Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trip to England, Part 6: A Charm of Finches

Finches are familiar feathered friends in Seattle, what with house finches frequenting the feeder and the American goldfinch posing as the state bird of Washington. They're part of a big family that includes about 136 species of finch, of which I managed to see, oh, a whopping four while in England. And one of them wasn't even a true finch.

What I lacked in quantity of finches, though, was made up for in quality because I met one of the finest finches going: the European goldfinch, a beautiful bird with a thrilling, trilling song that's more melodious than the squeaky whistles and sparrowlike chirps of the American goldfinch's song. When I first heard one belting out a tune from atop a TV aerial in Wells, I could understand why this pretty bird was once captured in droves for the caged-bird trade (a practice that is fortunately now banned).

The second finch I encountered was practically posing for greeting cards: He was perched on a lichen-dappled ledge on a wall in the garden of the Bishop's Palace in Wells, happily warbling away. He was quite a cheeky little fellow, too, turning around to face and study me with the same intensity I was directing toward him.

Like their American cousins, European goldfinches are nearly complete vegetarians, living on seeds and berries and displaying a strong preference for thistle seeds.

While researching this species, I found a diagram showing how this little bird was just as clever as a raven when it came to retrieving food on the end of a line. Alaskan ravens wowed people when they demonstrated that they could pull up a fishing line from a hole in the ice by tugging on the line, then stepping on the drawn-up portion to keep it in place before reaching down and pulling up more of the line until it finally landed the fish. European goldfinches in captivity demonstrated that they can use the same technique to pull up a string and retrieve a treat tied to its end.

Later, I learned that one of the many nicknames for the European goldfinch is "Draw-water." Such a puzzling name; I didn't think I'd ever figure out its origin. But then I came across a brief reference that linked it to a trick taught to captive goldfinches: drawing their own water from a cup using a thimble on a chain.

It has many other colorful  nicknames, as well. In various places it's known as a goldspink, thistle finch, King Harry, red-cap, proud tailor, fool's coat, sheriff's man, sweet William, and flame-of-the-wood.

As for the other species: a pair of greenfinches appeared conveniently close up, perching on a grill right outside the window, but inconveniently when my camera was not handy, so the only picture I got was of a distant greenfinch on a wire.

While walking to the ancient chapel of St. Peter's-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea, along a Roman road that has been trodden by warriors and pilgrims for hundreds of years (and birders in more recent ones), I spotted a chaffinch.

This is the finch that isn't a finch--it appears it was once lumped in with the finches, much like Darwin's famous finches (which aren't finches), but is actually, per one bird book, "a link between the insectivorous songbirds and the more specialized [true] finches."

Now it has its own family, one that includes another common English bird of garden and hedgerow, the brambling.

On that same walk, in reverse, this little bird presented itself, and I can only assume it's the female of a finch (true or false) although it could be a sparrow of some sort.

Technically this kind of small, dusky bird is called an LBJ, or "little brown job," in the United States. But I was tired after the walking and exploring and beachcombing in between spotting the chaffinch and this bird, so I decided I was finished with finches (bad birder).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Trip to England, Part 5: Blackbirds

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island in  New York, I sometimes got up very, very early to go outside on a summer morning and immerse myself in the sounds of the dawn chorus. I'd go out barefoot, because dewdrops beaded the grass so heavily that sneakers and socks would be soaked within a minute. The air was still soft and cool at this hour, and it rang with birdsong.

Mockingbirds, cardinals, robins, song sparrows, and other species sang as if there were no tomorrow--indeed, as if there would be no today if they didn't sing the sun into the sky.

We don't get much of a dawn chorus in my part of Seattle, so it was lovely to be in England in June, when the birds were in full swing as soon as the eastern sky began to grow pale around 4 a.m.

My favorite among these singers is the blackbird, a species we don't have here in the United States. We have plenty of black birds, but not blackbirds. The male of this species is clad in jet-black feathers set off by a bright orange-yellow bill. A yellow ring surrounds the inkdrop of his eye. The female wears more subdued brown, mottled plumage similar to that of a juvenile blackbird.

The male's song consists of fluting notes and chirps, a melody that blends the matter-of-fact cheer-up, cheerily song of its cousin, the American Robin, with the ethereal chimes of the eastern Wood Thrush. Sometimes he'll add a flourish that hints at the haunting downward spiral of a Veery's song or the upward one of a Swainson's Thrush.

Watching this bird as he forages really underscores his identity as a thrush (and not a relation of local birds such as the Red-winged Blackbird, which is in the same family as orioles). He resembles an American Robin who donned a black waistcoat before going out to do some worm-hunting. Otherwise, I could swear I was on home turf: the bird exhibited the same hoppity-hop, the same head-tilting as if he could hear the worms churning underground, the same dive-and-yank to retrieve his prey.

Perhaps the general cheerfulness of this bird has spared it from the burden of symbolizing bad luck, death, and darkness in popular culture, unlike ravens, crows, and vultures (of course, the fact that it doesn't scavenge battlefields helps, too).

But what about the four-and-twenty unlucky blackbirds who were baked into a pie and raised a ruckus when the pastry was split? Apparently these birds did frequently end up in the stews and soups of the poor, as they were a handy source of protein. Live birds flapping out of a pastry shell, however, seems to have been nothing more than a source of entertainment for the guests of the rich--though it's believed the popular nursery rhyme about this dish is really a coded appeal from Blackbeard for the recruitment of  new pirates.

Much more cheerful--and tuneful--is the Beatles' ode to the blackbird. And as someone who spent the first few days of a trip to England wandering around at 3 a.m.--not by choice outside in a dew-drenched garden but inside a house while others peacefully slept, undisturbed by jet lag--I can tell you that blackbirds definitely are "singing in the dead of night."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Trip to England, Part 4: A Sign Post

Another lazy roundup of pictures according to a theme as I continue to sort through 1,093 images, a collection that includes lots of fuzzy distant shots of birds. Today it's signs that struck us (fortunately, not literally) for one reason or another.

My favorite sign, frequently encountered in the UK
Just lovely old words that sound like places one would like to visit (Wallingford, England).
There are still ladies, gentlemen, and milliners in Wallingford, England.
I just like how this jaunty little fellow looks so happy about marching to neolithic Silbury Hill.
Oh. You don't believe us? You think we're overstating the case?
Fine. Go talk to the guy with the horns.
Danger: Pit of bacon ahead. Use caution while driving.
Life is full of uncertainty. One minute you're falling into the Sea of Curtain Ruffles, the next minute you discover that someone left the dry-ice machine running in your house.
Another wonderful old street sign, beckoning with so many places to go.
I love how somebody just said "You think it's twee, I think it's ME" and gave their house this name and plaque (Burnham-on-Crouch).
Profound? Misplaced priorities? Exactly right priorities? Sign of the end times, so to speak? Discuss amongst yourselves. It's definitely focused on the nitty-gritty and inescapable in life. Spotted in Wells.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Visit to England, Part 3: Puppy Dogs

OK, the cats got their turn in the limelight on Friday, so I'll start off this week with the canines we encountered in the UK.

Pupsy, devoted Jack Russell who follows my new sister-in-law 24/7.
Alfie, super-vigilant protector of 18-month-old great-nephew.
Dog who taunts and barks at Alfie when he walks by
Alfie with Bobby, Border Terrier later menaced by a sheep
Lancashire Heeler pup--I swear my husband's family just doles out small dogs to everyone. They're everywhere. Though we didn't come back with any pint-sized canines.
Waiting in vain for a share of the grilled sausages
A "Talbot," an extinct breed of hunting dog, atop the 1451 Well House in gardens of Bishop's Palace, Wells; apparently this dog was the Bishop's favorite hound. IMHO, he could've ponied up a bit more money for a better sculptor...this dog is a bit fetal-pygmy-hippo-looking to me.
Dog prints in clay tile, Roman Baths. Always makes me wistful to see humble touches of life in the past like this...just like pawprints in a modern concrete sidewalk. My parents found some among the Mexican clay tiles used to floor their kitchen long ago on Long Island in New York.

Dog playing fetch, mudflats, Burnham-on-Crouch
Dang. Dang, darn, and drat. I specifically wanted to visit Black Dog of Wells terracotta workshop in Wells, and we even parked right next to it. So why didn't I go in? What was up with that? Argh. Oh well. Obviously I must now go back there sometime.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Visit to England, Part 2: Kitty Cats

Felines, nothing more than felines...the Internet was invented by cats, wasn't it? Certainly they must be heavily invested in MewTube...oops, I mean YouTube. Anyway, it's Friday and it's summmer and therefore highly appropriate to share photos of the cats we encountered on our recent trip to England.

Kitten 1 of a trio adopted by my  niece: this little girl is Austen.
Wilde, the boy of the bunch, rambling in the walled garden of
my niece's new home. These are the luckiest kittens in the world!
Clever, spunky Bronte, the runt of the litter but clearly
destined to be the leader of the pack and head of the class.
She is rarely called by her literary name
as she is more frequently addressed as "Naughty."
Cat sunbathing, Burcott Mills, Wookey
Cat (possibly) on column in Wells Cathedral, Wells
A cat may look at a king, and sometimes it
may even nap on the Bishop's chair.
Wells Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop
of Bath and Wells, and this moggy
has laid claim to it, quite literally.

Weathervane cat enjoying a fish atop a rooftop in Maldon, Essex


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Visit to England, Part 1: Doors to Past and Present

My husband's roots are embedded in his English homeland; mine trail back to Ireland and Germany via my grandparents, who emigrated from those countries. Visiting these lands, and especially the ancient villages tucked among the hills and valleys of lush green farm fields, always feels like returning home.

Surely this feeling is mostly generated by the warm welcome we receive from family members who really do make their home there and isn't entirely the product of some deep-seated Celtic-Anglo-Saxon spirit lurking in our bones.  Their doors are always open to us. And that metaphor gives me an easy-peasy way to start sorting through 1,093 photographs of varying quality from this trip.

Old door, side street, Wallingford

Door in stone wall, public footpath, Wookey

House Door, Vicar's Close, Wells
Doors on high street, Burnham-on-Crouch

Garage Door, Burnham-on-Crouch
Door, storeroom-now-museum, Wells Cathedral