Tawny Owl

At the end of last summer we became aware that there was a female tawny owl  Strix aluco, in the vicinity. We often heard her distinctive “keewik” call in the early hours of the morning. It is more of a shriek whereas the male tawny owls make the more familiar hooting noise.photo of owl in winter trees

I thought it odd that a woodland owl should be hanging around suburbia, although we do have some mature trees in our garden the rest of the neighbourhood seem to enjoy taking chainsaws to theirs.  There is also a new housing estate being built behind us. We do live near to the Bulmers’ cider factory so perhaps that provided a plentiful supply of rodents.photo of tawny owl in tree

To my surprise one winter morning while taking flash photos of the bare tree branches (I was trying to get a spookily atmospheric photo) I noticed a large shape swoop into the tree, I looked up to see the tawny owl sitting on a branch staring back down at me. Without thinking I took a flash photo and then thought that would scare her away, but it didn’t. I suppose being a suburban owl she is used to lights.photo of tawny owl in tree

Since then I saw her most winter mornings, usually between 6.30 and 7am sitting in our birch trees. I would say a few words to her, take a couple of photos and then leave her to it. She usually peered down at me, swaying her head from side to side. Having ascertained that I was a harmless idiot she then went back to looking around, apparently listening to the bird song of the diurnal birds as they wake.photo of tawny owl in tree

Then in spring there was the distant hooting of a male tawny and we have not seen or heard our female since. We assume that she was lured away by this feathery Lothario and hopefully is raising some fluffy owlets. Perhaps she will return to us afterwards.photo of tawny owl in tree

The tawny owl diet consists mainly of rodents such a voles, but also small birds, bats and even earthworms. Their digestive tract is kept healthy by consuming the bones which they then bring up again in owl pellets. photo of tawny owl in tree

The “Tu-whit; Tu-who” call they are famous for is actually the duet between male and female owls calling.  Shakespeare is responsible for this misinformation from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”:

WINTER.
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit;
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

You can learn more and listen to their calls on the BTO website. The site even has a design to make a nest box for tawny owls.

 

 

Summer Solstice

June 21st 2019 is the longest day and the first day of summer, known as the Summer Solstice.Photo of sunrise

Here in the northern hemisphere the earth is at its maximum tilt towards the sun. This is the day that the northern hemisphere experiences the longest amount of daylight. It is also known as midsummer and later, in the Christian world, St John’s Day, as it is believed to be when John the Baptist was born.

photo of bumblebee on blue blossomMidsommar is a particularly important event in Scandinavia and the Baltic. In pagan times, bonfires were lit to drive out evil spirits and the healing properties of plants such as St John’s Wort and Calendula were thought to be enhanced. Will-O’-The-Wisps are supposed to appear on this night, hovering over hidden treasure, sadly the phenomenon is probably just marsh gas.

In the UK Neo-Druids are allowed access to Stonehenge. It is thought that Stonehenge may have been built, approximately 3000 years BC, to make the best use of the sunrise at the summer solstice and that the stones could have been used as some sort of calendar. In Cornwall many old midsummer festivals have been revived in the Golowan festival, including lighting bonfires and parading hobby horses.photo of cuckoo pint

The National Geographic website has some photos celebrating the summer solstice here.

“Glad midsommar och SKÅL”.

I shall leave the last word on the subject to William Shakespeare, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

Puck. How now, spirit! whither wander you?
fairy Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,yellow flower photo

 

Ashy Mining Bees

The ashy mining bee, Andrena cineraria, is described as being one of the easiest of the solitary bee species to identify. This is how I know one when I see one. black and white bee on white flower

They are black with two ashy grey bands, the males and females are similarly marked, but the females are larger and the males have tufty grey hairs around their face. You can submit a sighting here.black and white bee on white flower

They fly between early April and June. They nest in the ground, sometimes in groups, in lawns and flower beds. They prefer sandy soil and a sunny position.black and white bee on white flower

They feed on a wide variety of blossoms and flowers. In this instance there were four of them feeding on cow parsley. There were also many other bees and hoverflies at the same time, but cow parsley is also a useful food source for butterflies and moths.black and white bee on white flower

Cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, is often found in woodland and verges. It is a member of the carrot family with distinctive white umbels. It has the fancier name of Queen Anne’s Lace, the common name suggest that it is an inferior parsley. The leaves can indeed be used in salads. However, cow parsley is easily confused with hemlock which is deadly. It is also known as Mother-Die as superstition had it that if it was brought into the house it would kill your mother. The hollow stems can be used as pea shooters.

Yet another name used is kecks, and it is using this term that Shakespeare mentions them in “Henry V”. The Duke of Burgundy refers to them in rather disparaging terms:

Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

Being idle myself I have failed to scythe these kecksies, but the various bees and hoverflies have benefited and personally I find this inferior parsley to be a very attractive plant; a froth of white dancing among the greenery.white flowers

 

 

Song Thrush

For the first time in many years our garden has been visited by a song thrush, Turdus philomelos. Between 1970 and 1995 it is estimated that the population decreased by 50%, perhaps even as much as 70% vanished from farmland. The loss of hedgerows for nesting and changes to land use decreasing the number of earthworms available for food are probable causes.Photo of song thrush

They used to be a common sight in gardens cracking open snail shells on our paths and delighting us with their beautiful song. You can listen to some audio of a song thrush here. Photo of song thrush

In Chaucer and Shakespeare’s time they were known as throstles, which I think is a much more pleasing name for them. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom sings;

“The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill;
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill.”Photo of song thrush

Thomas Hardy also name checks our spotty songbird in The Darkling Thrush. You can read the full poem here, but I shall quote a verse;

“At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.”

I can only hope that this iconic bird is making a comeback. If you have a couple of minutes to spare, I have put together a few clips from my wildlife camera of the thrush pottering about with some other feathered friends here. Oh yes, and now that the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is over, guess who showed up? Yep, Woody the great spotted woodpecker.Photo of great spotted woodpecker

The Root of the Problem

I recently had the fanciful idea of creating a new flower border on the lawn by the fence. After much digging and cutting away of the tangled mass of roots just under the turf, I struck this great hunk of root ball.Photo of root ball

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!

William Shakespeare: “Hamlet”

St George and the Dragon

April 23rd is St George’s Day. He is the patron saint of England as well as Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and many cities across the world (Eastern Orthodox churches, using the Gregorian calendar celebrate on 6th May).

Photo of dragon ornament

This is my tame (but hot to handle) Welsh dragon – he does not need slaying!

Russian WWI poster of St George

Russian WWI poster – Mykola Samokysh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St George was an important figure for the 12th century Crusaders, his emblem of a red cross on a white background was adopted as the flag of England during this time. In the 1300s Edward III put his Order of the Garter under the banner of St George. During the 15th century his feast day was celebrated by compulsory church attendance and a prohibition of work. The importance of St George’s Day has waned since the 18th century, after the union with Scotland in 1706 created the United Kingdom. The English are much more reticent to celebrate their nation than the Irish, Scottish or Welsh. Perhaps wary of nationalism after two World Wars, the Balkan conflicts and the wars amongst former Soviet Union countries, not to mention the near break up of the UK after last year’s Scottish independence referendum. Sadly the symbols of England and St George have all too often been appropriated by right wing, rascist nationalist organisations. Fortunately this seems to be starting to change and people of all races and religions are finding the confidence to be English within a United Kingdom.

So who was St George anyway? He was born around 280 AD to a Greek Christian family in the Middle East, controlled by the Roman Empire.

Painting of St George slaying dragon

By K1959x (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

He followed his father and joined the Roman Army, serving the Emperor Diocletian. This pagan emperor was getting paranoid about the increasing influence of Christianity and ordered the execution of all Christian soldiers. Holding George in high regard he attempted to convert him and tried to persuade him to make offerings to the Roman gods. However, George refused to recant his Christianity, even after torture, and was beheaded. However, he did manage to convert Alexandra, Diocletian’s wife to Christianity. She swiftly followed him to martyrdom!

So where does the dragon slaying come from? This seems to be a legend from the Middle East, brought back by Crusaders. Apparently a city had the misfortune to have a dragon that lived in their only water source. The only way to get water was to appease the dragon with a sheep to eat. When they ran out of sheep the sacrificial offering inevitably became maidens, drawn by lots. One day it was the bad luck of the daughter of the king. In a remarkable turn of fortune St George happened to be passing as she was being offered to the dragon. George slayed the dragon, rescued the princess, converted the city to Christianity and saved the day.

Icon of St George slaying dragon

By nun Agathe Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Art from all over the world depicts St George slaying a dragon as a maiden looks on. This is of course metaphorical; the dragon represents Satan and the maiden is the Empress Alexandra saved from Paganism.

By a serendipitous coincidence April 23rd is considered the birth date of William Shakespeare, it is also thought to be the day he died 400 years ago (1616). It seems apposite to leave you with a quote from his play, “Henry V”; the rallying cry prior to the battle of Agincourt:

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Robin

I was taking an evening stroll around the garden when this robin alighted upon the apple tree. It looked at me as if to say; “It’s time you started doing some gardening. Get digging and turn over some worms for me!” Note how beautifully in focus the foreground branches are and how blurry the robin is, the camera battery ran out before I could get a decent shot of it!Photo of a robin redbreast

Last summer I managed to get some photos of a young robin, possibly this very one, or maybe its offspring.photo of baby robin

The European robin, Erithacus rubecula, is regularly voted Britain’s favourite bird. They are regular garden visitors all year round, often hanging around whilst people are digging. Their bright orange breasts are a flash of cheerful colour during winter, they are popularly depicted on Christmas cards. They used to be called “Ruddocks”, but during the fifteenth century were more commonly called “Robin Redbreast”. Photo of baby robinThis was because the name of the colour orange was unknown in the UK until the sixteenth century when the fruit was first introduced.

Fiercely territorial they sing all year round, and thanks to street lighting all night too. The males and females both have the red breasts, but the young are a speckled brown. Robins are perhaps the least wary of our wild birds. In continental Europe they were hunted for food along with other small birds, but the British  considered it unlucky or just plain wrong to harm a robin. There is a legend that the robin was originally a plain brown bird that got its red breast after singing to Christ on the cross.

Illustration of Babes in the Wood

By Randolph Caldecott [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They also make an appearance in the anonymously written ballad, “The Babes in the Wood.” Sadly the eponymous babes die in the woods and their bodies are covered over by kindly robins. This theme also appears in Shakespeare’s play, “Cymbeline, King of Britain”

“… the ruddock would,
With charitable bill,–O bill, sore-shaming
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie
Without a monument!–bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr’d moss besides, when flowers are none,”

Drawn Like Moths to a Flame

“Thus hath the candle singed the moth.
O these deliberate fools! When they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.”

~ Portia, from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”

Just as moths are drawn to the flames of candles, so are people drawn to the promises hinted at by neon signs (I think they are mostly flourescent or LED lights nowadays). Yet these bright exciting lights that beckon us merely leave us tired, burned out and poorer.

As for why moths are drawn to artificial light; no one knows for sure. One theory is that they navigate by the moon, which is the only light source that they have evolved to expect. The light of the moon should never be below them, so they flutter around the light source trying to obtain the angle that they were expecting.

May in the Woods

Photo of woodland pathDuring May the British woodland truly springs into life, so much so that it bursts forth from the bushes all over the paths. A quiet bimble as dawn breaks will reward you with bank voles scurrying for cover and rabbits lolloping along the paths, as the squirrels crash about in the canopy.

The bluebells and primroses have given way to  ramsons, buttercups and herb robert. Ramsons are also known as wild garlic or Allium ursinum, due to their popularity with brown bears. In the UK they are an indicator of ancient woodland. All parts of the plant are edible, there is evidence of humans eating them since Mesolithic and Neolithic times. The Swiss would add the leaves to cattle fodder to produce milk and butter with a hint of garlic. Anecdotally, garlic is a cure for many ailments and was often hung above doors to prevent disease (and vampires) from entering the home.

Photo of inkcap fungiThere is also fungi to be found. I believe this is a type of inkcap, possibly glistening inkcap fungi. My fungi identification skills are so woeful that I have the potential to poison thousands!

Another flower that you may be lucky to catch if your timing is right is the early purple orchid, or Orchis mascula. Shakespeare refers to them as “long purples” and they form part of Ophelia’s garland as she tragically drowns in Hamlet (see also this post and this post):

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

As the warmth of the sun becomes stronger, so the insects become busier. Horseflies filled with spring flush become amorous on the tree bark, a speckled wood butterfly flits among the brambles and a spider spins a glinting web to catch the careless, carefree winged creatures. 

 

And so we too take flight and leave the joys of spring behind, as we float on a summer breeze towards June.

Summer Solstice

June 21st 2014 is the longest day and the first day of summer, known as the Summer Solstice.photo of sunny buttercup

Here in the northern hemisphere the earth is at its maximum tilt towards the sun. This is the day that the northern hemisphere experiences the longest amount of daylight. It is also known as midsummer and later, in the Christian world, St John’s Day, as it is believed to be when John the Baptist was born.

photo of bumblebee on blue blossomMidsommar is a particularly important event in Scandinavia and the Baltic. In pagan times, bonfires were lit to drive out evil spirits and the healing properties of plants such as St John’s Wort and Calendula were thought to be enhanced. Will-O’-The-Wisps are supposed to appear on this night, hovering over hidden treasure, sadly the phenomenon is probably just marsh gas.

In the UK Neo-Druids are allowed access to Stonehenge. It is thought that Stonehenge may have been built, approximately 3000 years BC, to make the best use of the sunrise at the summer solstice and that the stones could have been used as some sort of calendar. In Cornwall many old midsummer festivals have been revived in the Golowan festival, including lighting bonfires and parading hobby horses.photo of cuckoo pint

The National Geographic website has some photos celebrating the summer solstice here.

“Glad midsommar och SKÅL”.

I shall leave the last word on the subject to William Shakespeare, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

Puck. How now, spirit! whither wander you?
fairy Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,photo of white clouds in a blue sky

 

Yellow Bloomers – Part Two

Here is the second part of the Yellow Bloomers series, part one discussed the lesser celandine and can be read here.photo of primroses

This post is mostly about primroses. I have a bit of a problem here as some of the primroses growing in the garden, well cracks of the paths to be precise, are pink and purple. This is no doubt due to some genes creating the anthocyanidins; pelargonidin and petunidin. However, we shall press on undeterred by science.

photo of primrosesPrimula vulgaris, on account of it being common, is another early spring flower, its name is from the Latin for first rose. It was the favourite flower of the Victorian British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli and the anniversary of his death, 19th April is known as Primrose Day. British Pathe has a video clip of Primrose Day in 1916, which can be viewed here.

Primroses are one of those flowers, like snowdrops, that are considered unlucky if they are cut and brought indoors. The folklore of primroses is that if you cut them chicks will not hatch, you have been warned. However, if you dream of primroses it apparently means that you will find happiness in a new friendship.photo of primroses

As usual Shakespeare has something to say on the matter:

Whiles, like a puff’ d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And reaks not his own rede.

photo of primrosesThis is from Hamlet, spoken by Ophelia (who was also associated with forget-me-nots, see here). To lead someone down the primrose path implies encouraging someone to lead a wayward life which will end in their downfall.

Your bonus early spring yellow bloomer is the forsythia.

 

Blue Bloomers – Part Three Forget-Me-Nots

Here is the much anticipated final part of the Blue Bloomers Trilogy. For those of you who have thus far managed to avoid parts one and two here are the links: Violets and Grape Hyacinths.photo of forget-me-nots

These bright little flowers we all know as forget-me-nots are also called Myosotis, which is Greek for mouse’s ear. Apparently the leaves reminded people of the ears of mice. There are around two hundred different species of them and the flowers can be pink or white. They are a useful food source for Lepidoptera larvae.

photo of forget-me-notsAccording to German folklore, a knight and his lady love were strolling by the Danube when she saw a pretty blue flower in the river which she desired. Bound by the rules of chivalry the knight dived in and retrieved the flower, as he handed it to her the weight of his armour dragged him to a watery grave; his final words were, “Vergiss mein nicht!” – Forget me not! One can only hope that the lady in question appreciated the gesture.

Having such an obvious message in its name, it has been used as a symbol by European Freemasons to remember the poor and later their own victims of the Nazi regime. It was also adopted by Henry IV of England during his exile by Richard II. It was said that after the battle of Waterloo, the field was covered with forget-me-nots growing from the blood of the slain. The oppressed Victorians used nosegays to express feelings that could not be uttered out loud, so a posy of forget-me-nots presented to a lover could mean “Don’t forget you promised to meet me tonight.”photo of forget-me-nots

The Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sir John Everett Millais depicted the drowned Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a garland of violets around her neck symbolising faithfulness and the forget-me-nots in the painting speak for themselves. Another lesson of the dangers of messing about with flowers near water.

There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element.

Oil painting Ophelia by Millais

Photo: Tate, London, 2011 via Wikimedia of oil painting by Millais

I shall wrap up the Blue Bloomers series now, but shall leave you with a photo montage of the best of the rest.

 

Starling Murmuration

In recent weeks the skies above the Whitecross area of Hereford have turned black every evening just before dusk. A large flock of starlings, called a murmuration, gathers together before heading off to roost.photo of starlings

These birds collect together for warmth and protection from predators. It is also thought that they are social birds and exchange information with each other. They are very good mimics and have been known to incorporate ring tones into their songs.photo of starlings

The starling used to be a very common bird in the UK, but it is estimated that their numbers have dropped by 70% due to habitat loss and farmland chemicals. Their numbers are boosted in the winter by migratory birds.

Illustration of starlings

Johann Friedrich Naumann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They are a little smaller than blackbirds and appear quite dark, but their feathers have a very pretty metallic sheen of purple and green that shimmers in the light. They are rather noisy, quarrelsome birds.

There has been a lot of research into these large, aerobatic flocks – basically how do they not crash in to each other? It seems that only the seven nearest starlings are important to each individual and it is a matter of moving when they move. There are more details about the science here.

As ever, Shakespeare has something to say on the matter; he alludes to the bird’s skill at mimicry in Henry IV:

Nay, I will; that’s flat:
He said he would not ransom Mortimer;
Forbad my tongue to speak of Mortimer;
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll holla ‘Mortimer!’
Nay,
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Indeed, rumour has it that it was a group of Shakespeare fans that introduced the starling to the USA in the 1890’s.

These particular photos were taken from the car park of the Aldi store in Hereford, next to the Great Western Way cycle and footpath. I don’t know where they actually settle to roost.

Painting of Ann Lovell by Holbein

Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The starling does not crop up often in popular art, unlike the robin for example. However, I did find this painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated around 1526-28. It is thought to be of Anne Lovell, the pet squirrel may be because her family’s coat of arms contained squirrels and the starling is thought to be a visual pun on the family home at East Harling, clever eh?

There are some better photos and more information on this blog post here.

Garden Orb-Weaver Arachnids

Rambling Ratz went for a short pootle around the garden last Thursday evening, just before the rain falleth. The many webs in the undergrowth all seemed to be occupied by very frisky arachnids.photo of spider

These eight-legged fiends were dutifully and bravely documented with the camera. Hurrah for image stabilisation as there was much camera shake with all of those eyes upon me. A couple of them seemed to be chomping away on what looked to have once been bees. Actually I must confess to not getting the heebie-jeebies from garden spiders, they are rather pretty.photo of spider

These all seem to be variations on the orb-weaving garden spider but I would be grateful for more specific IDs from my esteemed readers. These creatures spin large round webs which look so lovely in the dew or frost. They are no doubt less appealing to any hapless insect that flies in to them and sticks there waiting to have the life sucked out of them.

Harking back to the olden days once again, it seems “pudders” had their uses. Apparently a spider in a stable prevents horses from going lame. Cures for fevers included eating a photo of spiderlive spider in a spoonful of jam, or wearing a “necklace” of live spiders until they all died. Whooping cough was supposedly cured by putting a spider in a box until it died. So now who is more horrid, spiders or people? Rambling Ratz does not recommend any of these “cures”, please see a qualified doctor if you are ill.

As usual, Shakespeare has something to say on the matter, ” … good master cobweb. If I cut my finger, I shall make bold of you.” So says Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not only will a fibrous cobweb stem bleeding, but it seems they may have antibacterial chemicals on them.photo of spider

Bringing spiders and their uses up to date, how about nanotube-coated spider silk to make biodegradable electronics with medicinal purposes. For more information see here.photo of spider

You may also like, or shudder at, my previous arachnid post here.

Pootle – from the Oxford English Dictionary: “British informal move or travel in a leisurely manner”.photo of spider