Archive for January, 2016

I have got into a bad habit when major exhibitions occur. I don’t go initially because they will be too busy and then before I know it they are almost over. So it was with the Celts exhibition at the British Museum, which closes at the end of this week and which I finally got round to seeing yesterday.

Extent of Celtic Culture in Europe - "Celts in Europe" by QuartierLatin1968. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celts_in_Europe.png#/media/File:Celts_in_Europe.png

Extent of Celtic Culture in Europe – “Celts in Europe” by QuartierLatin1968. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

The exhibition follows the development of the Celtic culture, a single culture shared by a number of different peoples from eastern ( Czech Republic and Turkey), Central (Switzerland and Germany) and western (Iberia, France and Britain) Europe. It reached it height during the Iron Age and is perhaps most famous for its metalwork, much of which is on display in the exhibition.

 

 

The Celtic metalwork is amazing and these were the star exhibits on show.

Photo by Jessica springer (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wordridden/)

Photo by Jessica Spengler (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wordridden/)

 

Celtic Shield. Photo by rachel H (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagelmouse/)

Celtic Shield. Photo by Rachel H (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagelmouse/)

 

Celtic Torc. Photo by tallis Keaton (https://www.flickr.com/photos/talliskeeton/)

Celtic Torc. Photo by Tallis Keaton (https://www.flickr.com/photos/talliskeeton/)

 

It has always been imagined that the culture expanded from a foundation in Central Europe westwards and eastwards, as shown on the map above. However I recently saw a documentary on the TV which reported the apparent finding of ‘bronze age’ Celtic artifacts from Iberia and Britain. Since no such items have been found in central or Eastern Europe, this may, if substantiated, suggest that the origins of the Celtic culture may in fact have been on the lands of the Atlantic coast and spread eastward from there.

 

The exhibition closes on Sunday.

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Thomas Picton was born in Pembrokeshire in 1756. He joined the army in 1771 seeing service in West Indies, Gibraltar and the American war of Independence, during which he rose through the ranks. He was appointed Governor of Trinidad in 1801, but he was unpopular and found himself charged with allowing the torture of prisoners. Although cleared of the chagres, he returned to England and later joined Wellington in Portugal as commander of the 3rd Division. He was an uncouth gentleman and Wellington described him as a ‘rough-mouthed devil’. Despite this all recognised his talent as a leader and a general.

Sir Thomas Picton by Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Thomas Picton by Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the war he retired to Wales, but on hearing of Napoleon’s return to France, he travelled to the Netherlands to join Wellington. He commanded the 5th Division at the battle of Quatre Bras on the day before Waterloo and was wounded. He concealed this fact, fearing that he would be sent home and so led his division at the battle of Waterloo . This was to be a truly fatal mistake as while leading his men against the French advance, he was shot through the head.

Death of Sir Thomas Picton by By James Grant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Death of Sir Thomas Picton by By James Grant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His body was brought back to the UK for burial and a monument was erected to him by the government in St Paul’s Cathedral

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Some more photos from my trip to Norfolk at the weekend

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

 

Pochard

Pochard

 

Moorhen

Moorhen

 

Coot

Coot

 

Goldfinches

Goldfinches

 

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans

 

Mute Swans

Mute Swans

The fertile crescent stretches from the northernmost tip of the Persian Gulf along the River systems of the Euphrates and Tigris to the north-west then west to the Mediterranean and South down the coastal strip to the border of Egypt. The land which it encloses on three sides is primarily desert, a harsh environment in which to live, or travel. Thus, most trade from east to west and vice versa would be made through the fertile crescent and this, together with its agricultural value made the land so important.

Fertile Crescent (By 92bari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Fertile Crescent (By 92bari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Around the year 3000 BCE, the city states of the Sumer region began to reach out with their influence, both in terms of trade and in the necessity to take control of surrounding land in order to feed the growing populations within the cities. This inevitably led to clashes over land between rival cities and the subsequent development of military forces, both to protect the land they held and as we shall see, increasingly to take land that was held by others. Thus, in the next 500 years, there followed a series of wars between city states. Sometimes these campaigns would result in conquest and sometimes merely in the establishment of a tribute system by which the subservient city paid its dues to the controlling authority, but remained self-governing and independent. One symbolic gesture of this relationship seems to have been the removal from subjugated cities of the statues of their gods which were then transported to the victorious city where they were displayed in the Temple, one presumes, as an indication that the God had left its original city and now resided with, and thus favoured, the victors. You may recall that we discussed this during the foundation of Uruk. Thus, although sources such as the Sumerian Kings list gives us an indication of the existence of a high king, a king over all other Kings, it seems likely that most cities remained independent entities during this period. It is clear from the sources that the fortunes of individual cities waxed and waned and during this period as a number of different cities held the throne of the high king at different times during this period.

The city state settlements had begun to spread first North and west across the Fertile Crescent into what we would know today as Syria. These settlements included Mari in the middle Euphrates Valley, Ebla and Nagar in central Syria and Ugarit on the coast.  It is likely that they started out a small city states maybe even as was the case with Babylon as a tent city, a resting place for merchants and travellers and a trading post.  It is interesting to consider the expansion of these cities and why it might have occurred. Certainly at this time there is clear indication that these cities resembled the city states of Sumer in their structure and the archaeological evidence indicates the presence of Sumerian merchants within the cities. Whether the arrival of these merchants was the primary event for city foundation, that is the merchants travelled from Sumer in search of resources which were not available in their homelands and having found them in faraway places set up trade stations, which then developed into cities or whether alternatively these merchants travelling out from Sumer found already existing urban populations in these places and set up trade posts within them is not at all clear.

 

Sargon the Great (Photograph: Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities (Encyclopedia Britannica Online.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sargon the Great (Photograph: Iraqi Directorate General of Antiquities (Encyclopedia Britannica Online.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The situation in Sumer started to change around the year 2340 BCE when an Akkadian king named Sargon began to take direct control over a number of city states. The Akkadians lived in the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to the north of the Sumerian city states with their capital at Assur. Archaeology indicates that they had Sumerian-type of city organisation and religious ritual; although it appears that they did have their own gods or at least their own variants on the Sumerian gods. They spoke a Semitic language. Sargon, which means the righteous king, was originally the cupbearer to the King of Kish, one of the Sumerian city states. Details of the story are rather hazy, but it seems he assassinated his master, recruited an army of Akkadians and proceeded to start to conquer the cities of Sumer. He also had a liking for collecting titles: some were fairly straightforward – King of Kish; King of Sumer; King of Akkad, but others represented his connection to the gods: Ensi of Enlil, the God of winds or appointed of Auo, God of the heavens or Lord of the Universe. By 2300 BCE, Sargon’s Empire stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean (modern day Lebanon, Syria and south-east Turkey) through the fertile crescent to Sumer and the Persian Gulf. His descendants followed his lead. Naram-Sin, his grandson invaded Elam, on the eastern side of the Persian Gulf, central Turkey and pushed South into the Levant. Like his grandfather, he also collected titles including King of Kings; King of the four corners of the universe and ‘he who will be deified to join the gods’.  But this was not just a period of conquest, it was also a period of growing administration. From this time we have the first records of tax, mostly levied against conquered people, to pay for the bureaucracy and the army. We also have a number of ambitious building projects in both the Akkadian cities and in those of their subject peoples. The great Ziggurat at Ur dates from this period. The line of Sargon the Great came to an end with the invasion in 2193 of the Gutians, believed to be a people from around the shores of the Caspian Sea, an area which would be a recurrent source of trouble to the peoples of the fertile crescent. We know they captured and sacked the Akkadian capital, Assur, although after this they vanish from history and are presumed to have returned to their homelands. There was now a short period when there seems to be no controlling authority in the area. In 2112 Ur-Nammu, Lugal of Ur, established the neo-Sumerian empire covering the lands of Sumer and Akkad with its capital at Ur. He went on to conquer Northern Elam and establish hegemony over the Mediterranean and Levantine areas of the old Akkadian Empire. His son, Shulgi, is more renowned for his cultural impact on society. His is the earliest law code yet discovered, a fragment containing 47 clauses and it is during this period that the first records are made of ancient Sumerian myths. In around the year 2006, the Elamites regained their northern territory and continued to press north into the neo-Sumerian empire eventually sacking the city of Ur.

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans

Sunday found me on a RSPB group outing to Welney Wildfowl centre in Norfolk. This is one of my favourite reserves in the UK and I always try to visit at least once a year. Last Summer it gave me my best morning’s birdwatching when I found both Red-necked Phalarope and Common Quail within 30 minutes. But mid-winter visits present different opportunities. We made good time from London and made the journey to Norfolk in just under 2 hours. First up was a brief look over Lady Fen, where a large group of whooper swans were present, along with a large party of Lapwing.

Lady Fen

Lady Fen

 

Whooper Swans

Whooper Swans

Then onto the main observatory which overlooks the wash. The washes were created to take the winter flood waters from surrounding rivers and as such benefit both the wildlife and the local population. The were good numbers of Eurasian Wigeon, Coot, Common Pochard and Mallard along with some close Whooper swans.

The Ouse Washes

The Ouse Washes

 

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan

 

Time for coffee in the reserve centre cafeteria, which overlooks Lady Fen and the feeder station so there is no loss of birdwatching time. My target species here was the increasingly rare Tree Sparrow, but which is still frequently seen here at the feeder station. Goldfinches, Great Tits, Blue Tits and a Greenfnch were feeding. A pair of Reed Buntings were making trips from the nearby reed-bed to take food dropped from the feeders. Suddenly a brown headed bird landed on one of the feeders and I was able to get some good photos of a Tree Sparrow!

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

 

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

 

Back over to the wash and again a look in the main observatory. I found a male Pintail dozing amongst the Wigeon and one of the Wardens found a Bewick’s Swan amongst the Whooper and Mute Swans resting on a small expanses of land. The Bewick’s Swan is the rarest of our Swans and a although there are around a 1000 roosting on the reserve they spend most of their time feeding on the surrounding agricultural fields, only returning to the reserve at dusk, so it is often difficult to find one during the day. It was quite distant but through the telescope the characteristic bill pattern cold clearly be seen.

Bewick's Swan (left) alongside larger Whooper Swan

Bewick’s Swan (left) alongside larger Whooper Swan

Then onto Nelson-Lyall hide further along the wash. Here the number of wildfowl was lower, but there were some Northern Shoveler and Gadwall. Cetti’s Warbler was heard from the reed-bed and a party of Long-tailed Tits flew past.

View from Nelson-Lyall hide

View from Nelson-Lyall hide

Time to retrace my steps on the way back to the centre. Another stop at the main observatory added Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit to the day’s lost.

Lady Fen in the late afternoon

Lady Fen in the late afternoon

The last stop of the day was the observation platform overlooking Lady Fen, where a number of the group had gathered in the hope of seeing a Short-eared Owl which frequents the fen. A Marsh Harrier was hunting and gave good views. As time ticked closer to departure time it looked as though we might be unlucky. Our attention was distracted by the arrival of a small goose, which was identified as a Pink-footed goose. Then as if on cue the Short-eared owl appeared circling and hunting over the fen. A great end to a good day.

Common Pheasant [sp] (Phasianus colchicus)
Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii)
Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus)
Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
Gadwall (Anas strepera)
Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope)
Mallard [sp] (Anas platyrhynchos)
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Eurasian Teal [sp] (Anas crecca)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Grey Heron [sp] (Ardea cinerea)
Great Cormorant [sp] (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Western Marsh Harrier [sp] (Circus aeruginosus)
Common Kestrel [sp] (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Moorhen [sp] (Gallinula chloropus)
Eurasian Coot [sp] (Fulica atra)
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
European Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)
Black-tailed Godwit [sp] (Limosa limosa)
Dunlin [sp] (Calidris alpina)
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
Common Gull (Larus canus canus)
Common Pigeon [sp] (Columba livia)
Common Wood Pigeon [sp] (Columba palumbus)
Eurasian Collared Dove [sp] (Streptopelia decaocto)
Short-eared Owl [sp] (Asio flammeus)
Western Jackdaw [sp] (Coloeus monedula)
Carrion Crow [sp] (Corvus corone)
Great Tit [sp] (Parus major)
Eurasian Blue Tit [sp] (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Cetti’s Warbler [sp] (Cettia cetti)
Long-tailed Tit [sp] (Aegithalos caudatus)
Eurasian Wren [sp] (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Common Starling [sp] (Sturnus vulgaris)
Common Blackbird [sp] (Turdus merula)
Mistle Thrush [sp] (Turdus viscivorus)
European Robin [sp] (Erithacus rubecula)
House Sparrow [sp] (Passer domesticus)
Eurasian Tree Sparrow [sp] (Passer montanus)
Dunnock [sp] (Prunella modularis)
Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii)
Common Chaffinch [sp] (Fringilla coelebs)
European Greenfinch [sp] (Carduelis chloris)
European Goldfinch [sp] (Carduelis carduelis)
Common Reed Bunting [sp] (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Sunset at Hoo

Posted: January 22, 2016 in Landscape, Natural History
Tags: ,

Some pictures of the wonderful sunset at Hoo on Tuesday evening

 

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A chance to get out of London and travel down to Chatham to look for the Great Northern Diver which is wintering in the docks (I failed to see it on my trip last month). After meeting Keith at the station we walked down through the town to the riverside where we got great views of Rochester Cathedral and Castle.

Rochester Cathedral and Castle

Rochester Cathedral and Castle

There was a lot of mud as the tide was well out but aside from Black-headed Gulls and a few Mallard, the only bird of note was a single Common Redshank.

Common Redshank

Common Redshank

We continued along the riverside paths to the dock basin.

Chatham Dock Basin

Chatham Dock Basin

We scanned for the diver but it was nowhere to be seen. After a hour we went off to get some lunch and when we returned there was a European Shag on a bouy in the basin. This smaller version of a cormorant is a species not often recorded in SE UK so it was a good opportunity to see and photograph it.

European Shag

European Shag

There was still no sign of the diver (In fact as I sit and write this on Thursday morning – I have seen no reports of it being seen since Monday afternoon – perhaps it has finally moved on?). Mid-afternoon we decided to finish the day on Keith s home patch as Abbots Court near Hoo, A mixture of lakes, marsh and pasture on the edge of the River Medway, this is a lovely site which has lots of different habitats. We were greeted on arrival by a large flock of House Sparrows, once a common garden bird all over the UK, their numbers have plummeted in the last decade and in many places they are now rare – I have had one garden record in 12 years! When I was growing up we often had flocks of over 30 birds in the garden.

Abbot's Court

Abbot’s Court

 

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

As we walked towards the River, a Common Kestrel flashed by and a group of Meadow Pipit flew overhead. Arriving at the river there was a good selection of waders and other waterbirds on the mudflats (the tide was a long way out so views were distant). A Little Egret probed in the muddy pools looking for food and we flushed some Common Snipe from the saltmarsh.

Saltmarsh at abbot's Court

Saltmarsh at Abbot’s Court

 

Little Egret

Little Egret

In the distance we could see a flock of 500-600 Brent Geese as the travelled from their feeding grounds to the estuary and back. An amazing sight and a wonderful sound.

The sun was setting and what had been a wonderfully bright and warm January afternoon became much colder as we headed back in land.

Common Pheasant [sp] (Phasianus colchicus)
Greylag Goose [sp] (Anser anser)
Brant Goose [sp] (Branta bernicla)
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
Common Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna)
Mallard [sp] (Anas platyrhynchos)
Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Little Grebe [sp] (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
Little Egret [sp] (Egretta garzetta)
European Shag [sp] (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)
Great Cormorant [sp] (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Common Kestrel [sp] (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Moorhen [sp] (Gallinula chloropus)
Eurasian Coot [sp] (Fulica atra)
Eurasian Oystercatcher [sp] (Haematopus ostralegus)
Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
Common Snipe [sp] (Gallinago gallinago)
Black-tailed Godwit [sp] (Limosa limosa)
Eurasian Curlew [sp] (Numenius arquata)
Common Redshank [sp] (Tringa totanus)
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
European Herring Gull [sp] (Larus argentatus)
Common Pigeon [sp] (Columba livia)
Common Wood Pigeon [sp] (Columba palumbus)
Eurasian Collared Dove [sp] (Streptopelia decaocto)
Eurasian Magpie [sp] (Pica pica)
Rook [sp] (Corvus frugilegus)
Carrion Crow [sp] (Corvus corone)
Eurasian Blue Tit [sp] (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Eurasian Skylark [sp] (Alauda arvensis)
Long-tailed Tit [sp] (Aegithalos caudatus)
Eurasian Wren [sp] (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Common Blackbird [sp] (Turdus merula)
Redwing [sp] (Turdus iliacus)
European Robin [sp] (Erithacus rubecula)
House Sparrow [sp] (Passer domesticus)
Grey Wagtail [sp] (Motacilla cinerea)
Pied Wagtail [sp] (Motacilla alba)
Meadow Pipit [sp] (Anthus pratensis)
Common Chaffinch [sp] (Fringilla coelebs)

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Andrew Hay was born in 1762 and enlisted in the army as an ensign at the age of 17. He saw action in the American War of Independence and was promoted to lieutenant in 1781 and Captain in 1783. In 1795 he was promoted to Major, transferred to the 93rd foot and saw service in the West Indies. In 1798 he returned home to Scotland and became a Colonel in the fencibles, a local defence force. In 1803 he returned to the regular army as commander of  a reserve battalion, before being promoted in 1803 to command the 2nd Battalion Highland regiment. briefly stationed in Ireland he was sent to support Spain and Portugal in the Peninsular War. He saw action on the retreat to Corunna and was evacuated back to the UK. he was back in the Peninsular  in 1810 seeing action at the battle of Bussaco, where he was promoted to Major-General. He took part in the battles of Salamanca, Vittoria and the siege of San Sebastian. Due to injuries he assumed command of the 5th Division during the battles of Bidasoa and the Nive.

 

Following the battle, news reached Wellington’s army, camped outside Bayonne, of the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor.  Hay was the duty officer that day and the first to receive the news, which everyone took to mean the end of the war. Despite also receiving the news of the abdication the Governor of Bayonne, who was later condemned for his action by both sides, chose to continue with his plans to break the seige and the following day led a raid on the Allied forces. Andrew Hay was killed leading his men in defence of the allied positions. He was buried in the church of St Etienne and a memorial was erected to his memory in St Paul’s Cathedral by the British Government.

Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park

Greenwich Peninsular Ecology Park

Popped into Greenwich Peninsular ecology park for an hour this morning. One of the volunteers diredted me to the Alder Carr as there was a large party of Siskin feeding in the Alders, This small finch is not common locally and so it was good to see such large party actively moving through the trees. Good views but unfortunately no good photos.

Siskin  Photo by Tony Smith (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pc_plod/)

Eurasian Siskin
Photo by Tony Smith (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pc_plod/)

 

Elsewhere on the reserve there were lots of Goldfinches together with a few chaffinches and Greenfinches but the lake was very quiet. In fact there was only a single Coot.

Tarn Park

Tarn Park

Tarn Park

Tarn Park

On the way home detour via the Tarn for my first visit this year. It is good to see no algal bloom on the water – I hope that is permanent and that it doesn’t return. Certainly encouraging were the count of 12 Moorhens and 10 Coot which are my highest winter counts for a number of years.

Moorhen

Common Moorhen

 

Eurasian Coot

Eurasian Coot

 

Mallard [sp] (Anas platyrhynchos)
Great Cormorant [sp] (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Common Moorhen [sp] (Gallinula chloropus)
Eurasian Coot [sp] (Fulica atra)
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
European Herring Gull [sp] (Larus argentatus)
Common Pigeon [sp] (Columba livia)
Common Wood Pigeon [sp] (Columba palumbus)
Rose-ringed Parakeet [sp] (Psittacula krameri)
Eurasian Magpie [sp] (Pica pica)
Carrion Crow [sp] (Corvus corone)
Great Tit [sp] (Parus major)
Eurasian Blue Tit [sp] (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Long-tailed Tit [sp] (Aegithalos caudatus)
Common Starling [sp] (Sturnus vulgaris)
Common Blackbird [sp] (Turdus merula)
European Robin [sp] (Erithacus rubecula)
Dunnock [sp] (Prunella modularis)
Pied Wagtail [sp] (Motacilla alba)
Common Chaffinch [sp] (Fringilla coelebs)
European Greenfinch [sp] (Carduelis chloris)
Eurasian Siskin (Carduelis spinus)
European Goldfinch [sp] (Carduelis carduelis)

First snows of winter

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Landscape, London, Natural History, UK
Tags:

Yesterday morning we woke up to the first snows of this winter (at least here in London). Snow here is becoming rarer and rarer – global warming I guess – as our winters seem to get milder and wetter. Now I love snow, especially when, as with yesterday it is just enough to carpet the trees and gardens but not to disrupt transport. As a photographer, I find it a brilliant subject,

So here are a few pictures of the garden

 

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As I sit here writing this on Monday morning it has all gone and there was no more last night – I wonder is that it for this winter?