Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Dawn Chorus

I had been having a hard time sleeping last night, and figured a little fresh air would do me good.

It was 4am, and there was a thick haze in the sky negating any chance of doing any early morning astronomy. But there was still plenty going on to keep my senses occupied, although initially I couldn’t see any of it.

It started with me hearing a few high pitched “seeeeep seeeep” noises coming from above somewhere. At first I thought it was the sound of my own slightly cold-ridden nasal breathing, but a little self suffocation soon proved that wrong. It then occurred to me that it was possibly the sound of a redwing, those most attractive of winter thrushes.

This was just the beginning. Despite dawn still being the best part of three hours away, it seemed I had walked out into Halloween morning’s Dawn Chorus.

I wandered down to the road, drawn by the sound of some aggressive chirruping. And there on the actual main road, what must have been a pair of robins were fighting over the tarmac. The one who lived on the far side of the rode was clearly winning; he drove his opponent back onto the pavement with a series of aggressive flapping drives, and then mounted the pavement in triumph as the defeated bird submitted and flew off, leaving the victor to start feeding at the base of a tree.

Not far away a blackbird was rooting around in fallen leaves in the gutter of the road, and others were beginning to stir and call, but not sing, in the trees in the small park opposite. The singing was being left to the robins. Above me a bird settled in a tree, it was an eerily streetlamp illuminated great tit, its face and chest looking orange in the glow.

As my eyes began to grow heavy, woodpigeons and collared doves started to crash about in the foliage. And as I headed back inside to successfully go to sleep, I reflected on what pleasure being outside at this crazy, early hour had brought me.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 31/10/2013

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Tufted Ducks Are Back

After the ubiquitous mallard, the tufted duck is probably the most common duck you see on still waters in this area. London Road Lake, Balderton Lake, and the reed bed at RSPB Langford Lowfields support large numbers of these ducks, but recently, they seem to have been on holiday...

It's true. My regular runs around the various lakes have revealed no tufted ducks at all. I know in high summer they tend to leave the lakes to breed elsewhere, but return towards the end of the season. This year they are late.

Perhaps it is down to the relatively mild autumn we've had up until now, but finally today, I saw a few on Balderton Lake.

They aren't a quacking duck, indeed the males make very little sound at all, but it is a handsomely clad species. The male in particular, with his glossy black and white evening dress, and drooping Bryan Ferry crest on the back of his head, is a very good looking fellow indeed. The female is brown, but both sexes sport a distinctive yellow eye.

Tufted Duck by Andreas Trepte,

It is a diving duck, so rather than the mallard dabbling for food with his backside in the air, the tufted duck dives for molluscs and other aquatic insects. As with any diving bird, it's always good fun to try and guess where they will pop up again.

I was glad to see them back on the water, recently only black headed gulls, a few grebes and the usual canada geese, moorhens and mallards have been on the water, and the lakes needed brightening up! Hopefully, I will be able to photograph a goosander this winter.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 30/10/2013

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Skies Like Blood

After our horrendous weather, which never really got very horrendous up here in the Midlands, and the presence previously of the moon, I was finally able to get outside last night with the 10x50s for some deep sky stargazing.

It was cold, so why I had chosen to grab something cold, cylindrical and can-like out of the fridge was beyond me. Nevertheless, it helped brace me against a clear, breezy evening with an autumnal nip in the air.

By 1230am, the big autumn constellations are now starting to sink westwards – the mighty flying horse Pegasus is now flying so low the globular Messier 15 is no longer visible from my garden. Of the other winged constellations, Aquila is gone, but I can still see half of Cygnus from over the roof, and so last night observed Messier 39, perhaps my favourite binocular open cluster.

Overhead, the Perseus double cluster was naked eye visible, and of course I had to stop off at Kemble’s Cascade. Then I shifted position, and took in the open clusters of Auriga, all of them plainly visible. The mighty hunter is now visible, at least his burly shoulders, and I spent a fair few minutes taking in the intense vermillion colour of Betelgeuse. You can imagine the sky looking like it was on fire if that star goes supernova in our lifetime; the celestial vault would look like it was bleeding, the blood-light illuminating our skins with its crimson glow.

And then the ground begins to stir…

If any night is ripe for the undead apocalypse, it will be when Betelgeuse goes supernova…or is my imagination getting the better of me?

Copyright cream crackered nature 29/10/2013

Monday, 28 October 2013

False Widow Falsehoods

For anyone looking at the red-top media and seeing worrying pictures of swollen legs and pustulant looking sores, with lurid claims about savage, leaping false widow spiders suddenly descending upon this country like illegal immigrants looking to feed of the benefit system of your tender flesh, I advise you to read this;

The truth about False Widows

…and stop panicking.

I know most people, myself included, are not massively keen on spiders; my bath this autumn has proved a fairly inviting home for some of the largest domestic house spiders I’ve ever seen, and only dirt on my body an inch thick has finally persuaded me to wield an old Tupperware sandwich box and a copy of Bizarre magazine to exit them through the bathroom window. 

I am always very proud of myself whenever I do this.

But you see there’s no need to go genociding (arachno-ciding?) everything with 8 legs in your immediate vicinity; the chances of you or your family coming to any harm at the hands of a false widow spider are so miniscule as to be virtually zero. Chances are you are infinitely more likely to break your leg falling off the wobbly kitchen chair you stood on in order to batter a sleepy spider in the corner of the ceiling with your Daily Mail.

Stop reading tabloid scare stories, and have a nice cup of tea instead.

Copyright cream crackered nature 28/10/2013

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Birdwatching in Fernwood

The weather allowed me to revisit this little spot today, a couple of days after I discovered it while running out along Hollowdyke Lane at the back of Fernwood.

The screen at the Fernwood clearing

Where the lane turns roughly to the North, there is a small clearing in the woodland that surrounds the estate, and someone has put up a few cage type feeders and a birdtable overlooked by this screen, with a sheet to record sightings - little used. So today I took out my little 10x25 field glasses, and cycled out there.

Constantly I was getting bits of fern from the screen in my hair. It's not called Fernwood for nothing. But out on the feeders, after a quiet beginning, dunnocks, blue tits, and especially great tits, were climbing into the cages to feed. The great tits were clearly the bosses in this little spot, the other birds were deferent to them. Other folk had recorded woodpeckers, presumably on the table, but sadly none came visiting while I was there.

I don't know who maintains this little site, but I hope it provides a chance for the kids of Fernwood to learn a little about urban AND rural birds. I shall be certainly visiting again, I feel it's the sort of spot where you might find siskins and redpolls. 

I might even try a little photography with my spotter scope there.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Thirty Years Since I’ve Been – The Natural History Museum

As you can tell with my other recent posts, I’ve been visiting London, and I felt that if I was in the city, it was a total necessity to drag my sister to visit the Natural History Museum - a place I think I last visited when I was at school in about 1984.

I was full of excitement, that quickly evaporated at the size of the queues. But they were moving quickly, and we were soon inside, confronted with the still astonishing Great Hall and its iconic brachiosaurus – inevitably seeming rather smaller than I remember it. It was surrounded by folk doing a Crystal Maze style trip round the skeleton in order to get into the Hall of the Dinosaurs, so my sister and I decided to head to the top of the museum and work our way down.

I’d forgotten that there was actually nothing at the top apart from the ancient tree trunk section. And on the level down it was the fascinating, but rather old fashioned, mineral exhibition with the gem-mier stuff in the exciting named “Vault”, the “Treasure Room” which was enjoyable, and an evolution exhibit that as ever my sister and I walked through the wrong way round.

It’s the big exhibits on the ground floor that are the problem. The blue zone has a marine life exhibition full of often model exhibits, very badly labelled and very confusing to look at. Everything is static, and lifeless, and a common recurring theme of downstairs was how dingy and threadbare everything looked. The lack of big sharks was, in my sister’s view,  unforgiveable. And a model giant squid nailed to the ceiling was no substitute.

Things get worse in the overcrowded and cluttered Hall of the Whales. Sea mammals mix awkwardly with land mammals, and the exhibit is impossible to find you way out of. We were looking for the big cats, and it took three circuits of the place before we got out.

I did love the expression on the blue whale’s face however, and spent a deal of time pretending to be the doomed sperm whale from “Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

The big carnivores were the most knackered looking of all the displays. The museum has taken an ethical view – correctly – that it is not going to seek out any new big predator skins from any taxidermy specimens, and the animals are thus rather faded as a result. It was great fun drawing the tiger though, with the pencil and paper provided.

“The Cocoon” however was very different. This is the invertebrate exhibit, and consists of a wonderful curving structure internal to a modern concrete and glass section of the museum. You get an exciting view of the outside of it, and then you actually enter it to see where I think the museum views its future – digital and visual exhibits replacing actual specimens, with more emphasis on how scientists go about their work of research and taxonomy. But as a lover of butterflies and dragonflies, I was sad to not see more on view, and the ones that were unforgivably badly labelled again. Or rather, not labelled at all, or a sort of laminated folder telling you what was in the cases presented to you by a floppy haired assistant.

What’s wrong with putting a label next to the thing you are looking at? Is it so difficult?

However, in general, this is by far the best part of the museum, and presumably when more money becomes available, other areas will be likewise transformed. Although my sister would say you can put all those rats in spirit a long way out of sight, incredible resource though the spirit collection is.

The shop has moved to the other side of the hall, and if you have a pressing need for a pteranadon glove puppet, like my sister had, is ideal!

All in all, it was great to visit again after so long, but it felt so staid and conservative for the most part. But I’m curious to see how they can “get with the times” and still actually fulfil the public desire to see exhibits of real animals, or whether they can educate the public away from this perhaps ethically unsustainable approach to curation.

 Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 22/10/2013

A multitude of different coloured diamonds in the gem vault
Cocoon exterior 1
Cocoon exterior 2
Cocoon interior

Monday, 21 October 2013

Gillespie Park, Islington

On Sunday 20th October, while having a little break with my sister in London, I got frustrated with the city imposed sequestration from nature, and decided to head up the rose from my sister's fourth floor flat, and visit Gillespie Park, a nature and ecology centre run by the Borough of Islington, and created in the 90s when common use parkland came under threat.

No site could ever be more urban, it is enclosed on one side by a railway line, has Arsenal Football Club's enormous Emirates Stadium complex on its doorstep, and everywhere else the flats and houses of Islington, Highbury and Finsbury Park surround it. And yet here it is, this beautiful oasis of green  - and on this day, vivid purple thanks to the late flowering aster flowers - ready for people to enjoy in central London.

And enjoy it they were, Gillespie Park being another example of my favourite thing, of open public space being used constructively for all reasons. A couple of retro clad women were dancing for a photo shoot. A group of Polish lads sat talking on a bench enjoying the reasonably warm day. Families were out with pushchairs and little bikes with stabilisers. Personal trainers and their huffing and puffing clients. An old couple of who rescued a slow worm from the path and put it safely amongst the leaf litter.

Closer in, there was an attractive nature garden area, and a little further off in another direction was a pond that on a warmer day promised emperor dragonflies. Wooded areas were filled with birdsong, and still there were bumblebees, pollinating the asters away as the sun came out for a a time.

The centre building itself offered tea, and really rather good cake, binoculars for viewing birds on the garden feeders, and space for community happenings  - on this occasion a clothes swap. Programmes of events detailing fungi walks, music festivals, and meet ups for older deaf folk were all over the walls, as was the centre's pride in its green energy initiatives.

I loved visiting, and urged my sister to do the same, to me it is a far nicer spot for a walk than the equally well used, but more sterile, Highbury Fields. It's just a lovely little spot!

The centre itself - nice cake not pictured
Ummm, I forgot
Dance in the aster meadow
My first slow worm
Emirates stadium, between my sister and the park

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Observing the Moon

The moon at approx. x55 - Tycho Crater prominent.

It's a long time since I looked properly at the moon, and a clear night enabled me to test out my spotting scope properly (!) and also attempt some astronomical photography with my mobile phone (!!). 

Two nights in a row I got some observing done, using my wheelie bin as a base for the rather small tripod the scope came with. 

I found, much against expectation, that I was able to get a good, reasonably sharp, lunar view at all magnifications in the scope, although the x60 view lost a fair bit of brightens. Craters around the terminator, such as Schikard, were easy to see, as were the bright craters Tycho, Copernicus and Aristarchus, and the dark floored Plato in its distinctive site in uplands. However, any normal craters away from the terminator were indistinct. 

As for my photography efforts, well, the fact that the effort above was the best I could get, speaks volumes. It's difficult enough for a twitchy character like me to even get the moon's view in the eyepiece, into the camera view on my mobile phone, but to to then get a stable, in focus, decently exposed shot is all but impossible.

Perhaps there is an android app that will help this process, but perhaps, the results with this rig are not worth the effort. However, lunar photography through my 6inch reflector will produce more worthwhile results.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Old Telescope and The New

Well, I'm a little older than  I was, and as an undeserved reward for this I have been given a new telescope.

It's not an astronomical one, it's a little spotting scope, 20-60x60. Obviously it's primary purpose is as a tool for birdwatching and hopefully some fairly rudimentary photography - maybe I'll snap an egret with my mobile phone through the eyepiece. But it occured to me that I could attempt to use it for astronomical purposes, and as the sky was clear early on last night, I gave it a go.

Sadly, I don't think it is going to be up to much. Even the brighter stars look faint and difficult to focus, the optics I don't think will handle astronomical work. It also feels like your looking through a Smarties tube, very narrow image field, feels like only 60 degrees. The 45 degree eyepiece is very awkward to use. The tripod isn't up to non-terrestrial use either.

I'll evaluate it again when I get a moon to look at, but while birdspotting is going to be fun with it, the night sky not so easy.

Hmmmmm. I daydream of buying a scope sometimes, there's some excellent value kit around. But, as I've said before, I've got an old telescope that lurks at the folk's house, my old Broadhust Clarkson and Fuller 6 inch Reflector. I tried it a couple of years ago, and thought the mirror was much too degraded to be any use. But then, I was looking from a brightly lit street, on a wobbly mounting. I figured it might be worth another try.

And it was. It's fine. I set it up in the back garden, and tried to roughly align it to North. Being left eyed, it took a lot of faffing to get the finder in the right place for me, and the German EQ mount is superheavy, and the hand operated worm gear a total pain. BUT I COULD SEE STARS! And see them clearly too. My 20mm Erfle eyepiece, providing about 60x, showed Deneb, pointlike, with a diffraction cross, and a slight shimmer. But it wasn't distorted as far as I could see. Then, with a very badly aligned finder, I managed to find Albireo, and had my first view of the beautiful, subtley tinted gold and blue double star, easily split even at this low magnification.

I have a working astromoical telescope! Sure, the mirror is probably a bit dirty, and the EQ mount far too heavy. But I have a deep sky and double star scope, that may yet give me great pleasure on clear nights!

The new spotting scope
The old 6 inch reflector

Monday, 7 October 2013

I Keep Saying Every Visit is the Last...

...but today the weather was good enough to head out to Langford Lowfields for a visit. I think the raptors felt that it was the last decent day's flying they were going to get, as I saw a kestrel and three buzzards in the air along the Holme road, the buzzards struggling to find thermals even on this warm day.

As I approached the reserve along the N64 cycle path as usual, the number of Common Darters on the path had gone up since my visit last week. Today, I was practically inhaling dragonflies from the moment I turned off the road by the level crossing. There was a number of mating pairs on the wing too, reminding me of the aliens in the old arcade game "Defender" when they pick up an astronaut from the surface to turn into a mutant!

There were lots of them on the reserve too, but it seemed initially the migrant hawkers were over for the year, however as the weather suddenly became appreciably warmer at 130pm, the air became full of these beautiful insects too. There were white butterflies on the wing, as well as a very feisty looking pair of spiralling speckled woods.

Out on the reed bed, many tufted ducks seem to have arrived since last week, and the great crested grebes are now sporting their handsome winter plumage and look very elegant as they coast and dive upon the water. Mallards are now wholly out of eclipse, and I saw a couple of mid sized rather plain brown waders feeding on the water's edge, sifting their beaks through the water I think. The wardens always report sighting of godwit, dunlin and sandpipers, but me, well I find these sorts of birds incredibly difficult to spot.

The best birds of the day, were a white egret practically dazzling in the sun, and a very stately looking heron patrolling slowly along the very far side of the bed. Such an elegant bird, the heron. Makes flying into the wind seem an awful lot easier than cycling into it.

Common darter on the path by the hide
Surprised to see this common blue damselfly so late in the year
Very pretty, very tiny, and very unknown little white flower next to the hide

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Binoculars? Who Needs them to Enjoy the Sky?

Most of you will have noticed that when this blog devotes itself to matters nocturnal, my stargazing reports are based around observations with my 10x50 binoculars.

However, with work this morning at 6am, a proper binocular session seemed out of the question. But such a glorious crisp sky, I didn't want to waste. So I just pottered around the garden, looking at the sky between the sycamores whose obstructive leaves will soon fall, and seeing what I could see.

Surprisingly from my town site, I could see plenty.

The Andromeda Spiral was the first thing I chose to look at, and it was just about visible with averted vision. Messier 15 globular in Pegasus, no chance, and I figure than ever seeing a naked eye globular from my garden under clearer colder skies is a no-no. But open clusters are a different matter. The Perseus double cluster was easily visible nearly overhead, to my naked eye, a sort of peanut shaped fuzzy path halfway between Mirfak and Cassiopeia, and seeing it made me wish I could just have a little peek with a small telescope. Not far away, I could pick up Messier 39 in Cygnus too, but this was far fainter.

But enough of that non naked-eye heresy! The Mirfak cluster itself is an interesting sight, never really mentioned as a sight to rival the nearby Hyades, but my favourite orange star amongst all the blue-white ones is invisible to the naked eye almost certainly under all sky conditions.

The v-shaped Hyades are of course the face of Taurus the Bull, with Aldebaran (not Alderaan, Star Wars fans!) representing its baleful orange eye. Above them is an interesting little asterism – perhaps I want to discover my own Kemble's Cascade – a little grouping of mag 5 stars around Mu, Kappa and Omega Tauri. A little further up lies the Pleiades.

The most famous open cluster in the entire night sky, the grouping also known boringly as Messier 45, or more poetically The Seven Sisters, has always brought out my competitive side. Just how many of them could I see these days? Sadly, the answer was only a boring, bog standard seven. I swear when I was fifteen I could see nine or even ten of them. I'm over forty. My eyes must be going...

Luckily, as I headed inside to bed, my eyes weren't so decrepit that I couldn't see the milky way, a river of mist flowing from Cygnus in the West to Auriga to the East. Sad, that many folk now never get to see it with their own, very naked, eyes.

Copyright Creamcrackerednature 06/10/2013

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Autumnal Sights

Ran 7 miles around the two lakes today, and this documents what I saw...

Rosebay willowherb (?) in seed
Haws by Balderton Lake
Ash keys
Juicy hips at Balderton Lake
Swan, cygnet and goose
On the cycle path. Cotoneaster?
Elderberries, clay lane bridge
Escaped Muscovy
Ripening holly berries
This tiny fellow was on my front door. Native or invader? No idea.
Nature. With added thorns