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The Urban Naturalist

By Edited Dec 16, 2015 1 0

As a student I heard a lecture in which the lecturer read a letter written by Admiral Lord Nelson to Lady Emma Hamilton.  Nelson was taking a holiday in his country retreat at Kentish Town, then outside London.  But much has happened since then and London has sprawled way beyond Kentish Town, which today, by no stretch of the imagination could be described as a “country retreat”.

My part of London is well beyond Kentish Town but well within the borders of Greater London, and near the start of two major roads and a motorway with plenty of feeder roads and concrete flyovers.  When I moved here, our elderly next door neighbour told us that he could remember this area from his boyhood days as farmland.

So nature has been pushed back to make way for man’s encroachment.  Well yes, but don’t kid yourself, it’s still pretty busy in and around us.  Most of the time we are unaware of this, being too busy with our everyday lives, and walking straight past it.  But with a little interest you will find that there is plenty to observe about nature, even well within town.  And if you alert yourself to it, you will see some interesting sights right on your doorstep, and will find it rewarding.

The area is of course not all brick, tarmac and concrete.  There are gardens, parks and a bit of “waste land” stretching for some distance along the side of a major arterial road.  Man has been here too – putting in footpaths, play areas and security cameras, but nevertheless there is enough habitat left for nature to be extremely busy.

Avocado and Mozzerella

Most people are aware of the commoner urban pests – notably foxes which are to be seen more frequently than most would like.  They can cause problems with leaving babies in prams in the garden or even coming into houses.  Notwithstanding this, one day, looking out my upstairs window over next door’s garden on a nice sunny day I was amazed to see a vixen with two cubs, all three sunning themselves on the lawn and very much the proud mother with her happy family.

Frogs are not something people associate with being in town.  But at the foot of next door’s garden is a pond, and frogs are busy breeding there.  In spring my son once caught a frog small enough to be hiding in an inch of grass of the lawn.  It must have just matured, because it was pale green and itself only about an inch long when crouched on its back legs.  In the pond by May frogs abound, and observing them is interesting, both for their beautifully streamlined swimming and their total lack of reaction when another frog walks over their face.

In May, I often have to usher a hornet out of a window to pursue its life outside and after that I forget about hornets as they rarely come back in.  One September, though, I was in my kitchen and felt an insect fly in and collide with my back.  It bounced off and flew up to a high cupboard on which I keep a pressure cooker on whose handles it landed. I watched it probe them with its antennae until it was apparently satisfied.  Since pressure cookers have two stout handles, one for the lid and the other for the base there is a small gap between the two of them.  Into this gap the insect manoeuvred itself and settled down.  I fancied that the probing was to assess the suitability of the place for hibernation.  I took down the pressure cooker, parted the handles and ushered it out of the window to make it find somewhere else to hibernate.  But as I did so I had a feeling of our two parallel life cycles in the same space.

In July of course windows are open and moths come in attracted by the light.  One gets used to the half-dozen or so common species, particularly the more noticeable bright yellow ones.  It is also fascinating to note that though they will roost on flat surfaces, windows and walls, when they fly off you never hear their wings striking those surfaces, except for the ones which are over an inch from head to tail.  But in amongst them one occasionally sees something more unusual like a plume moth with it’s ‘Y’ shape due it is inability to fold its wings flat against its body.

In the garden it is always fascinating to watch the bees with their constant activity.  One interesting thing to see, if you are out seriously early on a summer morning, is bumble bees sleeping on lavender, and due to wake up.  I am constantly impressed by their flight characteristics, combining ability to cover distance with superb manoeuvrability once they reach the flowers they will be pollinating, and their ability to deal with strong cross-winds. 

In London we see many more bumble bees than honey bees, but there are also hover-flies and on one occasion I saw a most interesting insect with a long, narrow abdomen, black and yellow, differently shaped from that of a wasp.  I am still trying to find out what it was.

Which brings us to wasps.  Not loved, but still interesting.  They fly well during the day but are slow starters in the morning.  For this reason, you will see them roosting on your windows in September and October especially if lights have been left on in the early hours.  They will take half an hour to get going as the air gets warmer.  If you disturb them they will fly off but totally without control, flopping down on the floor and staying on their backs until they warm up. 

One morning I found a wasp, apparently dead, on a glass bathroom shelf above the sink.  An odd place to go to die, I thought.  I would deal with getting rid of it later.  But twenty minutes later when I went back into the bathroom I found it, very slow moving, walking in the sink.  So obviously, wasps sleep like the rest of us.

Tree Hollow

These are common sights, but there are many more unusual.  Along the waste land which has a stream running through it – though with concreted sides – I have seen a grey heron sitting observing the world, and once when walking along the footpath a white heron took off and flew past me.   And in the tunnel, under a major road, just ten feet from queuing lorries belching out exhaust fumes and other toxins I would rather not think about, I noticed a large moth with a wingspan of three inches roosting on the white-painted side of the tunnel.  A bit of research at home afterwards identified it as a poplar hawk moth. I was lucky to see it, since such moths normally roost amongst leaves and are very well camouflaged.  So I have probably seen many more without being aware of it.

Another unusual sight.  The council has put trees along the side of our road, and we have watched the rowan tree outside our window mature from a sapling.  It has one bare area on the top of the trunk and one day I was amazed to see a woodpecker landed there pecking away at it.  Unfortunately the woodpecker had gone before I could get my camera.

There is botanical activity in and on the trees themselves, one across the road having a very impressive bulge of burr-wood.  Despite this being a slow growing botanical cancer it does not affect its annual blossoming and it looks stately every May as the blossom comes out in profusion.

And as we walk towards the park, we see several types of fungus, either growing freely as mushrooms on lawns or in the streets, or on walls or trees or tree-stumps.  Plenty to observe and research there if one has a mind to.

This only scratches the surface of what there is to see right under our townie noses.  And seeing it is an enriching experience which alerts you to what you see, where you live, and the differences of flora and fauna when you go abroad.



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