Archive for February, 2011


A white tiger in the wild is probably a fantasy... but here's one pictured at Singapore Zoo by David St George. Click on the picture to see more on his photoblog

Did you know there are nine subspecies of tiger, three of them already made extinct in the last century by the activities of man? Neither did I until now – but more on that later…

There is a story in the news at the moment about the plight of Siberian tigers. This has made me realise that for decades I had believed Siberian tigers were white tigers – maybe because I associated their whiteness with the ice and snow of the northern wastes…


Another white tiger in imagined snow

But I was wrong, the white tigers in zoos are not Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) but Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris). A tiger usually needs a particular recessive gene from both parents in order to turn out white and this doesn’t seem to be present in the Siberian gene pool.

This is not surprising when scientists consider the 500 or so remaining Siberian tigers seem to be descended from maybe 14 individuals.

There was another story today about the gift of two white tigers to Al Ain Wildlife Park in Abu Dhabi. These rarities seem to be popular as pets for the rich and famous.


This guide to Bristol Zoo from the 1960s showed great pride in the zoo's 'new' white tigers

The white variant is bigger than the standard Bengal tiger and there are several hundred in zoos all over the world, about 100 of those still in India. There are now thought to be no white tigers left in the wild.

In the 1960s when I was a child, we sometimes went by train through the Severn Tunnel to Bristol Zoo and this was where I picked up the guide book pictured here, featuring the latest acquisition on the front – one of a pair of beautiful white tigers. I remember that was the reason we went that day.

According to the guidebook:
“The white tigers which were purchased in June 1963 were the first pair ever to be exhibited in a Zoological Garden and at the present time are the only pair outside India”.

Elsewhere it says:
“In 1951 an entirely new device was tried for showing these animals [large cats] without the intervention of bars, by means of ‘invisible’ glass windows, and recently three-quarter-inch thick glass was used in the lower section of the new outside cage for the white tigers.”


Another image from the 1960s Bristol Zoo guidebook, showing the white tigers in their cage

I remember seeing the tigers in their glass-fronted cage and (more…)

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The bluebottle (Calliphora vomitoria) is a buzzing nuisance in summer - this picture is by JJ Harrison

Lately I have been “running around like a blue-arsed fly”, a lovely phrase I picked up from my parents during my childhood.

I don’t think there is any doubt about it, the saying must surely come from the buzzing behaviour of the bluebottle, an annoying fly (Calliphora vomitoria) found in many parts of the world.

It’s very much a fly of hot summer weather and rotting food, rubbish and excrement. Even its stop-start buzzing is annoying. Which is all a shame, as it has a pretty metallic blue colour. Here’s a lovely website all about iridescence, featuring the bluebottle and other lustrous marvels.


The bluebottle has a lustrous behind...

Why do we call it a bluebottle? My dictionary has no idea. Although I suspect it may come from the old word bot or bott, meaning the larva (maggot) of a botfly, which infests the skin of various mammals, producing warbles (painful, hard swellings). This particularly affects the stomachs of horses or the noses of sheep.

Bott probably comes from the Scots Gaelic word boiteag, which means a maggot. The word maggot itself may come from a Middle English word maddok/mathek from Old Norse mathkr, all meaning “maggot” and related to that other word mawkish, meaning “maggoty”.

My memories of the bluebottle come from the days before fridges, when we kept food in a larder or metal-meshed meat-safe. Our constant fear was maggots from bluebottles. We had roast shoulder of lamb (a cheap, fatty cut) for Sunday dinner (in the middle of the day, we didn’t call it lunch).

The leftover meat was placed on a high shelf and many was the time it was retrieved only to find the white fat moving with cream-coloured maggots. A bit offputting!

But flies are not the only bluebottles. In Britain bluebottle is also a name for the common cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – not that I would ever have called it that. Another nickname I wouldn’t have used is “bachelor’s button”. Pretty flower, anyway.


Bluebottle is also a name for the common cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) - this picture is by Adrian198cm

Then there are the policemen… (more…)

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Feathery dead leaves of Acer palmatum var. dissectum atropurpureum

I’m so pleased I didn’t clean up the garden too much after winter. I’ve just seen a robin collecting nesting materials and it particularly liked these feathery dead leaves of Acer palmatum var. dissectum atropurpureum.

Usually there is only one robin ruling the garden, but at the moment there are two, and not fighting as usual, so no doubt they are an “item”. Always hard to tell when male and female both have red breasts…


The robin (Erithacus rubecula) lives permanently in our garden

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The booklet every household in Britain received in preparation for decimalisation

On Monday, February 15, 1971, Britain’s currency went decimal. Forty years on, it’s an ideal opportunity for nostalgia about the wonderful coins we had before that Decimal Day.

The £1 remained the basic unit of our currency and in those days we had green £1 notes, rather than the brassy coins we have today – those were introduced in 1983 and the £1 note was withdrawn in 1988.


The £1 note of my childhood – it was changed to a smaller one in 1978 and £1 notes were eventually withdrawn in 1988

But now the £1 was divided into 100 new pennies. Previously there had been 240 old pennies, not that we thought of it like that. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.

We had our complicated (imperial) weights and measures tables on the back of every red exercise book and many was the childhood hour we spent memorising them.

Coins were so much bigger then, and the non-decimal system made sure we were good at arithmetic. No wonder our “times tables” went up to 12, rather than the obvious 10 (obvious because we have 10 digits on hands and feet, made for counting on).


Pennies of Edward VII (1906), George V (1933), George VI (1948) and Elizabeth II (1953)

A pocketful of pennies also contained the history of our kings and queens for more than a century. Before decimalisation came in, we were able to amass portraits in copper of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Of course George VI is much in the news in 2011 with the success of the film The King’s Speech.

As for Edward VIII (of Mrs Simpson fame), (more…)

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New growth on a Japanese anemone (unusual focus, I know!)

We had a very cold midwinter this year, with snow and hard ice over Christmas for a week or two.


This Fuchsia in a pot didn't stand a chance this winter, although it has survived previous milder winters

Now it’s time to check on the damage in the garden and look for new shoots. Sadly a few of my shrubs have perished but one or two are starting to show signs of life again.


This is all that remains of the icicle-covered Fuchsia...

And please don’t say I should have taken precautions – our winters are generally very mild in the centre of Cardiff and we seldom lose anything – even tender Pelargoniums often overwinter safely.

Here are some images from my garden at the beginning of February 2011.

There are some sorry scenes to come, but let’s start with a rosier picture – a selection of pink shoots…


Pink winter heather (Erica carnea)


A Hellebore (winter rose) in bud


This Hebe has survived but a smaller one has not been so lucky...


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We always have two or three grey squirrels living in the garden and we have come to accept them as a pain but with as much right to live as the birds.


Grey squirrel in the garden, looking guilty at the damage it has just done to one of our ash trees...

But in the last month they have been behaving unusually, stripping the bark from the ash branches I can see from my window.

Are they sharpening their teeth, or just eating the bark and the pith below? This is the first year I haven’t put out whole peanuts for them, only kibbled peanuts for the birds, so are they lacking something in their diet or are their dental work-outs not rigorous enough?

After they have laid bare the white pith of the tree, bluetits are attracted to it. Is it because the moisture draws small insects?


A bluetit is attracted by the exposed pith...

All part of nature’s rich tapestry…

And here’s the answer to the mystery, from June via a comment:

Hello, your Squirrel is collecting nesting material as it’s coming into their breeding season soon, look out for several squirrels chasing 1 squirrel, the 1 at the front is the female.

The bluetit is attracted to the rising sap which will be oozing out of the damaged bark.

Squirrels bark-stripping trees can eventually kill off the tree if the damage is too great, you could try providing alternative material for your squirrel such as, straw, hay, dried leaves or even shredded paper.

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