Tag Archives: ornithology

The White Arse and other grassland birds

One of the most interesting things about birds’ names is that many of them are so strange you might find yourself wondering where they came from. However, in many cases they were changed slightly from their original, simple meaning because they were considered uncouth or not politically correct, particularly during the Victorian era of the 19th century. Such is the case with this handsome grassland bird, which likes to let approaching walkers get only so close before it suddenly flies off to land on a more distant fence post, usually just out of camera range.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise this as the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha). I often wondered about the name ‘wheatear’ or ‘wheat ear’ and where it came from, and I did think it was a very romantic name. Presumably these birds frequented wheat fields… it makes sense. However, the truth is very different – the Wheatear has a huge patch of solid white at the top of its tail, and since the Middle Ages has been known as White Arse, as it’s particularly noticeable when this handsome, but otherwise drab bird, flies past. Many other birds have equally prosaic names, such as this infuriatingly difficult-to-photograph species:

When you get close it hides behind leaves, and only when it’s at a safe distance does it fully reveal itself, singing its grating, chortling call from a barbwire fence while simultaneously holding insect prey in its beak:

This infuriating little bird is the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), which is a species of warbler, closely-related to the equally prosaically-named Blackcap. Many of the grassland birds could better be described as ‘fence birds’ as they like to perch on fences watching as you scare up insects which they then snatch. For some it’s a whole way of life, such as this common and beautiful species below, the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata):

The male of the species is very boldly marked, and in many ways is very similar to the European Robin, which it was once believed to be closely-related to. Females can even be confused with young robins, and juveniles too:

Not all birds are insectivores, some prefer seeds, some mostly seeds but will also supplement their diets with some insects too. This is typical of sparrows, but also the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) which moves in small flocks. The individual below is a male, but there were females on the wire directly below him as he kept watch while they fed from grass heads:

I photographed all of these birds, and many more, in the space of two hours on the path leading from the main site of the East Coast Nature Reserve along the railway tracks to Blackditch Woods, which due to the prolonged drought and very recent heavy, thundery rains is now a veritable jungle, and well worth seeing… but watch out for the horseflies. Below is yours truly on the path, with the fences which the birds like to perch on. The birds – about a dozen of them altogether – are behind the camera and preceding me as I walk along.

 

 

Easter and the Fertility Goddess

A lot of people wonder what the word ‘Easter’ means, and if you don’t already know the answer then you’re in for a surprise. Easter is actually Eostre, an ancient German fertility goddess associated with the springtime. Eostre is almost certainly a version of the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and therefore the same as the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who was also known (in different time periods and places) as Ashtarot. According to one very reliable ancient source (preserved by the early Christian bishop, Eusebius of Caesaria):

“… Astarte set the head of a bull upon her own head as the mark of royalty, and in travelling about the world she found a star that had fallen from the sky, which she took up and consecrated in the holy island Tyre [modern day Lebanon]. And the Phoenicians say that Astarte is Aphrodite.”

My reconstruction of the so-called Burney Relief, an item of pottery, dating from 19th or 18th century BC, which is believed to show the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. She also seems to have been associated with birds, and here is depicted as a bird-woman. Film fans will probably recognise the inspiration for the mechanical owl in Ray Harryhausen’s blockbuster 1980s movie Clash of the Titans.

This is very interesting because Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus and identified with the planet of the same name, which is Earth’s nearest neighbour, and which is also the brightest star in the night sky.

So, I hope you all had a happy Ishtar!

Anyhow, it is the perfect time to acknowledge both fertility and birds, and here is a little video about birds which you will see pairing off and building nests right now all around Wicklow, and further afield.

A Very Crazy Spring – Winter Returns with a Vengeance

Only last week the weather was improving so much, and the spring flowers all blooming so brilliantly, that it seemed spring was truly here and here to stay. I even saw my first hoverfly, which was, unusually for our spring, a Drone Fly (Eristalis species):

But this week everything went crazy, with the arrival of the so-called “Beast from the East”, a fierce cold weather system bringing snow and freezing temperatures to all of Europe from Siberia. Just as I was winding down using the bird-feeders in my garden they suddenly became vitally important to birds in the cold weather, and were also getting the attention of many rodents, including one particularly handsome and determined Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus).  Here it is climbing out of the leaf litter next to the tree holding the feeders, just at sunset:

One night I even managed to get a video of the mouse climbing on a peanut-feeder, a tiny creature with huge eyes and ears, and a long tail:

However, there were also some less welcome visitors, such as two young Brown Rats (Rattus norvegicus), which were not quite so cute, and a lot bigger than the mouse, but equally interesting in their cheekiness:

   The cold weather inspired some incredible behaviour in some of the wildlife. Probably the most amazing thing I have seen in some years was a flock of desperate crows, Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) to be exact, who were managing to take food off the carefully-designed “crow proof” small bird feeders. One of them was even hovering like a hummingbird! Watch and be amazed:

The bad weather doesn’t end there though – tonight a huge rain storm from the Bay of Biscay, Storm Emma, collides with the Beast from the East and we have a Red Weather Warning, the highest level, only used once before and, ironically, only a few months ago when Hurricane Ophelia made for the island of Ireland. This time, it’s for snow drifts. Hopefully the wildlife will not suffer too much.