Sunday 31 October 2010

Habitat destruction at Tense Towers

Sadly, I must report that, like billions of my fellow humans, I suspect I've been too "busy" with my own life to worry too much about 2010, International Year of Biodiversity. We're not very good at seeing beyond our immediate field of view (sometimes it is just a field), nor the greater landscape beyond, let alone a whole planet's worth of Nature.

My conscience is partly salved by the knowledge that in this little corner of the world, our lass and I have created tiny pockets of habitat to encourage as many species as possible to the environs around Tense Towers. But all the gardens on Earth aren't going to save those plants and animals that require a wider landscape or more specific conditions to live their lives.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has just ended in Nagoya, Japan, with a set of resolutions to protect more land and sea habitats and to lessen the rate of species' loss. Whether the leaders of the world have the will and the wherewithal to finance these proposals and to carry their electorates along with them, only time will tell. 

Meantime, I must report an unforeseen consequence of the latest trends in home improvement.

Whilst brushing my teeth yesterday morning, I noticed a "hairy bear" forlornly negotiating the barren wastes of the bathroom window sill. This small larva of the Carpet Beetle was a long way from anywhere it could call home, as tiles cover the walls and floor. If it made it to the lounge, it would discover that the vast plains of carpet, that once spread right across this room, have been replaced by wood laminate flooring. A whole ecosystem removed at a stroke. This would be one unimpressed invertebrate.

"You b******s!"
And this probably is the crux of the matter. Whilst we presume that there will be some species with which we'd quite happily not share the planet, we forget that Nature is a food web. OK, we're sitting pretty as a top consumer, but we're still joined to everything else by slender threads. How many species do you think we could lose before it's no longer a web and we're as doomed as the hairy bear?

Never mind carpets, it'll be curtains for us all.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Sensitive dependence on initial conditions

We had romanesco for our evening meal tonight.

This seasonal treat is normally a joyful time, at least for a fractal-loving, nature-nurturing, broccoli eater like myself, if not the rest of those around the table.

This zany vegetable, a pseudo punk cauliflower with dyed and spikey hair, usually fills me with a sense of wonder (hands up, who thought I was going to say "wind"?). Proof, if proof were needed, that a simple complexity, or possibly a complex simplicity, underpins the forces and processes all around us. Chaos.

From a single, green, fern leaf to the multi-coloured patterns seen on posters, chaos theory is a tantalising glimpse of how things came to be. For my generation, this was summed up and delivered into our lives by one image, Mandelbrot's eponymous Set.

With the great man's passing, earlier this month, the world is a poorer place.

Rest in peace, Benoit. With your album-art computations you brought more happiness into my world than it is reasonable to suppose a mathematician should. Thank you.

Thursday 21 October 2010

First meeting of the working day

Wildlife encounters have been a bit weekend-orientated recently. I've been too caught up in the hustle and bustle of the weekday travelling, back and forth, to work, not to mention the hurly-burly of office/workshop life in a small company.

So it was a real joy, this morning, whilst sat at my desk waiting for my computer to boot up, to hear birdsong close by. A song that was at odds with our preoccupation with the material world, that hinted at gentler, less stressful times, generally gave the impression that the singer was perfectly happy in his space and proclaimed that the listener should jolly well cheer up because it was a lovely day.

Initial investigations led to the small window in the door at the rear of the room, through which I could see a Pied Wagtail sat on the safety railing beyond. It was a doubly pleasant surprise as I had only just entered the office through this door, without the merest hint of birdy trillyness in evidence. Not only that, your average Wagtail call is a fairly brief affair, but this fellow was stringing together and repeating all the notes he could think of. He was probably a jazz aficionado in another life.

I'm afraid that the grubbiness of the window, the inadequacies of my phone camera and yours truly on the buttons, couldn't do this little scene justice. But it was a glorious sound for a brisk Autumnal morning and my new-found good mood was only slightly dented by the return to emails, phone calls, meetings and reports.

It might be cold out here, but my Excel spreadsheet hasn't just crashed.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Hurried potter and the Angel of Death

Following a morning trip to the dump, to add some hedge clippings to the green waste container, by lunchtime there was still quite a nip in the air, courtesy of a northeasterly breeze. 

However, ambling hurriedly between bird hides to escape rain showers, the Admiral and I were able to find a few sheltered spots on our local patch, where insects were bathing in the weak midday sun as if their lives depended on it. Which, of course, they do.

All of us, really.

A Speckled Wood butterfly basked on a Comfrey leaf, Common Darters and a Common Blue Damselfly found warm places to perch and a dozen or so shield bugs were being amorous in the long grass. Later research showed them not to be Forest Bugs, as first thought, but a species with no common name, Picromerus bidens.

In this sleepy little backwater by the River Great Ouse, there were few migrating birds about. We did see the occasional Redwing and spotted 4 Snipe on the bund. In fact, it was whilst looking for further Snipe, that we witnessed a harrowing event, at least for us and the unfortunate victims.

Those visions in purest white, herald angels of climate change, Little Egrets, are a well-established sight in this area and two of them were foraging on the edge of the bund. One bird seemed distracted from the usual "staring into the water" method of seeking prey (I very nearly wrote "pray" to continue a poor analogy) and was looking up in the air. Unsure as to what predator would cause this reaction or whether it was seeking divine inspiration, I continued to watch through my binoculars, as the egret then dashed along the shore and fixed its gaze above a patch of water by some reeds. There, to my horror, was a pair of darters ovipositing in tandem, oblivious to the impending danger. Now I realised what the egret had been doing. It had watched the dragonflies fly in from wherever they had mated, and saw the opportunity for a quick snack. One lightning quick stab of its bill and that was that, though I like to think that in the few seconds before their doom, the darters managed to sow the fertile seeds of a new generation. Life will rise again from the aquatic world and their sacrifice will not have been in vain.


Saturday 9 October 2010

The Ogress of Progress

OK, I'm not sure if Progress is a lady, but the words went together well and there is often a monstrous side to our technological improvements that we never seem to see until it's too late.

This may be Part 1 of a continuing, though sporadic, series, depending upon whether I can get this rant out of my system.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against Progress, otherwise I wouldn't be blogging on the Internet or taking photos of wildlife with a digital camera. And certainly, some Progress is to be positively encouraged, for instance Boro's ascending of the Championship table would be nice. However, and I readily admit that I might be in a minority of one here, I have less of a problem with spam in tins than I do with spam in my email inbox. If we're so bloody clever, how come we've let ourselves put up with the latter, when at least you can treat your taste buds and frighten the living daylights out of your arteries by deep frying the former.

Before you label me a Luddite, or some jolly decent Amish person invites me to a barn raising, let me elucidate.

Take illuminated manuscripts as an example. A monk in some drafty 13th Century scriptorium spends ages carefully crafting a beautiful work of art to add aesthetic wonder to a page. Possibly like this picture of a letter 'P' depicting Peter attempting to open a tin of spam with a cleaver.

I doubt if, these days, many of us could countenance the skill and patience required to painstakingly create such a masterpiece, by the light of a candle and with fingers numb from the cold. If there's any time-travelling monks out there who can corroborate this image of 13th Century working conditions, I'd appreciate it. Ta.

So how would an illuminated manuscript produced in the 21st Century compare? Well, I'm pretty certain that the sort of documents we're most likely to encounter would look like this...

Possibly without the worrying references to knives, but hey, perhaps opening tins of spam is a problem that sits outside our normal definition of Time. The point is (no pun intended), the bloody point is, that Progress has left us with a pale shadow of the creativity we once possessed.

And you can't open a tin of any vaguely meat-based products with a highlighter pen!

Sunday 3 October 2010

HESC Side Story

Parental guidance: the following blog has scenes of gratuitous violence and images of a sexual nature. If you or your kin are likely to be offended by these, it is recommended that you navigate away from this page now.

Your usual scribe is unable to bring you his centenary blog due to er... unforeseen circumstances, so here I am, kindly guesting at short notice. They call me Strio, they also call me a ne'er-do-well, but me and my flighty lady love, Sympetra, are living for the now.

An uneasy silence falls, broken eventually by the sound of clicking fingers...


I guess you could call us a gang, a bunch of unruly orphans, we're the only family we have.


Our neighbourhood is the Hanson Environmental Study Centre (HESC), a run down nature reserve on the North side of the city. It's a wild place, governed by the laws of tooth and claw, where it would never do to show weakness.


We're The Darts, always looking to defend our territory from The Hawks. Not afraid to fight and always ready to rumble.


Folks don't approve of our lifestyle, the way we pick on those smaller and more vulnerable than ourselves.


They say stuff like, "You're nothing but bloody common." Or, "Why don't you and your ruddy mates just clear off."


But the park bench is our meeting place, we don't see why we should move.


As kids, we had nothing, but once we got our wings, man, well you've got to fly, right?


My pal Rudi, he's a tough guy. You wouldn't want to mess with him. He likes to live life at the sharp end.

Jeez, there was one time, man, Rudi was beating up on this blue-job. Would've killed him too, if the Bigs hadn't turned up.

Here's some of the gang, just hanging at the bench.

And this is me and Sympetra, making out on the bench.

This neighbourhood won't be here forever. Live fast, die young, that's our motto. I guess when the Winter comes, that will be that. Like I said, we're living for the now.

You Bigs just don't understand.

One man went to mow

Another decent bit of weather for a Saturday morning and the lure of an amble around our local nature reserve proved too tempting.

The Admiral and I had the good fortune to arrive just as temperatures were hitting optimum for our favourite insects. We could see darters, hawkers and damsels out over the water and we watched, amazed, as the activity suddenly changed emphasis and headed in our direction.

The hawkers moved off the water, over the reeds, across the path where we were stood, then settled on the gorse and dog rose hedge behind us. Maximum sun, check, minimum breeze, check. They're consistent, you have to give 'em credit. I must admit, I'd never before witnessed such a slick, seemingly co-ordinated manoeuvre from a group of dragons. I took a few shots of male Migrant Hawkers and then we pottered along a bit further. 

Stopping to scan a likely spot, but not seeing anything, our attention was diverted by a single Lapwing call. Looking up, we saw a huge flock of about 500 of these plovers drifting across the sky, whilst they decided whether to drop on to the bund in the main lake. 

Resetting our sights to the lowly vegetation, we were surprised to discover a male Southern Hawker, now roosted where we had previously been looking. Again, I was lucky to be able to take a few shots without disturbing it.

At the far end of the reserve, we heard a Cetti's Warbler calling, before spotting a pair of Ruddy Darters "in cop" and discovering several female Migrant Hawkers roosted on the hedges.

The return journey was even warmer. The wood of one of the benches was heating up nicely and had eight darters perched on it, soaking up the rays, directly and indirectly. But that's another story... 

After lunch, I bit the bullet and decided to mow the lawn, despite its dampness. With more rain forecast, it seemed like a good idea. This proved to be the case, because otherwise I wouldn't have gone out and looked at the pond. For there, perched on a rush leaf, was a newly-emerged male Common Darter, a full two months after his brethren had left the aquatic world and taken to the skies. Sadly, due to his quirky timing, it's unlikely that he will see out his expected life span before the frosts take hold and the dragonfly season comes to an end for another year.