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Monday, December 28, 2009

Cumbria in Winter

The Fourth Day of Christmas and I hiked with Jill'n'Pete (my sister and brother-in-law) in wintry conditions to the top of Lowick Fell from which the snow-covered mountains of the Coniston Range were visible to the north. Here are a few images the recollect the hike.

We climbed above the layer of mist that lurked in the valleys

As the mist thins, the steeple of Lowick Green church appears

Near the top of the fell, the tarns are locked in winter's icy grip

The fells take on an tundra-like mantle...

...but across the valley a sheltered homestead with smoke rising
from a wood stove looks snug and inviting.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I have flown in and out of Bratislava airport a number of times in order to participate in the work of the nearby Seewinkel National Park on the Austria/Hungary border, but I never visited the city that is the Capital of Slovakia. Just before Christmas I had a few hours to spare before an evening flight and so I took the opportunity to explore part of "Old Bratislava" on a cold, crisp, sunny afternoon. Normally accustomed to recording my wildlife observations, I was here able to try my hand at photographing buildings.

Bratislava Castle: the massive rectangular building with four corner towers stands on a rocky hill of the Little Carpathians directly above the Danube river in the middle of Bratislava. It is an outstanding feature of the city.

I walk over the main bridge crossing the Danube as a barge ploughs its way upstream towards Germany. I wonder how they steer that thing?

Ah, some birds! Black-headed Gulls (in winter plumage).
Maybe I should start a Slovakian bird list?

A memorial marks the entrance to "Old Bratislava"

The Main Square, with the Christmas Market in full swing.
Yes, I indulged in a mug of hot mulled wine!

The Cathedral in the Main Square

Please click on the picture for a special treat!

A happy Festive Season
to all my Readers!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Christmas Rose

After a hearty Christmas lunch, I made the most of a bright, clear, calm frosty afternoon to take a little exercise and walk to the end of my street to view the estuary. The tide was rising and the channels between the sandbanks were filling up.

And then my eye caught something small in the water.

Can you see it? A speck in the water in the lower left third of the picture
Let's zoom in a little...

There it is... it looks like a flower, doesn't it, still in its decorative wrapper

Oh yes, it's a rose. A rose in the sea, on Christmas afternoon. What a puzzle.

According to local gossip, a swain from the village had taken his sweetheart for a stroll along the beach after breakfast. Apparently he pulled a single red rose from under his jacket, proudly presented it to her and said: "Darling, will you marry me?".

It seems that the girl snatched the bloom from his hand. "I don't want your wretched rose" she shrieked, "we're through"!

And she threw it out into the sea, and stormed off home.

The search and rescue services are still trying to locate his body.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Feed the birds!

People all over the world put out food for the birds in winter. In Britain, we have the traditional "bird table" and these days a range of other devices that hold peanuts or seeds that can be suspended from poles or branches. In Austria (and probably elsewhere in Europe) a popular method of offering food is by means of a Meisen-ringe ("tit-ring") which is a circle of fat in which is embedded seeds of various kinds, and can be bought ready-made in shops.

The Meisen-ringe, but will British tits recognise it?

I was keen to discover how long it would take for our British tits, unfamiliar with the device, to become accustomed to this novel presentation of food. At first, they were suspicious....

...and then a Great Tit investigates

A Blue Tit looks interested...

A Coal Tit takes a peck...

And at last, the one I am waiting for, a Marsh Tit tucks in! You can see the coloured rings on the leg which reveals that this bird was ringed on 4th December.

In winter, our small birds can survive the cold only by generating heat from within by metabolising the food they eat. In cold conditions, providing food for our garden birds will help them survive these freezing conditions.

Please feed the birds!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


It's Yuletide again, the Festival of the Winter Solstice!
Happy Yule Everyone!

May the lengthening days bring warmth and light to your lives.

There are many signs and symbols associated with the Pagan festivals through the year, none more mystical than mistletoe at Yule, the Winter Solstice.

Botanically, Mistletoe Phoradendron flavescens is a parasitic plant that grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients.

The seeds are disseminated by birds, eponymously the Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus, that eat the berries. The juice of the berries is very sticky, and the birds have to wipe their bills clean against the tree, thus causing the berry seeds to lodge in a crevice in the bark of the tree.

Mistletoe typically grows in thick balls like this on trees in the south of England, and widely throughout Europe. I took this picture in the Donau Auen National Park near Vienna, Austria, in December 2009.
But wait, what is the bird at the top?

Zoom in a little and, although a very grey day with poor light,
we can see by its shape that it is a species of thrush...

Closer still, it is obviously a Mistle Thrush with its spotty breast! Individual birds like this will aggressively defend their patch of mistletoe throughout the winter (or, at least until the berries are eaten).

By tradition, mistletoe has long been associated with fertility and courtship. Mistletoe is brought into the home at Yuletide and when hung in a strategic high place, you are allowed to kiss your sweetheart when she steps beneath it. There is one proviso: there must be berries on the sprig of mistletoe, and one should be removed after each kiss. That is why bunches bearing the most berries are at a premium.

You can read a lot more about mistletoe here.

A Happy Yule to all my readers!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Winter's daybreak

There is something hauntingly and starkly beautiful about winter over the steppes. Now, snug in my home in Cumbria, it is hard to realise that it was only "this morning" that I actually witnessed day-break over the Hungarian-Austrian steppes in the Seewinkel National Park in Burgenland, Austria.

The first grey of dawn and a horse breaks the ice with its hoof
to reach a breakfast drink of cold water

Is that a rosy streak on the horizon? It is less than a week until the Winter Solstice -
maybe the sun won't bother to rise at all...

...the thousands of wild grey geese certainly hope that it will, as they move from the security of their nocturnal roost on Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl) to their feeding grounds in the surrounding countryside

A Sea Eagle follows the skeins of geese from immense altitude, watching for its chance to pick out an ailing bird...

...although this hapless swan frozen fast in the ice (with temperatures still falling) is a certain victim.

Nature is not cruel;
she is merely indifferent (Richard Dawkins)

At last, the sun is risen...

Climbs a little higher...

..and high enough to give colour to the ice

Reeds, ice and sun. Dawn is complete, but it will be some weeks yet
before the sun is able to climb much higher in the sky.