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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.

Sunday stroll: By Brook near Box

Yesterday was glorious – a brilliant, sunshiney spring day when all’s right with the world. We headed north for our day out, first to Great Chalfield Manor near Melksham in Wiltshire, an amazing Tudor manor house owned by the National Trust and most recently seen in the BBC’s wonderful Wolf Hall, doubling as Sir Thomas Cromwell’s home, Austin Friars. I’ll write about this in more detail another time; we went on from Great Chalfield for a walk around the By Brook in Box, Wiltshire. It turned out to be quite a special walk, for quite a few reasons.

Detail from OS 1:25,000 Explorer Map 156 for Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon. The squares are 1 km x 1 km.

Google Earth view with our path marked out in a rather wobbly white line. We travelled in a clockwise direction. The red dot marks the western portal of the Box Tunnel.

We parked up near the railway bridge and walked past some old mill buildings with a funky lead-clad modern extension which only today (Monday) I have found out were Peter Gabriel‘s Real World Studios, where such luminaries as Gabriel himself, Beyoncé, Björk, Pixies, Kanye West, Robert Plant, Amy Winehouse, Brian Eno, Jay-Z, Coldplay, Deep Purple and New Order have recorded. Had I realised at the time I would have taken some photos! Anyhow, no celebs were spotted, just a lad with a skateboard and other locals. We followed the footpath heading north-east along the western side of the brook, which in places was quite wide and deep: deep enough for skateboard lad and his friend to be swimming in it. Brave for this time of year, despite the sunshine.

Swan on the By Brook, Box, Wiltshire. The brook had narrowed by this point: further south it was wider and deep enough for swimming.

Fogleigh House, a Victorian pile above the brook.

Unexpected moment number one came when Chap saw what he thought was a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) perched in the windy tops of a tree over the brook. Not the sort of bird you expect to encounter on a country walk through pasture land. But sure enough, a cormorant it was.

That dark speck at the top of the trees is a cormorant. Chap has decidedly better eyesight (and bird recognition skills) than me.

Closing in on the cormorant.

He or she didn’t seem at all bothered as we passed by.

Holstein cows.

Dandelions ahoy.

A swan nesting on an island.

Beautiful orchard in blossom.

In the distance is the village of Colerne with its prominent church tower.

Unexpected moment number two: a fairy circle of St George’s mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). These are traditionally found round about St George’s Day (23 April), hence the name: mine are a bit early, I guess brought on by the wonderful weather. I picked some (Chap’s sandwich bag made a handy receptacle). They are good to eat, fried with butter and garlic.

St George’s mushrooms. Yummy fried with butter and garlic.

Unexpected moment number three: Box Tunnel. I knew of Isambard Kindom Brunel‘s magnificent engineering endeavour, but had never seen it. Our footpath and then a small road led us out on to the main road, the A4, and there it was! Built between 1838 and 1841 for the Great Western Railway (GWR), it was a considerable engineering feat, at 2.95 km (1.83 miles) long, and dug through difficult and challenging strata. It’s sobering to learn that around 100 labourers died during the tunnel’s construction.

The west portal of Box Tunnel.

Commemorative plaque for the restoration of the portal in 1986. The tunnel was constructed between 1838 and 1841; surveying (including the sinking of eight shafts to ascertain the geology) took place in 1836 and 1837.

The west portal of Box Tunnel: I don’t think many civil engineering projects nowadays would decorate their structures with carved stone balustrading.

Unexpected moment number four: as we walked back in to Box we passed a B&B with a blue plaque on the wall: the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books, Reverend W V Awdry, had lived here as a child.

Blue plaque at Lorne House B&B for Reverend W V Awdry, of Thomas the Tank Engine books fame.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his time in the house, then known as Lorne Villa, and its influence on his future career as an author:

“[Awdry’s house] was only 200 yards (180 m) from the western end of Box Tunnel. There the Great Western Railway main line climbs at a gradient of 1 in 100 for two miles. A banking engine was kept there to assist freight trains up the hill. These trains usually ran at night and the young Awdry could hear them from his bed, listening to the coded whistle signals between the train engine and the banker as well as the sharp bark from the locomotive exhausts as they fought their way up the incline. Awdry related: “There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear them snorting up the grade and little imagination was needed to hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another. Here was the inspiration for the story of Edward helping Gordon‘s train up the hill, a story that Awdry first told his son Christopher some 25 years later, and which appeared in the first of the Railway Series books.”

Now I have a small but particular connection to Rev. Awdry. He was born in 1911 in Ampfield Vicarage near Romsey in Hampshire, and lived there until 1917. My mother lived in Ampfield Vicarage from September 1942 until some time in 1946: the vicar and his wife were the legal guardians of my mother and her brother while my grandparents were living in Borneo (and later held in a Japanese internment camp there). So this little blue plaque brought up all sorts of memories.

And then, across the road from Lorne Villa, came unexpected moment number five: a ruddy great steam thingamybob parked in someone’s front garden:

A bit of poking around on the web, and a gentleman on a forum tells that it is

“the boiler for a portable steam engine of the type used for powering belt-driven machinery, typically threshing machines used in separating grain from straw and chaff. The wheels indicate that it was pulled from place to place by horses, and not self-propelled. The engine is gone, too; all that remains is the boiler that generated steam to drive the engine.”

So something like this in its heydey:

A threshing machine demonstration at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, August 2008. Photo by Thomas Weise.

So a wonderful day full of wonderful moments.

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.

Sunday stroll: Swallowcliffe

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny spring Sunday, and we went for a walk in the countryside around the south Wiltshire village of Swallowcliffe.

The Church of St Peter, Swallowcliffe, built 1842-1843. There was a service going on so we didn’t go inside.

Everything’s gone green after a grey winter ….

Lichen on a shrub.

Beautiful blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom: hopefully there’ll be a good sloe crop from these in the late summer.

(Slightly drunken shot) of a soggy willow plantation. The area is very damp, with many springs, so willows seem to be a popular choice of commercial timber round here.

Castle Ditches, an Iron Age hill fort, and beneath it Withyslade Farm.

Castle Ditches is an Iron Age hillfort. The Victoria County History of Wiltshire says of the site: ‘An Iron-Age hill fort was called Oakley Castle in the 14th century and later, its ditches and banks, enclosing 25 acres, were called Castle ditches in the 16th century, and the whole earthwork afterwards took the name Castle Ditches.’

A view from the public footpath of the boardwalk through the boggy gardens of Spilsbury Farm, complete with grab posts and marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris).

One of several man-made ponds in the area exploiting the stream and springs. You can just make out two swans, one of which (on the left) is bottoms-up, and the other (on the right) we think was nesting on the island.

We saw some brimstone and tortoisehell butterflies and heard a raven cronking in the distance. It was a joy to be out and about in the spring lusciousness and to see the sun again after such a drab winter.

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.

Fallstreak holes

I was in Salisbury this morning for a dental appointment, and was very excited to notice the unusual skies: the high-altitude small cobbler-like clouds (I know they have a name but I don’t know it) had four or five oval ‘gashes’ in them, each of which was filled with a fluffier, whiter cloud. These are called fallstreak holes.

Not one of my fallstreak holes from this morning - this one was over Oklahoma City in the US in January 2010. It is very similar to what mine looked like though.

Not one of my fallstreak holes from this morning – this one was over Oklahoma City in the US in January 2010. It is very similar to what mine looked like though. Photo by Paul Franson.

Wikipedia explains their formation thus:

‘A fallstreak hole (also known as a hole punch cloud, punch hole cloud, skypunch, cloud canal or cloud hole) is a large gap, usually circular or elliptical, that can appear in cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds. Such holes are formed when the water temperature in the clouds is below freezing but the water, in a supercooled state, has not frozen yet due to the lack of ice nucleation. When ice crystals do form, a domino effect is set off due to the Bergeron process, causing the water droplets around the crystals to evaporate: this leaves a large, often circular, hole in the cloud.

It is believed that the introduction of large numbers of tiny ice crystals into the cloud layer sets off this domino effect of evaporation which creates the hole. The ice crystals can be formed by passing aircraft which often have a large reduction in pressure behind the wing- or propeller-tips. This cools the air very quickly, and can produce a ribbon of ice crystals trailing in the aircraft’s wake. These ice crystals find themselves surrounded by droplets, grow quickly by the Bergeron process, causing the droplets to evaporate and creating a hole with brush-like streaks of ice crystals below it. Such clouds are not unique to any one geographic area and have been photographed from many places.’

But sadly not in Salisbury this morning by me, because I didn’t have my camera with me. Buggeration. At one point I could see five holes. When I came out of my dental appointment 45 minutes later they had gone, and in their place were fluffy cumulus clouds.

I love Strange Weather Days. I still remember the excitement when Chap and I saw our first (and still only) ever mammatus clouds, in New Zealand in 2008. Well, we have to get our jollies somehow, don’t we?

Rings that remind me of things: Part 11

Part 11 of an occasional series about rings in my Etsy shop that remind me of things.

Ring:

x

Vintage enamel and sterling silver ring by Joid’art of Barcelona, Spain. For sale in my Etsy shop: click on photo for details.

Thing:

capture

Lichen Xanthoria parietina. Photo by James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster.

UPDATE: The ring is now sold. Sorry!

So far I have had rings that remind me of an Iron Age hillfort, an alien spaceship, a cream horn, a radio telescope, Noah’s Ark, an octopus tentacle, spider eyes, Pluto and its moon Charonthe rings of Saturn, and The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

Blackbirds in pop music

Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are one of my favourite birds. So any time they are celebrated, I’m happy. Here’s a brief look at three very different groups of musicians from the UK who have been inspired by one of our loveliest native songbirds.

A male blackbird, Turdus merula. Photo by Sannse. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Turdus_merula#/media/File:Kos_Turdus_merulaRB.jpg

A male blackbird, Turdus merula. Photo by Sannse.

In early May this year Radiohead released ‘Burn the Witch‘, the much-anticipated first single off their first album in five years, A Moon Shaped Pool. The song was teased by the band with a short, enigmatic snippet of footage, of a stop-motion bird singing to the sound of a blackbird’s song.

A post shared by Radiohead (@radiohead) on

When ‘Burn the Witch’ was released, we could hear that the blackbird’s song was the introduction and the coda to the song, and that the lyrics  ‘Sing a song on the jukebox that goes / Burn the witch’ and ‘Sing the song of sixpence that goes / Burn the witch’ referenced the traditional British children’s rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence‘, a rhyme that refers to four and twenty blackbirds being baked in a pie, and later to a blackbird pecking off a maid’s nose. Jolly stuff, these traditional rhymes, but aptly fitting with the grim subject matter of Radiohead’s song.

Just the other day I discovered that what I had long-thought to be an image of a range of evening sunlit limestone peaks reflected in still waters of the Thai coast on the cover of Kate Bush‘s double album Aerial is in fact a waveform of a blackbird’s song. (Observation was never my strong point).

The cover of Aerial by Kate bush, featuring the waveform of a blackbird's song.

The cover of Aerial by Kate bush, featuring the waveform of a blackbird’s song.

And birdsong, predominantly blackbird song, is featured throughout the album. ‘Prelude’, the first track of A Sky of Honey, the second disc of the album, starts with a male blackbird singing, followed by a wood pigeon‘s call which Bush then mimics; the track ‘Sunset’ refers to blackbirds singing at dusk, and features the song of a blackbird at the very end of the track and merging into the next track, ‘Aerial Tal’, where Bush mimics the call of one in the style of an Indian taal; and the final track, ‘Aerial’ features more blackbird song (and a blackbird alarm call) while Bush laughs.

And of course the most famous use of a blackbird’s song in modern music is in ‘Blackbird‘ by the Beatles: in the latter part of the song a male blackbird can be heard singing.

Here they are, without accompaniment. In all cases, this is the spring song of the blackbird. They do sing later on in the year, but the spring song is the best.

Just magical.

So long, Rosetta

So, the long journey is over. The Europeans Space Agency’s probe Rosetta was purposely crashed into the surface of (deep breath) Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko just a few minutes ago, landing just 40 m away from its intended target. It now joins the doughty, though ill-fated lander module Philae on the surface of the comet.

Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera captured this image at 11:49 GMT yesterday (29 September 2016) when Rosetta was 22.9 km from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Photograph: Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera captured this image on 29 September 2016 at 11:49 GMT yesterday when Rosetta was 22.9 km from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Photograph: Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta sent many fantastic images back to us here on earth, and the close-up details of the comet’s surface on her descent are amazing.

Single frame enhanced NavCam image taken on 29 September 2016 at 22:53 GMT, when Rosetta was 20 km from the centre of the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The scale at the surface is about 1.7 m/pixel and the image measures about 1.7 km across. ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Single frame enhanced NavCam image taken on 29 September 2016 at 22:53 GMT, when Rosetta was 20 km from the centre of the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The scale at the surface is about 1.7 m/pixel and the image measures about 1.7 km across. ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at 01:20 GMT from an altitude of about 16 km above the surface during the spacecraft’s final descent on 30 September.   The image scale is about 30 cm/pixel and the image measures about 614 m across.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 30 September at 01:20 GMT from an altitude of about 16 km above the surface during the spacecraft’s final descent . The image scale is about 30 cm/pixel and the image measures about 614 m across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta's OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016, 11.7 km from the surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta’s OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016 at 05:25 GMT, 11.7 km from the surface. The image scale is about 22 cm/pixel and the image measures about 450 m across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta's OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016, 8.9 km from the surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta’s OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016 at 06:53 GMT, 8.9 km from the surface. The image scale is about 17 cm/pixel and the image measures about 350 m across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta's OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016, 5.8 km from the surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta’s OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016 at 08:18 GMT, 5.8 km from the surface. The image scale is about 11 cm/pixel and the image measures about 225 m across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

8.21 GMT 30 Septe,ber 2016.

Comet 67P/C-G viewed with Rosetta’s OSIRIS NAC on 30 September 2016 at 8.21 GMT, 5.7 km from the surface. The image scale is about 11 cm/pixel and the image measures about 225 m across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Modern art, or Rosetta scans?

Modern art, or Rosetta scans of its landing site? Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The view 1.2 km from the surface.

OSIRIS narrow-angle camera shot of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko captured from an altitude of about 1.2 km on 30 September at 10:14 GMT. The image scale is about 2.3 cm/pixel and the image measures about 33 m across.

The crash will have damaged mechanisms on Rosetta and as sunlight will be fading as the comet moves away from the sun, even if the solar panels and other equipment had survived the crash, the panels would not have been able to generate enough power to send any more data back. The scientists took readings all the way down on the descent, and decided not to fire thrusters to slow the descent for fear of the exhaust gases contaminating the readings taken on the way down.

Rosetta was due to touch down / crash at 11.38 BST (GMT +1), but because of the distance of the comet from the earth, confirmation took just over 40 minutes to get here, reaching us at 12.19 BST.

A fabulous end to an amazing mission. Space science at its best, indeed.

European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta blog.