Monday, 26 July 2010

I am enjoying retirement!

Of course, officially I've not really retired at all, but the chances of my getting a job seem slim, and that's how I like it!

Today I went to Fowlmere Bird Reserve to see if I could spot that grass snake I saw last Thursday, this time equipped with binoculars and camera.  Sadly, it was not to be.  I got to the site at about 10.30, which was about the time I saw the snake before, but it wasn't there.  I did a bit of birding and returned 40 minutes later, but there was still no sign of it.

Of course, there are any number of reasons it might not have been there, so I'll just have to be patient and visit from time to time.  My thinking is that if this is a good spot for a grass snake to catch a few rays, it'll likely be one of a range of such sites it uses on a regular basis, so if I keep visiting, I should see it eventually.  Maybe.

So while I was there I pointed my camera at various things, of course.  The yellow flower is a hawkbit, being attended by hoverflies.  The spider is obviously an Araneid (like the common garden spider, Araneus diadematis) but I can't find it in my spiders book.  The reason I say it's not just a common garden orb web spider is because of the curious structure it builds above the orb and in which it rests.

You can see that it's curled the tip of an oat stalk around and stuck it all together with silk to make itself a platform.  The common garden spider doesn't do that, of course, which makes me think this is something else.  But I don't know what.


Jen and I had a rare privilege on Saturday afternoon.  We were enjoying a glass of chilled rosé at the end of a hard day's gardening when I noticed a bird land high up in a big Norwegian maple tree in a neighbour's garden, though I couldn't see much of it.  I pointed it out to Jenny and said "I want that barred tail to turn into a bird of prey, but it's probably just a pigeon."

At that moment the bird moved slightly to one side and we could see it clearly.  It was a sparrowhawk and we had an uninterrupted view of it from a distance of perhaps 10 metres, for several minutes while it surveyed the scene, looking for dinner.  The picture is not mine, of course.

Jen suggested I get the camera, but I decided the bird would fly away before I got back, so I sat tight.  A few moments later it took off in a low swoop past us, too quick for us even to get up and try to see where it had gone.  The dive was fairly characteristic of a sparrowhawk in pursuit, (I've seen them a couple of times before) so I assume it had spotted a potential meal.

It was brilliant to see that beautiful bird so clearly.  So rare to have one sit still close to where you are so you can get a good view.  Most obliging of it!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Embarrassing old photo's

Going through some old family photographs just now, I stumbled across one taken in 1975 or 76 of my brother's wedding.  I cropped out the rest of the family, then had to despeckle and descratch it in Photoshop, which has left it slightly blurry, but I think that's better than the original.

Those were the days when I had hair!

I still have that tie, but the suit 'shrank' they way they all do as you get older!

And don't say I never do anything to give you a laugh.

Today at RSPB Fowlmere

On Thursdays, I'm sure I've said before, I volunteer at the RSPB bird reserve at Fowlmere, just a few miles up the road from Royston.  A couple of weeks ago I saw an otter there, which caused a 
stir as it was the first otter sighting of the year.  There has been another since.

Today I was walking through an overgrown paddock which is shortly to be used for cattle, checking the fence posts to make sure they were OK and not needing to be replaced.

I wasn't making any special effort to be quiet, but wasn't thrashing about.  So I was completely delighted to spot a small grass snake snoozing in the sun on a fallen tree trunk.  It was only about 3 or 4 metres away and I stood and watched it for 15 or 20 seconds before it realised I was there and slid off into the undergrowth.

It was about 30 cm long and very dark with almost no visible pattern to it, just yellow patches on either side at the back of the skull.  Apparently that's how they look in Fowlmere.

The photo at the top is the nearest I could find on the web to the way my snake looked.  I'm going back some time in the next few days to see if it catches rays there regularly and try to get my own photo.

After we packed up, I wandered back towards the car park and took some photo's of a ruddy darter dragonfly, a burnet moth and a common blue butterfly.  I also went into one of the hides and tried to take photo's of an Emperor dragonfly flying up and down in front of the hide, but it's very hard.  I might have another go, as most of the shots did actually have a dragonfly somewhere in them, even if rather blurred. 

Apologies:  I've been trying to get the photographs into a column on the left with all the text on the right, but bloody blogger, having been upgraded and made even more super-whizzo, has made it simply impossible to achieve the format I want.  I'm afraid you'll just have to take it the way it is until I can be bothered to learn how to drive the new blogger.  Bollocks!

Monday, 19 July 2010

On a more positive note...

In the bird reserve last Thursday we encountered a drying-up ditch full of sticklebacks. I'd already decided to stock the refurbished pond with sticklebacks and minnows rather than the goldfish I'd had before, on the grounds that the latter hoover up much of the wildlife which would otherwise live in the pond, leaving it rather a wasteland. I still want some fish in there to eat the mosquito larvae, but I'm hoping the sticklebacks and minnows will do that.

So on Friday I rescued something like 25 or 30 sticklebacks and they're currently stored in one of the big green trugs we used for the weed when we emptied the pond. At the end of the week, when the pond has stabilised, most of the chlorine has gone and some plankton has had a chance to establish itself, we'll introduce the little fishies to their new home. Hope they like it.

Not sure what to do about minnows. A local aquatic centre can order them for me, but there's a minimum order of 25 fish if you want to avoid the £20 delivery charge. And the fish are £2.64 each. I'm not sure I'm prepared to pay £66 for the fish, but Jenny might persuade me to do it anyway. We shall see.

Was it worth it?

<rant>This is how the pond looked last summer, after I'd dismantled the cascade and failed to put it together again. The rocks, particularly the grooved one at the bottom of the cascade, were just too heavy for me to work with and I was worried I'd injure my back again.
The firm I hired to fix it for me didn't plan to start until November, but then their timetable slipped due to poor weather. Eventually, in March, they gave me a firm start date, so we emptied the pond, storing fish and weed
in a couple of big green trugs. We had to puncture the liner because even a centimetre of water was enough to encourage frogs to lay their eggs.

After much procrastinating, the people I'd hired finally admitted they
would not be able to get around to our job for ages, so I fired them.

Back on Which? Local I found another firm. Nice man came around to check out the job, but then phoned later to say he'd not be able to do it for ages, and recommended
some other folks.

Other folks duly quoted, warned of a 6 week delay before they could start, but finally did actually start within a couple of weeks of when they said they would.
Sadly, they didn't do what I asked them to. Right from the start, I'd said "water over the top rock, into a pool, over the grooved rock from the original cascade and into the pond." I discussed this endlessly with them. I pointed out that the top rock feeding the water into the pool did not have to align directly with the groove in the bottom rock but could be offset. I had in mind a long, narrow pool by then. Did I get that? I did not.

I came home the other Friday lunchtime to find them setting the cascade into cement. They'd drilled a hole in the top rock (OK, that's close enough) but then there was just a narrow channel leading to the grooved rock. He did not want to make me a pool, but eventually I persuaded him to rotate the two flattish rocks defining his channel so the back end is about 10cm wide and he deepened it a bit so you do get a micro-pool.

The original rock is limestone pavement from back in the days when we didn't know any better, so we looked the other way and asked him to buy some more to make up enough of a rockery to satisfy his artistic requirements. Did he buy nicely rounded, water-worn rock? Mostly not. Some is good, but a lot is not what I'd have chosen.

And just to piss me off entirely, they broke my low-voltage path lights and trampled all over flowerbeds, crushing the plants and just ruining things. Bastards! I don't think I'll say anything to them because I doubt if I could say anything polite.


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

There is no escape (but at least we can try!)

It’s a case of actual science passing into the realm of myth. What began as an amazing astronomical affair is now an annoying astronomical aftermath. It’s the “Opposition of Mars this coming August 27th.” Perhaps you got the email? Well the situation is like this…
OK, so if you go to the Discover magazine blog post here you can read about this in detail.


The alignment was in August 2003.
Mars WAS spectacular in 2003. It WAS extra bright. It WAS fascinating seeing the bright red planet pass near to the bright red star Antares, thus affirming how this star got its name (Antares means “competitor of Mars”). The continued yearly emails are like getting repeated invitations to the “Astronomical Party of the Year” – one that has come and gone several years ago.

Pass the word; crush the opposition.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Of blue tits and great tits and stuff

We have lots of nest boxes in our garden, including a tit box built into a brick column on the patio half-way up the garden, which was used by a pair of great tits this year, and a 'sparrow terrace' of 3 boxes, which has been used by house sparrows about twice but is mostly occupied by blue tits, including this year.

It being way past the time the tits fledge, and with a bit of time on my hands, I decided I'd clean out the boxes to get rid of parasites hiding in the old nesting material, so that when the birds move in next year, they're not at an immediate disadvantage.

In the past when doing this, I've always found empty nests, but this time was different. Both nests held two dead chicks and the box occupied by blue tits this spring also had an unhatched egg.

This is curious. I don't know whether the adults got eaten, or frightened away, or just couldn't find enough food to feed their chicks. Blue tit presence in our garden peaked at 5 in early June, but there's no guarantee those were 'mine'. And the great tits seem to have just faded away in late May.

I'll be interested to see the BTO results for this year when they publish them.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Yet more penguin pictures!

These are official Royal Society photographs of the Festo penguins flying around the auditorium in the Royal Festival Hall the other week, and are the best photos I've seen so far.

Something I think is interesting is the penguins' wings. Look at the first photo, where it's flying from right to left (the wings are nearest the front.) The wings are pointing down, but also angled so the trailing edge is downwards. From this I deduce that these wings are on an upstroke, so that as the wing sweeps upwards, it drives the air backwards. I'm pretty sure this is how a real bird's wing works, too.

I draw attention to this because Jenny just assumed there was a little propeller somewhere, driving the thing through the air, but actually there isn't.

In the second photograph, showing also the ray, the nearer penguin's wings are pointing down but this time with the trailing edge level with the leading edge. The difference between these two photographs shows clearly that the flapping mechanism is rotating the wing so as to create forward thrust, and that's what I find so cool about these toys.

Cats mimic the sound of their prey

There's a really interesting piece of news published today on Biology News. Apparently, the indigenous Indian population in the Amazonian forests of Brazil have been reporting for years that some of the wild cats, pumas, jaguars, etc, use a vocalisation of a target prey species to lure the prey within reach. Naturally, the scientists dismissed this as fantasy. No longer.

Researchers first recorded the incident in 2005 when a group of eight pied tamarins were feeding in a ficus tree. They then observed a margay emitting calls similar to those made by tamarin babies. This attracted the attention of a tamarin "sentinel," which climbed down from the tree to investigate the sounds coming from a tangle of vines called lianas. While the sentinel monkey started vocalizing to warn the rest of the group of the strange calls, the monkeys were clearly confounded by these familiar vocalizations, choosing to investigate rather than flee. Four other tamarins climbed down to assess the nature of the calls. At that moment, a margay emerged from the foliage walking down the trunk of a tree in a squirrel-like fashion, jumping down and then moving towards the monkeys. Realizing the ruse, the sentinel screamed an alarm and sent the other tamarins fleeing.

So not only will the scientists have to study this newly-observed phenomenon, but they'll also have to start taking what the indigenous natives tell them about the wildlife a little more seriously.

You do have to wonder about the arrogance of western man sometimes, don't you?

The monkey is a pied tamarind and the I-want-one-of-those! pussycat is a margay.

This made me laugh

Ho ho! Thanks to P Z Myers, whence I stole it.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Busy Thursday

Jenny's at a Darwin College Wine Committee meeting, so will be a little late getting home, which gives me time to do a blog posting. The Wine Committee meets occasionally to sample wines from the college cellars to see whether they're ready to drink. I think they discuss other things as well, but from my perspective, that's the most important aspect.

One of the hardships of being on this committee is that the 5 or 6 of them try quite a few wines and then there are all these bottles lying around with just a glass or so taken off the top. Insisting on doing their duty to avoid waste, the committee members each take home a couple of bottles. Tragic, I know, but it's got to be done!

You might think that, being unemployed, I'd have loads of time, but in fact it's not proving that way at all.

One unexpected outcome of my initial interview at the Job Centre was the offer of some training, so I'm down for Microsoft Access and Word, basic HTML and Dreamweaver, four courses all completed sitting in front of a PC with a set of audio instructions and a workbook. I started Access early last week and I've got 3 lessons to go before I finish. Then I'll do Word.

In fact, the only software I'm not partly familiar with at all is Dreamweaver. I did a bit of Access about 10 years ago (yes, hasn't it come on!) and like the rest of the world, I've been using Word for nearly 20 years, but when I looked at the course content, I realised that there's a lot about Word that I don't know.

When you teach yourself something, you end up learning to do the things you need to do, not learning the whole package in a structured fashion, so there's lots about all of these that I don't know, and I'm planning to fix that, at least as far as one of these rather basic courses can help me.

Anyhow, the other thing I've been doing, which I've mentioned before, is volunteering at the Fowlmere RSPB bird reserve. It's a happy coincidence that Thursday is volunteering day, and the training centre where I am doing my courses is closed on Thursdays. Result!

Today a guy called Mike and I were allocated the task of digging a couple of test pits in an area where the warden was thinking of digging a series of new ponds. He was on a ponds course last week, so is all fired up about ponds on the bird reserve. He wanted a couple of holes about a metre across to show how deep the water table was.

Having pointed out where he wanted us to dig, he left us to it. We started the first hole together, then when we began to get in each other's way, Mike went to the second site and dug the second hole. This was a smart move on my part as breaking through the top 10 cm was pretty hard work as it was covered with some sort of sedge. Digging down until we found the water table was much easier!

We only had to go about 75 cm down, so it was no big deal, and then we went back to the main nature trail to wait for the warden to reappear.

We were sitting by a chalk stream with wild watercress growing in it, quiely chatting and just generally passing the time of day, when suddenly there was a movement in the stream. It was a bit like a wave running from right to left, but then resolved itself into an arrow shape, which meant it was an animal of some sort, under the water.

A tail appeared out of the water and curved away back under the surface, slick, dark brown, pointed.

Then a head appeared in a small patch of water amongst the watercress. For just a few seconds, we watched an otter, until it caught sight of us and vanished once more. We had been no more than three metres away from it. Now that was worth the day's work! Having quizzed us quite hard about whether or not it might have been a mink (no, it was too big, at about 75 cm long) he decided to be delighted and wrote it down in his sightings book!

After spending an hour or so locating and digging up a few buddleias (nasty invasive alien weeds!) from within a fenced area being coppiced, we spent lunchtime sitting by a stream, where I took this photograph. It was idyllically quiet and peaceful.

And one of the bonuses of being a volunteer is that they have surplus logs which volunteers can take away, so I'll never have to buy logs to burn on the open fire in our living room again!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Great homeopathy cartoon

Hat tip to P Z Myers for linking to this terrific homeopathy cartoon!

Edwin Heron, 1923 - 2010

Edwin was the father of our neighbour and drinking buddy Lorna, and we've known him and his wife Betty for about 15 years.

He was a really lovely man, and will be sorely missed. A retired headmaster, intelligent, witty, charming, extremely well-read and an endless source of entertaining anecdotes, he was a delight to be around, and we used to look forward to their visits to Lorna and Richard.

His funeral was last Friday, and Jenny and I wanted to go. We'd originally planned to go on my motorbike, to reduce the number of cars cluttering up their village streets, but in the end opted to go by car as then we'd be able to chat.

Whether this was a bad decision we're unsure. All we do know is that we'd just got onto the A14 westbound at Godmanchester, when the traffic slowed to a stop and we remained trapped there for about an hour. It's possible that on the bike we'd have been able to pick our way past, but I suspect we'd only have made it to the front of the jam.

We saw several police cars, a couple of ambulances, two fire engines and an air ambulance, after which the road was clear and we were free to go on our way.

Not unnaturally, our itinerary had not allowed for an hour's delay, and we misssed Edwin's funeral. This was sad, not just because we wanted to be there at his cremation, but also because people stood up and talked about him, and you get to hear so many interesting snippets that you would otherwise never stumble across. It was very pleasant to meet people we've known through them, some of whom we've not seen for ages, but we were particularly sorry to have missed the service. Oh well.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Picture from Italy

Somebody took some photographs of us when we were singing in the amphitheatre in Lucca, near Pisa, and our gallant leader, David Boarder has sent them around. I hope it's OK for me to post one of them here. I think it's OK, since the photographer has written his copyright notice on the photo.