Monthly Archives: December 2014

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

A once in a lifetime opportunity

This post is a diversion from my regular posts about the biological side of nature and this time I’m delving into the more fundamental aspects of physical nature.

Peter Higgs is a colossus of modern theoretical physics who was awarded the Nobel proze for physics in 2013 for his prediction of the presence of the ‘Higgs boson‘ – the so called ‘God particle‘ which is accredited with conferring mass on other sub-atomic particles. In my professional life I’m a  mass spectrometrist so experiments to determine the nature of mass itself are of immense interest. In order to prove Higgs’ theory, one of the biggest and most expensive scientific experiments ever devised was built at the ‘Conseil européen pour la Recherche nucléaire‘ or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s called the ‘Large Hadron Collider‘ or LHC. The idea of a collider is that sub atomic particles (hadrons) can be crashed together at incomprehensibly huge energies to smash them into their constituent parts which can then be analysed. At the moment the theory of these elementary particles, which are the building blocks of all the matter in the known Universe, is described by the ‘Standard Model, but there are holes in the Model such as ‘what is dark matter?’ or ‘why is there more matter than antimatter in the Universe?’. So it’s hoped that high energy colliders such as the LHC will enable us to probe deeper into the fundamental building blocks of everything and fill the holes in the Standard Model.

In August last year I attended a conference in Geneva and one of the social events was a trip to the LHC at CERN, and that’s one of those opportunities that can’t be ignored. So, even though this isn’t ‘nature‘ as such, I hope I can justify sharing it here!

A status pannel for the LHC indicating what it’s actually doing

Everything about the LHC is mind boggling. It’s a circular tunnel 27km in circumference under Geneva and the Jura mountains on the Swiss/French border. It’s designed to accelerate small beams of protons in opposite directions to as close to the speed of light as possible, before colliding them inside one of four detectors around the ring. The protons are generated by stripping the electron away from hydrogen atoms leaving the free hydrogen nucleus (consisting of a single proton) to be fed into the accelerator. The collided protons eliminate each other and in the process give off collosal amounts of energy in the form of X-rays and gamma rays and sub atomic particles.

Access to the ring is only possible when the beam is turned off because of the intense radiation generated by the colliding particles. Until now the ring has only been operating at 50% power (but even at half power definitive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson was found) and it was shutdown for an upgrade to enable it to operate at full power. After the upgrade, which was scheduled for completion at the end of 2014, there will be no access for several years whilst further experiments are underway, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have got in to have a look. Even at half power the protons approached close to the speed of light but higher speed will give higher energy collisions and more information about the fundamental structure of matter.

The end of one of the sections of the ring on the test rig prior to installation in the LHC

To accelerate the protons to near light speed takes a lot of circuits around the ring and I think we were told that that takes around 40 minutes. The ring itself is made up of sections approximately 30m long containing superconducting electromagnets which carry the beam line and a tube for liquid helium which cools the ring down to approximately 1-2oC above absolute zero (-273oC). At this unbelievably cold temperature (colder than outer space according to CERN) the magnets become superconducting and can accelerate and guide the contra-rotating proton beams up to collision speed. To collide the two beams, which are only a few μm in diameter, has been likened to firing two needles at each other from 10km apart with sufficient accuracy that they meet in the middle – quite a technological challenge!

The other consequence of cooling the ring down to such a low temperature is thermal contraction, and at the operating temperature of -271.3oC the 27km ring decreases in circumference by approximately 0.003% – which may not sound like much but is in reality around 80m!

There are four main detectors on the LHC called CMS, Atlas, ALICE and LHCb and the one that I was privileged enough to visit was the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid – I can’t help but wonder if this is the compact version what a full size one would look like):

The CMS detector of the LHC. The spike in the middle carries the proton beam line

Here, the two ends of the CMS detector – which has been likened by some to the Rose Window in the Notre Dame cathedral – had been moved apart during the upgrade so all this wouldn’t normally be visible. This vast machine is approximately 21m long, 15m in diameter and weighs 12,500 tonnes. Truly gigantic – the tinyest natural phenomena are being probed by the most enormous machines!

Some more brain-frying facts and figures aabout the LHC!

It can be seen from the diagram that each proton beam contains:

110,000,000,000 protons. At 99.9998% of the speed of light the energy of one proton is:

450,000,000,000eV. And at 99.9999991% the speed of light the energy is:


So an increase in velocity of 0.0001991% gives a vast increase in energy of nearly 16 fold. But 7TeV is only half power and the plan is ultimately to run the LHC at 15TeV… and the plan after that is to build another collider 100km in circumference!

It can be argued that spending the colossal amounts of money required to conduct this type of science could be better spent on for example developing solutions to climate change. But being a scientist I’m a firm believer in conducting fundamental blue sky research and CERN was concieved by one of the greatest theoretical physicists of them all, Louis de Broglie, after WW2 as a means of fostering international cooperation in fundamental physics. So as well as immense scientific and technological developments which includes the world wide web (invented by Tim Berners Lee whilst he was a scientist at CERN) I think CERN has played a key role in enabling many countries to engage with each other in an ostensibly apolitical fashion, and that could ultimately help to foster the spirit of international cooperation required to solve the other big problems.

If this interests you and you want to read more have a look at the CERN website. As you might expect it’s brim full of fascinating stuff!

Celtic Damsels

This will be the last post from my trip to Scotland in 2014 during which we made an early morning visit to the osprey nest at RSPB Loch Garten to hopefully catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent predators. There was an adult on the nest but without more magnification than I had I couldn’t get up close (but it looked spectacular through binoculars!):

An adult osprey , Pandion haliaetus, Dansk: fiskeørn, perched on the nest

The ospreys overwinter in sub Saharan West Africa and are another great conservation success story. Despite that they’re conservation status is still amber with only 200 pairs in the UK. They can cover up to 275 miles a day on migration and they stop off on the way south for a couple of weeks to feed up, they also stop on the way north, but only for a few days,to ensure they arrive at the breeding grounds as early as possible to maximise the length of available time for the actual breeding.

Whilst at RSPB Loch Garten we got an excellent steer from one of the RSPB girls on a couple of pools in the forest where we could find dragonflies. It had been a grey morning, but as we arrived at one of the pools the sun emerged, and with it, the dragons. I’ve already posted dragon pictures from these sites in an earlier post, and here are some more images of mating damsels:

Northern damselfy pair, Coenagrion hastelatum

The northern damsels are in tandem, the blue male is clasping the female prior to escorting her around the pool to find suitable egg laying sites. Large red damsels were also mating over the pool at the same time:

Large red damsels, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, in the process of egg laying under the water

I think this picture of the large red damsels is the best insect photo I’ve ever taken. I like it because they’re in motion and in the process of doing something, and the shadows are cool! The large red can only really be confused with the small red, but the small red has red legs and doesn’t have the yellow bands which can be seen on the female in this picture.

I also like this floating spider:

I don’t know what species the spider is, I’ve never seen one like it anywhwere else. The markings are distinctive and it may be the same species as the one in the previous post, but I was assured by the experts at the British Arachnological Society that it could only be unambiguously identified by microscopic examination after dissection.

The majestic Scots pine trees of the Abernethy Forest

The two dragonfly pools were in the Abernethy Forest. I think it’s difficult to convey the atmosphere of a forest in photographs because the temperature and humidity, the sounds and the smells, all contribute to the feeling of a forest, and none of these can be captured in a photograph. Even the light is difficult to capture because the camera settings required to give a good quality image don’t necessarily recapitulate what it actually looked and felt like.  So the picture above of the Scots pines of the Abernethy Forest is the best I could do, but having said all that stuff, in the absence of all the other sensory inputs it does convey a little bit of my memories of the forest. I hope you know what I mean and I hope you like it!

As I mentioned at the top of this post, this is the last installment of my ‘Cairngorm Chronicles‘. It was a fabulous trip and we saw some breathtakingly beautiful places and lots of wildlife. I can’t wait to go back and see more creatures peculiar to that part of the world such as grouse, ptarmigan, capercaillie and red deer, as well as the ones I missed on this trip such as crested tit and crossbill. So much to see and so little time…

A less welcome guest

In my last post I showed you some pictures of some minibeasts I was cohabiting with in the summer last year. As the post title indicated, I don’t mind providing board and lodging for those little guys.

But every winter, and often through the summer too, I put seed and nuts out to feed the birds, and I always put some in a tray feeder and also on the ground so the smaller ground feeders don’t get bullied off the food by flocks of noisy squabbling starlings like this one:

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær, availing itself of the seed platter

I welcome all creatures to stop by for a nibble in the depths of winter because I think how miserable I’d be if it was me out there in the freezing cold with no food. And until a couple of weeks ago the only non-avian guests I’d entertained were the occasional mouse and the even more occasional squirrel.

But then last week I spotted this little chap poking his head out from under the bush adjacent to the bird feeder:

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus,

I know that rats can be a problem when there are too many of them in the wrong place, but I have a lot of respect for a creature which seems to me to be the ultimate survivor, I reckon ratty will be around long after humans have killed themselves off! Consequently, even though he is less welcome than my invertebrate visitors, I’m not going to panic and call for the rat catcher or put traps and poison out to try and kill him.

In the blink of an eye he was up the pole and tucking in to the bird food

As I watched, he scurried out from under the  bush and shinned up the metal pole with the bird feeders on and helped himself to a nibble at the fat balls. Now I reckon any creature that has the brains and the balls to do that deserves a little sustenance as reward for his skill and ingenuity. So fair play to him.

I know there are no rats living in the immediate vicinity of my house, and I only ever see them occasionally and one at a time, so unless he moves in and brings his family I’m content to let him scavenge the occasional nut or seed.

Welcome house guests

One day in the summer I noticed a crane fly sitting on the outside of a window so I grabbed my camera with the macro lens and went on a bug hunt round the house. And these are the beasties I found lurking:

Male house spider, Tegenaria gigantea, with a glint in his eye

It was a murky day so the pictures I took in the house required the flash, so I experimented with the flash power, the ISO, and used the smallest aperture I could to maximise the depth of field (DOF). The ones I took through the window didn’t require the flash, but I kept the ISO higher, again so I could maximise the DOF:

Crane fly or daddy longlegs, Tipula paludosa, revealing one of the more bizarre head designs in the animal kingdom

On the same window as the crane fly were a number of garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) including this male:

The same male garden spider wrapping up a hoverfly

The crane fly was playing a dangerous game running the gauntlet of the garden spiders but it managed to avoid getting eaten. The garden spider above was on the window for weeks and was rather larger at the end, demonstrating that ambush predation is a highly successful strategy when combined with a sophisticated web to ensnare the prey.

Female oak bush cricket, Meconema thalassinum

It’s not uncommon in the summer for oak bush crickets to appear in the house and there’s no mistaking this creature. the one here is a female which is immediately apparent from her long ovipositor protruding from the back end. They are common all over the south of England and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects, so they’re welcome in the house.

And another carnivore which I’m happy to provide accommodation for is the daddy long legs spider:

Daddy long legs spider, Pholcus phalangioides, with a few of her many offspring

The daddy long legs spider looks so delicate but is a voracious predator and will catch and eat the much chunkier house spider as well as its siblings!

Glorious Glen Affric

During my excursion to the Highlands in June 2014 we  took a trip from Garten up to Inverness and down the north shore of Loch Ness before heading up to one the wildest places I’ve been to in the UK, Glen Affric.

It seems that Glen Affric is right in the  midst of the back of beyond and I can imagine it’s a harsh place to live in the depths of winter. But often with remoteness comes undistrurbed natural beauty, and so it was here. On arrival we parked up at a car park on the bank of River Affric, and after fastidious application of insect repellent to deter the midges we ate lunch at a picnic table . And as we sat and watched the river a dipper was busy skimming to and fro. A closer look after lunch revealed that it had built a nest on the underside of a bridge and it was bringing insects back to feed the chicks.

Dipper – Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær – contemplating the next foray upriver…

This was too good a photo opportunity to miss and I hopped from stone to stone into the river and eventually perched on a rock a couple of inches above the water that was just about stable enough to keep me out the river. I wanted to get a picture of a dipper as it skimmed past low over the water and I managed to capture this series of shots as it took care of the crucial business of feeding the hungry youngsters:

… setting off

… passing through at high speed…

… and heading back with a beak full of grubs. A successful mission.

I’ve never had the chance to photograph dippers like this before so I’m very happy with this series of pictures. I rarely see them because they’re birds of fast moving rivers like the ones found in the hills and mountains and consequently they’re not to be found in my part of the world. Despite the fact I see it very infrequently, the dipper is a resident breeder in the UK and is green listed and therefore not of concern. And unlike most waterbirds which hunt by swimming or diving, the dipper hunts by running along the bottom of the riverbed. Some years ago I watched one do this in a mountain stream in Betws y Coed in Snowdonia, it’s a fascinating thing to watch and it made me wonder how they diminish their bouyancy in order to avoid floating off the river bed.

The reason we went to Glen Affric was to see rare dragonflies, specifically, the northern emerald which is very local to the Highlands of Scotland and absent from England, and the downy emerald which can also be seen in some parts of England but is uncommon. For the record, we saw a lot of downy emeralds over Coire Loch at Glen Affric but no northern emeralds. As we were dragon hunting I only took my long telephoto lens and I didn’t take any landscape shots of the terrain (or none which I’m happy to share), but to get an idea of the place follow the link above and the two pictures on the first page labelled ‘River Affric‘ and ‘Looking down over Coire Loch‘ best reflect my memories of it.

I didn’t get any dragon pictures here either because I couldn’t really get close enough to them, so as it was a gloriously sunny afternoon I just enjoyed the silence and the views and the whole atmosphere of the place, which was utter tranquility.

Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea, Dansk: bjergvipstjert

Like the dipper, grey wagtail were also darting up and down the river.  They are resident breeders and passage visitors with amber conservation status in the UK, but their numbers are not of concern in Europe as a whole and they are beautiful little birds to be seen hunting insects over fast running streams. I think the name ‘grey wagtail‘ suggests something a tad dull and uninteresting, which does them a huge disservice, something like ‘saffron wagtail‘ would be more appropriate!

The best sighting of all at Glen Affric was one I didn’t get a photograph of because I was driving at the time. And it was also the most unexpected. We had just left the parking place at Glen Affric to return to Garten at around 6.30pm when a dark brown/black creature approximately the size of a cat bounded across the road and ran along in front of the car for four or five seconds, and it was a pine marten (Martes martes). We had paid to sit in a hide two nights previously to guarantee a sighting of this most elusive creature, and here was one running down the road in front of us. It’s funny how a whole four day trip can be made by a four second sighting of an incredibly rare and charismatic creature.

Loch Mallachie

Loch Garten is mainly associated with the osprey and is the home of the flagship RSPB reserve set up to protect and provide access to this most remarkable of birds.

But the osprey isn’t the only bird to be seen in this part of the world, and as I’d never been here before I was really hoping to see crested tit and Scottish crossbill in the coniferous forest around the lake. Suffice to say, despite looking long and hard I saw neither. But far from being despondent I see it as an excellent reason to go back there and try again!

Common sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos, Dansk: mudderklire

In the same part of Abernethy Forest and a short distance from Loch Garten is Loch Malachie, so myself and my companion decided to explore there after drawing a blank on tits and crossbills at Garten.  But instead of them, we found common sandpipers and in my book that’s a fair exchange:

The sandpipers are very neat little waders and there were several of them patrolling the large boulders on the shore of the lake. They weren’t overly impressed with our presence and to show their disquiet made several low looping flights along the shore and around behind us through the woods, which felt like an unusual place to see a sandpiper in flight. So we collected a few photographs and retreated to leave them in peace.

Goldeneye – Bucephala clangula, Dansk: hvinand

On the same piece of shore line as the sandpipers was this female goldeneye with a pair of chicks. The goldeneye overwinters over much of the UK but has a very small breeding population of only a couple of hundred pairs, largely due to a program of nestboxes on Speyside – the goldeneye is unusual amongst ducks in that it nests in holes in trees. There was no male accompanying this family which is pity because they’re spectacular!

It  was a grey, damp, overcast morning in the Abernethy Forest around Loch Malachie and may be because of that it was eerily quiet. There were very few songbirds and the ones we saw most of were wren and chaffinch, which are also common visitors to my garden. But then we saw a spotted flycatcher which is definitely not a visitor to my garden:

Spotted flycatcher – Muscacapa striata, Dansk: fluesnapper

The spotted flycatcher is a migrant breeder to the UK, it overwinters in Africa and is red listed due to overall decline as a result of decreasing prey species caused by pollution and insecticide use (>30% over 10 years). Despite that, the European population is estimated to be 42-66 million individual birds (according to Birdlife International).

Apart from the beautiful wildlife, what I really noticed in the forest was the complete absence of human noise polution (it was silent apart from the wind and the birds), and the smell of the pine forest, and there are few natural aromas as delicious as the fresh smell of pine mixed in with the leaf mould underfoot. But the best thing was the silence!