Portrait: Starling

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Starling. Photo Credit: Em

Despite being the second most popular bird in the UK (according to the Big Garden Birdwatch) I am not very well acquainted with the starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Whether it is the locations I have lived in, the habitat types of the gardens I have known or perhaps a fatal identification error in mistaking them for blackbirds, these conspicuous birds have slipped my notice for sometime.

While I don’t doubt that they are numerous in the gardens of others, the Starling has undergone a precipitous decline in other habitats and is now a UK conservation priority (though not in wider Europe where it’s range extends to). The intensification and specialisation of agriculture and changes in land use are attributed with it’s decline in the wider countryside. So, not looking so rosy in the fields then. What  about those gardens then? The Garden Birdwatch counts are encouraging aren’t they? Well yes, you don’t get to the number two spot by being totally absent. But like so many of the UK’s birds, perhaps they are now dependent on our gardens as a last refuge?

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Stretching wings into the sun. Photo Credit:Em

Now, to be totally fair, the starlings have behavioural traits that jar with the genteel English country garden image, descending as they do in petroleum coloured, babbling flock sizes comparable to biblical plagues, ravaging bird feeders and leaving the digested remains behind as a token of their gratitude. This bad house-guest behaviour has prompted many people to ask the wisdom of the internet how to keep these revellers out of their gardens. But it is the synchronicity of these flocks that give rise to the mesmerizing spectacle of the murmuration – a show like no other in nature. Whisper it, but there is something hypocritical about wanting to feed birds in the garden but only certain types of birds, a whiff of bird-based discrimination perhaps?

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Preening. Photo Credit:Em

Who wouldn’t want to party with the starlings I say? The starling has such a gift for karaoke that it has been known to impersonate birds as diverse as a Curlew, a House Sparrow and a Crow. Watching out of the window at the individual singing his little lungs out I could well believe this.

I enjoyed seeing these Marmite birds up close – for me I would love to have their effusive, explosive presence in my garden. Sadly I think it is not big enough to be considered for hosting their raucous parties, and I must satisfy my curiosity with distant views of their clouds of bodies swooping as one over the nation’s motorways and open spaces in Autumn.

Em

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That’s not a dirty lens – the morning air is thick with flies. Photo credit: Em

 

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Counting Birds

The simplest form of ecological surveying is to list the species you see. Lists are easy and quick but they are not so good for analysis. The longer you look, the more you are likely to see. So if you are counting for research, conservation or management reasons it is better to have a more robust survey method than just making a list of birds. That said, on holidays, in a new part of the country, it can be fun to keep track of what you spot.

Here are the seventeen species I saw in less than half an hour of watching near Dorchester in Dorset:

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Listing birds. Photo credit: Em

There was a real difference between the birds seen out the front in some apple trees that had been left to go wild and the hedgerow interspersed with trees along the edge of a field full of grazing sheep.The calls of the birds seemed loud through the open window – but perhaps that was just because it was warm enough to leave the windows open.

This non-scientific investigation was fun, tested ID and call skills and helped me to share my passion for birds with my closest family – like a version of the big garden bird watch all of my own.

Em

A Very Old Friend

As we drove along the sun soaked high street, summer was palpably pushing at the windows, begging you to come outdoors. Momentarily held at the traffic signals as pedestrians ambled across the road I gazed out onto a turquoise banner announcing the arrival of a curious celebrity. Instantly transported back to childhood I turned and asked if I could go.

There was a queue for entry, but curiously not for the star attraction, despite it’s presence and the universal attraction of a free exhibit there was something else drawing the masses into the cool interior of the Dorset County Museum that day. I still do not know what that was, I was there to see Dippy.

Climbing a short flight of stairs we reached an upper gallery, entering by his tail, on his left hand side. Despite having seen this cast (for indeed, this is not a skeleton) so many times when both Dippy and I lived in London, this was something different. Being at spine height gave you a completely different view – the vertebrae measured out in paces. The tail curved up and round – only just fitting in the hall, narrows down to a fine whip. Up close the cast showed signs of where it had been hung before – the additions looking like anatomical adaptations to a life in museums.

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Dippy in Dorset. Photo credit: Em

Placement of a clear panel in front of Dippy’s open gape prompted a queue to form to take a photo, but not wanting to be photo bombed by a dinosaur we were free to examine the cast at our leisure.

Diplodocus was a herbivorous sauropod with a fondness for tree leaves and soft plants – with a neck of that length it suggests a similarity to giraffes. When you look at the teeth of a giraffe they look curiously similar to human teeth, made for ripping and then breaking down plants and leaf material unlike the carnivores enlarged incisors. So too with Dippy. It is hard to imagine the skeleton with the flesh wrapped around it but it may be that Dippy’s teeth look similar to that of ruminants (cows and horses) and that this is one of the ways we make suggestions about the life and diet of long dead beasts.

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Dippy’s dents. Photo credit: Em

The exact location of Dippy’s nose has also been debated – nostrils on the top would suggest an adaptation for life in water but a more modern interpretation suggests this may not be accurate and that the nostrils are not indicative of a semi-aquatic lifestyle – excitingly, it seems there is still more to learn about this, a most popular dinosaur.

Small holes in the hip bones also became apparent from scrutinizing the cast in this more intimate setting. I wondered if they were to aid the attachment of great ligaments and tendons needed to move this giant frame around it’s habitat, or perhaps the nervous and cardiovascular highways needed a hole in the skeleton? The hip structure of this dinosaur has been compared to that of the birds and it is suggested that the forward facing hips allowed the dinos to stand with their legs underneath them, compared to the out-to-the-side-and-waddle approach of lizards.

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Hippy Dippy. Photo Credit: Em

Aside from the musings on comparable biology it was good to see this cast outside of his grand London home. Like a rockstar on a farewell tour I couldn’t help wonder if I would ever see this now familiar shape again. It’s silly to get attached – after all this is one of ten casts made from an original skeleton found in 1898 in Wyoming – nothing to suggest any particular sentimental value. And yet it does. So much so that during world war two it was dissembled and stored in the basement to protect it from damage – a luxurious safety that many Londoners could not secure.

Countless children have looked up his bulk as he stood in the Hintze Hall – disbelieving of the nonsense that teachers and parents were clearly spouting – this could never have been alive! Later, studying a plastic copy at home the proportions, the feet shape, the head, they became less alien and more familiar. Their ubiquity reducing the novelty. As was the case much later on, studying Biology and Ecology – the manner in which these great animals went about their lives defies belief on so many counts. Sometimes it helps to go back to visit the cast that inspired it to remember just how magnificent a being he was and to prove to yourself that this impossible being really did exist.

Em

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Dippy Feet. Photo Credit: Em

 

 

Bells-a-blue

The bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is probably one of the best known, best loved spring flowers. So popular indeed that when Plantlife wanted to find the nation’s favorite flower in each county in the UK it decided to ban the bluebell from the nomination list as it had already won, in indisputable fashion, an earlier poll. Presumably they did not want 48 separate counties picking the bluebell – resounding support it may be but it isn’t particularly interesting as a campaign and doesn’t allow those good old fashioned stereotypes we love to apply to regional geography.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland has no such qualms with populism though and uses this comforting home favorite in their logo, albeit in a stylised manner.

As I mentioned in a blog post earlier this week, we have only just started to see these flowering in the last week or so. They are charming, familiar and a sign that spring is properly here now.

Em

Firstborn

Today I saw my first baby bird of the season – more fluff than feather this tiny ball of being was stubbornly crying out for food. It was this shrill noise that attracted my attention to its presence. The parent blackbird swooped in, beak full of sustenance. Momentarily satiated the newborn settled back down, its increasing weight resting on the slender branch, swaying gently in the breeze.

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Baby blackbird, Photo Credit: Em

 

 

 

Shakespeare and the Cowslip

This last week has seen a real burst of spring flowers – not just in Devon but even on my travels further north (to Oxfordshire). Alongside a quite stretch of road at the end of a disused airfield stretches a great bank of cowslip (Primula veris). This butter yellow flower arranges itself into bunches, elevated above the rosette of leaves on a single stalk. A relative of the primrose this is the somewhat taller and many-headed sibling to the ground hugging pom-pom of P. vulgaris.

Shakespeare used flowers throughout his plays and sonnets and, given the abundance and commonality of experiencing these plants, who can blame him? In ascribing different moods and contexts to a flower though, he paints a far more vivid picture of these flowers than they would normally receive.

Ophelia:
But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’ d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And reaks not his own rede.

Laertes:
O, fear me not.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 46–51

Here, In Hamlet, the primrose path means something like ‘the life of luxury’and has somewhat derogatory undertones – calling someone a reckless libertine is not high praise so it would seem that this flower’s reputation gets tied up with that of the feckless waster stomping over the top of them.

Wild Primrose Plants

Credit: https://www.meadowmania.co.uk/wild-primrose-wildflower-plants.htm

While the svelte sibling, the cowslip, has a more glamorous mention in Midsummer Night’s Dream where it receives dewy earrings as an adornment from the fairy – definitely an indication that this flower is deemed worthy of decoration (and of a pearl no less) – ridiculous and fiddly though the enterprise sounds.

And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

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Primrose adorned, credit: Em

Hamlet and MND are very different plays to be sure – but the choice of flowers is somewhat fitting – I think the fairy would have had a harder job decorating the primroses and the stomping libertine would make an unholy mess of the cowslips.

Em

 

 

Hippo and a Half

Yesterday I did not feel like running. The rain was pouring down and my head was not in the right place for it. Plus the race was advertised as an ‘undulating trail’. On the best of days that means muddy and hilly but we have had a lot of rain recently and the race branding (the hippo) was starting to sound like a warning.

As the starting shout went up we squelched off, a somewhat subdued palate compared to the normal neon lycra of a local run race – after all, who would wear their favourite running get up on a course such as this? As we thundered down the hill our trainers landed in the surface water coursing it’s way down the road – I wasn’t sure which of us would make it to the bottom first – the runners or the river.

The hills were high, the underfoot conditions ‘challenging’ and like Dr Foster, many of the puddles did indeed come up to my muddle [sic]. My lungs burned, my head pounded and my limbs slowly froze. As the stones collected in my shoes I wondered, not for the first time, why it is that I run. Specifically, why do I run in undulating trail races that boast of river crossings and then attract the most belligerent of rain clouds? Mum, Dad, I know you read this – don’t answer that question.

Reaching the top of a particularly gruelling hill to be met with the 2 mile marker (it’s a 7.4 mile race) I was not ‘feeling it’. Frustratingly the runner on my shoulder seemed to be enjoying this whole mud splattered affair. I thought unprintable thoughts. As we both rounded a corner the trees and the path dropped away – down the hill we had just painfully ascended. “Wow, what a classic view of Devon!” exclaimed my irritatingly chipper shadow. “Heck, she can even talk at the top of this hill”, I thought. But, annoyingly, she was right. Rain drenched or not, it was quite a view – gently rolling, green and luscious hills, bordered with hedges and punctuated with vivid red slashes of exposed soil. And I had earned that view with every shoe sucking grasp of mud, every droplet of questionable water that hit my face, every teeny tiny piece of grit inside my socks.

Attitude adjusted I realised that the woods were actually bursting with bird song and that when I muted the grumbling I could hear them singing out and cheering us all along. Among their sweet voices was a fresh and very welcome ditty – the chiff chaff was back. I haven’t yet heard one down here – yet another of the migrations delayed. The Chiff-chaff is one of the easiest bird songs to learn as it pretty much tells you it’s name as it sings.

Instead of focusing inwards I was now looking outwards and was duly rewarded by the  newly emerging bluebells bursting out into welcome shards of colour on the woodland floor. These are somewhat less prolific than in our previous home of Surrey where the floor is literally blue with bells, but no less beautiful.

In this newly appreciative mindset I was sailing along, the river crossings seemed tame, the gravel embedded in my feet less of a pressing concern and even the rain started to ease. I was a happy hippo at last, thanks to a cheery runner, a chiff chaff and some bluebells – help comes in the strangest of forms sometimes.

Em

 

Artistic Licence

We humans are highly visual creatures. We study our surroundings, we are greatly affected by them and we find great meaning through the study of our natural world. And this is not just because it looks pretty – being close to nature (and having the luxury of time to look at it) is intrinsically linked to our wellbeing. I would normally reference a statement like that but personal experiences tell us that this is true far more eloquently than any source, no matter how credible.

Watching, looking, observing is also how we first began to make sense of the natural world. The first attempts to rationalise nature relied on descriptive methods – this thing looks like that thing so they must be related. Structural similarities in form, function and even behavioural traits were the basis for the masterpiece of taxonomical organisation created by Carl Linnaeus. Noticing the fine features of beak structure and the complexity of a tangled river bank helped Darwin to form his theory of evolution.

But by studying the natural world we gain more than scientific knowledge. The Natural History Museum in London – with its great collections inside and intricate carvings outside embodies this perfectly. Nature is the inspiration for so much of our art.

People draw, paint and write about nature for all manner of reasons but mostly it’s because of a love of the subject. For me, I use drawing and art as a way to learn more about a particular species. I don’t believe there is great artistic merit in my scribbles but that’s not the point – I do it because I can’t stop thinking about the shape of the bird I just saw and want to record it on the paper in case it falls out of my head. I want to learn more and drawing is part of that process. This fulmar featured in a blog post a little while ago. Unfamiliar as I was with its body shape I wanted to commit it to memory through paint.

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Fulmar. Photo credit: Em

A highly talented artist I know uses her skills to paint the little garden birds that remind her of family. Her skill in capturing the poses, feather bursts and colour of these delicate little beings is evidence of how closely she scrutinises her subjects. To have noticed that the feathers of her subjects change colour in different lights and to be able to zoom in with such accuracy speaks of time spent observing blue tits. Looking at her paintings is like looking at the birds themselves and gives you insights into their personalities. You can take a look at more of Sarah’s art in her online store.

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Blue Tit, Credit: Sarah Jane Art

In another example, this artist has perfectly captured a little nuthatch. One of my favourite birds – the pose is brilliantly evocative of the curious little bird. The dark eye stripe really pops out in black and white. In terms of upping your ID skills this is a great technique – after all, there is a reason that many of the best field guides and botanical references use scientific artwork and not photos – it allows the eye to focus on the subject and not get distracted by the background or other information.

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Nuthatch by AM Photo Credit: Em.

I know that outside of a sketch book nature rarely adopts a ‘textbook’ pose and that colours are more variable than a single image can convey, but if you have a few clues stored away in your mind you only need to see a few details to be comfortable in guessing their owner. Art cannot replace nature, but it can help bring it closer, nurture our connection to wildlife and inspire us to get out and explore. And that, for me, is a wonderful thing.

Em

Quiet Spring?

It was like the sun never rose yesterday. It seems much of the country was hiding under the comfort blanket of a fog – a national duvet day.

As I drove along  I was looking out for birds, for movement – any signs of non-human life. In the low hanging skies, small black shapes dip in and out of view, as if I am using a narrow depth of focus on the camera of my eye. Sightings are brief, infrequent and anonymous – there is little to ID from these shadowy souls. I pulled over and opened my window but could hear nothing – the fog muffles the ears as well as the eyes. It is an odd sensation and not entirely welcome. I am put in the mind of Rachel Carson:

“Spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

Is this heavy blanket of fog a flavour of what a chemical rich, bird poor world would feel like? As with disturbingly accurate virtual reality or the uncomfortable experience of immersive theatre I am unsettled and banish the thought. This is a ridiculous flight of fancy, an unreasonable extrapolation of the imagination. Rationally I know that under the fog spring is starting to show its colours, the hedges and trees will soon be filled with leaves and birdsong. On a day like today though this seems like a distant technicolour dream.

It is true, however, that our migrants are late. The great harbingers of spring are waiting, like us, for the season to turn. Just look at the Swallow reporting rate from the BTO Bird Track.

I picked the swallow because it is emblematic of Spring but the same is true of so many species: Chiff chaff, Blackcap, Sand Martin. They have all judged that our little island is not yet ready for their triumphant return.

While generally spring has been arriving earlier in the last decade than in the previous decades (and climate change probably plays a part in this) it takes a protracted winter for us to notice this gradual creep in the diary dates of migrant birds. When Gilbert White was watching the Swallows in Selbourne in the 1700s he may well have been surprised by their arrival in early April. Probably not as surprised as he would be when he found out that the did not, in fact, hibernate under water as he so confidently position. But we should not laugh too hard at the disproved theories of previous generations – I am sure one day our follies will be mocked by future generations. I just hope they are still watching out for swallows too.

Em

PS If you want a really good bird migration blog you should read the BTO migration blog – I can thoroughly recommend it as an excellent way to while away the time, waiting for Spring (and the birds) to arrive.

Trio of Bees Served on a Bed of Garlic

In just one short walk, really rather close to an unloved patch of earth begrudgingly acting as a car park, I met with three lovely bees. They were all absolutely loving the monoculture of tri-cornered garlic, harassing the little white and green flowers, stirring the perfume into the air.

I barely had time to take the lens cap off and get out of the car before spotting this guy – I think he is a white-tailed bumble bee. It’s still quite early in the year for bees (given the snowy weather has delayed everything a little) so I was over excited and battling a long lens so this isn’t the clearest of photos.

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White-tailed bumble. Photo credit: Em

Next up, rather excitingly was a tree bee (Bombus hypnorum). A relative newcomer to the British Isles, only arriving from mainland Europe in 2001. As the conservation movement have assessed this little critter, decided it doesn’t harm our native bees and is an industrious pollinator it seems to be welcome here (the parallels to the immigration debate are not entirely comfortable).

As always, being colourful and furry is a distinct advantage in establishing the positive reputation of an animal. And for those worried about the stinging end, well then you probably aren’t looking that closely at the bees anyway (you’re missing out though!).

Interestingly the tree bee is reported to prefer open flowers, like daisies, rather than trumpet like flowers, like foxgloves or, erm… wild garlic. So either their palettes are expanding to take advantage of the british delicacies, to exploit the glut of garlic or the seasonal lag we are experiencing has set them out of kilter with their normal flower food. Regardless, I watched this bee visit a whole host of these flowers so it probably isn’t a one off.

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Tree Bee in Garlic.

On to the last bee of the morning then – another white-tailed. This one was doing neat little pirouettes on an unopened flower bud, giving me a 360 view. This is exactly the kind of obliging demonstration I need it seems to shoot a decent photo and get a good ID.

All in all, a good day for bee-watching.

Em

PS – The UK version of Masterchef is clearly clogging my thoughts at the moment. To be clear I didn’t eat the bees. Or the garlic.