Another pied male blackbird

In January 2016 I did a short blog post on a pied male blackbird (Turdus merula) we’d been seeing around a lot. We’ve seen a pied blackbird intermittently since then, and yesterday it put in appearance after quite a period of absence. I snapped some photos on my crappy camera, so the quality isn’t the best, but it gives an idea of its markings. Click on all photos to enlarge.

We had thought it was the same bird, but from comparing the photos of the two, it seems that they are different birds. Our newcomer seems to have a ‘Z’ of white on the top of his tail by his body, whereas the 2016 one didn’t. I wonder if the newer one is perhaps the son of our other one.

Our 2016 visitor.

Our 2016 visitor.

Normal male blackbird. Photo by Sannse.

Paternoster nostalgia

I was sad to read on the BBC website yesterday that the paternoster in the Attenborough Building at Leicester University has been closed and is going to be removed and replaced with a lift.

The Attenborough Building, University of Leicester. Photo by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons.

I have vivid childhood memories of the paternoster, and slightly terrifying rides on it. A paternoster is a type of constantly moving open lift, with compartments stacked on top of another and moving in a constant loop up and down the building. One each floor of the tower there were two openings, one for compartments going up and the other for those going down. The paternoster moved at a slow speed, but it was still unnerving to time your step into and out of the compartment, putting off thoughts of falling and being squashed, half in and half out of the compartment, or getting caught in the exposed mechanisms at the top and bottom of the ride. (Over-riding and under-riding were great thrills).

The paternoster is one of the last few surviving ones in the UK. The paternoster was invented in England in the 1860s, and the installation of new paternosters in buildings was banned in the UK in 1974, making the Leicester University one of the last to be built.

The 18-storey Attenborough Building opened in 1970, and is named after Sir Frederick Attenborough, the Principal of University College (as the institution was known before it became a fully-fledged university) and father of Sir David Attenborough and Lord Richard Attenborough. My father taught in the Philosophy Department, and his office was on the 15th floor, with fabulous views over Victoria Park and beyond. Peregrines nested on the tower, and I remember occasionally seeing them from my Pa’s office in the 70s. His department was closed in 1989 when it merged with and moved to Nottingham University, and he took early retirement.

The Attenborough Building. Photo by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons.

The tower had conventional lifts, the paternoster, and (for me) an even more terrifying staircase around a central void which went up the entire height of the building. Being modern architecture, the stairs had no risers, just treads, and a gap between the wall and the steps, with what seemed like a flimsy railing between you and the terrifying abyss to the other side. I still have occasional anxiety dreams about climbing such seemingly rickety staircases …. Every now and then I would force myself to take the paternoster to visit my Pa rather than the lift. Different times: I can’t imagine an unaccompanied child would be allowed in the building on their own these days.

BBC report with film of the paternoster and diagrams of how it works.

Don’t miss All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride: Magical festive viewing

I’m a huge fan of all things Nordic, and I’ve just found out that the BBC is repeating a wonderful slow tv programme: All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride.

This is two hours of fabulously festive viewing, as we follow two female Sami reindeer herders and some of their reindeer on a sledge ride across the snowy Lapland landscape as dusk falls. There is no narration or music, just the crunch of the snow, the gentle grunts of the reindeer and the occasional conversation between the women and people they encounter: ski-shod travellers, dog sleds and their drivers, ice fishermen on a frozen lake, and Sami living in their lavvu (wigwam-like tents).

Every now and then some graphics give us information about the Sami and their history and beliefs and social structure, about the animals and plants in the snowy lands: this is done in such a clever way, seemingly embedded within the landscape and sometimes incorporating old photographs.

The programme was first broadcast on Christmas Eve two years ago, and was repeated on Christmas Eve last year. This year it is being shown again, on BBC4 on Saturday 16 December, starting at 7 pm.

The reindeer ride follows an old postal route in Karasjok, in northern Norway, within the Arctic Circle. During their journey, the sledges cross frozen lakes and birch woodland. Sometimes the women ride, and sometimes they walk alongside the reindeer. As the hours of daylight are so short at this latitude in the winter, the journey both starts and finishes with the way lit being by flaming torches. It ends with the Northern Lights putting on a beautiful display above a lavvu. The two Sami reindeer herders are Charlotte Iselin Mathisen and Anne-Louise Gaup.

Ann-Louise Gaup and reindeer.

It may sound boring but it is absolutely magical, and I am so glad to have another chance to watch it again. If you can, do give it a look. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s calming, hypnotic, meditative, beautiful, informative, and utterly wonderful.

Slow tv is a type of television programming that started in Norway in 2009. It eschews music or narration, and follows real-time action, rather than that edited for speed and brevity.

If you want to learn more about how the programme was made, this Radio Times article has lots of interesting information. Four separate rides were filmed, one a day for four days, and the best ride was used. There were only four hours of daylight per day, and the temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees C.

Programme website

Daily Mail review

The Unthanks: Magpie

Every now and then I hear a song for the first time and it becomes an instant earworm. ‘Magpie’, by the English folk band The Unthanks, is just such a song. I don’t often listen to folk music, so this song would probably have passed me by, had it not featured at the end of the first episode of the third series of the BBC comedy, Detectorists.

The series centres around two metal detectorists and is filmed in the bucolic Suffolk countryside. It is a lovely, gentle series, in which not a lot happens. As an archaeologist I’m no fan of metal dectectorists and the damage they can (and so often do) wreak on archaeological sites, but the ending of this particular episode summed up in a beautiful montage what I often wonder about the finds I dig up: who they belonged to, the lives lived, and how the pieces ended up where they ended up. So many stories.

Dectectorists is written, directed by and stars the talented Mackenzie Crook, and co-stars Toby Jones. It is currently midway through its third series, broadcast on BBC4, and can be viewed on catch-up on the BBC iPlayer.

‘Magpie’ is a track on The Unthanks’ 2015 album Mount the Air, and uses the traditional English nursery rhyme about the magpie to wonderful effect, with additional lyrics emphasising a pagan theme and music by Dave Dodds. Here’s the full version of the song, with a fan-made video:

Here are The Unthanks performing the song live on Later with Jools Holland:

The magpie (Pica pica) is a beautiful black and white corvid, a familiar bird in the English countryside and one with a rich tradition of symbolism and folk history attached to it.

Magpie (Pica pica). Photo by Andreas Eichler.

I invariably automatically count out the number according to the rhyme when I see a group of magpies (or rarely a singleton: they are gregarious birds). Apparently Crook was inspired by The Unthanks’ song, and certainly the magpie theme has carried on into the second episode, with magpies being featured at the start and finish. I wonder if they will prove to be more significant or symbolic as the series progresses.

Rings that remind me of things: Part 15

Part 15 of an occasional series about rings in my Etsy shop that remind me of things.


1972 sterling silver modernist ring, London hallmark. For sale.


Sea anemone.

So far I have had rings that remind me of an Iron Age hillfortan alien spaceshipa cream horna radio telescopeNoah’s Arkan octopus tentaclespider eyesPluto and its moon Charonthe rings of SaturnThe Starry Night by Vincent Van Goghsome lichenthe stepped Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Egypt, the Quality Street lady, and a herb knife.

UPDATE: the ring has now sold.

Birds in our village

We’ve had a few special bird sightings from our cottage this year, but sadly I can’t illustrate any of them with photos as my camera was not to hand …

The first was a strange occurrence indeed. In the 25 years we have lived here we have only once ever before seen a heron (Ardea cinerea) flying over the village. There is not a lot of water round us: we are on the chalk and a lot of the streams are winterbornes ie they only flow in winter, and the nearest lake is 2.25 km (1.4 miles) away and the nearest river about the same distance. So we were very surprised one morning not only to see a heron flying very low over the gardens near us, but to then see it pitch up on a telephone wire over our neighbour’s garden.

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Imagine this, but on a telephone wire … Photo by ErRu.

It perched there, swaying slightly, and it was the most amazing sight: such a massive bird, hanging around the cottages completely unconcerned. For such a huge, ungainly bird we were very impressed at its balancing act. It stayed for a few minutes, and then flew off, leaving us delighted.

The second lovely sighting was earlier this week: a lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor) on one of the telephone poles (I’m not going to call it a telegraph pole because we’re not living in Downton Abbey times any more), going up and down poking insects out of the drilled holes in the pole, and also banging away at the wood.

Lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor). Imagine this, but on a telephone pole … Photo by Zaltys.

He flew off and then was back again, scurrying up and down the pole. We’ve seen both lesser spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers (Picus viridis) doing this, so there must be rich buggy harvests in all the holes.

The third sighting was last night, and a very exciting one: my first ever starling murmuration over the village. When we moved here we rarely saw starlings (Sturnus vulgaris): maybe one or two every now and then. Chap has been feeding our wild birds regularly for a few years now, and in this time we have noticed various bird species increase (and sadly, decrease – or at least, populations seem to fluctuate). One of the success stories is that of the starlings. In the last year the numbers have increased hugely – we now have a biggish flock that seems to stay around the village all day. This might well be to do in part with Chap putting out vast quantities of dried mealworms as well as sunflower seeds several times a day. The starlings (or stormtroopers, as we affectionately call them, due to their strutting walk and bolshy behaviour) come down in droves and hoover up the worms in no time, and I like to think that this regular supply of protein-rich food throughout the year has helped them thrive and breed and raise broods successfully. We regularly see twelve or fifteen juveniles perched on a television aerial or hanging round on the chimney stacks.

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Adults left and centre front; juveniles right back. Photo by Daniel Plazanet (Daplaza).

The murmuration was so exciting to see. It was at about six thirty – so not near dusk, really, but the sky was very overcast (so overcast that we didn’t get to see the partial eclipse later on last evening, bugger it). I reckon there might have been several hundred birds, and they flew in a long, snaking, undulating group over the houses and perched in one of the large beech trees. Having seen with envy footage of huge murmurations over the Somerset Levels and elsewhere in the UK on the telly, it was magical to see one myself, and from our cottage. I hope this will be the first of many.

A starling murmuration. Photo by David Kjaer.

And here is the most wonderful video of a murmuration. Stick with it: it starts with some photos, and then …

Lucky ladies!

We have found the cheapest place to bulk-buy mealworms is Croston Corn Mill: we buy a 12.55 kg (!) bag at a time and pound-per-kilo it seems to work out much cheaper than other places, both physical shops and online. We get through a bag every two weeks or so ….

Sunday stroll: Ashcombe

Yesterday was a glorious summer’s day, and we went on a walk we’ve done a couple of times before, on byways and footpaths through the grounds of the Ashcombe Estate, near Tollard Royal in south Wiltshire. Ashcombe House was once the home of Sir Cecil Beaton, and he wrote a wonderful book about his life there. Click on photos to enlarge.

1:25,000 map of the area. Each blue grid square is 1 km x 1 km.

Google Earth image with route marked. We started at Tollard Royal at the bottom of the image and walked the route anti-clockwise direction, going up the straight byway at the start of the walk.

Going up the long straight byway. A byway is open to all traffic: we met a couple of cheery off-road motorbikers.

Lovely vista of Ashgrove Bottom, one of the many dry valleys (coombes) on the chalk downland.

The path is still climbing, and on the left and centre you can see the tops of the wooded coombes in which Ashcombe House nestles.

Lovely meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense). It’s a much more vivid blue than this – the colour never comes out right in my photos.

Still climbing.

If you just squint you can see a part of the roof and dormer windows of Ashcombe House in the centre of the photo, surrounded by the woods. It is in the most wonderfully secluded spot.

Looking down on the woods. To me, there is no finer sight than the English countryside in summer.

Not that you’ll be able to spot them, but there are two red kites (Milvus milvus) in this photo. The red kite has only colonised this area in the last 15 years or so.

A common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), just starting to go over.

Another common spotted orchid flower, slightly differently coloured (they are quite variable).

Ferne House, just to the north of the Ashcombe Estate, with its double avenue of trees. Despite looking like it has sat in its grounds for centuries, this mansion was built in 2001 for Lord Rothermere. It was designed in a Palladian style by architect Quinlan Terry.

Ferne House and grounds. I’m fascinated by the groups of trees that have been planted – squares, circles, crosses, triangles and even what might be a love heart! This is the highest point of the walk, and is only a few metres lower than Win Green, the nearby highest ground with a trig point and fabulous vistas over south Wiltshire and north Dorset.

Starting the steep walk down through the woods to Ashcombe Bottom. You can see here how Ashcombe got its name – valley of the ashes. There were also some beautiful beech trees in the woods, and luckily no sign of the dreaded ash die-back disease we’ve been hearing so much about recently.

It was a lovely surprise to see so many nettle-leaved bellflowers (Campanula trachelium) in the woods. The ransoms/wild garlic (Allium ursinum) leaves were dying off but the aroma was still pungent – delicious!

Walking down Ashcombe Bottom. Along with the estate trees (with their stock-proof cages) it was lovely to see the hawthorn bushes (Crataegus monogyna) on the hillside: such a classic part of chalk downland life.

Heading back to Tollard.

A rather crappy photo of a gorgeous comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) with its ragged wing edges.

Journey’s end: the beautiful wildlife pond at Tollard Royal.

Such a lovely walk: we saw some many wildflowers and grasses, including goatsbeard (Tragopogon pratensis), quaking grass (Briza media), pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), field scabious (Knautia arvensis), nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium), meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense), chalk milkwort (Polygala calcarea), lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild carrot (Daucus carota), greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo) and many others. The one plant I expected to see and did not was the harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), an absolute classic flower of chalk downlands.

We saw ten butterfly species: small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), small white (Pieris rapae), grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae), marbled white (Melanargia galathea), peacock (Aglais io), red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), comma (Polygonia c-album), meadow brown (Maniola jurtina), speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and gatekeeper (Pyronia tythonus). We weren’t really looking out for birds so much, but saw red kites and buzzards, plus a female blackcap and heard a beautiful male blackbird’s song in the woods. A blue damselfly settled on the drive in front of us as we walked along Ashcombe Bottom. It’s a wonderful walk in beautiful countryside, and we shall be doing it again before too long.

A pair of old watercolours

One of my charity shop finds last year was this pair of watercolours in their basic wooden frames.

I’d love to know a bit more about them. They are crudely done, and are not signed. I wonder if they belonged to some countryman, maybe a farmer: a portrait of him and his fine and faithful hounds. I had thought that the fashion of the man’s clothing and the type of gun might help me date the paintings, which are clearly a pair, but … apparently the fashions of country people back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often lagged quite a few years behind city fashions. This is perhaps partly due to financial constraints, and also largely due to opportunities to buy new clothes being few and far between in the days before easy transport, plus even the dissemination of fashionable new ideas for local seamstresses to copy took much longer. So wearing decades-old clothes was not unheard of, and likewise the expense of buying a new gun might mean that a perfectly serviceable old one was carried on in use for years.

I’m not a fan of bloodsports in any way, shape or form, so like to tell myself that this gentleman was shooting for his pot.

I’m getting a very late eighteenth or early nineteenth century vibe off the paintings … but what do I know? If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear!

Salisbury Cathedral peregrines 2017

Good news: the Salisbury Cathedral peregrines have successfully nested again. The first egg was laid on Friday 31 March, the second on Sunday 2 April, and a third is expected at any time. (9 June 2017: scroll down for updates!)

The peregrine falcon nest at Salisbury Cathedral, April 2017. Two eggs so far …

The Cathedral has set up a webcam of the nest which should be available on this page. The Cathedral also has a Youtube channel, on which there are several videos about the peregrines.

At 18.04 pm on 6 April I can see there are still two eggs on the nest. I do hope she lays more. Last year’s brood had four eggs. (By the way, do use the ‘full screen’ facility for the webcam: it’s a tiny screen otherwise and the details will be barely visible if you don’t enlarge.)

A peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) on the beautiful stonework of Salisbury Cathedral.

Also great to learn is that one and possibly two other peregrines have been spotted around the Cathedral. These might be the juveniles from last year’s brood.

These good pieces of news follows on the shocking, shameful news that one of first chicks to be hatched at the Cathedral, in 2014, was recently shot and injured. It was found on farmland near King’s Somborne in Hampshire on 11 March, and is being cared for by the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover. Hopefully a full prosecution will be brought under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. A peregrine falcon is a Schedule 1 Protected Bird under the law, and injuring or killing it is an offence. The police and the RSPB are currently investigating.

I’ve followed the progress of the peregrines in a 2016 blog post and in a 2015 one, and in a 2014 one.

7 APRIL UPDATE: A third egg this morning, yay!

Three eggs! Morning 7 April 2017.

On the nest, 12.20 Saturday 8 April 2017.

Don’t know when number 4 arrived, but here it is on the morning of Thursday 13 April.

UPDATE 16 May 2017: Five eggs in total on the nest: the fourth was laid on Tuesday 11 April and the fifth on Good Friday, 14 April. So that’s 15 days between the eggs. The first egg last year was laid on 28 March and hatched on 16 May, so we should be expecting some hatching action any day now …

Five eggs. The webcam view on (a wet) 16 May 2017.

Apparently three or four eggs are the norm in the wild, but in urban areas where there is plentiful prey (read: pigeons) clutches can number as many as six.

UPDATE 22 May 2017: I’m not sure when it was born, but there’s a chick in the nest now:

The first hatchling!

UPDATE 30 May 2017: Great excitement while watching the wonderful BBC Springwatch programme last night as they are featuring the Salisbury Cathedral peregrines. The first part is here, starting at 49:25. They are doing a follow-up part tonight. I hope it’s good news: every time I have looked at the the webcam the adult is sitting on the nest, so I have no idea how many chicks there are. I guess I’ll find out tonight.

Beautiful shot of one of the peregrines from the BBC Springwatch footage.

Peregrine on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, from the BBC Springwatch footage.

UPDATE 31 May 2017: Well, the BBC is keeping us hanging on … another wonderfully-shot update last night on Springwatch, full of beautiful images, but so far no news of any chicks. The second instalment is here, from 24:26. One thing I did learn is that the peregrines are feeding on kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and greater spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major), among other prey. I guess the kingfishers come from the nearby River Avon with its watermeadows. One of my few ever kingfisher sightings was one darting across the road that enters the central car park by Sainsbury’s in Salisbury: a small tributary of the river runs alongside it.

UPDATE 1 June 2017: Finally we learn from Springwatch that a lone chick hatched, out of the five eggs laid – talk abut stringing it out! This is in contrast to four chicks (only two of which survived to fledge) out of four eggs last year. The non-hatched eggs have been removed from the nest for health reasons, because if the spoiled eggs break the chick could be affected by the rotten contents. The eggs will be analysed to see why they failed: worryingly the spectre of insecticides causing thin shells was raised as a possible cause. The upside is that the lone chick is getting all its parents’ attention and is being fed like a king, with consequent fast growth. The third instalment is here, starting at 49:41.

1 June 2017: the lone chick in its salubrious nest, surrounded by carcasses, shit and flies!

1 June 2017.

UPDATE 2 June: Just a brief update in last night’s Springwatch, with a live web cam view of the satellite-tagged female on the nest and film of the male eating a hapless green woodpecker (Picus viridis). The segment is here, starting at 8:13; it’s followed by a longer segment on some cliff-nesting peregrines.

UPDATE 8 June: Well, what a difference a few hours make! I checked on the webcam yesterday morning and it was down; I didn’t check back so got the surprise via Springwatch last night: a second peregrine chick has been successfully introduced to the nest and is already being happily fostered by the adults.

The new chick on the right; the original, Cathedral chick on the left. 7 June 2017.

The foster chick was one of three chicks in a nest in Shropshire; tragically last weekend the parents were found dead, cause as yet unknown, on the ground below the cliff along with a dead pigeon. Toxicology tests are being undertaken, but poisoning is suspected. Utterly shameful if that is the case. Luckily the chicks were unaffected. They were removed from the nest by RSPB experts, checked over by a vet, and rehomed in the wild: the other two have been fostered to another nest in the Midlands. The segment on last night’s Springwatch starts at 10:51. The male, 25-day-old foster chick was put in the nest at around 8.30 yesterday morning, and was accepted immediately by both the parents and the original Cathedral chick. He’s a bit bigger than the Cathedral chick, as he’s six days older.

Just after introduction. 7 June 2017.

The female (with her satellite tag) feeding the new foster chick. 7 June 2017.

Grumpy! Why aren’t you feeding me, mum? 7 June 2017.

7 June 2017.

7 June 2017.

7 June 2017.

Not long and the chicks were snuggled together, and being fed by both parents. 7 June 2017.

The new family. 7 June 2017.

Such a beautiful sight. The new family. 7 June 2017.

More food. 7 June 2017.

The new siblings snuggled together with mum. 7 June 2017.

UPDATE 9 June 2017: Last night’s Springwatch had a brief update and showed that the fostering is going really well. The relevant segment starts here at 19:00.

The adult male is feeding the foster chick outside the nest, while the adult female feeds the Cathedral chick on the nest. 8 June 2017.

So far the Cathedral chick hasn’t ventured off the nest.

The chicks together, 10.50 am, 9 June 2017.

The foster chick trying out its wings: there’s been a whole lot of flapping going on. 9 June, 4.26 pm.

UPDATE 12 June 2017: Both chicks are now out of the nest, mainly hanging round on the parapet out of view of the webcam.

Round and round the apple tree … redux

Last night was very cold, and we woke to a heavy frost, the fiercest yet this winter. In the secret garden next door we were treated to the lovely sight of our first fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) of the winter, a new arrival from Scandinavia or points further east. He was flying between the tall beeches that surround the garden and the central, old apple tree, with its spread of windfall apples on the ground beneath, chasing off any blackbirds (Turdus merula) that got too close to his stash.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Photo by Bengt Nyman.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Photo by Bengt Nyman.

Now this might be a bit of a stretch, and I have no idea of the longevity of fieldfare, but I wonder if this is the same bird that stayed in the secret garden for well over a month during the winter two years ago. Fieldfare normally travel in flocks, so seeing a singleton is unusual enough. The fact that this one is displaying the same territorial behaviour towards the secret garden makes me wonder ….

The secret garden, surrounded by tall beech trees and with its old apple tree in the centre. The fieldfare was in one the beeches when I took this, not that you'll be able to spot it.

The secret garden, surrounded by tall beech trees and with its old apple tree in the centre. The fieldfare was in one the beeches when I took this, not that you’ll be able to spot it.

Our visitor two years ago finally left us when our neighbours on the other side of the secret garden started having lots of treework done, involving noisy chainsaws. The day that started, he left. We didn’t see him last year. It’s lovely to have him (or one like him) back.

And as a double bonus, this morning I heard the first song thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing. They sing through the spring and early summer, and then stop, starting up again in winter. It’s wonderful to hear.

Update: 24 January 2017: We have had several days of very hard frosts and sub-zero temperatures at night. Two days ago our lone fieldfare was joined by four others, and the blackbirds were down feeding on the apples too. It seems the greater number meant that the original fieldfare gave up on chasing everyone else off. Yesterday we counted ten fieldfare. We have been supplementing the apples with oatmeal, suet, sultanas, sunflower seeds, chopped up dates and figs: I think the birds eat better than we do!

Update 27 January 2017: The apples are now gone, and so too are the fieldfare: we started putting out extra apples just too late to keep them around (they didn’t eat any of the other offerings). Oh well. It was lovely having our loner and latterly his friends for as long as we did.