I’m back.

I’ve come back from Perigord to the grim news from New Orleans. I don’t really have anything to say about that, for the moment.

I did manage to listen to the cricket on Radio4 LW via a buzzy little radio. I ended up having to hold it out of an upstairs window and nearly had a heart attack when I thought the Aussies were going to win the thing. Fingers crossed for the Oval. I have a ticket for the fifth day, so my ideal result would be an England win on Monday. But I’d also accept five days of rain.

Not much on the bird front in France; a distant hoopoe was the best bird. The swallows and martins are gathering on the telephone wires and in the treetops. They take off in great twittering flocks and flutter around chasing insects before settling again somewhere else. It’s such an evocative sign of the changing seasons; one which I generally miss, living in London. One day soon they’ll take off and head for Africa.

Swallowtail, tiger swallowtail, lots of butterflies. My favourite insects though were the hummingbird hawkmoths, which I could happily watch for hours. Minutes, anyway.

Lots of booze, lots of food – duck carpaccio, duck paté, confit of duck gizzards, duck pizza. A morning of very hung-over canoeing, which made me feel like I was going to die. We visited a C12th church carved out of the face of a cliff, complete with a necropolis, a C9th font for total immersion baptism, and a reliquary modelled on the tomb Joseph of Aramathea had built for Christ in the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem – as seen by one of the local nobles who’d been there on the Crusades. It even had a temple to the Roman god Mithras which they found under the main church. So that was pretty fab. We played the Lord of the Rings edition of Risk, as well. There may be something in life that makes you feel more geeky than saying “I’m going to invade Fangorn” and then pushing a little plastic orc onto your opponent’s square and rolling a dice to see who wins. But I don’t know what it is.

I finished The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, which is OK. One volume isn’t really enough to deal with a 70 year period, and his opinionated comments sometimes seem a bit dubious, but it’s readable enough. I was more impressed by The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which was last year’s Booker winner. The central character is a gay PhD student writing about the style of Henry James while living in the house of an up-and-coming Tory MP in the 1980s; he (the student) becomes involved with a wealthy coke-snorting playboy who eventually dies of AIDS. It is in fact something of a satire of that period, but it’s handled with a much more sensitive and nuanced touch than that summary would suggest. Hollinghurst is an impressive prose stylist himself.


List from Taba Heights (a dive resort in Egypt): House Sparrow, Blackstart, White-crowned Wheatear, Spectacled Bulbul, Laughing Dove, Collared Dove, Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin, Rock/Crag Martin (not sure), Swift, Kestrel, Sooty Gull, European Bee-eater, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Little Green Bee-eater, Mangrove Heron.

The Bee-eaters are probably the pick of that list, though I didn’t see any of them very well. The distribution maps in the book were clearly unreliable for the area, and I never managed to decide whether they were Rock Martin or Crag Martin.

One day I spent some time trying to track down a bird I could hear making a loud ‘chk chk’ call – I thought possibly a warbler. Eventually I was looking directly into a bouganvillea, not more than 4-5 feet away, and I couldn’t understand how I couldn’t see the damn bird, and I realised that on the wall directly behind the bouganvillea was… a gecko.

  • Post category:Me / Nature

the difference between reptiles and amphibians

[EDIT: People keep finding this site by Googling ‘the difference between reptiles and amphibians’ This is the basic answer:

Amphibians are frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians.

Reptiles are snakes, tortoises, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, alligators and a few other oddities. Dinosaurs were reptiles.

Reptiles are more fully adapted to life on land than amphibians. The biggest difference is that amphibians typically need to return to the water to breed, because their eggs need to be kept wet. Reptile eggs have a tough outer shell that prevents them from drying up.

Amphibians [with a few minor exceptions] have a larval stage (i.e. tadpoles/polliwogs) when they breathe underwater through gills; when they become adult, they develop lungs and need to come to the air to breathe. Reptiles have lungs from the moment they leave the egg.

As a further adaptation to life on land, reptiles have scales. Amphibians have smooth skins, and many species need a fairly damp environment so they don’t lose too much water through their skin, although some are adapted to much dryer conditions.

Mammals and birds are evolved from reptiles. Reptiles are evolved from amphibians. correction: amphibians and reptiles evolved separately from an early tetrapod ancestor. Amphibians are evolved from fish.

I hope that helps, Google-people. END OF EDIT]

The first in an occasional series of things which are ‘Something Every Educated Person Should Know’.

When I was at university, as someone interested in science but doing a degree in English, I was frequently annoyed by the wilful ignorance of both academics and students on scientific topics. And I mean wilful – they took a coy, self-deprecating pride in not knowing about ‘those kind of things’. I just think there’s no excuse for taking pride in your ignorance about anything, whether it’s the Britney Spears back-catalogue, Slovakian dialling codes or the second law of thermodynamics.

Anyway, that’s when I started fantasising about writing a book called What Every Educated Person Should Know, which would just lay down the minimum that anyone ought to know who thinks of themselves as educated. Most of the things I thought of then were scientific; I can’t believe it doesn’t bother people that their understanding of how the universe works is often three hundred years out of date. But it would also cover literature, art, geography, politics and general knowledge of all kinds (I don’t claim to know everything, btw – a musician’s list of SEEPSKs would certainly catch me out – this is just a venue for my irritability).

So, SEEPSK #1. One of the presenters on Today this morning had to correct himself after a flood of emails about his reference to a salamander as a reptile. I think it was Edward Stourton, educated at Ampleforth and Trinity College Cambridge, and the man doesn’t know a reptile from an amphibian. Aargh!

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

I didn’t blog this last week, but before it gets any further into the past – how fabulous that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still with us. It brightened my morning more than any piece of news I can remember for a long time. And I’m not even American, I just know about the IBW from my US bird guide. Short of them finding a previously unknown colony of Slender-billed Curlews, Great Auks or Moas, it’s hard to imagine a more cheerful thing. So hurrah.

  • Post category:Nature

Oare walk yesterday

An approximate list, some of the obvious things left out: teal, pintail, shelduck, mallard, heron, little egret, redshank, avocet, oystercatcher, lapwing, sedge warbler, yellowhammer, corn bunting, reed bunting, skylark, swallow, marsh harrier (1F and 1M)… um, that might be it.

  • Post category:Nature


“Sometimes entire animals such as the stormy petrel and the candlefish of the Pacific Northwest were threaded with a wick and burned as candles.”

from here.

  • Post category:Nature

pheasant in the garden

There was a nice healthy-looking, shiny, brightly coloured male pheasant in the garden yesterday – which is pretty unusual in south London. What with the Ring-necked Parakeets and the Beast of Sydenham, it’s starting to seem pretty exotic around here.

  • Post category:Nature

teaching ID alongside natural selection

I do actually think there’s an argument for teaching about the idea of Intelligent Design alongside natural selection.

Or, to be more exact, in teaching natural selection in the context of ID.

That’s not because I think ID is a valid alternative to NS. It’s clearly not. On the contrary, school biology lessons ought to be teaching a very basic version of what biology is as a professional discipline, and natural selection is the unchallenged theoretical basis of academic biology, the context by which all data is understood.

So why teach about ID, if it’s a bad theory?

I found a lot of science teaching boring at school, even though I was generally interested in science and good at it (I could easily have ended up studying Maths or Chemistry at university instead of English Lit). I am still interested in science and still read a lot of popular science and science history. So why was it so dull at school? What you get from reading a biography of Darwin, which you don’t get from a typical school lesson on biology, is a sense of the interaction and development of ideas. At school you get taught the answers without being told what the questions were. Insights which brilliant men slaved over for decades are presented as though they were obvious and trivial, and all the excitement is drained out of the subject.

A non-biology example. Everyone knows the anecdote about Newton watching an apple fall and having the idea for gravity; but all they take from it is that Newton saw an apple fall and thought “there must be a force that makes apples fall”. But the *important* insight is: the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that keeps the Earth circling the sun. Not that long before Newton, people thought that the movement of bodies on the Earth needed to be understood completely differently to ‘superlunary’ bodies. Someone as brilliant as Gallileo tried to explain the movement of the planets in terms of an inherent tendency they had to move in circles, while a falling apple was being moved by a completely separate force. What Newton did was come up with four simple laws – the laws of motion and the inverse square law of gravitation – which taken together are enough to explain not just the orbits of the planets and the falling of an apple, but the movement of all objects. The entire universe becomes one system. As Pope put it,

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

That kind of historical understanding of gravity is no use to an engineer, but for most people, who will leave school and never use physics again, it’s a lot more important than being able to calculate the speed of a falling body or the period of oscillation of a pendulum. I also think the historical context helps you learn the science, because knowing how the ideas developed helps you remember them.

In the case of biology, Intelligent Design was the reigning theory before Darwin. An intelligent designer is a good way to explain the complexity of living things. The reason that Darwinism is important is that it provides a materialist alternative to ID. That’s one reason why Richard Dawkins keeps harking back to creationism in his books – he recognises that it is the only competing theory for the complexity of life. A book like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ is one long engagement with the idea of an intelligent designer because ID is the context which makes Darwinism important.

So, if I was trying to teach evolution, I’d be tempted to start with ID as the context before moving on to natural selection and pointing out all the things that NS (and evolution) can explain that ID doesn’t – like the fact we have an appendix, the way that animals tend to live in the same geographical areas as their relatives, that all mammals have the same bodyplan and so on.

Teaching ID as a viable alternative to natural selection, on the other hand, is completely insane.

  • Post category:Nature

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2005

I just took part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2005.

If you’re living in Britain, there’s still time to take part – you can do it today or tomorrow. My list (numbers are maximum seen at once):

great tit – 4
blue tit – 9
coal tit – 1

greenfinch – 2
chaffinch – 2

nuthatch – 1
robin – 2
starling – 3
goldcrest – 1
dunnock – 1
blackbird – 2

feral pigeon – 6
woodpigeon – 1

green woodpecker – 1
great spotted woodpecker – 1

carrion crow – 2
magpie – 3

black-headed gull – 12

Which is pretty mediocre, to be honest. Some birds I regularly see in the garden that didn’t turn up in my hour slot: jay, goldfinch, heron, long-tailed tit, collared dove, ring-necked parakeet. Jay was probably the biggest gap in the list.

  • Post category:Nature

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fevourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.