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