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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Otters, water voles and fish are all benefitting from the improved quality of the UK’s waterways, now described as the cleanest since the industrial revolution. Since almost disappearing from the wild in the 1970s, otters are thriving, particularly in the south west of England, Cumbria and Northumberland. The population of water voles, highly precarious in the 1990s, is also beginning to recover. The good results of stricter pollution controls and extensive conservation work are set to continue in the new year with the introduction of new European water quality directives. Guardian
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 . . ” Continue reading Poet climbs Scafell
After escaping to the Lake District to visit his friends the Wordsworths, Samuel T. Coleridge was on the overnight coach to London, preparing to face family responsibilities and the reality of earning a living. At dawn, he was mesmerised by a sight over the wintry fields:
Starlings on a vast flight drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening and blackening!
In his fascinating biography Coleridge: Early Visions Richard Holmes notes how this vision would haunt the poet long after. It was
some sort of self image for Coleridge, both stimulating in its sense of freedom, of “vast flight”; and menacing in its sense of threatening chaos or implosion, “Thickening, deepening, blackening”.
This excellent video shot at Otmoor, near Oxford, captures the display before the starlings settle in their roost, building up to an astonishing climax, when the flock becomes almost impossibly dense.
The photograph is taken from a Guardian gallery of starling photographs.