Nearly a quarter of the 17,000 specimens in the Eton Natural History Museum collections are dried and pressed flowers. Our herbarium dates back mostly to the 1830s and it represents an amazing record of plants, many of which used to be common but have since become rarities, or even extinct. Some plants, however, have increased their numbers over the years and have even become troublesome. One such plant is the group of daisies known as Ragworts.
At the end of August this year, the College made hay on its local meadows. One of the prettiest flowers in the fields is Ragwort, with its bright yellow flowers. Before the hay can be cut, the Eton groundsmen make sure that they pull out all the Ragwort, a really laborious process. The reason is that it is highly toxic to livestock. Fortunately, horses and most other grazers will not eat the living plant but they will after it has been cut and dried out. The plant is said to be responsible for half the stock poisoning incidents in Britain and in sufficient quantities it can and does cause fatal liver damage. However, there is one moth, the Cinnabar Moth, whose black and yellow caterpillars eat Ragwort with relish and use the poisons it contains to protect themselves from bird attack by making themselves particularly distasteful.
One species of Ragwort is known as Oxford Ragwort. Old Etonian Sir Joseph Banks, the founder of Kew Gardens and botanist on Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation, first noticed it growing in the Oxford University Botanic Garden in the 1770s. Its natural habitat is the volcanic rock around Mount Etna, but somehow it found its way to Oxford. Its downy seeds soon escaped the gardens and eventually made its way to Oxford railway station by the1830s. From there it grew easily on the clinker of railway tracks and has spread, carried along by the slipstream of trains and courtesy of the Great Western Railway, to every part of urban Britain where it likes to grow on any waste ground.
Photos courtesy of Karen Phillips at Taste’s Deli, Eton High Street.
This nature reserve was started by Eton boys in 1934 on the site of old osier (willow) beds on a site on the north bank of the Thames. It’s easily missed as you walk along the tow path heading west just before you go under the Windsor Relief Road.
The site was the focus of interest of what was at that time a very active College Natural History Society. A small pond was dug out by the boys and there is a photo below of them wallowing in mud, glorious mud!
There is a comprehensive bird species list from that time and details of nests and hatching success, plus details of the sort of habitats that were created to encourage birds. 46 species were recorded during its first decade and the boys counted 41 nests produced by 16 species in 1937. At that time there were numerous Reed and Sedge Warblers. Interest of boys in the site waned progressively from the 1970s onwards and it is only in the last fifteen years that efforts have been made to conserve the area and conduct surveys. Recent surveys show that the number of bird species has declined to 27, largely due to the habitat drying up. The most notable species now are Reed Buntings, Chiffchaffs, Garden Warblers and Whitethroat. Two snails on the site are listed in the Red Data Book, meaning that they are very rare. They are Perforatella rubiginosa and Lacinaria biplicata. Moth surveys have shown a decent species list and one nationally rare species, the Cream-bordered Green Pea (Earias clorana). There are four nationally scarce spiders on the reserve and six nationally scarce beetles and a rare ant (Lasius brunneus). The cutest species seen was a Harvest Mouse (Micromys minutus) which appeared one evening whilst a moth survey was being carried out!
One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder holding Nyjer seeds. The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season. Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder and queue up in numbers to eat their fill.
This April, though, I was surprised to see a male Siskin feeding, my first in 30 years! Though they do like to feed on the seeds of riverside Alders and Birches this was still a great sighting in my riverside garden. Movements of Siskins are quite complex, something that can be worked out from the recoveries of birds which have been ringed. Scottish birds are thought to make up a significant proportion of the English wintering population, though some come from Europe as far afield as Norway.
Siskins were always scarce in this part of the country until the Forestry Commission started to plant conifer plantations in the Thames Valley. Gradually, the Scottish population then expanded southwards. Ironically, the trend is now for the authorities to remove conifers to restore broadleaf woodland, so it may well be that Siskins will become even rarer in future.
Siskins do have years when they are especially common even in Berkshire and, remarkably, our records go back over 150 years thanks to records made by a 16-year-old Eton boy named Alexander Clark Kennedy. He wrote the first ever book anywhere in the world containing photos of birds, and in it he stated that there were abundant flocks of Siskins in the years 1857/8 and 1866/7. You can see his book, and a Siskin, in the Eton College Natural History Museum!
The photo has been kindly provided by Brian Clews of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project www.berkshirebirdatlas.org.uk
Eton’s Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the Thackeray Collection, one of the largest collections of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later. One of my favourite stuffed birds is our Blackcap, and one of the quiz questions that we ask children when they are doing the ‘treasure hunt’ around the Museum is to answer the question, what colour head does the female Blackcap have? The answer, of course, is not black (that would be too obvious!), but a beautiful chestnut brown.
Blackcaps are warblers that have markedly changed their behavior over the last fifty years or so. Prior to 1960 it was very rare to see a blackcap in winter in the UK, but the RSPB now estimate that some 3,000 birds overwinter here compared to the 1 million or more pairs that take up residence in summer. So though they are widespread throughout Berkshire in the summer, I was delighted to welcome a male Blackcap as a regular visitor to my garden birdfeeder (containing sunflower hearts) over the Christmas period. It is also partial to the fallen apples that I leave on the lawn. In the summer Blackcaps typically feed on insects before transitioning to berries and other fruit in the autumn.
The Berkshire Bird Atlas notes the species arriving in the county in November and December. Many of our overwintering Blackcaps come from Central Europe and, in particular, Southern Germany. These migratory movements are known from ringing studies. These involve captured birds being fitted with a uniquely-numbered, lightweight metal ring on their leg that can then be read and reported if they are ever found or caught again. Studies show that our summering Blackcaps, on the other hand, arrive from March onwards and then depart for Southern Europe and North Africa. Some ringed birds have been recovered from as far as Senegal, though Morocco and Tunisia are more common destinations, apparently.
Few of us give any thought to the amazing journeys that some of our garden birds make in one calendar year!
Photo courtesy Brian Clews.
Photos of Yellow Rattle on College Field taken by Karen Phillips of Tastes Delicatessen, High St. Eton
When we think of the treasures of Eton we tend to think of the architectural heritage that surrounds us around the College and along the High Street.
The fact is, however, that one of the jewels in Eton’s crown is its Lammas land, the extensive meadows which are owned by the College but which commoners were allowed to use for pasture following the harvest following 12 August (Lammas Day). Hay meadows with a rich variety of flowers are important habitats for insects, birds and other animals and they are just as much in need of conservation as our architectural heritage.
Meadows are a rich mix of grass and wild flower species in competition with one another. If fertiliser is added to meadows, grasses will tend to grow at the expense of the flowers. For this reason, fertilising meadows cuts down biodiversity and allows just a few grasses to take over. Fortunately, year after year the hay is cut and removed after the harvest and this helps remove nutrients from the meadow. The resulting lack of nutrients depresses the growth of the grasses and encourages the meadow flowers to flourish.
As well as continuing to make hay, and ensuring that no fertilizer is ever put on our hay meadows, some species can single-handedly help promote biodiversity. A plant called Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) that flowers at the end of May is actually a parasite that draws water and nourishment from the roots of nearby grasses. This weakens the grasses and so helps the flowers to thrive. Its name derives from the fact that when it sets seed (in July) you can hear the seeds rattle in the hollow dry seed-cases as you walk through the meadow. Its rattling was often taken as a sign that a meadow was ready for the harvest. You can find this species around Eton, though it has disappeared from South Meadow in recent years. If it makes reappearance, it could play a vital part in maintaining this meadow, and its rich diversity, for years to come.
For the estimated seven million tourists who visit the Royal Borough, Eton’s riverscape and its iconic swan population are just as memorable a part of their day as are Windsor Castle and Eton College. Mute Swans are now thriving but interestingly they are an excellent example of how practical conservation measures can rescue a species in decline. In the 1980s the swan population on the Thames was in severe decline, due mostly to lead poisoning from discarded weights used by anglers. Birds don’t have teeth, so to digest their food they use a gizzard, a muscular chamber which is part of the stomach. Many bird species swallow grit and use this in their gizzard a bit like a coffee grinder (another name for gizzard is gastric mill) and use it to grind their food. Unfortunately, toxic lead shot taken in as if it were grit, was also ground down and passed into the bird’s system.
Swan Lifeline, our vitally important local charity, worked together with local politicians and with the staunch support from Eton’s then Provost, Lord Charteris, and a national ban on the use of lead shot started in 1997. Incidentally, the College’s current Provost, William Waldegrave, was also very supportive of the plight of the swans when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Environment in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 1980s.
Non-breeding birds form the large flock of over three hundred that we see at Windsor, a favorite site for swans because they like the extended body of water which provides a sufficient ‘runway’ for their taking off and landing. They are also much attracted to the tourists and their bags of bread, though white bread certainly isn’t the ideal food for them. Their preferred food is various reeds and algae. Swans can typically weigh 10kg, though they have been recorded at more than twice that weight, which makes them one of the heaviest flying birds.
Breeding birds will build their nest in a territory which the male (the cob) and the female (the pen) will defend very aggressively. Spectacular fights can take place and other swans which happen to stray into the territory can be at a huge disadvantage if they are moulting. They are liable to be drowned, something I have been distressed to see on a couple of occasions.
Anyway, thanks to the excellent conservation work of Wendy Hermon and her team of volunteers at Swan Lifeline, Eton and its stunning swan population will continue to make Windsor and Eton memorable to all its millions of visitors.
The photo has been kindly provided by Karen Phillips of Tastes Delicatessen.
One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder designed to hold Nyjer seeds. The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season. Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder. Sometimes up to ten at a time will surround it waiting to access the seeds while making their characteristic trilling song. The collective noun for Goldfinches, a charm, is said to be derived from the Old English word describing the birds’ twittering repertoire.
Following declines in the 1970s and 1980s, Goldfinches have become increasingly common in Berkshire while more than doubling their national population according to census data. They began to use bird feeders widely in the 1990s and current garden bird surveys record them from 58% of participating gardens. After the breeding season, Goldfinches can accumulate in large flocks (the Berkshire Bird Atlas records groups of 250 or more locally) and they love to feed on thistledown, the seeds of which are similar in size to Nyjer. In fact, the scientitifc name for Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, is derived from the Latin for thistle, Carduus.
Goldfinches have not always been common locally. In 1868, Clark Kennedy, the 16-year-old Etonian who wrote the first ever book containing photos of birds, stated that Goldfinches were uncommon in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Indeed, the popularity of Goldfinches as caged birds in the Victorian era meant that the population went into severe decline due to over-collecting by birdcatchers. Actually, keeping Goldfinches as pets is nothing new. Donna Tartt’s latest (2013) best-selling novel, The Goldfinch, features a seventeenth century painting featuring a chained-up Goldfinch. One of the first acts of the RSPB, after it was founded in 1904, was to protect this colourful species.
The photo has been kindly provided by Gordon Langsbury of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project www.berkshirebirdatlas.org.uk The black and white image by David Thelwell has been reproduced with permission from The Birds of Berkshire.
Mandarin Ducks and Egyptian Geese
This month we highlight two striking bird species that are seen from time to time on the river around Eton. Both have been introduced to this country from abroad. These species have become adapted to the local environment, and are described as naturalised species.
The shy and secretive Mandarin Duck, originally from eastern Asia, is an introduced species that has progressively established itself in the eastern half of Berkshire. The colourful drake has two distinctive orange ‘sails’ at the back. The first Mandarin release in the UK was early in the eighteenth century, but most of the birds we see locally are descended from a release of five pairs on to an estate near Cobham in Surrey in 1928. These birds bred successfully and then spread north, east and west. Best suited to mature, open broad-leaved woodland with secluded ponds and streams for shelter, it was therefore no surprise that its first toehold in East Berkshire was in the Great Park as early as 1932. In fact, a major population in the UK is still centred on Virginia Water and the total national population is estimated at 7,000. Its breeding range has expanded in recent years to cover most of the Thames Valley and around Eton we occasionally see it around Cutler’s Ait and Romney Island, just upstream of the College. This perching duck nests in trees, and seems to prefer Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Beech. It is also capable of travelling long distances: a bird ringed in Berkshire was recovered in north-east Russia!
Another local feral population is that of the Egyptian Goose. In our recent floods, residents reported them exploring South Meadow, though in normal river conditions they are more usually seen downstream of Windsor Bridge. The Egyptian Goose is now found throughout the Eastern half of Berkshire. Counts of nearly 200 are not unknown locally (near Cookham) and the Berkshire Bird Atlas describes the Egyptian Goose as ‘one of the most successful birds in Berkshire since the 1980s’. Originally from sub-Saharan Africa, it then spread to the Danube in Hungary and Romania. The first introductions in Britain were in the late 17th century in the collection of Charles II in St James’s Park in London. An estimated national population of 400 in 1988 has now risen to nearly 3,400 according to the RSPB.
The photos have been kindly provided by Brian Clews (Egyptian Goose) and Roger Milligan (Mandarin) of the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group
George Fussey (Curator)
There is some political discussion at the moment about the effect that immigration has on employment in particular and on society in general. In the natural world, there is no doubt that species that have been introduced into Britain from abroad can have damaging consequences for the local fauna. Once such species become adapted to the local environment, they are described as naturalised. The most obvious example in East Berkshire is the Ring-Necked (or Rose-Ringed) Parakeet which has been recorded in the County since 1971. They are now well-established in various locations in England and Wales. Its harsh shriek [kee-ack, kee-ack] is frequently heard overhead these days in Eton and they frequently come to raid my bird table!
Originally from Africa north of the Equator and eastwards to India and Malaysia, this distinctive species has bright green feathers and a crimson bill. Males also have a black throat and a rose-coloured ring around their throats. The photo has been kindly provided by the Berkshire Bird Atlas Group. It nests in holes in trees, and according to the new Berkshire Bird Atlas often occupies the vacated nest cavities of Great-spotted and Green Woodpeckers. The diet of the Parakeet includes fruit (apples, cherries and plums are favourites), buds and berries but increasingly the birds are happy raiding bird feeders in gardens.
Over a thousand have nested in Wraysbury (in 2003) and there is currently a well-established roost near Slough Sewage Treatment works which regularly numbers up to 500. Their success has been attributed to the absence of any natural predators, the fact that they breed earlier than most British species, their ability to withstand the harshest weather and their ability to forage widely.
The national expert on naturalised species happens to be Sir Christopher Lever, an Old Etonian who now lives in Winkfield and whose collection of butterflies has recently been given to Eton’s Natural History Museum. He suggests that the 10,000 or so parakeets in England and Wales may originally have been escapees from pet-shops and bird-farms, while some may have been turned loose by members of ships’ companies when they realized that importation would be delayed by a long and expensive period of quarantine. The British parakeet population appears to have originated from the Indian part of the birds’ natural range. Whatever their origin, the parakeets seem to be here to stay!
What feature of the museum do you think this is a part of?
Did you guess what last weeks object was?
It’s a headdress from our new Robin Hanbury-Tenison ethnographic collection. It was presented to him by Xingu people living in the Xingu National Park.
You can see this object and many other fascinating objects from around the world on display in the museum.