Saturday 28 December 2013

Another Beautiful Winter Run

No idea what these fungi are, but they are very photogenic and they love my folks' garden
Tufted duck flotilla, London Road lake
Cherry blossom in December? In the cemetery
Hawton village weather cat

Wednesday 25 December 2013

A Christmas Stroll

A coot gently paddles in London Road lake
...joined by some handsome mallard drakes
An ugly duckling
Castle Gate is gilded in gold

Saturday 21 December 2013

Treasures of Clay Lane

Clay Lane has memories for me ever since I first moved to this town...

For a long time, "Clay Lane" was just a park where you went to try and play football or cricket on grass that was far too long for the purpose, on awkward slopes. It had a reputation too, as being the sort of place where "rough kids" played. I certainly got a cricket stump across the head there once. Long story.

There was a renowned conker tree called "King Kong" in another field a little further on and a scary, Scooby Doo kind of haunted house up the hill behind the trees. I was barely brave enough to climb the fence that protected it. One time we went onto the lane proper, a bunch of friends and myself, and we were convinced we were going to be chased and killed by Hells Angels - actually a few kids on tinnily buzzing mopeds.

There were skylarks nesting in the long grass, I used to watch them soaring skywards, singing wildly, before plunging back to ground like arrows. I haven't seen one since. A sign of our times.

Nowadays, I run along the actual Clay Lane on a regular basis. In spring and summer, it is a green tunnel of bramble blossom alive with butterflies; orange tips, speckled woods, brimstones and green veined whites. When you reach the farmland at the end of the lane, yellowhammers clatter through the hedgerows, and there might be a buzzard overhead, soaring on the updraft from the slope.

In winter, as it is now, it is a muddy slog past bushes still full of hips and haws, made occasionally wondrous by fogs and hoar frosts dusting everything in white. But it is also the best spot in Newark to see winter thrushes at the moment, and in my experience it has always been the most likely spot to see bullfinches.

Fieldfares and redwing tend not to come into town to ransack berry laden trees until the weather gets really cold and hard. But Clay Lane, right on the edge of a busy urban residential area, has the berries to attract them without the people to disturb them, and my recent runs have found me flushing flocks of 20 or so fieldfare out from the trees as I approach, their pure white bellies flashing in the sun as they fly off. They always seem a little easier to spook than the redwing - which are present on the lane in smaller numbers at the moment - despite the fact that they are a far sturdier looking bird.

There are flocks of goldfinches around too, always a pretty sight twittering in the trees, their bright red faces always reminding me of mini-babybel cheeses.

How odd, that a bird should remind me of cheese.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 21.12.13

Saturday 14 December 2013

Observing Geminid Maximum

Well, I gave it a go, posting myself outside at 11.30pm in a collection of various fleeces. I'd felt rather pleased with myself, doing a bit of "outreach" by advertising the best meteor shower of the year to my social contacts, but when I went outside, clouds were rolling in to make me look like a fool. The moon also was making things difficult.

Locally anyway. People further South had better luck.

Myself, I saw 4 meteors in around 20 minutes, mainly through thick haze and in scant gaps between the heavier clouds. As before, all were heading South in the sky, and were observed between the radiant and Orion. The last one I saw was the choice specimen, a magnitude zero or better meteor on a path through Monoceros, the constellation of the unicorn.

There are still meteors to be seen in the next day or two, so here's hoping for clearer skies, and for some miracle to somehow blank the moon out...

Thursday 12 December 2013

First Geminid Meteors of the Season!

Ahead of Friday's Geminid maximum, took advantage of reasonably clear skies and a low half moon to make my first Geminid observations for 2013.

Although the Perseids of August are often talked up as being the best shower of the year, in practice I find the Geminids to be a better observing experience. The radiant is higher in the sky much earlier, winter skies are darker, and the meteors themselves tend to be slower moving and brighter than the Perseids.

The main problem is the cold, and believe me, it was pretty sharp last night!

I observed for half an hour from 1am, and managed to pick up 5 bright meteors in this time, strangely most of them in the low south, streaking through Orion and Canis Major. Thought I would see more in the vast blank patch of sky overhead that was the constellation of Camelopardalis.

If skies clear, I shall make some more observations tonight, and hopefully there will be an increase in visible meteor numbers. I will also take a scaldingly hot cup of coffee outside with me tonight to improve my observational endurance!

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Feathery Fruity Flavours

My wretched strained calf - leg, not bovine - is still bothering me a little, so I nursed it very carefully this morning in a 10km run around the two lakes, Clay Lane and Beacon Hill reserve.

The sky was cloudless, and the low sun was providing a beautiful illumination, making the frosted grass shimmer, and giving the mallards' on the lakes dazzling emerald heads. You can tell the wind has dropped; the black headed gulls on Balderton Lake are less numerous than they are when the weather is bad. There were only about 20 fighting and scrapping upon the water, as opposed to the windy days last week when there were hundreds.

I'm keeping an eye out for goosander, but for so far only tufted duck and the mean muscovy duck are keeping the mallards company.

Clay Lane was muddy, but not impassable despite a particularly gloopy patch trying to eat my shoe at one point. A flock of what I think were fieldfares took flight at my arrival, heading off to a copse unpolluted by the heavy footsteps of radio 4 listening joggers. I think there were redwing hiding in the trees too, I kept seeing distant glimpses of slender thrush shapes in the branches.

Lots of chaffinch were on the woodland path on Beacon Hill park, white tail bars flashing as they flew from tree to tree, but the prize of the day was found in the nursery area. As I reached the middle of the young trees, admiring the rich crop of berries sported by many of them, a white rump flashed across my path from right to left, before settling in one of the young trees. It was of course a bullfinch, and it gave me a few seconds to admire it before it flew off.

In the sunlight, its pink breast was completely aglow. It was so bright it looked like a strawberry split ice lolly, looking so refreshing the sight of it made me suddenly very thirsty! I'm used to seeing bullfinches along Clay Lane, but it's a rare sight for Beacon Hill, and I was greatly cheered I saw it. Glorious birds.

The main field was empty. All the rabbits were underground telling stories like they do in Watership Down. It was time to head home.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Satellite of Love

I was visiting the library today, when I found this fellow when I was leaving;

This is a satellite moth, so named for the white markings on each wing, clearly shown in the photograph above. They are reckoned to resemble a planet with satellites orbiting it.

It may surprise some people, but there are various species of moth that are autumn and winter fliers, rather than summer ones. The satellite is one, the furry dark december moth another. This specimen was in pretty poor condition, having been partially trod on by library visitors. It was still feebly alive, so I took it outside - cue strange looks - and found a sunny spot to release it in. But I didn't give much for its chances.

Later on, I headed out for a somewhat limping, coughy and sneezy run. Many black headed gulls - in the hundreds - were on Balderton Lake, and a cormorant was making a rare visit to annoy the anglers. On Clay Lane, I had a typical sighting of a bullfinch, a white flash of rump flying across the path, and in the trees above there seemed to be both fieldfares and redwing, although the fading light made it hard to tell. The haw berries would be attracting them.

I eventually returned home to find the robins singing in the baby oak tree, and the blackbirds throwing the dead leaves around in every corner of the garden. The singing of the robins is a particularly cheery sound at present. 

Monday 2 December 2013

Alas Comet ISON, I never knew you

You may well have read my blogs talking about my observations of Comet Lovejoy, but there was always an underlying hint in my writing, I think,  that I was hoping for something bigger and better elsewhere...

My attempts to view ISON were always thwarted. Clear skies at the wrong time, clear skies when I was asleep, a bad horizon from my urban location. I woke up at 5am one day to try and observe it, then probably fell asleep again. A few more days and ISON was much too close to the sun to observe from any Earth based observatories. It was up to the battery of solar observation satellites out in space to try and keep us in the picture.

And it was looking really good, for a just a painfully short time. After some earlier reports suggesting that ISON was already starting to disintegrate, the comet passed through a rough patch, and then brightened rapidly. By the time of perihelion, the comet had reached an estimated magnitude of about 0, and was showing a beautiful pair of tails - a dust tail, and the straighter, narrower ion tail.

ISON just before perihelion 28.11.13, image from NASA SOHO satellite.
ISON then whipped out of view behind the sun for a short time, and observers held their breath. By the time it reached its closest point to the sun, at less than a million miles, ISON was being heated to 4000K and was travelling at 800,000 mph - 0.11% of the speed of light.

ISON was travelling so fast, it was undergoing relativistic effects. Time was running slower for the comet!

Clearly subject to such temperatures and forces, it was never a given that the comet's one mile or so nucleus would survive. Initially, it seemed that nothing had survived, but then this SOHO picture gave hope.

Had Comet ISON (at 11 o'clock) survived?
Something had clearly made it around perihelion, but what?

Hopes were high that some, or perhaps even all, of ISON's nucleus had survived, but then sadly, it became apparent that the image captured above was just a remnant of gas and dust from the comet's tail, with no solid nucleus present. Over the next two days, it gradually smeared out, and disappeared to nothing.

It may be that the comet springs one last surprise on us; the debris around its orbit may give us a new meteor shower when the earth crosses ISON's orbital path early next year. But this is unknown at present.

Comet ISON may be dead, and I may be sad to never have seen it. But the study of this comet, and the interest it generated, was unprecedented, and that is Comet ISON's legacy.

Now get your binoculars out, and look for Comet Lovejoy!

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 02.12.2013

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Chilled Cycling to Cotham Flash

Of course, as you know I'm not just active by night, I take in the sights by day as well. But the weather has been cold, my left leg has a calf strain, and I'm always worried about the rattletrap giving out under me after I've cycled ten or more miles out.

But as I left my flat first thing, a strange quavering "tseeeep" caught my ear, not a sound I'm used to hearing on the driveway. A twitching of branches of my sycamore tree revealed the the culprit. A tiny goldcrest was paying me a visit, the first I've ever seen at my home. Normally they prefer to forage on conifers and the like, but this specimen, possibly a female judging by the yellow, rather than golden, mohican on its tiny head, was feeding on the sycamore. Seemingly, it was taking aphids and greenfly from the underneath of the leaves, and I got to watch it for a good ten minutes.

Much heartened by this, I decided to try my luck with a visit to Cotham Flash ponds that afternoon. Kitted out for winter cycling, I took myself the long way there, heading south on the N64, catching sight of goldfinches feeding off teasels, and a rubbish tip almost white with gulls; I've never seen so many there, and there were many circling overhead as well.

Turning through Cotham Village towards Hawton, I was hoping to catch sight of redwing or fieldfare feeding off the abundant haws in the hedgerows, but no luck there. And Cotham Flash itself was quiet. Only a few coots were on the water, and unlike my February visit, there weren't huge flocks of whistling wigeon taking to the skies at my approach.

However, the cycling on a cold day felt pretty exhilarating, and I did get one good sighting. A buzzard was sat on a telegraph wire, keeping an eye on some pigeons further along. It let me get quite close, and was able to pick out its shaggy white necklace around its neck, before it flew off towards a stand of trees with great slow wingbeats.

Comet Lovejoy, with Rum this time

Last night was clear, but pretty cold out. This time of year, my scale of sky clarity is usually based around “How well can I see Lepus tonight?”, and last night most of the stars of this fairly undistinguished constellation below Orion were in view from my urban garden, as was the tail of the Great Dog next door.

Behatted and begloved, and fortified with a rum and coke, I headed out at 2am with my 10x50s, and took in a few easy targets while dark adapting. Messier 41 was an easy spot last night, below Sirius, and as always, the starfields of Orion and Monoceros were an attractive sight to sweep lazily around. I spotted the Christmas Tree cluster in Monoceros, looking like exactly that, a tiny inverted Christmas tree, and the Rosette cluster nearby, almost in the same binocular field of view.

Messier 35 in Gemini was spotted, and high above all three Messier clusters in Auriga too. As ever I gave special attention to Kemble’s Cascade, and took in the faint mag 9 stars that form a long straight line in between the brighter stars.

Now it was time to comet hunt.

I didn’t actually know where Comet Lovejoy was, I hadn’t looked up its position, so took a guess that it was near Cor Caroli in Canes Venatici somewhere, beneath Ursa Major. I initially panicked when it wasn’t, but some slow sweeping picked up further east, roughly halfway between Alkaid and Cor Caroli about a degree NE of a 6th magnitude star.

Last night it was showing at about the same brightness as my last sighting, about mag 4.5 at a guess, and very definitely elongated in a NW direction. To my eyes there were definite hints of a tail visible, as well as some uneven structure in the coma. It no longer has a globular cluster feel about it in the 10x50s. There was a last quarter moon interfering with my view a little, but it was still a good sight.

Seeing as more and more reports suggest Comet ISON is in the process of disintegrating, Lovejoy is probably the only comet I shall observe at this time of the year. And I'm glad I found it.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 26/11/2013

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Comet Lovejoy and Cachaca

As the sun set last night, I watched the rainy skies catch fire in the west, and then watched intrigued as the cold weather front cleared the sky, a long purple-grey to blue divide advancing from the horizon.

I was excited. This meant clear skies later, this meant comet hunting. Never mind the cold.

And by 2am, it was really cold. No dark rum in the house, so I whipped up a rather crude sort of capirinha affair with Christmas present cachaca, and headed outside.

I took a look at the moon first, a couple of days past full, but it was a very wobbly moon as I struggled to keep my shivery hands still. It was obviously going to wash out decent deep sky observing, so I headed over to the non obstructed garden view to the North-East, lifted up my binoculars to my eyes, expecting a difficult search…

….and it was there straightaway!

I suspect without the moonlight it would have been a much more impressive sight than it was. About half a degree, or nearer, to a 5th mag star in the lower reaches of the Great Bear, Comet Lovejoy was presenting as an elongated “splodge” now rather larger and brighter looking than Messier 13 (as I observed it a week or so ago), and again with the sort of two distinct degrees of condensation I reported previously.

To my eyes, there was no sign of the green colour very apparent in photographs and from other observer reports. There was a tantalising hint of tail pointing to the North-West, but no amount of averted vision could persuade even me I was seeing a tail.

And no amount of cachaca would either. So I headed inside for an impromptu fried egg sandwich and a cup of tea, to warm me up!

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 19/11/13

Monday 18 November 2013

Ten Miles of Serenity

Today’s run was the 10 mile route (actually 9.6, but 10 sounds better) through Hawton to Farndon, and back along the river.

It was a wonderful run for me. Not just because after Saturday’s Parkrun disaster I felt like I needed a long run to feel I wasn’t ready for the glue factory, but because I enjoyed the serenity I felt all around the route.

I love running through Sconce Park, even on a grey day in winter. I love dropping down into Hawton, always wondering if I might see a kingfisher at work near the River Devon bridge. I hate the climb up over the A46 bypass, but love the view on top of it, the asphalt stretching off into the distance. Willow Holt is muddy, but lush and green and gold with autumn colours. Wonderful.

The swans are no longer pillaging the oilseed rape field by the river like they did last year, but are munching winter kale in Hawton. But there are plenty of canada and greylag geese sailing the river, and a cormorant stretched out his archaeopteryx wings, decided he didn’t much like the sight of me and took off down river, leaving a trail of splashes as he did so.

High up and a little way off, a flock of unknown birds was circling for reasons I knew not, and on the water the mallards are now at their smartest, their heads more bottle green than a Carlsberg. Other flocks of thrush type birds teased me, too far off to confirm my hope that they were fieldfares.

In short, it was a day where there wasn’t anything massively exciting to see. But that didn’t matter. It was the joy of being outside, yet again, even while flogging myself to a jelly, listening to the radio, and feeling calm.

Feeling serene.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 18/11/13

Monday 11 November 2013


As I took these pictures at the marina bridge, the birds began to take off to form murmurations

Sunday 10 November 2013

Yes! I've seen Comet Lovejoy!

Having seen reports of this Comet putting on a good show in the morning sky near the famous Messier 44 Beehive cluster, I was excited to get home from my local pub and have a look for it.

So excited in fact, I kept putting the moment off! I mopped up Kemble's Cascade - really trying hard to spot the 9th mag stars in the chain, took in the Orion Nebula, enjoyed the Orion starfields, managed to glimpse Messier 41, and observed Monoceros and the Christmas Tree and Rosette clusters found within.

Then I shifted my location, and looked for Messier 44 over the rooftops. It was about 230am. The Beehive is visible to the naked eye from my urban "garden", and I had a good view in my 10x50s. But the comet had of course moved, and I had to rove around a little beffore I found it, a condensed, slightly elongated, teardrop shaped, blob of light, brighter than Messier 13 but of similar size. The elongation seemed to be pointing back towards the cluster. There was no sign of a tail.

The condensation wasn't uniform. There seemed to be two different levels, with a distinct nucleus.

It was just out of the same 10x50 field of view as M44, at about 8 o'clock in tthe direction of the Leo sickle.

I punched the air in delight. It's still a big deal for me to see a Comet. But I did have to have a panic, as I wondered if it might perhaps have been Messier 67. But it looked rather too bright and condensed, and further checks today indicated that it must have been the comet, as Messier 67 lies further away from M44 in the direction of the head of Hydra.

So there we go. It wasn't an amazing sight, perhaps I would have picked up a tail under country skies, but I was still thrilled to see it. And by all accounts, it is putting on a much better show than ISON, for which those -18 magnitude estimates seem a very long time ago. Another tick on my comets list - from an urban sky, I think I do well to see them!

Saturday 9 November 2013

A Magical Run by Night

I was a lazy boy this morning. Overslept wildly for Parkrun, didn't really get a lot of information hoovering done at the library, and hadn't read much either.

Luckily a beautiful robin gave me a wonderful exhibition of gusto singing from the baby oak tree as I left the flat, and later on I watched treacherous woodpigeons eat the holly berries on my tree. They are for the waxwings dammit!

Lunch, and a snoozy sort of afternoon followed. By the time I was ready to run, well the sun was already beginning to set. I could have had a short run, but thought I didn't deserve it so easy after missing Parkrun. So I set off with the sun already on the horizon for Farndon, and Willow Holt.

It was a magical run. Not the early boring urban bit of course; It was in a mid blue twilight when I turned into Farndon village, and saw a kestrel in silhouette flying from tree to tree. That was when the magic started.

Certainly it was muddy underfoot, but worth it, to feel free in the deepening evening, to head along the river with a sense of risk, to see more kestrels, to see a heron overhead beating the air with slow elegant wings, and to scare out a large owl from a hedgerow near the sheepfields.

The Power Station was lit up, reflected in the Trent, and as I reached the windmill stretch, the most magical light descended upon me. A mist was rising from the river, the power station and sugar factory smoke and lights gave everything an orange glow, and storm clouds were coming over. I felt like I was running into Narnia, suffused in this soft glow in the damp air.

For a short time it was one of the most beautiful environments I'd ever been in. I felt so happy, despite being unable to see where I was going by now.  And then the hail set in.

I've never been caught out running in a severe hailstorm before. It hurts! Like striding in a shower of gravel, skin being scraped off your arms, the ground below soon a half inch deep in icy granules. Luckily I was nearly home, and could thus allow the ice to melt down the back of my neck as I stood fumbling for my doorkeys, listening to the remaining leaves on the trees being utterly pelted.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 09.11.2013

Sunday 3 November 2013

Starling Hierarchies

Was out running today, not a huge run, just round the two lakes and along the river. Truth was, my legs were heavy and stuff after doing Parkrun yesterday, and my motivation was sapped by the comfort of being under my duvet on the sofa.

But I still went, dammit!

So, at about 4pm, I was crossing the marina bridge at the back of a well known budget supermarket, when I looked up the weight bearing tower, and saw a number of starlings sat upon it, either pre or post murmuration. They were perched in lines, probably about 50 birds in all, some on the tower, some on the suspension cables.

And it was clear that as I had seen on Autumnwatch footage about Brighton West Pier, there was a genuine "pecking order" (sorry) in place.

Some birds would fly straight into position, several other birds would shift along, and a bird would then have to fly off. This bird would flap off and try and settle down elsewhere, and be immediately chased off, until it found a spot which was presumably appropriate to its status, whereupon another bird was squeezed off.

There was a slightly seperate group of 4 or 5 birds engaged in an endless swapping of positions on a suspension wire.

I was watching entranced for a good 7 or 8 minutes, until the presence of other people on the bridge made me feel like I was being considered a staring-in-the-air nutcase. So I continued my run, and frankly still probably looked as strange as anything!

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 03/11/13

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

Sunday 29 September 2013

RSPB Langford Lowfields 29.09.13

It was a bit of last minute decision, but such a crystal day, warm but blustery, made me feel guilty not to head out on a "scientific mission" to RSPB Langford Lowfields.

This was a decision I perhaps regretted as a cold Northerly wind blasted into my face as I set out, but I soon settled into a rhythym. Felt refreshed as I hit the quiet country lanes, good to see all manner of folk enjoying the good weather. Best of all was an octagenarian lady on rather posh retro tricycle!

As I turned onto the off road section of the Sustrans 64, it was evident that dragonflies, which in my usual haunts have become a little scarce, were around in large numbers out here - blood red common darters were scattered in great numbers as I rode on. And as I entered the reserve proper, beautiful blue migrant hawkers joined them, performing at high level rather than the ground level manouvers of the darters.

And there were more visible from the hide, my favourite place of solitude within ten miles, although when I arrived a couple with a large labrador afraid I was going to steal his ball . But birds, well it was various brown ducks and coots I'm afraid, with a solitary egret visible across the other side of the bed. But there were plentiful insects, and the feeder was being visited by chaffinch, great tits and blue tits. The darters were almost frenzied in their behaviour, there was some mating going on and some vigorous fighting too. By contrast the migrant hawkers were serene in their comings and goings.

A solitary comma fed off the flowers behind the hide, fresh and unusually tidy for this most raggedy of butterflies.

I didn't stay long, I had a busy day to get on with. Meaning I got to see a kestrel, one of several out hunting, hovering over the path near the entrance pond, and the sun shone as I headed home, probably my last visit for a while. Roll on spring!

Lunar Observations with a Cold Drink

After arriving home at around 2am last night, I fetched something cold yet fortifying from the fridge and headed outside with my 10x50s on a decently clear night. The milky way summer constellations are now well past their best, and the low waning crescent moon was causing a little interference - Messier 39 was visible, but Messier 29 wasn't.

Over in Pegasus, surprisingly heading horizonwards already for an autumn constellation, the old faithful globular cluster Messier 15 wasn't really visible, but Messier 33, the Triangulum spiral galaxy, was visible, looking as usual like a ghostly Star Trek special effect. The Andromeda Spiral always puts on a show, and moving away from the sycamores in my garden, but into the annoying streetlight glow, I enjoyed looking at The Hyades, a nice little asterism above The Hyades, and also The Pleides looking like gemostones sitting upon a black velvet presentation cushion.

And then after looking at Auriga, only two of the three Messier clusters visible, I wandered right out onto the pavement and risking the laughter of taxi drivers and the questions of policemen - it has happened before - I observed the moon, a very creamy, gold top looking crescent moon low in the North East.

I don't observe the moon a lot, well, after having had observed it at x203 with a 6 inch reflector, what use are a pair of 10x50s? It's an irritant, a big bright white thing that stops me seeing stars. But tonight, as a thinning crescent, there was detail to be seen.

The visible surface was dominated by the Ocean of Storms, and the Copernicus rays although they aren't as dazzling as they are at full moon. The big crater Clavius was visible as a deep black hole on the terminator, and in between massive tremors from my shaking hands, I could see the dark floor of the crater Grimaldi towards the limb.

And I wasn't arrested either!