Seeds for the year ahead

Like any gardener, at the start of the year my mind turns naturally to seeds. Something to do with new resolutions and new generations, even if spring is still far off. My favorites are the ones that are packaged in dramatic pods, or that float on the wind, or both. Today there is a breeze, so I shall show you some airborne ones.

Top of my list has to be common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. The young pod is big and green and luscious looking

but then it dries, and splits open to reveal rows of tightly layered seeds,

each of which has its own tiny parachute .

The pod opens wider, and the seeds escape captivity and head out into the world.

The empty pod is sculpturally elegant,

and in closeup after a heavy dew, the individual seeds look like a many tentacled octopus, or the aigrette from a 1920’s dancing girls’ fan.

The superficially rather different plant, Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, has similar seedpods on a smaller scale:

that also contain skydiving seeds:

Not so dramatically, but still prettily, the common wild clematis, Clematis virginiana, bears seeds with personal aerial equipment too, but they are not protected by a pod. They start like this:

and as they mature the whole seed head becomes a white fluffy mass, giving the plant the common name of Old Man’s Beard (mixed here with Winterberry)::

Each seed has a long tail with a feathery fringe, which helps it get airborne.

Sort of a cross between a kite and a sperm.


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.

A curtain of ice with the beaver dam behind


Stalactites fringe the banks
Pillars form round the tree roots
Petticoats festoon the branches
Diamonds pile on the rocks
Christmas baubles everywhere
Chandeliers hang from fallen logs and rocks
Still water freezes too
Swirling around the leaves
pushing up slabs on the pond
On land, glass spheres ward off the evil eye
natural marbles an inch across
and tiny stalagmites accrete around small stalks
Needle ice* squeezes out of the ground like toothpaste
And the house is also decorated

Thankyou for joining me, and farewell 2022. Welcome 2023. Happy New Year.

PS In the first version of this post I casually, and wrongly, called this “hair ice”. Hair ice is real, but this isn’t it! I posted about actual hair ice a couple of years ago, here

Fishing owls, really?

[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”.

A painted heron

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.

Almost outsmarted by a beaver

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.

Goldeneyes: in art and in life

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:

Swans in combat

In the early morning, an image of serenity.

But as I write I’m in Central London, and I want to show you a rather distressing encounter with two swans in Hyde Park. You have been warned. I took a video (included at the end), and then extracted stills from it so I could comment. Here we go.

I saw two swans creating a big hullabaloo, partly screened by the reeds. This usually means either mating or fighting, but the reeds made it impossible to tell.

I walked on, and ten minutes later realized they had caught up with me and were still at it, close to the water’s edge. Once I got a good look, this was clearly not an amorous encounter. One swan was grabbing the other swan’s neck,

and holding its head underwater for prolonged periods:

These immersions went on for perhaps ten minutes. The by-now-exhausted underdog (underswan?) realized he would be safer on shore:

The aggressor wasn’t going to let him off so easily. First he tried to pin him down using his whole body:

Then he grabbed him by the nape of the neck

and tried to pull him back into the water:

The losing swan summoned up a burst of energy and almost struggled free:

But he was quickly overwhelmed again and submerged once more; this time the superior swan added insult to injury by sitting on the inferior one’s neck :

A local swan charity guesses that this was a territorial dispute, and they do sometimes end in the death of one swan, typically by drowning. Whatever it was, no quarter was being given.

Now watch this video, in which the sheer relentlessness and viciousness of the attack is fully apparent, and see how it all ended. It is much longer than my usual videos (3.44 minutes) , but you shouldn’t have to download it to watch it.

The abrupt ending was caused by a passer-by, who had seen enough, and grabbed the dominant swan by the neck and threw him off. He circled around looking affronted, then paddled away. Meanwhile the defeated swan hauled itself out of the water, with a glazed look in its eye, slowly straightened itself out, then settled down by its saviour’s feet. It was still there when I left twenty minutes later.

Below, to cheer you up, a solitary swan by the Thames.

PS Intervening in this way is usually frowned on, though I had some sympathy. As you could probably hear from the soundtrack, passing families were hurrying their small children past, either because they didn’t want them to watch a death, or because they still thought they might be mating!

Of mice and bones

Bones are central to our survival: the skeleton of a vertebrate is what keeps it upright and supports it against gravity. But they are also essential for some animals in a more surprising way: when an animal dies, or a deer sheds its bony antlers, all that calcium and bone marrow is a tempting meal for creatures of a range of sizes, including the tiniest.

A field mouse is a very tiny thing, easily caught by any number of altogether larger creatures. This one was caught by a Mackinnon’s Fiscal Shrike in Kenya:

and this one was eaten, and its soft tissues digested, by a coyote (or fox) in Maine, leaving the skeleton substantially intact, including even the tail :

(It didn’t digest the fur either, and once time and rain have cleared away the residue, fur and bones are made visible.)

These tiny creatures eat small seeds, like these beech nuts:

and during the long winters in Maine they emerge from their impossibly small holes, risking life and limb, to forage:

An unlikely food source is a shed deer antler. In Maine bucks grow their bony antlers in March or April, and shed them the following winter. I found this one in October, by which time it had been eaten by squirrels, mice, chipmunks, raccoons, opossums, porcupines, foxes, bears, and even otters, for the 20% calcium, 10% phosphorus and mineral salts content.

The outside is compacted bone, very hard, but rodents have sharp teeth.

The size of the tooth marks is a clue to who has been eating the antler. In the picture above it was something small, squirrels or mice. If it has cracked right through to the inside, it is something bigger:

The interior is spongy bone, well supplied with blood vessels when the antlers were growing. For whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to get eaten much.

These ones (found on a different occasion, but also in the autumn) looked older, but they hadn’t been quite as thoroughly chewed:

So if you view the world through the eyes of a mouse, it has two reasons to be grateful to bones: for giving it the strength to stand and to run, and for nourishing it at the end of a hard winter.

PS Here is Robbie Burns 1785 poem “To a mouse”, a rare literary paean to this timorous beastie:

And then course there is E.B.White’s masterpiece Stuart Little.

Bugs with dreadlocks

At this time of year you need to be content with miniature marvels.

This white fluffy cottony fringe on the underside of an alder twig is the collective security blanket of a number of Woolly Alder Aphids, Paraprociphilus tessellatus:

Each aphid secretes a coarse wax which twines into filaments up to 2 inches long, often completely concealing the insect underneath. It keeps them from drying out.

On a different twig, they were being more standoffish, so you could see them one by one:

I took some home, to try and get some closeups. The aphid is 1/16″ long, so this is a challenge:

I used my new lightbox to get this portrait, and I also took a video to prove that it is indeed a living creature. It is speeded up, and the poor thing has settled in for the winter and is not keen on being disturbed, so it is barely awake, and has its hair in its eyes, so to speak:

Its name tesselatus comes from the mosaic pattern on its back.

They need two tree species for their life cycle. In spring they feed on silver maple leaves, and then from summer into fall they move to alder twigs. Most overwinter as eggs, but some adults overwinter in colonies like these and give birth to live young females in the spring.

They can fly, and must be quite a sight in flight, but I have never seen this.

PS My title’s comparison to dreadlocks (aka dreads or locs) is plausible. Dreadlocks can be created by a hairdresser, but if human hair is left alone long enough it will eventually entwine itself naturally into dreadlocks. These aphids seem to grow short fluffy strands at first, and out of this fuzz come the long curly ringlets.

I am assuming no hair salon was involved.

Antelope ballet

[As you can see, I’m alternating between Maine, where I am now, and past encounters from farther afield, where there are animals I have not yet shown you. In November things are quiet here, and I’m collecting and building some stories to tell you, but you don’t want a weekly diet of mushrooms.]

From Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness Lodge to Il Ngwesi Lodge is a slow three-hour drive in a Landcruiser on forbiddingly rocky tracks. The upside is a chance to glimpse new animals, like this Klipspringer, one of a pair high on the hillside:

now very worried by our presence:

All its various names speak of its niche in the world. Its scientific name is Oreotragus oreotragus, Greek for “mountain billygoat” (twice!). Its Kiswahili name mbuzi mawe means “goat of the rocks”, like the chamois, and its Afrikaans name means “cliff leaper”, because that is exactly what it does. It walks on the tips of cylindrical blunt two-toed hooves

for all the world like a ballet dancer en pointe.

Each hoof tip is the size of a dime, and exerts a slight suction effect. Rather surprisingly this gives the klipspringer a good grip on its preferred rocky hillsides.

Klipspringers, like their closest relatives the dikdik, are altogether tiny delicate creatures, standing no more than two feet at the shoulder. They form a close pair-bond, staying together till one dies. They are found over large areas of Eastern and Southern Africa, and they are not endangered, partly because their preferred remote mountain habitat is not coveted for livestock, and not accessible for hunting. They are browsers, and get enough water from their food.

Their coat is unusual for antelope, being thick and coarse with brittle hollow guard hairs, which they are able to erect:

They have a white nose and lips, chestnut forehead, and lovely black and white ears. Only the males have horns, 3-6 inches long:*

Not one of the most dramatic animals in Africa, nor the most imposing, but one of the most peaceful and elegant; I’d rather like to see one at breakfast each morning, tiptoeing peacefully around, perhaps to strains of Tchaikovsky wafting out of my window.

* PS Confusingly, other sources say that in East Africa, where I was, both sexes have horns. Maybe I should choose the pronoun “they” ?

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