Category Archives: Astronomy

The End of an Era

Okay, that’s a bit on the narcissistic side, but it really is a huge thing for me – after nearly six years at Walsall Council working as Senior Countryside Ranger, I’m moving on to pastures new. It is very difficult to take the decision to leave a job that you love, but I had my reasons, not least that I need to push myself.

Yesterday I cleared out my desk. I had envisioned leaving my job to be like one of those films where people walk out holding a cardboard box with a picture frame and a couple of books – what it was actually like was roughly 6 trips to the car, loaded down with hessian bags-for-life full of field guides, tupperware, entomological display cases, microscope and more. I was well and truly embedded in my work. Part of my ‘exit interview’ was asking me if I had achieved work-life balance, and I had to say ‘no’. The problem with doing something that you love for a living is that it’s very hard to leave at the door. In fact, the job has been very hard to leave at all.

I spent a good couple of weeks talking myself into it. Budget cuts and staff redundancies had made the job increasingly stressful in the last couple of years, and there is no end in sight to those pressures. I’m very lucky – I have a lot of those “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!” days, for which I’m extremely grateful, and I think that gratitude is crucial in life. So, as a swan song to Walsall Countryside Services, and in the grand tradition of Nick Hornby a-la High Fidelity, I thought I’d to a ‘Top 5’ of those:

My Top 5 ‘Pinch-yourself’ moments from the last 6 years are:

#5: Total Solar Eclipse on Barr Beacon – I’ve loved all of the astronomy events that have happened on Barr Beacon, and I’m really proud that we achieved Dark Sky Discovery status. 5 years of eclipse-watching, MeteorWatch, Stargazing Live, the Transit of Venus, solar observations, ISS-passes and more really culminated for me at the Solar Eclipse, in which over 600 people gathered on Barr Beacon for the event. The atmosphere was tangible and it was a real privilege to share the day with so many other people.

#4: Botanical Surveys – Mostly because it has been a baptism of fire. To me, for most of my ecological career, plants have been simply Things That Bees Sit On. The last two years of summer botanical surveys have taught me loads, and I have a new appreciation for an entirely different taxonomic area of interest.

#3: Bat Box Scheme – The one thing that I feel has only just begun, as I will continue to supervise the bat box scheme in Walsall (but with my bat group hat on instead of my ranger hat). We’ve made some real progress with recording the bats of the borough, and we have two new bat box areas to add to the scheme!

#2: Ringing Peregrine Chicks – Really, not many people get to do this, do they? I know what a lucky cow I am – and I’m not rubbing it in, but just being there to see our baby peregrines, and to hold their hot little fluffy bodies, and then to see all four chicks fledge the nest had been a long time coming, and after 5 years of Peregrine Watch, it really was a moment I’ll treasure.

#1: Walsall Amphibian Survey – this really has to be my number one, not only because it was my first big survey for Walsall Council, but also because I met so many wonderful people through recruiting volunteers for this survey, which took place way back in 2011. Not only did we get to record amphibians (including Great Crested Newts) across the borough, but it was the starting point for the Black Country and Staffordshire Naturalists, whom I still spend almost all of my spare time with! It’s brilliant to have started something worth while and to see it grow and blossom. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. (p.s. because NEWTS!)

So, it’s been a really tough decision to leave, but I’m so very excited about the next step in my career/life/etc. I’d like to say a huge thanks to all of my colleagues over the years including the twitterables: @DanSlee, @Corporal_Kleg, @AbesOddWorld and in particular to my boss @CountrysideKev for being just so awesome.

Deep breath…. here I go!

Tasting the Wild in 2015

My year in review. (In photos!) I’ve had another amazing year – looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve fit it all in!

Wild Encounters

From Chasing Violet Carpenter Bees in Andalucia, hunting for Eyed Ladybirds on Barr Beacon and moth trapping on heathlands around Walsall to mist netting for bats in woodlands, ringing birds (including our Peregrines which fledged four chicks!) and monitoring our amazing badgers, I’ve had another amazing year of wild encounters.

Wild in the Woods

I’ve also done lots of playing in the woods this year, and have concentrated on working on my fire craft skills (from just practicing lighting fires to experimenting with different tinders and kindlings). I’ve made a willow crayfish trap and learned some new basketry techniques, honed my corn dolly skills and bashed the heck out of some plants to make hapa zome flags. Culinary foraging has been limited to hedgerow berries and birch sap tapping this year, but I’m still reaping the benefits of my hedgerow vodka!

Travel

Kind of spent a ridiculous amount of my pocket money on travel this year, with a trip to Andalusia in March, followed by Edinburgh in May, the 5th annual Girls’ Birdwatching Trip (Norfolk), camping in the Derbyshire Dales and hiking from Ft William to Inverness. And I wonder why I have no money now that December is here! Highlights were definitely the seals at Blakeney Point and my first ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst camped on Loch Ness – amazing! (You can read the blog and see the videos of the hike across scotland here.) I’m planning on Florida, Cornwall and lots more camping in 2016!

Bats

Oh, the bats this year! I’ve been involved for a few years with the Herefordshire Mammal Group, doing mist netting and harp trapping surveys, and this year their project organisers helped BrumBats to undertake some woodland surveys of our own. With help from the Shropshire Bat Group, we surveyed Cuckoos Nook & the Dingle, Merrions Wood and Sutton Park. At BrumBats HQ we are very excited to get stuck into another season of study!  We also had a crazily busy year of bat care, and with this mild weather, are anticipating some winter grounded bats and (most likely) a very busy (and early) bat maternity season in 2016!

Space

The sun and the moon had amazing things in store this year – a total lunar eclipse, and a near-total solar eclipse. Both events had (uncharacteristically) clear skies. Over 600 people turned out on Barr Beacon for the solar eclipse. Amazing that so many people value natural phenomenon enough to come out and experience them together. The atmosphere was just incredible! I’m hoping to be in the USA for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Botanising

I had a fantastic summer, spending most of it undertaking botanical surveys of grasslands. I think we’re going to get a few new nature reserves out of it, and certainly some relaxed mowing regimes.

Becoming an Auntie again…

In January I became an auntie again – this time to a little girl – the enchanting Eleanor Hughes, whom I’ve got to spend time with twice this year (which is pretty good going seeing as she lives 3,500 miles away!). Can’t wait to see you in March, Elley!

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I hope that everyone has had a merry Christmas full of comfort and Joy, and I’m sending you wish-grenades for a prosperous, healthy and bright new year!

Thanks, as always, for reading. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover in 2016, please let me know!

Morgan x

Luna Rubrum

Sometimes you have to resort to sheer lunacy to make the most out of life. Earlier (much earlier) this morning I once again found myself on Barr Beacon hill, a Dark Sky Discovery site, for astronomical purposes. Ordinarily a bright moon would mean that I’d avoid any kind of stargazing event, as it outshines all but the brightest stars and meteors, but this morning, Luna was the star of the show. Not one, but two astronomical events happened last night. The first was a total lunar eclipse:

The sun is on the exact opposite side of Earth to the moon and cast’s Earth’s shadow onto the moon, so that the only light seen from the moon’s surface is the reflection of a thousand simultaneous sunsets and sunrises from our planet.

This coincided with the moon being at perigee (it’s closest point to Earth) appearing 7-14% larger in the sky. When perigee coincides with full moon it is called a Super Moon. This morning’s also happens to be Harvest Moon (the moon closest to the autumn equinox).

You might have heard the eclipse referred to as a ‘Blood Moon’. This is not related to the colour of the moon during the eclipse, but actually a term used to describe the phenomenon of four total eclipses taking place in a row (They happened in April & October 2014 and April & September 2015) – called a ‘tetrad’ of eclipses.

There’s a load of superstition and lore about Blood Moons and Harvest Moons being portents (good or ill) of future events, from a variety of cultures. And as I stood on the Beacon last night, it occurred to me that if people didn’t know about space, physics, the natural world, etc., then the phenomenon would have been truly intimidating and scary. Just think – the moon turning the colour of blood – doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how superstitions get started!

Red moon over the West Midlands as seen from Barr Beacon!
Red moon over the West Midlands as seen from Barr Beacon!

It’s the third total lunar eclipse I’ve seen, and by far the best viewing (skies were clear and although fog filled the valleys it, for the most part, stayed off the hill!) and the most impressive show I’ve seen.

It’s really whetted my whistle for the autumn meteor showers.  If you’re local (or even if you’re not!), you can book free places to attend the Orionids meteor shower on Barr Beacon in October, the Leonids meteor shower in November and the Geminids meteor shower in December by going to:

www.walsalllooksup.eventbrite.co.uk

Black Hole Sun

Yesterday I did something awesome, and I hope you did it too.  There were at least 5-600 people gathered up on Barr Beacon at 8.30am for the Solar Eclipse, and it was one of the most successful astronomy events yet on Barr Beacon.  I want to start by saying what an amazing atmosphere it was, and how happy everyone seemed to be taking part in something so special.  We had an 89% eclipse here in the Midlands, and some spectacularly clear skies and stunning views!  The Walsall Astronomical Society were coordinating the event’s telescopes, and even brought a generator and TV so we could watch the totality (viewable only in the Faroe Islands and in Svalbard) from the Astrosoc van!  Photos are below, but please read on…

So I was stopped in my tracks in the middle of an otherwise wonderful event when someone said to me:

You’d have thought the council would have provided sun watching glasses for everyone – typical!  I can’t get one – they are 20 quid!”

I (politely, I promise) explained that the event was organised by the Walsall Astronomical Society, supported by Countryside Services, and that neither organisation have £12,000 to spend on a two hour event when there are perfectly good ways to enjoy the event for free, not to mention an armada of telescopes for visitors to look through.  I took the member of the public to a telescope they could look through and they seemed to be sated. My colleague had received similar ‘typical council’ complaints.

This sort of thing is really disheartening, and makes me sad, because the event took place because of the selfless giving of hours and hours of volunteer time, generous people allowing total strangers to use their expensive equipment for free, council staff getting up at the crack of dawn to make the event happen JUST BECAUSE WE THINK IT IS IMPORTANT.  You know what?  If that’s ‘Typical Council’ then I’m glad to be a council worker.

Strange that this happened on a week when my good friend Dan from comms2point0 blogged about this very subject.  He’s not wrong.  He talks about the vulnerability and thin-skinned nature we have.  Its true that I must have had 200 compliments and ‘Thank You’s from attendees – so why does this one entitled person stick in my throat so badly?  Perhaps it is because this happens all the time…

The last really large-scale astronomy event in Walsall was in January 2012 when the BBC took over the New Art Gallery to bring a FREE Stargazing Live event to the public of our area, complete with rooftop telescopes, talks, demonstrations and even an inflatable planetarium.  I was part of the team supporting the BBC in their delivery of the event, and I don’t mind telling you that it was a lot of hard work.

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No one could have predicted that 5,000 people would show up at the event. On a school night.  In January.  We (staff and many volunteers) tried our best to make sure that everyone got to see through the telescopes and exhibits, have a go at activities and see the planetarium, but as you can imagine, there was a lot of queueing.

Here’s what I came home to at 3am on 17/1/12 after an 18 hour day trying to promote science and astronomy.  For free.

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Needless to say, I was in tears.  Now, I am not saying that people don’t have a right to complain, and if they had paid for the event and booked I would certainly feel more inclined to sympathise, but this was FREE, people!

I also understand that it is easy for members of the public to see ‘The Council’ as a machine that is fair game for insult – but I simply wish that there was a bit more awareness in the general public that it is front line staff which are trying their best and CARE about the public having access to science, the countryside and green spaces. If people realised that we are Decent Human Beings, perhaps the whining and this unexplained sense of entitlement could be reined in somewhat.

So the next time you hear someone whinge about ‘The Council’, especially in a public forum, please give a thought to exactly who they are insulting, and if the target of their frustration is misplaced.

There Goes My Hero (Watch him as he goes)

Pop science has its place. Where would we be without champions like David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Michio Kaku making science accessible to the general public?  I love that here in the UK we have a long and proud tradition of the production of world-class documentaries, pulling no punches.  These are, by and large, straight-up and un-patronising, treating the British public with a modicum of common sense and intelligence. (I was taught that in scientific writing, especially for the public, one should always credit your audience with intellect – your readers/watchers/listeners are INTELLIGENT but know nothing about the subject.)  In short, we do pop science very well.

I’ve never been one for US science documentaries (has Attenborough spoiled me?), with a few exceptions, not least the fantastic Strange Days on Planet Earth (which you can watch on youtube – my favourite episode is below) and the incredible Casey Anderson who manages to make amazing documentaries for Nat Geo without the usual melodrama, bravado and anthropomorphism of US-style documentaries.  [*I am aware that this is a SWEEPING generalisation and am always happy to hear of US docs that you think might change my mind on this!]

The champion of US science programming (for me, anyway) is the inspirational Carl Sagan, who made the original Cosmos series (Sagan also wrote Contact – made into a film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McCaunaghey – If you haven’t read it – get on that!). WHY they had to, frankly, MANGLE the recent cosmos series remake I have no idea! It is a perfect example of US style-over-substance with the nauseating Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is in my opinion a shockingly poor substitute for Sagan.  (Now I know that Sagan’s are some pretty big boots to fill, but they were touting Michio Kaku for season 2 and I was doing cartwheels in my head, but now devastated to hear that NDT is back for the 2nd season.)  Anyway, I Degrasse… 😉

SOME science TV educators walk the fine line between hard science (and biology IS a hard science – not Chemistry’s dirty liittle sister) and blatant anthropomorphism – and do it well.  Jeff Corwin and the late, great Steve Irwin for example.  They are clearly well-versed experts in their respective fields of Conservation and Behavioural Zoology, yet possess the ability to disseminate that information to the general public without ‘blinding them with science’, yet also make television that is accessible to the general public who may not be the type to tune into ‘horizon’ or ‘the sky at night’. (You might be surprised to hear that I actually put Professor Brian Cox in this ‘category’ – he’s inarguably an accomplished physicist but there’s something a bit too soft-focus about his Wonders series (even though I LOVE it!) for me.)

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But I was drinking coffee watching Nat Geo Wild this morning: A documentary (I suspect American made but re-voiced over by a British voice – but I may be wrong) called ‘Lioness in Exile’.  It was the biggest pile of Anthropomorphic Pop Ecology (APE TV) that I have seen in a long while (ergo the ranting blog post). Let me quote a few lines for you:

“its as if she understands that her cubs will have to grow up faster than they should”

“this is the harsh life she has chosen.”

“the youngsters are too hungry to show their elder any respect

“the youngsters are a reminder that she has something to fight for”

“zebra stripes are designed to confuse her”

“they are wary but reckless

Now, I’m not going to pick this apart line by line – but let’s just say that in general, it was a wee bit unscientific. Then I started to wonder – is this the demise of good Natural History TV?  Is fecking Springwatch all we have to look forward to? The dumbing down of science programming is really heartbreaking to me.  Are the public getting more stupiderer? Or are broadcasters deliberately deciding to feed us fluffed-up, watered-down coffee table conservation for some other reason? We NEED some new, bright young, hard-science presenters on TV (preferably in knitwear like Casey).  I’m not saying we can’t do behavioural ecology without feeling affection for animal or thinking that they’re cute; Jane Goodall has mad a career out of hard ecology studying animals that she feels a DEEP affection for.  Dear National Geographic, please sort it out.

Yours truly, Angry Mog x

Dark Matters

The sky darkens as we set up the telescope for the Lyrids MeteorWatch on Barr Beacon in 2012.

I’ve noticed the nights drawing in, which for me means two things: the end of bat season, and the start of astronomy season.  The long, dark nights and cold, clear skies make for the best conditions for stargazing, and as usual, I’m holding a series of informal events on Barr Beacon again this winter.  In December 2011 I succeeded in getting Barr Beacon to be the first urban Local Nature Reserve to receive the designation of Dark Sky Discovery Site. There will be some among you who think that giving such a title anywhere in the West Midlands Conurbation is a bit of a misnomer, but I disagree.  You see, its the DISCOVERY part that is key for me.  Barr Beacon is far from what any sensible person would call a place of notable dark skies, as by and large the sea of lights to the south and west can, on cloudy nights, create an urban glow which can present a considerable obstacle to astronomy, even with telescopes.  But its height above the surrounding landscape makes it one of the best spots for stargazing, because of the AMOUNT of the sky visible, which on a cloudless night is really impressive!  And its worth remembering that some of the brighter objects (planets, constellations, etc.) are perfectly visible in urban areas – so if you’re new to astronomy and just want to get your stellar bearings and dip your astronomical toe in the water, you don’t need to travel to dark, rural sites and set up expensive equipment.  You can come along to Barr Beacon, bring a folding chair and a flask of hot chocolate, and enjoy the atmosphere and the sights through binoculars, telescopes and with the naked eye.  The following images were all taken at urban sites, including Barr Beacon:

Orion rising over Barr Beacon

The craters on the moon, taken through a telescope on Barr Beacon

The Orion Nebula, taken through a telescope at Barr Beacon

Saturn and its rings as seen from Cannock.

Having said all that, it is true that light pollution is a HUGE issue.  Light pollution seems to be, in many people’s minds, a concept from the 1980s we dismissed along with several other environmental concepts (when was the last time you heard someone talk about ‘acid rain’?), but it couldn’t be more relevant today.  There are several projects and websites devoted to the subject:

The Campaign for Dark Skies (be sure to scroll down and have a play with the Light Pollution Simulator!)
The Need-Less Campaign (There’s a really nifty Night Sky Simulator at the bottom of the page, plus posters and widgets you can use!)
LightPollution.org.uk
Save The Night’s incredible “Loss of Star Visibility” map

So, if you fancy coming along to any of the free astronomy events on Barr Beacon this Winter, you can find booking details here:

MeteorWatch: Taurids, Nov 4th
MeteorWatch: Geminids, Dec 14th
Stargazing Live, January 7th, 8th and 9th

…or you can ‘book’ by indicating your attendance on the WalsallLooksUp Facebook Page.

Back off, Man. I’m a Scientist.

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As much as I’m glued to Science Club every week, grew up watching shuttle launches (even skipped school to watch Challenger’s launch on THAT fateful day), and can frequently be found wandering around with the Monkey Cage podcast in my ears, I have had a niggling feeling lately, like an earworm, that something isn’t right on TV…  You all know I’m a space-age kind of girl.  I’m the one standing in fields in more layers than Maggie Simpson on a winter’s night, staring up at the sky waiting for a meteor to streak across my field of view.  But as much as the appeal of chemistry, maths and physics is bang on trend at the moment, I can’t help but wonder:  what has happened to Chemistry’s dirty little sister… Biology…?

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With the notable exception of Sir David Attenborough, (national treasure, hero to a generation of ecologists, biologists and conservationists) we biologists tend to get a bad rap these days.  Not only does Dawkins‘ passion for his subject (you are my personal hero, so don’t take this the wrong way, Richard) give us all a reputation of being intolerant, bull-headed, frustrated bunch of tweedos (which some of us are, what with all that pesky waving around of facts and evidence, I mean, how DARE we?!) – but I get the impression that the general opinion of biologists held by other popular scientists and mathematicians (the ilk of Brian/Dara) is that biology/ecology is, well… a SOFT science.

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I would like to state, for the record, that biology, being a science is, like totally scientific and stuff.  By which I mean that we all adhere to the same principles – the scientific method.  If you think for a minute that all biologists do is sit around poking stuff in Petri dishes or paddling about in Amazonian streams looking for new species, you’re watching too much TV.  Yes, we occasionally, even frequently, swap the lab coat for the wellies, but there is observation, theory, testing, re-testing, peer review and all that jazz.  Trust me.  Forgive me for harking back to your GCSEs, OLevels or in my case, Junior High, but its easy to forget that because biology is so cute and fluffy a lot of the time (SpringWatch, anyone?) that it is actually an ‘Ology’ – whereas Chemistry, for example, has the intellectual equivalent of a ‘face for radio’ and, as such, must be REAL science.

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Okay, so I am biased, but biology and ecology are probably actually MORE difficult to study in context than physics and chemistry.  And I think that it all comes down to predictability.  Chemistry, physics and mathematics all abide by laws in a predictable fashion – and this is a GOOD thing, because if it weren’t predictable, theoretical physics wouldn’t exist and we’d never have even STARTED looking for the Higgs.  But the thing about biology is that although chemistry, physics and mathematics can continually AMAZE you… they rarely SURPRISE you in the way that Biology does.

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I am hoping that the upcoming Wonders of Life which our Brian is currently working will go some way to making biology seem cool again – because it never really stopped being cool.   Ask Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir David Attenborough, Steve Irwin, George McGavin, Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall and, dare I say it – Steve Backshall (he touched my elbow once!) to name a few.   Biology is a subject with which you can interact in ways that, in my opinion, ‘hard science’ can’t begin to equate.

*clears throat, and in best Brian Cox voice says:  “And that’s why I love Biology…

The Undiscovered Country: Barr Beacon

Starting a new regular feature, giving you the low down on Walsall’s Local Nature Reserves – an Insider’s Guide to things to look out for, best times to visit and what’s going on.  As we’re about to launch the ‘Raising the Barr’ project, I thought I’d start with Barr Beacon…

Inspecting the Memorial Dome, as it awaits restoration in Summer 2012.

…And what better place to start than the iconic war memorial, dedicated to the fallen soldiers of WWI.  If you ask locals about the memorial, you’ll hear them refer to it as ‘The Bandstand’, ‘The Temple’, ‘The Dome’, and more.  The fact remains that, as a memorial, it has fallen out of use.  Coupled with the recent theft of pieces of the copper dome, its fair to say that the memorial is looking worse than ever at the moment – but all that is about to change.

As part of a £440,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the restoration of Barr Beacon’s heritage features (The war memorial, the rare iron flagpole – currently in storage – and the historic Scott Plantation) will begin this summer.   We are looking forward to 2014, when the memorial will be re-dedicated as part of the 100th anniversary of World War I.

Fossils in the stone pillars of the War Memorial!

All the original stonework will be cleaned and restored, piece by piece, and the copper dome will be replaced with a less valuable alternative (we are looking at options at the moment, ranging from zinc to fibreglass – but whatever we use, it will have the same ‘aged copper’ patina of pale green, and will be treated with Smartwater).

[Top Tip:  Take a close look at the pillars of the memorial and you will find fossils!]

The panoramic disk which once showed visitors the landscape features visible from the memorial will be replaced.  In addition, a smartphone app, interpretative materials, and listening posts will all soon be put in place.

Green Tiger Beetles can be seen in the summer on the South East bank of the hill, overlooking Birmingham.

The nature trails around the site are waymarked, and you will soon be able to follow a QR code audio tour by using the posts.  There’s also an orienteering route, and part of the long-distance footpath, the Beacon Way, runs though the site.

[Top Tip:  Keep an eye out for Green Tiger Beetles in the Summer months; listen out for the deep, throaty calls of our resident ravens, and watch the skies for hovering kestrels, which can be seen all year!]

The site is used by many different groups of people, from individuals and dog walkers to school groups.  The summit is accessible by car, so if you’re in a wheelchair, or use puschairs, the site is accessible to you!  Recently, an amateur radio club have adopted the beacon as one of their regular sites.

In 2011 Barr Beacon was designated as a Dark Sky Discovery site – the first urban Local Nature Reserve to receive the award.  The site is not the darkest place around, but its location and aspect gives a stunning view of the sky, and it is used regularly for watching eclipses, meteor showers and other astronomical events.

Setting up for a MeteorWatch event on Barr Beacon.

The site is used by the Walsall Astronomical Society for their own events, and also for the yearly programme of free astronomy events that I run.

[Top Tip:  if you fancy having a go at astronomy but don’t know how to start, why not come along to one of our free events?  No experience is necessary – its aimed at showing people how to enjoy the sky without a science degree or specialist equipment.  The events are also suitable for the whole family!]

Another popular activity up on the Beacon is Walking for Health.  If you prefer a ‘beginners’ option, you can drive up to the car park and do the circular nature trail route (1.7 miles) around the summit, or if you’re a bit more advanced, you can walk up the hill as part of the Beacon Way route (23 miles) or Mr Scott’s Circular Walk (8 miles).

The Pheasey Health Walk, a regular Thursday event!

[Top Tip:  if you want to explore the site but would rather go with other people, why not get in touch with the Pheasey Health Walkers, who do weekly walks at 2pm on Thursdays, starting at the Collingwood Centre.]

If walking is not your thing, and you’d rather sit on a picnic blanket, enjoying the sites, we’ve got that covered too:

2012 will see the return of ‘Bands on the Beacon’ for its 3rd year.  This annual summer music concert is a fantastic showcase of local musical talent, as well as a fab way to spend a lazy summer afternoon.

Bands on the Beacon II – Blues band Mojohooker entertain the crowd with the stunning West Midlands skyline as the backdrop!

This year’s event, Bands on the Beacon 3-60 on July 8th, is part of the borough’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, and will also mark the launch of the Raising the Barr project.  We have two stages lined up, some fantastic bands (Mojohooker return to headline this year!), and lots of activities for the kids, including the return of the ‘reach tower’ and free face painting!  Food and drinks (non-alcoholic) will be available, including a hog roast, or feel free to bring a picnic with you.

So, as you can see, there’s lots going on!  Not only is Barr Beacon the best view in the Black Country, its a lively and vibrant site, full of fantastic wildlife, arts, geology, fitness, science and more – I absolutely love it.  We’ve got an amazing three years planned as part of Raising the Barr.  The site will have a Community Liaison Officer (recruiting them this week!) to oversee the events and activities, which will include a Time Team-style archaeological dig in 2013!  There’s lots going on, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.  In the mean time, please check out our 10-minute video about Barr Beacon below:

And because we’ve got our finger on the pulse of technology here at Countryside Services, you can check in to Barr Beacon Local Nature Reserve on foursquare, keep up to date with events on facebook.com/barrbeacon , and follow @barrbeacon or @walsallwildlife on twitter.

The Golden Apples of the Sun

Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

I was saddened today to hear that Ray Bradbury has died at the age of 91.  He was without doubt one of the greatest influences on me as a teenager, and the gateway drug to a lifetime love of literature.

In my junior year in highschool (I was 16), I had the singular privelege of having one of THOSE teachers – you know the kind, like my own version of Mr Keating.  I had Mrs Kauffman for both English and Creative Writing, which she continued to teach in spite of there only being eight students wanting to take the class.  She was the only teacher that I can remember that was sharing a vivid and personal passion with us – her great loves were the American Transcendentalists  esteemed writer of ‘Self Reliance’ Ralph Waldo Emerson, eminent naturalist and author of ‘Walden’ Henry David Thoreau, and my personal hero Walt Whitman (I am not contained between my hat and my boots!) none of whom I had ever heard of before attending her class.

Aside from the gift of Whitman and Thoreau, Mrs Kauffman said to me, after reading one of my assignments, “You should try reading some Ray Bradbury, I think you might like it – start with ‘The Martian Chronicles’.”

On the day the world found out about Bradbury’s passing, I was taking photographs of the sun.

Before the end of the school year I had read and re-read Fahrenheit 451 eight times!  It is still F451 that I hold most dear, as well as the sublimely sinister ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes‘.  His values and ideas struck such a chord with me that I have rarely found his equal.  As your typical troubled adolescent I felt that something was wrong with the world, and took some comfort in the fact that there were people (Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Ayn Rand) that could see it too – that it was possible to survive in the world in spite of what I saw at the time as an inevitable decline of society.

So, exactly twenty years later, I have found my way out of a troubled adolescence into the bliss of my late thirties, sounding my Barbaric Yawp over the roofs of the world, sure of what I believe, where I stand, and what kind of person I am.  And I can categorically say that I simply would not have become the person that I am today without Mr Bradbury’s influence in my life at such a crucial time.  His death represents a significant loss to this world.

Image of the Sun, taken this morning through a solar filter.

The fact is not lost on me that his passing coincided with a rare celestial event, and I can’t help but thinking that Ray wouldn’t have had it any other way.  On the morning that the world found out about his passing, I was taking photographs of the sun.

I must confess that in spite of the twenty years since her recommendation, I have never actually got around to taking Mrs Kauffman up on her suggestion of reading The Martian Chronicles!  I will order it tonight, and tomorrow start planning my first batch of dandelion wine…

“All intelligent beings dream. Nobody knows why.”

In 1984, my family took a giant leap, moving from Wolverhampton to the small town of Stuart, Florida.  With me (aged 9) and my two younger brothers (aged 5 and 2) in tow (dressed in matching maroon & grey velour track suits!!!) and flew away to start a new life.

Gary, Adrian & Me, Key West, Fl., 1987

The place we settled, and where my family still live, is a two hour drive down from Cape Canaveral and the Space Coast.  Without realising my extreme fortune, I soon became accustomed to watching shuttle launches from the garden,the park, or the beach – and occasionally we even got to see a night launch!  My love of all things space began within months of starting middle school & going on a field trip to the Kennedy Space Centre.  By the time SpaceCamp came out in 1986, there was no going back for me…

On January 28th, 1986 I was off ‘ill’ from school, conveniently on shuttle launch day, and at around 11am I went outside to sit on the front doorstep to watch the launch.  Within a minute or so of the launch time, I knew something was wrong – it didn’t look right in the sky- I had never seen that strange cloud and trails happen on a launch before.  I ran inside to phone my Dad’s work, hot tears streaming down my face, INSISTING something was wrong.  I have a distinct memory that it was what seemed like hours before the tv broadcasters admitted that, rather than a minor malfunction, I’d actually just watched Challenger explode above my head.

Adrian (with mullett!) and me underneath Spaceship Earth at Epcot Centre (ca 1989)

I don’t know what it is about astronomy and space travel that captivated me then, and continues to do so; I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on it.  But within a year of the Challenger disaster, I had saved up for and bought my first telescope – a white Tasco Reflector which cost $175 (My brother Adrian subsequently broke it by trying to look at ornaments on the other side of the living room!  I’m still struggling to forgive him!)

No one ever TAUGHT me about astronomy.  I must have learned by myself, not that I remember studying or even reading about it.  But I can tell you that I knew the constellation Orion, and could pick out Mars in the night sky before I turned 13. They have been familiar companions my whole life.

Last Friday night, I was standing on Barr Beacon with around 50 other people, in hope of seeing some of the Lyrids meteors at their peak.  My husband patiently and continually adjusts the telescope to keep track of Saturn, and explains that the planets move through field of view of a telescope faster than you expect because the Earth is spinning so fast.  Everyone takes turns to look into the eyepiece.  And each, in turn, has their breath taken away.

I take my turn – I feel like David Bowman:  “My God, its full of stars…

Venus shining in the West as seen from Barr Beacon.

Many people seemed to have a ‘moment’ – when they looked through the eyepiece and suddenly the presence of another world exists within their inner landscape – the reality of it all can feel like a blow to the chest – this is not Star Trek – that thing you’re looking at is another world, its rings of ice glowing in your field of vision, two moons orbiting to the left, the glorious cassini division adding depth perception to the image, and the whole thing gently slipping out of your field of view because we are spinning so quickly away from it…

And I think that is this that ultimately keeps me coming back to astronomy – that our lives can seem so small, our problems so important, and our vision so blinkered, that a glowing, spinning reminder of just how much bigger and expansive our existence really is can literally make you catch your breath.  Occasionally we need something in our lives – a touchstone to come back to that puts everything into perspective.