The Kites and the Swans: Present Blessings

The Kites and the Swans, from Aesop’s Fables (6th century BC)

The kites of old time had, equally with the swans, the privilege of song. But having heard the neigh of the horse, they were so enchanted with the sound that they tried to imitate it; and, in trying to neigh, they forgot how to sing.

Moral: The desire for imaginary benefits often involves the loss of present blessings.

Here in England the BBC have been broadcasting Winterwatch from Sherborne, my village.  They have shown us stoats in ermine, badgers collecting nest materials, and hawfinches in the yews by the church. I have failed to photograph (or even see) any of these, but the local National Trust Chief Ranger, Mike Robinson, told me where to find the winter roost of the red kites.

Red kite

So down I went at dusk to a small copse next to the water meadow, and sure enough there were dozens of them circling overhead coming in to roost. Here is a somewhat unexciting photo of something that made my heart soar too:

Red kites

Back by the weir, the swans do not seem to feel the cold:

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But I suspect their huge black rubber feet need to warm up from time to time, so out they come onto the banks, ready to defend their patch against all comers, or at least against me:

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Then back to the water:

swans

“The wild duck startles like a sudden thought… “

This photo reminded me of the line from John Clare (1793-1864) that I have used as my title:

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The Sherbrooke used to be home to many over-wintering waterfowl, but in recent years there has been less open water because of silting and aquatic plants. Some clearing this year has given us back more open water this winter:

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so I thought I would show you a couple of photos. One is a year-round resident, the coot, and at this time of year the males start jousting for territory:

Coot males territoial display

The other is a winter resident, the wigeon. There are only about 400 nesting pairs in the UK, where they nest up in the North of England and Scotland. But in the winter there are about 440,000 birds, most of whom return to breed in Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia. This photo shows a male and a female.

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They come in flocks, and feed both in the water and on grass:

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Because there are large numbers of winter birds at only a few sites, their UK conservation status is Amber, so it is terrific to have them in Sherborne.

In past years we have also had tufted ducks, but this year I have only seen the odd pair.

Tufted duck pair

There is a reason children play with rubber ducks and not rubber geese: ducks just ooze charm.

Good neighbours

Trees do not waste their energy growing branches and twigs whose leaves will not reach the sunlight. In this little grove of trees, the two on the left and right edges have put all their efforts into growing branches on the exterior of the clump, and almost none in the middle. The trees in the middle have simply grown straight up, adding twigs and leaves at the top.  As a result, the entire copse has the same shape as a single tree growing all alone in the middle of a field, and each individual tree gets a decent share of the solar power.

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It somehow reminds me of Indian dancers with many arms:

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[Photo credit: By Will Folsom [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

In writing this, it occurred to me that English has many names for a small group of trees: coppice, copse, spinney, stand, grove. I chose “grove”, “clump”, and “copse”, just for variety.  Unsurprisingly, we also have lots of names for rain: shower, drizzle, downpour, deluge, .. and indeed for coffee.

 

Landscape Ornaments

The Sherborne Estate includes farmland and parkland landscaped in the eighteenth  century, in the era of Capability Brown. The designer was Charles Bridgeman. No aristocratic landscape would be complete without the right sort of decorative wildlife.

A rainy weekend, but the weather eased enough for a misty walk, and there above us on the hill posed a herd of fallow deer, with a fine buck at their centre. The photo makes it look as though he still has velvet on his antlers, but that is a trick of the light. At this time of year the velvet has long gone. Fallow deer are the only deer in the UK with palmate antlers (like moose), and at 3-4 years the antlers can be 70cm long.

Some fallow deer are pale fawn and spotted  (at least in summer); but these are plain and darker. The male can measure up to 94cm at the shoulder, and weigh up to 94Kg. They were originally brought to England from the Western Mediterranean by the Romans.

Fallow deer

In the seventeenth century the Duttons (owners of Sherborne) built a deer-coursing lodge, Lodge Park (owned by the National Trust). Deer were chased by dogs, and killed in front of the lodge as a spectacle for honored guests. Luckily those days are gone, but Lodge Park is worth a visit..

Down by the brook there are currently five resident swans, three above the weir and two below it. The pair below the weir are older, and the cob (the male) defends his territory fiercely against the upstart youngsters further upstream. Here they are in the shallows, preparing for their pas de deux:

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Eminence grise

Here in the Cotswolds the local stone is golden when the sun strikes, but in winter both the buildings and the landscape can look grey. But then the evening sun gilds the water, and the grey heron patrols the edge of the brook, and grey seems not such a bad color after all.

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The grey stone walls offer rewards if you have an eye for detail: the snail is a white-lipped banded snail, (Cepaea hortensis), and the indomitable lichen (Caloplaca flavescens?) already has fruiting bodies preparing to disperse spores.

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In compensation for the greyness, spring comes early in England, with a flash of gold. These winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are out on January 19th, ahead even of the snowdrops. They are native to Europe, but naturalized throughout the UK.

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PS. For copyright reasons, I decided against entitling this post Fifty Shades of …

Undocumented migrants

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The temperature is 2C as I write, and brightening up my very urban and fairly monochrome London backyard…

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… there be parrots.P1160959P1170054

 

Londoners may not be surprised, but the rest of you probably associate London with pigeons, not parrots. This pigeon-toed pigeon is looking down on these foreign arrivistes in quivering disbelief, if not affront:

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The bright green invading hordes are Ring-necked Parakeets (Psittacula krameri manillensis), and there are many theories as to how they arrived in England from India, but they are now very well established in London and the South East. They have been breeding in England since 1969, and the latest count had 8600 breeding pairs. Read this if you would like more background:

https://londonist.com/london/great-outdoors/london-s-parakeets-everything-you-need-to-know

They travel in noisy flocks, sometimes hundreds strong:

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and perch or preen on anything tall, including TV antennae.

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At this time of year they are pairing off:

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I photographed all these from our fourth-floor balcony, as they preened to fluff up their plumage for our Northern climes.

 

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PS: They are also called Rosy-necked Parakeets, here’s why:

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And I am thrilled they have come to live in my city.