Saturday, 20 January 2018

Iridium flares: the end of an era...

Those of you with an interest in Astronomy may well have been surprised by a bright flash in the night sky. Very often this will have been produced by the panels of an Iridium Satellite reflecting the light of the Sun below the horizon.

A chain of around sixty six of these communications satellites have been in orbit for some years, the name deriving from the atomic number of the metallic element Iridium - it was originally intended to launch 77 of them.

The company that operates the Iridium satellites has begun 'de-orbiting' and replacing them with a new version that will no longer produce the beautiful and much-enjoyed flare. If you've never seen one, you have around a year to do so: you can find predictions online at the free site Heavens Above (You have to enter your location for a prediction accurate to the second!)

Photographing the flares is straightforward: put your DSLR on a tripod with the lens set on infinity and settings of 1600 ISO and f5.6. Point the camera towards the part of the sky where a flare is expected: the satellite will initially be visible as a bright starlike object. At the predicted time (with exposure on 'bulb') take a series of 10 - 15 second exposures.

In best Blue Peter style, here's one I made earlier: last night in fact. It occurred near the constellation Taurus, close to the Pleiades ('Seven Sisters') but wasn't particularly bright... The other image is of Orion, everyone's favourite star group.


Friday, 19 January 2018

Black Redstart at Sheringham

Since everyone else in Norfolk has seen this fabulous bird, I was secretly pleased when Linda told me she wanted to visit a couple of shops in Sheringham this morning.

We decided to park by the seawatching shelters (just because it's free!) and were thrilled to see the Black Redstart just yards away on the wall around the RNLI car park. A few other  birders / photographers turned up, but the delightful sprite was totally unfazed and performed beautifully. Everyone behaved impeccably and we were rewarded by very close views as the Black Redstart came within ten metres.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Winnie the Pooh Day

Today being International Pooh Day, Linda and I couldn't help but reflect that, when we were first married, we ran the largest WtP import / export / retail business in Europe. Our website received a million plus hits a year and we travelled all over the UK ( and France!) selling British, US, Japanese and French Poohs, Tiggers, Eeyores, Piglets etc etc!

We also published what is still the only complete catalogue of WtP collectable beanies ever produced: it was a huge seller!

Great fun! But the pressure of running Tigger Trading as well as the meteorite and space memorabilia businesses meant something had to give!


It's only birdwatching, but who to believe?

It's been interesting to watch the proliferation of 'birding information sites' on Twitter, Blogger and Facebook, all vying to keep us up to date on where to see interesting and unusual birds in East Anglia. What's particularly fascinating is that they often give contradictory information! Some of these sites are maintained by individuals who obtain most of their data from commercial online services and some by people who copy and paste data from other people's blogs: in both cases no personal knowledge is involved! The inevitable result is that birds are reported to be present when they've departed, or absent when they're still around: numbers are under or overstated and locations may be intentionally or mistakenly misreported. As an example: yesterday I started to count the Snow Buntings at Gramborough Hill and gave up at 100: there were lots more than that! All over the net the flock size is given as 70!

My favourite sites are those that are not maintained for commercial gain, back up their frequent posts with current personal data and photographs and aren't full of second hand sightings and political opinion! Examples would be:

Suffolk Birding with BINS

Yare Valley Wildlife

James Emerson's Birds and Beer

...and Twitter accounts such as:

Terry Dactyl (The Lowestoft Lounge Lizards)

Steve Gantlett

Justin Lansdell (and his big brother, Chris!)

There are lots more, of course, all providing a free alternative to expensive pagers and phone apps.

A tiny part of the flock!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Waxwings at Sheringham, Snow Buntings at Salthouse and lots more besides!

The 'Summer Wine Crew' headed north to Sheringham (a much quicker journey now part of the Northern Distributor is open!) to see if we could connect with the recently reported Black Redstart. First stop, though, was a narrow road to the north of the Tesco Superstore, where the group of three Waxwings were instantly viewable on top of a somewhat ugly telegraph pole.

Moving down to the seafront, we carried out a thorough search, but the Redstart had either departed or was sheltering from the brisk wind. However, a very confiding Purple Sandpiper provided some compensation for missing one of our targets.

On the way to Cley (for coffee!) we stopped at Letheringsett, where one of the two Coues's Redpolls was reportedly still present. If it was, no-one on site had seen it: however, we enjoyed terrific views of a small flock of Bullfinches. What fabulous birds these are!

After coffee we drove to Salthouse and walked out to Gramborough Hill. We quickly located the large resident 100+ flock of  Snow Buntings and sat down out of the wind to watch them. Within five minutes they'd worked their way right up to us, allowing some terrific photographic opportunities.

Last stop was Felbrigg Hall, where a long walk around the grounds added Song Thrush to the year list, as well as flight views of four Hawfinches by the Orangery. A great day out!

Nouns: my take on the current discussion.

I've read with interest the various conflicting opinions about when animal and plant names should have capital letters. There's actually no debate about this - it's quite straight forward:

If you are referring to a species it has a capital initial letter: if you're just talking about a type of living thing in general, it doesn't. This is not a matter of opinion, it is English grammar! Proper nouns have capital letters!
Here are some examples:

The African Lion is one of the few cats that live communally
Either side of the gate was the statue of a lion

He photographed a weasel on the back of a Green Woodpecker
Four species of woodpecker regularly occur in the UK

If you are using the Linnaean binomial classification, the genus has a capital initial, the species does not:

African Lion - Panthera leo
Green Woodpecker - Picus viridis

Again, this is not a debate topic, it's scientific convention!

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A breezy walk around the Fen

Brian seems to be on the mend (he's been suffering from the same lurgy that seems to have afflicted half the population recently!) so we met at Strumpshaw for a couple of hours trudging through the mud.

Despite the high winds a few bits and pieces made it an enjoyable walk round: Bearded Tit, Snipe, Green Sandpiper, Goldcrest and a flock of six or seven Bullfinches being the highlights. Lots of Marsh Harriers and Water Deer, of course, while overhead a huge RAF A400M Atlas made several circuits of East Norfolk. A really large flock - say 200+ - of Fieldfares crossed the river from the pumphouse.

(Thanks to Brian and Paul for I/d-ing the aircraft!)

Shorelarks and Great White Egret at Holkham: day two of my birthday minibreak!

Being resident on the North Coast for a couple of days, even a leisurely breakfast didn't prevent Linda and I being among the first cars at Lady Anne's Drive! A brisk walk out to the east of the gap soon produced reasonable views of a flock of nine Shorelarks (despite the inevitable unleashed dogs!) As we walked back we bumped into Chris and Justin Lansdell - I don't recall ever seeing the two brothers together before! Great to chat...

With half an hour still on the parking ticket, we carried on through the pines to the Washington Hide, where a distant Great White Egret gave reasonable views (especially when it was being harassed by a Grey Heron!)

From Holkham we continued westwards to Hunstanton, where Linda and I enjoyed some of our first birding excursions together over thirty years ago: hardly anything has changed! A walk  into town along the cliffs gave us excellent close-ups of the Fulmars, while on the sea were dozens of Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Great Crested Grebes.

Following lunch in the excellent 'Tina's Cafe' we retraced our steps to Titchwell. Not much to add to Saturday's birds, but Grey Plover, Goldeneye and Water Pipit were new. The Water Rail was still in his ditch!

On Monday morning we checked out of the Nelson and revisited Thornham Fruit Farm: the staff had kindly said we could help ourselves to as many windfall apples as we wanted (for our garden birds!) In the event we braved the wind and rain and went away with three bags-full, as well as some terrific fruit and veg for us!

We drove home along the North Coast, adding to the list Barn Owl at Burnham Thorpe, Snow Buntings at Salthouse and a couple of Bramblings in the carpark at Felbrigg.