly with insecticidal soap, an organic pesticide suitable for soft-bodied pests. I don’t use any sprays in the garden, as matters there are generally kept under control by the higher-ups on the food ladder eating the lower-downs. And I don’t want to harm any beneficial insects. But, indoors is a different environment. Pests increase rapidly in the heat, and I don’t have birds, hoverflies, ladybirds or other predators to keep order.
Or do I? Recent leaf inspections have shown an increasing number of mummified aphids. A few weeks ago, I had noticed one of these characteristic items, which look like bronze aphid statues, on a chilli plant that was a gift from organic grower Madeline McKeever at Brown Envelope Seeds.
Aphids such as this have been parasitised by a tiny wasp. The female injects an egg into an aphid, and when the larva hatches, it consumes the insect from the inside out. Next, it pupates inside the empty body, and finally, hatches out, leaving a neat round porthole where it exits. Females lay 100 to 300 eggs during their two-week adult phase.
The wasp is so small that it could be mistaken for a fungus fly, but it flits around the leaves of a plant, rather than above the compost or soil.
At present, on the chillies that I treated only once or twice with the insecticidal soap, there are aphid mummies all over the undersides of the leaves, like precious bronze decorations.
This is far more exciting than thrips, which fortunately haven’t reached this side of the conservatory yet. While taking the above photos, I came across a fly on one of the chilli plants. It has nothing to do with this story, but here are two portraits anyway, as I think it is a fine-looking creature. In the first one, it is eating something on the faded flower (aphid honeydew, perhaps), and in the second, it is rubbing its “hands” together in that annoying way that flies have.
Ménage à Trois (or even quatre)?
April 21, 2011 § 5 Comments
The dunnock is a small, brown bird that creeps about on the ground, foraging for insects and creepy-crawlies. Its plumage is drab and puritanical, and its movements, are — for the most part — those of a preoccupied old lady, shuffling down to the shops for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.
Its apparent modesty and decency prompted the Victorian ornithologist, the Reverend Frederick Orpen Morris, to preach to his congregation that they would do well to emulate the dunnock: “Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”
Morris was born in Ireland, near Cork, the son of a British admiral and his wife, Rebecca Orpen, who was the daughter of the vicar of Kelvargan, in Co Kerry. After attending Oxford and taking Holy Orders, Morris was posted to various parishes in Yorkshire. He was a serious amateur ornithologist and entomologist, publishing many essays and pamphlets, and editing and revising several books. Despite his great output and dedication, it is the quotation above that is most often wheeled out by writers today. And with some glee.
The dunnock is, in fact, anything but unobtrusive and retiring, and its habits are hardly humble or homely. The dunnock is — oh, Reverend Morris, if only you had known! — mad for sex. Arrangements where a female is mated with two males are not unusual. Or sometimes (less frequently) a male has two females. Or sometimes there is even a spot of avian swinging, where two pairs mix and match.
I’m put in mind of this because for the past couple of weeks there has been a great amount of dunnock activity in our garden. And very little of it includes shuffling about on the ground looking for food. Instead, there are three birds dipping and diving, fluttering (and, I presume) flirting. The sexes look the same in this species, so it’s not easy to tell males and females apart. But, judging from the way that one bird (the beta male?) frequently skulks just out of sight, I suspect that we have the more usual dunnock ménage à trois of one female and two males.
According to N.B. Davies in Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1992) females “made life difficult for an alpha male by actively attempting to escape his close attentions and by encouraging the beta male to mate!” And later he describes that “On several occasions I saw females hiding away with the beta male under a hedge or bush. When the alpha male came by searching for them, they crouched down and remained motionless until he had passed by.”
Why would the female dunnock want to mate with more than one male? Well, it seems that it’s for the survival of her brood. When a female is raising her chicks, a male will help to feed them only if he has copulated with her earlier. So, it makes sense for her to have two regular partners, even if it means scooting off into the bushes with Beta while Alpha is looking the other way.
As for the males’ motives: obviously they want to mate with as many females as possible in order to ensure the survival of their genes. Their mating approach is unusual, to say the least. I’ll let N.B. Davies put it into words: “The act of copulation itself is extraordinary, with a male pecking the female’s cloaca carefully for a minute or so before he mates.” The reason? So that she ejects the sperm of her previous mate. In the dunnock world there is a veritable orgy of copulating, as male birds compete for paternity. Nature, therefore, has given Reverend Morris’s “quiet and retiring” dunnocks particularly large testes: they weigh 64 per cent more than those of most birds of their size, and have sperm reserves about 1,000 times greater.
Those Damn Dawn Birds
April 6, 2011 § 11 Comments
I love the birds, I really do. But this morning they woke me up with their break-of-day hollerings. They woke me up yesterday too. And they are probably going to wake me up every single dawn for the next month or two.
This morning, I recorded 30 seconds of their uproar: which you can hear here:
It sounds considerably sweeter now than it did at 5.59am.
But when I think that this may have been one of the participants (born and reared in a tangle of honeysuckle):
And that this may have been another: “Oscar” (all our robins are called Oscar):
I feel a bit better disposed towards them (until tomorrow, that is).
Coming up Cabbages: a few words on Cordylines
February 11, 2011 § 22 Comments
Ireland is often a green and misty land (although less greener than usual during this cold winter). And one of the things that surprises visitors is the sight of “palm trees” incongruously raising their mop tops through the Celticky fog. They decorate our towns and suburbs, they are blasted by the salt air on our seafronts, and they are often seen in pairs guarding the entrances to farmhouses. But, they are not palm trees at all: they are the New Zealand native, Cordyline australis. They enjoy the common name of “cabbage tree”, supposedly because settlers in New Zealand found the young leaves to be a tolerable substitute for cabbage.
Cordylines are much loathed. Partly it is because of the occasional and near-indestructible leaves that the trees shed (dried, they make great kindling) and partly — I think — it is because they have both lowbrow and suburban associations. It’s not unusual to see them sprouting out of a jolly carpet of summer bedding. In other words, in the eyes of a certain kind of refined gardener, the cabbage tree is a shining example of bad taste.
One of the first things that cordyline-haters do upon inheriting one in a garden, is to hack it down to the ground. The trees are unfazed by such insults, and regenerate eagerly, popping out several stems in the place of the previous single one. Good for them. This winter and the last, though, have not been kind to cordylines, and the inland parts of this country are littered with their still-standing, but mummified, corpses. I fear they may not rise again to annoy the better classes of gardeners.
Where I live, however, all these misunderstood New Zealanders are in the pink of health. Our barometer has not dipped lower than minus 5 degrees Centigrade (23 F), whereas elsewhere in Ireland, the temperature was ten or more degrees colder. In our mild climate, the cordyline blooms every year. The angular panicles are crammed with creamy flowers, which open in late spring, and go on for weeks. The scent — strongest in the evening — is powerful and lily-like. For me it is one of the exhilarating fragrances of early summer. Bees would seem to agree. They love the flowers, and work them all day. And in the autumn and early winter the thousands of ivory-coloured berries, which are full of fats, help to keep birds alive. My neighbours’ tree across the road is a busy re-fuelling point for blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blackcaps and wood pigeons.
If you don’t like cordylines, or if they don’t do well in your colder area, then — as we say here in a very self-righteous voice — I’m sorry for you. And you’re not likely to be interested in knowing that they belong to the same family as asparagus, Asparagaceae, a clan that also includes lily-of-the-valley and hosta.
You should have been here last week
August 25, 2010 § 14 Comments
“You should have been here last week.”
If you’re a gardener, you’ve said this a hundred times to visitors, even though — after the twentieth time — you know how clichéed and ridiculous it sounds. When you’ve been saying it for a few years, you’ve got to the point where you’ve tried it out in so many modes, from self-deprecatory to funny-voice, that you’re right back to being sincere again. Because, really, the garden is always better in retrospect, or in the future.
Or rather, it is when you find yourself looking at it through other people’s eyes. All the holes in the planting, the weeds and the other horrors rise up and spoil the view. But the gratifying thing — in my patch, anyway — is that when the visitors leave, the garden settles down again and stops being inadequate. When there’s no-one around to judge, when it’s just me and the garden, I’m content. And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are gardeners who garden so that other people can see their efforts, and there are those who don’t. I’m one of the latter: one of those who like their space best when there is no-one else in it. For us, tending a plot of ground is a solitary pastime.
Except that it is not. We are never alone in a garden. There are birds and bees, and sometimes butterflies, and other interesting things such as worms and woodlice. For me, these creatures are as important as the plants that grow here. I try to garden as much for them as I do to make a pretty picture or a productive patch for myself. The longer I garden, the more I feel that the space outside my door doesn’t really belong to me, but to the gazillion other beings that inhabit it. I know that I’m the one in charge, but if the garden were the territory of only me and the other people who live in this house, it would be a pretty dull place. If there were no opportunistic robin following me around, or no surprise frogs in the long grass, or no fat worms pulling the mulch underground, I wouldn’t have half as good a time out here.
It’s not that I don’t like visitors: I do, but they sometimes make me feel a little on edge and over-protective of my garden. And I start babbling the “you should have been here last week” excuse. But, to tell the truth, I’m quite glad that they weren’t.
SNAP DU JOUR
He-She lives here too (they’re hermaphrodites, you know)