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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Imbolc

Imbolc is the Pagan festival that falls about half-way between the Winter Solstice (Yule) and the Spring Equinox (Ostara). Also known as St. Bridget's Day (Bride's Day) it is normally celebrated on 2nd February and marks the lengthening of the daylight and the first stirrings of spring. In Cumbria there are already about three hours more daylight than at the Winter Solstice.

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground

Imbolc is not spring, but may be the herald of spring. Snowdrops abound, and buds start to swell. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months.

Clusters of snowdrops in a churchyard near Askam-in-Furness, Cumbria

One of my daffodils bravely peeps out from its bud, taking its chances with the forecast of further snow

Buds on rose bushes begin to open, with the promise of scented evenings to come

Altostratus lenticularis hovers over the Cumbrian mountains
Imbolc 2009

Happy Imbolc Everyone!


HMS Victory

HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson's flagship, is the oldest commissioned warship in the world and is still manned by Officers and Ratings of the Royal Navy.

HMS Victory is the only surviving warship that fought in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars and is now the flagship of the Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command. She lies in No 2 Dry Dock at Portsmouth Naval Base in Hampshire UK, where she has a permanent berth.

HMS Victory in Portsmouth harbour - circa 1884

HMS Victory in full regalia for the International Festival of the Sea, Portsmouth, July 2005







The famous figurehead on the bow of HMS Victory





Over the Yardarm

The horizontal spars up the masts of HMS Victory, from which the sails are hung, are called "yards" or "yard-arms". By tradition, when the rising sun had climbed in the sky to appear above the topmost yardarm, the Admiral calls for a tot of rum. The expression is still in common use when a tipple before lunch is desired. One will say to another "I think the sun is over the yard-arm", even on dry land when the sun isn't shining!

Here are the words of a song about HMS Victory by Steeleye Span, recalling the time when sailors were press-ganged to serve in the Royal Navy:

The Victory

I am a youthful lady
My troubles they are great,
My tongue is scarcely able
My grievance to relate;
Since I have lost my true love,
That was ever dear to me,
He's gone to plough the ocean,
On board the Victory.

And many a pleasant evening,
My love and I did meet,
He clasped me round my slender waist,
And gave me kisses sweet;
I gave to him my hand and heart,
And he vowed he'd marry me,
But I did not know that my love,
Would join the Victory.

Chorus:
Mourn, England, mourn and complain;
For the brave Lord Nelson's men,
That died upon the main.

My parents could not endure my love,
Because he was so poor,
Therefore he never did presume,
To come within the door;
But had he been some noble lord,
Born a man of high degree,
They'd ne'er have sent the lad I love,
On board the Victory.

There was thirteen on the press-gang,
They did my love surround,
And four of that accursed gang,
Went bleeding to the ground;
My love was overpowered,
Though he fought most manfully,
They dragged him through the dark, wet streets,
Towards the Victory.

Your ship she lay in harbour,
Just ready to set sail,
May Heaven be your guardian, love,
Till you come home from sea,
Just like an angel weeping,
On the rock sighs every day,
Awaiting for my own true love,
Returning home from sea;
It's not for gold that glitters,
Nor silver that will shine,
If I marry to the man I love,
I'll be happy in my mind.

Here's success unto the Victory,
And crew of noble fame,
And glory to the captain,
Bold Nelson was his name;
At the Battle of Trafalgar,
The Victory cleared the way,
But my love was slain with Nelson,
Upon that very day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Burns Night

There are four notable men who are to be commemorated this year: the biologist Charles Darwin on the 150th anniversary of his publication On the Origin of Species; the composers George Handel and Joseph Haydn (250th and 200th anniversaries, respectively); and the Scottish poet Robert Burns (250th anniversary).

I shall feature all of these on my blog during the year, starting now with Robert Burns, for last night, 25th January is, by tradition, "Burns Night", celebrated by Scots men and women wherever they may be. I was fortunate to have my good Scottish friend Ken visiting, and we resolved to celebrate the occasion in style.

Robert Burns
Please click on the picture to hear some of Burns' poetry

We followed the customary practice of serving haggis with tatties and neaps (mashed potato with mashed turnips and swede) according to the procedures described here. Even though there were just the two of us, we delivered the rituals and speeches with the decorum as if at a full banquet!

The haggis was ceremonially transported into the dining room to a recording of the customary song A man's a man for a' that and Ken performed the honour of the address.

Ken brandishes his weapon as he addresses the haggis...

...before cutting it open...

...to serve

After a dram (or two) of Famous Grouse whisky and a can (or two) of McEwan's Export, the mood had turned a little mellow as Ken eulogises with the Immortal Memory, a tribute to the life and work of Robert Burns.

It was indeed a most pleasant evening!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The first blooms...

Snowdrops, in a neighbours garden, Askam-in-Furness Cumbria
24 January 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Woodpeckers

There are six species of European woodpeckers in the genus Dendrocopos. They are all visibly pied, appearing largely black and white, with splashes of red . Two species are found in Great Britain, namely the Great Spotted Woodpecker D. major; and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, D.minor. The former is now common and is is frequently seen coming to bird feeders in gardens, whilst the latter is rare and declining alarmingly.

Great Spotted Woodpeckers are often seen in gardens coming to peanut feeders
(Click on the image to locate the picture source)

In continental Europe there are also the Syrian D. syriacus; the Middle Spotted D. medius; and the White-backed D. leucotos. I have seen all these on one occasion only, during a Travelling Naturalist trip to Romania.

Being eponymously arboreal in habitat, woodpeckers are often most easily seen during winter when the trees are bare of their leaves. This winter, whilst walking through the woods of Prater in Vienna, I was delighted to find a few Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.

My pictures are not great, but they serve to pinpoint the main identification features.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Prater, Vienna
Note the red crown (Great Spotted has black, see above); the black "chin strap" does not extend back to the nape; the lower underparts are a more rosy-pink than the red of the Great Spotted; and the flanks are heavily streaked

A rear view which clearly shows the red crown

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Endstation (Part 2)

In December I took the opportunity to retrace my steps around Stadtwanderweg 5, but under very different circumstances!

Freezing fog had coated the grape-vines with a thick coat of hoar frost

The vegetation was transformed into a veritable winter wonderland

The few remaining uneaten red berries (haws) from the autumn were frozen solid

Even the forest understorey did not escape the icy grip of winter

The same woodland trail from about the same position as in the post below

Naked, frosty trees and scrub loomed out of the murky mist

Oh, a party of Santas out on a seasonal hike around Stadtwanderweg 5 also!

The wildlife was very different too. Gone were the birds of summer, replaced by species driven down from dark and frozen Lapland and Russia; birds like the Fieldfare and Redwing.

Most dramatic of all, however, was a massive flock (several hundreds) of beautiful Waxwings.

I photographed this waxwing in Lapland last May; I wonder if he was in the flock I saw in Austria?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Endstation (Part 1)

Vienna public transport has a network of underground (U-bahn) and trams (Stra├čenbahn) of which there are termini (Endstation) at the periphery of the city in the vine growing areas and the Vienna Woods. At some of these Endstations there begins a system of copiously-signed walking trails (stadtwanderweg) offering circular routes into the surrounding countryside. There are guide-books available to help select a suitable day out in the countryside.



Tram 31 reaches the edge of Vienna from the city centre in about 45 minutes



Tram No. 31 departs from thr city centre, crosses the Danube and ends at the vine-growing village of Stammersdorf, at the start of Stadtwandwerweg 5. This is about a three-hour circular hike through vineyards, arable land and woodlands, affording fine views over Vienna from the height of the walk. In July the sun was warm, the grapes lush, the corn golden with birds and butterflies abundant.

The beginning of Stadtwanderweg 5 is found behind Stammersdorf church

The trail leads straight up the hill...

...through the vine-growing areas...

...until the top when fine views of the surrounding countryside, and Vienna, are obtained.

The trail continues through thick woodland...

...and starts to descend back to Stammersdorf through a mosaic of natural scrubland, arable land and vines, a haven for wildlife.

The wheat is ready for harvesting

Summer birds were abundant, including Swallows, sand martins and, best of all, a family group of Red-backed Shrikes .

Wild flowers punctuated the corn fields...





Whilst butter- flies like the Silver- washed Fritillary ...






...and Marbled White graced the grass- lands





But most excting of all was a rare glimpse of a Ziesel (Souslik) as he popped his head up from the mouth of his burrow
(Click on the picture for more images of ziesels)

One of the guide-books giving information about walking trails in the countryside around Vienna

PART 2 will follow soon.... the same route, but a very different story!