What halcyon days, the August 2019 bank holiday weekend.
A record breaker for temperatures across the UK, and here too with heat and wall to wall sunshine.
Yet what of the origin of “halcyon days”?
You have to return to the days of Greek Mythology and read of the goddess Halcyon (Alcyone, in Greek) and her lover, the mortal king Ceyx. Drowned at sea after a trip Ceyx made to Delphi to consult the oracle, Hera sent Morpheus, the god of dreams, to break the sad news to Halcyon, who in her despair, rushed to the coast and flung herself into the sea.
Amazed by this demonstration of love, the gods saved her and transformed her into a bird, a kingfisher, and also resurrected Ceyx as a kingfisher so that the pair could once more live and love together. But making her nest close to the shore near the spot Ceyx drowned, Halcyon’s eggs kept being washed away by winter storms, so eventually her father Zeus arranged for 14 days of calm sunny weather either side of the winter solstice, so that Halcyon was able to nest and rear her eggs.
Such halcyon days are still common in Greek Januarys apparently. Click here for more detail on the mythology.
Believe these myths or not, the passage of time, geography and awareness meant that I’d never been aware of these Greek origins, and always thought of halcyon days as benign, calm, warm sunny weather, even if they’re in the middle of our summer.
But how appropriate in this balmy end to summer here, for me to witness, not once, but three times in 24 hours, the unmistakable flash of iridescent blue beside our stream, for the first time ever, of Alcedo atthis, the Eurasian or Common kingfisher.
On consecutive days I glimpsed it speed away into stream side vegetation. A momentary iridescent flashy blue blur. Combined with a white jettisoning of droppings, shed in fright. Or as a distraction ploy?
Yet was this halcyon vision dreamed? Imagined? A blurry panned pointillist impression. Fleeting as it was.
Perhaps partly so, since I discovered that recent research has found that there are actually no blue pigments in the feathers on the Kingfisher’s back. They are a much drabber brown colour. In common with most vertebrates, Kingfishers lack the ability to manufacture a proper blue pigment. Though the rusty orange of the breast feathers is the result of appropriate pigment molecules in the feather structure. Without a hide and more patience than I can muster, this is probably the best image I’ll ever achieve.
(and it took me three separate viewings, with an ex-radiographer’s keen eye scan of the whole image to find the now settled bird, centre of the image below, but in the shadows beneath the willow branches in the whole image above).
But is the amazing blue, then, a mere trick of light?
As famously penned first by Irish novelist Margaret Hungerford in “Molly Bawn”,
“Is (such) beauty in the eye of the beholder?
The scientific explanation for the blue feathers is that it is a “structural” colour, produced by the intricate arrangement of very thin layers of transparent material, which maximise the reflection of light of blue wavelength, over any other colour. Click here to read more, since I find this a very difficult subject to précis!
Or for a really in depth discussion of “Structural coloration in Nature”, click here for a review article by Tong, Bhushan and (rather appropriately) Sun.
No such trickery or conceptual difficulties with rainbow colours. Just being in the right place at the right time to catch the spectral colours diffracted, reflected back and then diffracted again on exiting each falling raindrop. Since the sun is always behind the viewer looking at the rainbow, to be lucky enough to see this first rainbow over The Hut, meant an early rise.
It was worth waiting beneath the Amelanchiers for some shelter whilst the shower moved Eastwards overhead, and eventually sunshine hit the meadow’s grass whilst the rain was still falling. This occurred on the morning of our mid- August pop-up garden open day, when I was up and out early at 7.00 am to check the hay meadow for waxcap mushrooms. This year seems like being a bumper season for them, with many different clusters already appearing.
At last, the swallows have celebrated and filled the air with Scandi chatter. Chicks have flown. All’s well with our summer at last, in the nick of time.
Capturing images of feeding swallow silhouettes has been worth aching arms, with hand held camera trained for minutes on end, waiting for the parents to return from foraging sorties. Which allowed me to study how the adults manage to transfer, or not, at high speed, their prey.
No more do dingy rigid frames, define,
Confine your gloomy world. A spider’s spin, a louse’s
Feathered filth the worst you might endure.
For now, just fully fledged and flown, and
Blinking, clear and swept, in drizzly mizzle,
You cling, on flimsy wire, and spin and preen.
The muddy feathered rim forgotten. Abandoned taut horizon.
No calendar alert, the dog days disappearing fast,
You’ll soon be gone. Autumnal calm restored
Between the low stone whitewashed walls and slated slopes.
But now parental angst shares communal alarm.
Look Out, Look Out. And diving, skim the faded leather bushman’s hat,
Protective gardener garb. Brown sweat stained threat, imagined.
Yet good to learn that siren call, in time.
Before cool Northern breezes blow, speed you, South.
Later, rain abated, hat cast aside and bending low, as
Checkerbloom and Devil’s-bit are troweled in dripping, mossy, magic gravel,
The ignored landlord feels the soft increasing pattering
Of drops, on short cropped, thinning hair.
These drops are different, dry, and moving
Formicidal, winged and feather light.
A breaking storm, both threatening, and strange.
The hat is grabbed once more, and now
The grainy sky’s all peppered black with ginger bodied detail,
Lost amidst the grey. Excited wheeling hordes appear.
And throng the skies. The gardener straightens, listens, looks.
Excited, swoop still chattering, sweeps swiftly on. Still chasing clouds.
Back on the wire the broods cluster. Disperse. Reform.
Parents reap the sky’s rewards, and snaffling ants and flies
Pinpoint those thrusting orange gapes, at breakneck speed, and braking,
Wings impossibly stalled and furled and wrapped and draped, transfer the catch.
In deep throat, headlong rush. Beaks rammed home, hard, such
Interlocked, yet loosely, lip-less snogging.
Swallow, little swallow.
And now transferred, these words.
This energy. This life.
Fuse and meld.
Fly, little swallow,
Within 4 days of hanging my solitary bee nest box, a tenant arrived, and over a fortnight a succession of carefully cut and rolled tubes of leaves, each filled with an egg and pollen and nectar to nourish it, have been laid. Being precise about the species is tricky, even with the excellent “Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland” by Falk and Lewington, but it’s possibly the Patchwork leaf-cutter bee, Megachile centuncularis. Click here for more details and images on the BWARS site.
The larvae will pupate and hopefully emerge next summer.
This is the peak season for flies, butterflies, spiders and wasps, around the garden and 2019 has been exceptional.
The terrace marjoram hums with hoverflies, whilst Eupatorium and recently bought Hebes are covered from dawn till dusk, when the sun shines, in a diverse range of butterflies.
Possibly our best year ever in terms of numbers.
Up at The Hut, the spiders have set up home in force, over the last month.And one was clearly disturbed by me opening the door, so once it had recovered its poise, it whizzed down, disappeared apart from one upstretched, silk grabbing leg, then raced back up to the roof, then back down and up again adding, or repairing, a couple of silken anchor threads.
Meanwhile wasps have reached plague proportions here. Normally wasps are the dominant insect around our terrace Nectaroscordum flowers in late May into early June. This year there were none. The bumbles had the flowers to themselves, yet as the year’s progressed, more wasp nests have appeared under the eaves, in the hay shed, and most worryingly beneath tyre rims in the re-tyred matrix garden – easy to inadvertently kick and then suffer the consequences as a wasp storm appears.
Normally I’d have been more relaxed, but with honeybee hives obvious targets for plundering, I’ve set up several wasp traps, which have collected hundreds. In spite of such a significant haul, it was depressing to watch over a few days the second swarm hive be attacked, to destruction, in spite of my best efforts to reduce the entrance, to help the bees protect themselves. Within 2 days of August 24th, when both the early swarmed colonies seemed to perform the annual brutal kick out of drones, wasps were entering the hive with impunity. Note the larger eyes below, and fatter bodies of the sting less male drones clustered in the first image, compared with the smaller worker bees in the last image. Even after reducing the entrance to as small an opening as possible with the pipe fitting, which another beekeeper recommended as a means of deterring wasps. This trick failed miserably – the wasps got the hang of it faster than the bees and no remaining bees are now obvious. There may well have been an additional issue with this hive which weakened and the wasps were then able to exploit.
With my conscious minimalist intervention approach, I’ll wait until wasp activity dissipates before opening the hive up to survey the scene.
Throughout all this, the garden has been a real delight with probably our best ever year for Hydrangeas, which our visitors have enjoyed, particularly H. panniculata varieties, along with our two Hydrangea aspera villosa, grown from cuttings, being the star performers. When these were in full bloom, the bushes hummed with honeybees collecting their pale blue pollen. Well worth growing if you have space, for a late season display.
Voting closes tonight at midnight for the Shed of the Year.
Hi Julian, I have a memory of finding a dead Kingfisher away from the river after a storm and feel although drabber it did have those famous iridescent blue feathers, but now cant decide if my memory is playing tricks on me and the bird was browner. I do remember how small it was though, that distinctive beak and my fellow gardener thought the storm had sent it against a tree. I wish I had photographed it now and made a better record.
I went on a 2 day course with Steven Falk at the Natural History Museum in Oxford and have his book here at home, its a great book, we did a lot of microscope work which was a challenge for me and a really steep attempted learning curve. So much to learn on identifying and without a corpse to study, almost impossible for some species. One of the best bits of the course for me was standing next to the student lucky enough to hold the box with a dodo bone in collected by Darwin, during a behind the scenes tour. If you ever get the chance to visit and call ahead they gave the impression of wanting to share the behind the scenes collections as a collection without sharing is just stuff in a drawer. The curators were quite brilliant.
I have hardly seen one wasp here this year, what a worry to have so many near your hives, I hope its not as bad as you fear. I do have a lot of spiders though and some quite a size and no where near the quantity of butterflies you have.
Kingfishers really are stunning little birds – so exciting to see, though sad that your example was dead – but you’re right that they’re surprisingly small.
Sounds like a fantastic ID course with Steven Falk – I heard him talk last year, and he was a great communicator. I actually managed to get some ( hopefully) good pics of the leaf
cutter bee today so might add them in, and see if they help with the ID.
Just back from helping a fellow beekeeper move a hive, and he’s had minimal trouble with wasps, so I’m left wondering why we’ve been plagued so much this year – possibly all the flies we now get in the garden which I guess helps wasp colonies build up in numbers earlier in the year?
How good it must have been to see your bee home being so promptly occupied. We have a rough and ready attempt but I have yet to see a bee emerging.
Glorious photos with magic words to match. There was a kingfisher around our pond last year when it was raining heavily and looked like moving water…flash of blue and gone but such a thrill to see it. Love incy wincy photos!
We also spotted a kingfisher flashing on the Teifi gorge a few weeks ago – it’s difficult to think of anything else that’s so fleeting, yet gives me such a thrill, in the UK natural world… probably for me the only similar event would be hearing a Curlew!
I was captivated by the 6.00 am spider, and the colours backlighting it from the rising sun/meadow, though the circular “sun” was actually a flukey reflection of it off the top of one of the houses’s chimney pots which had just been painted!
Looking forward to the result tonight!
Don’t know when they’ll actually make the results public of course… fingers crossed.
Love the photo of the spider’s legs coming over the edge of the wood 😊
Actually that was one of my favourite pics too – and it all happened really fast!
Oh so sorry about the wasp intrusion. It is this time of the year…
I too loved my butterfly walks this August. I live in the city centre, and still have them around, even in my kitchen, sometimes.
Enjoyed the Kingfisher story! Here is a link to a blog. Takami knows a spot where a kingfisher lives, and the pictures come out amazing. I don’t have a single kingfisher picture, even a blurred one 🙂
Greetings from Japan.
I was introduced to your wonderful site via Inese.
I was happy to learn the origins of Halcyon and the Kingfisher.
I sincerely look forward to visiting your site again.
Thanks so much for the comment, and for looking and reading. I’ve just had a look at your fabulous photos of kingfishers – I don’t think I’ll ever manage anything like those!
Do you know this poem about kingfishers, which is one of my favourites by a well known British poet? … use the link below to read it…
Thank you for the link to the poem. It is my first time reading it, and very interesting to learn about the origins of “halcyon” in the western world.
Isn’t it amazing, how this tiny bird has enthralled people across the world for so many years? 🙂
Again, I sincerely look forward to following your site!
Glad you enjoyed the poem.
It is indeed fascinating that kingfishers have excited different peoples around the world for so long. Last weekend we went to a local art exhibition, and (for the first time) amongst the many beautiful works on show were about half a dozen images of kingfishers – we’ve never seen on at this venue before. I wonder if this in part because of a recent book which has received rave reviews over here “The Lost Words” – a collaboration of beautiful images by a Welsh based artist, and a Cambrdge based poet. Kingfisher is one of the words now removed from the Oxford Junior English dictionary…
Click below to read more about why the book was produced, and see some of Jackie’s kingfisher images – I’m sure you’ll enjoy them,
and also …
Thank you again for the links and information! I look forward to reading them slowly and carefully. I love the concept of why the book was produced – really wonderful and true.
My husband and I send our best wishes to you and Fiona too. Thank you 🙂
Thank you – I’ve re read the interview link with Robert and Jackie, which I only found yesterday. I appreciate it’s a long piece, but well worth it when you get time. there are so many relevant ideas for life and creativity in it. I feel some of Jackie’s paintings have an almost oriental feel and harmony.
Fiona and I send our best wishes to you both too,
Julian and Fiona
Thanks for that and the link to Takami’s amazing kingfisher photos too,
I loved your swallow photographs! We have lots of Eupatorium cannabium growing wild near us but I never see that much insect life on it. It is supposed to have nectar, I know. What species is yours? I have got no leafcutters in my bee boxes this year which is a great disappointment, There are new holes and bamboos available. I suppose the wasps must eat the honey (and larvae?) once inside the hive? We have never been troubled with wasps but we have got our cross to bear with the hornets. Amelia
Thanks for the comment. I’ve just checked and the Eupatorium which the butterflies love is E. maculatum atropurpureum, which I think is an AGM. We have another dwarfer one, which firstly doesn’t seem to attract butterflies, and secondly gets gobbled by slugs, so as always, the particular cultivar seems critical for insect appeal – well worth getting some if you can find it.
It does get very tall with us – 6 feet plus, but seems to stand fairly well without falling over. I’ve seen leafcutters and other solitary bees off and on for years, and it’ll be interesting to see how many ever use this box, since I’m guessing that around here they have lots of potential natural nest sites.
I’ve got some more photos of inside the empty hive for next time – I think as you say, the wasps probably got in as the colony started to fail, since it looks like the queen died/never mated so the combs had no brood in at all, and masses of larger cells. All part of the problem with my minimal intervention approach I suppose 🙂 However at least I salvaged some honey, and also got some lovely bee free pictures of the colours of stored pollen! You can see where the wasps were staring to chew off the caps of filled honey cells. Difficult to say if they’d removed any larvae first, before moving onto the honey.
The cultivar seems very important and of course, what else is flowering around it too.