Tag Archives: Nature

On This Day – Iceland and The Northern Lights

Even though travel restrictions are easing I am not yet minded to risk it so I still have no new stories to post so I continue to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

Actually, I had a couple of flights booked this Autumn but the airline cancelled. I wasn’t at all disappointed about that and delighted to get a full refund.

On 15th October 2013 I was in Iceland looking for the Northern Lights…

Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails…. Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

When we arranged this trip to Iceland we hoped of course that we would see them, Margaret asked us to go with them specifically – “to see the Northern Lights”, we agreed immediately but we were careful to bear in mind that this natural phenomenon is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is guaranteed to see them (unless you happen to be Bill Bryson writing a travel book that is) and many people leave disappointed.

We were among the lucky ones…

Read The Full Story Here…

The Blackbird – Sweden, A Nursery-Rhyme and A Saint

Blackbird

With its status as Britain’s favourite bird secure, the Robin cannot possibly be challenged for top spot (rather like Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton) but coming second I would suggest is the sociable and friendly Blackbird.

Although the Robin is our favourite bird it has always been denied official National Bird status. Not so the Blackbird which, after a newspaper poll of readers in 1962 is honoured as the national bird of Sweden.  Although many World countries have national birds this is the only one that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.

Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots, the French have the Cockerel, Australia has the Emu, New Zealand the Kiwi and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Sweden Blackbird Postage Stamp

In the Middle Ages the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ousel and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in Medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

In Scotland where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian, all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

Merle is a traditional French name although not so popular now it seems and it certainly doesn’t feature in a current list of top one hundred (the most common French names are Marie for a girl and Thomas for a boy).  Famous Merles have been the actress Merle Oberon and the US country singer Merle Haggard.  One interesting piece of trivia is that there was a character in the film Godfather Part II, a lover of Connie Corleone, called Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue played the part).

Merle Johnson

On the Fourth Day of Christmas My Truelove sent to me… “Four Colly Birds etc. etc.”

Yes, you read it correctly. Colly birds, not calling birds.  So maybe we have been singing the song all wrong!  It would seem that nobody knows for sure how we got from colly bird to calling bird, but some people think it is likely to be an Americanisation of the traditional verse; Colly is an Old English term for ‘black’ from the word ‘colliery’ meaning coal mine and colly birds refer to the common blackbird.

A common view is that ‘colly bird’ was a term specific to England and that England’s former colonies dropped the word in favour of ‘blackbirds.’ In fact, ‘colly birds’ have pretty much dropped out of the English language altogether today and, in this Christmas song, it has been completely replaced by the ‘calling bird’ in the US Australia, Canada and many other former English colonies.

Postage Stamp designers seem to know about this…

Four Colly Birds

Which leaves the obvious question – why would someone send their lover four blackbirds?  Perhaps this is the answer…

“Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds,

Baked in a pie.”

800px-SingSong6dcaldecott

An interesting nursery ryme based on fact as it happens.  From the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century blackbirds were sometimes used as a substitute meat to make a poor man’s pie. Rich people liked blackbird pie as well but with a bit of a twist. For amusement, after a pie was baked the live birds were placed under the pie crust and served at the table and when the pie was ‘opened’ the birds would escape and fly about the room for the entertainment of the guests.

To be honest I can’t help thinking that four and twenty blackbirds swooping about the room might become a bit of a distraction at a dinner party!

blackbirdpie

The concept of a Blackbird in a pie remains with us even now and I can remember my Mum having one of these pie funnels when I was a boy living at home…

Berry_Pie-535x356

These days all wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 so catching them to eat is against the law. It is however permissible to eat them if they have died and fallen into the back garden but as you are likely to need a lot of Blackbirds to make a reasonably sized pie it might take a very long time to collect enough of them unless there were to be a catastrophic incident that you could get enough in one go but then I would advise caution in considering eating them if ever such a grisly event happened!

I have saved my favourite and most unlikely blackbird story until the end.

St Kevin

St Kevin of Glendalough (Ireland) is the Patron Saint of the Blackbird and according to legend this came about because one day he was praying with outstretched arms and a Blackbird landed in his hand, built a nest, laid eggs and St Glendalough sat there all the time in the same position until the eggs hatched and the birds were fledged and flew safely away.

A bit far-fetched do you think? I should say so. It takes a pair of Blackbirds about a week to build a nest, then they have to do the mating stuff, the eggs take on average fourteen days to hatch and it is then another fourteen days or so before the chicks are ready to leave. Call me a sceptic if you like but I find the story hard to believe because surely poor old St. Glendalogh would have had to have wriggled about a little bit and after six weeks or so that arm is going to be completely dead and useless. I can only hold a glass of wine for a few minutes before having to put it down!

I told you before about my Dad’s scrapbook of birds.  This was his blackbird page…

Dads Blackbird page

Feed The Birds, Tuppance A Bag

Home Made Fat Ball

With so many birds stopping by the garden now on account of the Arctic weather buying food from the garden centre or the supermarket can start to get rather expensive so I have been looking for alternatives so here are some tips to prepare your own bird gourmet meal.

I have been experimenting with making my own fat balls and so far I am really quite pleased with the results.

Bottom left in the picture is a beef fat preparation that I made by rendering down the fat from some sirloin steak and then adding to it some seed, fruit and oats. Unfortunately this wasn’t a completely brilliant success first time round and it started to melt down a bit in the warm October sunshine but it works perfectly now that temperatures struggle to get above zero.  This is hugely successful mainly with the Starlings who squabbled over it until it was gone.

Fat Balls

Bottom right is a similar preparation but this time using pork fat and this seems to be much more successful.  It has an altogether thicker consistency and it seems to bind together so much better.  This time I added the seeds and the fruit but also some broken up bread crusts that seemed to soak up and hold the fat together well.  It looks good enough to eat yourself don’t you think?  A bit like a luxury Belgian Florentine!

Again this is a big favourite with the Starlings and the Great Tit showed a great deal of interest as well.

One other little tip is that you might want to keep the kitchen window open while you are preparing the fat mixture!

Top left there is some pork fat that was left over after preparing the fat ball and this is always a big favourite with the birds and top right is the ever popular bacon fat.  Don’t throw it away, just grill it slowly for a while and the blackbirds will love it.

Don’t throw gone over fruit away either, because the birds will really enjoy chopped up grapes and oranges and as for an old pear, they will go crazy!

There are a number of places to go on the web to find out more about making your own bird food and I recommend this helpful site and http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/?p=357

Be careful however when you search on ‘fat balls’ because you might not always find exactly what you were expecting!  I once worked with a woman who was restoring some old furniture and in her lunch break searched for knobs and knockers on Google and had a lot of explaining to do to the IT department the next day!

Lard Toast for Birds

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dance

Iceland Northern Lights

The Northern Lights

Suddenly the lights fell from the heavens and opened and closed like theatre curtains, disappearing in one place in the sky and returning to another and we cheered and whooped like children as we were treated to one of nature’s great displays.

The sky was vibrant and alive producing a spectacular heavenly dance show – a twirling tarantella, a frantic flamenco, a crazy can-can and more twists than Chubby Checker!

A mysterious, multicoloured magic show in which the night sky was suddenly illuminated with a wondrous glow, the luminous green of a highlighter pen that swayed and swirled like a heavenly lava lamp and then created a pattern that looked like Darcey Bussell pirouetting across the stage .

Read the Full Story…

Darcey Bussell

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Blur

Northern Lights Iceland

“Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails…. Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me.”            Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

It seems to me that there are few things that when we see them seem to provide an uplifting, almost outer edge spiritual experience, are difficult to explain why and unusually excites and arouses.

A dolphin under the bow of the boat or a field of nodding sunflowers for example and to this short list I am going to add the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, that phenomenon of the Arctic skies that is elusive and ethereal, one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that is guaranteed to send viewers into certain orgasmic ecstasy or miraculously transform them into lyrical poets.

Read the full story…

Killer in the Garden

IMG_3262

Earlier Today In The Garden

Having mowed the lawn and cut the edges (a job I hate) I was admiring my work when this magnificent creature flew into the garden.

The Sparrowhawk as well as being a handsome bird is a ruthless killer and designed to hunt expertly from the air.  It tracks at great speed, darting out of cover with extreme dexterity combined with deadly accuracy to kill its prey.   It doesn’t hover, like the Kestrel or the Hawk, but relies on pace, momentum and surprise to catch its food and for this it is well designed with long slim legs, large sharp talons and a very efficient hooked beak that it uses for piercing and tearing up its prey.

The male Sparrowhawk was formerly called a musket, and the gun was named after the bird which perhaps gives a clue as to just how deadly they can be.  They are expert hunters and very fast fliers, and often make quick dashes over hedgerows or along the ground when chasing prey, which is often spectacularly captured using a downward plummet from the sky with closed wings.  The pairs work well together as a team and to avoid competition between the two sexes, males concentrate on smaller birds, such as sparrows and tits, and females hunt larger birds including collared doves, thrushes and starlings.  The bird in my garden was a female.

Each adult Sparrowhawk will kill and consume a couple of small birds a day for themselves and when they are breeding  a pair needs to catch another ten or so just to feed the chicks.  According to the RSPB there are forty thousand breeding pairs in the United Kingdom so by my calculation that is twenty thousand nests with an average of three chicks each so to feed themselves and their offspring this means three hundred thousand murders a day.

Later in the afternoon I found the remains of an unfortunate collared dove.

As Thomas Hobbes said in his philosophical treatise, Leviathan: ‘Life (in the state of nature) is nasty, brutish and short”.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threshold

Early Morning Sunrise 

We woke early to the most stunning sunrise that was pouring like liquid amber through the open shutters and into the room.  The sun was only a few minutes old and was a ball of white light with a yellow halo rising through a fiery sky that was sizzling with anticipation for the new day.

A bright yellow slash of solar reflection sliced through the surface of water and the whole bay was so intensely bronze that it was as though the sky had ignited and poured its flames into the sea.  Slowly the orange sky retreated and was replaced by a reassuring blue and the sea turned from umber through purple to its more natural marine blue and everything was prepared and ready for another perfect day.

Read the full story…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflections

Seagull on a Golf

The Seagull has Landed:

Daily they young birds get more adventurous and extend their wings and peer over the edge of the chimney, eventually the first one leaps and like a piece of falling masonry broken from the stack it falls gracelessly into the garden where it sits for a moment or two dealing with the surprise change of environment.

After a while almost as though some primeval sense of danger inherent in its cunning brain urges it to move to a less vulnerable position and so it flapped its awkward wings and half flying, half jumping repositioned itself on the bonnet of my car where it stayed for an hour or so and obligingly let me take these photographs.

Read the full story…

Iceland, The Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

“Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails…. Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me.”  –  Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

It seems to me that there are few things that when we see them seem to provide an uplifting, almost outer edge spiritual experience, is difficult to explain why and unusually excites and arouses.

A dolphin under the bow of the boat or a field of nodding sunflowers for example and to this short list I am going to add the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, that phenomenon of the Arctic skies that is elusive and ethereal, one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that is guaranteed to send viewers into certain orgasmic ecstasy or miraculously turn them into poets.

When we arranged this trip to Iceland we hoped of course that we would see them, Margaret asked us to go with them specifically – “to see the Northern Lights”, we agreed immediately but we were careful to bear in mind that this natural phenomenon is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is guaranteed to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.

We were encouraged however by the fact that October is the best month for sightings and in an eleven year cycle this particular October was predicted to be one of the most reliable times to see the display.

We had already spoken to many people who had paid out for a coach tour into the interior in the hope of seeing them and had returned without a sighting.  One man rather apologetically told us that ‘he had definitely seen something’  but we knew from the downhearted tone of his voice and the disappointed look of a man who had wasted a considerable amount of money that he was trying harder to convince himself rather than us.

Reyjkavik Iceland Northern Lights

And so we came to our fourth and final night in Iceland and to date we had seen nothing on account of the cloudy skies and not helped by being in the middle of Reyjkavik with all of its sodium street lights but now we were on the west coast at Kevlavik, it was a clear night and we were all more optimistic about our chances and after dinner in a restaurant close to the harbour (disappointing by the way) we made our way out onto the headland beyond our hotel where the sky turned black and the moon shone in a phosphorescent glow on the curiously calm sea as the gorse knotted hills behind us blotted out any intrusive artificial light from the town.

There we met an Australian couple who were wrapped up warm as a precaution against the wind and had cameras and tripods at the ready and they explained that they had been chasing the Aurora Borealis for ten days all across the country and for them like us this was their last chance to get the light show that they had come to see before returning home.  I asked him if it might be easier to see them closer to home in the Southern hemisphere but he gave me a patient geography lesson and explained that in the south the only real audience for the Antarctic alternative, the Aurora Australis, are the penguins.

Eventually we caught sight of a few flashes of colour in the sky but they were always only very temporary and not especially thrilling or uplifting and then some uninvited cloud came by anyway and we declared ourselves as unlucky with this as we are every week with the National Lottery and as we abandoned the venture and made our way back to our accommodation I prepared to tell the story that, like the man on the night time bus trip, ‘I had definitely seen something’.

We had some duty free wine and beer to finish now so we sat chatting and drinking and suddenly the Australian man, who had the rather unlikely name of Les Parrott, appeared at our window and was gesticulating madly at the sky with great excitement as though someone had stuck a red-hot poker up his bottom  – ‘The lights, the Northern Lights’  he shrieked over and over so that we were left in absolutely no doubt and we threw on our coats and chased after him back to the headland where the sky had cleared and there was promising activity all around us.

Suddenly the lights fell from the heavens opened and closed like theatre curtains, disappearing in one place in the sky and returning to another and we cheered and whooped like children as we were treated to one of nature’s great displays: a mysterious, multicoloured show in which the night sky was suddenly lit up with a wondrous glow, like whispers of coloured smoke, the luminous green of a highlighter pen that twisted and swirled like a heavenly lava lamp and then created a pattern that looked like a giant tornado racing towards us from the horizon.  It was as though I was an air traffic controller studying a radar screen and the sky seemed immense and infinite as I twisted and turned and tried to monitor as much of it as I possibly could.

The scientific bit:

The scientific term for the lights is the aurora borealis (named after the Roman goddess of the dawn).  The lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. During large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space. When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led towards a circle around the magnetic North Pole, where they interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere. The energy which is then released is the Northern Lights and displays occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different coloured lights (oxygen produces green and yellow; nitrogen blue).

The scientific bit ends.

We could barely believe our good fortune, I for one had given up any hope of seeing them and was certain that we were destined to leave Iceland the next morning disappointed.  It was truly wonderful and something that I will never forget or tire of telling people about but there is no doubt that we were lucky and although I am under no illusions that this was by no means the best Aurora Borealis ever and my photographs are not going to make National Geographic Magazine it is probably the only one that I will see and later that night as I tried to sleep I could still see the swirling ghostly patterns in the sky above and all around me.

Iceland Northern Lights

“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ”    Alistair McLean, Founder of  The Aurora Zone

Weekly Photo Challenge: Fleeting

Early This Morning – Fox Cub Garden Visitor

I was surprised to spot this little chap in my back garden at 5 o’clock this morning.  Bleary eyed and short sighted I thought at first it was a ginger cat and I was about to shoo it off when I realised it was an urban fox cub.  He didn’t look old enough to be out on his own but he seemed confident enough when he moved on and walked down the road.