Friday 28 November 2014

Running Around The Two Lakes

Today, suffused in mizzle under a uniformly grey sky, I did 11km around the lakes, nature reserves and parks.

I was in quest of winter ducks and winter thrushes, but saw neither. But on a muddy clay lane, there were flocks of chaffinches, tail bars flashing white against the trees, and a Goldcrest's tiny body flitted into a bush. This made the run worthwhile.

Balderton Lake canada geese squadron

Some angry geese in this shot

London Road lake waterfowl

Two swans a piping

1 swan a leaping

Proper running conditions, back of Beacon Heights on the hill

Lake at Beacon Hill development getting bigger

Thursday 27 November 2014

Running Adventure to Cotham

The run out to Cotham village involves the long 7 km slog along the Sustrans route 64. As you can see from the picture, it was a grey and green and slightly damp trudge, enlivened by the gulls at the tip - the wind was blowing the odour away from me thankfully, and the scaredy cat antics of the fieldfares in the hedgerows.

I came across two flocks, and both of them started flying off when I got to about 50 metres or perhaps more. It is funny how the sturdy redwing is rather more flappable than the slender redwing, which seems much happier for you to get a look at them.

After the turn on the road back to town, I investigated Cotham church, a very simple affair attended by a couple of donkeys - nativity service duties for you lads! - whose stable seemed rather flasher than the church. It had a clock, for a start.

Further along, gulls had rendered the surface of the fishing lake white, so numerous were they, and I had a splendid view of a kestrel. Its speckley reddish back always reminds me of a strawberry for a some reason.

The 14.7 km run was finished off with tea at Rumbles, as the sun made a sort of after thought appearannce and folk threw tennis balls for wet dogs to hurtle after.

The 64 slog

Gull tip

Posh stable

Spotted at distance

Sad eyes... my phone doesn't dispense sugar lumps

Cotham church

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Evenings with Orion the Hunter

Once again I am at work, and even now my fingers still feel the -4 6am cycle to work this morning. I was wearing two pairs of gloves and thus accidentally changing gear every few metres, but it still isn't preventing the familiar freezing pain from nipping at my fingertips.

Winter thrushes are appearing in numbers on the farmer's field next to the showground; impossible to confirm at this distance but they would appear to have very pale breasts and thus most likely be fieldfares. Above them gulls squabble, and occasionally a kestrel makes its way to find a favoured hunting spot around the margins, looking for any mouse not frozen into the semblance of concrete.

At least there are benefits to these freezing nights. Like two nights ago, the clearest, darkest night I have seen for a long while. The stars were glittering diamonds on their velvet display case; the Milky Way was overhead in Cassiopeia, flowing like Cleopatra's bathwater. Straddling the southern aspect, most prominent of all winter constellations, was the mighty hunter himself, Orion.

Orion from wikimedia, uploaded by Mouser

From my garden as midnight approaches, he appears to have suddenly leapt out from behind a tree in order to shoot a terrible creature of myth, or perhaps even me. To his upper right his bow is raised, and if that isn't enough, he is wielding a club with his other hand.

Confusing overkill? Some representations have the bow as a shield, but I can't stop my brain convincing me it's a bow. After all, who hunts with a club?

However he hunts, it has certainly been successful, because in clear skies you can see the body of Lepus, the celestial hare, at his feet. The hare was present the other night, and to see it from my urban garden is all but miraculous, thus illustrating how clear the sky was.

I didn't use my binoculars; when you do, the starfields are magnificent, probably the finest you will see from the UK. There are stars everywhere, and not the faint ones associated with Cygnus and the Milky Way within; these are genuine jewels of the sky. The great nebula sits ghostlike, illuminated by the light of the searing hot iota orionis "trapezium" and the new stars forming within.

It is a beautiful view.

However, even without the binoculars there is still plenty to see and think about. The hot coal of Betelgeuse glows firey at the top left, big as 20 suns, monstrously unstable and thus variable in brightness. It is reckoned to be candidate for going supernova within a few million years, and it will be as bright as the full moon when it does.

At the opposite corner sits Rigel, a hot, blue white star that is a single to our eyes, but is actually a triple star system adding up to a whole 120,000 times more luminous than the sun. There is, of course, the nebula, still plain to the naked eye - and then the belt, the central star of which, Alnilam, is a blue-white supergiant also doomed for a supernovic ending.

It is 350,000 times more luminous than the sun, and all in all is the intrinsically brightest star you can see easily in the night sky.

After Christmas, Futurelearn are running a course on this constellation. So, why not familiarise yourself with it now, as the great hunter bestrides the night sky.

Saturday 22 November 2014

A Spot of Newark Heritage

Was nursing a slight twinge yesterday, so nursed it by walking instead of running...

...I was saving myself for the Parkrun I overslept for this morning.

Still, even on a grey damp day, there's always something to look at.

Market behind the barricades

Autumnal castle

The south corner tower

The Corn Exchange. A beautiful building, home of awful nightclubs

The lock slowly fills

Thursday 20 November 2014

My Winthorpe Lake Adventure

Yesterday, I was out of the house well before midday - ha ha - and on my way on a new running adventure. I've headed this way on a bicycle many times, but not often on foot, and certainly not to this distance.

I was heading for Winthorpe Lake, actually nearer to Holme Village than Winthorpe, and rather more of a cross country slog than heading for, say, Muskham. It was a grey day, with a sky that looked like it ad been mummified, pale grey and lifeless. Meanwhile, the ground was a variety of greens, the lush greens of autumn, but rather muddy once I found myself off the road and onto the bank that marked the Trent Valley Way.  Luckily a pretty flock of goldfinch were on hand to brighten up the surroundings.

I've been to Winthorpe Lake before, in warmer months with sedge warblers at work at some of the reedy margins, but today, it looked very very bleak. Out on the water were a fair number of great crested grebes, some tufted duck and a couple of mallard. A very handsome heron sat on the riverside edge of the lake, outfishing the fellows with their rods and lines.

Around the lake, the famous concrete barge, and the two smaller boars, were marooned on the water's edge as they had been for many years.

I ran back in along the river, all the way to the "other" town lock. This is all fishing country, with rather unfriendly signs on display, and the riverbanks, like those of the lake, denuded of vegetation.

It is lifeless, and depressing.

Concrete barge, Winthorpe Lake

Open water

Grey reflected in grey

Tented fisherman

Under the bridge - the bypass

Under the bridge - the railway

Barges at "the other" lock

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Leonid Meteor Report

After an utter drenching cycling to work at 6am, and light drizzle at 6pm coming home I wasn't hopeful of seeing any clear skies above my head for the 2014 Leonid meteor shower. I more or less forgot about meteors, got on with my oceanography studies, and had a few cups of tea in the warm.

Typical Leonid night for me really. I've never had much luck with this most spectacular - every 33 years or so - of meteor showers. There's always a full moon, or the weather is bad, or the sharp maximum has failed to coincide with UK darkness. The fact that the best viewing for the shower. is found in the early morning hours doesn't help either.

 In fact I've barely ever seen any.

Which is a pity, because this shower is a historic one indeed. Associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 33 or so years, spectacular meteor storms can occur in years when the comet is at perihelion. In 1833, meteors fell from the sky like rain, and some (possibly exaggerated) estimates put the Leonid count at 100,000 per hour.

A later (1889) depiction of the 1833 storm, in a 7th Day Adventist book.
Similar storms occurred in 1866 and 1966, although famously in 1966 huge numbers of meteors were seen in the USA, while after a huge build up from Patrick Moore, very few were seen in the UK, indicating the short but intense nature of the Leonid maximum.

Hopes were high for the years around the 1999 Tempel-Tuttle perihelion, and indeed around 1000 meteors an hour were seen in these years, although not by me as the weather was rotten every single damn and dratted year. Since then, with the comet now gone, rates have dwindled.

However, as I had the pleasant surprise of going outside at midnight and finding the sky crystal clear, I was still hopeful of seeing a few meteors. As it happened I saw exactly one Leonid, a faint specimen racing through the constellation of Auriga. A non-Leonid sporadic, rather brighter too, appeared through Ursa Major.

So my 30 minute or so watch went mostly unrewarded in meteor terms, but it was hardly wasted. The sky was beautifully clear, and I could even see one of the Auriga open clusters with my naked eye, which I've never done before. Perseus' sword handle was also plain, and the milky way ghosted across the zenith in Cassiopeia.

So you see, time under a clear sky is always valuable. Even if you can't find find what you might have been looking for, there's always something to see.

Saturday 15 November 2014

The Lullaby of Philae

"My has just begun . I'll tell you more about my new home, comet soon… zzzzz "

So read the last tweet from the Philae lander, sat in its awkward little shady spot on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Unable to recharge its solar powered batteries, the power threshold was breached and the probe fell silent. Just minutes before, the probe was jauntily telling us that it knew time was short, but it would carry out its experiments and send its date back to Earth via its Rosetta mother ship to the very end.

On twitter, thousands of people tweeted their support for the plucky little lander, making it the number one trending topic, before they watched its dignified end with tears in their eyes.

It wasn't actually Philae tweeting; it was a PR worker for the European Space Agency. Philae is a (much quoted) "washing machine" sized instrument package and landing system that landed on Comet 67P last Wednesday. It is not a person.

Artist's impression of Philae coming into land (DSL on Wikimedia)
But no-one treated it like that.

Some people profess to dislike this "anthropomorphising" of non human entities. But in this case the ESA PR guru was doing their job, and brilliantly at that. Philae isn't even alive, yet we have seen it as a courageous, independent little robot engaged in a life or death struggle in a hostile environment far from home. We have created human interest in the inanimate, a huge human interest that will help help to justify to their Governmental backers that their investment was worthwhile, let alone the huge amount of science Philae has carried out in its short lifespan on the surface.

Then there are the scientists, who have put perhaps twelve years of their lives into Rosetta and Philae. They must have got to the point of seeing Philae as being alive too.

Someone on twitter said that Philae wasn't David Bowie's Major Tom. I agree. Philae was the Tin Can, while we were the Major Toms, projecting our hopes, our optimism, our dreams of success and our fears of loneliness and abandonment. We gave it a soul. Philae lifted our eyes away from a world of Ebola and religious wars,and grinding low paid employment into a world where the human race is still capable of wonderful things.

No wonder we wanted it to be alive.

And so many of us were awake towards 1am, watching the little spaceship slip into deep hibernation, and perhaps thinking of Huey, the little robot from Douglas Trumbull's classic ecological sci-fi movie "Silent Running", tending his plants with his little watering can as his space greenhouse drifts off into the forever void.

And perhaps we had a moist eye or two as we tweeted a lullaby to the craft, although, you know, I have a very heavy cold. It was probably that. Or maybe something in my eye. Yes, that was it.

After all, who gets sentimental over a washing machine sized chunk of metal on a lump of ice?

Copyright Creamcrackerednature 15.11.2014

Friday 14 November 2014

Kirkcudbright; Growing up by the Magical Sea

I was brought up for a time in Kircudbright, a confused young boy who's parents had split up, but one who felt safe with all his family, and a beloved pet kitten, around him. Kircudbright was, and is, an affluent scallop port on the Dee Estuary, a salmon river leading in to the Solway Firth. It is most famous for the castle that overlooks the harbour, and also the fact that large chunks of the classic 70s horror film “The Wicker Man” were filmed here.

It is a beautiful place.

The Dee upriver from the Harbour, by Andrya Prescott (wikimedia)
Amongst all this was the young me, always hunting for the feral cats who lived in the harbour buildings, smashing my face open on the dodgems at what we called “The Shows” – you can still see the scar – and dancing about to bagpipe music at the summer “Scottish Nights”, where tourists were assailed by the bagpipes for two hours before the musicians retired to “The Steam Packet” to get wasted with the fishermen.

Kirkcudbright harbour, by Anthony O'Neill (wikimedia)
The main out of town beach was known as “The Doon”, a sandy expanse on the west side of the estuary. There was The Bell rock, you could jump off at high tide, and the wreck you could visit at low tide, and aged about 2, I set off for the wreck.

I was fearless then.

I nearly made it, it is a good hundred metres out. But as you got nearer, the mud becomes as thick and gloopy as can be, and I could no longer walk. Besides, my toe felt something both pointy and wriggly in the foothole, and I got scared.

I turned around, took my stripy swimming costume thing off, very nautical, and walked nonchalantly back to the beach trailing it in the mud. My mother probably though I was dead. As dead as the 19th century barque “The Madras”, whose wreck it was.

The Ross.  A lighthouse bearing island right out in the mouth of the estuary, scene of a murder in the 60s. I went searching for eagles’ nests on the cliffs opposite, and chasing seagulls around. Fearless once again. Rolling painted easter eggs on the castle moat brae, eating them after Speedy, Donald Rudd's mangy dog, had brought them back to me in his mouth. This was bravery without compare.

Ross Island lighthouse, from
Unfortunately, I was rather less brave on the water. I'd be taken out, at gunpoint, on various little 15 foot dinghies, and sit terrified amidst the spiders in the little cabin as the wind howled, and the boat rolled in the swell as we seemingly headed miles out past Ross Island. I think if I ever raised a tremulous voice, I was told to keep quiet. All the kids of the experienced sailors must have thought I was a cissie.

They still would have done, for if ever I found myself out on a boat on any of our subsequent holidays after we moved away, it was still a nautical dentist's drill being used without anaesthetic. I still found it miserable, felt off balance, and felt scared.

It was also usually freezing cold and raining on these pleasant little jaunts.

Luckily, by the time we got a little rib, I was happy enough to scoot up and down the Dee as long as we didn't go into the choppy waters beyond Brighouse Bay. I got some courage points back. But I don't think I'll ever be really comfortable on the water.

I'd rather be by the magical sea, than on it.

Copyright Creamcrackerednature 14.11.14

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Running through a North Muskham Bird Storm

Today was adventure run time, the runs where I go boldly where I've never run before to see things I've never seen before.

Or more usually, to get muddier than I've ever been before, or get loster.

It was a grey and windy early afternoon, and a very smelly one too; the sugar factory was belching out its sulphide stick aided by an Easterly wind, and every farmer's field had been manured to hell and back. It was an unpretty run until I reached the South Muskham turn, and as ever as I went past the fishing lakes I remembered the coloured sails of the boats, rendered unto sterility by the demands of fishing.

The level crossing is an unlovely spot, but it was here that I spotted red arrows practicing aerobatics in the distance, and nearer to hand a huge number of gulls circling farm buildings. I kept going for now, observing as I went over the A1, before losing sight of them in the village of North Muskham itself.

My main quest for the run was North Muskham lake, still with a few plants in flower to liven up the predominant lush greens of the season. Cormorants were overhead, and on the water, the main species in evidence were tufted ducks, with a few pochard thrown in, their handsome red heads and grey bodies easy to pick out.

No red crested pochard today though, unlike my first visit.

I ran back in along the river, past hardy fishermen, and along a path back onto the South Muskham road by the flyover once again. And now the cirle of gulls had become a storm, a tornado. Hundreds of birds were circling overhead, and it wasn't just gulls. Among them were smaller birds lower down, probably feeding off loose grain, numbering perhaps a thousand. I don't know what they were, the formation was like a starling murmuration, but it was too early in the day, and also the birds had a markedly pale underside.

Perhaps pigeons? I have no idea. I was too far away. But the sense of this "storm" was incredible, two circulations of birds, one high and languid, one low and frantic. I'm delighted I managed to get some kind of photographs of the event, that I can share with you.

Overall I ran 15.7km, and my legs are now really rather stiff!

Cars going same way in both directions, note. There had been an accident

Shaggy ink cap bursting through gravel drive

North Muskham Lake

Still a drop of colour around

White campion

Pretty in pink

Distant ducks

Holme across the river

Muskham ferry

Vehicles of interest

Gull storm

Crazy skies


South Muskham church

Sugar factory smell farm

Sunday 9 November 2014

Green Boots and the Ghosts of Everest

Once again I find myself tapped behind glass at work, and find myself having to look upwards and outwards with the eyes behind my eyes; I'm imagining and daydreaming again.

I've been thinking a lot about "Green Boots". Green Boots lives high in a cave, on the North-East Ridge of Mount Everest, and has done so since 1996. He greets every Everest climber heading for the summit by the North-East Ridge direct or North Col routes, recognisable to all at the staggering altitude of 8500 metres. A landmark of legend.

The Northern Aspect of Everest, the North East ridge leading from the left of the summit. Picture from wikimedia commons, credited to Carsten Nebel
"Live" of course is a misleading term. "Green Boots" is thought to be an Indian climber called Tselwang Paljor, who died after summiting the Mountain on an Indian-Tibetan Police Expedition. No-one is totally certain about this, and his body at that altitude is unrecoverable. He lies forever in his little cave, his clothes perfectly preserved, as bright and shiny as the day they were bought.

Including his bright green boots, that give him his name.

Over 200 people have died on the various Everest routes since the 1920s, and most of those bodies will still lie where they died, be it of a fall, avalanche or sheer cold. On some parts of the mountain, the lie of the land and prevailing winds has created small "cemeteries" - George Mallory, the most famous body found on the mountain, apparently lies in one of these. Other well known bodies, like those of Joe Tasker and Mick Burke, have never been found.

I can imagine that their families were devastated at having no remains to bury, but I wonder how the men and women themselves would have felt. Do their spirits roam the cols and snow fields in an endless unrest, or do they take in the unbelievable vistas, and think themselves privileged to have been able to visit such an incredible part of the world, and feel no sadness about remaining a part of it?

I can only envy them, and the people who survived the climb. For they have seen things a landlocked lubber such as myself, riddled with vertigo and prone to agonising pain in his hands in only a moderate Northern breeze, can't even dream of.

All text copyright Cream Crackered Nature 09.11.14 - picture credited.

Friday 7 November 2014

Is Going Green Really a Goer?

I've been studying an Oceanography course with Futurelearn the last couple of weeks, and unsurprisingly lively discussions have come up over certain "Green" elements of the course; use of tidal power to generate green energy, and the effect glacial and polar melting has on ocean currents and thus climate.

General concensus - tidal power better than windfarms but must be lagoon based rather than barriers, and whatever happens with Arctic ice melt, it won't be like "The Day After Tomorrow."

And so, after a roundabout, ocean current like voyage through the recesses of my brain, thoughts on the Green Party's recent failure to get on next year's UK General Election TV debates arrive on this blog.

Now I'm no sort of political analyst whatsoever, but traditionally the Greens always had this sort of super-earnest, organo-bearded perception problem in the eyes of the public at large;

In Green-Land in days of yore, the above would often be found stuck on the back of the below

This carries on into the present day. I suspect the real reason the Greens are not getting in on the election debates, or on television is not to do with their perceived lack of support compared to UKIP - see this link on the "green party surge", but more the case that they just "don't make good television."

In other words, Farage and his ilk are good for getting people watching with all their soundbite friendly, whatever they actually are, policies that enrage or enliven depending on which sort of person you are. People who love UKIP watch them. People who hate UKIP watch them.

Complex, rational policies on subjects like science that don't fit easily into Zoo TV formats do not get an airing. This is where the Greens lose out. Tidal lagoons are less fun than booting out foreigners for a brighter tomorrow.

I have long thought that the UK political scene needs an injection from a secular, science and knowledge based party, with high profile media friendly backers. I thought it would have to be a new party, called "Reason" or some such thing, with some big name TV science types on board.

Nowadays I think the Greens could be the answer, being a party that at least is coming in from a scientific and knowledge background. But they need to get snappier, get a higher profile, and target seats stuffed with students and educated types. Policies like opposition to nuclear energy have got to be rethought - no more stickers on 2CVs - and if they believe in the NHS, and renationalising things like the rail network, make an unashamed big thing about it.

After all, plenty of other people share these beliefs.

But a lot of the brown rice policy has got to go. Talk of doubling tax on beer and cigarettes won't gallup in this economy. Talk instead of new hi-tech industries and spaceports, the sort of stuff that the 1984 Conservatives ought to have looked at before deciding replacing our dying old industries with the financial sector. Look where that got us. Be secular. Give our kids a proper education, and encourage a culture of learning and reading at home.

Obviously, no more David Icke types. But why shouldn't the Greens look for defectors like UKIP did?

Given the state of the country, and the fluxious state of UK politics, a party like the Greens could end up being heavily influential if they only end up with three or four seats.

Like many people, I want a new politics. But not one that involves pretending to cry at poppies.