Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #5

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"The downy seeds of traveller’s joy fill the air, & driving before a gale appear like insects on the wing."

Reverend Gilbert White (From: "Journal for 23 November 1788")

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 5
Three of the first five Autumn pictures involve, or revolve around, scenes of harvest as it was undertaken around 1960. A beautiful barn owl sits, under a (September?) harvest moon, with some very large hay ricks or hay stacks in the background on the edge of a village. Above the owl, the red berries are ripening to purple on a specimen of the wayfaring tree, and the feathery seeds of the traveller’s-joy plant surround the fence post on which the bird sits.

There is a high likelihood that this image represents a southern English location, as, although barn owls are found over much of Britain, both of the featured plant species have a native range restricted to the south (but more on them shortly). The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a rarely glimpsed creature, but is probably most commonly seen as a ghostly white form in your car highlights while driving on country roads. I’ve only seen a barn owl a few times and always on that basis. The British Trust for Ornithology says of this species: “The unearthly shrieks, cries and hisses of the Barn Owl (and its association with churches) may have given rise to a widespread association of owls with all things evil - an owl’s wing was a key ingredient in the witches brew that troubled Macbeth.”

The barn owl is one of our middle-sized predatory birds, like most of our owls, usually hunting by night for small mammals (e.g. mice and voles). The barn owl is so well equipped for its mode of hunting, with large, forward-facing eyes that, like ours, help them to spot their prey in low light conditions, very acute hearing that will allow it to pinpoint prey in pitch black conditions (its ears have a slight asymmetry which introduces a minute delay in hearing between the ears, helping with the targeting), long, sharp, hooked talons to increase the chance of a capture when it strikes, a sharp, hooked beak to dispatch the unfortunate victim and feathers with a downy leading edge to allow near-silent swooping down on the prey. What a package! How unfortunate, therefore, that the countryside we have been creating doesn’t seem to suit this amazing predator. And not just here in Britain: The “Birds of the Palearctic” reports that there has been a widespread decline in the barn owl which has been attributed primarily to intensive farming methods and urbanisation, leading to “loss of foraging habitat, nesting and roosting sites”. Pesticides and road mortality “are further negative factors.”

Even if things were going well for the barn owl, the population size fluctuates naturally with its rodent prey populations, and is also affected by increased mortality in hard winters. The BTO reports a British summer population (in the period 1995-97) of 3-5000 pairs. The decline in the barn owl population is not just a modern phenomenon either – it has apparently been happening since the 19th Century, then at a lower rate until the 1940s, and then more marked after 1955. So, even by the time that this painting was published in 1960, the barn owl was a rare, precious commodity in our bank of nature!

But the species hasn’t been abandoned to its fate just yet. The BTO tells the tale here of how, in earlier decades, “the plight of such a charismatic and popular bird led to extensive releasing of captive-bred birds in well-meaning attempts at restocking: by 1992, when licensing became a requirement for such schemes, it was estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 birds were being released annually by about 600 operators, although many birds died quickly and few would have joined the nesting population”.

More recently, the erection of Barn Owl nest boxes, “already numbering c.25,000 by the mid 1990s, has enabled the species to occupy areas (notably the Fens) that were previously devoid of nesting sites, and may have been a factor in improving nesting success.” Provisional survey data for the UK show an increase of 464% since 1995, with the caveat that nocturnal species are difficult to monitor accurately. This trend suggests that the current population estimate is much too low, so maybe things are looking up for this lovely bird.

The wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) is more of a deciduous shrub than a tree. Shown here with its berries ripening from red to purple, it is native, effectively, to the Home Counties and maybe Wales, although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that it is now planted widely as part of roadside planting schemes and shows its introduced range extending up into central Scotland. The native range has changed little since the original 1962 Atlas. While Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” points out that its flowers smell like lilies, there isn’t much else to say about it!

The other plant shown here is the traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba), the only native clematis we have in Britain (I think). It is shown here with its feathery seed heads, that earn it the common name: “Old man’s beard” (and it has also been known as “Father Christmas”!). The New Atlas describes it (in admittedly dry technical terms) as a: “climbing perennial with liana-like woody stems, often covering large areas on hedge banks, hedges and walls, trees and scrub, sand dunes, disused quarry faces and ruins. It is a classic railway plant.” Furthermore, “[c]omparison of the current map with the 1962 Atlas suggests that the distribution of C. vitalba is stable.”

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas...

We here at Scottish Nature Boy would like to wish all of our readers (and especially our followers) a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And furthermore, a dear friend who lives in Alaska shared this with me earlier today and I can't think of a better way to share festive cheer than passing it on to you! Enjoy!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Technology is so enabling! (I hope...)

Sorry to subject you to a wee trial but this post is simply a first attempt to blog from a new Android phone. I'm hoping this will facilitate more frequent posting on my part!
Published with Blogger-droid v1.6.5

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Total eclipse of the moon

I posted a shot of the moon at the end of last winter, here, to accompany a wee poem. This morning is another good day for lunatics, with the final lunar eclipse of the year, coinciding with the day of the Winter Solstice, the first time this coincidence has occurred since 1638! I woke this morning to hear about the eclipse on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 (regular source of morning wisdom) and wrapped up warm to go out and take a couple of pictures (it is still -10 degrees Celsius outside!).

Eclipses are one of the great dramatic spectacles of nature, particularly the rarer solar eclipses, when the Moon passes exactly between the Sun and the Earth. As the discs of the Moon and the Sun (coincidentally, whatever anyone else says!) are the same apparent size in our sky, solar eclipses are pretty dramatic, with the Sun, the brightest object in our lives (other than Stephen Fry, obviously), completely obscured for a few minutes.

21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:25, 15 minutes before the totality
21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:30, 10 minutes before the totality. The Moon is beginning to look slightly red at this stage.

Lunar eclipses are more modest affairs, but still very impressive and occur much more frequently than full solar eclipses. They occur when the Moon, Earth and Sun are aligned in a single plane, in that order, so that the shadow of the Earth is cast over the Moon. As the Earth's shadow at the distance of the Moon, is larger than the disc of the Moon, the earth completely blocks any direct passage of sunlight. When the eclipse is full, the only light shining on the Moon's surface is sunlight that has been bent around the Earth's rim, passing through the atmosphere (I can never remember if that is refraction or diffraction. Diffraction, I think. Mr Beveridge, my High School Physics teacher will be ashamed of me!). So, the light hitting the Moon has a red hue as a result of dust in the atmosphere (I think), and the Moon turns red. Today's lunar eclipse was a good example of this - an astronomer in the "Today" programme item said that earlier cultures (he didn't say which ones), understanding the relationship between the length of the lunar cycle and women's menstrual cycle, believed it was the red colour was the Moon giving back fertility to the Earth. Hmm.

21st December 2010: Lunar eclipse, about 07:40, with the totality of the eclipse now imminent. The Moon is now an amazing red colour.

Anyway, it was bitterly cold out there today, but very clear, and I managed to take a few shots in focus. As a lazy photographer, I don't yet really understand how to work my Canon digital SLR properly and I'm sure these could have been better. Sadly, the Moon dropped further, behind a cloud layer and disappeared from sight, otherwise, I would have photographed its emergence from the eclipse. Shame!

For some reason, this morning's activity made me think of this - we had a (if not THE) Dark Side of the Moon facing us for a few rare moments this morning:

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Signs of the Times: Autumn #4

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"...Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

John Keats (from “To Autumn”)
(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 4
A bit of a shorter account this time around as there are no species featured here that I haven’t already written about in this blog series. Nevertheless, here is another attractive Autumn image to enjoy; it does seem like ages since we saw the swallows, house martins and sand martins massing on wires and roofs in preparation for their southward Autumnal migration. In reality it was only a few weeks ago (maybe early-mid October here in Stirling?) when the last birds finally headed off on their long, risky journey to the heat and relative comfort of sub-Saharan Africa, wherethe food supply of flying insects, unlike in the Britishwinter, isn't jeopardised by low temperatures!

I have already posted, in some cases quite extensively, on the three related species, the swallow (Hirundo rustica), the house martin (Delichon urbicum), and the sand martin (Riparia riparia). In all three cases, I reported on a variable recent history for these species, which seems to be linked to the arrival or otherwise of seasonal rains in the Sahel and other sub-Saharan desert regions where these birds spend their time during the European winter. You can read more about the swallow in earlier posts here, a post including the house martin here, and I looked at the fate of the sand martin in Britain over the past 50 years here.

Perhaps it is the very obvious departure of these summer visitors, their “here one minute, gone the next” exodus that makes their massing for migration such a strong symbol of the departing warmth of summer and the ushering in of the shorter, colder days of Autumn. It always seems as if swallows and martins reappear much more gradually in Spring than they disappear in Autumn!

Looking forward to their return in 2011...

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #3

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.


Beneath the willow wound round with ivy
we take cover from the worst
of the storm, with a greatcoat round
our shoulders and my hands around your waist.

I've got it wrong. That isn't ivy
entwined in the bushes round
the wood, but hops. You intoxicate me!
Let's spread the greatcoat on the ground."

Boris Pasternak

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

What a brilliant picture this is, so much of its time; the subject, families going “hopping” in Kent, to help with the annual hop harvest, the unusual tilted roofs of the oast houses (or hop drying barns) visible in the background. The text says: “September is the time for hop-picking, when large numbers of people come from the towns to help harvest them.” In 1960 maybe, but no longer. As a regular practice this died out during the 1970s and 1980s as hop harvesting became more mechanised (and presumably as people became generally more affluent on average and many took a different kind of summer holiday?). The lovely O, herself a Londoner, thinks the expression "hop it", or "hopping it", survives from the time that Londoners quit the city to work on the hop harvest in Kent and elsewhere.

As described by a great website, “The Oasts of Kent”, hops (Latin name: Humulus lupulus L.) are cultivated climbing plants “whose dried female flowers became a vital ingredient in the brewing of beer, which overtook traditional ale (brewed with just malt) in popularity following the introduction of hops in the 17th century. Hops add flavour and aroma to beer, making it clearer and less perishable. Thanks to hops, the modern British drink of 'bitter' was born.”

The website "Romany Road" also describes the history of hop growing in England: “Traditionally hops were first grown in Kent in the 1520s, but soon spread to other counties including Herefordshire, where the crop was extensively cultivated in at least 80% of the parishes for over 400 years. Hop-picking terminology varied across the country. A hop garden in Kent was known as a hop-yard in Hereford, a hop-bin in Kent was a crib in Hereford, whereas an oasthouse in other areas was called a hop-kiln in Hereford.”

To supply the new ‘bitter’ brewing industry, the growing of hops expanded commercially. Again, from “The Oasts of Kent” and as shown in the painting here, hops “were grown in 'gardens,' which consisted of a wire framework suspended above chestnut posts. From these wires, lengths of string were suspended and the shoots of the hop plants were trained up these strings from the hop crowns, planted in the ground. The gardens were strung and maintained by stilt-walkers (a highly specialised job) and the mature hops were harvested by hand in August. Most gardens were located in the southeast of England, although an area around Herefordshire, Worcestershire and, briefly, Shropshire and Gloucestershire was also important... The crop was picked by thousands of workers, most of whom came from London and treated the experience as their annual holiday.”

Other than the large quantity of beer drunk in Scotland, which required hops for the brewing process, I thought there might not be a Scottish angle to this story until, recently, after I’d cycled from Haddington to Longniddry in East Lothian, on a cyclepath  and footpath that was once a railway line, my Dad pointed out that I had cycled past a large feral hop plant growing beside a large ruined house next to the former railway. despite living up here in ARCTIC Scotland, this hop plant produces useable hops, so I think another visit late next summer will be in order for a wee bit of hop harvesting of our own. I fancy a wee home brew made with local Scottish-grown hops - that will be a novelty!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sign of the times: Autumn #2

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

George Eliot 

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 2

This busy little picture shows a number of species exploiting a fine crop of blackberries growing on bramble briars. Three young starlings at the top of the picture have been joined by two greenfinches below. A number of wasps are also feeding on the berries. I looked at starlings earlier this year, and you can read all about them here. I won’t say any more about starlings now, except that these three birds have plumage that is mid-way between juvenile and adult.

We haven’t looked at the greenfinch before, and this picture presents us with an adult male (on the right) and on of this year’s young. A "stout-billed seed eater" (also taking fruit and berries), the greenfinch (Latin name: Carduelis chloris) is one of my favourite garden birds. My digging efforts in Spring are often accompanied by their twanging "tweeee" calls from twittering flocks in the tops of the trees in our and surrounding gardens, and their bright acid green plumage is a welcome splash of colour after the (usually) long winter. Greenfinches have adapted remarkably well to human settlements and rarely stray far at least from suburban areas. In autumn and winter, they will move out into the countryside to feed on stubble fields(if they can still find them in these days of winter-sown grain crops).

The British Trust for Ornithology reports an interesting population story for greenfinches in Britain. The point of this series of blogs is to look at changes in British wildlife over the 50 years since these books were first published. The BTO says, as illustrated in the graph below: "Greenfinch abundance varied little up to the mid 1990s, and there was little change in either survival or breeding performance during this period". More recent data have indicated "population increases widely across the UK, followed by a sudden sharp fall induced by a widespread and severe outbreak of [a parasitic disease] trichomonosis that began in 2005".  The Royal Society for the Protection of Brids provides useful information here on this outbreak, and how you can help the RSPB to monitor its spread.

(From: British Trust for Ornithology)
 As with the starlings, this series of blog posts has looked previously at wasps, here, and brambles, here. Autumn is the time of year when wasps, drunk on the alcohol from fermenting wild fruits like brambles and garden fruits, become more irritable and rather annoying. Most wasps that we see over the summer are workers and will die over the coming autumn, with the queen wasps hibernating (for example, in my log pile and under the insulation in my loft!), to emerge in Spring, build new nests and form new colonies.

Signs of the Times: Autumn #1

Apologies for the recent absence of posts here - the extremely bad winter weather and closed offices has meant that our PC was tied up with home working and there's also been lots of work to do at home in preparation for the festive season - but I'M BACK!

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
Albert Camus

Well, when I started out on these blog posts based on the four Ladybird books in the "What to look for in..." Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter series, I didn't expect to be starting the Autumn book when it was nearly the end of November and there was snow lying thick on the ground outside. But hey ho, sometimes the business of life intrudes. I did start the Spring book a little late and I've never quite managed to catch up but I'm happy to carry on and try to finish Autumn and Winter books before the end of March!

Here's the cover of the Autumn book, a lovely image that we'll revisit in due course:

Copyright: Ladybird Books

The Autumn book in the series was first published in 1960. To set the scene for the posts to follow on the 24 pictures making up the book, here are the inner cover notes that provide an overview of the book's contents:

"There are many, many things to look for in autumn, just as there are at any other time of the year. You will, of course, soon find such things as blackberries and hazel nuts, but if you know where to look, you might also find the nests of the wood wasp hanging from twigs, or a bumble bee's nest in the bank - in which you might even discover a field-mouse curled up. You can look for the large flocks of various kinds of birds, some in their young plumage, others fully adult, and some still half-and-half; and sometimes you will find all the males together in one flock, and all the females together in another. This book will tell you many other interesting things that you can see."

So, let's go and have a look at Autumn, shall we?

Copyright: Ladybird Books

Autumn Picture 1

This first autumn picture from 1960 is a classic view of a traditional post-harvest scene. In the foreground, a stoat is running past from field mushrooms. Wood pigeons are feeding on grains from a harvest of oats (according to the picture's accompanying text) has been stacked to dry in bound bundles known as "stooks", waiting to be threshed in the field or gathered up for stacking. Once dry, these stooks would need to be threshed to separate the grain from the stalks.

Traditionally (historically), this threshing would have been a manual operation, perhaps on the ground using flails, subsequently replaced during the mechanisation of agriculture by a separate threshing machine. By 1960, when the Autumn book was published, the era of the separate thresher was coming to an end as new-fangled “combined harvesters”, or what we now call combine harvesters, were being introduced, mechanising the whole harvesting and threshing (but not baling) processes into a single piece of agricultural machinery.

Interestingly (and thanks to Christine H for pointing this out when I discussed this subject with her recently), on many small crofts in Shetland, harvested grain crops are still formed into stooks, and I found an interesting blog, Laplandica.com, which describes this in words and a picture. My Dad, born in the 1930s, well remembers seeing the appearance of stooks at harvest time when he was growing up in Ayrshire, and their subsequent formation into haystacks (were they calle dhaystacks even when they were for straw?). He remembers that there was a real knack to building them up, such that the upper bundles that formed the pitched “roof” of the stooks both kept the valuable grains dry and also managed to shed any rain in a way that kept the rest of the stack dry.

The wood pigeons in the picture are presented as engaged in the activity that raises such enmity from farmers, eating the bounty of harvest! My old AA Book of British Birds says of the wood pigeon (Latin name: Columba palumbus): “No bird is a greater enemy of the British farmer than the gentle-looking wood pigeon, largest of our pigeons and doves. Practically all year round, it ravages crops...” Consequently, the wood pigeon is also one of the most persecuted wild birds in Britain. Despite the high level of shooting to control their numbers, however, the population of wood pigeons has increased more or less steadily and steeply since the mid 1960s, as shown by the British Trust for Ornithology:

Of this increase, the BTO says: “The spread of intensive arable cultivation, especially of oilseed rape, which has been shown to promote overwinter survival, may explain the rise in numbers.” For the UK as a whole, the wood pigeon population has increased 160% since 1967. You can read more of the story here.

The stoat running across the stubble field, distinguished from the closely related weasel by its greater size and the black tip to its tail, is probably hunting for field mice which have been left bereft of shelter. The Mustelid family to which it belongs is a really successful part of the Order Carnivora. As well as stoats, the Mustelidae, a mammal family found world-wide, includes weasels, polecats, otters, badgers, martens and skunks. Like all the members of the Mustelid family in Britain, the stoat (Mustela erminea) is an extremely agile and capable predator, feeding mostly on small rodents, rabbits (and hares?) and birds. My Collins Field Guide, “The Mammals of Britain and Europe” (by David Macdonald and Priscilla Barrett) describes the killing technique of the stoat as a: “precision bite to [the] back of [the] neck”. No messing about there...

The Great British Public sees stoats regularly on television, or at least their pelts or fur. The stoat, as many of you will know, has fur that turns partly, or in northern regions wholly, white in winter, triggered by a combination of falling temperatures and genetic inheritance. That white pelt, with its little black-tipped tail, made stoat fur important for the fur trade as “ermine”. And that is what traditionally provided the white fur trim to the red robes worn by the Peers in the House of Lords. Not the nicest role for a stoat to play, admittedly, but a very high profile one, nevertheless.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s Review of British Mammals provided an assessment of the conservation status of stoats. Sadly, the principal reason we have an estimate of the British population of stoats (around 462,000 in Britain, of which 180,000 in Scotland), as with a number of other species, is the National Game Bag Census, in other words, the reports by gamekeepers of the numbers of stoats they have killed. It seems that humans are generally pathologically incapable of sharing their environment with any wild carnivorous mammals. Pre-historic Britain had large predators with sharp teeth (wolves, bears), which humans eradicated, both as perceived predators of people (although there is little evidence that wolves systematically hunt people) and also competition at the top of the food chain, including preying on domesticated animals.

Systematic hunting and killing, and habitat destruction (principally deforestation) made their eventual extinction in Britain inevitable. That left the “middle-ranking” smaller predators, such as otters, the red fox, stoats, weasels, wild cats and pine marten, polecat and, to some extent, the badger (it has a much more varied diet than solely carnivorous). None of those species posed any direct threat as predators of humans but they have all been persecuted to greater or lesser extents, particularly over the last couple of hundred years and, it seems to me, particularly from Victorian times onwards, as predators of game species (grouse, salmon, pheasants, etc) favoured by the wealthy and powerful.

The JNCC review reported that, at the start of the 20th Century, stoats were “still abundant despite relentless persecution”. Then, however, populations were then “severely reduced for 15 to 20 years following the outbreak of myxomatosis” (which severely reduced the rabbit populations which form an important part of the stoat’s diet). From 1960 to 1976, “the number of stoats killed, as recorded in the National Game Bag Census, doubled, but the number killed in northern areas declined again after 1965”. However, since the mid 1970s, the number of stoats killed by gamekeepers throughout Britain has declined again. Reasons for this decline are unclear. Since the number of rabbits killed nationally has continued to increase, a further rise in the stoat population might be anticipated. However, “any rise in fox numbers may be a contributory factor to the failure of the stoat population to increase in response to rising rabbit numbers, since increasing fox numbers can lead to a decline, or even local extinction, of stoat populations”. Ecological relationships are complicated, aren’t they? But then, I never claimed this was going to be easy.

I’ve nothing much to say about the rather vaguely drawn field mushrooms in the picture – there are much better fungi examples and stories in the pictures to follow!