Yesterday was not the right time of the year for birdwatchers to visit the Scillies — too late for migrants and not enough wind for blown-in vagrants.
But yesterday was exactly the right day to travel to the Scilly Isles — not a breath of wind, brilliant winter sunshine and water like a millpond.
So catching the train to Penzance before dawn,
we piled onto the Scillonian III with lots of other followers of the weather forecast. The islands are about 30 miles from the tip of Cornwall.
Unlike many other ships. On our outward journey Bill regaled me with tales of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, a mate of Marlborough (his hero) who lost four ships on the rocks around the Scillies in 1707, with the loss of nearly 2000 sailors. This may have been due to the problems at the time in plotting longitude, though 80 years later it was rumoured to have been due to the Navy’s failure to listen to a seaman, native to the Islands, who told them they were heading for the rocks! He was hanged for trying to incite mutiny. This may or may not have been true or may be an early example of how we edit history according to our own prejudices!
Yesterday the islands looked tropical.
The beech was patrolled by a little platoon of ducks and one or two people were swimming without wet suits. We did see some birds:
As we head back along the south coast of Cornwall, the passengers all gather on the aft decks and despite an increasing chill, gaze as one at the mesmerising sunset. No one looking at their phone or scanning the sea for more dolphins — as man has done for ever, we watched the sun go down.
The town on the eastern end of the border between England and Scotland was fought over for centuries.
With the eventual peace (I hope I don’t speak too soon) a road Bridge was started in 1610 by order of James I of England (VI of Scotland) and finished in 14 years. It cost £15,000 and was to carry the Great North Road, later the A1, between London and Edinburgh and it still carries traffic, albeit one-way but was closed for repairs when we visited recently.
Just returned from a long awaited tour of Scotland and the North-east — booked 2 years ago and generously kept open until restrictions were lifted — we were on tenterhooks until the very last minute as Miss Sturgeon would not give the go ahead until a couple of days before we were due to leave — in consequence it was very quiet, no one else seemed to have realised it was open. Under the circumstances that suited very well!
First to Troon to stay with old friends and to look for the black guillemot in Troon Harbour, and what did we find? Seals — one luxuriating in the warm fishy shower provided by a fastidious fisherman cleaning out his hold —
Harbours are strange magical places — full of ghosts that drift in and out on the tides –always looking towards the weather which usually threatens ominously.
That night, storm clouds gathered over Arran as four adults from two households (and from 3 different nations of the UK — which complicates things enormously) gathered and without guilt or fear of prosecution — the future was bright!
Last month in Texas we saw lots of herons and egrets, so what’s the difference? They are all members of the heron family, Ardeida . We tend to call the white ones egrets but they are not a separate family. In fact the great white egret, (Ardea alba), above, is closely related to the great blue heron (Ardea herodius)below.
To make things more complicated the great blue heron has variants that are white, thus only differing in superficial appearance from its egret cousin by its shaded heavier bill and paler legs.
Although the appearance of these two is similar their distribution is very different with the Great Egret being widely distributed through most of the world while the great blue heron is usually restricted to the Americas. Both look quite different with their necks hunched up. Here is the great blue heron with his neck extended a little:
Here is a smaller heron, the tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor):
This chap is a more specialist feeder, fishing for minnows in the shallow, we saw him dashing about quite frenetically fishing, not the cool stalking that we usually associate with herons. They have a trick of stretching out their wings to make a pool of shadow into which the fish swim. They are more restricted in their distribution living mainly around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. He is in winter plumage (only two colours) in the breeding season he sports a beautifully russet/maroon neck.
Here is the yellow crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) keeping a low profile during the day — herons fill many niches — these hunt crustaceans and insects at night, often nesting high in trees.
Here are two black crowned night herons(Nycticorax nicticorax) , at Sable Palm Sanctuary, South Padre Island, Texas:
These beautiful birds are common in the wetlands of the USA and also found in the warmer parts of Europe and were reported to have bred for the first time in the UK in 2017, in Somerset. Whether this was due to the hardiness of one pair who strayed too far north or to global warming is the question!
They are not however the only new herons to be colonizing our shores. As well as the great egret and the little egret, the cattle egret is becoming quite common, we have seen several this year in the UK and nearly always, happily as you might expect, in fields of cows!
Here is a snowy egret for comparison — note the black bill, these are limited to the Americas and are very territorial in the breeding season when they display noisily, pointing their bills skyward and bobbing up and down to the great interest of other egrets gathered to watch. They also tumble in the sky in their attempts to attract a mate.
It is similar in appearance to our little egret (Egretta garzetta) which is only an occasional visitor to the States — Here is a beautiful video of our Little Egret sent to me by Mark Barkan, after reading this blog — Thank you so much Mark — what a magnificent creature!
This little heron is a green heron (Butorides virescens), they sit in thick undergrowth by preferably shallow water looking intently for little fish onto which to lunge.
The last of the herons that we saw in Texas was the rare reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) seen here at a distance, its numbers are decreasing, breeding in the Caribbean and a visitor to the Gulf of Mexico.
Thanks to Bill Branford for allowing me to use his photographs of the great egret, snowy egret, western cattle egret, green heron and the reddish egret, (all rights reserved).
I will show you the ibises, cranes and spectacular spoonbills soon!
There were three days last week when it didn’t rain all day (think about your syntax) — when it rained, but not all day! Otherwise there has been precipitation, all day, every day since the end of October. That is why this blog has been so quiet of late — incessant moaning about the rain when you have chosen to live in a temperate rain forest would be tedious.
As wave after wave of weather drives down the valley smudging the view and the streams and rivers roar, it’s hard to get excited about the waterfalls when the lens of my camera is wet and the image fogged, is that just condensation or camera-wobble due to shivering, anyway the shutter’s jammed — will it ever work again.
Last moment of respite from the deluge — in the Autumn.
There is a beauty, a vividness, in all this wetness, but lately it eludes me.
In the face of impending seasonal affective disorder we thought we’d have a little holiday, so off we set (not to somewhere warm and sunny) to Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire — the home of the dark satanic mills of yore!
Darwen photographed by A F Buck in 1948 — note the air pollution!
We stayed in Hurst Green and mooched around Rossendale, to old haunts, now-derelict pubs of youthful exploit, new housing estates where cotton-mills and shoe factories had stood last time we visited. We were visiting the county archive, researching this rapidly disappearing industrial heartland and it’s characters, perhaps 10 years too late, but the archive was very helpful. In the evenings we were cosy in the Shireburn Arms where the food was excellent and dawn in the Ribble Valley was stunning.
Our friend Glyn is drowsy with counting sheep, coming up the valley every day, after a day’s work, to be jostled by our impatient flock because this is the time of year that we go gallivanting.
In the last ten days we’ve travelled 1300 miles (that’s not far –I hear you New World readers say). It’s far enough in this overcrowded island!
We picked our way over the mountain pass to South Wales at walking pace, avoiding the hundreds of road-runners who were jogging up on the hottest day of the year. We gave them wide berth to allow for heat-exhaustion-wobble, weave and collapse while also avoiding the pulses of road racers on two wheels coming the other way (only two lanes – this is Wales) – pelotons of cyclists, who had just crested the summit, had heads down and were hurtling in squadrons, turbocharged with huge potential energy and suicidal intent, lemming like, towards Brecon.
We glanced at the stunning scenery and at the idyllic path on the other side of the valley, made for walkers and wondered what it is that draws humans in such numbers to tarmac. Our musing was ended abruptly by the thud of a discarded plastic bottle flung, elite-runner like, against our windscreen by a mature but plucky lady with exceptional BMI and poor aim, probably due to chaffing.
As we eventually sped away from the last — or rather, the first of the runners and the last of the cyclists, the bikers started to overtake us, flashing past at every opportunity, like when one slows down to turn right! I have a horror of killing a biker and they come to Wales in huge migrations at holiday times: Hell’s Angels – 1950’s re-enactors on vintage Nortons with side-cars – even an intrepid band of ladies, several with L-plates, on Honda ‘50’s almost grinding to wobbly halts on the hills (though that was on the A30 high-speed dual carriageway in Cornwall!)
We made it to Cornwall without fatality, and back.
Just when we thought we were out of danger, we had to set off again for a family funeral in Scunthorpe – more of that later.