Friday 31 May 2013

Velo Vignettes

What have I encountered today, a small set of small encounters with small things I've seen while on my rickety bicycle, helmet on and trousers tucked into my socks in lieu of bicycle clips.

First up, 7am this morning, my best ever view of a pretty little linnet on a chain link fence at work. At work, judging by the bubbly tweets I could hear, a pied wagtail was trapped in the building somewhere, but I never got to exercise my (not) celebrated bird rescuing skills.

Fast forward twelve hours. Only misery and suffering and endless Top Gear repetition happens at work. I've just returned from a lovely evening's cycle ride to Coddington, greenfinches on telephone wires, yellowhammers in the hedgerows. All the "Give Way" signs were lit up by a golden sunset.

A Vulcan bomber, or rather THE, Vulcan Bomber, flew overhead on a test flight in washed out evening sky. And as I went along the Sustrans 64 a water vole somehow ran between my bicycle wheels without getting squished.

And I was going at a pretty good clip as well.

Monday 27 May 2013

I'm not too Poor for Oysters

Went out running on a lovely sunny afternoon, if a little breezy. I was going to take the Coddington route and then in a slightly comedic "errr...ummm" locomotory moment in the middle of the street, changed direction, deciding to take the Hawton-Farndon route instead.

I was in quest of dragonflies and damselflies. They've been reported at Langford Lowfields, and I figured I might see some common blue damselfly or banded demoiselles on the Farndon stretch of the river.

I didn't. Not a single damsel or dragon to be had. But, it was still a pleasant day, with the wood anemones in Willow Holt, and the swallows and sand martins skimming the water's surface. Peacock, small and large whites, and orange tips butterflies were on view, and a lot of those small white cottony day flying moths too.

What I did see that was a first for this stretch of river for me, was on the power station wall on the far side of the river. I noticed a red flash coming into land, and waited for the bird to reveal itself. I saw black and white, and thought, "ok, lapwing, nothing to see here" but as I looked closer, I could just see the characteristic long red beak of an oystercatcher as the bird strode along the wall.

A nice sighting for me! Something to reflect on, as I ran through gorgeous fields of buttercups as I headed back into town...

Saturday 25 May 2013

I just love being outside!!!

A day like this, with sky the colour of Aphrodite's eyes and birdsong in the air, is not a day to be sitting inside. And I had no intention of doing so, days like this are too precious to waste.

So I got the radio on, and headed through a cemetery alive with bluebells, and forget me nots, and a few wood anemone too. My new running shoes felt good, my lungs felt clear, and every dog I ran past had a smile on its face for a change, rather than snapping at my ankles.

I ran for 70 minutes around a cricket match, much to the amusement of the players, and noted the house martins flying over deep sqaure leg, and the pied wagtail fielding at long on. The pavilion has a tit of some kind nesting in a hole in the wooden wall, and white butterflies flitted about.

Eventually I headed down the cycle path, past robins, dunnocks, long tailed tits and even the rare sight of a greenfinch. On Clay Lane park, instead of a buzzard, a remote control glider was soaring way above.

On the river, folk were enjoying the beer festival, and I was enjoying the prospect of getting home after a two hour plus run. But I wasn't done with the day yet, an hour later I was cycling out to Cotham Flash Paddocks, where the yellow wagtails were gone, but there were a lot of noisy lapwings with their bizaree swannee whistle calls. And a brown hare nibbling a farmer's crops.

I loved it, just loved it.

Friday 24 May 2013

Goslings and Grebelings

A little report on today's run, which was done in an absolutely howling gale. Me being me, I figured conditions would be good when the rain stopped, even though running into the wind resulted in a kind of Marcel Marceau mime act of running powerfully, without actually going anywhere, as branches and leaves whipped past my face.

Around Balderton lake, what looked like swallows and house martins were ignoring the conditions, and swooping down low over the lake surface for insects. And then further round, I came across a group of canada geese, without about 12 goslings in tow. Canada goslings are rather cuter and less excremental than their honking parents, a sort of custard yellow and downey grey chick the size of a small cat. Their days of annoyance are ahead of them.

Out on the water, not watching the diving hirundines, was an adult great crested grebe with chick in tow. They've also made an appearance on London Road lake too in the last few days, emerging from nests in the reeds onto the lake proper. In the ditch by London Road lake, I can no longer see the three-spined sticklebacks in their "red doctor" breeding colours, and no roe deer on Beacon Hill reserve today.

But in my own garden, a pair of great tits are clambering on the walls, gathering spider webs for nesting material, and a robin sat on my gate and sang at me, opening its little beak like an avian opera singer.

Monday 20 May 2013

Wildlife Vignettes from a hundred yards of cycling

A pretty pied wagtail flicking his tail in a car park.

A menacing shape in the air, a black backed gull of some kind (most likely lesser), with wings like an airbus and an evil face, circling the air over a works road, presumably eyeing up a tasty snack treat in the forrm of...

...a dead rabbit lying on the cycle path, tail mutilated, frankly looking rather torn off (nature red in tooth etc etc...), perhaps the victim of a traffic accident, or perhaps the victim of...

...a buzzard, trying to get airborne while under dive bombing attacks from several crows, hoping perhaps to get its talons into that rabbit, or perhaps... of the several rabbits on the waste ground that appeared to be trying to chase off a group of woodpigeons.

20 seconds. One hundred yards.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Deer on Beacon Hill Conservation Park

Today's run was a very gentle trot past the cricket ground, along the cycle path and London Road Lake - where two great crested grebe chicks have emerged from the reeds - and along Clay Lane where there are orange tip butterflies, and a speckled wood settled on my finger for a brief instant.

But on Beacon Hill reserve, where a late brimstone was flying through the nursery, an unusual sight was to be had. As I ran along past the rabbits towards the lower entrance from the main Beacon Hill Road, I saw a dark shape which I initially thought must have been a fox. As I got nearer, I was shocked to see that it was a deer, female I think, of a chocolate brown colour with a flashing white tail.

I've seen roe deer in RSPB Langford, and I figured this was probably what it was, but I've never seen any mention of deer living on Beacon Hill reserve. I've let the wildlife trust folk know.

It's hardly an earth shattering discovery, but, I'm pleased to have made it.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Chi Cygni by Cider Light

Conditions were really nippy and clear last night, so armed with a fortifying drink, I took myself outside with the 10x50s to take advantage of the clear skies.

Got all the usual suspects I've been observing lately - the easy globulars Messier 3, 5, 13, and 92 and had a failed attempt to confirm Messier 56 in Lyra. Ditto the elusive Ophicuchus globulars, which I intend to make a study of locating. Messier 51 I seem to be able to pick out, but Messier 81, Bode's galaxy, is a real eye tease for me. Thought I saw it clearly last week, last night, my eyes were playing wild tricks on me and I was seeing it in three different places.

After taking in the milky way and the open clusters in Cygnus and Lacerta, and again straining my eyes out of my head to see Messier 71 in Sagitta, I took in a lovely red star in Cygnus, not far from Albireo. This was Chi Cygni, a long period variable that varies from 4th mag to 14th in the space of 14 months or so, and has a diameter over 300 times greater than that of the sun! It's 600 light years away, so no matter how dim it might appear to our eyes, at peak it is still over 7000 times more lumininous than the sun.

I love red stars, as any readers of the astro entries of this blog will know, and Chi Cygni is not far off the hot coal glory of the Garnet Star. Soon it will drop back out of binocular visibility, let alone naked eye, to the point when you'll need a 12 inch reflector to see it. That's quite a swing!

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Swiftly Come the Swifts

They arrived last week, the familiar sickles high in the sky, the most fleeting of summer visitors. I await their appearance more than just about any other bird, and always feel saddened when they head south in August.

The swifts have arrived.

The swift first appears above the townscapes, relying as it does upon urban areas for nest sites. It stays with us for a scant 3-4 months over the summer, the time it spends on the nest being the only time it is ever off the wing. It's feet and legs are feeble, it can barely stand.

But in the air, it has no master.

(picture Nigel Blake from RSPB website)

It can fly at up to 70mph, but it doesn't keep its aerial prowess for high altitudes. Usually in the evenings as I cycle home from work, they will suddenly drop down from the heights like Y-Wings entering a Death Star trench, and hurtle along the streets emitting a screeching cry. Their wings hardly seem to flap, they just lightly brush the air with the tips as the birds hunt the insects they and their young rely on. As I cycle along, I watch them use their long wings to execute impossibly tight turns before flying over me again, taunting the earthbound commuter with their effortless skills.

They have started nesting under the eaves along Balderton Gate, somehow flying straight into the nest holes at speed without cracking their little skulls. But even avoiding this splattery fate, their numbers are in decline, possibly due to demolition of urban nest sites. 

To me, they are an iconic vision of summer, and hopefully developers will incorporate swift boxes in their new builds. It would be sad to lie back in my garden, and not see them playing in the sky way above me, flying seemingly for the joy of it.

(Photo Graham Catley RSPB website)

Friday 10 May 2013

A Trio of Cormorants

Managed to get todays run in just before the heavens opened. It was the tour of the two lakes, Clay Lane route.

Mainly small and large white, and orange tip butterflies were out on my route today, but on clay lane was a peacock and also what I initially thought was a speckled wood, but on closer inspection looked much too orange-yellow and possibly was a wall brown.

More orange tips were about on Beacon Hill reserve, but today's visual treats were reserved for the river. As I ran along the Waitrose stretch, I noticed a cormorant lumbering up over the bridge. As I got further round past the castle, I realised there were three of them, flying like the Leathermen flying machines in Barbarella, all of whom landed in close formation and began to fish in quantities fit to annoy the island fishermen even more.

And then, on the river wall in front of the castle, I had a sweet little encounter with a willie wagtail, which let me get to about 2 metres before it flew off. It watched me, fearless, little beak and black and white apron clearly visible.

All the while, the grey-black clouds were closing in, and I was glad to get home just as the first blats of rain struck my windows.

The Egret at Farndon

I went running out to Farndon and back along the river yesterday, just the boring old A46 route, largely because I wanted to have a look to see if any decent second hand bikes were available at the house that hand bikes.

I wasn't feeling great, very chesty and bunged up of sinus, and a howling damn gale straight in my face wasn't helping either. But as I headed along the river before it turns right onto the power station reach - I love using the word "reach" by the way - I noticed a white form slowly beating its wings as it flew above the water up towards the boathouse. A pure white egret was making the first appearance in Farndon that I can remember, and it certainly was a beautiful sight as it turned goosian and duckian heads (and beaks) below it.

How the more ordinary inhabitants of the river, the Canada Geese and Mallards, must envy this most attractive of birds, the whitest living thing in the universe, every time one makes its way past. Even the black swan, which for a couple of months has had the field to itself in the "most attractive bird along the river" contest, had disappeared to avoid being overshadowed.

Also displaying well were a large number of sand martins, skimming the water as they fed. The high banks along the power station must make a good, and unmolested, site for nesting. Further round the river swallows were also busy above the water, another pretty sight. But I was saddened to find on returning home that my well meaning neighbour has mowed my little lawn for me, and taken out all the forget-me-nots and bluebells and my new campion.

My forget-me-nots always cheered me up as I opened my front door!

Thursday 9 May 2013

My busiest night of observing

The sky had cleared after a freshening cold front had passed over, and although typically I missed the fireball that lit up at the night at 945pm, I saw plenty with my 10x50s.

Coma Berenices as ever looked beautiful - and I tried to find Messier 53 but couldn't quite confirm it. There's a lot of teasing faint blurs in the area, I need to carry out some greater study. Messier 3 was easily visible, as was La Superba, which looked distinctly pink last night. Messier 51 was just about visible, ditto Messier 81, again these objects tend to tease right at the bounds of my eyes capability.

Over in Cygnus, Messier 29 and Messier 39 are much easier objects, and I was able to keep going North and find NGC7243, one of the Lacerta open clusters. Messier 13, Messier 5 and Messier 92 were all visible easy-peasey as pie. Messier 56 searches are hampered by the fact that I'm always looking in the wrong place.

Indeed in Cygnus, Lyra and Hercules there are all sorts of little knots of stars, and faint open clusters than I know no designation for. It is senseless to try and catagorise everything, I just enjoy the view. It is after all why I am outside.

Messier 52 in Cassiopeia seems to be an object I'll never get my eyes on, but I had a great view of Mu Cephei, the massive Garnet Star, a firey ruby in space.

And finally I observed Ophiuchus, and enjoyed as ever the sight of IC4665, and  picked up NGC6633 as well, in a sort of quadrilateral of stars on the border of Serpens Caput.

But the Ophiuchus globular clusters might as well consist of black stars, for all I will ever see them!

Wednesday 8 May 2013

My First Iridium Flare

Night before last, as I was undertaking a quick survey of the night sky before heading for a gloomy, work enforced bedtime, I had my first confirmed sighting of an Iridium Flare. It lasted about 20 seconds or so, and about 15 degrees of sky, as it passed through the constellation of Leo heading northwards.

It was spectacularly bright, much brighter than the International Space Station, and to me, slightly brighter than Venus, although  quick research reveals they can get as bright as mag -9. The Iridium series are communications satellites in low polar orbits, and they look like this;

(Picture from ideonexus on flickr)

The door sized antennae seen here are highly reflective, and when the satellite and the sun are in the right position, the sun is reflected down onto the earth below so observers can see it for a short time. Even occasionally in daylight if you know where to look. As well as being brighter and much shorter lasting than the passes of the International Space Station, the Iridiums travel North-South in the sky, rather than the West-East passages of the ISS.

So if you are out one night, and see a really bright, dazzlingly bright even,  star moving slowly North for a few seconds, then that's what it is. There are many Iridium satellites, apparently the one I saw was Iridium 29, and you can actually look up online to see when you might observe a flare. Believe me, it's a great sight.

Saturday 4 May 2013

First bluebells of the year

Raptor Vignettes

I've been back at work today, first day on shift, with all the general unhappiness that entails. But as long as you always keep your eyes open, there's always something to give you a lift.

I haven't rescued any baby birds yet this year, but, sitting in the canteen this morning, I noticed a mad flap of wings over the field next to the showground runway. I took a closer look, and saw a buzzard struggling to gain height to soar, before if was all but wrestled to the ground by a mobbing pair of crows.

Chastened it flew off into a tree and licked its wounds.

Later, as I cycled home having survived the day, I noticed a fast moving bird on my left along the main road. It jinked in and out of houses and trees, with my initial thoughts of it being a pigeon dispelled as it shot across the road right in front of my nose, and I caught a glimpse of a grey back and grey barred underside.

It hurtled up someone's driveway no more than four feet off the ground, and was lost to sight behind me as I cycled on. A sparrowhawk I would have thought, lurking around the urban gardens looking for unsuspecting songbirds or their newly hatched youngsters.

There seems to be a lot of raptors in the area at the moment, and I'm very glad these two appeared to make my day go just a little bit better!

Thursday 2 May 2013

Busy busy day, and so much to see

Warm day! Wanted to be out and stay out, so I did.

First up, 3pm, ran 8 miles, my Coddington, Beacon Hill reserve route. Lapwings are in the field next to the hill, and a small white fluttered alongside me for a good hundred metres, in and out of the hedge. Hawthorn in bloom everywhere, and a pair of Buzzards were soaring over the hillside leading up to the back of Beacon Hill estate, spiralling on the warm weather thermals.

As I entered Beacon Hill reserve, a large white went past me going the other way, and then as I dropped down through the belt of trees, into the nursery, butterflies were everywhere. In a minute, without me having to move, I saw small white, speckled wood, brimstone, peacock, orange tip and finally a close up view of a slightly second hand looking comma as it settled on a plant. And tthen a falcon soared over the trees...

Home. Drink of coke. Walk for 3 miles, took that nice shot of the bee on the flowers. Enjoyed the sun and life.

Home. Drink of coke. Bicycle to Cotham Flash, where there was only a solitary yellow wagtail in the field next to the paddock, but the whole place was alive with lapwing, on the ground and in the air. I had super view of these handsome, crested irridescent green plovers with their broad raggedy wings as I rested my 10x50s on the gate. And the noise! One particular individual was piping like a mad thing continuously as it flew over the wetlands. A buzzard took off over the road.

It was a lovely evening.

Busy bee pollinating

The blank in space that is Ophiuchus

Last night I tried to re-confirm some of my previous observations, driving my eyes crazy looking for La Superba, Messier 51 and Messier 81 all of which seem to be right on the lowest fringe of binocular visibility from my garden. It was another lovely night to be out, although sky clarity seemed to be a little below the previous two nights excellent quality.

By about 1am, I noticed that the constellation of Ophiuchus was rising over the rooftops, and went and stood beneath a tree to block out a particularly annoying streetlight, and had a study of this large constellation. It represents the "father of medicine" Aesclapius IIRC,  commonly portrayed as holding the celestial serpent Serpens Cauda (the head) and Caput (the tail) about his shoulders. It is technically the 13th constellation of the zodiac, as part of it lies between Scorpius and Sagittarius, and the sun passes through every mid december.

It contains one of my favourite open clusters, the compact and prominent IC4665 in the north-east of the constellation near Beta and Gamma. It is such an attractive binocular object it always amazes me it is not in the Messier Catalogue, let alone the NGC. I observed it well last night, although it is not yet high enough to be clear of the haze and streelights.

Ophicuchus contains many Messier objects, chiefly a large number of globular clusters. As I have done many times before, I scanned the area looking for them, and saw nothing. Total zero! Ophicuchus may be very rich in globular clusters, but unfortunately it is totally lacking in a guide stars to help you find them; indeed when you sweep around the constellation, which always reminds me of a blown up Gemini in shape, there's barely a star within the outline to be seen.

It's as if someone has very carefully cut out the centre of the constellation with space scissors, and left a hole to the edge of the universe, giving me massive thoughts to contemplate as I sipped on my cider, and took pleasure in the night.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Lots of butterflies, lots of confusion

Today's run took me around Balderton Lake, along the cycle path past London Road Lake, then along the whole length of Clay Lane before heading across to run through Beacon Hill nature reserve.

It was a glorious morning and although I didn't spot any swifts as I was hoping, it was a day for butterflies. I was hoping some new species might make an appearance today, and I was right.

Clay Lane was where the butterfly action was originally at, and my hope of seeing a speckled wood was quickly realised as I saw a solitary specimen resting low down on the plants beneath the blossoming hawthorns. Also around were what I think must have been male small whites - these are very similar to female orange tips, but I go with the small white as I'm not used to seeing orange tips along Clay Lane.

As I ran further along, a brimstone erupted out of the undergrowth, and flapped along in front of me almost bouncing off my chest as I strode awkardly along the uneven path giving me once again a superb view of these large bright yellow markers of spring. I had figured the first brimstone flight would be over by now, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this specimen. It teased me by settling on a leaf stem to give me a photo opp which it quickly spolied by flying away as I readied my mobile phone.

There's still plenty of first flight peacocks about, and then as I ran along the copse edge path in Beacon Hill reserve, I was pleased to see my first orange tip of the season. I am a little worried about how well this species is doing, they are normally far more plentiful than this by now, and the sighting of a second invidual in the nursery didn't do much to change this. Last year they were everywhere.

And finally, near my home, a small blue butterfly was on flight. Only it wasn't a small blue, I thought it must be a common blue. But further research indicates to me that common blues aren't up yet, and it was perhaps more likely a holly blue which also seem to be a more garden / urban species than the common blue.

The trouble with butterflies is that they never kindly sit on my finger for five minutes, wings outstretched, to give me a chance to work out what kind of blue or white I am looking at!

Nasty lager, good astronomy

Skies were excellent again last night, so I set about trying to confirm the sightings I made the night before.

Largely, this is what I did. Messier 51 seemed to be in the place where I left it, and Messier 81 was spotted too. However, I got my globular clusters mixed up; what I believed to be Messier 92 in Hercules, I think must actually have been Messier 58 in Lyra. However I did scoot across and find Messier 92 halfway between Hercules' mighty legs, a similar sort of appearance to Messier 3.

La Superba is tricker, largely because it's colour seems top be nearer to pink than red, and it is at a magnitude that at my urban site, is borderline for showing colour in my 10x50s. I'm pretty sure I identified it, but simply, my observation technique, shaky hands and eyestrain make it difficult!

I tried to be super optimistic, and have a look for Messier 97, the famous "Owl Nebula" beneath the pan of Ursa Major. Fat chance from my location I suspect. The nearest thing to an owl I saw was a spooked blackbird that suddenly erupted from a tree and made some scolding chacks at me in the darkness, as I supped on a bottle of rather unpleasant cheap Czech lager that made my tongue feel odd.

Birds are an eerie sight by night. Give me my stars any day!