Tuesday 30 April 2013

Cider with Binoculars - astronomy report

Last night was not only a clear one, the moon was out of the way, and atmospheric conditions were good too. I decided to head out with my 10x50s at half past midnight with a bottle of Magners, and see what I should see.

It was probably one of the most rewarding observing sessions I've ever had.

First up, Coma Berenices, looking wonderful in binoulars as always, but sadly not revealing the globular cluster Messier 53 as I'd hoped. The Leo triplet is forever out of reach, and I'm not goping to see any of the Virgo cluster galaxies anytime from my garden, although the starfields in the Virgo bowl are attractive enough in their own right. The globular Messier 3 in Canes Venatici was an easy spot. Later on I picked up Messier 13 and Messier 5, and it is definitely slightly inferior to those two globulars.

I stayed in the vicinity of the Hunting Dogs, and realised that La Superba seemed to be naked eye visible, only, research today reveals I'm looking in the wrong place. Back to the drawing board!

However, first BIG TICK of the night. I found Messier 51, the famous Whirlpool galaxy, for the first time. It seems to form an isoceles triangle with a pair of 6th magnitude stars at 3 o'clock from a line joining Mizar to Alkaid - obviously little detail can be seen, but the fact that I was able to pick it up at all was a thrill.

Struck with my success, I scanned over to Merak and Dubhe, the north star "pointers" of legend, and I think I picked up another faint haze, marking Bode's galaxy, Messier 81, which is apparently absoloutely the furthest object visible with the naked eye. I will confirm this tonight if conditions are good. THRILL number 2.

The final big new spot was Messier 92 over in Hercules, another one to confirm tonight. All these objects are right on the limit from my site, but it's such a reward to be able to find them.

And it's beautiful to be out looking at stars anyway.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Violet forever

Wheatear Hunting at Cotham Flash

Slightly belated post, as I have had a ton of writing to ctch up on.

Two tea times ago, 25/04/13, intrigued by all the reports of interesting sightings in the horse paddocks at Cotham Flash, I headed off on my bicycle to re-acquaint myself with the yellow wagtails I had seen out running a few days before, and hopefully to see a Wheatear.

(Picture courtesty of Aviceda, wikimedia)

As you can see, the wheatear is an palely beautiful member of the flycatcher family, a summer migrant to UK shores from sub saharan Africa. It likes open country, and the only time I;ve ever seen them before I was about 8 years old, my mother pregnant with my sister and thus on an entirely logical camping trip to Derbyshire. I loved the visit, we walked miles around the hills near Monyash with a birdwatching family friend, and I remember being shown wheatears in binoculars, and marvelling at these pretty birds hopping about on the uplands in the middle of nowhere.

I've never seen a Wheatear since, and I've never been on a camping'n'walking holiday either. So I figured it would be fun to see them on the Flash paddocks as I'd seen reported, but, sadly, I missed them.

I did see 4-5 yellow wagtails once again, occasionally being rather agressively chased by the pied wagtails, and a rather long way off. occasionally popping into view beyond the fence, lapwings were making a heck of a racket towards the wetland, and sand martins were busy feeding in numbers over the pond on the other side of the road.

I decided to move further down to the wetlands to listen to the quacking in the distance, and to watch what I think must have been a tawny owl quartering the scrubby wasteground on the other side of the tip road, large, patterned brown wings, and a pale underside.

Of course, I got hime to find reports of twenty yellow wagtails and several wheatears being in that paddock. But I'm not disappointed. I will just be patient, and hopefully one sunny day, there they will be.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

A 15 mile run to see Warblers and Wagtails

Today, I set off on a run determined to erase the guilt of holiday time from work spent partaking of extra pints of beer from time to time and eating vegetarian stir fries of far too large a size.

I hit the road, Radio 4 in my ear, and determined to do a big run.

I ran past the cricket ground, and up along the cyle path towards Cotham, about 4-5 miles. Near Flowserve, my attention was taken by a pair of small and very plain brown birds flitting about in the hedgerow. Brown backs, paler brown underparts and a pale eye stripe. Definitely warblers, and judging by the size - no bigger than a coal tit - and colouration I'd say they were chiffchaffs rather than willow warblers although they didn't give me a bit of a sing song that would have clinched the deal.

In the very next tree, a pair of goldfinches were showing beautifully in the sun, and every so often my delicate footsteps would flush a peacock butterfly - disappointed not to see any orange tips on such a warm 20 degree day.

The rubbish tip was alive with gulls and crows, and as I turned on the road through Cotham village, there were plenty of kestrels around, and also a rather odd looking buzzard - it's tail seemed rather short, giving it a vulture-like apppearance. It shot up on a thermal like it was in a lift.

Eventually, I came to Cotham Flash, and decided to stop briefly to look over the gate into the horses' paddock. Within there were several stunning yellow wagtails, so bright they were almost fluorescent. I haven't seen one of these for many years, in town we only tend to get grey wagtails. They are incresingly scarce in the UK, so I'm pleased I saw them, so many interesting sights round Cotham Flash. I didn't notice any wheatears as I'd seen reported, and resolved to bring my binoculars to this spot as soon as possible.

On the Hawton Farndon Road, there were a few swallows about, but didn't see anything of note in Willow Holt. The Black Swan was on the river today, and on the power station weir a cormorant was standing like a jurassic relic drying its wings.

The next interesting bird I saw flapping into a bush along the windmill stretch. Saw a bird with a noticeably chestnutty back, and managed to get a good look before it flew off across the river into the reeds - black face and white collar, it was a reed bunting, which I've never seen along the river here before.

Fabulous run, fabulous day, lots to see and proud I did it!

Monday 22 April 2013

A robin, taken on my mobile phone

Observing The Moon with Binoculars

Just summarising a couple of nights of bonocular astronomy for you, where I decided for once that the presence of a day 8 and day 9 moon was not going to put me off getting outside with the 10x50s and seeing what I could see.

The moon was at an easy altitude, so I decided to have a good look at our nearest neighbour for a change. For me, with very unsteady hands, I've always been put off by lunar observing with my binoculars, but these nights I decided to (rather awkwardly) jam my elbows onto my chest and rest my arms in this fashion - this enabled me to have a few half decent views.

The moon's surface is packed with detail, and rewards patience. The most prominent features are located on what is known as the terminator, the cut off point between the luminated and unluminted parts of the moon - essentially when the moon is waxing, the terminator line indicates where the sun is rising on the lunar surface. At these locations, the sun casts the longest shadows so craters and mountains are easiest to see.

The feature that grabbed my attention the most with a crater actually still in the dark, but who's crater wall was illuminated like a sort of glowing eyelid in the night. Research indicates that this was possibly the crater Eratosthenes. The dark floor of the crater Plato was visible in the far north, and in the far south the giant crater Clavius, 140 miles across, was plainly visible too.

By now, my arms were like jelly, so I took in what sights the deep sky could offer me despite the moon. Messier 3 was visible with some difficulty, rather easier being further from the moon were the other globular clusters Messier 13 and my first view of the season for Messier 5 in Serpens Cauda. Identifying La Superba is still beyond me, but Messier 39 in Cygnus was just about distinguishable.

A rewarding couple of short sessions! The night sky is so beautiful, and unlike the love of Jennifer Lopez, it's love doesn't cost a thing.

Friday 19 April 2013

Forget me nots in my garden

Peregrine Falcons in Newark

Well, an out of the blue second update today.

I'd spent some time at the library before heading into the market square to use an ATM and go to Morrisons. As I went back to my bike, I looked up and around, as I often do to see anything interesting on the buildings either avian or architectural, and straightaway a falcon drifted over the market square.

This attracted my interest straightaway. You don't often see falcons of any kind over the centre of town, and I've never seen a kestrel in the town centre. Shortly afterwards, a larger specimen appeared from above Starbucks as the first one had, flapped and glided around the market square, before turning back towards the north end of the church.

It just didn't look right for a kestrel. It was too big, didn't fly the same way, and the wing and body plan looked wrong - relatively longer wings of a different shape, shorter wider tail it seemed to me. I thought now that they must be peregrines.

I walked round to the Kirkgate end of the church, and scanned the steeple. Sure enough, on the Kirkgate facing northside of the steeple, a bird was sat on the edge of the viewing parapet about 2/3 of the way up. It had a grey back, and as it turned its head around, you could see the black moustaches on its face.

I was thrilled by this, it was very definitely a peregrine, and I was annoyed as anything for not having my little field glasses on me. Ive been wanting to see one of these for a while, ever since I visited the cliffs of Cornwall and didn't see any! One stopped over in Newark briefly last year and was photographed on the steeple, I'm hoping that if it was a pair of birds, that perhaps they were scoping out a possible nesting sight, but sadly I doubt this is the case.

I watched this larger bird for about ten minutes, before it flapped off east over the churchyard. I came back twenty minutes later, but no sign of either bird. Nonetheless I'm still pleased as punch to have seen them, and I don't mind if anything thought I was crazy for staring at the church steeple for so long!

And now the Martins have Arrived

Martin Amis, Martin Kemp, Martin Peters and Ricky Martin have all flown into town on a southerly breeze today...

...ok, well no they haven't. But on a run that started off with freezing rain on a freezing morning, and ended 9 and a half miles later with my sweltering body welcoming the cooling drizzle, my body was so playing tricks on me I might well have seen anything. I went, after a diversion to find some earphones that worked, along the Hawton, Farndon, River route, and early on there wasn't very much to see.

But things livened up when I arrived in Farndon. The birds were busy on Wyke Lane, foraging, nest building, and just being happy little tits and finches in general. Great Tits seem to be in great abundance this spring in particular, their "teeeee-cherrrr" calls heard even through radio 4 on headphones when the birds can't actually be seen themselves. Great crested grebes, tufted duck and mallards are all present on the river. The black swan is still doing his avian fugitive thing, failing to blend in with the local mute swans as he chomps through a farmer's crops.

Further round the river, opposite the power station weir, it all started happening. I looked up, and saw two buzzards stackd up over the river. A heron was approaching from the east, as ever a stately sight as it whipped the air with its slow wingbeats. And then, a flock of swallows swooped in from behind me and made their way to feed over the river - I wonder if the weir churns a few insects up into the air for them to pick off. With them, were a few martins of some description, the first I have seen locally this year. I saw brief flashes of white rumps , but can't confirm if they were sand martins and house martins. As I often notice, they seemed to be flying higher than the swallows; they are obviously more safety conscious than their forked taild cousins who swoop low over the water like an aerobatics display team, doing everything but emitting coloured smoke.

No sign of sand martins nesting by the castle this year yet. They didn't sem to nest there last year either. But on the trader barge section of bank, at the backs of the Farndon Road homs, I had a beautiful view of a goldfinch sat in a tree, red face, russet breast, golden wings, as it emitted some bubbling chirps.

All in all, a highly enjoyable if very tiring run.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Goldcrest in the Undergrowth

Today's run took me round the "Tour of the Two Lakes" route, and then along Clay Lane (where as I often do, I caught a brief flash of a Bullfinch white rump flying away from me, can't blame it!) and across through the Beacon Hill Reserve.

The birds are busy today. Great tits, blue tits, and chaffinches are about in large numbers, and lower down there are wrens, robins and dunnocks. There are nests to be built, strength to build up after winter, and female birds to court. The annual squabble fest under my eaves has begun, as the house sparrows have begun to nest in what to them must seem like luxury penthouses.

The most interesting spot I came across today was in the bushes low down along the cycle path next to London Road lake. A very small little olive green bird flitting about, possibly actually a pair of them. I was never in a position to spot the giveaway mohican stripe, but I'm pretty sure they were goldcrests.

The goldcrest is our smallest bird, tinier even than the wren, a dumpy little feathery ping pong ball with a golden stripe on its head that gives it its name, otherwise they are a rather subtle little bird. They are common all year round, but little seen due to their size and discretion I guess! I've only ever seen them before in my folk's silver birch tree, picking off tiny insects from the around the leaf buds.

Keep an eye out, they will come to feeders. The stripe on the head is the giveaway!

Monday 15 April 2013

On the Southern Breeze, the Swallows have Arrived

I tweeted today that I was going to go out and look for swallows, and so I did.

My legs were a bit sore, and the afternoon was getting on, so I took to my bicycle and rode out the Hawton Farndon route. A kestrel rode the breeze expertly below me as I went over the bypass flyover, chestnut back and wings curved to motionless perfection.

It was as I came down the other side of the flyover that I saw them, a couple of swallows heading towards me out of Farndon village. From my bicycle I actually gave another cheer, like the one I did for the first brimstone the other day. Their flight, low, rapid, slightly undulating, is unmistakeable; the bird spending most of the time like a sleek aerial torpedo, in between wing beats.

I'm surprised the air doesn't screech as they fly through it.

Along the river, I saw no butterflies or any early dragonflies, but the black swan was still with his mute chums on the farmers land this time.

And then, I saw more swallows above the private stetch of river bank, where I also stopped to watch some small birds flitting in the trees that I wondered might be willow warblers.

To finish the day off, as I left my flat later on, I noticed a bird I initially took to be a pigeon, until I saw the raptor beak and thinner body.  Judging by the grey colour, and streaked pale underside, my guess was sparrrowhawk, but whatever it was, it wasn't something I'm used to seeing in my garden.

Sunday 14 April 2013

First trip of the Year 2013 to RSPB Langford Lowfields

The warmest day for 8 months, I'm told, and I wasn't going to waste it. Just after 9, and I was out of the flat, and as it turned out, into the strongest wind I've experienced all year. Luckily on the way to RSPB Langford Lowfields, it was more or less behind me all the way, and once I was out of town and into Winthorpe village, I was able to enjoy the sight chaffinches in the hedgerows, and the sound of chiff chaffs in virtually every tree between Winthorpe and Langford.

As I turned back onto the Sustrans 64, a buzzard was struggling to get aloft in the breeze as a Lapwing watched from the ploughed field.

The hedgerows were busy with chaffinches and particularly yellowhammers, the males looking dazzling when the sun caught their sunshine yellow heads. As I turned onto the new path - thanks for sorting the bridge out, but the gate is far too small to get a bicycle through easily! - two or three chiff chaffs were singing in the woods.

The weather has clearly damaged the reserve somewhat, and it is a little bare too with the cut back for the new path, but from the phase 1 hide there was plenty to see once I had decided to be patient.

Lots of tufted duck, the usual coots, only a solitary pair of mallard, and also a single wigeon, orange and yellow head easy to spot against the choppy water. On one of the spits, it looked like cormorants may have been nesting, near to where it looked like an oystercatcher was parked - difficult to tell -  and on the far side, an egret was patrolling in the long grass

Various black headed and herring gulls loafed about on the little islands, and a pair of canada geese honked mournfully as the fearsome wind tried to blow my eyeballs through the back of my skull.

The most interesting things I spotted were a pair of lapwing engaged in some sort of disaply flight, spiralling up on their ragged swept back wings, before dropping back to water level. On the far side of the water, I suddenly saw a pair of plain brown deer - apparently roe deer according to the Langford people. By now, my eyes and head couldn't take the wind any more, so I headed back along the path. And then my attention was taking by a couple of large birds in silhouette, beating the air slowly on large wings, before settling behind some trees between the second and third lakes. They appeared to be buzzard sized, but a different shape - wings seemed huge.

Could have been anything, I didn't get a good enough look. I had to content myself with watching a tree sparrow in a small tree, appropriately enough.

I then set off for Newark Air Museum, to take pictures of vulcans and MIGs! At least they stay still.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Spring has really sprung today

As I ran along past London Road lake and Clay Lane on a beautiful morning, there are plenty of brimstone, peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies flitting about, and on the lake there were a mummy mallard and her 5 ducklings, and they weren't hatchlings either, they were a good few days old.

A plump female pheasant was flushed by my oh so delicate footsteps, and I believe I even saw a Hirundid of some description rocketing away from the castleside river bank. I never got a close look but the way it flew made me think of some kind of martin. I know sand martins nest along that stretch of bank, so it was perhaps one of them.

And yet there are throwbacks to the cold months still around. Yesterday there were 30 redwing out on the road near the cotham flash, and today a small flock of redwing kept flying from me as I ran along Clay Lane. Really, you'd think they would have headed back to Scandinavia by now. I suspect when the weather warms and the wind changes into a more southerly one in the next couple of days, they will be off home to breed.

SAdly, the sun has gone for the day, and there is a threat of rain in the air. Tomorrow I hope to get out to Langford Lowfields for the first time this year, and then a first trip to Attenborough in the week. I'm just loving being outside without my hands turning purple and raw!

Flowering moss?

There is a lot of this lush, attractive tiny flowering plant or moss at the base of all the trees along London Road. I have no idea what it is, am trying to look it up so any help appreaciated!

Friday 12 April 2013

Wildflowers and partridge


Some photos I took while out cycling today. The blue flowers I have no idea about, some sort of squill perhaps I found in the cemetery. Yellow are primrose, and the dead chap is an unfortunate red legged partridge, I think

Wednesday 10 April 2013

The sleeping butterfly

I found this fellow round the back of Starbucks, opposite the church. For some reason I think it's a Small Tortoishell looking at the shape of the wing edge. It was very low down, and although the sun was out, this was a north facing wall so I think it would be a day asleep for this butterfly. 

I like the colour of the brickwork in close up in this shot - pink, red, grey and green. I'm no photographer at all, and I'm always pleased to get an decent butterfly picture.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

The Black Swan

I was out running today, Hawton, Farndon then home route. I hadn't seen much of interest, apart from nearly running over a female pheasant, until I found myself on the power station reach of the river, where I spotted one of these fellows.

Picture courtesy JJ Harrison on Wikipedia

An Australian black swan. They are not native to this country  but as with many other species they have escaped from ornamental parks or public farms. There are no reports of them breeding in this country, apparently in 2003-4 there were 43 of them living wild in the UK. The chap I saw was hanging out with a flock of native mute swans, which have decided at last to take to the river instead of eating all the farmr's crops, and my eyes nearly fell out when I saw it. It's not an amazing bird to see, twitching wise, but it's a good spot for a very amateut birdwatcher like me.

Monday 8 April 2013

A Cretan Idyll

I ran this morning, but the icy east wind was back again so living things had sensibly retreated back into their shelters. As I wish I had.

So instead, I will write about the holiday on Crete I had back in about 1983, in the village of Elounda. I remember it perhaps better than anyonf my other childhood holidays because I kind of began to explore independently - albeit with the folks never far away with sister in her McClaren pushchair.

I remember seeing vultures for the first time, soaring on the thermals by the cliffs over looking the new road to Heraklion and my first visit to Knossos that would be so influential on me many years later. On our first night, we walked around the village, and I remember seeing cuttlefish in the harbour, fins sweeping the water in the darkness. I was told dread warnings about the poisonous sea urchins that made your feet swell up to the size of basketballs if you trod on them. The inland villages smelt of all the oregano growing on the hillsides, wildflowers everywhere.

There was a broken fishing boat sat on a stony beach, and I remember sitting on there for many an hour, until a scary looking pipe fish scared me out of my coawardly wits. I took my revenge on the fish by catching and eating them. Me and two other kids fished for hours, from 7am some days, on this little stone peer by a tiny sandy beach the size of a front lawn that was full of burrowing stinging bees that naturally I trod on and screamed like a girl. I had a rod, they had traditional Cretan handlines, and we fished with bread for these grey mullet that filled the clear seas. In fact, as soon as they sensed the bread, they would go mad like piranas. We caught plenty, the biggest no more than 8 inches, and gutted and fried they tasted great with lime dressing.

The local experts caught much bigger ones fishing with a whole loaf wrapped in tiny hooks. The biggest were well over 18 inches long. When fishing was poor, to avoid bordem, we would deliberately catch the greedy fat ugly blenny slash goby things that sat on the sea bad and swallowed the hooks.

I also caught a few small sea bream - there were Gilt Head swimming about in a foot of water you'd pay a tenner for at fishmongers at least. And what I remember as being clown fish but probably weren't, they had the right colour though. And there black and white striped fish I always called zebra fish, that weren't zebra fish either.

All the while, I strove to avoid the terrifying local hornets. Black, with yellow stings and red eyes, to a child they were straight out of hell. The locals caught them in half full 7 Up bottles to stop them scaring customers away from their little shops and kiosks selling the "Ion" 20 drachma chocolate that melted the second you bought it...

My favourite holiday, in a lot of ways. And when we went back, a few years later while staying in Aghios Nikolaus, the water was murky with the oil of affluent greek yachts, and all the fish had gone. I was so sad...

Sunday 7 April 2013

More Butterflies in the Air

A comma by Elm Avenue Sports ground, apparently celebrating as an overweight bunch of pub footballers in green slotted a goal, and then a small tortoiseshell seemingly chasing down a brimstone on the cycle path, like a lepidopteral red baron chasing down a hapless victim.

It's another lovely day out there.

Lots of birds are gathering nesting materials, a pair of cute house sparrows in the bush outside my window; a pair of blue tits in a tree round balderton lake, and a moorhen on the same lake seemingly with a nest already constructed.

Life is in the air. My raw thousand cuts hands are starting to heal as the weather warms up. Things are looking up.

Saturday 6 April 2013

And now the Brimstones are Up!

Thank god, the weather is now such I can go outside without contracting snow blindness and frostbite...

Today's weather was the best of the year so far, a glorious spring day with plenty of birdlife - blue tits and great tits in the trees, dunnocks typically scuttering about knee high in the hedgerows, wrens by your ankles and a buzzard soaring above Beacon Hill reserve.

However, the sighting that put the biggest smile on my face was when I was running along the cycling path next to London Road lake, which has been busy with Tufted Ducks the last couple of days. As I ran along, a bright yellow fluttering went past me in the opposite direction. I span around like a maniac, like I was about to dance upon the roof of a car like the kids in Fame in fact, pointed at it, and gave a whoop.

It was the first brimstone butterfly of the spring. A true sign indeed that spring is finally arriving, it made the day all the more beautiful.

Picture from ButterflyPreservation.org

Thursday 4 April 2013

The Beehive in the Sky

Once again, got a chance to have a quick dabble outside with my binoculars again. Yesterday I told you how the cold was making my hands raw, well, after last night and despite the gloves, they are withstanding the carpal equivalent of a death of a thousand cuts.

Got a look at Messier 35 in Gemini, the Perseus Double Cluster, the Mirfak Cluster, and a look at Kemble's Cascade *again* - as well as NGC1502 (I think) associated visually with the Cascade.

I then headed off into Cancer, where the famous Messier 44 Beehive cluster was my target. From my backyard it is just visible as a fuzzy patch surrounding its brightest star, to the east of Caster and Pollux. But in the 10x50s even from my frankly rubbish sky conditions, it is a fine sight, like a mini Pleiades. It is relatively close to us at 500-600 light years - hence the ease of resolving it, and also relatively old by open cluster standards, thus containg older, redder stars than the infant Pleiades with its hot blue stars still cloaked in nebulosity.

This is M44, from Astropix.com

I had other targets, like Messier 67 also in Cancer by the head of Hydra, and a look for Messier 53 globular cluster in Coma, but the sky was suddenly bright streetlight orange with clouds. Pah!

Playtimee over, I had to head for bed.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

The Queen's Hair, the Lion and the Hunting Dog

Hooray, at last I managed to get a chance to  get outside and do a little starwatching, even if it was so cold my hands today hate the guts out of me.

*looks mournfully at raw, bloodied hands*

So, first up I pointed my binoculars at Leo the Lion, ever over-optimistically wondering if I will see the Leo triplet of galaxies, which I struggled to do with my 6inch reflector let alone 10x50s. The starfields underneath the lion's body, on the borders with Hydra and Sextans, are an interestising little sweep, and the lion is always a delight, even if I always see him with his head on the East, and his tail with Regulus at the base playfully twitching up higher into the sky. This is the reverse from the more normal, noble, depiction most folk use.

In Canes Venatici I was able to see Messier 3 easily, La Superba hmmmmm, less so. I am definitely looking at it at some point, it's an easy target, but am I seeing anything like a glowing coal? No. I see one star that sometimes looks almost violet, but I'm sure my eyes are playing tricks.

And then beautiful Coma Berenices, a blown up star cluster, a super Hyades, stuffed with galaxies I can't see. It really is an attracive sight, and I wonder, just wonder, if I was dimly picking up the globular Messier 53. I will try and confirm on another clear night.

And here is Coma Berenices, from a french website. Glorious.

It was only a quick look out, but as ever, worth it, despite the cold.