Wednesday 30 September 2020

One Season in the Taiga by Vadim Ryabitsev


This is a fascinating and engrossing story of Ryabitsev's ecological studies of willow warblers and the very similar arctic warblers in the forests of the Urals in Russia. 

In this short book, the famed ornithologist outlines the details of a three month summer field trip he made with his colleague Sergey. The account gives a detailed overview of the fieldwork itself, life in the camp and information on what happened after the trip, from writing up the report to a longer term overview of developments around the study area (which doesn't bode well for the species that were studied). 

Ryabitsev writes in a very engaging style and the reader gets to know individual birds as personalities as well as getting detailed scientific insights into the daily life and ecology of the warblers and other creatures in the area. The study focussed on the territorial behaviour of the two species of warbler and reveals how the two species interact and compares their nesting habits and their food sources.The writing makes clear how painstaking the research was and how closely the scientists observed everything the birds did:

'A warbler building a nest conducts itself in a very characteristic manner. Flitting like a butterfly just above the ground, it discerningly selects the building material suited to its engineering strategy. Sometimes it seems as though any herbage from anywhere will do, even from just around the nest, but another time the female will fly off a hundred metres, then rummage around, select a piece of plant material, throw it away then fly to another spot and choose something else.'  

The interactions between birds are fascinating and at times the book reads almost like an avian soap opera. 

We find out about ringing birds, the strange way time passes in 24 hour daylight, the challenges of working surrounded by biting insects and the ecology of the wider area.

This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in ecology or birds, it inspires the reader to get outdoors and pay more attention to the small details of what is going on around us in the natural world.

The book is illustrated by Ryabitsev's beautiful line drawings. 

One Season in the Taiga written and illustrated by Vadim Ryabitsev, translated by G H Harper, published (1998) by Russian Nature Press. (out of Print)

Sunday 27 September 2020

Two Families at Blackford Pond

 We visited Blackford pond yesterday and were delighted to see the mute swans have a healthy family, with several cygnets having grown to full size. Here are a couple of my photos of one of the adults with one of the youngsters 

There's also a lone adolescent swan, one of last year's youngsters, that was sitting in the grass, yesterday 

(You can tell it's not quite mature by its pale beak). 

Someone recently filmed this young swan causing a bit of a stir on the pond (see this tweet!)

The other family is the rat family, in fact there might be two rat families, Crafty Green Boyfriend took this photo

Of course rats are part of nature, but they're a desctructive part of nature and are likely to have eaten eggs and nestlings of some of the ground nesting birds on the pond. They probably live there in such large numbers because people leave too much food around for the birds and the rats eat all the extra bread (which shouldn't be fed to the birds at all) and seeds. 

After we had walked round the pond we continued on past Midmar Paddock 

through the Hermitage of Braid and into the small park at the edge of the Hermitage

which now is home to a small orchard 

the bare soil here will be planted with native wildflowers to encourage pollinators to visit the trees. Just round the corner, the ivy is in bloom and several hoverflies were enjoying the sunshine, including this Eristalis sp.

Hoverflies are important pollinators and are among the species that will benefit from the new orchard once it matures.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Enchanting Woodland Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau


 With an introduction that outlines the history and ecology of woodland in the British Isles, this book is a collection of thirty-two woodland folk tales retold by ecologist and storyteller Lisa Schneidau.

The stories are arranged thematically, starting with Wildwoods and working through themes such as Hunter and Hunted to end with The Path Ahead. Each theme is given a short intrduction to put the stories into context. Additionally each individual story is given a brief historical note. These notes give an interesting background to the stories and add to the reader's understanding of a storytelling tradition rooted in our woodlands. 

Schneidau has told these stories to many audiences and they are designed to be read aloud. Each flows with a beautiful rhythm. Some stories focus on human protagonists, some mythical, some based on historical persons, other stories focus on the lives of animals and birds of the woodlands, and in many of them fairies and pixies play an important role. The characters in some stories are able to shapeshift - becoming different animals at will, which is both a magical ability but also seems to underline a deep connection with nature. Many of the stories emphasise the relationships between people, animals and the woods and the importance for humans to look after the woods and the creatures who live there.

Some of the stories have particular resonance for our current times, probably most clearly The Woodland Under the Sea in which the elite party instead of protecting their community against the rising seas in Cantre’r Gwaelod, today the site of a vast petrified forest which is now under the sea.  'The fertile plains, farms and woods they had once known were submerged, save for the occasional rooftop of a tall building, and all the people had perished.'

My favourite story in the book, The Green Women of One Tree Hill also contains an essential lesson about living within our ecological means. Three brothers inherit the land surrounding the three green women (the only trees now left in an area that was once abundantly wooded). This is a very moving story of the need for a good relationship with nature, and includes a beautifully written overview of the ecological history of the area where the tale is set.

Similarly, The Tree's Revenge is a cautionary tale about what happens to those who steal land and trees that don't belong to them.

Auld Cruvie is another classic tale of the need to live in harmony with nature and includes some particularly lovely descriptions - 'Jack also learned the calls and the language of the birds. He learned their alarm calls that all the creatures in the woods knew, foretelling danger. He learned their quiet contact calls of the woodland at peace. He knew the tiny chatter of the subsong when winter turned to spring, as teenage robins experimented with their new-found notes. And best of all, he learned the bird songs that set the woods alight with joy.

In Herne the Hunter the reader is introduced to Herne, a figure who we might wish we could resurrect today:

In times when England is in great need, or great danger, a shimmering figure can be seen riding through the great oak, beech and hornbeam trees of Windsor Forest at night. He wears great horns on his head and a chain at his neck. Two other hunters ride beside him, and ghostly hounds charge forward all around. He is the god of the Wild Hunt, Herne, the Horned One, and his business is to protect our land from harm.

Most of the stories have some sort of take away moral, whether it is how to live in a better relationship with nature or with your siblings or not to be greedy. The message however is always told within a story that is engrossing and enchanting and sometimes very entertaining.

I couldn't help smiling at The Giant with Seven Heads which tells the story of Jack, the reluctant hero who kills the giant with seven heads when all he wanted was to find rabbits. Similarly Pixy Led is very entertaining, particularly the wife's reaction to her husband's claim to have been stolen away by the pixies when in fact he'd been drinking in the pub.  

This is a great collection of stories to tell in a group (or in a video call) or to read quietly by yourself. 

Enchanting Woodland Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau, published by The History Press.

Disclaimer: I was sent a free e-book of this title in exchange for a full and honest review.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

The difference a week makes

 There's a wonderful patch of porcelain fungi (Oudiemansiella mucida) in Craiglockart Dell along the Water of Leith. This patch has appeared at this time of year for a couple of years now. Some fungi behave differently and are much less reliable in terms of where they can be found.

Last week it looked like this: 

and this week it looks like this 

Fungi change quickly, don't they?

Sunday 20 September 2020

Squirrels and Sunshine at the Botanic Gardens

 Yesterday we had a lovely visit to Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. It was another sunny autumnal day and the gardens looked lovely. We were delighted to meet this grey squirrel who seemed happy to pose for the camera 

and this one who was too busy to even look at the camera

Despite autumn being here already, there are still plenty of hoverflies visiting the flowers

Eristalis sp 

Helophilus pendulus (footballer hoverfly) 

Syrphus sp and hawthorn shield bug 

The gardens have several rowan trees, of different species, which have different coloured berries 

The Botanics cafe is now open again, but only drinks and basic cold snacks for take away or outdoor eating. Currently, to allow for visitor numbers to be managed to allow for better social distancing, Edinburgh Botanic Gardens have an online advance booking system. We were able to book a time slot with just a couple of hours notice though, so you can still be fairly spontaneous! 

We also had a walk through Inverleith Park where the mute swans were resting by the pond 

Friday 18 September 2020

A Sunny Autumnal Day at Dalkeith Country Park

We're continuing our staycation and yesterday had a lovely visit to Dalkeith Country Park just outside Edinburgh. This is a beautiful place to explore.

The most impressive part of the park is the old oak woodland, which is full of ancient oak trees

We were delighted to see lots of speckled wood butterflies around the whole park

I love watching these butterflies as they dance around in the sunshine. 

We were surprised not to see many fungi around the park, though this fallen tree trunk was host to a wonderful display(I'm not sure what species this is, feel free to identify it in the comments below!).

  We were disappointed not to see many birds until we reached this yew tree, which hosted about ten mistle thrushes, a selection of tits, a nuthatch and this goldcrest

The weather was unseasonably warm (I've recently heard that apparently weather forecasters aren't allowed to use the word hot in forecasts between September and March, which is ridiculous in these times of climate chaos and rising temperatures). Climate chaos concerns aside though, it was lovely to have another day of hot sunshine after such a wet summer.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

A Sunny Autumn Day in West Lothian

Crafty Green Boyfriend and I have a few days off so yesterday we joined his mother and brother for a socially distanced trip around some of West Lothian's sights. It was a lovely sunny day (too warm for the time of year, but the sun was most welcome after the very rainy summer we've had here). 

We started at the House of the Binns, a relatively short drive (in their car, all wearing masks) from Edinburgh. The beautiful old house is currently closed to the public 

But the grounds are open for people to walk around. There's plenty to see here, with many views dominated by the Binns Tower 

 The gardens of the house are famous for the peacocks but we only saw one 

There were plenty of peacock feathers around though and this seven spot ladybird seemed happy sitting on one of them

We then had lunch in the garden of the Rouken Glen garden centre before exploring the nearby allotments, which are a haven for wildlife. 


We saw several rabbits (including a young black bunny) though none allowed photos. There were lots of hoverflies around including this Footballer (Helophilus pendulus) on a oxeye daisy

The sunflowers were looking magnificent!

We then travellend along the Firth of Forth to Blackness Castle. 

The castle and grounds are closed except for people who have bought advanced tickets under current COVID regulations to enable social distancing but we were able to walk along the coast near the castle. We met this friendly robin on a sailing boat moored in the marina 

and round the corner we came across a wonderful stretch of coast that was just full of seabirds including sandwich terns, lapwings, greylag geese, shelducks, redshanks, dunlin and others. 

Monday 14 September 2020

Along the Water of Leith

 Current relaxations of lockdown mean that I'm back to carrying out my weekly voluntary patrol of part of the Water of leith Walkway alongside Edinburgh's river. Crafty Green Boyfriend has a couple of days off work this week so he joined me. 

There are lots of fungi around at the moment, these porcelain mushrooms are particularly beautiful

This coral fungus was particularly widespread in one area of the walkway

It was lovely to see several hoverflies so late in the year, this Syrphus sp, along with a number of other individuals, seemed to be particularly enjoying the Michaelmas daisies

It was entertaining to see this grey heron on the roof of a building close to the river. 

and this grey squirrel also seemed happy to pose for a photo

It was also lovely to see that the ambitious mural painting in the Colinton Tunnel is now complete! It really is worth visiting the tunnel to admire the handiwork here, several local schools and groups have contributed to the overall work, which celebrates the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent a lot of time in the Colinton area when he was growing up.