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Thematic Collecting: Migration – The Little Owl in Britain

Little Owl in Stoupa,
Little Owl in Stoupa, Peloponnese, Greece

My family holiday in Greece last spring has proven to be especially productive in that some chance footage of local wildlife that I recorded on my small compact camera has proved to be the inspiration for an interview with Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, on the subject of the Little Owl (Athene noctua).  Whilst my wife Christine and I were staying in the small resort of Stoupa in the Peloponnese we became aware of a rather unusual bird perched on the roof of the apartment block opposite where we were staying. I filmed the bird, which turned out to be a Little Owl, and spoke to Henry about it when I came back to work. Henry, who has a passionate and lifelong interest in birds, told me that the Little Owl is often seen during the day and that the colour of the eyes of different species of owl indicates when they are most active. The Little Owl has yellow eyes, whilst the Tawny Owl, which has the best night time vision of any of the owls, has black eyes.

Lord Lilford
Lord Lilford

In an interview with Henry recorded for our Thematic Collecting Project about Migration I asked Henry about the bird’s natural range and was surprised to learn that in addition to their southern European range they are also found in Britain. Lord Lilford (1833-1896) was very interested in birds and other animals and was instrumental in introducing Little Owls to Northamptonshire during the 1880s. They were also introduced into Kent. He had encountered Little Owls around the lands in the Mediterranean, where he went for health reasons to benefit from the warmer weather. In ‘Notes on Living Zoological Collection at Lilford’ published in Lord Lilford Thomas Littleton, Fourth Baron A Memoir by his Sister (London, 1900), he wrote:

Whilst on the subject of owls, I may add that for several years past I have annually set at liberty a considerable number of the Little Owl, properly so  called (Athene noctua), from Holland and that several pairs of these most amusing birds have nested and reared broods in the neighbourhood of Lilford. It is remarkable that this species is abundant in Holland, and by no means uncommon in certain parts of France, Belgium and Germany, it has been rarely met with in a wild state in this country. I trust, however, that I have now fully succeeded in establishing it as a Northamptonshire bird, and earnestly entreat all present who may have the opportunity to protect and encourage these birds.

Unfortunately numbers of Little Owls have declined over the last 20 years in Britain and it is not clear why. As the owls diet consists of large insects and large insects tend not to be tolerated as part of the modern agriculture, the owls may not be finding sufficient food to raise broods of young.It would be a great shame I think if such an attractive and endearing little bird should be lost to this country. Although I have never seen the birds in Britain I found them to be very entertaining. The Little Owl we say in Stoupa appeared as if by magic at about 5pm every afternoon on the apartment block opposite and often announced its presence by its penetrating call, which sounds a bit like a small dog barking. It would quite happily watch the world go by, sometimes mobbed by smaller birds, and then, after about an hour, fly away on a hunting expedition. There is a UK Little Owl Project dedicated to the conservation of these wonderful birds.

Silver drachm showing the ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom Athene
Silver drachm showing the ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom Athene

 

Little Owl on the reverse
Little Owl on the reverse

 

Seeing the bird added something to our Peloponnesian holiday and it was great finding out more about the Little Owl from Henry. I am more familiar with the Little Owl from seeing representations of owls on ancient Greek silver coins from Athens in Manchester Museum’s numismatic collection, which have the head of Athena on one side and what is presumably a Little Owl on the other. Athenian silver drachma even became known as ‘Owls from Athens’ because of the reverse design. The owls became associated with wisdom, possibly because their ‘face’ looks rather like a human face, or because they were often seen in and around the Parthenon, dedicated as it was to the tutelary goddess of Athens, Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. The temple would have provided a site for the owls to nest.

It is interesting that an owl, almost certainly a Little Owl, appears on a replica of a silver plate found in a famous Roman hoard found at Hildesheim in Germany in 1868. This was one of the largest Roman hoards found outside the Roman Empire and it may have belonged to someone important in the Roman military who campaigned in that part of the world, or it may have been a diplomatic gift to keep one of the German tribes ‘on side’. On one of the silver plates there is a depiction of the goddess Athena seated with an owl perched on a rock alongside her.

 

Full plate showing Athena seated. The owl is perched on a rock to the left of her outstretched hand.
Full plate showing Athena seated. The owl is perched on a rock to the left of her outstretched right arm and hand.

 

Detail showing an owl on the replica plate from Hildesheim
Detail showing an owl on the replica plate from Hildesheim

The owl also appears on ancient Greek pots and there is also a slightly quizzical looking owl on a lekythos in the archaeology collection.

Lekythos with owl

Close-up of ancient Greek lekythos showing owl

 

 

Thematic Collecting: Migration – Interview about The Little Owl in Britain

A short interview about the Little Owl in Britain with Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology, as part of the Thematic Collecting Project on Migration at Manchester Museum:-

 

 

Freshwater springs at Stoupa in the Peloponnese in Greece

Thematic Collecting: Water – A short interview about freshwater springs at Stoupa in the Peloponnese in Greece

Thematic Collecting: Water – Springs in Stoupa, Peloponnese

Stoupa in the Peloponnese
Stoupa in the Peloponnese

Christine and I have just got back from a relaxing holiday in the beautiful resort of Stoupa in the southern Peloponnese in Greece. At the Welcome party to provide holiday makers with information about the resort and its attractions, our host Mary talked about the fresh water springs in Stoupa. When you are on holiday in Greece you are often recommended to buy bottled water because the water in the taps has a higher mineral content and it can upset your tummy if you’re not used to it but you don’t have to buy bottled water for drinking in Stoupa because they have fresh water springs literally ‘on tap’.

Spring water on tap in Stoupa
Spring water on tap in Stoupa

Water falls on the Taygetos mountains to the north of Stoupa as rain or as snow during the winter and makes its way through the limestone until it rises to the ground surface in the resort. There are places in the resort where the spring water has been tapped and you can fill your bottles with it for free. This public amenity is both healthy for consumers and good for the environment because it avoids plastic bottles going into land fill. There are also springs in the bay at Stoupa and they look a little bit like whirlpools on the surface of the sea. When the springs occur in the sea they are known as ‘glyphathes’ (pronounced glee-far-theys). The amount of water is quite considerable and we were told that there was sufficient water to supply the whole of Messenia in the western Peloponnese. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the water in the bay a bit colder for bathers. We did hear about one spring close to Kalogria bay used by intrepid Dutch bathers who steeled themselves for the cold water in the sea by immersing themselves in the spring beforehand. Apparently if you could brave the icy flow the sea was a doddle…

Spring in Stoupa Bay
Spring in Stoupa Bay

Finding out about the springs and seeing them in the bay struck a chord with me because of the thematic collecting project about water at Manchester Museum and I made some enquiries to see if Mary would be willing to be interviewed about them on camera. Naturally I was delighted when Mary not only agreed but asked Dmitri at the diving school in nearby Kalogria to take part too. Dmitri had dived on the site of the springs and was happy to talk about them on camera.

Interviewing Mary and Dmitri about the springs
Interviewing Mary and Dmitri about the springs

Dmitri told us that the flow of water from the springs was so strong that it would push the divers back, and because it was fresh water it reduced visibility at the boundary with the salt water in the sea. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on the fish or other wildlife. As an added bonus Mary and her husband John kindly took me and Christine out in their boat to film one of the glyphathes and they really are spectacular. I’ve been working since I got back on editing the filmed interview with Mary and Dmitri and hopefully shall be able to share some footage with readers in the not-too-distant future. As far as we were concerned it was one of the highlights of our holiday and we shall certainly go back. However, until the permissions are granted what better than to watch the Greek documentary (link below). Footage of the glyphathes or underwater springs showing the divers can be seen from 5.05 on the counter.

It crossed my mind that we might expect to find archaeological material associated with the springs but Dmitri told me they were of more interest to geologists than archaeologists and that dye testing had shown the water made the transit from mountain top to the sea in about a fortnight. The other thought I had was whether seeing the glyphathes in the bay had inspired any mythological tales. That’s something to look into separately and I’ll keep you posted.

Thematic Collecting: Migration – Birds in Greece

A short interview with the receptionist at a hotel in the Peloponnese in Greece about the arrival of migratory birds in the spring.

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