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Jane’s Journal

Getting started with birdwatching and binoculars

Getting started with bird watching

New medication has me waking early. Normally I would lie in bed and try fitfully to get back to sleep, or I would get up and grab my phone and start going through emails.

Recently though I have been making a cup of tea and sitting on the deck with a pair of binoculars that used to belong to my father in law. He had three pairs - two were modern lightweight plastic pairs and stay in the car, but these more old fashioned ones have a beautiful pale leather case and had been hanging on the coat rail by the back door for the past year.

I have never been able to get the hang of binoculars - I was shown by various adults in my pre-teen birdwatching club stage, but couldn’t get focus and always ended up with two fuzzy circles hovering around and never quite meeting.

So my 5 am aim has been to learn to use binoculars properly, to practice when nobody is looking, so that eventually I can birdwatch when out walking and tell buzzard from kite, so that I can watch a bird skimming over the loch and know what it is.

In the end my problem with the binoculars turned out to be a very straightforward error, I was simply holding them too close to my eyes. Given a small patch of grass to concentrate on, slow and steady hopping birds on the grass, I could take time to look and focus and track, to get used to the weird hyper reality of birds through binoculars.

And now I realise that I don’t need to wait until I’m out walking to use the binoculars. The back lawn birds are fascinating and if I stay still on the deck they aren’t bothered by me at all.

A fat freckled song thrush fledgling, head cocked to listen, pulling worms from the ground and beating them into pieces on the grass; an older robin following behind to snatch up the leftovers. Two goldfinches close together methodically combing the gravel for fallen angelica seeds. A peewit, jerking back and forward over the grass, every so often leaping into the air like a figure skater - there is no obvious reason or rhythm - maybe it is simply joy in the morning.

Listen to the Notes from the Studio Podcast

Bracken folklore and history

Bracken leaves in window

YOU CAN LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE HERE

Knowing a bit more about the world around us, the plants, the rocks, the birds, the insects helps us to rewild ourselves.
Knowing their names and properties helps us notice things. Knowing the history of a plant makes us see it better.

Stories are particularly potent in this - they can take us back into a previous time, a time before we separated ourselves from the natural world, a time when knowledge passed on through being spoken.

In folk tales and fairy stories it is the everyday plants that take the starring roles - endowed with magic powers, removed from the everyday and yet well known and comforting, marvellous and quixotic.

So it is with bracken. In past times bracken wasn't the pernicious weed of today. It was used in many ways, valued as part of the domestic economy, its usefulness keeping its spread in check.

Dried in great heaps for animal litter, for making root clamps to store carrots over winter, stuffed into packaging crates to keep cargo safe, used as a thatch, as a mulch, the ash used as a fumigant, in soap making, in glass making . . . The gathering of the bracken was a job done mainly by women, a hard, back breaking job, out on the moors, pulling the bracken and binding it into great bales to carry home.

Buttercups as cut flowers

butter cup cut flower wedding idea

YOU CAN LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS HERE (second segment)

In June the fields around us turn into a haze of yellow. Slightly softened by the pink of the flowering grass the bright buttercup flowers bob in the breeze, an upper story of brilliant flowers, shiny as lacquer.

In the garden I have a slightly more tetchy relationship with the buttercup - it is one of the main weeds we have, left over from when the garden was a soggy pony paddock. It loves the wet and thrives in compaction, spreading in runners to form a dense strangling mat, regrowing efficiently from each tiny scrap of root.

This is one of the main reasons that the vegetable garden has raised beds - the buttercup shies away from the loose soil and organic matter, preferring to set up home on the paths with their stamped down wood chip.

picking buttercups as cut flowers

House Martins

house martin nature notes

House martins are one of the heralds of spring here - swooping through the skies, catching midges. They may be here for only a few months but they live close amongst us - when the doors to the dye deck are open they swoop into the studio, circle and leave.

Wherever there is an overhanging roof or a handy corner, they will move in and begin constructing complex colonies of nests, often inconveniently above doorways. We have one group of nests above the bathroom window here, another above the back door.

Of course this wasn’t always the case, and up until the beginning of the C19th they were just known as martins. Most of them would make their nests in caves and on the underhang of cliffs, tucked in out of the wind. By 1900 though they had moved to easier territories, sticking their nests to the outside of houses, protected from predators and their name changed.

Each nest is intricately made up from about 1000 beak sized pellets, mainly mud which it then reinforced with strands of grass. If you are lucky you can watch them scoop up mud from wet ground, flying up to build another bit of the nest – at dusk you can see the lines of that day’s building, a darker line of wet mud. It takes 1-2 weeks to build a nest from scratch but only a couple of days to repair one from the previous year.

When we built a covered deck at the back of the house one year the house martins spent a couple of days circling their old nesting site and then decided to remodel rather than rebuild. They changed the position of the entrance - by filling the existing one in and cutting out a new one - to fit their new flight path to the side of the roof.

There are about 510,000 breeding pairs of house martins in the UK, each bird weighs only 20g and the average life expectancy is 2 years, though the oldest recorded was 14 years old.

The birds are socially monogamous – and will remain in the same breeding pairs for their life span. But they are prone to a bit of action on the side and a study in Scotland found that a third of nests had chicks from more than one father in them. While the male is off catching flies his rival will sneak into the nest.

Typically house martins will raise two broods in a year – the eggs hatch in 14-16 days and fledglings will leave the nest 22 days after hatching, returning to roost there for a couple of weeks with some still relying on parents for food.

One of the delights of this summer was watching the fledgling housemartins on the sweet pea trellis - with their parents chirping encouragement to try and get them to fly and catch their own food.

In late August and September house martins begin to gather on telephone wires, waiting to leave on their great migration to Sub Saharan Africa.

One of the things I find amazing is that at present we do not know exactly where they go once they leave the UK – there have been tracking projects to try and find out but so far none have been successful. Only one of the thousands of ringed birds has been found in Africa – in Nigeria. The rest seem to fly to and from the continent without being spotted by birdwatchers at all. I love that there are still mysteries like this in the world.

House martins are on the RSPB’s Amber warning list – numbers are decreasing. This may be due to the widespread use of insecticides and also to drought which makes both their migration and their nesting more difficult.

This is something that you can help with - they need wet mud to build their nests but they will also patch up already exisiting nesting sites. If you have heavy clay in your garden and it is dry them pour a bucket of water over it so that it becomes good nest building material. If you don’t have any suitable mud and you want to encourage them to nest on your house there are composite nests available which you can mount on your wall under the eaves.

The Hawthorn Tree - Magic and Ritual

The hawthorn is the most obvious plant to green up here in early spring.

Its leaves begin emerge from bare spiky branches in late March, a vibrant, shimmering haze along the farm road, but often don't leaf up completely until late April. The hawthorn is also where most of the small birds choose to built their nests; the thorny corridors keep out most predators, so the hedges are full of a constant noisy bustle and chirp.

The plants which are woven into people’s daily lives are the plants that attract the most myths and superstitions, that become infused with meaning and made and remade through stories. Hawthorns, which are native to many countries, have an incredibly rich and often contradictory folk history.

At the root of this is the contradictions within the plant - the frothy white flowers that appear in May and the sharp piercing thorns hidden amongst them, the sweet scent which attracts fly pollinators (the chemical triethylamine) which is related both to sexual arousal and decaying flesh.

Hope and fear, sex and death - the perfect mix for a wide range of mythological connections.

Fear and Death

As I live in a country with a Celtic folklore past, let’s start with fear and death.

Hawthorns in Celtic countries are connected with the fairies. Fall asleep under a hawthorn tree, it is said, and you are likely to be kidnapped and taken to the underworld. There may be many reasons for this. Maybe it is the commonness of the tree (oaks and ashes are similarly linked to fairies) and the idea that they live amongst us. Maybe it is that hawthorn leaves will quiver and dance when there is no breeze - a sure sign of the presence of fairies in stories. Maybe it is simply the memory of getting impaled on a hawthorn tree while walking home on a dark night.

Celtic fairies are not a benign force like the fairies of much modern day literature. They are rather quixotic spirits to be wary of, it is important to try and keep them happy. Crop failures, mystery illnesses, people disappearing and the death of livestock are all blamed on fairies seeking revenge and there is a long tradition of putting out food and bathing water outside a front door to appease them.

Traditionally it is unlucky and disrespectful to mention fairies by name - so in stories hawthorn trees are called ‘lonely trees’ and ‘gentle trees’ in many Celtic stories - both of which are euphemisms for ‘fairy tree’.

Cutting down a lone hawthorn tree was said to result in instant death - which is why many old hawthorns survived enclosure and the rationalising of fields. You often see hawthorns standing rugged and wind blown in the middle of fields (something that can only have helped their supernatural reputation). Sadly this wariness didn’t carry over to the thousands of miles of hawthorn hedge grubbed up in the past century.

Death also haunts the mythology of the hawthorn because of the chemical its flowers give off to attract its pollinators - triethylamine - which is also the first chemical given off by decaying flesh.

This sweet cloying smell of death would have been more recognised in the past - the laying out of bodies for several days, the lack of refrigeration. Now the nearest most of us get to it is the sniffing out of a dead mouse under a floorboard.

The great plague of 1665 - which killed off 20% English population - seems to have been important in associating hawthorn blooms with death. The number of plague deaths started to climb in May 1665 and by June they were high enough for the wealthy to flee London for their country homes. Driving through streets with bodies piled up, the stench of death coming through the carriage windows - you can imagine that it would have stuck in the sensory memory.

Significantly it is from this point that hawthorn blossoms are banished from homes in English folk traditions. At a time when scents - particularly herby/medicinal scents like rosemary - were regarded as a way of warding off the plague, hawthorn was seen as a possible transmitter.

Love and optimism

For anyone not sniffing the blossoms, hawthorns seem to have been associated more with optimism, fertility and love. They are associated with the Greek god of marriage Hymen - and altars dedicated to him from 5BCE were lit with spills made from hawthorn wood. England and much of Europe carried this idea through to medieval times - and the hawthorn was seen as a tree of love and romance, new starts and fertility.

Mayflower, with its connotations of optimism and fecundity, was a popular name for early C17th ships. There were 26 ships called Mayflower docked in London when the most famous one took Puritan pilgrims to America.

Branches of hawthorn blossom were traditionally hung above doorways to increase fertility and ward off evil spirits. Crowns of hawthorn flowers were worn by young women looking to attract a mate. The original maypoles were made from hawthorn wood, the setting for a fertility dance, the weaving the feminine ribbons and flowers around the masculine pole. The overt sexuality of the maypole led to the Puritan government banning May Day celebrations in 1644.

Originally May Day, also celebrated as the fire festival Beltane by neo-pagans, would have taken place several days later, at a more equal point between the Spring equinox and Summer solstice. In 1752, when the Gregorian calender was adopted in the UK, dates were changed to incorporate around 13 extra days. Obviously nobody told the plants, which is why pre C18th accounts have hawthorn flowering on May Day - where now that would be too early in most parts of the UK.

One thing that connects the fairies to May day and Neo Paganism is the hanging of fabric strips from the thorns of a hawthorn tree.

In traditional Celtic tales the strips are an offering to the fairies in return for the alleviation of pain. By the time the fabric decayed the ailment would have been cured, the circumstance changed. If you are going to do this, make sure your fabric is 100% natural fibres or it will not decay.

On May Day long ribbons of fabric are tied to the top of the Maypole. This would have originally been both shorter and more prickly than those used in celebrations today. The twirling round clockwise and anti-clockwise with the ribbons, the wrapping up of the pole, represent the feminine weaving round the masculine. It could have been seen as either as a nesting or an entrapment depending on your view!

In Neo paganism and Wiccan rites the colour coded ribbons have requests written on them - for increased powers over specific areas of life. They are then tied to trees and left blowing in the breeze.

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