Chris Packham in Malta

The mass slaughter of migrating birds in Malta casts a shadow over every spring. Top UK television nature presenter Chris Packham is using his high public profile to draw attention to the horror, shamefully permitted within the European Union. Fed up with the lack of response from established media, he’s turned to alternative communication channels. He’s in Malta at the moment, and will be posting a nightly video diary on YouTube at 9.00 pm (UK time) between April 21-26. Get more details about his mission and how you can contribute on his website and updates on twitter.

Nature writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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.

On migration:

[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."

When bee-eaters come to Britain

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

Results of the Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

Fears about the impact of last December’s severe weather, the coldest in 100 years, were unfounded.  The drop in small bird populations witnessed in the RSPB Birdwatch of 2010 during the Big Freeze was rectified by excellent breeding conditions in the following spring.  Small birds in recovery notably include goldcrests, long-tailed tits and coal tits.

Another interesting result of the survey were the numerous sightings of waxwings, reflecting both the large numbers migrating from Scandinavia this winter and the “bird-friendly” berry-producing vegetation people are increasingly planting in their gardens.  A record 600,000 people took part.  The results compared with last year:

  • House sparrow – 4.2 birds per garden in 2011, rise from 3.8 in 2010
  • Starling – 3.9, up from 3.1
  • Blackbird – 3.3, stayed the same
  • Blue tit – 3.2, up from 2.6
  • Chaffinch – 2.4, up from 2.2
  • Wood pigeon – 1.9, stayed the same
  • Great tit – 1.6, up from 1.4
  • Goldfinch – 1.5, up from 1.3
  • Robin – 1.5, stayed the same
  • Collared Dove – 1.3, stayed the same at 1.3

Oldest osprey returns to Scotland

The oldest osprey of the UK – and probably the world – has returned to her eyrie in the Scottish highlands.   When she left for West Africa at the end of last summer, no one expected her to return.  At 26 she’s lived 3 times longer than most female ospreys. In her life she’s laid 58 eggs and hatched 48 chicks, a massive individual contribution to the survival of ospreys in Scotland, where there are still only about 200 breeding pairs.  The questions now are if her mate will return and if she is still fertile. Events can be followed on the webcam of the Loch of the Lowes reserve.

The landscapes of Eric Ravilious

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.

Urban fox on the 72nd floor

The construction company currently finishing off the Shard building in London, which will be the UK’s tallest skyscraper, recently had to call the council to remove a squatter from the 72nd floor: a young fox.  He was surviving on scraps left by builders.  After a check-up at the Riverside Animal Centre, the fox has been released on the streets of Bermondsey, having shown the type of curiosity we associate with cats.

Kurt Jackson’s landscapes

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.

Winter walk in Cornwall

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.


Continue reading Winter walk in Cornwall

December 2010 was coldest since 1890


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.

According to the Met Office blog

“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.

Nature and wildlife of Britain