An unfortunate turn of events found myself in London, or rather just north of London, this Eid. And the same circumstances mean I am still here as summer turns to autumn, the evenings draw in and the leaves turn and fall. I am in Harpenden, 40 miles north of the capital, and in suburbia the green and pleasant semi-rural sprawl that surrounds the metropolis has spread from the center with the railways last century. It is many years since I have been here at this time, and I’ve missed out.
written and photographed By Richard Hoath
I’m looking out on a garden with ivyclad hedges, mixed borders of blackcurrants and roses, a small pond and a lawn still moist with dew in the watery morning sun. The green is patched with beige thanks to the efforts of fairy mushroom rings, a paucity of summer rain and the urinary efforts of a lovable female labrador. Lovable female labradors and pristine lawns do not mix. It’s a world away from my usual Septembers in Garden City and yet perhaps not quite so different as one might expect. There I wake up to a chorus of Palm Doves and Common Bulbuls. Here the doves are Collared Doves and rotund Wood Pigeons that explode from the trees with a loud clatter and a flash of bright white scapulas. There are no bulbuls in England — I did my bulbul fix this summer in Vietnam where there are dozens of different species — but the music comes courtesy of Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and the Hedge Accentor or Dunnock. Harpenden supposedly gets its name from the Anglo Saxon for “Valley of the Nightingale,” but I have never seen or heard that thrush here. In Garden City I have Hooded Crows. The corvine contingent here is of Carrion Crows, big, bold and all black, Jackdaws, Rooks and Magpies. The latter are long tailed and raucous, gangs gathering in the treetops chattering loudly and argumentatively. Their collective noun is a Parliament. How apt. There are squirrels here — not the native Red Squirrel but the brash and bold Grey Squirrel, an alien species here that has been introduced from America. Earlier in the year there was a Slow Worm in the garden. This is not a worm but a legless lizard told from the superficially similar snakes by having eyelids. Slow Worms blink.
I am always looking up here for there is always the chance of a Red Kite gliding past. Forty years ago I saw Red Kites for the first time in the mountains of central Wales. At that time that was the only place in Britain to see them and the population was down to just 50 to 60 pairs. Now, after a highly successful re-introduction campaign they can be seen over much of the country. Effortlessly graceful they have long, slender wings and a long deeply forked tail. In Egypt it is a very rare passage migrant but the darker, less elegant Black Kite is a resident breeding bird. Look out for singles soaring over the Nile north of Manial swooping down for jetsam floating down the river.
A nighttime walk with the labrador reveals more. There are no weasels here — only in Cairo is the Egyptian Weasel a truly urban mammal — but there are Eurasian Hedgehogs, rotund and sturdy balls of spines that will soon be hibernating.
Their numbers have decreased and they are a lot less common than during my childhood. There are foxes too. In Egypt, the Red Fox is not an urban denizen but is found in the agricultural areas and desert margins. Neither is it particularly red, rather a rufous beige. In Britain, the Red Fox has very successfully adapted to city life and as winter nears their coat gets fuller and redder but always with a white tip to the tail. Rarely seen but often heard are Tawny Owls. Last summer, I had Barn Owls nesting across the road from me in Garden City flying ghostlike at night showing bright white in the dark and calling like banshees. The Tawny Owls are browner and stockier. Rather than scream, their call is the classic twit to wooooo, actually a duet of male and female.
Last summer, I put moth traps in the garden. This involved soaking strips of cotton sheet in a cocktail of red wine and sugar and tying the baited shreds to trees and shrubs. The potent brew attracted woozy, boozy bevies of Old Lady moths, Large Yellow Underwings and a stunning Swallow-tailed Moth.
There are daytime insects too. The lavender beds attract the last Honey Bees and Bumblebees, Red-tipped and Whitetipped, of summer and even the occasional Hummingbird Hawkmoth. The last fragrant blooms of the buddleia host Comma and Common Blue butterflies. But the biggest insect news of the fall has been the emergence of an estimated 200 billion Crane Flies or Daddy Long Legs.
That is two followed by eight zeros. That is a great deal of Crane Fly. As larvae, they live in the soil and are known as leatherjackets and are a serious pest munching away at plant roots and probably responsible, along with mushrooms and labrador wee, for the lawn’s demise. The adult insect is a large gangly fly, slender bodied and long-legged, about 3 cm in length but with a leg span of up to 8 cm. While it neither bites nor stings, a bumbling fly clattering around a light at night can be quite alarming. While many flies such as the hoverflies can resemble bees and wasps, mimicking the bold yellow-and black warning coloration of these insects, true flies can be distinguished by having only one pair of wings. The hind pair have been all but lost and are present as small club-shaped organs known as halteres that assist with balance (clear in the photo). Unlike most, and certainly unlike gardeners, I have welcomed this explosion in Crane Fly numbers.
Many insect-eating birds will be preparing for winter or for migration by fattening up and this bonanza of flies will be invaluable fuel. There have been Chiffchaffs, a small leaf warbler, rather drab in brownish green and just 10 cm long in the garden for whom Crane Flies are bread and butter. While some Chiffchaffs will winter in southern Britain, most will head further south and when I return to Egypt in a couple of weeks time I will look forward to catching up with them there. Other warblers will be tucking in, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats, Willow and Wood Warblers. So too will Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats, Common and Black Redstarts and White Wagtails. All will be passing through Egypt in coming weeks and some of the wagtails will overwinter.
Perhaps my favorite is the Spotted Flycatcher. As an adult, it is more streaked than spotted. The spots are of the juvenile plumage. It is not a flamboyant bird but the behavior is distinctive. The Spotted Flycatcher perches unobtrusively from a chosen perch and flies out on sorties for passing insects always returning to the same perch. I have seen them in the monastery gardens at St. Katherine’s, at Siwa and the oasis of Ain Della in the Western Desert, Zaranik in North Sinai, at Alamein and further east at the amphitheatre in Alexandria. Not colorful, but never dull, I’ll look forward to seeing them this fall.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.