Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ellavision: Ella vs. the devilish Swingball

This blog's by-line does promise to include Ella the Wonder Dog and I haven't really done that before, so here's a little taster from the Ellavision channel...

Our finest getting to grips, quite quickly really, with pendulums and circular motion... and a tennis ball of course. That's what tennis balls are for - getting to grips with.

Signs I like #18

I've been looking at this old sign on the end of a row of houses and shops for years of visits to York (it's near the Monk Bar entrance to the old city). Imagine having a giant advert for laxatives painted on the outside wall of your house. Puts the rest of the world into some perspective...
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Friday, 29 April 2011

Is this the most spurious attempt to gain a commercial advantage from the Royal Wedding? Probably...

The title of the post says it all...

Reflections on Royal Wedding day in York

It.s not often my blog has the chance to cover something topical! We took a wee stroll through central York early this morning and looked for signs of preparation for England's celebration for that wedding in London today. Back in Scotland, enthusiasm for the royal wedding has been at strongest muted and, at worst, invisible (no street party licences applied for in Glasgow, the "second city of the empire", for example). Coming to York, we expected perhaps some signs of a greater enthusiasm. So, by way of ethnographic recording (my only interest here is to document, not to judge nor to celebrate!) , here are our observations from early morning York today.

A cul-de-sac awaiting a party later today

A cheap and cheerful display in a travel agent's

"One likes the royal corgi in the window of White Stuff!"
A fine range of second-hand royal event mugs in a charity shop window. They must live for these opportunities to shift stockpiled royal stock in charity shops...

My favourite image from this morning - somehow the addition of flag bunting looks cheery!

Even (or pehaps especially) the wonderful
Betty's of York is in on the act today!

Union Jack bunting being disentangled and hung for a party in this central York square later on. Get yourself down to the Three Cranes for a knees-up later on?

Signs I like #17

Imagine having this as your address! It would also be a good description for some of the places I've worked...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Happy birthday, Mr Audubon

 John James Audubon (April 26, 1785 – January 27, 1851) was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter and, most famously nowadays, a painter of birds. He painted, catalogued, and described the birds of North America in a manner far superior to any artist before him. Wikipedia provides a short and interesting summary of his life here.

To celebrate his 226th birthday (not a particularly notable or special anniversary, is it?), Google has produced a Google doodle for its home page today, based on his wonderful paintings (a well done to Google - a gold star for effort and good taste!):

Not sure of the copyright of this - the compilation may be (C) Google,
but may be out of copyright as his paintings are well outside of copyright age!

I used one of Audobon's paintings of the now-extinct North American Passenger Pigeon to illustrate an earlier post, here. I grew up very aware of his special talent and wonderful body of work, as Dad had and still has some modern reproductions of some of Audubon's gorgeous bird paintings. Much of Audubon's work can be viewed and explored online now, as U.S. museums and collections progressively put their collections (or images from them) onto online systems. For example, the Houghton Library at Harvard University has a John James Audubon Collection which can be seen online. An introduction to the collection is provided here, and the details and a view of each painting or drawing can be seen here.

Here's a lovely painting of North American blue jays to whet your appetite (Jono - keep your eyes open for these in Canada!):

Or go and google for images by Audubon and enjoy the feast of visual riches...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #12

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

That day was their first use
in the whole time since
his father’s death, eleven years
before; the mute swan

and the whooper, avocet
and teal, tufted duck and lapwing,
the pochard and redshank;
pushed the eyepieces closer

and apart, that occluded,
needed to be refocused;
shoveller duck and egret,
marsh harrier, bunting.”

Ian Pople, “His Father’s Binoculars

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 12
We have a busy waterside scene here, with a flock of the tiny duck, teal, “dibbling in the mud” in the foreground on a lake shore, with some shoveler ducks hunkered down between them and a roosting flock of lapwings or peewits. A single goldeneye drake (described in the book’s text as a “she” – wrong! Female goldeneyes are brown and white) is swimming close to shore in the top left, near some swimming black-headed gulls. A heron stands on one leg, overlooking the scene.

We’ve looked at a couple of these species previously, the heron in some detail here, and the peewit similarly here! Of the others in the picture, one that I was fascinated by as a child was definitely the shoveler duck (Latin name: Anas clypeata), one of our more unusual looking bird species. As my old AA Book of British Birds says: “The enormous heavy bill that gives the shoveler its name is specially adapted for feeding on the surface of lakes and ponds”. Paddling through the shallows, it dabbles in the water or thin mud, sieving out small plants and animals, hence its membership of the group of duck species known as “dabbling ducks”.

I am not a regular bird-watcher these days (other than daily naked-eye ornithology every day when dog walking), although I was a bit obsessed as a child, and haven’t seen a shoveler for years, and it is not a numerous species in Britain, especially in Scotland; but I remember vividly the first one I saw, at Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve. I must have been eight or nine years old and I was thrilled! The British Trust for Ornithology doesn’t maintain an entry for this duck in the Species Trends information that has been my main source of up-to-date information on the status and long-term success of bird species for this series of seasonal posts (come on BTO guys, what's a blogger supposed to do?). Its BirdFacts information does, however, give its status in the UK as a migrant breeding bird, and a passage/ winter visitor. It is unable to provide a population trend, although a summer population of 1000 to 1500 pairs is cited, along with a winter population of some 15,000 individuals. In “The Birds of the Western Palearctic”, it is suggested that, although there might have been some contraction of the range in Britain, there might actually be a slowly increasing British population.

The little flock of teal (Anas crecca) in the foreground represent a typical group of this, Britain’s smallest native duck, and another dabbling duck species. The teal is also one of the most aerobatic of our duck species, small flocks performing dramatic and rapid manoeuvres in flight outwith the breeding season. The explosive, near-vertical rising of a group of disturbed teal also leads to the collective name for the species, namely “a spring of teal”. In clay pigeon shooting (which I’ve never tried), I believe that there is a challenging dispersal of vertically-fired clay pigeons called “rising teal”, supposed to simulate this behaviour. Teal typically inhabit small pools, ponds, lagoons, slow-flowing rivers an streams, and complexes of wetland habitats. They prefer habitats where there is some form of dense vegetation cover, and they will sometimes nest away from water in gorse or bracken. The male teal is a strikingly beautiful bird, with a vivid metallic green eye patch on a chestnut coloured head, and both male and female bids have a green patch on the upper wing. In this Autumn picture, however, the birds are in “partial plumage” having moulted after their breeding season, and so they look a little more plain than normal.

Again, the BTO doesn’t maintain a Bird Trends page for this species on its website, so I must rely on other sources for information of the status and trend of the British teal population. “Birds of the Wester Palearctic” cites a marked contraction in the range of teal in Britain and Ireland, with a conservative estimate of a 20% decline in population over the 20 years preceding the book’s publication (1998), although no causes are suggested for this. A British breeding population of 1500-2600 pairs was estimated between 1988 and 1991, although huge numbers of teal pour into Britain in winter from mainland Europe and Iceland (the BTO quotes a winter population of 192,000 in the period 1994-1990!), to over winter here in our (usually!) milder winter conditions.

The other species of duck in the picture is a diving duck species, the goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), represented by a single male swimming, its white cheek clearly visible (it actually does have quite a bright golden eye but it is too far away to see this clearly. Practically all the goldeneye seen in Britain are here as winter visitors between September and April. While the summer population of (presumably) breeding birds here is around 200 pairs, the wintering population between 1994 and 1999 is around 25,000 individuals. Seen on lakes, lochs and rivers in winter, they are also seen on the coast when migrating. Here in Stirling, I see goldeneye every winter on the tidal river Forth, effectively the upper estuary of the Forth although it is largely freshwater moving up and down as it piles up against the rising tide further downstream. Generally, they are solitary males, easily identifiable from a long way off on account of the white eye patch and bright eye. They are tremendously good divers, and can travel quite a long way underwater.

The first reliable record of goldeneye breeding in Britain was in Inverness-shire in 1970 (BTO). Its status as a breeding species in Scotland has been enhanced by their colonisation of nestboxes for ducks installed as part of conservation programme in Strathspey. So, the summer population of this species has certainly increased in the 50 years since these books were published (partly as a result of human intervention), and “The Birds of the Western Palearctic” indicates that most populations in Europe are stable or increasing. A good point on which to end for now!

Melrose Abbey

We stayed overnight for a birthday party a couple of weekends ago in the little town of Melrose in the Scottish Borders. I lived in the area many years ago for 16 months for my first proper job after University, but as a callow and shallow young man obsessed with hill running and finding, and then keeping, a girlfriend, I never really got to know the area properly. Shame really, as it is a wonderful area, steeped in history and natural wonders, not least of which is the mighty River Tweed which flows through Melrose. And not far from the Tweed lies the ancient Melrose Abbey. we were up early after the party and, on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, took the opportunity to be among the first visitors of the day to the Abbey.

Managed and maintained from further degradation by Historic Scotland, the Abbey remains one of the most impressive mediaeval religious buildings in Scotland, one of several mediaeval Abbeys in the eastern Borders area. I don't intend to provide a full commentary on the place (you can find that yourselves online or, better, by visiting the Abbey in person, which I heartily recommend) and I'm sure my blogging chum Al has either done it already over at his blog crivens jings and help ma boab (which I also heartily recommend) or, if not, would do a much better job than me anyway. So, all I wanted to do was share a couple of panoramic views taken on a fabulously sunny morning and stitched together on my Dell net book using MS Live Picture Gallery's simple photo stitching tool. I'm quite pleased with these, especially the second one, considering that I took them on my phone's camera.

PS Click on the photos for a better, expanded look.

Myriad celebrations! 10,000 hits and rising...

Sometime around 1pm British Summer Time today, the Flag Counter on this blog registered the 10,000th viewing of the blog. I was working in the garden and missed the actual moment but managed to take a screenshot shortly afterwards:

Thank you to whoever that mystery reader was, but thanks also to everyone who has taken the time to read, comment or follow my blog since I started in early 2010. It is very gratifying for me when people read and enjoy what I write. Apologies if it has been a bit quiet through April as I have been very busy at home and at work.

So, 10,000! A big number. I'd never looked up a number on Wikipedia before, but I did for 10,000... and what a wealth of wonderful trivia there is there for the number 10,000. The word "myriad" in the title of this post comes from the Greek numerical prefix "myria", meaning ten thousand.

A myriagon is a polygon with 10,000 sides. I imagine that, to the naked eye, a myriagon the size of a tennis ball would be virtually indistinguishable from a perfect sphere as each of the 10,000 sides must be tiny. In fact, I did a quick calculation and I think that each face would on average be about 4x4 mm in size [Addendum: actually, I recalculated that and the dimples would be even smaller, at about 1.1 - 1.2 mm across], although what the actual shape would be I have no idea), so it would probably look like a sphere with tiny (itny!) dimples. That might be the first and last time you ever read a blog post about a myriagon.

Other good things about 10,000? In anatomy, each neuron in the human brain is estimated to connect to 10,000 others.

The ancient Greek general Xenophon led an army of 10,000 mercenaries against the Persians in 401 B.C., immortalised in his book Anabasis ("The Expedition" or "The March Up Country"), his account of the whole expedition against the Persians and his journey home.

In language,  the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese phrase "live for ten thousand years" was used to bless emperors in East Asia.

(I like this one) In literature, Man'yōshū (万葉集 Man'yōshū, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) is the oldest existing, and most highly revered, collection of Japanese poetry.

In athletics, 10,000 metres, 10 kilometres, 10 km, or 10K (6.2 miles) is the final standard track event in a long-distance track event. My own personal best time for a 10 km race road race is 35 minutes and 8 seconds, a time I will almost certainly never run again!
And finally, to round off a celebration of 10,000, here's a video from 10,000 Maniacs, for whose singer Natalie Merchant, I used to have a bit of a soft spot in my youth. As I haven't listened to them for years, I wanted to post this and convince myself that it has aged well:

Here's looking forward to 20,000 hits!

Signs I like #16 (and a medal to boot!)

I loved the enthusiasm of this advert for free swimming provision in Glasgow for the over 60s and the very young. This was in Glasgow's fantastic Tollcross pool where I swam 5 kilometres yesterday for the Swimathon 2011. I managed 1 hour 36 minutes, a big personal best and managed to raise a wee bit of money for Marie Cure Cancer Care who organise the Swimathon every year. We were each even given a wonderful chunky medal.

Stirling Triathlon Club provided most of the participants and had a lovely supportive squad at the end our lane when my swimming pal Tracey L and I finished our 200th length. So, I was already smiling and full of endorphins (happy chemicals) from my swim when I walked out and saw this sign. If that was a political party manifesto, I'd vote for it!