Posts Tagged 'Britain'

White’s Selborne

Have you read Richard Mabey’s rousing defense of nature writing? You should. I’ll wait here until you return.

Mabey quite rightly marks the beginnings of nature writing in English with Gilbert White (1720-1793), the British country parson whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne I’ve finally come around to reading. Mostly: I picked up a Folio Society edition of 1963 which eschews the Antiquities section. This copy was only a little musty — that perfume of bibliophiles — and I found it with my nose in Barter Books, in Alnwick, UK, earlier this year.

It’s said that White’s book has never been out of print. I can report that it is entirely readable, which you can’t say about every 18th C. classic. It is epistolary, a series of letters to two correspondents. One evidently pillaged White’s work for a tome of his own. He has some felicitous phrases that I can’t get out of my head: “a gentleman, curious in birds”; “the generation of eels is very dark and mysterious”; worms are “much addicted to venery”; “happening to make a visit to my neighbor’s peacocks”. I, too, after all, go about “in pursuit of natural knowledge.” And his “annus historico-naturalis” is what my blog has been about for five years now.

White was of course a product of his time and place. A lot of birds and other animals get killed in these pages by White or his neighbors. Before the availability of good optics, this was often the only way to see a wild animal up close. But even the rarities are blown out of the sky, and, boy, does this gets wearisome for the soul, particularly now that so many bird populations are at historic lows.

White was curiously obsessed with the question of where the local swallows and martins went in the winter. He knew that some bird species migrated, down through Spain at least, but he was pretty sure the local swallows took cover underground nearby, hibernating through the cold months. This was an old idea; I think it was Aristotle who bottled it orgininally. This line of thinking wasn’t completely wrong: at least one species has been found to hibernate in this world, but it isn’t a swallow, nor found in Europe (it’s the the Common Poorwill, a North American species). Young Swifts can go into a state of torpor during short cold spells, powering down body temperature and metabolism, but Aristotle and White were way off on the swallow hibernation thing.

But then, that’s the glory of science: it can change as new evidence is discovered. This is why it’s different from belief. White of course came before the banding (or ringing, as they say in the UK) of birds. He reported what he saw, and he makes a good case within the limits of his observations.

Tadpoles

tadpolesOne of the unexpected sights during our walk along the Northumberland Coast Path was this (tidal?) pool full of what we thought were Common Toad (Bufo bufo) tadpoles. Surprising because this was brackish water at best, if not fully the brine of the nearby North Sea. Bufo bufoIt seems, though, that they can tolerate a certain amount of salt. And they are not the only amphibians to do so. I found this abstract of a journal article that provides a “review of the literature of amphibians in saline waters and present data on 144 species, in 28 families, on every continent except Antarctica. In doing so, we make the case that salt tolerance in amphibians may not be as rare as generally assumed.” IMG_3017Speaking of salt tolerance: near the tad-pools were some clumps of Glaux maritima, which seems to have more common names than you can shake a tadpole at, including, in the UK, Sea Milkwort. Found across the northern hemisphere, on coasts and high-elevation alkaline meadows.

Windhover

Falco tinnunculusA Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), the “dapple-dawn-drawn-falcon,” as Hopkins alliterated to the nth degree, hovering over the Northumberland beach. IMG_2779Hopkins’s poem The Windhover, although another of his mash notes to his Invisible Boyfriend, captures something of the impression made by these birds hovering with head to the wind and eyes to the ground, searching for prey. But then so does the non-canonical nickname, cited in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, of “windfucker.”Falco tinnunculusThe first bird pictured is a male. This is a female, looking like she’d made a splash, paralleling the edge of a golf course near Bamburgh Castle.BamburghHover-hover-hover-hover, swoop down on prey or swoop down to take up another hovering position further along. Lovely to watch them in action. (I was not quick enough to get a picture of one perched on a sign warning of the dangers of unexploded ordnance.)Calton HillA third sighting was along the flank of Edinburgh’s monument-studded Calton Hill. We had just descended and were looking up to from David Hume’s tomb.
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The American Kestrel (F. sparverius), which is a more colorful bird, does the same thing. The grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field are one of the best places to see them do this in the city.

Sandstone and Basalt

IMG_3353Kind of hot for blogging, wot? Let’s take a dip in the North Sea: this is Greymare Rock, also known as Saddle Rock and the Whale’s Belly, just south of Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s made up of buckled layers of sandstone, the same sandstone used to build the nearby castle. IMG_3345 The castle itself, a ruin now, was built on an exposed ridge of basaltic Whinn Sill, a natural wall to the sea. Brilliant budgeting, that. IMG_3351The pale discoloration in the far distance on the cliff is guano from birds. The cliff hosts a nesting colony of Kittiwakes.

An Errant Whooper and A Quiz

IMG_2822As we neared the near-end of our first day’s walk along the Northumberland Coast, we spotted two swans in the distance. One was a familiar Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), invasive in the U.S., but native in the UK (and very present on the Tweed, where we started our walk) and the other, pictured below, a Whooper (C. cygnus).Cygnus cygnusNote the projection of yellow below the nostrils, a good field mark when comparing with the similar looking but smaller Tundra or Bewick’s Swan (C. columbianus). Whoopers are general seen in the UK during migration, so this one was late or dawdling, with only a few breeding in the north. (The North American Trumpeter Swan (C. buccinator) is closely related but has a black bill.)

IMG_2433Less of a quiz than a mystery, to me anyway. Spotted this one in the Royal Botanical Garden. What is it?

Even More British Birds

 Emberiza schoeniclusA very vocal male Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) popped out of the dunes. Sternula albifronsAt Long Nanny along the Northumberland shore, we ran into a fence across the beach. As we were trying to figure out the best way to proceed, a volunteer National Trust ranger emerged from the dunes, where she’d had her eye on us. She was guarding the beach nesters, Little Terns (Sternula albifrons) and Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula). The Little Tern is another species in decline, with some 1900 breeding pairs in the UK. Unleashed dogs, egg collectors (illegal, but these characters are often sociopaths if not psychopaths), habitat destruction, etc. are all a problem. She said we could pass by as close to the water as possible, then “paddle” across the low tide rush of the Nanny pouring into the sea. But first she invited us to see the nesting birds. At the time, there was one nesting Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) there. The pictured bird was actually another example of the species, resting not nesting nearby. On July 1, 18 chicks and 30 more eggs were reported. SylviaWhen I saw this new-to-me bird, I said to myself that I would name it a Whitethroat. Bingo! Sylvia communis. But then I turned the page and there was a Lesser Whitethroat (S. curruca). Uh-oh. I still think it’s the communis. Correct me if I’m wrong.Certhia familiarisTreecreeper (Certhia familiaris), another new bird for me. A couple of young, with tail feathers not yet fully developed, were also leapfrogging between trees with this adult.Vanellus vanellusNorthern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) at the island end of the Holy Island causeway. A species that has suffered significant declines and is now listed as Red by the RSPB, meaning it has the highest conservation priority. We saw two.Somateria mollissimaSeveral female Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) shepherding a whole flotilla of their (?) young.

British Birds II

Erithacus rubeculaRobin (Erithacus rubecula). Yup, looks nothing like ours.Turdus merulaThe Blackbird (Turdus merula), on the otherhand, is much like our American Robin (Turdus migratorius), an omnipresent thrush.Aythya fuligulaTufted Duck (Aythya fuligula).Larus fuscusLesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus): we’re seeing more and more of these birds on this side of the Atlantic.Fringilla coelebsChaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), the source of the frog-call.Motacilla albaPied Wagtail (Motacilla alba), a bird we encountered in every habitat; here it’s in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Anthus pratensisI was puzzled by this bird and asked three different couples sporting binoculars to help me identify it. The first insisted it was a House Sparrow. Ahem. The third couple and I agreed on Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis).


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