Kitchen Birdwatcher: Spring with the Toon Magpies

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Exciting news from the Toon Magpies – they’re building a new nest! It’s in the same tree they used last year, as you can see from the photo above (the 2018 nest is top right, this year’s is top left), which means I’ve had a grandstand seat in my kitchen for the building process again.

The new nest is looking a bit scruffy, but it’s large and I am sure it will be perfectly cosy for the forthcoming eggs. The recent unseasonably warm weather in the UK has increased the building activity to the extent that I now actually think that TWO nests are being built in adjacent trees, by two different pairs of magpies!

Spring is very nearly here…

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Kitchen Birdwatcher: Blue Tits and Toon Magpies

Autumn colour 2018

Yes! The magpies made it through! I am delighted to report that all went well for the brave little magpie pair whose progress I was following from my kitchen window back in the spring, and there is now a large gang of youngsters squawking noisily round the neighbourhood

They are now officially known as the Toon Magpies thanks to my friend Jim, who is a Newcastle United fan (for non football readers, United play in black and white striped shirts, are nicknamed the Magpies, and their fans are known as the Toon Army).

As a result, Jim has decided to name the young magpies after his favourite players and managers from the club. This means we have Sir Bobby [Robson], Rafa [Benitez], Shola [Ameobi], [Alan] Shearer, Speedo [Gary Speed] and more…

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Kitchen Birdwatcher: The Magpies’ Nest

The Kitchen Birdwatcher’s essential kit

I live in west London, right under the Heathrow flightpath, and my flat backs on to a fairly busy railway line that sometimes sees traffic at all hours of the day and night. Noisy, yes, but still a great place to live because (and this may surprise some people) of all the wildlife in the area. There is a perhaps surprising amount of green space nearby, creating perfect habitats for numerous creatures – you’ll find a small park and various allotments (some in use, some derelict) within a block or so of my flat, and the railway line itself is flanked by trees and other greenery.

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A Room With a View

This is the view from my living room window.

Lovely, isn’t it?

I can see these beautiful sycamore trees from my desk, and they make a great distraction when writer’s block comes calling. For example, this morning there were several enthusiastic magpies bouncing about on the branches, squawking loud enough to wake the dead, and I often see the local squirrel gang playing in these trees, fearlessly leaping and bounding about like tiny Olympic athletes with fluffy tails. Occasionally there will also be green parakeets, which are always a colourful treat to see (albeit a distinctly noisy one!).

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Under the Mistletoe…

A Kiss Under The MistletoeAsk any average person in the UK what they know about mistletoe and the majority of respondents will probably mention the tradition of kissing under it at Christmas. A few might know something about its possible much earlier connections to Druidry – but it’s the snogging most people focus on, for obvious reasons! Like the young lady in the image to the right I’m not too keen on this aspect of the festive celebrations (she really doesn’t look very impressed with his attentions at all!), but I was curious about what else is known about this unusual evergreen seasonal plant, and I was fascinated by what I found out…

There are actually hundreds of different and often ancient species of mistletoe growing in numerous places worldwide, and new types are still being found in the wild by scientists (most recently in 2008) – but I’m going to focus on the traditional, white-berried European mistletoe (Latin name: Viscum album); the one we’re all most familiar with.

It may actually sound like it ought to be something out of a cheap horror b-movie, but mistletoe is scientifically defined as a parasitic plant. As such, it grows on the branches of various different trees, particularly favouring apple orchards. This can have a distorting effect on the growth of these trees if the mistletoe is not pruned back from time to time, preventing the tree from growing new leaves and even killing it in extreme cases.

However, and despite the slightly creepy effects of its parasitic nature, mistletoe actually plays an important role in biodiversity via its interactions with other plants and animals, which ends up creating what can only be described as the mistletoe plant’s very own ecosystem. Such complex associations between these different creatures are crucial in supporting specialist species of birds (such as the aptly named mistle thrush, which helps to distribute the plant’s seeds), insects and fungi.

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Bats in the Belfry: Bats in fact and fiction

Long-Eared and Daubenton's Bats, 1892The bats have left the bell tower
The victims have been bled
Red velvet lines the black box

Bela Lugosi’s dead…

Bauhaus‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ (1979)

Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some news for you, Bauhaus. The bats are unlikely to have left the bell tower, no matter which classic cult horror movie legend has just passed into the great beyond, because bats don’t often tend to roost in belfries. According to the Bat Conservation Trust (pdf), bats do roost in churches – it’s just they seem to find bell towers far too noisy, dusty and draughty for their purposes (and who can blame them). Sorry to ruin the illusion!

Honestly, it’s true, bats really aren’t as scary as all that, despite the continued attempts of Halloween tradition to try and convince us otherwise. I’m very fond of the little critters (they’re seriously cute – no, they really are!), and I find their lives fascinating. Which is why, this Halloween, I’ll be looking at bats in much more detail, and trying to separate the facts from the fiction.

The basic bat facts are these. Bats are the only true flying mammals. Rather weirdly, their wings are similar in structure to the bones in a human hand. Most bats eat insects, navigating and finding their prey in the dark using echolocation, which works in a similar way to sonar. Bats are found the world over, and make up about 20% of all mammals across the globe (over a quarter here in the UK).

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Autumn again…

Autumn colours

After my recent post about all things autumnal, I felt some more seasonal colour was needed round here. I thought I might go to the local park and see what was on offer for my camera there, but while I was pondering that I noticed this tree, which happens to be almost literally on my doorstep. This lovely, still part-green tree is not in the sylvan surroundings of said park – it’s in the more prosaic location of the carpark attached to the block of flats I live in (not visible in the photo: one of my neighbours sitting in his car giving me a strange look while I repeatedly pointed my camera at the tree…!)

An Autumnal Morning in London

Autumnal morning

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

From ‘Ode To Autumn’ by John Keats (1795-1821)

The last few days may have been a bit overcast and cloudy, but Friday was a beautiful early autumn day in my little corner of west London. As I went about my business, the morning skies were that fading, mist-tinged blue that I associate with such early October days; the sun a little lower in the sky and the trees just on the turn. Give it a week or so, and the full colourful impact of the season will be revealed right across London – and there are plenty of green spaces in the city where you can see the most glorious displays of colour as the trees prepare for the changing seasons.

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