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Sunday, February 18, 2007


On Saturday 17th February I felt privileged to see Principal Artiste of the Royal Ballet, Tamara Rojo, dancing Odette/Odile in Sir Anthony Dowell's production of Swan Lake in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (choreography after Petipa/Ivanov, music by Tchaikovsky, conducted by Martin Yates).

Tamara joined the Royal Ballet in 2000, having already danced in a number of illustrious companies, and she has performed all the major roles of the classical ballets.

Tamara Rojo, Principal Ballerina with the Royal Ballet

In this performance she was breathtaking. The contrasting roles of Odette and Odile are demanding, calling for rapid change of style and personality between acts. The ballerina must transform her hair, makeup and costume, with only a few moments left for thought. As principal dancer Sarah Lamb describes in the programme notes, she must fully embody the white swan and then change everything - her face, her movements, the physical attack to the choreography, and most importantly, the use of her eyes in order to convey the exact opposite of Odette in the role of Odile.

As Odette, Tamara was the vulnerable, frightened swan, locked in an everlasting spell by the wicked Von Rothbart to be released only if she found a man who would swear undying love, never to betray her. Her slow pirouettes were perfectly poised, her developp├ęs immaculate, her balanced arabesques motionless. Her warming to Prince Siegfried (danced by Carlos d'Acosta) as he tenderly declared his love was truly moving.

Tamara Rojo as Odette

A grand ball held by Siegfried's mother in a forlorn attempt to get him to pick a bride (he must have had something on his mind to show such disinterest in the six beauties parading before him) was interrupted by the arrival of von Rothbart and his entourage, including his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette.

In this role, Tamara's dazzling virtuosity was shown to superb effect and at the end of her solo variation in the grand pas de deux, in which her 32 fouett├ęs were executed to perfection, the applause was thunderous.

Tamara Rojo as Odile, with the Prince Siegfried

When Siegfried was finally beguiled by Odile and her father to swear his hand in marriage, they mocked him as the distraught Odette appeared in a vision, and I doubt that Siegfried's despair at realising the deception left a dry eye in the House. Of course the betrayal meant that the spell cast by Von Rothbart could now not be broken except by mutual sacrifice of their lives by drowning themselves in the lake, resulting on the death of von Rothbart (danced by Gary Avis) and allowing the remaining captive swans to resume their lives as mortal girls.

Heavy stuff. I still haven't really come down to earth.

Monday, February 05, 2007


The Twite Carduelis flavirostris is a small curry-coloured finch, closely related to, and not unlike, the more familiar Linnet. In summer they are to be found breeding in mountains (notably the Pennines), in Scotland and on the Scottish Islands (Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland).

A Twite, the curry-coloured relative of the Linnet

In winter they descend from the hills, and come further south, to feed on the seeds of saltmarsh grasses around the East and West coasts of England. At the end of my street in Askam there is a nice area of saltmarsh that attracts a flock of up to 200 Twite every winter.

Saltmarsh at Askam. In winter, Twite feed among the boats

It has always been of interest to ornithologists to know if the birds appearing at any one marsh in winter are from a particular breeding population. For example, do the birds that breed in the Pennines favour the Norfolk or the Lancashire marshes in winter? And do the birds from the Hebrides go to different places from the Pennine birds, or do they all mix up?

A group of Twite feeding on a saltmarsh in Winter. But where do they come from?

This is a case where ringing the birds will help us to understand their movements. Fortunately flocks of Twite can be easily attracted to food (niger seed is ideal) and can be caught by a Whoosh! net. It is called a Whoosh! net because the net is set under tension from rubber cords; when birds are in the baited area, the trigger is pulled and the rubber flies the net over the feeding flock, making a Whoosh! sound as it goes. On a good day, up to 60 birds can be caught with one pull of the trigger.

The effectiveness of the ringing is greatly improved if birds are additionally fitted with coloured rings, using a combination of colours that indicate the location and year of ringing. For example, birds ringed at Askam last winter had a yellow ring fitted. The ring colours can be observed as the birds come down to feed.

Twite feeding. The yellow ring can clearly be seen on the bird on the left
Photo Ken Hindmarch

So what have we discovered? Well, we know that the breeding populations are generally faithful to their wintering grounds. Birds which were colour-ringed at Askam and Lancashire have been seen in the Hebrides, whilst the Pennine breeders favour the saltmarshes of Eastern England. However, there have been instances of birds being seen on both sides of the country, so there is clearly still plenty to learn as we continue with this research.