Thursday, 26 May 2011

Lessons from a dead racing pigeon

The other day I saw a dead pigeon by the side of the road and, the traffic being very slow-moving, noticed that it had rings on its legs, so recovered it and took it home.  After removing the rings, one of which had to be hacksawed off, I put the carcase on the compost heap, which is what I generally do with the bodies of small animals I find in the garden. (There's never been a problem with flies or smell, incidentally.)  Curiously, I was too squeamish to just chop the leg off!

Today at the bird reserve I learned that racing pigeons often have their owner's contact details stamped on the wings, so when I got home I fished the bird out of the compost heap and took a look.  Sure enough, there was a name and a London phone number.

Turns out the bird had been sent to Alnwick in Northumberland on Saturday but had not returned.  Obviously the owner was sad at the loss of his pigeon, but grateful that I'd made the effort to contact him.

I also reported the bird as a stray on the Royal Pigeon Racing Association website.  As well as the stamp on the wing, the warden at the bird reserve had mentioned a central BTO ringing website, so looking for where to report the bird, I started there.  The BTO website directed me immediately to a list of pigeon racing websites and given I knew the bird was from London, I reported it to the association that seemed most likely to be the right one.

And I'd finished within the hour.  Imagine how much more cumbersome that procedure would have been even a few years ago!  Isn't that interweb thingy wonderful?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Good night, good Spirit!

Spirit was the Mars rover expected to last 90 days but in fact which kept soldiering on until a little over a year ago.  Since then, NASA has sent a daily call, but has had no response from Spirit.  Today they send their last message.  They're not expecting any response, but will keep listening for another month.

With deep respect, I lifted this cartoon from XKCD's blog.  You'll need to click it to view it big enough to read easily.


Sunday, 22 May 2011

A better ecosystem in our pond

In July last year we had one of our garden ponds redone and when I restocked it, I put sticklebacks and minnows in instead of goldfish.  Well to be truthful, I managed to accidentally introduce a black goldfish, and have completely failed to catch it since.  It's now a nervous fish and I don't know how I'm going to catch it.  The idea was that the goldfish used to eat all the wildlife which tried to live in the pond, whereas the new fish are smaller, so should have a less dramatic effect, but we hope the sticklebacks and minnows will eat the mosquito larvea that would otherwise inhabit the water and emerge to bite us of a warm July evening.

Well the upshot of having only one goldfish is a pond full of tadpoles for the first time in years, and we were pleased enough with that, but then yesterday I spotted baby fish, so somebody's been at it down there.  But then today we managed to top even that, when we spotted a smooth newt in the pond.  We tried introducing newts years ago, without any noticeable success, so this was completely unexpected.

Sadly, all is not perfect.  Blackbirds nested in the hedge next to the pond earlier this year, and one of their fledgelings' inaugural flight was straight into the water, with terminal results.  On the opposite side is a brick pillar into which I built a nestbox, which this year was used by great tits.  And one of theirs ended up in the drink last week, too.

I think of it as putting evolutionary pressure on the fledglings to get it right first time.  Is that cruel?

Thursday, 12 May 2011


Last night, Jenny and I went to the Cambridge Corn Exchange to see Uncaged Monkeys, which is a quasi-scientific performance by Robin Ince, Simon Singh, Brian Cox and Ben Goldberg, along with a few extra guests, who are not announced in advance, as far as I know.  The show's been going around since the beginning of the year, and I really wasn't sure what to expect.

I've never seen Robin Ince before, and found him quite funny.  Simon Singh spent his slot talking about the 'alternative medicine' scene and how essentially they take your money but sell you water, along with various obvious parallels.  (It was a long show, and I've forgotten most of the details, which is not good, but no surprise.)

Then came Steve Jones, not on the expected list, who was really entertaining and talked, amongst other things, about the fact that the £10 note is all Darwin, evolution, Galapagos, etc, but includes a humming bird.  There are no hummingbirds on Galapagos.  Oops!  Although Steve quoted some text about the hummingbird, which I assume came from the Royal Mint's website, I notice that, although the bird is still pictured, the text associated with it is now more generic, and hence, accurate.  Maybe someone from the Mint saw the show!

Brian Cox talked about the LHC, as you'd expect  - "We build these things next to an airport, so you can get a sense of the scale of them - that small straight line there is Geneva airport!" - as well as cosmology, particle physics, the results of Gravity Probe-B and so on.  All good stuff. BTW all the press seem to be saying that Gravity Probe-B proved Einstein's General Theory of Relativity right, missing the crucial word "again" off the end of the sentence!  It's been proven right several times over the years, and this is just another aspect.  As Brian said, it's a good job this experiment worked, as GPS is crucially dependant on the the theory it was actually testing!

By now we were already half an hour late in a long show, so we had an interval, then resumed for first, a mercifully brief Q&A session, a genetics person I'd never heard of and sadly, who's performance has fallen out of my head, a girl singing some funny, geeky songs and finally Ben Goldacre.    Ben talked a lot about how testing of drugs is quite often skewed in such a way as to favour the company performing the test,  by testing against a placebo instead of the most effective other drugs on the market, by simply not publishing small-scale tests that don't show the results you want, and so on.

Ben does himself no favours by hopping around the stage like a demented hamster.  Is he hyperactive as a result of imbibing sweet drinks with high concentrations of e-numbers?  I don't know, but I was glad when he stopped as it was most distracting.

Anyhow, I recommend you go if you can.  It's an evening of Science and Wonder and although it's expensive and long, it's definitely worth it!

Oh yes, the Oxymoronburger.  We ate at Jamie's Italian restaurant just over the road, before the show and I had a burger.  The last burger I had was in a MacDonalds in High Wycomb in about 2000, and it was so ghastly, I swore I'd never eat another one.  This one was just delicious, and I'd cheerfully repeat the experience!  Sadly, they forgot to drizzle the Posh Chips with the promised Truffle Oil, but the nice waitress left those off the final bill, which I didn't actually ask her to do.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Damn bird!

This great tit has changed what it's feeding to its young.  Until a few days ago, both parents were rushing back and forth, delivering caterpillars and whatnot to their babies, and ferrying away the faecal sacs like good, houseproud parents.

But today I noticed this one, which is busily emptying my bird feeder, scattering food far and wide, evidently in search of something special.  I think it's sunflower seeds, though that doesn't make complete sense, since there's a feeder on the other side of the garden which supplies only sunflower kernels, and it's studiously ignoring that.

Anyhow, I rigged the white thing below the feeder to try to catch the waste, but it's not nearly big enough.  The bloody bird is chucking most of the stuff it doesn't want way beyond the edge of that!

What's the point of my preventing the grey squirrels from getting to the food if the damn birds just hurl it to the ground anyway?


Monday, 9 May 2011

The north Norfolk coast

For many years now, Royston Priory Singers has sung a couple of services in Binham Priory, on the Sunday of the first weekend in May, but with all those bank holidays over the past few weeks, there's not been enough rehearsal time, so this year the gig was cancelled.

Not to be done out of our weekend's fun, Jenny and I booked our usual holiday flat in Sheringham, and on Friday, drove up there with Lorna and Richard.  One difference this time was that Richard drove my car, as my immobilised knee prevents me from driving.  We went in our car as it's slightly bigger than theirs. Just to make packing everything in more of a challenge, I'd hired a wheelchair from WheelFreedom, and I'm really glad I did as it made an enormous difference.

The pattern for the weekend was much as usual - fish and chips and champagne on Friday night, a visit to Titchwell Marshes bird reserve on Saturday, followed by dinner at the wonderful No 10 restaurant in Sheringham.  On Sunday we visited Sherringham Park to see the rhododendrons and azaleas, then home for about 6pm.

So I'll spare you the bird and flower pictures, but this is one Jenny took of me just after we'd arrived at Sheringham Park.  Out of the blue, we found electric buggies by the visitors' centre, available at no charge.  A member of staff took my details, showed me how it worked and let me loose on an unsuspecting public!  Result!  Instead of leaving the wheelchair at the visitors' centre, Lorna used it.  Lorna has arthritis in her hips, and was in quite a lot of pain yesterday, so being able to sit in the wheelchair and have Richard push her around was an unexpected bonus.  On the bird reserve on Saturday, she and I had taken turns.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Amazing tree hoppers!

I was led to this fascinating article about tree hoppers by the Discover Magazine blog.  These tree hoppers have evolved bizarre structures from the first segment of their thorax (the middle blob of the body, between head and thorax) and no-one really knows what they're for, but even more interestingly, it seems these structures are modified wings.

Now everyone knows that insects only have wings on segments 2 and 3 (T2 and T3) of the thorax (you did know that, didn't you?) so for modified wings to spring from T1 comes as something of a surprise.

Turns out that some early insects did indeed have wings on T1, but in modern insects the genes that are expressed in wing growth are suppressed by another gene in T1.  Except not in tree hoppers.  In tree hoppers that suppression doesn't seem to work properly, and these bizarre growths occur.

It's worth visiting the site just to look at the pictures, believe me!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Nasty, dangerous things, cars!

 This photograph is entitled "Thank goodness for full-face helmets!"

Yesterday morning I went to the dentist for a checkup, scale and polish.  It being a beautiful day, naturally I went on my motorcycle.  I try always to use the bike because although parking is usually possible for a car, sometimes it's a bit problematic, so the bike is just easier.  And usually more fun!

Sadly, on the way home, it turned out to be less fun.  A car waiting to turn right out of a junction on my right, failed to see me, so pulled out in front of me.  I was unlucky in that when I hit the brakes, there must have been some gravel or similar under the front wheel, because the bike just vanished from under me.  Given it was a warm, sunny day and the road surface was dry, there's no way I should have lost control like that, but there you go.  I did.

Fortunately the car stopped half-way across the junction, so I bounced in front of, rather than into him, and the bike slid off leftwards, through a wooden fence and into a wooded area.  I still don't know what kind of shape it's in, but suspect the worst.

The critical thing, when you come off a bike, is not to hit anything.  Hitting things hurts, so is best avoided.  Which I did.  I bounced quite a long way down the road, ruining all my gear in the process, but when I finally came to rest on the grass verge, my first thought was "I believe I've not broken anything.  Bloody hell!  How did I do that?"

Of course, I was rapidly surrounded by a crowd wanting to know if I was OK, so I took my helmet off and then stood up, continuing to be surprised I could do so.  One of the witnesses suggested that I get checked out at Addenbrookes, and I agreed, so she called an ambulance.  I'd not been going as fast as I would normally, being in the frame of mind to just pootle along enjoying the ride, but even so, I wasn't doing 30mph!

Climbing into the back of the ambulance,  I noticed a sticky feeling around my left knee, and investigation revealed a  short, rather deep cut, which the paramedics said would need a stitch or two.  Three, as it turned out.  They checked me out quite thoroughly before setting off to Addenbrookes, and I was gratified that my initial impression was largely correct.  I was shaken, but not stirred.

Disappointingly, that meant I wasn't treated to blue lights and sirens, which I thought was part of the deal!

At Addenbrookes they X-rayed my right hand, which was quite swollen and painful, but proved otherwise intact, and my left knee from about 6 different directions. The nice lady doctor apologised that they revealed I had actually cracked my kneecap, so my knee was going to have to be immobilised, even though there were otherwise no symptoms.  So my left leg is encased in something not dissimilar to a cricket batsman's leg pad, whcih stops the knee from flexing.  This is seriously inconvenient, since it means I can't drive the car.  As Jenny doesn't drive cars, that's quite limiting.

As the evening progressed, my hands got more and more painful, despite liberal applications of 'anaesthetic' in the form of Porcupine Ridge Syrah, and this morning are still too sore for me to use the crutches the hospital kindly provided.  Fortunately I managed to speak to someone at the fracture clinic, and she confirmed I could do without the crutches as long as I treated the leg sensibly.  Phew!

So today I'm just waiting for the worst of the pain to subside, after which I'll just be stuck with an inconveniently straight left leg for a bit.  If there's a god in his heaven (yeah, I know!) at the fracture clinic on Wednesday they'll say "No need for the splint.  Take it off and go home!"

Oh yes, and just to cap it all, today I've got gout in my right big toe.  For those who've not experienced the joys of gout, I recall my mother thinking she must somehow have broken her big toe, the pain was so intense.  Today's is not as severe as that, but it's pretty bad, so I'm now limping with both legs!  How fair is that?