Category Archives: Science

Pied Pipers

Remember my mate Ben from Brewood Ringers who put out the Owl Baskets we made last year? He asked me the other day if I knew anyone with recording equipment as he wanted to record a pied wagtail roost to use as an audio lure when bird ringing. I immediately suggested using the same kit we use for batlas surveys – the Zoom H2N recorder.  A couple of cocktails later and Ben, Leigh and I had plans to camp out for a couple of hours at a Pied Wagtail roost in Brownhills shortly before sunset.

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We set up the recorder (with directional recording mode to minimise the quite frankly ridiculous amounts of traffic noise) under the roosting tree, hit record and then retired to the opposite side of the road to enjoy the show.

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Within less than half an hour, the birds were starting to congregate on the roof of a nearby building, and incrementally, they made their way over to the tree until an estimated 150+ birds were roosting and calling in the tree!

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The show lasted for about an hour, at the end of which the birds simply quietened down to sleep for the night.  If you’d walked underneath the tree after that point, there would have been no way you would have known that so many birds were roosting right above your head.

Pied Wagtail roosts are one of autumn’s spectacles (up there along with murmurations of starlings) that you can see around the country at the moment.  Okay people might think you’re a wee bit odd if, like us, you set up with camping chairs and hot chocolate outside a depot, but life is weird, and you eventually learn not to care about such things…

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Anyway, I managed to clean up the sound to reduce the background traffic noise, and it now sounds like this:

Hopefully the Brewood Ringers will be using the recordings soon, and I’ll get to go along to photograph the results! I’ll let you know how I get on!

See through the SMOG

Something kind of awesome happened last week – My friend showed me this clipping from the Isle of Wight County Press about Nathusius’ pipistrelles on the island. ‘What’s so spectacular about that?’, you might ask… If you read the article, you’ll get to the last paragraph and see a species list – including scientific names! (For a quick guide to scientific names and how they work, check out my 2013 blog post Spectacular Vernacular.)

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For a general circulation newspaper, this is pretty much unheard of, as most newspapers pitch their reading level pretty low. I immediately tweeted my kudos to them (omitting the fact that the binomials should have been in italics, as I didn’t want to be too picky! – Points for trying!). I’m not sure if they were super keen, or they generally pitch their text at a higher level than average, or perhaps they were needing to fill that extra inch of column – who knows!

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This was then going to spark one of my ranting blog posts about the dumbing down of science (and, let’s face it – I would have ended up ranting about Neil Degrasse Tyson again).  However, a bit of research googling and I was soon down the rabbit hole in a world of quantification of reading levels, journalism practices and more:

First of all, just because you can read at a certain level, and you enjoy reading, you don’t necessarily want to recreationally read at the level of which you are capable. This may explain the huge trend in the popularity of teen / young adult fiction read by adults: Hunger Games / Twilight / Harry Potter anyone?

(Should point out here that when I left the pub to join the queue for the midnight opening of Waterstones for the Half Blood Prince, surrounded by 10-year-olds in costume, I made sure to request the adult cover, because I’m like, totally grown up and stuff…)

The Impact-Information website says:

“People like to read recreationally two grades below their actual reading skill.”

While wikipedia postulates that:

“The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade* level which is also consistent with recommendations, guidelines, and norms of readability for medication directions, product information, and popular fiction.”

*ages 11-13

Google have been doing some interesting reading age level comparisons which sum up some popular uk newspapers and their average reading pitch. The Media First website corroborates this, listing The Sun’s reading age level as between 7 and 9.

But to really quantify the reading level of any piece of text, be it an online article, an essay, or even the book you’re writing, you can use a SMOG Index calculator (I’m not even kidding – it stands for Simplified Measure Of Gobbledygook). This genius bit of formula takes the complexity of your text and quantifies it, giving it a score which equates to reading levels!

Fancy SMOG Indexing some of your own (or someone else’s) writing? Try this tool here! You simply paste a section of text into the box and click ‘calculate’.

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A SMOG score of 9-10 is equivalent to Entry Level 3 (age 9 to 11); a SMOG of 11-12 is Level 1 (GCSE grades of D-G) and 14-15 is Level 2 (GCSE grades A-C).

For example, the blog post I referred to in the first paragraph – Spectacular Vernacular has a smog score of 16.6 – meaning that it is pitched at around A-Level reading level. I’m pretty happy with that. I try to pitch my blogs at a minimum of teenage reading level, without too much jargon (unless the whole point is explaining the jargon!).

I was always taught that in scientific or academic writing, you should assume two things:

  • Your audience is intelligent
  • Your audience knows nothing about the subject

So you give them the credit of intelligence, and assume that they will understand once you have explained it, but you take nothing for granted and make no assumptions about prior knowledge. I’ll certainly be using the SMOG tool for future writing (fiction and non-fiction), and would love to know what you think about writing, reading and communicating science to the public.

SMOG index: 17.3     😉

I Like Big Bats (& I cannot lie)

So I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from blogging and social media, due to personal reasons, but I have lots to share with you and catch up on – not least, the significant finds as part of the BrumBats Batlas project and our bat box scheme. I’m going to blog this weekend about our second (and most exciting) discovery, but for now I want to talk about big bats.

There are three closely-related species of bat which are generally lumped together as being our ‘big bats’ in the UK: serotine (which I’ll focus on another time), noctule and Leisler’s bat. The latter two species are pictured below, and are superficially similar. They are both quite chunky bats, with the tragus (the flap of skin inside the ear) shaped like a mushroom, but the noctule is larger (weighing in at up to 40g – twice the weight of a Leisler’s) with paler (often gingery) fur compared to the dark brown fur of Leisler’s bats. Leisler’s also have a thick ‘mane’ of ruffled fur around their shoulders and head.

Noctule
Noctule
Leisler's
Leisler’s

Noctules (Download the BCT factsheet here) are one of our largest UK bats, and are fairly ubiquitous, found throughout Birmingham and the Black Country, whereas Leisler’s bats (aka ‘lesser noctule’ – fact sheet here) were until recently only know at a couple of sites. The 2002 mammal atlas (Which you can download here) shows their distribution as follows:

As you can see, Leisler’s bats are fairly scarce. Or are they?

You see, in the 13 years since the atlas was produced, BrumBats have been actively recording bats across the county, and (especially since the 2014 launch of our Batlas Project) we have recorded noctule in pretty much every tetrad we’ve surveyed.

(BTW, the maps don’t look like this anymore. The thing is with distribution maps is that they are a map of the RECORDS of a species, not of the species itself, and often are a reflection of recorder effort. If a person is really into recording bats, they are likely to have concentrated their efforts in ‘likely’ or ‘favourite’ spots. This is where systematic surveys like the Batlas come in – they dilute the skew on the data provided by biased recorder effort.)

So noctules are apparently all over the county, but Leisler’s bats are a different matter. In 2015 we had a Leisler’s bat come into care from Wightwick Manor National Trust. The bat (which subsequently died of his injuries) was found at the bottom of their chimney. The Batlas Tetrad survey of that area the following year recorded Leisler’s bats foraging over a nearby woodland. So they are definitely in at least the outskirts of Wolverhampton.

Then, last year the awesome folks from the Herefordshire Mammal Group led several nights of mist netting and harp trapping for us. On one of these nights we caught a Leisler’s in a harp trap at a previously un-studied LNR in Walsall – not far from the town centre!

Then earlier this year, our successful bat box scheme at Merrions Wood turned up both Noctule AND Leisler’s using the boxes for the first time! So now we know some actual roosting sites, rather than just errant records of noctules flying over our area off to who knows where looking for food. This is all good stuff!

So I’m pretty excited about this, as we are getting an idea that although perhaps not abundant, Leisler’s are probably at least widely distributed across the county, just like noctules. But this then begs the question – how many of our noctule records are actually Leisler’s bats?

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because we are in an urban area, we’re only going to have crap (sorry, common) species. I see this type of assumption made all the time over a variety of taxonomic groups. In the case of noctule and Leisler’s, both species echolocate at a peak of around 25kHz, with relatively similar calls (listen to Noctule and Leisler’s here) – pretty similar, right? You can separate them on sonograms, but not reliably just by ear.

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Sonogram of Wightwick Manor Leisler’s bat calls

I believe that Leisler’s bats are probably drastically under-recorded in our county. They are an adaptable species that we know can thrive in urban habitats (they are ubiquitous in urban parts of Northern Ireland, where noctules are not present at all).

So I’m hoping to focus future survey efforts on rarer (or under-recorded) species in the 2017 season, and I simply cannot wait! Stay tuned for even bigger news next week…

Gorillas in the List

So I’m a lister. A list maker. I have been known to start a ‘to do’ list with the first item as: “Make ‘to do’ List” (check!). I don’t suffer from OCD – at least I don’t think I do; and I’m no more riddled with anxiety than any of my friends (unless I just collect lovably unstable people – which, thinking about it might be the case, and as such might not be the strongest case for my sanity!). List making just makes me feel slightly more in control. I’m fairly unapologetic about it, as it is a harmless coping mechanism for my very busy life. My lists include groceries, books for which I’m waiting to be on sale on amazon kindle (I have a £3 rule!), and wildlife.

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One of our Girl Bird Nerds’ many trip lists!

You’ve probably heard of ‘bird lists’ – especially if there’s a twitcher – or even ‘just’ a birder – in your life. A birder tends to have at least two ‘lists’: the Life List and the Year List. (This type of list making can end up developing into an expensive habit as it can involve a lot of spontaneous travel to see birds (twitching) and buying expensive kit like scopes and binoculars.)

A ‘Life List‘ is a list of all the birds you’ve seen in your life. Some people regard this as your home country only – some include all birds seen anywhere. I am in the former camp – to me a Life List is all birds I’ve seen in the UK in my life, and I have a separate USA Life List).  So my (UK) Life List is only around 175 (there is a ‘400 club’!) – that’s out of a (current) 574 species.

I’ve also been keeping a Year List – a list of all the species of bird that I’ve seen in the UK in 2016. I don’t do this every year, and I only started a month ago, and have now seen all the common ‘garden birds’ plus a few more awesome ones like Goldcrest, Red Kite, Peregrine, Skylark and Stonechat. (I’ll, of course, keep you posted on instagram and twitter!) If you’d like to see a great portrayal of an extreme Year List, check out The Big Year (it’s on Amazon Prime – and is also a book). [p.s. I’m at 59 species so far!]

Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black in The Big Year

Honorable mention here should go to the ‘Trip List‘ – when you go on holiday and you make a list of all the birds you see. My friends and I have a birding club called the Girl Bird Nerds, and we have an annual Girl Bird Nerd’s Birding Trip. We’ve so far been to Norfolk (twice), Dungeness, Nefyn, and Dorset. This year we’re off to Cornwall. We have a very serious set of rules:

  1. Birds ‘count’ from the time you leave home until the time you arrive back home;
  2. Birds have to be Alive, Wild and Native or Naturalised
  3. At least two members must see the same bird and agree on it’s identification; hearing the song only counts if it is absolutely diagnostic of that species (cuckoo, etc);  and
  4. The most recent member is ‘The Minion‘ and has to do the washing up…
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds
Some of the Girl Bird Nerds

Anyway, I digress… What I actually want to tell you about is the phenomenon of extreme listing. I’ve had a go at the first and seriously considering the last…

Patch Listing

Patch Listing is the recording of all the species of all the taxonomic groups in a given area in a year – usually your local nature reserve. I’ve been keen to do this within a 1km square – and was thinking about using my NARRS square (the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – where you adopt a 1km square to survey each year). Patch listing is almost always done competitively with other patch listers.

Pan-Species Listing

Okay this is epic. Check out http://www.brc.ac.uk/psl/ for the details, but the long and short is this – EVERY species of EVERY taxonomic group you’re seen IN THE UK (insert your own country here) EVER. Plants, birds, mammals, bees, slugs, springtails, you name it… I’m so tempted to do this, but part of me doesn’t like playing games unless I can win (shocker) and I know I could never get in the field time to do it – there are some people up to 12,000 species!!

Do you think you could do any of these? Do you do them already? I’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if you’ve done Patch or Pan listing!  Let me know!

Daddy’s Little Pirate

Something’s been on my mind lately – building up over the past few weeks, no doubt made more acute by seeing my one-year-old niece whilst visiting my family earlier this month. My brother and my sister in law are amazing parents, and I know that she’ll grow up confident, independent and very loved.

But not all little girls will grow up with that advantage. Most little girls, however loved and cherished, will grow up believing that their worthiness is dependent largely on their physical appearance, and how well they fit into the expected social norm for their gender, race and age. Obviously this is not news. There is a plethora of opinion out there on how society and the media alter children’s perception of themselves. But I genuinely think that the seed is planted as soon as language and understanding is starting to develop. I don’t think it begins with television and magazines. I think it starts with compliments.

As girls, our sense of self worth, from a very young age, is very centred around our appearance. As gregarious animals, we are physiologically hard-wired to seek approval and bonding within our social group.  Praise, approval and affection trigger a dopamine response, reinforcing behaviours that result in these positive signals. Hugh Howey (author of the outstanding Wool trilogy) goes into this chemical reward system in some depth in his Wayfinding series (Part 1: Rats and Rafts), in which he explores the role that Dopamine plays in our biology, and how it plays a part in addictive behaviour. It is also well-documented that dopamine and self-esteem are inextricably linked.

Compliments are powerful. We perform better when we receive them. But in my experience (of my own childhood and observations of others), even positive comments can have long-standing negative effects. Joanna from Lazy Mom’s Blog puts it so well:

While we tell boys they’re strong, smart and capable, we tell girls they are like princesses.”

Here’s how it goes…

You are 6 years old, out with your family. A waitress/relative/friend tells you how beautiful you look in your pink dress. Dopamine. You look at your mom/dad and they approve, smiling at you. Dopamine. You equate ‘being pretty’ with approval/acceptance. Dopamine. You chase that approval for the rest of your life by obsessing (at least on some level) about your appearance. You equate acceptance with beauty, and eventually, with sexiness. Eventually, your self esteem is tied to how other people see you, both other girls, and eventually, men.

Think I’m exaggerating? Have you seen Disney’s Frozen? If you’re the parent of a little girl, you will almost certainly have seen it, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the rundown: It’s a story about two sisters. Elsa is beautiful, blonde, mysterious, moody, wears amazing dresses, and has magical powers – she is an ice princess. Anna, on the other hand is a funny, smart, caring, brave, self-effacing and genuine brunette). Anna is the main character in the story.  By and large almost every girl I’ve ever met prefers Elsa. The princess.

I’m not complaining about Disney. Disney do a fine job of creating badass female characters (Mulan, Merida from ‘Brave’, etc). The fact remains that little girls love princesses – ten years of dopamine reinforcement is difficult to overcome, and Elsa is always going to be the Alpha Female.

I don’t know how I dodged that particular bullet, but I grew up first wanting to be a pirate, and then an explorer, then an astronaut, and then a marine biologist. I never wanted to be a princess. It wasn’t until we moved to the USA and I attended school there that I was ‘made aware’ by other girls in middleschool that something was just unacceptable about me…  “Didn’t you wear that shirt, like YESTERDAY?”

It’s no wonder we have a shortage of women in science fields. Girls are told they are beautiful, pretty, magical, when we should be telling them that they are strong, intelligent, funny, capable and kind. We simply have to get over this if equality will ever be a reality, because as it stands, we can intellectually tell a girl she can be anything she wants, but unless we fundamentally change the way that we communicate, compliment and encourage, she’s just always going to want to be Elsa…

So do you like, really BELIEVE in dinosaurs?

I used to do temping work between contracts, and one of those temporary jobs was working for a local university doing data entry. The work was dull, but the office environment was fantastic, and was full of people that I really liked, and we had a grand time. One day, the girl (we’ll call her Jane) who sat next to me was listening to me talking about dinosaurs. She stared at me, incredulous, and said something that blew my mind. The conversation went something like this:

Jane: “So do you, like, really BELIEVE in dinosaurs then?”

Me: “Um, Jane, that’s kind of like asking me if I believe in cows.”

Jane: “Oh. I thought they were like dragons.”

Now, Jane was not a fundamentalist with religious motivations. She was simply uneducated about something that I thought was (or at least should be) common knowledge. And this isn’t the only time I’ve encountered this level of ignorance in real life.

I was once giving a bat talk and walk to a group of some 20 people, and as usual I began by talking about the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period giving rise to the Cenozoic – the age of mammals. I went on to explain the current thinking that bats had evolved from a tree-dwelling shrew-like creature, before developing flight. Later on, during the walk, one of the adult men (whom I knew to be a Jehovah’s Witness – make of that what you will) confronted me:

“You don’t really think bats evolved from voles do you?”

I reiterated what I had previously said about shrew-like creatures, and proceded to elaborate about early bats in the fossil record showing vestigial claws at their finger tips, a ‘missing link’ between bats and their early ancestors.

“There ARE no missing link fossils” he said.

“Archaeopteryx?” I said

“It’s a hoax.” He said.

“Um.. there are eleven of them.”

“They’re all hoaxes.”

“Okay, well I’m not paid to debate theology with you. I’m here to teach science, and if you don’t agree with me teaching science, then you shouldn’t come to a science event.” I replied.

Anyway, he proceeded to accost the other attendees of the event, pretended to be a ‘monkey’ to ‘prove’ that humans didn’t evolve from monkeys, all the usual claptrap, and generally ruined the evening for everyone. In his case, this person wasn’t someone who had never been taught the truth, like Jane. This man was aware, even, of what archaeopteryx was, but had rejected it due to religious doctrine.

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[You see,  I’ve always been crazy into dinosaurs. You can see above the remnants of my dinosaur paraphernalia. (I have whittled it down somewhat as I’m a grown-up now.) Dinosaurs were my first love. The photo at the top of the page is me in around 1997 on my first ever trip to the Natural History Museum, at which I was pretty much giddy.]

Just when I thought that I’d seen it all, the wonder of facebook made me aware of someone today whose ignorance beggars belief, and I’ve been seething with irritation all afternoon. (And you know me, irritation = blog post!) This little gem is Kristen Auclair of – wait for it – Christians Against Dinosaurs, a ‘grass roots movement with 12,000 members’. Now, I’m going to embed this video, but I’m not promising you’ll get through it.

Among this outspoken young woman’s claims (see her other video here) are that ‘science has only been around for maybe 10-15 years’ and that ‘a complete dinosaur has never been found’, and that ‘the parts they have are just fossils that have been put together in a way that looks like dinosaurs’. This is all, apparently, because of the ‘corruption and greed in the [billion dollar] palaeontology field. It’s not just the ignorance, but the smug self-satisfied attitude that grates on me. This girl is perpetuating a stereotype, and giving Christians a bad name.

She, like many people who seek to ‘debunk’ evolution, seem to be perfectly fine with science when it brings them electricity, medicine, broadband, cars, re-runs of ‘Friends’ and hair gel, but they reject the specific types of science that they don’t find personally beneficial. This type of cherry-picking gets my goat. The same scientific principles that cured polio are the foundation of evolutionary biology and palaeontology.

I’m not out to offend anyone. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter if I “Believe in dinosaurs” or not. They were (are) real. Fact. It blows my mind that people who are otherwise extremely intelligent can deny the overwhelming weight of evidence supporting the theory of evolution. (And yes, it is a theory – like everything else in science. That’s how science works: we find out more accurate information or make new discoveries and we continually build on our knowledge, peer-reviewing our findings and changing our textbooks to show our growth. That is how we come closer to truth with every new paper, study or discovery. Science is self-correcting.)

And, for the record, I’m not saying that evolution is proof of the absence of god(s). This post isn’t about that. Science tells us, by the way, that we can’t prove absence of something – we can only say if evidence supports or doesn’t support a hypothesis. I know plenty of people for whom Faith and Darwinism aren’t mutually exclusive. (They are for me, but that is not the issue.)

Anyway, I found something that calmed me down from my frenzy of irritation: Slowly, patiently and methodically, piece-by-piece, this wonderful soul talks to Kristen over the course of an hour, trying his best to educate and inform. This man has more patience than I will ever have. Ultimately, she remains firm in her misguided beliefs, but that’s the problem with dogma – you can’t use facts to talk people down from the ledge.

I’ll leave you with this thought though – next time you’re surrounded by people who are not from your tribe – take a leaf out of Bradbury’s book: Pack up your dinosaurs and leave.

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Big Patronising Anthropomorphic Cats

Okay this is the second time I’ve had a rant about the poor quality of natural history film-making. (Let’s be specific about it – I’m actually talking about presenters and script writers, as camera operators and editors seem to get better and better!) I had a similar rant earlier this year after watching Nat Geo Wild’s “Lioness in Exile” (please click through to read it in a new window – you’ll have a better picture of the extent of my irritation). I’m not sure if it’s something about cats that brings out the worst in TV presenters, or that there is some sort of perceived need to patronise and anthropomorphise anything fluffy with big eyes, but this is just getting worse. Somebody help me! I can’t stop yelling at the TV…

Sky TV’s ‘Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family’ is presented by Patrick Aryee, from the BBC stable of natural history presenters. His website states in his profile:

“A naturally lighthearted approach coupled with the ability to be authoritative and engaging, provides him with a distinct ability crossover between children’s and primetime factual programming.”

So I get it – he isn’t preaching to the choir – that’s not his bag. Patrick is communicating to the uninitiated – he’s recruiting for “Team Wildlife”, which is great. Pitching to adults and children at the same time and holding the attention of both is no mean feat. But presenting for the general public and being knowledgeable in your field aren’t mutually exclusive things (Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwyn, etc., are examples of those who have done this expertly), and I DO think that Patrick is a technically good presenter, but the script on this show really spoils it for me, in spite of the flawless videography and editing. The show was ruined within the first five minutes with one sentence:

“Different felines evolved SUPERPOWERS to thrive in each of the planet’s wildest landscapes.”

Superpowers. Really. Why is it deemed necessary to state that the cat family have ‘superpowers’? You can achieve awe and drama without the B.S. (Because big cats are intrinsically awesome – they sell themselves!) You can say they have incredible hearing, powerful weaponry, amazing agility, and even say that they are beguiling, mysterious – all of these things are true and help to convey that sense of drama and awe without resorting to likening them to bloody power rangers!

You’ve already read  my opinion on what I call APE TV and coffee table conservation programming, but there was a scene in Big Cats that particularly caught my eye as being poor conservation. If you watch it, you’ll know exactly which bit I’m talking about (I hope).

South African ‘big cat conservationist’ Kevin Richardson (AKA ‘The Lion Whisperer’ – I kid you not) basically hangs out with lions. He has integrated himself into a pride of lions in a conservation area (Richardson’s ranch), and he has essentially become part of the pride. Now, in a sense, this is valuable behaviour work akin to experimental archaeology, as he seems to genuinely have garnered an insight into the social dynamics of lions which may otherwise not have been achieved. But it’s not, in my opinion, conservation.

However, Casey Anderson (One of my favourite wildlife presenters) hand-raised a grizzly bear that could not be released into the wild. So somehow I think this is fine, but what Kevin Richardson is doing is wrong. Take a look – I’d love to know what you think:

I think that, in the end, it comes down to my instinct about their motivations. I think that Anderson is respectful, humble and a true conservationist, and I just think Richardson is dangerously arrogant. (Interestingly, you could insert Ray Mears for Anderson and Bear Grylls for Richardson in this scenario for exactly the same reasons. I love Ray, and think that Bear is a narcissistic maniac.)

So, I’ve been up in arms about this for a few days, but ironically something else has fallen into my lap this Christmas season and melted my cold, Grinchy heart. (A little.) I found a TED talk by Casey Anderson, where he mentions the dangers of anthropomorphisation, with a twist:

So what do you think? I found this very thought-provoking. How do we know when we are projecting human feelings and emotions onto a wild animal? If we approach conservation vulcan-style with only logic and no emotion, there are certainly drawbacks (lack of empathy, poor uptake when campaigning for financial and political aid for projects, lower profile of conservation concerns). I’m not immune to the persistent tug of a charismatic animal (I’ve fallen in love with a few bats that I’ve had in care over the years – and yes, their personalities DO vary considerably!).

Where is the place for emotion and empathy in conservation? I think it’s a blurry line, and would love to know what you think…

 

 

 

 

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

Shinrin-Yoku

Take two trees and call me in the morning…

Many of us work too much, don’t play enough, struggle with insomnia, fatigue and headaches. Many of us have IBS and other stress-related disorders, struggle with over-burdened immune systems and all of these things can lead to chronic and often severe or life threatening illnesses. We feel powerless to do much about it other than maybe buy a juicer that we never use, or vitamins that we forget to take. The Japanese have a therapy (some would say a cure) for many of these 21st century ailments. Studies have shown that it produces some startling results:

  • blood pressure improvement
  • reduced muscle tension
  • increase in disease-fighting white blood cells
  • combats insomnia and improves quality of sleep
  • lower anxiety
  • less pain
  • less fatigue
  • improved immune health
  • combats depression
  • fights stress and anger
  • reduced likelihood of obesity & type 2 diabetes
  • reduced likelihood of cardiovascular disease

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This miracle therapy is called Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku). It involves mindful, peaceful exposure to woodlands and forests. Now we all know that going for a walk is good for the health, good for the soul, but there’s slightly more to Shinrin-Yoku than that.

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It gets pretty sciencey here so bear with me. It’s all about wood essential oils (Phytoncides).  Exposure to them (via your respiratory system) reduces stress hormones (cortisol), which has a calming effect on your entire nervous system. This reduces adrenal stress, and supports your immune system. Phytoncides (such as isoprene, alpha-pinene, and beta-pineneare antimicrobial – they fight infections. Exposure to them fights cancer and autoimmune disease.

You can read (decypher) the medical journals, but the gen is this:

“Phytoncides significantly enhance human NK activity and this effect is at least partially mediated by induction of intracellular perforin, granzyme A, and granulysin.”

To break this down – NK are a type of cytotoxic (preventing replication or growth of other cells – like cancer, granuloma, etc) lymphocyte critical to the immune system.  NK recognise harmful cells like viruses and tumours WITHOUT the need for existing antibodies.

The other huge benefit of phytoncides is an increase in the hormone adiponectin. It has the same root word as adipose – the word we use for fatty tissue and it is also a super-hormone, regulating glucose levels, breaking down fatty acids. It is secreted from your fatty tissues. High levels of adiponectin fight diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, metabolic syndrome and has been shown to completely reverse insulin resistance in mice!

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So is it proper science or just hairy fairy hippy stuff? I promise you, it’s real. In spite of the fact that every youtube video about it seems to be made by ‘mystical’ woodland people, every scientific and medical study conducted so far has shown reductions in stress, anger, anxiety, depression and sleeplessness. This is science.

So you want some of these magical phytoncides? The trees that have the most are Pine and Oak. So a coniferous woodland, or an oak woodland, is the perfect place to go collect some!  All you need is your nose! Shinrin-Yoku involves engaging with nature using all five senses, with particular emphasis on deep breathing.

How long do you have to do this for? Just 15 minutes can bring immediate benefits to blood pressure, stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety. To really ramp up those NK cells, studies show that two hours is the magic number. (In fact, two hours on two consecutive days can improve your white blood cell count by 40%!)

And the best part is that you don’t have to be ill to start!  Shinrin-Yoku works preventatively! You can find your nearest woodland by using the Woodland Trust website. (Click the WT logo below).

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*One last thing – If you are unable to get out to a woodland, you can get the benefit of phytoncides at home – essential oils of Pine and Cypress have been shown to release phytoncides into the air via an essential oil vapouriser, producing the same NK cell increase effects! Make sure you use 100% pure essential oils for this, and you can use an electric, tea light or radiator diffuser – it’s up to you, but the easiest way is to fill up a plug-in diffuser – I show you how in this blog post on detoxing your nose!

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