Starling Murmuration in the Fens



from the BBC, the Bradley Broadcasting Corporation

Sunset is still a long way off. But, there’s a peace settling over the reed bed at the Broad Lane balancing pond in Cottenham. Nevertheless, it seems an unlikely place to spend the night. But, that’s exactly what several hundred local residents are planning to do. They’re just waiting for the sun to go down and in they’ll come to make their bed.

The time is drawing near, a few birds have come home to roost and are calling from the trees. Almost as soon as the sun dips below the horizon, the first of the overnighters arrive, winging their way in from the local fields and making a flap about who gets to sleep where. And, then the crowds begin to arrive, everyone jostling for pole position in the race to find the most comfortable and safest spot to bed down for the night.

The arrivals are, of course, starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), and this is murmuration time. We do not see quite the magnificent flocks of millions that appear over the African savannah nor even the multitude that murmurates along Brighton Pier. But, this is Cottenham on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens and we have to make do with a mere two or three thousand of these birds settling down each winter night. Wave after wave arrives to find a roosting place among the reeds.

And then, the stragglers, the less prompt late back from the fields. Thankfully, there’s always a snug bed among the reeds. And, there’s no panic about who gets the top or the bottom bunk. Every roost is the same and every roost is as safe as the next from night-hunting predators with a taste for our feathered friends. They just have to hope there are no pike in that balancing pond.


EPISODE 1: I Heard a Murmur
EPISODE 2: Goldfinch Dynasty
EPISODE 3: Young People’s Beat Combo
EPISODE 4: The Cumulus Dynasty

Is this the end of insects?

Even through the scorcher of a summer we just had, nobody was scraping moths and flies from their windscreens and headlights were they? Nobody has done that for a few years now…I know several friends have been wondering why that is…are insects simply avoiding the roads? No, of course, not. What’s happening is that insects are dying out, unfortunately.

The New York Times has finally caught up

Shooting Waste – a song

The draft lyrics to this new song of mine started out as being some kind of concerned imagery about suicide, but once I started recording vocals and extending them, they morphed into something more global, something about the problems we see in the world today. There was indeed another shooting the week I started this but they seem even more poignant now that a US President has used chemical weapons against children on foreign soil. For actual fuck’s sake…

Here it is. It has been through about 15 remixes of the countless vocal takes and guitar solo re-records. I think it’s fairly strong now, but you decide. Available from the Sciencebase Soundcloud to stream or download Shooting Waste from Bandcamp, now part of my new mini-album When the Beat Hits Your Heart.

Worzel Gummidge – Cottenham Theatre

We’re coming to the end of rehearsals right now, two more, then it’s show time. It’s really grown on me from my privileged position deep in the bowels of the orchestra pit from where I got some snaps of the cast in their costumes. Taking photos with a Canon 6D SLR and a Canon 24-105mm L lens. No flash (obvs). Low light and the fact that I am officially supposed to be playing guitar in the band rather than bouncing about taking photos makes it quite a task. Still, I get a few closeups and odd angles that the tech guys at the back of the hall running light and sound don’t get from their vantage point. Been doing this since 2013, with one year off when we didn’t have a pit band.

This week: Wednesday (28th Dec) to Saturday (1st Dec) evenings and a matinee on Saturday. Tickets here

Mottled Umber – Erannis defoliaria

UPDATE: 25 Nov 2019 First noted appearance of the year of a Mottled Umber, just a day later than in 2018. Didn’t reach the trap, roosted on the conservatory wall, was photographed and released into the front garden. The females are wingless, so these are definitely males. There are two LBAMs on the trap too, but nothing present by morning aside from a caddisfly and some diptera. My detailed mothing records for 2019 are available here.

This was the first new species to the actinic trap (night of 24th November 2018) for almost two weeks, having had numerous blanks and/or just the occasional Turnip Moth and a Dark Chestnut or two.

This species is the geometer moth Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria). The “geometers” all have larvae (caterpillars) that appear to measure the earth (they’re called inchworms colloquially in the US, I believe). Geo meaning earth, meter meaning to measure. More mothematics here.

Mens Agitat Molem

When I was a fresher, we used to drink in the Mens bar. I blogged a bit about it a couple of years ago. It wasn’t some exclusive male-only venue, it was a shortened form of the Latin motto – Mens Agitat Molem – Mind moves mountain. But, there was confusion among the confused and the Mens Bar monicker had to give way to something less ambiguous. So, there’s now a swanky new bar in the Student Union called “Luther’s”, like it’s some 80s nightclub. Gone are the wood-panelled walls (actually they went decades ago) and in with the trendy tables and seating.

We paid it a visit last week, aside from some non-student youngsters queuing for local singer-songwriter Sam Fender, there was nobody partaking of the facilities but us. Anyway, it’s named Luther’s after Dr Martin Luther King Jr who received an honorary degree from my alma mater, the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne back in 1967.

Newcastle was the only UK institution to bestow such an honour on him. He ad-libbed one of his most poignant speeches in accepting the degree. I suppose they could’ve called it Martin’s but that sounds a bit modern, and given than Newcastle used to be King’s College, Durham, King’s wouldn’t have really worked either. So, Luther’s it is.

There was both a red and a white Poppy deposited in the statue’s cap.

Here’s the film of MLK receiving his honorary degree from NCL in November 1967, cued for the start of his speech:

How the dog brain works

A lot of people, usually people who don’t have dogs, talk about dog psychology and how dogs see humans, specifically their owners and handlers as being like the alphas in the dog’s pack and that’s why they (usually) do what we command them to do and always come to us for food, tummy rubs, and treats.

The simplest of observations shows that this is not true. Most dogs on seeing a human walking towards them will, if they’re well adjusted (dog and human) may approach with caution and interact. But, if it’s a strange dog, the response is almost always entirely different. Now, the scientific evidence is in, in the form of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain scans of awake dogs presented with human and canine faces show adjacent but separate regions of the brain being activated in response.

The researchers explain how working dogs were presented with pictures of canine and human faces. The human faces varied in familiarity (familiar trainers and unfamiliar individuals) and emotion (negative, neutral, and positive). Dog faces were familiar (kennel mates) or unfamiliar.

They found that the human face area activated in the dogs’ brains maps to the part of our brains we call the fusiform area and the dog face area maps to the human superior temporal gyrus. Both regions are critical for human face processing system in our brains, suggesting a past evolutionary link to our common mammalian ancestor and perhaps deeper back in time to the precursors of mammals.

The research paper can be found here.