To end the year, a hymn of praise to the beauty of ice, solid water, water that is essential to all life on earth.
We only caught the edge of the big storm that devastated much of the US over Christmas, and by the time it reached us it had turned to rain, lots of rain, 3″per hour at times. The rise in temperature melted some of our existing 17″ of snow, so we had water pouring into our streams and rivers, raising water levels by several feet.
And then the temperature plummeted. On the surface, at the edges, and everywhere within reach of the spray and the splash the water turned to ice, and then as the water levels fell and drained away from underneath, ice continued to form. And created some of the most beautiful ice formations I have ever seen.
Thankyou for joining me, and farewell 2022. Welcome 2023. Happy New Year.
[It’s been a quiet winter on my pond. It had still not fully frozen over when I left last weekend, so the otters cannot rest out on the ice.They are there, but far off in the distance. So I am showing you some posts from various past trips that I stockpiled for moments like these!]
When I think of an owl, I think of the night: a shadow with huge eyes, and a silent ghostly flight through the trees and grasslands in the pursuit of mice. But not all owls are like that. There are four species of owl that hunt fish, not mice. They hunt by day as well as by night, by sight not sound, and their own flight is not silent.
The best known is probably Pel’s Fishing Owl, Scotopelia peli, which I have seen in Zambia.
They still have large eyes because they are mostly nocturnal, but they sometimes hunt during the day. They snatch prey from the surface of shallow water, using surface ripples as cues (though I don’t understand how they can do this at night!).
Our more familiar prototypical owls have a facial disc, which serves to collect and concentrate the sound of their prey in the dark, like this Barred Owl:
Fishing owls more or less lack this, because transmission of sound from water to air is too poor to be useful. Here is a Brown Fish Owl, Ketupa zeylonensis, from India, also lacking that dramatic facial disc.
Just as they cannot hear the fish, the fish can’t hear them, so the owls don’t need and don’t have the specialized feathers that make flight silent in most owls.
Another adaptation is beak position. Fishing owls’ beaks are longer than most other owls, better for holding slippery fish, and more or less between their eyes, higher on the face than in other owls.
Again, the reason for this is unclear. They catch their prey by dangling their talons in the water from flight, not with their beaks. This Brown Fish Owl is coming in to land, not fishing, but you can get the idea.
PS The world’s very largest fishing owl is the endangered Blakiston’s Fish Owl, and I highly recommend Jonathan Slaght’s thrilling book on his quest for this owl in Siberia, “Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl”.
I last told you how Winslow Homer painted a dying Goldeneye duck. He wasn’t the only painter inspired by dead birds.
A month later, I was back at the National Gallery for a Lucien Freud show. He is chiefly famous for his portraits and his nudes, but there amongst his early work was this heraldic Dead Heron (1945) (and yes, it was hung this way up):
It may look like a 3-D collage, but it is just paint. The details of the feathers are marvellous:
Sad though a dead heron is, somehow the care Freud has taken is a way of honouring it.
As luck would have it, two days earlier I had been to the London Wetland Centre (wonderful place) to look for water birds, and there was a real and very much alive Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, flaunting his overlapping layers of grayish wing feathers
His long neck was all curled up, and his head was tucked in, and his black topknot and epaulets were blowing in the breeze:
He is nearly as big as the North American Great Blue Heron, but not quite.
Around him there were coots, teal, and a brave crow taking a running jump off a rock for its morning ablutions:
He almost completely immersed himself and had a good splash :
and emerged sparkling and refreshed.
Even London pigeons in Hyde Park take an early bath.
Birds don’t have to be rare to make me smile, but it certainly helps if they are alive.
PS Researchers recently published a study in Science showing that seeing birds makes people happy. I can confirm that.
I have been playing cat and mouse with a beaver, and for quite a while I was losing. It is the time of year when they are cutting down trees to strengthen their lodge, and create a food stash. So I thought if I could find a tree that had been freshly cut but not yet dismembered, and put a game camera on it, I might get footage of a beaver cutting down more of the tree. But that’s not quite how it went.
I found a freshly cut hemlock:
so I put a camera on it and went away for a week. When I came back, no change. So I walked a little further, found a newly felled maple, and moved the camera to that.
Aiming it just right is tricky, but I was careful, and confident. Over confident. Next day, most of the tree had been cut off and towed away, but somehow he’d done it without ever triggering the camera.
There wasn’t much left, and it looked too big for him to take, so I took down the camera and moved it to yet another tree. Next day, I returned to the original tree out of interest, and not only had he come back again and cut even more off, but he had made a scent mound right by the tree, making it quite clear who was the boss. (The scent mound is the heap of dark wet leaves in the foreground. ) And the new tree that I had put the camera on had not even been visited.
To add insult to injury he had also returned to the first hemlock, eaten some cambium from under the bark, and cut off some branches, but of course I had no camera there either.
The nutrients are in the cambium, the dark brown living layer under the bark. He isn’t interested in eating the wood itself.
By now I was getting grumpy. I was about to go away for two weeks, so I found yet more half-cut trees, and spent a long time positioning two cameras and testing them by pretending to be a beaver so as to be sure he would break the beam and trigger the camera:
Two weeks later, without much hope, I checked the first camera: nothing. But the second one, miraculously, had a series of very short videos. He had come out of the water on two different days, always at night. I’ve edited them into two clips.In the first one he has a good scratch and a bit of a groom:
and now he is ready for his close-up:
In this single frame extracted from one of them you can get a good look at his webbed back feet, hand-like front feet, and two goofy incisors.
And below you can see the underside of his leathery tail:
One day maybe I’ll catch one in the midst of cutting down a tree. I’ve left a camera out, just in case!
PS The sharp-eyed amongst you may notice that the shot of me crawling around is actually dated later than the beaver videos. It is a re-enactment designed to show you what it takes to get these shots, rather like the crews in David Attenborough shows! I can always aspire to greatness.
This post started at the National Gallery in London, of all places. I went to a splendid Winslow Homer retrospective, mainly landscapes, and suddenly there was this rather odd but striking painting of two Goldeneye ducks, one already shot and falling into the waves, and one escaping in alarm.
I prefer mine alive. These charming ducks live in Maine most of the year, though some head further north to breed. The ones in the paintings are male, with a white cheek patch and that golden eye. Here is my photo of a live version:
They find open bits of water when there is still ice on the ponds. These pictures were taken on a river in January. The females are brownish, as usual:
The female in front is a Barrow’s Goldeneye and the male and other female are Common Goldeneyes. They have bright orange feet, as you can see in the foreground below:
They have a strange courtship ritual. Look at the two photos below. In the top photo, the male stretches his neck up and out, (second from left), and then arches it right back (top left). In the second photo there is a better angled shot of him curling his neck backwards. I wish I had taken a video, but these stills give you the idea:
Here is a video I found online:
When they spread their wings, a large white patch appears:
You can tell it is a Barrow’s Goldeneye by counting the six white wing feathers. Common Goldeneyes have seven or eight.
PS Ian Fleming, author of the 007 books, named his house in Jamaica Goldeneye. Now it is a luxury resort. Here is its history: