Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Mixed Christmas

This Christmas we rented the same flat we usually do in Sherringham on the north Norfolk coast.  It's a nice, warm, comfortable flat in the middle of the town, with a decent chippie at the end of the street and the most excellent Restaurant No 10 close by.  The plan was to spend the whole time watching birds on the reserves at Cley next the Sea and Tichwell Marshes, but on Saturday morning, Jenny wasn't feeling well, having picked up a tummy bug somewhere.  We went to Cley anyway, figuring we'd get lunch in the visitor centre there, and we could stay inside and watch birds from there if she didn't want to venture outside.  No reason to expect the visitor centre to be closed on Christmas Eve, after all.

It was not to be.  The visitor centre was indeed closed, so we had to lunch in a nearby pub before walking across the reserve to the nearest hides.  It was bitterly cold in the rather sharp wind.  We were very glad to get into the first hide, I can tell you!

Worth it, though, as we saw lots of birds.  Marsh harriers, lots of lapwings, a few dozen black tailed godwits, avocets, a few shoveler ducks, lots of teal and widgeon, a scattering of dunlin, a few birds we tentatively identified as golden plovers, a pintail duck and several shelduck.

There were also a few birds I thought were redshank, ignoring the fact that their legs were bright orange, not red.  After a bit of quiet discussion between Jenny and me, the guy sitting next to me offered advice, saying they were, in fact, ruff.  Now Jenny had thought they might be, but I'd dismissed that, as ruff over-winter in Africa.

Except that the local expert told us there was a small population that over-winters in Norfolk, and we were watching a dozen or so of them, including a male just coming into breeding plumage.  That was pretty good!

Jenny was really not well, and in the evening, hardly ate any of the goose I roasted for her.  Worse, her sense of taste was affected, and the decent bottle of red I opened was wasted on her.  I had to drink most of it myself!

On Christmas day, after opening our presies, we drove to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, near Fakenham.  We knew the gardens and shop would be closed, but figured the nature reserve should be open.  Wrong.

It was a beatiful day, however, so we ambled slowly back to Cley, spotting a stoat bouncing across the road at one point, and startling a merlin a few miles later on.

At Cley it was much warmer than the previous day and we sat in the same hides, watching an amazing display.  There was a poorer selection of ducks, but the highlight was a vast flock of golden plovers.  We're not much good at estimating numbers of birds, but decided there were well over 1000 in that flock, as well as several hundred lapwings.  I hope this mpeg movie works in your browser.
OK, it's a rubbish video, but it's the best I could do.  When I zoomed back so you could see how big the flock was, the birds were so small as to be almost invisible, but close in, and it doesn't look like anything that special.  I blame the birds, me.  They just don't fly as close together as starlings!
In the evening, we roasted a haunch of muntjac, which was delicious, but Jenny barely ate enough for a church mouse, poor girl.  And I had to drink most of the Klein Constantia Marlbrook red, her favourite wine!
On Monday she was worse yet.  We discussed going home, but then went to Tichwell Marshes, which was a pleasant drive.  As we went past Cley, we noticed that the visitor centre was open, so hoped for lunch at Tichwell.  Wrong again.  The notice said they'd been open on Saturday, but would stay firmly closed on Boxing Day.  Bummer!  Well, by now my guts were threatening, though fortunately the threats have been empty so far.  Just the odd twinge you get when you know things are going wrong, but that's been it.  It did mean, however, that my appetite was (and still is) quite suppressed, so missing lunch was no hardship. Jenny, however, wasn't up to any birding at all, which was a real shame, as she gets much less opportunity than I do, and had been really looking forward to it.

We arrived to find a cluster of people looking up into some alders right next to the visitor centre, and eventually spotted a notice announcing the presence of arctic redpoll, which are something of a rarity.  I got quite a good look, but I don't think Jenny saw them other than being small birds in the trees over there somewhere.  I thought they just looked like redpoll, but then the sign did say they're extremely hard to distinguish.

We wanted to go right out almost to the sea, but the walk was too much, and the furthest we got was the very splendid new Parrinder Hide, about half-way to the dunes.  There we saw an enormous flock of golden plovers, presumably the same flock we'd seen at Cley.  I overheard someone say "three or four thousand" but of course, I've no way of knowing how much better he was at estimating bird numbers than we were.  It looked similar in size to what we'd seen.

There were also several hundred (at least!) brent geese, many more teal than at Cley, and several common snipe.

We didn't stay long, however, as Jenny was feeling awful, and soon headed back to the car.

On the way home, we decided we would go home straightaway, though that actually meant leaving at about half past five, as it took close to an hour to get back to Sherringham, then another hour to pack up and load the car.

Driving home, we started feeling the call of our local chip shop, and by the time we arrived, we were really looking forward to fish and chips!  In keeping with the rest of the trip, it was not to be.  Both the chippies, along with all the restaurants we could see, were closed.  Feeling rather sorry for ourselves, we got some breaded pollock fillets out of the freezer, fried some chips in the frying pan and boiled up some peas.  Not quite what we'd had in mind!

God's teeth, I've typed all that and the bloody video still hasn't finished uploading!  Mind you, it is 80Mb, so maybe I'm expecting rather a lot.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Last year, we discovered Christmas potatoes, which you plant in bags in July, and give you new potatoes in time for Christmas.  That in itself was pretty cool, but the real discovery was the variety Vivaldi which is exclusively available from Thompson and Morgan.

Quite simply, Vivaldi are the best tasting boiled potatoes we've ever come across, and they're worth growing just for that.  They do also roast well, but IIRC the end result is not that different from Maris Piper, so no point wasting your few precious Vivaldi doing that!

This year I grew five seed potatoes in three special bags, and we had the first few last night, accompanying a delicious Spanish dish of duck legs with orange, olives and bacon.  You don't get a lot, but then, there are only two of us, and we don't have a way of keeping them for months, so we wouldn't want bags and bags of them.

So if you try this next year, you order them in the spring and they're delivered in July.  Remember to water the bags well, as they are thirsty, and feed weekly or your yield will be pathetic. 

And don't be tempted to plant tiny potatoes left over from ones you've grown earlier in the year.  They'll grow, but not make any fresh tubers. Worse, the original tuber will still be hard, but all the starch will have been used up by the plant, and when you cook it, you'll get what's known as a glassy potato.  Stays hard, looks translucent, tastes nasty.  One to avoid.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Burning reeds

This is actually out of sequence, because I intended to post about it, but got so tied up with other stuff, it fell by the wayside.  However, I want to stick the movie up anyway.  Yes, the wind is blowing the flames towards me, and it did get pretty hot, but I don't think I was ever in any serious danger of getting burned.  Oh yes, and no willows were (seriously) injured making this movie!  And I must find out how you suppress wind noise, cos I always get this really loud roar in the mike.

Thursday equals Nature Reserve Day!

For some reason I was on light duties today, which meant just walking around the public paths, clipping back brambles and dog roses where they were hanging over the paths and liable to ensnare people as they walk by.  When I first arrived, I thought this was going to be miserable, as I was convinced it was going to bucket down most of the morning, but in fact, my fears were groundless.  Although chilly, the morning brightened, and much of the time was clear and sunny.

Passing the watercress hut (this was a centre for growing watercress in the 19th century) I spotted a treecreeper, a tiny bird I've rarely seen before.  This one was being most obliging, and having had a good look at it, I decided to check out the differences between the ordinary treecreeper and the short-toed.  Looking back up, lo and behold, the bird was still around, albeit on a different tree.  I was able to creep closer and confirm that it was an ordinary treecreeper, not short-toed.  I probably watched it for about 5 minutes, which is pretty good.

From there I went to Reedbed Hide to take five, eat a sandwich and warm up a bit.  Of course, while there, I was watching birds, though there didn't seem to be much about, just a few mallard, teal,a heron, some corvids and a moorhen.  Just as I was thinking of packing up, however, a raptor appeared from nowhere and attacked the teal!

The teal flattened themselves onto the water and the hawk missed, but it swooped up to a height of about 5 or 10 metres, turned on the tip of its wing and shot straight back down again, repeating this manoeuvre three or four times before giving up and flying away west.

It was quite a big, chunky bird, with pointy wings, dark brown on the top, and characteristic hawk moustaches, and I decided to be hopeful that it was a peregrine.  Teal might be our smallest duck, but they're still far too big for most of the other raptors it might have been.  No way it was a hobby, which eats dragonflies and small birds, it was too big and the wings were the wrong shape to be a sparrowhawk, and in any case, I thing the teal would be much too big even for a female sparrowhawk.  And it certainly wasn't a buzzard (of which there was one about) or any kind of harrier, again, because the wings were wrong.

So I was quietly confident it was a peregrine, though not confident enough to put it on the sightings sheet.  I had, however, managed to get two very far-away, blurry photo's of it.

I sent Doug an excited text, but of course, he didn't immediately appear, as the bird had disappeared to the west.

When I met up with him, however, my description of the bird and the way it attacked the teal, along with the photo's, convinced him that it really was a juvenile peregrine.

I'm so chuffed, I'm like a little kid who's had a pat on the head from his favourite teacher!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Anti-vaxxers just won't lie down and die

This is a really nasty piece of work.  It encourages people to think of measles as benign, when in fact it kills thousands of children every year, mostly in developing countries.  Worse, it will mislead children into believing that, too.

Here's what WHO have to say about measles:

Key facts

  • Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
  • In 2008, there were 164 000 measles deaths globally – nearly 450 deaths every day or 18 deaths every hour.
  • More than 95% of measles deaths occur in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures.
  • Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide.
  • In 2010, about 85% of the world's children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 72% in 2000.

Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease caused by a virus. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.
That anyone should publish such wickedness is shameful.  I can't find any information about who published this malicious rubbish, which is probably just as well, as I'd find it hard to resist the temptation to give them a piece of my mind!

The world's smallest living tetrapod

Just published in the open access journal ZooKeys, the world's smallest living tetrapod is described.  There are actually two species of these miniature frogs from New Guinea, adults achieving a heady 8 - 9 mm in length!  Hard to imagine a tetrapod that small actually working properly!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Another brilliant TED talk

This guy, Luis von Ahn, is a member of the team that brought us CAPTCHAs, those little strings of distorted characters that you have to type into an online form to prove to the website that you're not a computer program.  The talk is only 15 minutes long, and is definitely worth watching, but here's a summary.
They knew the few seconds we spend entering those characters waste our time and that over 100 million people use captchas each day, so they wondered if there was work that could be broken down into such small bits, it would be possible to do something useful in those few seconds.  Amazingly, there is something.  They use it to digitise books.

They changed the captcha software to present you with two words instead of a simple string of characters, and you now have to type both words in. One word, the computer recognises, the other it doesns't.  It uses the one it recognises to check that you're not a computer program, then stores your entry of the other word, with a probability that it's right.  When some number of other people have identified this unknown word, the probability that it has a valid digitisation increases to the point where it can accept it as right.  So it moves that word from Unknown to Known and proceeds.  With hundreds of millions of such transactions each day, digitisation can proceed fast!

Another project they have going is translating the web into the main world languages.  Machine translation is not much good yet, but human translation is expensive.  So they decided to recruit anyone who wants, to translate text for them, working at their own level of competence.  It's free, because translating English into your chosen language helps you to learn the language, which is enough motivation to keep lots of people doing it.  There are millions of people around the world paying to learn a foreign language. Once a dozen people have translated the same piece of text, it's easy to merge the results and be confident the translation is good.  He reckons they can translate the remaining 2/3 of Wikipedia into Spanish in 80 hours.  Amazing!
Now watch the talk!


Monday, 5 December 2011

Surfing a river in Munich

I'm reading the book that won the Royal Society Winton Prize for best popular science book this year, The Wave Watcher's Guide, and came across a reference to surfing on a river in Munich.  There's a concrete barrier in the river, so a standing wave forms as the river passes over it, and local surfers have been taking full advantage for quite a few years now.  So cool!

Choosing to get cold

There's a reason I park my motorbike in the garage for the winter, and I reminded myself what it was today!

For about 6 months, Jenny and I have mulled over the idea of buying a rather weird looking contraption with two front wheels and one hind one, but we've not quite got around to it.  Yesterday, however, I spotted that a local dealer had a secondhand one for what looked like a reasonable price, so resolved to go and have a test ride.  And this is what I rode.
It's a Gilera Fuoco 500, and it is weird.  The front wheels are independently sprung, so when you corner, you just lean it over as you would a conventional bike, but there's a locking button which allows you to lock it in whatever position it's in, which is useful at traffic lights, for instance.  No need to put your feet down.

Earlier in the year we were looking at Piaggio equivalents, unaware that the same manufacturer also makes Gileras.  The Piaggios come in 300 and 400cc variants, with better underseat storage, but the Gileras are the sportier flavours, hence the larger engine.

I didn't really give it that thorough a work-out, but rode it for 6 or 7 miles, enough to start to get the feel of it, and I quite like it.  It didn't immediately leap out and say "Buy me!" but then, it's very different from what I'm used to riding, so that's no big surprise.

It has a 500cc single cylinder 4-stroke engine, with fully automatic transmission, and I confess I was unaware of any of the gear changes.  It just goes, and the performance is actually not bad.   Having the rear brake on the left handlebar like a bicycle is very strange to start with, since that's the clutch lever, normally.

This one is only a couple of years old, but already has nearly 20,000 miles on the clock, which is a lot for a bike.  On the other hand, it's relatively cheap, which suits my mindset right now.  I'll sell the BMW in the spring, when I should get a better price for it.

Oh yes, putting the bike in the garage.  The BMW has rather poor weather protection, so by the time I'd ridden the 20-odd miles to the dealer, I was somewhat chilled, despite having togged up appropriately, I thought.  He gave me tea and we nattered for a bit before I took the Gilera out, then I rode the BMW home again, arriving pretty cold.  I put the central heating on and had some hot lunch, but stayed cold until eventually I had a shower, but actually, I'm still not exactly toasty.

So I've still not decided what to do about the Gilera, but the BMW is staying in the garage for the rest of the winter!