The renowned British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, also had the sharp eye of a naturalist. In Between the Woods and the Water, the sequel to A Time of Gifts, the young Fermor is crossing Hungary and Romania on foot and horse-back, describing an idyllic world about to be devastated by the Second World War. The descriptions of the birds he came across stand out.
[Cranes and wild geese] sometimes travel in a wedge formation, at others beak to tail for miles on end; unlike storks, which, as I had seen a couple of weeks ago, move in an endless, loose-lined mob as ragged as nomads in the Dark Ages."
On species he'd never seen before:
. . . the first, with dazzling yellow and black plumage and a short haunting tune, was a golden oriole; next day was marked by the blue-green-yellow flash of bee eaters; and the third by two hoopoes walking in the grass and spreading and closing their Red Indian head-dresses, then fluttering aloft and chasing each other among the leaves, their wings turning them into little flying zebras until they settled again."
Even in Spain, where it is a common, well-established breeding bird, the gorgeously colourful bee-eater (Merops apiaster) seems to have strayed out of the tropics. So imagine the impact when a pair arrived in County Durham in 2002 and proceeded to nest. Nevertheless, perhaps only in Britain could a couple of bee-eaters draw 15,000 people to see them. Two of the young successfully fledged. There have been other successful nesting attempts: in 1955 3 pairs spent the summer in Plumpton, East Sussex, two of which managed to rear 7 young between them. The most recent attempt to breed was on the coast of Dorset in 2006, but this time without any luck.
Photo from Wikipedia
Eric Ravilious (1903-42) is known for his watercolour landscapes of southern England, particularly those featuring the chalk figures of the South Downs. He painted the stark figure of the Long Man of Wilmington, which we can see in its other-worldly dimensions through a barbed wire fence. There is something idealistic about the painting, like an illustration from a children’s book, but this is undermined by the wire and overcast sky. The English landscape is tamed and parcelled but not completely. The figure, whose mystery is unsolved, remains unperturbed on the billowing downs, a connection with the past, reaching back through time.
Theories about the Long Man of Wilmington range from pre-historic fertility symbol to early 18th century folly. Ravilious viewed it as a female figure opening the doors of death.
I love the landscapes of Kurt Jackson. Of the above painting he notes “Evening and two choughs fly over the sea squeaking excitedly – my first Cornish choughs” from his exhibition The Cornish Crows. populated with jackdaws, magpies, choughs, ravens and crows.
More on Wikipedia on Kurt Jackson.
The purple double decker broke free of the housing estate and we were riding high above the hedgerows, surrounded by frozen white fields. We’d crossed the River Tamar on the Plymouth Torpoint ferry, watching from the top of the bus as Cornwall draw imperceptibly closer. And now the world suddenly opened out, with a dizzying vision of long rolling white waves. This was Whitsand, where we planned to connect with the South West Coastal path and walk the Rame Peninsula.
The driver stopped for us and we stood dazzled, listening to the roar of the sea, and watched two tiny silhouettes walk in unison across the hard sand, each carrying a surf board. Off in the distance was the tip of the peninsula, crowned by the small silhouette of St. Michael’s chapel, our first destination. The view reminded me of winter travels in the Mediterranean. True, here there was frost on the grass, but the dazzling light engulfed us just the same.
The Met Office has just announced that December 2010 was the coldest December since 1890 based on the Central England Temperature (CET) dataset which started in 1659, the longest such set of figures in the world. The month was also the coldest individual calendar month since February 1986, with temperatures dropping as low as -21.1C in Altnaharra in Sutherland, Scotland. There were 10 nights in December 2010 when the temperature fell below -18C somewhere in the UK. Northern Ireland also saw its lowest ever recorded temperature -18C at Castlederg, County Tyrone on 20th December.
Update from the BBC Met blog: Met Office provisional figures show that December 2010 with a mean CET temperature of -0.7C was the second coldest since records began in 1659, beaten only by December 1890 which had a mean of -0.8C.
2010 was also the coldest year since 1986.
“Remarkably, at a time when global warming remains a very high profile issue around the world, the 2010 UK CET figure is around the levels recorded from the years 1659 to 1758 – and well below the median figure for the whole series which runs from 1659 to 2009. For the UK at least, the climate in the last few years far from warming, has been very definitely cooling. This could be yet more anecdotal evidence that the prolonged solar minima which started around 2007 continues to influence the UK’s climate.
Above photo of Armathwaite in the Lake District by Rich Fraser on Flickr.
6-minute video by David Attenborough on the weird and wonderful life cycle of the knopper gall wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis.) as it provokes an oak tree to produce a gall in which the wasp can lay its eggs safely inside. From the BBC’s ‘Life in the Undergrowth’. The knopper gall wasp is just one of 70 gall wasps which can afflict a single British oak, though many have only a negligible effect on the tree.
- Knopper galls develop as a chemically induced distortion of growing acorns on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur (L.)) trees, caused by gall wasps which lay eggs within buds using their ovipositor. The gall thus produced can greatly reduce the fecundity of the oak host, making the gall a potentially more serious threat than those which develop upon leaves, buds, stems, etc. The Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris (L.)) introduced into Britain in 1735 is required for the completion of the life cycle of the gall
- The word knopper derives from the German word ‘knoppe’ meaning a kind of felt cap or helmet worn during the 17th-century; also a small rounded protuberance, often decorative, such as a stud, a tassel or a knob
Hampstead Heath, December 2010 by Marcus Fallon
It’s the third hard winter in a row, following two decades of relatively mild weather. Should the government invest in new technology to reduce the impact of severe winters? How many snow ploughs should the country have?
Philip Eden, Vice President of the Royal Meteorological Society, explains that cold winters in Britain are caused by a weak jet stream and often come in batches. If the jet stream meanders southwards, Spain gets the Atlantic depressions instead, leaving the UK exposed to winds from the north, which bring the snow and low temperatures. Long term records show that clusters of cold winters occur with relative frequency: looking back at the last 50 years, 1962-65, 1968-70, 1978-82, 1985-87, and, to a lesser extent, 1995-97.
His verdict: no need to panic and stock up on the snow ploughs just yet.
The prolonged cold spell affecting the UK since the end of November reached a new low on the night of December 18, when the market town of Pershore in Worcestershire, on the banks of the River Avon, was at -19.5 degrees.
The photograph of Hampstead Heath was taken on December 18 by Marcus Fallon.
Cranes forage in the frosty fog of Somerset in the second Big Freeze of 2010. They have been freed in a secret location as part of the Great Crane Project, which aims to have these remarkable birds breeding in the UK again. Photo from the Guardian’s Week in Wildlife gallery.
In August 1802, poet, scholar and journalist Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off on a tough 9-day walking and climbing tour of the Lake District, which would include Scafell, the second highest peak in England. It’s interesting to see how he went equipped. For a walking stick he dismantled a broom, to the annoyance of his wife. His knapsack was made of a square of green oilskin, closed by string, and inside
. . . he carried a spare shirt, stockings, cravat, and night-cap (which seems to have been Coleridge’s equivalent of a sleeping bag), together with paper twists of tea and sugar, his Notebook, and half a dozen quills with a portable inkwell.” – Early Visions by Richard Holmes
Coleridge is said to be the first “outsider” to climb Scafell and his descent is hailed as the first ever recreational rock climb. It was a memorable piece of improvisation. Threatened by an approaching storm, he chose a way down, without any idea of what lay below. He found himself descending a series of ledges, a kind of giant’s staircase, known today as Broad Stand. As the ledges grew further apart, he lowered himself over them and let himself drop. The succession of jolts soon “put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and . . . I began to suspect that I ought not to go on . . ” Read the rest of this entry »
This new BBC documentary on British butterflies looks well worth watching More here from the BBC’s Natural World including lots of clips. The documentary looks at the fascinating lives of Britain’s butterflies filmed in exquisite detail and “is also a celebration of their enduring appeal to the British people, ” but the country’s butterflies are also seriously threatened, with three quarters are in decline. The below clip shows an orange tip butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Read the rest of this entry »