Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Nature Notes 2010

Chaffinch, by Ken Billington

Yesterday on a walk in Marshfield I saw a fleeting but lovely effect: in a farmyard a small flock of male chaffinches were feeding on the ground, almost invisible. When they rose in low flight, they turned briefly together and caught the sun, and there was a sudden group outflashing of shining slate blue and rusty pink - it could have been a flock of tiny parrakeets, it looked so rich and tropical.

Guillemots and phalaropes
Guillemots & young
 by Mike Pennington
Last night I watched Simon King's programme set in the Shetlands, on guillemots. It was astonishing to watch the 'jumplings', still in down, plunge 50 foot off their nursery cliff into the Atlantic to follow their fathers who look after them once they hatch. The pair then set off for a 200 mile swim to Norway during which time the baby learns to fly and get food. It's pure 'Finding Nemo' or 'Happy Feet'! It also made me admire the many lifestyle choices birds have invented: it would be interesting if some male mammals produced milk, so the females could b****r off after gestation and birth and leave the chaps to it!
The programme also showed phalaropes, and it was a lovely change to see females who are actually keen on their males' seduction (with a shy male being overwhelmed with attention) - and not so very sniffy and picky as many species are. Like I said, many lifestyle inventions!

Orchard Pools
At Orchard Pools today, a swan family, mallards, gadwall and tufted duck pairs, little grebes, coots and moorhen all swam on the pools. Buzzards and sparrowhawk flew overhead, and there were green-, gold- and chaffinches and tits in the scrub. The rhine round the perimeter was still rimmed and skimmed with ice in full sun at 1pm. The continuing cold and dry gives everything a limp, bleached appearance against which colour shows intensely, so crimson dogwood and orange willow shoots glowed. Also in the brilliant sun the male mallards’ heads shone incandescent green.

Peregrine strike
Severn Estuary sands at Arlingham
by Jonathan Billinger
Yesterday I and a friend Jan were on the sands of the low-tide Severn Estuary at New Passage past Arlingham, where the river forms its great loop past Frampton. I spotted a raptor hunting above which turned out to be a peregrine. Then Jan pointed out another peregrine flying off from the sands with a small gull in its claws, pursued by other blackheaded gulls; it flew low and slowly and I could see the bloodied corpse with wings hanging down. Jan wondered if a whitened spot from where this peregrine had flown was feathers, and when we walked up there was a perfect crime scene on display: one explosive and bloodied indentation in the sand with perfectly preserved talon marks around it, and a nearby site of guts, pooled blood as red as paint, and small white feathers. I wonder where these peregrines roosts, or even if they come over from Symmonds Yat?

Children & Nature
When I was walking the foreshore of the Helford River in Cornwall just now, I met a little girl about three or four year old carrying a big bucket in which (she told me) she and her brother had collected pebbles and a starfish – would I like to see it? She confidently placed the little starfish on her palm to show me (something I would have been too squeamish to do) and then confided, ‘He’s my friend!’.
Passing the house up my road where there’s a very friendly ginger cat, I talked to a mother and her 19 month child who were stopped there. The mother said the child ( who was too young even to talk properly) always insisted that they stop to stroke the cat; and that she fearlessly approaches any dog to pat it, no matter how big it is.
Children’s love of natural things is surely a wonderful thing.

Close approaches
Swimming outdoors at my club yesterday with a couple of other people, a crow swooped down only inches above our heads, landed on the pool edge and began prancing about and laying its beak sideways on the tiles to sip bits of water. It broke the invisible ‘exclusion zone’ inside which we humans are usually not allowed to come, and it was a shock to be  able to experience the crow’s size and weapon of a beak so directly.
A couple of days before, I observed the greenfinch which has been singing loudly round our house, sitting on the aerial a few feet above my loft window. Every time it sung I could see its whole body vibrate and jog in harmony with its song, tail tilting. Again a close and novel ‘bum’s eye’ view, only allowed because the birds generally ignore a human viewer in this situation.

Thames River
I took off in this hot weather to walk, swim and camp along the Thames between Shillingford and Goring. Among the curous, interesting or attractive things I saw were:
- Of course, an abundance of coots, moorhens, mallards, Canada geese and swans, all with their young in various sizes. Young coots have a particularly piercing shrieky whine as they nag their parents hoping to be fed, rather than learning to dive like good little coots must.
- Great crested grebes: I watched one dive and surface with a sizeable fish which it didn’t swallow and held
Great crested grebe & young
by Nottsexminer
as it dived again- and did that grebe thing of disappearing completely! Do they resurface against the bank, hidden by vegetation? I suppose it was keeping the fish for its young. The youngsters’ heads and long necks are so beautifully striped, like the tights of a Renaissance dandy.
- Red kites: All day I was never out of sight of one, more often two, sometimes more red kites hunting over the river valley. To me they looked so out of context and quite sinister, but I suppose they are looking for young birds at this time of abundance. Their call sometimes sounds like a whistling kettle going off the boil.
- As beautiful as bluetits in apple blossom, or goldfinch on thistle heads, were blackbirds feeding in a cherry
Blackbird & berries
by Des Bowring
tree. The darkness of the leaves, of their plumage and of the ripe fruit somehow echo their dark shining eyes – the fruit held daintily in their open beaks - black, red and orange.
- My first yellow wagtail. Terns.Hordes of banded demoiselles leading their complex lives.
- I camped under some magnificent weeping willows on the water’s edge – some of the thinner branches must have hung a full 20 feet vertically down to the water surface.
- Have you ever collected a handful of scattered poplar tree down and tested its softness? If a kitten’s paw or bird down is soft, then this is like the finest foam that melts against your skin...

Sparrow flight
There was a mass of sparrows in my garden today, busily feeding. People don't often seem to comment on what wonderful little flyers they are: what about that vertical jump in the air straight to flight from the ground? Or their ability to hover in front of a flower with almost the control of a hummingbird? Love 'em!

Ham Green pool
At Ham Green pool yesterday: heron, kingfisher, mallards and moorhens with tiny babies (second broods?), woodpeckers and chiffchaff calling. Dragonflies large and small, and the water teeming with fish. White and yellow waterlilies: the yellow flowers stood above the water, and with the sun behind them shone brilliant transparent gold against the dark green water and leaves, with the silhouettes of leggy little moorhen chicks scampering across.

Elm trees
by Rosser1954
Lime trees
With the demise of full-height elm trees, it strikes me that lime trees are starting to take their place as the largest most statuesque trees in many situations. They are of course particularly beautiful now in their flowering period, and remind me of an experience in Mull a few years ago. On a warm sunny day I came across an enormously tall lime that was covered in blossom from top to toe, and all the blossom was covered with bees. I have never experienced anything like it - the colour, the perfume, and the noise of hundreds, perhaps thousands of bees rising over 150 feet in the air.

Blue butterflies, Muntjak
Common Blue butterfly
by nottsexminer
On Wednesday I was on the chalkland Ridgeway by Uffington White Horse and Wayland's Smithy. There were many Blue butterflies which I looked at through binoculars: as usual this way of viewing gave a startling insight into their beauty. They truly are like little fairy gowns, the back of their wings with the spots and area of orange so intricate and delicately coloured, the front not only blue but glazed with irridescent gold. An illustration can never fully bring this out.
Walking back down from the Ridgeway past a large field of wheat about 2' or so high, there was this little horned head bobbing just above the wheat ears. It must have been a muntjac browsing along - it certainly threw my sense of scale!

Cold compost
(The cold and snow had been intense...) Interesting this relatively extreme weather. Going down to the compost heap became a minor expedition through the as-yet untrampled snow (except by birds, cats and foxes). The carpet and plastic compost cover had frozen into an oddly-shaped solid lump that had to be ripped off, and the compost bucket only emptied some of its contents - again as a lump - with the remainder frozen immoveably to the bucket sides.

‘Unrealistic optimism’ – letter to New Scientist
There appears to be a current scientific assumption that human feelings of optimism and personal control are useful but unrealistic (New Scientist editorial, 'Applied Rationality', 13.11.10). However all free wild animals from amoebas to elephants display a perfectly justified 'zest for life' and are indeed completely in control of them. That their lives may be short and a struggle does not negate this - they are masters at what they do as long as they are alive, and the survival of their species proves their zest is not misplaced. Humans are no different, though we have the ability to make ourselves unhappy in a way that animals do not. However, our unhappiness is probably more often unrealistic than our optimism!

A newspaper printed this lovely letter a couple of days ago:
'On Sunday night, the thermometer read -5C. Checking on the animals at nearly midnight, the water in the yard buckets was like rock and the earth was frozen hard.
Yes, it's cold and it's a pain, but it's wonderful, too. The stars and the three-quarter moon were brilliant, a mist was rising along the valley, and the white-wrapped landscape in the moonlight was simply beautiful.
An eyeful of all that can give a person an incredible sense of being truly alive and at one with an unspoilt Earth, which still has the power to thwart us all.'

Frosty Aust Warth
I went for a walk at Aust Warth today - everywhere was still a total winter wonderland, with snow still lying two inches thick and everything frosted to the max. The little river that goes down to the Severn estuary had pancake ice on it, and where it had been left behind by the tide, the ice lay like sheets of grey glace icing hanging clumsily over the mud and reed tussocks. The Severn was shrouded with dark grey fog from which the bridge towers protruded, and the fog horns were going.
I saw flocks of linnets, snipe, sanderling or dunlin, and scattered lapwing, curlews, teal, and that little
Short-eared owl
by Steve Garvie
stalwart, the wren. There were hundreds and hundreds of wigeon, on the grass and in the river and sea. I felt very privileged as a short-eared owl flew up just a few metres from me and glided leisurely away. It may have short ears but it's certainly got damn long wings, and its brown and pale plumage merges so perfectly with the current landscape that the moment it relanded I couldn't see it.
On the frozen-over ponds in the saltmarsh, frost flowers bloomed as prettily as the real thing - they made me feel guilty for stepping on them...!

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