Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Signs of the times: Autumn #5

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"The downy seeds of traveller’s joy fill the air, & driving before a gale appear like insects on the wing."

Reverend Gilbert White (From: "Journal for 23 November 1788")

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 5
Three of the first five Autumn pictures involve, or revolve around, scenes of harvest as it was undertaken around 1960. A beautiful barn owl sits, under a (September?) harvest moon, with some very large hay ricks or hay stacks in the background on the edge of a village. Above the owl, the red berries are ripening to purple on a specimen of the wayfaring tree, and the feathery seeds of the traveller’s-joy plant surround the fence post on which the bird sits.

There is a high likelihood that this image represents a southern English location, as, although barn owls are found over much of Britain, both of the featured plant species have a native range restricted to the south (but more on them shortly). The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a rarely glimpsed creature, but is probably most commonly seen as a ghostly white form in your car highlights while driving on country roads. I’ve only seen a barn owl a few times and always on that basis. The British Trust for Ornithology says of this species: “The unearthly shrieks, cries and hisses of the Barn Owl (and its association with churches) may have given rise to a widespread association of owls with all things evil - an owl’s wing was a key ingredient in the witches brew that troubled Macbeth.”

The barn owl is one of our middle-sized predatory birds, like most of our owls, usually hunting by night for small mammals (e.g. mice and voles). The barn owl is so well equipped for its mode of hunting, with large, forward-facing eyes that, like ours, help them to spot their prey in low light conditions, very acute hearing that will allow it to pinpoint prey in pitch black conditions (its ears have a slight asymmetry which introduces a minute delay in hearing between the ears, helping with the targeting), long, sharp, hooked talons to increase the chance of a capture when it strikes, a sharp, hooked beak to dispatch the unfortunate victim and feathers with a downy leading edge to allow near-silent swooping down on the prey. What a package! How unfortunate, therefore, that the countryside we have been creating doesn’t seem to suit this amazing predator. And not just here in Britain: The “Birds of the Palearctic” reports that there has been a widespread decline in the barn owl which has been attributed primarily to intensive farming methods and urbanisation, leading to “loss of foraging habitat, nesting and roosting sites”. Pesticides and road mortality “are further negative factors.”

Even if things were going well for the barn owl, the population size fluctuates naturally with its rodent prey populations, and is also affected by increased mortality in hard winters. The BTO reports a British summer population (in the period 1995-97) of 3-5000 pairs. The decline in the barn owl population is not just a modern phenomenon either – it has apparently been happening since the 19th Century, then at a lower rate until the 1940s, and then more marked after 1955. So, even by the time that this painting was published in 1960, the barn owl was a rare, precious commodity in our bank of nature!

But the species hasn’t been abandoned to its fate just yet. The BTO tells the tale here of how, in earlier decades, “the plight of such a charismatic and popular bird led to extensive releasing of captive-bred birds in well-meaning attempts at restocking: by 1992, when licensing became a requirement for such schemes, it was estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 birds were being released annually by about 600 operators, although many birds died quickly and few would have joined the nesting population”.

More recently, the erection of Barn Owl nest boxes, “already numbering c.25,000 by the mid 1990s, has enabled the species to occupy areas (notably the Fens) that were previously devoid of nesting sites, and may have been a factor in improving nesting success.” Provisional survey data for the UK show an increase of 464% since 1995, with the caveat that nocturnal species are difficult to monitor accurately. This trend suggests that the current population estimate is much too low, so maybe things are looking up for this lovely bird.

The wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana) is more of a deciduous shrub than a tree. Shown here with its berries ripening from red to purple, it is native, effectively, to the Home Counties and maybe Wales, although the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that it is now planted widely as part of roadside planting schemes and shows its introduced range extending up into central Scotland. The native range has changed little since the original 1962 Atlas. While Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” points out that its flowers smell like lilies, there isn’t much else to say about it!

The other plant shown here is the traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba), the only native clematis we have in Britain (I think). It is shown here with its feathery seed heads, that earn it the common name: “Old man’s beard” (and it has also been known as “Father Christmas”!). The New Atlas describes it (in admittedly dry technical terms) as a: “climbing perennial with liana-like woody stems, often covering large areas on hedge banks, hedges and walls, trees and scrub, sand dunes, disused quarry faces and ruins. It is a classic railway plant.” Furthermore, “[c]omparison of the current map with the 1962 Atlas suggests that the distribution of C. vitalba is stable.”

1 comment:

  1. I must be one of the lucky ones seeing a Barn Owl every couple of of weeks or so as i cycle to work in the winter mornings, not always the same one i think,such a lovely bird,


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