Categories
Culture

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

This is satirical science fiction from 1936, about the discovery of a species of intelligent amphibian living in the sea next to a small island near Sumatra. The ‘newts’ are exploited and traded, initially as pearl fishers and then as cheap labour on massive marine construction projects, until they are present in huge numbers all around the world; and then — spoilers, I guess, but the clue’s in the title — they start fighting back.

newt

I bought it because it was recommended on the Book Shambles podcast, but even so it turned out to be much more entertaining and readable than I expected. The satire is not as focussed as, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four; the biggest targets are colonialism and racism, with the trade in newts modelled on the slave trade, but along the way it takes pot shots at nationalism, capitalism, fascism, Hollywood, newspapers, scientists and much else.

I read the Robert and Marie Weatherall translation from 1936; I certainly enjoyed it, although Wikipedia suggests that the more recent Ewald Osers version is more highly regarded.

I did already have the Czech Republic ticked off for the Read The World challenge when I started — I’ve read Kafka and Hašek and whatnot — but this is the first Czech book I’ve read since then, probably.

» The photo is a tweaked version of ‘Hellbender at the National Zoo, Reptile Discovery Center’, © Brian Gratwicke and used under a CC-by licence.

Categories
Nature

Spring update: toadspawn edition

This is what toadspawn looks like, if you’re wondering:

i.e. formed into long strings which are wrapped around plants or, as in this case, the pump for the fountain.

Categories
Nature

Happy spring, everybody.

There has been plenty of evidence of spring for a few weeks now — crocuses, bumblebees, birdsong, hay fever — but yesterday was the vernal equinox, which is the cue for lots of people to say that it’s ‘officially’ the first day of spring. I don’t really see why astronomy should get to trump biology; the self-importance of the mathematical sciences, probably.

Though actually, if you must fit messy old nature into tidy human boxes, it’s not a bad approximation for when spring gets properly underway. The first spring migrants have just started arriving in the past few days: yay wheatears.

Meanwhile the pond has been full of toads gettin’ jiggy with it. Except that suggests something lively and maybe even fun, whereas toad sex appears to be a grim, attritional feat of endurance. The males clamp onto the females for days at a time; often you find two or three attached to the same female. And sometimes the females drown under the weight, so you find several males clasped implacably to a corpse. Romantic!

In other garden wildlife news, we have this exciting bundle of feathers:

Exciting because it used to be a woodcock, which is a really unexpected addition to the garden list… except that it can’t actually go on the list because it’s just some feathers. Still, a nice meal for one of the local foxes. Or possibly a cat? Not one of our cats, partly because they’re shut in at night but mainly because they definitely would have brought it into the house. Which is what Oscar did with this (you can see the shadow of his ears at the top):

It’s a big beetle grub; I’m pretty sure it’s a stag beetle, although they normally live underground so I don’t know where he found it.

I went along to the north Kent marshes a couple of days ago. More signs of spring: a comma (the butterfly, not the punctuation) and a lizard, plus I saw a few wheatears, which would be one of my favourite birds even if it wasn’t the first spring migrant every year.

Plenty of the winter visitors were still there, though; brent geese, godwits, plovers, and most pleasingly a short-eared owl. I also saw peregrine, marsh harrier, buzzard, and had great views of a group of four bearded tits, which was bird of the day. But I don’t have photos of any of those, so I’ll leave you with this highland cow which was more willing to pose for pictures.

Mooooo.

Categories
Nature

Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

Categories
Culture Nature

Video digiscoping experiment

It just occurred to me a couple of days ago that since my digital camera has a video mode, I could try digiscoping some video. I thought it came out fairly well, considering. I just hold the camera up to the telescope, so it’s a bit wobbly, and the audio is dominated by aeroplane noise, and the YouTube conversion hasn’t improved it, but I’ll certainly consider doing it again next time I’m doing proper birding. This is a greenfinch, btw.

I wish I’d thought of it when I was in Crete, when there was a Little Crake walking backwards and forwards past the same spot over and over again but because of the difficulty of timing the shot, I mainly got lots of pictures like this:

Little Crake walking out of shot

And while I’m on garden wildlife, look what was in the basement light well. His price for being rescued was having his photograph taken with flash. There are lots of frogs and newts, but it’s a very long time since I’ve seen a toad here.

little toad

Categories
Culture Nature Other

Blogger Bio-blitz #1: Ayia Lake

blogger bioblitz

On April 21st, I went birding to a reservoir near the village of Αγια, written as either Agia or Ayia in Roman characters. Ayia is about 9 km SW of Chania, the capital of the westernmost province of Crete, and the reservoir is a good spot for migrating waterbirds. The reservoir is surrounded by reedbeds and then agricultural land; the walk down to the lake goes past orange groves.

To quote the post I wrote on the day, now with some pictures: “The guide to birdwatching in Crete listed, among the possible birds for the site, Little Crake, Spotted Crake and Baillon’s Crake. I’ve never seen any of those before, but I didn’t get my hopes up because all the crakes are notoriously difficult to see; they skulk.

So I arrived and pretty much the first thing I saw? A crake! In full view! And I had one of those panicky moments of trying to put down the telescope in a controlled fashion and get a proper look at the bird and check the field guide, all at the same time, thinking I had to make use of my lucky moment, while the crake just kept pottering about at the edge of the reeds. After I’d had a long look at it and decided it was Little Crake (plain blue underside and no barring on the flanks, since you ask) I had a quick check in the other direction along the lake, and there was another one! And it became apparent that not only were they not bothering to skulk, they were extremely approachable.

male Little Crake

I can only assume that they are so tame because they’re on migration and their priority is eating furiously to get their strength up. From Africa to, say, Poland is a long way to fly for a little bird with stubby wings. I also got incredibly good views of a Little Bittern that just sat and looked at me as I approached instead of ducking into the reeds. Again, it was probably knackered from all the flying.”

female Little Bittern

All that black around the edge of the picture is vignetting from the scope. Normally I’d zoom the camera to cut it off, but the bird was so close that I’d have to cut off its feet.

Here’s the rest of the list for the day, with a few comments:

Linnet
European Goldfinch
European Greenfinch
Chaffinch
European Serin

These finches are all residents on Crete, and may well have raised one brood already, even though the passage migrants are still heading north.

Spotted Flycatcher
European Pied Flycatcher
European Stonechat
Whinchat (below)

Whinchat

Nightingale (only heard)
Great Tit
Yellow Wagtail (the black-headed subspecies, Motacilla flava feldegg)
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Common Blackbird

Barn Swallow
House Martin
Sand Martin

sand martins and swallow
Barn Swallow and some Sand Martins resting in the reeds. Most Barn Swallows in Europe have pure white underparts; the reddish breast of the one here is typical of the eastern Mediterranean. And I’ve just learnt that what I call a Sand Martin is known as a Bank Swallow in the US, so if you were thinking they looked familiar, that might be why.

House Sparrow – the subspecies known as ‘Italian Sparrow’, Passer domesticus italiae.

Hooded Crow

Common Swift
Alpine Swift

Eurasian Coot
Common Moorhen
Little Crake

Little Bittern
Black-crowned Night Heron
Grey Heron
Little Egret (below)

Little Egret

Little Stint
Common Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Yellow-legged Gull

Common Kingfisher (below)

kingfisher

Common Cuckoo (below; another surprisingly tame bird)

cuckoo

Little Grebe
Ferruginous Duck
My second lifetime tick for the day, after Little Crake. I was just settling down to a coffee (Greek, medium sugar) and saw a couple of birders intently peering through a scope at something which, when I wandered over, turned out to be a distant but definite Ferruginous Duck. It obviously pays to be nosy.

European Marsh Harrier
Common Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon

And one non-bird:

European Tree Frog

tree frog

That barn owl bio blitz button is derived from a photo on Flickr by Nick Lawes used under a by-nc-sa licence; the button is therefore available under the same licence. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Jennifer’s BBB buttons, but I wanted something to match my colour scheme.