This morning I spent an hour gazing out of our bedroom window with a coffee, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars. Not sure what the neighbours opposite us thought I was doing but I was happy – this weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch! I’ve taken part in it every year since Karin and I moved into our present house in February 2012, and I thought it was time to show the results to date.
As you can see in the graph above, for the first couple of years there were relatively few birds (only 6 species in 2013, 8 in 2014). Then in 2015 it jumped to 15 species, including some that I’ve not recorded in the garden since such as Lesser redpoll. Two reasons for this sudden increase I think. First of all, January 2015 was particualrly cold which meant that more birds were moving into urban areas looking for food and a little more warmth. But secondly, and the reason why higher bird diversity has been maintained since then, is that we’ve been developing the garden and planting more shrubs, small trees, etc.
So since 2012 we’ve gone from this:
This planting and development of the garden has been good for other wildlife including bees, butterflies and other pollinators, as I’ve recounted a number of times. So here’s a close up from last summer just to remind us that, on this grey, drizzly January day, spring is not so far away:
Of course you don’t need to have a garden to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch – the RSPB also accepts data from surveys of public parks and green space. In fact tomorrow morning I’m leading a group of residents around our local park, The Racecourse, to do just such a survey.
Right, must go and upload this years data to the RSPB’s site.
Karin and I had kippers for breakfast this morning, a satisfying and warming treat on this cold Sunday as we watched the snow fall into the garden, softening the edges and hedges:
I do like a nice kipper! Smoking fish to make it last longer has been repeatedly discovered and transmitted as an idea across cultures, and represents a fascinating intersection where wild biodiversity meets human ingenuity. The north east of England, where I grew up, has a great and ancient tradition of smoking herrings to preserve a portion of the catch, a practice that may have originated with the Vikings who colonised that part of the country over one thousand years ago.
Of all of the North Sea’s edible biodiversity I feel most comfortable eating herring; although there were issues with over-fishing in the 1960s and 70s, current stocks look to be being managed sustainably. The most up to date information I’ve found is in a Norwegian government report from which I took this graph:
Kippers have had subtle, but interesting, influences on culture, spawning phrases, songs and games. To be “done up like a kipper”* is to be taken advantage of by someone or bamboozled, whilst a “kipper tie” is a fashion hangover from the 60s and 70s, named for its broad proportions. Of course Supertramp sang about having kippers for breakfast, particularly in Texas “cos everyone’s a millionaire”. That strikes me as an odd line as herrings (in whatever form) have always been considered a cheap dish. Though I suppose importing them from Craster to Dallas could be quite expensive.
Back to the north east and my childhood, where we played a game called “Split the Kipper”. This involved standing opposite a friend on a grassy field and taking it in turns to throw a knife near to your opponent’s foot. If it stuck into the ground then your opponent had to slide their foot to that point. This continued until one of you had your legs so far apart that you fell over – the kipper had been split! Not the safest game for kids but I never knew anyone to get injured playing it. Like all the best games the point was not just to win but to win beautifully: inching your adversary’s legs apart with accurate knife throws gradually ramped up the tension of the game. I wonder where the game originated? Is it too fanciful to imagine that it was brought over by the Vikings?
The snow is still falling – wonder what’s for lunch….?
*Whatever you do, don’t search the Urban Dictionary for the definition of the word “kippered”….
Today is Blue Monday – reckoned to be the most depressing day of the year, though I’m in a very good mood: just back from a great 9am seminar with my final year students taking the Biodiversity & Conservation module. They presented some really interesting, diverse and thought provoking papers as part of their assessment for this module; it’s a great group to teach.
But if you are suffering from the blues this morning, here is a photograph to cheer you up. As far as I am aware Tweedia caerulea (also known as Oxypetalum coeruleum) is the only known blue flowered asclepiad (that’s to say, a member of the family Apocynaceae subfamily Asclepiadoideae – what used to be the family Asclepiadaceae*).
No one is sure why blue is such a rare colour within the asclepiads (and indeed the Apocynaceae as a whole) and it may be connected to the pollination system of this plant. However we don’t know what pollinates Tweedia caerulea in the wild so it’s hard to test that idea; other species within this group are variously pollinated by wasps, bees, flies, moths, etc. Truly blue flowers (as opposed to some shade of purple or violet) are relatively uncommon generally amongst the flowering plants and the source of much interest and excitement in those groups where they do occur, for example the Himalayan Poppies (Meconopsis).
Tweedia caerulea is easy to grow from seed but not so easy to get through the winter in the UK, so in the past I’ve grown it as an annual in the garden. Apart from the colour, one of the other reasons I like this plant is that it’s named after the 19th century plant collector John Tweedie whose life I’ve been researching over the past 20 years or so – see this paper for example.
*The asclepiads are my favourite group of plants, and one that I’ve published quite a bit of research on, so I was a bit miffed when the taxonomic rank of the family was relegated to subfamily. But it makes evolutionary sense and now gives me a much larger family of plants on which to research, so every cloud etc. etc.
Warning: biodiversity content almost nil; bad language content significant.
Language fascinates me, and one of the things that I find particularly intriguing is the way in which metaphors and analogies from the natural world find their way into our writing and speech. We talk of a “bird’s eye view” or being as “slow as a snail”; say that “from little acorns large oaks grow”, and we are as “ravenous as wolves”.
Which leads me to earworms. Nothing to do with real worms of course, but fragments of music that worm their way into your consciousness and stay fixed there, repeating over and over and over and over…….
According to Wikipedia other names include brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, and Involuntary Musical Imagery, but I’ve always known them as earworms. And I’ve suffered from them for as long as I can remember; typically every couple of days I’ll have part of a song stuck in my head that I can’t get rid of. In recent days it’s been “Long-haired Lover From Liverpool” by Little Jimmy Osmond (which I heard on a Top of the Pops Christmas Special); Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin that featured on a YouTube playlist on New Year’s Day.
Earworms get worse when I’m stressed or when I have a hangover: indeed if I have drunk too much the night before (a rare occurrence these days) I will wake up with a headache, nauseous, AND SOME FUCKING SONG BOUNCING LOUDLY AROUND IN MY BRAIN LIKE A KANGAROO* ON AMPHETAMINES!
At their worst these earworms can last for days and be very hard to shift. They can also wake me up in the middle of the night and stop me from getting back to sleep. The only method that I’ve found that can suppress them is to sing another song to myself that masks the offending song. After much experimentation I find that “In My Time of Dying”, another Led Zeppelin track, is the most effective, perhaps because it’s slow and not especially catchy.
(Bugger, my son James is tidying his bedroom and playing music and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has just come on – almost guaranteed to get stuck in my head!)
If you also suffer badly from earworms I’d be interested to know what methods you use to shift the little blighters: what works for you?
*See what I did there?