Saturday, 26 March 2011

A Stork In Scotland

Imagine this: you're on the bus coming home, and you pass three people standing with spotting scopes at the edge of a field.  Of course you wonder what they're looking at and look out over the field, but you don't really expect to see it because of the hedge, and the fact that it is most likely an LBJ (Little Brown Job - one of those many little birds that all look alike to those of us without twitcher sixth senses).  As you get further along the field, you think you're not going to see anything and start to settle back into your seat.  But then, then you spot something.  Something big.  Big, and white, and definitely not a swan...  Too big to be a Little Egret, the only other white bird you can think of that stands up like that, like a heron.  It looks like a Stork.  HOW can it be a Stork?  This is Scotland!  But it is, and you know it is.  You've just seen a Stork, on the big puddle, in the fields near your house.  The bus carries on while you stare back until you can't see it anymore, a mixture of disbelief and elation fighting for control.

That is what happened to me last Friday.  The best part was that my dad was in when I got home.  We went out to get a better look at it, and I got photos.  The photos are not great because the stork was too far away, even using the zoom lens, and these are cropped quite a lot.  But it's a STORK!!!  And the bird is a presumed escapee - there are apparently a few around Britain who wander around, especially when they feel like they should be migrating but aren't really sure where to go (this might explain the appearance on a puddle, in a field, next to a road, in Scotland - it pretty much sounds like a really bad package deal to a holiday resort under construction).  BUT IT'S A STORK!!!  I don't really care if it is an escapee - the reality is that the bird has been living wild for a while now and it must be doing a pretty good job because it seemed quite happy.  Not only that, but he/she made me fantastically happy.  It's not every day you see an exotic bird hanging out near your house, and I will be examining every puddle in every field from now on, just in case it turns up again!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Old Observatory

This is one of my favourite places in the whole world and I got to visit it earlier tonight.  I have so many memories of standing in this dome with the telescope.  The lights would be off so we were all dark adjusted, someone would be up the ladder looking at whatever we had the telescope trained on, the rest of us would be talking a bit, but usually quietly, and eagerly, waiting for our turn to look.

Occasionally, discussion would break out as to how much detail we could all see - how many bands on Jupiter?  Was that a shadow transit of one of the moons?  Can you see the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings?  Is that a star or Titan?  A face would glow in the cold blue-white light of a phone screen as they consulted a star map or transit times.  Many, many times a sigh of "woooooww" would be heard as someone looked through the eyepiece, some for the first time, some having looked through it dozens of times before.

I remember the smell of the room, the feeling of the curved wood panelling at your back, the smooth wood of the steps up to the telescope, the feeling of the old smooth rope used to turn the dome and the rough scrape of the new, replacement rope.  The squeak and quiet rumble of the ladder as it was wheeled round to a new position under the eyepiece of the telescope, the slap of one of the steps as someone caught and lifted it with their foot and it fell back into place, the creak of the floorboards as we moved around the room, the whir of the electric motor, the clank of the metal rods adjusting the telescope.

It was always cold, sometimes you could see your breath, feel the cool night air coming in the aperture of the dome and lightly brushing your face, the only light coming from the moon and stars outside that you could just see through the aperture.  Sounds from the astronomers downstairs would quietly float up the stairs and the only other noises were the distant noise of the city floating into the dome on the breeze - voices, laughter, traffic and sirens - all quiet, as if coming from very far away.

The loud rumble and vibration you could feel as the dome was moved never failed to impress me.  The click of the light switch, groan of pain as light hit eyes used to the dark, and the metallic clank of the aperture closing was always sad as it signalled the end of a night's observing.

Always, there was a great sense of history, a link with the past.  The knowledge that people had been gazing through that same telescope for a hundred years, admiring the same beautiful objects we admire today, and that astronomy had been going on in that place for many, many more years before that.  With any luck, it won't be too far in the future that astronomy is regularly undertaken again in that wonderful setting, and new people can appreciate this place that I love so much.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Drilling Things!

Our new shed is almost fully functional now - it has electricity, insulation and plasterboard around the walls, and a workbench.  Finally there is the feeling that projects can commence.  There is plenty still to do in terms of organising all the tools and materials and all the shed stuff like bikes and lawnmowers that we apparently have to keep in the shed (because that's where they're supposed to live, and sheds are for lawnmowers and not for building rockets *sighs*.  Who needs a short lawn anyway!?  And bikes just hurt your bum!).  However, this is a good start - I have the drill set up, we have figured out what drill bit best cuts through shell and glass, I haven't drilled a hole in my fingers yet - it's looking good!