Sunday 7 June 2015

The elusive Cetti's warbler finally stuck his head out from behind a leaf and allowed himself to be photographed. It is a distant and indistinct picture, but I was very glad to get it. A second later he dashed into a holly tree and gave a loud burst of song.

The same thicket had a family of Blue Tits, with the young ones clamouring to be fed. Their parent is pecking bits out of a pine nut to give them.

And here is the same scene in the same place, with Great Tits.

Yesterday Bett Atherton got some fabulous pictures of a male Goldcrest in the yew tree at the northeast corner of the leaf yard, and here is one of them.

He is singing, and raising his golden crest as he does so, which makes it look like a little crown. This group of tiny warblers is known as 'kinglets', for that reason, and the Goldcrest's taxonomic name is Regulus regulus, which means the same.

There is a fable, attributed to Aesop by Plutarch, that the birds had no king and decided to have a contest for the title, the winner being the bird who could fly highest. The Eagle soared to a great height but the Wren, who had hitched a ride unnoticed on his back, jumped out and flew even higher, and so was elected king. However, the species of the winner seems to have become confused in translation, probably because the wren is a revered bird in Celtic mythology. You can see the Plutarch passage here; he mentions the fable only in passing. The Greek word he uses for the bird is βασιλίσκος, which also means 'little king' (though what this has to do with the monster called the basilisk is anyone's guess).

The Canada Geese with four goslings were at the north end of the Long Water.

When the Mute Swans momentarily left their island the geese repossessed it, and the swans hung around giving them nasty looks. I had to leave before I saw what happened in the end.

There was also conflict on the Serpentine when a Great Crested Grebe from the nest on the island had a wrestling match with the one from the reed raft at the east end of the lake.

It looks violent, but I have never seen a grebe get hurt in one of these contests. The birds grip each other and try to tip each other over, as in arm wrestling. The loser gets its head held under water, and so has to submit.

The Moorhens in the Italian Garden pond have sensibly hidden their chicks in a clump of plants. I could only see four but there may have been more inside. Here a parent leaps over the wire mesh to fetch food for them.

There were plenty of House Martins flying around their nests in the cornices of the Knightsbridge embassies.

At the back of the Lido a honeybee visited a wild rose.


  1. Hi Ralph,
    I suppose you have looked at the entry already, but W. G. Arnott's entry on Basileus, -issa, -iskos in his Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z is non-committal: "The bird... in Aesop's fable ... was a basiliskos, but there is no means of knowing whether it was a Wren or Goldcrest/Firecrest". He goes on to say that in good careful authors the Wren is called Basileus, whereas the Goldcrest is called Basiliskos, but more often than not the names were interchanged.

    For what little is worth, I have a dim memory of reading "chochín" (Wren) in several retellings of the anecdote.

    1. Thanks for that. Sadly, I don't have a copy of Birds in the Ancient World -- wish I did. It must have been a frustrating book to write. The footnotes of Aristotle's Historia animalium and Pliny's Naturalis historia are littered with remarks like 'Possibly the author meant an X' and 'Maybe a Y or a Z'. Perhaps the vaguest word of all is στρουθός, which according to Liddell & Scott may mean a sparrow, an ostrich, a flounder, a lecher or some kind of plant.

      It's interesting that βασιλεύς, 'king', was used for a wren. The German for Wren is Zaunkönig, 'hedge-king', and in Dutch it is winterkoninkje, 'little winter king'. The Wren is said to have been considered sacred by the Druids, and there was an old English and Irish tradition of 'Hunting the Wren' on 26 December, which consisted of originally of actually killing one, and later of parading a live or dummy bird on a pole in a procession.

    2. [edited for spelling mistakes]

      Oi, στρουθός! At A. Ag. 145 (if the text is sound) it appears to mean even "eagle".

      In Spanish the Wren is called chochín, which funnily enough is a diminutive of the word for the Eurasian woodock (chocha perdiz). Perhaps the difference stems from the fact that the Hunting of the Wren tradition is attested solely in the far Northwest of Spain, and is unknown everywhere else.

      Why was it called the King, though? I do have a theory - in Spanish the streaked fantail warbler is called "buitrón", that is to say, "big large vulture". It is a bit of a joke regarding its small size. Perhaps the wren is called the king for exactly the same reason?

    3. There seems to be an ancient legend of enmity between the eagle, the obvious king of the birds, and the wren, maybe because they were striving for kingship -- never mind exactly what kind of little bird was meant in the Aesop fable, it is something to do with large versus small. See Aristotle, Historia animalium book 9 chapter 11; and Pliny, Naturalis historia book 10 chapter 95 (chapter 74 in some editions).

  2. Can I recommend D'Arcy Thompson (he of “On Growth and Form" fame), his “Glossary of Greek Birds”? I’ve used it on and off when trying, e.g., to work out what bird Sappho was talking about, et cetera. Less useful as a field guide… It has been recently reprinted, but the original is consultable online with free access:

    Thompson has many different actual/probable/possible names for the wren; intriguingly he gives (as a joint name for both goldcrest and firecrest) τύραννος, the root of our word ‘tyrant’ – in Greek much more of a technical political term – and cross-references the king-words “βασιλεύς” and “βασιλισκος”.

    Harry G.

    1. Thanks very much for your information and the recommendation, which I will pursue.

      It is curious that there is a large group of American birds called tyrant flycatchers, or Tyrannidae, including about 400 species. They are very varied in appearance and there seems no obvious reason for the name.