Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black and White Wagtails

Pied wagtails are far commoner than the two other species of wagtails in Britain and Ireland. On almost any area of turf, shingle or rock, in towns or in the countryside, they can be seen hunting insects, with quick dashes, swerves and dramatic leaps into the air. The pied wagtail is a familiar, lively and popular neighbor of man. Its bold black and white plumage, conspicuous habits and loud, distinctive “chis-ick” call are easy to recognize and assist to make it so well-known. It is surprisingly widespread, too. As widely distributed as any British bird, it breeds throughout our islands (but only occasionally on the Shetlands) and is thoroughly at home in city centers and on riversides, meadows, farms and seashore in fact, almost anywhere except the open mountains and in woodland. 

One of its commonest vernacular names, water wagtail, is not as applicable as it might be, for it is not as closely associated with water as its relative, the grey wagtail. It is predominantly a bird of moist places, but not necessarily of the very margins of open water. The pied wagtail is atruly British and Irish species, for its breeding range is virtually confined to these islands. It is replaced on the continent, and as far north as Iceland, by the grey wagtail race referred to somewhat confusingly as the white wagtail. Birds belonging to this continental race migrate through Britain in spring and autumn to add from their northern breeding areas, which are in northern Scandinavia and Iceland. Some occasionally stay to breed in Scotland and on the northern and western islands. These birds are noticeably whiter than our pied wagtails, and in spring it is easy to distinguish them from the British race. In autumn the task is much more difficult as the young of both races are very similar. 

A female pied wagtail at the entrance to her nest in a rock crevice. Unaided by the male, she builds the nest of mosses, grasses and dead leaves and lines it with fathers or wool. Her clutch normally consists of five or six eggs, which are with black or brown she also undertakes most of the incubation, which lasts for two weeks; but she hands over responsibility for feeding the young to her mate when the time comes for her to lay again. 

Chasing after a mate, when the April arrives every year, the wagtails prepare for another breeding season. Males being to established territories and several of them may pursue a single female in erratic and excited chases, each displaying to her when on the ground by throwing back his head and displaying his bold black gorget (throat patch). The competition of courtship eventually results in a successful pairing; then the newly paired birds spend some days together strengthening the bond between them, and establishing their breeding territory and nesting site. 

Pied wagtails nest in a wide variety of sites, wherever an adequate crevice will conceal the nest. As well as choosing holes in banks ivy covered trees or cliffs, they often favor manmade objects. Farm machinery outbuildings or wood stacks are common sites.  Partial migrant wagtails are insect eating birds, but only the yellow wagtail migrates completely to warmer latitudes when the British winter reduces the abundance of its food. The pied wagtail demonstrates an interesting half way stage between migration and year round residence. 

The appearance of increasing numbers of pied wagtails on school playing fields, in town parks and sewage farms in August and September is evidence of the fact that at least part of the population is migratory. In the south of Britain young birds predominate among those that migrate but from further north there are a greater percentage of adults. All these birds flying south from Britain are bound for south-west France and Lberia, as is shown by the recovery of ringed birds. Birds from the South of England tend to travel further than those of more northerly origin; some of the southern birds fly as far as Morocco. 

The other part of the population remains in Britain, one of the few species of insectivorous birds to gamble on finding an adequate supply of insects through the winter months as an alternative to facing the hazards of a long two way migration. Through the British winter, the pied wagtail’s secret lies in the ever-replenishing supply of insects to be found at the edge of water. Individual birds establish themselves in a winter territory along a river bank (sometimes a lake or other stretch of water) and defend it resolutely against others of their kind. 

They feed along a fixed route near the water edge, returning each time to the starting point by the time the waters of the river or lake have delivered another supply of tiny insects and other invertebrates. To share the territory with another bird would be self-defeating for both and would tip the balance between survival and failure. Defense of the territory is therefore crucially important. At most times of the year outside the breeding season (except when winter is at its severest), pied wagtails roost communally, normally choosing reed beds, scrubs or bushes. An interesting development of this has been an increasingly common adaptation to the urban environment roosting on buildings and trees in city centres. Here the winter temperature can be a little higher than in the open countryside. 

In a further adaptation to man’s presence, they have been recorded as roosting in commercial glasshouses, sometimes in large numbers. Heated glasshouses obviously have enhanced survival value for them in cold winter months, and may also be thought of as giving security from predators. On the other hand, however, little owls and cats have sometimes discovered these roosts and as there is small chance of escape the results can be disastrous.  Source: Charismatic Planet

Cultivating Herbs

Since no self-respecting modern cookbook leaves herbs out of its recipes since courses in herbal medicine are springing up all over the place, and since cosmetics which rely on plants are taking the place of the synthetic beauty treatments what one might ask is a herb?

What is a Herb

Until recently the word has always conjured up pictures of food, which imposed an artificial limit on the range of plants. Now that herbal usage has been revived so much in other disciplines, the definition has expanded to include plants usually grown nowadays for garden ornament, such as the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), marigold (Calendula) and the Florentine iris; plants which were regarded as weeds, such as tansy, comfrey, yarrow and herb Robert but are being treated with respect as their usefulness for all sorts of reasons is realized again; and plants which supply dyes, cosmetics, insect repellents and fragrances.

Strictly speaking a herb is any perennial plant who’s soft or succulent stems die down to ground level every year, but many herbs are shrubs and trees, such as hyssop, the sweet bay and rosemary. A modern definition of a herb could be any plant, generally aromatic or fragrant, whose parts whether leaf, flower, seed or root are of use in food flavoring medicine, household and cosmetics. 

Herbs were, first and foremost grown primarily for healing and flavoring and as such, were grown in a place reserved for them, whether it was part of a monastery garden, or part of the vegetable patch of peasant or yeoman farmer. As times passed, inevitably, people began to arrange their herbs in patterns when they planted them, until eventually the herb patch became ornamental, and was a garden in its own right. The physic gardens of the monasteries were mostly formal, with rectangular or square beds, but the gardens attached to private homes were developed from these simple plans into intricate designs of curved beds edged with dwarf hedges of box, southernwood or lavender.
Propagation of Herbs

Since herb is an umbrella word covering all types of plant, it follows they can be propagated by most of the methods used for plant increase, but there are two commonly used; seed and division. A third sometimes used is cuttings, mainly for the shrubs or trees. Most of the herbs wich can be grown from seed are hardy and can be sown outdoors in temperate climates; some examples are dill, coriander, savory purslane and lovage. Spring is generally the season in which to sow, but some germinate better if sown in late summer or early autumn, that is, as soon as the parent plants have flowered and set seed, and the seed has ripened. The seed of such plants loses its viability ability to germinate more quickly, so that a spring sowing is likely to result in fewer seedlings. Some seed should not be covered with soil because it needs light to germinate, some needs an acid reacting soil, and some needs a period of cold between harvest and sowing. But most herb seeds germinate like weeds not surprisingly.

Division is a 2nd method which is perhaps more certain, provided the separated sections each have some root and some buds or potential shoots. It can be done in spring or autumn when the soil is moist, but not waterlogged or dry, and if it is still warm from summer, or beginning to warm up as the spring sun appears. Divided plants will take hold of the soil and grow new roots more quickly if they’re replanted so quickly that the plant hardly knows it has been out of the ground. By doing this its vitality is not completely stopped, it somehow goes on flowing, and the plant, as it were simply gulps a little, and gets on with expanding. 

Nurseries and Garden Centers

Division is all very well, but you must first catch your plant, and in order to do this, it means applying to nurseries or garden centers. Local outlets of this kind will have a choice of all sorts of garden plants and nowadays, a separate area is often reserved specially for herbs. Some garden centers make a point of having a particularly good collection of herbs and if they do it will have well-grown plants considerable variety and correct naming. If there is such an outlet in the neighborhood, it will be a more satisfactory source than a mail order nursery because you can see what you are buying, you can check that it is the plant was named on the label, and you can make sure of getting a strong healthy specimen free from pest or disease. 

Furthermore the herb can be planted without disturbance to the roots almost immediately after buying, whereas those sent through the post may spend many days travelling in inadequate packing having been dug up or removed from a container. Even plants which were well grown and vigorous to start with, are unlikely to do well after such treatment, and unfortunately the mail-order nurseries have no control over postal treatment or delays. As far as cost is concerned there is little difference between the two sources since the cost of postage I offset by the extra cost of the container plants from a garden center. 

But it must be said, that even with the best garden centers, the range of herbs is not great, and consists mostly of the culinary type. For the widest selection, it is better to apply to a specialist herb nursery of which there are now a good many. If there is a local one, then that is far and away the best place to go, otherwise there is avoiding a postal order. A specialist nursery has the advantage that it can advise may be available on the various ways of using it. Some nurseries run short courses on cultivation, cooking with herbs, perfumery and other uses. 

As with any plant, when buying it look for a specimen which is undamaged and healthy, and with plenty of potential growth in the form of small new shoots and buds. Avoid those with broken or hanging stems, wilting leaves, dry compost, and any pest or leaf discoloration at all and preferably buy a plant not yet flowering, though the buds may already be visible.  Tall lanky plants in small pots are not likely to be good buy. Be very careful if the herb has flowered and started to set seed, because if it is an annual, or a biennial, it will shortly die in the natural course of events. This is why it is worth finding out in advance what type of herb it is. 

The correct naming of herbs is a third aspect which unfortunately is not yet as good as it should be. Mail-order plants that turn out not to be the ones ordered are tiresome enough, but when they are labelled as the plant ordered, and are not that plant, it is particularly irritating. Herbs to keep an eye on are the marjoram’s, of which there are at least three different kinds tarragon, dill and fennel, which hybridize very easily, garden mint which is often a cross with horse-mint or may even be that species, lovage which can look like ground elder while young, and French sorrel which is invariably confused with the inferior tasting English sorrel. 

Besides mail-order herb nurseries, there are also seed firms supplying nothing but herbs and wild plants. These will be much less expensive on postage charges and are more likely to be true to name. For success in growing from seed, there is a book entitled, seed Growers Guide to Herbs and Wild Flowers by Helen McEwan available from Seed bank), which has detailed instructions on seed germination and seedling cultivation for herbs together with information on their eggs. 

Many specialist herb nurseries are planned so that the visitor can inspect the plants and their condition at close range. Each herb is labelled with both its botanical and common name. The leaf pattern of fennel is similar to that of dill. When buying a fennel plant, check that it is true fennel. Well (Foeniculum Vulgare), which has a strong anise flavor. Coriander is easily grown from seed but should be planted outdoors and not in a confined space. Until the seeds ripen, it has a strong and disagreeable odour. French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is one of the most distinctive and delicious culinary herbs. Its close relation, Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) has a greatly inferior flavor and should not be substituted in the garden or the kitchen for true tarragon. Source:

Friday, 28 November 2014

Superlative Photos of Wild Foxes in Russia's Snowy Landscape

In the cold depths of Russia's northeastern Chukotka region, Magadan-based photographer Ivan Kislov captures stunning colorful signs of life in the snow through his magnificent photographs of foxes in the wild. Ivan Kislov, who actually enjoys hiking to distant spots and photographing wildlife in between his long shifts as a mining engineer, presents a spectacular look at the foxes that live and hunt in the icy region. Set against the vast, empty landscape, Kislov's furry subjects display a magnificent personality and spirit, instantaneously playful, mischievous, loving, and fierce. Although Kislov photos all sorts of wild animals, from reindeer to bears to wolves, he says that foxes make for some very willing models, thanks to their curiosity and bold nature. Foxes are inquisitive and can come very close, and I tried to capture with wide angle and telephoto lenses.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

South Africa’s humungous Sunland Baobab tree is world-renowned for its extraordinary proportions.

South Africa’s humungous Sunland Baobab tree is world-renowned for its extraordinary proportions. But what really makes it truly unique is the fact that visitors to the 6,000-year-old tree can grab a drink at a bar located in the hollow of the trunk. The Sunland Baobab Pub took residence inside the tree in 1933, and today it can still comfortably serve 15 lucky patrons.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Burney Falls (Height: 39 m), USA.

Burney Falls is a waterfall on Burney Creek, in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Shasta County, California. The water comes from underground springs above and at the falls, which are 129 feet high, and provides an almost constant flow rate of 379 million litres per day, even during the dry summer months. The falls were called "the Eighth Wonder of the World" by President Theodore Roosevelt, and were declared a National Natural Landmark in December 1984.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

This is Seljalandsfoss, arguably Iceland's most famous waterfall. In a boundless green field, the cascade drops a whopping 200 feet from rocks above into a serene little pool below. The most insane part of Seljalandsfoss, though, is that you can hike through the back of the falls and view them from the inside out.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Maui Water Falls United States

The islands of Hawaii are known to have some of the most impressive waterfalls to see; and Maui boasts some of the world’s best! Honokohau Falls (Hono ko hau) is the tallest waterfall on Maui which reaches 1,119 feet. Tucked away in the depths of the West Maui Mountains, this breathtaking waterfall must be seen from the view of a helicopter tour because it is located in a valley that is otherwise inaccessible. Honokohau Fall’s cascading waters down the cliff face may remind of the movie “Jurassic Park”. This waterfall was actually featured in the movie, so it’s definitely a bucket list location not to be missed!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Your Own Butterfly Garden

One of the most popular ways of assisting with butterfly conservation is by planting lots of suitable food plants in the garden. The most “helpful” plants are those which flower late in the season, these can make a real difference to those butterflies which roots or hibernate, as they need to build up their fat reserves for the long winter ahead. The flowers need to be rich in nectar and also attractive to butterflies in the first place. 

Good examples include the Iceplant (Sedum Spectabile), Valerian (Valerianaceae Spp), and the Michelmas Daisy (Aster novi-belgii). It is not so important to have plants that flower during the summer as there are usually plenty around for the butterflies to choose from. However, if like most people you want to encourage butterflies whenever possible, it’s a good idea to plant a wide range of flower species to maintain a food supply at all times. Those that flower early in the year will help the winter’s survivors in early spring. 

Some people also plant things which will be suitable for larval food plants as well as for the adult butterflies. Nettles are very god for many of the “Nymphalids” so it is common for several well-meaning gardeners to leave a patch somewhere out of sight. 

Unfortunately this is only too often behind a shed or under some overhanging trees where they won’t get in the way. They then feel justified to say that they have “done their bit” in the cause of conservation; sadly though the patch is usually damp and lacks sunlight. This will nearly always be rejected by discerning female butterflies, as they will not lay eggs where they are likely to fall victim to fungal problems caused by lack of warmth ventilation and light.