Low sun on Melchett Mere

On a clear January afternoon the sun slowly settles down behind the trees. The effects on the water of Tatton Park’s Melchett Mere are quite striking.

low sun on melchett mere

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Wigeon 2

The male wigeon below were at RSPB Marshside, Lancashire, in November.

The brown head of winter contrasts with the iridescent green seen in the mating season. These birds still show remarkable patterning, from the fluffy brown head, the bright white splash on the side, those sharply outlined wing feathers and the detailed engraving on the grey back and side. And what a difference when the sun came out.

wigeon 2 pair

This pair exhibit some differences between male and female, but not so marked as in summer.

Prejudiced, moi?

how to be rightJust how gullible are we human beings, and how easily do we cling on to ideas that have no true justification? This question appears increasingly relevant to those of a liberal disposition, and is indirectly the subject of James O’Brien’s book How to Be Right… in a world gone wrong.

O’Brien runs a talk show on LBC radio and has callers on many controversial subjects: Islam, Brexit, LGBT, political correctness, feminism, the nanny state, Trump… The book basically gives his own ‘take’ on the subject from a ‘reality-based’ perspective, and demonstrates how various callers from different perspectives handle explaining their views, with many entertaining dialogues.

He essentially seeks to understand the caller’s viewpoint. The striking thing is often just how shallow those viewpoints are, and what little justification is given for them when questioned. It’s as if the person has unquestioningly swallowed a viewpoint and subsequently regurgitates it, without any understanding of why it might make sense. In other words, it is blind prejudice. They have effectively been brainwashed.

O’Brien’s technique is remarkable for its persistence, sticking to the point, and not allowing the caller to get away with simply restating their prejudice in another form. As well as giving us all ideas on how to handle the prejudice we inevitably encounter, it gives some insight into the minds that are most susceptible to populism.

It is also an entertaining read.

Featured pic of James O’Brien is from LBC website

Groundhog Days

Every morning seems the same here in the UK, like groundhog day. The latest on parliament, the EU and Brexit.

  • What Theresa May said
  • Theresa’s deal
  • what Junker/Barnier/Tusk said
  • what Merkel or Macron said
  • who gave her short shrift
  • which cabinet ministers said what
  • cabinet splits
  • who just resigned
  • the Northern Ireland border
  • the DUP won’t agree to anything (apparently)
  • frictionless trade
  • no deal
  • hard and soft brexit
  • managed no deal (what in God’s name is that?)
  • people’s vote
  • people didn’t know what they were voting for
  • the will of the people
  • cannot let down the people who by chance I happen to agree with
  • where Labour stands
  • the five tests
  • vote of no-confidence
  • no majority in parliament for any deal
  • bring back control
  • fishing grounds
  • THEY are not being flexible
  • and on and on.

Thank God they’re about to break up for ‘Christmas’.

And yet, it’s disgraceful that government/parliament is taking time off when this riven, blighted country is about to fall of a cliff – all of their own making.

Featured image of two groundhogs taken by Joyce Hopewell.

Brexit Angst

Sleepless periods at night seem to get more frequent as I get older. But last night was bad. Yesterday the UK government decided to put the frighteners on not only MPs but the entire population, in a probably vain attempt to get MPs to back Theresa May’s deal with the EU in January. They certainly set my angst going.

They actually appear to be taking seriously the prospect of a so-called ‘hard brexit’, otherwise known as jumping off an economic cliff and reneging on your international agreements. (Who will do a trade deal with a country like that?)

They outlined plans to increase the national debt by TWO BILLION POUNDS to spend on preparation for a hard brexit (while use of food banks is increasing in a supposedly rich economy), and are sending letters to companies to say that they need to prepare. As the CBI rapidly pointed out the whole idea is not tolerable. What small company has the spare time and effort available to prepare for such an unknown world and keep their business afloat? No wonder some are opening branches on the continent and moving some of their business there.

Of course, the two billion will temporarily improve the economic figures, so that the government can ‘claim’ their economic policies are working.

The whole idea of ‘hard brexit’ is not acceptable, not tolerable, cannot be allowed to happen. This should have been the first thing agreed with Europe, rather than the UK trying to use it as a bargaining chip.

And this form of psychological warfare on parliament and the people is not acceptable either.

And it’s all happening because of the incompetence of the incumbent prime minister and the frittering away of the time since she invoked Article 50, trying to please the far right hard brexiteers in her party.

If it will not accept her deal, parliament simply needs more time – either to arrange a new ‘people’s vote’ (in which hard brexit should not be an option) or to sort out a new deal that the majority in parliament can accept, which surely involves working across parties. Shock, horror. What a thought.

It’s time to recognise that Brexit is a process and not a one-off event achieved at a particular point in time.

The Scream by Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lapwings 2

These lapwings were on Neumann’s Flash at Anderton Country Park. Periodically they would fly up with that mesmeric leisurely flap of their large wings, flashing alternately dark and white as they circled around the lake, only to descend onto the water at almost the same point.

The distance was a bit of a challenge for the Panasonic TZ80 travel zoom I had in my pocket, but the longish zoom made a fair go of it (handheld).

lapwings 2Suitable resizing and cropping gave the featured image at the top, like an impressionistic painting. The characteristic lapwing crest is apparent.

Lapwings are also known as peewits (onomatopaeic), or green plovers. You can see the green clearly in the photograph. Apparently, outside the UK this is called the Northern Lapwing.

What was the problem?

I’ve never really understood the case for Brexit. What was wrong with over 40 years of peace and prosperity? Of course there were issues to be addressed, there always are. In a recent issue of The Times, Max Hastings neatly summarised the situation we, the UK, find ourselves in with Brexit.

Three years ago any thoughtful citizen could identify the principal problems facing Britain: productivity; Londonification; the flagging education system; a society financially skewed in favour of the old and against the young; Islamist extremism; funding of the NHS and welfare; stagnation of real earnings; job losses to technology.

None had anything to do with the European Union yet a faction of fanatics not only believed, but was successful in convincing millions of voters, that if we could only escape the thraldom of Brussels, a Heineken transformation would overtake the country, miraculously refreshing everything else.

I don’t agree with all of his list of problems, but leave that aside. Why did Britain stop worrying about the most important issues facing the country (many self-inflicted by Conservative austerity) and instead focus all its energies on the single issue of Brexit, as indeed it continues to do today?

The catalyst issue was immigration, which Brexit will probably in the end not significantly address because of sheer economic necessity. But how did the ideas become so prominent in the public domain, such that the Brexit vote was lost by the Cameron government against all expectations?

Essentially, the problems of the status quo were projected on to questions of nationhood and Europe because the political establishment and the media had not, since the New Labour years, seriously engaged with the European project. It appeared from the start that David Cameron insisted on being a right wing outsider in Europe, rather than a mainstream player, pandering to the right wing of his own party. When he needed European help with the immigration issue, the help was not there, because the bridges had not been built.

It did not help that a significant portion of the mainstream media were very anti Europe, reflecting the self-interested views of their rich owners, reinforced by the amplification of reactionary viewpoints in the ghettos of social media.

The final nail was the referendum, called to see off UKIP, in which it succeeded, but with the result no one expected.

But wasn’t the real problem more in London than in Brussels?

Mute Swans

Mute swans are common in the UK, possibly related to the fact that the Monarch retains the right to ownership of all unmarked swans in open water.

Mostly you see them in small family groups, but in some places such as Windsor there are large colonies. This group that we saw on Southport’s Marine Lake were clearly acting as a coherent grouping, speeding along together, like lads who’ve heard there’s free beer – presumably to meet up with others we’d spotted further along the water.

The single cygnet suggests that this is not a family grouping as such.

Sundown at Martin Mere

One of the delights of visiting WWT Martin Mere, Lancashire, in November is to see the feeding of the thousands of birds – ducks, waders, geese, whooper swans, with flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, sometimes a starling murmuration, more geese and swans circling and descending gracefully onto the water,…

This is soon followed by the gradual descent of the sun to the horizon behind the mere, as the birds begin to settle for the night.

At such times all seems well with the world.

Black Tailed Godwit

A number of smaller birds were taking their chances in the mêlée of larger ducks, geese and swans at feeding time at WWT Martin Mere. I concentrated my camera onto these small waders, which turned out to be black tailed godwits. As waders go, they are reasonably large, much bigger than the delightful ruffs that were also scampering around.

Interesting features in these photographs are:

  • the comparatively huge feet of the pink footed goose in the first picture,
  • the seemingly transparent leg in the second picture and
  • the seemingly sinister coot in the background of the last one.

Sea Buckthorn

I was intrigued to know what was this colourful plant amid the marram grass on the sand dunes at Southport.

A bit of research shows that it is sea buckthorn. It is the plentiful berries that are so colourful, lit up by the low November sun. Like the marram grass itself, sea buckthorn has an extensive root system that is able to cope with the extreme environment of the sand dunes (which also helps to stabilise the dunes).

The featured image shows the berries, leaves and thorns closer up.

Southport pier

I tried a number of shots to get a good photograph of Southport pier. By far the best was this wide angle one taking in lots of sea and sand, reducing the pier itself to seeming insignificance.

The few breaks in the cloud, which is lit by low late afternoon sun, give colour in what might otherwise be almost a monotone picture.

You can see Blackpool tower on the horizon to the left of the pier.

Stubble field farmhouse

Today, after an unseasonably warm month, typical November weather has finally arrived – cold, wind, and rain. Yesterday afternoon, in marked contrast, we had balmy sunshine, giving wonderful light for photographs in the late afternoon.

I love the effect on this otherwise rather undistinguished Lancashire farmhouse, set on the edge of a stubble field.

Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Squirrel silhouette

It’s a busy time of year for grey squirrels, gathering and hoarding ready for winter. We spotted this one high in the bare branches, perfectly silhouetted against the midday November sky near Marston, Cheshire. With strong backlighting and a maximum zoom shot, there’s no detail in its features. The result is a pleasing, almost monochrome composition.

Barn Owl

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about owls. I was once quite stunned when an owl flew towards me down a dusky country bridleway, and then passed by within a few feet.

So yesterday it was something special when a barn owl (or Tyto alba) appeared at an RSPB ‘Raptor Watch’ event at Parkgate on the Wirral. Parkgate quay looks out towards North Wales over the marshes that comprise the estuary of the River Dee. The sun had disappeared behind the Welsh mountains, the light was fading fast and it was getting cold. The owl had come to feed.

Backwards and forwards he patrolled over the marshes, perfectly framed in my binoculars. Frequently he dropped down into the marsh grasses, disappearing from view, often just for a few seconds, only to reappear and resume the search. Then it was a longer period – he must have caught something. Suddenly a dark shape flashed by to where he had disappeared, reappearing seconds later, followed by the owl resuming his search. It seems a kestrel had stolen his dinner. This happened once again.

Mesmerised by the graceful spectacle of this huge bird hunting like a ghost in the fading light, it was only the cold that eventually forced us back to our van to warm up. The barn owl was still hunting, almost a spectre in the gathering dark.

I was too entranced to take the time to get the camera out – I knew that it was not up to getting decent pictures at that level of light. So I’ve searched Wikimedia Commons for pictures of barn owls in flight – here are some of the best. Click and click again to see a bigger image.

According to the RSPB, although populations declined in the 20th century, these birds are not currently under threat. Given that they feed on small animals they are clearly vulnerable to chemical farming.

Thanks to Steven Ward, Edd deane from Swaffham, I Luc Viatour, for making these images available on Wikimedia Commons.

Liver Birds

Liverpool’s Liver Birds enhance the attractive waterfront skyline at any time, but especially on an autumn afternoon, when a clear sun is at a low angle across the River Mersey. The mythical birds, believed to be representations of cormorants, have stood on the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building since 1911 (my grandfather worked for the company Royal Liver Assurance).

According to legend, the female looks out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looks in to the city, watching over the seamen’s families. The birds face away from each other; if were they to mate and fly away, the city would cease to exist.

liver birds

Look at the full-size photograph and the image appears to not be horizontal. That diagonal line from the modern building in the foreground has completely messed up the perspective. Actually, I think it is pretty well true.

The interloper in the picture is unfortunately not a cormorant, but probably a pigeon.

Autumn Colours

This is a great time of year to be walking in woodland. Here are some lovely autumn colours from Anderton Country Park the other day.

  • Oak and birch are quite subdued compared to the vibrant beech.
  • Spindle and rowan give vibrant splashes of red.
  • White poplar gives contrast – as the white underside of its leaves becomes prominent.

Lapwings

These lapwings at Anderton Country Park were too far away for a sharp photograph with my travel zoom, but I rather like the impressionistic picture. You can just about make out the characteristic lapwing crests. (Yes, there are a few ducks and gulls in the mix.)