Tuesday 26 November 2013

Early one morning...

This photo was taken first thing this morning, whilst clearing the ice from my windscreen.

At this time of day, I'm not very perky, but at least I was a bit pinky.

With apologies to older readers*.

* For the benefit of younger readers, see here.

Monday 25 November 2013


Early indications are that we're definitely moving into a more rural, agri-centric, farming environment.

I received a text from Our Lass this morning, after she had been browsing in a Kirkwall hardware store.

It read, "It's most disconcerting when shopping for tea towels and you come across udder cloths!"

So it looks like milking parlour hygiene is going to be fairly near the top of our agenda.

Sunday 24 November 2013

A setting sun and daughter

It seems as if I haven't immersed myself in Nature for ages.
This probably has much to do with the fact that I haven't.

A month ago, the one golden opportunity at work went begging as I was off sick that day. Gah!

Young Grass Snake, courtesy of my thoughtful line manager
So yesterday, when Second Born asked if I wanted a break from packing to go for a walk, it was a no-brainer really. OK, it was late afternoon on an overcast day and the the light was fading, but the air was fresh and, heck, I won't be seeing too many more Autumns in MK.

From SB's abode, we pottered over the Grand Union Canal and headed for the River Ouzel. Following this brought us to Willen Lake South and the thinning throng of a busy day at the watersports facility. There were plenty of wildfowl out in the lake, but I was most surprised to spot several dozen Lapwing roosting on the pontoons by the outdoor pursuits centre.

By the time we arrived at Willen Lake North, a small flock of Starlings were just completing a mini murmuration, so we watched them for a minute of two before they plummeted into the reed bed for the night.

A light drizzle made its presence felt as we passed alongside the Peace Pagoda.

However, undaunted, we pressed on westwards, climbing back up the hill to the canal. Turning south once more, we were treated to as much of a sunset as was possible on a wet, grey Saturday.

The leaves on the trees were still putting on a display, even towards dusk.

But eventually we ran out of daylight as we returned to Chez SB...

and a much appreciated mug of tea!

Sunday 17 November 2013

BDS 30th Anniversary meeting

The Oxford Natural History Museum is famous for many things:
  • it has the most complete remains of a single Dodo anywhere in the world;
  • it displays a 1651 painting of a Dodo by Jan Savery, which is likely to have influenced the character of the Dodo in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland;
  • in 1894, it was the site of the first public demonstration of wireless telegraphy;
  • in 1860, it was the site of the 'Great Debate' on evolution between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, a supporter of Darwin.
Whilst the latter event occurred at the 30th annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, I am sure it was purely coincidental that the 2013 British Dragonfly Society Members' Day, celebrating the society's 30th anniversary, was held at the same venue.

In what is usually the curtain-closing finale of the dragonfly year (though mild Autumns can scupper the assertion), this heady blend of the science and the art of these spectacular insects is much anticipated by Yours Truly, as we begin the long wait until the next flight season.

I guess it was a little more poignant for me this year, as I'm unlikely to be attending the next few and I doubt if Kirkwall is on the list of possible contenders to host it.

As mentioned above, the day was a mixture of talks covering academic research, recording /monitoring initiatives and personal odo travelogues. This made for a varied programme which, for me, led to education (a new word!), fascination (amazing slo-mo footage) and appreciation (lots of stunning photographs).

And cake...

The day began with a talk by Mark Tyrrell, the Northamptonshire dragonfly recorder, who explained how two species are colonising the county: Beautiful Demoiselle from the south west; Scarce Chaser from the north east. Northamptonshire's extensive river system is also linked to the Grand Union Canal network, which is enabling the expansion in ranges of these dragonflies.

As befits a significant anniversary year, there was then a personal review of the Society's history from a former President, Andy McGeeney. Andy is an ecotherapist, which must be one of those jobs that the careers officer inexplicably forgot to mention when I was a lad.

After a short tea break, we were given the lowdown on the next recording and monitoring project, which will take over from the Atlas work that has occupied much of the last five or so years. DragonflyWatch is the scheme that hopes to pull together the data from all levels of recorder expertise and use it to produce information and advice on population trends.

The final talk of the morning was given by Prof. Georg Rüppell & Dr Dagmar Hilfert-Rüppell and looked at sexual conflict in dragonflies, asking the question "Is it a pacemaker of evolution?" This talk was accompanied by some stunning slow motion footage of male aeshnids attacking each other as they fought over territory and females. I certainly learnt a few things, as I hadn't realised that in low density populations, clear-winged species are the ones most likely to  engage in battle, whereas colour-winged species will use their wings to signal their intentions without actual physical contact with an adversary.

After lunch, the afternoon session kicked off with an update from David Clarke on the translocation project for White-faced Darter in Cumbria. Following three years of translocations from an established site in the north of the county to a new site in the south, there were encouraging results. The new site was obviously viable and no detrimental effect was measured at the existing site.

Then, Dr Vicky Nall of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust explained about a similar project in Cheshire, where the White-faced Darter was being reintroduced to an area of Delamere Forest, from which it had been lost. Much rewilding and habitat maintenance had been carried out by the site owners to make the area viable for the species once again.

Next up was a talk entitled 'A farm buzzing with pond life' by Dr Carl Sayer of University College London. In a tour de force of science and humour, Carl took us to the forgotten ponds of Norfolk, where nearly every field used to have a marl pit pond. Of the 22,000 remaining (from an estimated 60,000), 95% are now just small circular overgrown copses, any water remaining being an oxygen-poor murk, unfit for life. As part of his research, Carl and his team opened up a few ponds and monitored the return of all manner of wildlife, from seeds remaining dormant in the sediment at the bottom of the pond, to dragonflies turning up within hours of the restoration of open water. In a similar project, several 'ghost' ponds (ponds that had been deliberately filled in, leaving only a ghostly image in aerial photographs) were re-excavated, revealing the original sediments still in situ. Carl promised to return to a future BDS Members' Day to report on the progress of these.

The final talk of the day was delivered by Dave Chelmick and entitled 'Emeralds'. Dave is an excellent raconteur, and we were entertained by various stories of trips to Spain to figure out the strange life cycle of Emerald damselfly species inhabiting ephemeral ponds and lakes in an endorheic region. This was a new word for me, but as I understand it, 'endorheic' refers to water bodies that are purely rain-fed and if it doesn't rain for long periods, the lakes disappear in a catastrophic evaporation event. Catastrophic for any creature attempting to complete their life cycle, that is. Dave was able to witness mass emergences of damselflies from water bodies that had been totally dry within the larval life cycle of the insects! We are all aware of eggs remaining unhatched until conditions are suitable, but aestivation of aquatic larvae in the absence of water? That's just plain weird. As Dave summarised, more research is needed to fully understand the processes at work here.

I must mention the tongue-in-cheek fire safety briefing at the beginning of the day. This was delivered by the Collections Manager, Darren Mann, who is responsible for the entomological collections at the museum. He quipped that in the extremely unlikely event of a fire, BDS members should form an orderly queue in the Entomological department, where they would be given trays of priceless specimens from the collections to carry outside to safety. Humans are expendable!

At least, I think he was joking.

Friday 15 November 2013

Cold and calm

This week has seen the first frosty mornings of the winter for windscreens in north Buckinghamshire and the deployment of ice scrapers in gloved hands.

On Thursday, I stepped outside the front door to be greeted by the 'whoosh' of a low-flying flock of Starlings, weaving their way around the rooftops in a high speed commute to who-knows-where. Arriving at work, my attention was grabbed by a group of Fieldfares, 'chack'-ing as they flew from bare tree tops to fallow meadow.

This evening, a gibbous moon glowed in a corona of high cloud, casting an eerie light across a still, windless landscape. Fallen leaves sat motionless on the dry ground, their brittle beauty seemingly reluctant to make any sound lest they disturb the quietness.

A faint trace of wood smoke tainted the air, flavouring the dusk with the promise of warmth indoors. I took the hint and headed homewards, to be regaled by tales of more robust weather further north.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Giving nature a home

News from the north, today, centred around Our Lass's house hunting exploits across East and West Mainland.

She had set off this morning with a list of properties to view, on a route taking in Evie, to the north, and St Mary's, to the south.

The text message I received detailing progress wasn't full of the usual estate agent speak. Far from it.

I was expecting the report to be a little different (as many things in Orkney are, it's part of the charm), but I wasn't prepared for...

"I seen 5 long-tailed duck and 100 purple sandpiper."

That's my girl!

Sunday 3 November 2013

More attic antics

Another weekend, another trip to the loft.

But this, hopefully, should be the last one (unless there's some sudden, calamitous, central heating mishap). All our boxes of memories and bags of 'it'll come in handy one day' are safely stored in a spare bedroom. Now begins the trickiest task of all, sorting through the collection to see if we really want to transport it to 59 degrees north.

There were a few quick wins with footwear (which was probably a dubious fashion choice in its time, never mind in another era) and an old pan rack, but the bulk of the stuff just sat on the floor and tried not to catch my eye. Will we really need 15 metres of stair carpet - in a bungalow? How many 1000 piece jigsaws are necessary for those long Winter nights?

I found a box of First Born's school work from her 'A' Level years. I recalled she had already told me that it was surplus to requirements. But it's wall-to-wall science and almost painful to consign to the recycling pile. I consoled myself by keeping any text books and with freeing up 42 punched pockets to be useful again. Whilst filling a recycling sack with the loose leaves of A4, most decorated with FB's neat handwriting, a sudden jarring of my senses brought me to a halt. Double checking, I realised that I had seen an envelope bearing a few words in my scribbled hand:

On looking inside the envelope, sure enough, tucked into one corner was a small sliver of a metallic substance.

It didn't take much deduction to work out that, at some point in the past, I had obviously supplied this tiny shard for a school project. Element-ary, really.

What I don't recall is the reason for the requirement.

However, a little further down the pile of papers, I came across a pamphlet of experiments with the intriguing title of...

When did that sneak into the National Curriculum?

I was going to post a photo of the whole front page, but I wouldn't want to contravene any anti-terrorism legislation and reveal details of the recipes for various types of ordnance.

With that task out of the way, I retreated to the garden for some fresh air, whilst Our Lass continued to pack for her journey northwards (what with her being the sole member of the Tense Towers Vanguard Squadron, with me being strictly Rear Echelon).

As I mowed the lawn for possibly the last time, I noticed that there were still a few splashes of colour in the garden: beneath a Hawthorn tree, several Cyclamen flowers braved the Autumnal winds; amongst the borders, bright white buttons of Feverfew shone in the low sunshine and, scattered around much of the Tense estate, there were still many clumps of Corydalis, which seems to provide a fanfare for nearly all of the growing season with its glorious yellow trumpets. I will miss Corydalis. Unless, of course, a stray seed or two clings to my boots and eventually finds itself on a rocky Orcadian ledge.