Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘City Commons’

Gasteruption assectator, a parasitic wasp

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, June 2017

The last day of June but still flowers are yet to bloom. The meadow’s time has not been missed. On Farthing Downs the gate’s latch clicks and ringlet butterflies jig between grasses. Lady’s and hedge bedstraw cover patches in a lemon meringue mattress form, a reminder of the microcosms of grasslands:  dampness, the presence of certain rock or regular disturbance – it all leads to diversify the plants that appear now, and where others want to be. Skylarks still have songs to sing, as do yellowhammers, a song thrush down in the woody field edge. Crows half-heartedly mob a sparrowhawk with prey clasped between its talons.

On the lower slopes hundreds of meadow browns, ringlets and skippers cross the path sheltered by trees and the adjacent slope. It is that sense of abundance that so many lament losing. These chalk grasslands, managed with the long-view in mind, are the exception here on the edge of London. For centuries the North Downs have felt like an escape route from the city. Don’t forget that for thousands of years people have tramped the Pilgrims’ Way to the sacred site of Canterbury. To me they feel like a doorway to something better, somewhere free of the city’s ills. Somewhere you can breathe, where a wild, pastoral world still reigns. In truth it is just a thought and the reality remains different.

It’s quiet but I meet people walking dogs. A woman admires spikes of rosebay willowherb, remarking in a strong Indian inflection: ‘beautiful wildflowers’, snapping them with her camera phone. Another lady with a hint of Yorkshire in her voice says how delighted she is to watch marbled white butterflies. Whilst examining hogweed flowers a woman from the north of the border asks what I’m looking for. There’s a parasitic wasp with full ovipositor raised over its back like a scorpion ready to sting – of course it does nothing of the sort.

‘I’m looking at the thing that made Darwin think there was no God!’ I say.

Her eyes widen, she looks away, and she knows exactly the thing I mean.

‘I remember reading about them,‘ she says.

Ichneumon wasps insert their needle-like ovipositor into their prey, laying an egg which pupates into a grub that eats the prey from within.

Sitting to scribble this on a desire line between pyramidal orchids, vetches, marjoram and clover, a scorpion fly rests momentarily and horseflies make their attacks. They perch on my bag with turquoise compound eyes and trowel-like mouth parts. I flail my arms like a chimpanzee, mindful that a dog walker may soon approach and offer emergency first aid. These downs hold great riches, some of which only want your blood.

North Downs diary

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London’s mini heatwave has closed its doors, great grey clouds entomb the downs. In my mind the meadows have all flowered and gone, so quickly has the psuedo-summer taken root. Sunday’s 27 degrees felt more like July than May. Gladly, at Farthing Downs all of May’s icons can be found: meadow buttercups, silverweed, yellowhammers singing in flowering hawthorns, cowslips moving to seed. A strange song emanates from the young trees grown too woody for livestock to graze. At first I think it might be swallows passing through, zipping and chattering, then perhaps baby birds. Swifts swoop overhead but no other hirundines are here.

The chattering song continues and I move closer. In ash, bramble and oak twigs the white throat of that very bird flashes. It jumps up onto a branch and I photograph it, a white bud or bug of some kind in its bill. The whitethroat has travelled from Africa to be here on the North Downs, a journey we cannot quite comprehend. Except we Europeans too came from Africa, but it took some 60-100,000 years to do it rather than a few months.

This whitethroat is not alone. Behind me is a bigger clump of trees and scrub, a thicket of ash trees riddled with canker. I’m listening to a song that I expect to hear in passing every April here, like a little chain tinkling, or some early mechanical clock. It’s a lesser whitethroat, another arrival from Africa. But I can’t see it, listening closely for a sign of whether it’s under cover or out in the open. I give up. A kestrel appears from over the whitethroats’ bushes, gliding, hovering and slipping off.

North Downs diary

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Farthing Downs & Happy Valley, March 2016

A motorbike oozes across the road that runs through Farthing Downs, its deep, unsettling groan scatters woodpigeons and magpies from the branches of trees. When it’s over another sound breaks through: a male yellowhammer. Its song is never quite the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ it’s accepted as, but the mnemonic is so memorable that those of us who might not have known it ever existed can remark upon it, can seek it out. The bird is a silhouette, a blackhammer in a hawthorn bush against the bold march sun.

Winter’s decorations still remain, it is a time of flux. The cropped green grasslands and anthills look like a sheet, the racket of chalky wildflowers hidden below. If you didn’t know this was chalk grassland now you wouldn’t expect much else to come. Redwings dot the tree lines, their calls which were in October nocturnal now add to a soundscape that includes the spring skylark, high up above my head, marking out a territory that signals an intent to force new life. I see two of these birds. The skylark is one I hear or see only every few months. Its song has no hint of monotony. But one that I have missed this winter and can hear day after day in spring is the blackbird. From trees that separate Farthing Downs and New Hill it lights the valley with its gentle verses. The shadows grow long, reaching into the blackbird’s dreamy hedgeland.

In Happy Valley the hazel trees’ tails mass like wigs. Looking closely, the buds are cocked ready to leaf, some with the purple tongues of flowers poking out. The yellow grains of pollen that have come from the dangling tails can be seen. I flick the tails to help. The twigs of hawthorns are coloured yellow and blue by Xanthoria parietina. Trying to get a close up photo of the fruiting cups, the apothecia, I find the ‘roosting’ buttons of ladybirds. Who would ever see them here? Dogs, voles, mice, flowers, lichens. Surely only the most inquisitive birds would ever find them.

In the shelter of scrub the primroses bloom in old dogwood leaves. I love this time, the birds singing from the woods and trees, the first flowers breaking the rule of death and decay. No doubt, spring and summer have plenty of that to offer, but at least now the pendulum has swung the other way.

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Farthing Downs, Coulsdon, November 2015

It’s a struggle, this time of year. The early darkness feels new and staunch. It’s a time to dread as far back as July, when the birdsong goes and some butterflies begin to look tattered. The newness of spring feels far away. But here we are, a mild November once more, knapweed and scabious in flower on Farthing Downs. I’ve often heard people say November flowers are confused, a human trait, of inaction. Really these hardier daisies are taking advantage of the warmth, ‘waiting’ for the frost to kill their petals off. Where there are no flowers I find instead the wreckage of waxcaps, trodden in by human, cow or canine. Some meadow waxcaps lie young and picked. There is a natural urge to do so, though the City of London Corporation won’t allow you to. I lie on my side to photograph a bright red honey waxcap that had me magnetised and muttering upon seeing it. Farthing Downs and neighbouring Happy Valley are rich in this family of mushrooms, due to the ancientness of the grasslands. The Corporation’s workforce have cleared a large chunk of post-war oak, hawthorn and ash woodland, opening up more ground for the rare waxcap habitat of this chalky landscape. I ponder the fact that a similar area of trees is to be landscaped up north in the borough of Southwark at Camberwell New and Old Cemeteries in order to provide new burial space, resulting in a campaign and a heated debate amongst the local community. Here at Farthing Downs this important work passes with no such fuss.

The grazing cattle’s cowpats merge with the mud coughed up by the machines brought to clear the trees. Looking closely, the surface of each poo is dotted with tiny orange coins. They are the fruiting body of Caprobia granulata, a dung fungus. But that is not the only life to be found on the cowpats. Yellow dungflies, one of 54 species in Britain, perch on the ledges of the pats, brawling and mating in the furrows. Some rest in perfect stillness until I venture too close and their mounds are vacated in an instant. I hear the alarmed calls of a crow and look up at the faintly blue sky. Nothing. It is usually the crow’s indicator of talons and curved bills. Indeed, I see them now – two rooks and a crow, the latter with a piece of food held between its bill, chasing a sparrowhawk. They dive and the hawk turns its talons up at the incoming corvid, righting itself with a 180 degree spin. The sparrowhawk slows, turns, ducks another attack and then moves off, gliding to the safety of Devilsden Wood.

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Nomada rufipes

Nomada rufipes, a cleptoparasitic bee that I spotted on Farthing Downs on the edge of London. It steals from an Andrena bee to survive, but I only saw it drinking nectar from the heads of these ragwort flowers.

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Evening meadows

Evening meadows, Farthing Downs, London, June 2015

It’s that time of year when the meadows are reaching their height. Here you can see the yellow rattle in flower, soon field scabious will appear to be fed on by burnet moths and bumblebees.

Please click through for more of my pictures of Farthing Downs on Flickr

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Parrot waxcap

Farthing Downs, London, November 2014

Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.

Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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