Thursday, 29 November 2012

Letter to the Reverend Bandwell Fumblefinch

John Joseph Briggs
King's Newton

August 1852

To the Reverend Bandwell Fumblefinch,
My dear Sir,

I read with interest your comments about the Northern Willie in your masterful work The Compleat Listershire Birds (volume the three) in which you report that this bird is found in these parts "a long way out, really". I would humbly beg your permission, however, to describe the finding of this species (commonly known as guillemot by the natives who display their close ancestry to the French) on the cliffs near St Margaret's Bay in Listershire. You may be assured that I procured eggs as befits a devoted naturalist. It was to my surprise, however, that the species has not been seen at the location since.

I have had the honour of having this report published in the Zoologist, volume the tenth 1852.

St Margaret's Bay is situated perhaps four miles from Dover near the South Foreland lighthouse on the Kentish coast. It is buried in a deep recess between high and prominent chalk cliffs and contains a few houses occupied chiefly by fishermen and the coast guard stationed there for the prevention of smuggling.

During the month of May in the present year I paid a visit to this remote spot and picked up the following gleanings in Natural History. On the most inaccessible parts of the cliffs overlooking the sea between St Margaret's and Dover I found the guillemot breeding but I was told that this bird existed there in much more limited numbers now than formerly.

The eggs were found resting lightly on the shelves of the cliffs without nest and I can bear testimony to the truth of the assertions which naturalists have made that the eggs of this bird vary greatly both in ground colour and markings.  Of the three which 1 was able to procure one had its ground colour greenish white and its broad end banded with a ring of deep black blotches its sides varied with a few spots but none at the smaller end.  Another egg had a large black blotch on the centre of the broad end from which diverged numerous spots which became smaller in size as they approached the narrow end ground colour white.  A third had some well defined but irregularly shaped black spots scattered over it upon a greenish white ground. These eggs were procured on the 26th of May and incubation had just commenced.

Another species of bird which I found breeding on these cliffs more especially near the Foreland lighthouse was the common gull.  I procured fourteen eggs on the 26th of May.  The nests were situated on the cliffs composed of marine plants and usually contained two eggs occasionally three. These eggs were procured by a person who was suspended over the face of the cliff by a rope like a spider hanging by his web an operation which has frequently been described.

Common as these gulls are there is something very pleasing in their habits and manners.  How delightful is it to stand on some prominent crag with the ocean rolling at its base and watch these birds of snowy whiteness winging their spirit like flight through the deep deep space which intervenes between us and the unresting waters.  Or to see a party chasing each other over the bright blue waves one perchance picking up a glistening mackerel whilst the others are endeavouring to steal away his prize and are pursuing him so unweariedly that is generally obliged to drop it in order to escape the annoyance pursuit.

Nor is it less pleasing to see the solicitude which they manifest for the safety of their young as they fly round and round nests with restless anxiety uttering their low plaintive cry of distress occasionally alighting on the hoary scalp of some prominent crag for a few moments standing motionless like statues cut from the chalk.

On the ledges of the cliffs before alluded to the sparrow-hawk breeds and in my rambles I met with several pairs of these birds.  The merlin too inhabits these cliffs in summer and is said to breed there. Of the truth of this I have no doubt as I frequently a pair which haunted a particular part of the cliff and from their partiality to one spot their manner and also from their being seen there at that period June 23rd I think they must have had a nest in the neighbourhood.  Instances of this bird breeding so far south are I believe considered by naturalists extremely rare.

On the sea shore I met with the stonechat, the hooded crow and the raven. The latter bird I am told breeds annually on the highest parts of the cliffs generally on the same rock but not on the same ledge The common skylark was most abundant on the high grounds above the cliffs and I never remember to have heard the song of these birds so sweetly delivered.

St Margaret's Bay furnishes the botanist with many interesting plants amongst which the various species of Orchis stand most conspicuous.

I remain, Sir,
Your most obedient servant

John Joseph Briggs

August 1852

Sunday, 25 November 2012

On this day in 1703, the wind blew


The weather map for early Sunday morning shows strong winds across the south of England, which brought heavy rain and damage to the south-west especially. At this time of year, in 1703, a strikingly similar weather pattern crossed the country (but with much tighter isobars) and caused devastation on land and at sea.

Daniel Defoe advertised for eye-witness reports of "casualties and disasters" of the tempest and collated a unique record of the Great Storm.

Many of the records from across the country came from vicars and landowners describing damage to churches, houses, farmland and livestock, especially in Somerset and Bristol, which were badly flooded by a storm surge up the Severn. But it was off Deal that the greatest loss of life occurred, with warships and merchantmen sheltering in the Downs between the coast and the Goodwin sands.

"There remained in the Downs about 12 sail when this terrible tempest began at which time England may be said to have received the greatest loss that ever happened to the royal navy at one time either by weather by enemies or by any accident whatsoever"

Defoe wrote a poem about Deal's involvement in the Storm, presumably damning the town for not providing the usual safety to the ships, but perhaps because he believed that the inhabitants might have made a profit from the wreckage that would have been washed up on its shore. It should be remembered that he had recently had to give up his tile-making firm in Tilbury to pay his debts and would otherwise have become rich as demand for tiles would have increased after the damaging storm.
The poem is copied from the website of The Just Reproach micropub in Deal. The wit of the writer, and of the landlord who chose the name, is echoed by the friendly chat of the customers.

In his later book, A Tour through the island of Great Britain, Defoe changed his view of Deal to a more charitable one: "The town of Deal is very much improved of years to which the great resort of seamen from ships in the Downs has not a little contributed. The great conveniency of landing here has been of infinite benefit to the place so that it is and populous containing upwards of 4000 inhabitants is divided into the upper and lower towns adorned with many good buildings being in effect the principal place upon the Downs and on that account having both in war and peace a continual resort of people."

Back in 2012, after the gales overnight it was invigorating to walk to the end of Deal pier. We looked across the churning sea to the Goodwins where so many died on the fateful night in 1703.

For the past fortnight a raft of scoters has bobbed around off the end of the pier over mussel beds harvested by a fishing fleet in the summer. We counted over 200, including four velvet scoters (who revealed themselves only in flight). Also present were a black-throated diver, red-throats, great-crested grebes, a couple of guillemots and an eider.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Getting waxed

I'm sorry to post yet more waxwing photos after all the excellent ones that have appeared on the social media recently, but these birds were self-found and unexpected, on Barrow Mount above Kingsdown. There were 22, perching in a tree sending out sentries to look for food, and looking like they might have just arrived from the continent.
Gradually we managed to approach to sensible photography distance, when they all flew off leaving us cursing our poor bushcraft.... until we looked directly above us to see a circling sparrowhawk. Darn. They flew towards the village, so hopefully someone will find the flock feasting on suburban berries.

The sighting enabled me to contribute to the Twitter network that seems to be spreading rapidly after the Bockhill Birders advertised their involvement, so thanks to them for speeding up the pace of life even more.

Is it me or do there seem to be more reports of arrivals of waxwings into Kent from across the channel, rather than the usual slow spread down from northern Britain?

A fascinating site illustrating bird migration is available from the Belgian airforce (presumably to try to reduce bird-strikes) showing the past and forecast future volumes of birds flying per hour. Notably, it illustrates that  migration occurs mostly at night with much smaller numbers moving during the day, and of these most are early in the morning.

In the afternoon we checked out the two Sandwich Bay short-eared owls, and sure enough they were patrolling in the usual area, giving occasional close views.
A tamer bird (although it doesn't look it) was a goshawk being flown across the downs. Surprisingly brown, it is apparently a juvenile male.

And finally a flower - there's not many around now, but plenty of berries - I think we're going to need them.