Friday, 23 September 2016

Autumn Dance

Autumn has been officially inaugurated. It has for me at least. A skein, 110 strong, flew over the patch last Saturday - a fluxating chevron of south-bound Pink-footed Geese.

By way of celebrating  I produced this track made just from samples (raw or processed) of the patch's autumn birds. The bird species are identified in the comments on the time line.

The percussive sounds are made from a Robin 'tick' and a Fieldfare 'chack'. The fluity 'melody', such as it is, is Whooper Swan. I've taken a bit of a liberty calling the Whooper swan a 'patch' birds as I saw 4 flying on one occasion! Brambling, Fieldfare, Redwing, Siskin, Chaffinch, Meadow Pipit, Pied and Grey Wagtails provide flight calls of the kind you might hear on an Autumn morning when migration is taking place.

I used a similar idea earlier in the year with Spring / Summer birds.  Autumn bird sound consists mainly of calls -  as opposed to spring version when there is a lot more song to work with - so I had to play fast and loose with some of sounds  to get any kind tune going.

I also found, when making the spring version, that simply layering a lot of sounds in the normal bird song frequencies can produce something quite strident and indeed unpleasant. For this reason I tried to get a wide dynamic range with bassier notes prodced by lowering the pitch of sounds and vocoding other sounds.

Gratifyingly the track got through the 'Fresh on the Net' whittling down process. They have weekly submissions from around 200 artists from from which they select 30 - these then go to public vote to arrive at a top ten.  So my track will be played on Tom Robinson's show on BBC 6 Radio show.

Dogs Vomit Slime mould
only the Dog's Sick slime mould
can compete in the slime mould
 comedy name stakes
Recent Patch Sightings
18/9 - 110 Pink feet - south
20/9 - 80 Pink feet - south
22/9 - Purple brittlegill, Dyer's Mazegill - new fungi
23/9 - Dogs Vomit slime mould
23/9 - Influx of thrushes - c20 Song Thrush, c30 Blackbirds - probably continental birds
Far fewer moths though some Autumnal ones - Yellow-line Quaker, Pink barred sallow new - Firethorn Leaf Miner

A fresh  Comma enjoying some September sun

Female Common Darter

Purple Brittlegill

Pink-barred Sallow

A Lancashire sunrise

Friday, 16 September 2016

It's raining DNA hallelujah

Common Vetch

Rosebay Willow Herb

Broad leaved Dock

The fact that ‘Wild Flowers’ are so called tells us a lot about the way we view nature.  They are named after the part which appeals to us aesthetically.  I think they should be  renamed  ‘Wild  Seeds.’  I can imagine our early ancestors would have been a lot more  interested in this, possibly edible,  part of the plant.

To the plant this is  the business end of the year – the time when it makes copies of itself. It also makes means of dispersing these copies. Hence the ‘possibly edible’ part - some plants bribing other organisms to act as their couriers – “here’s a juicy blackberry for you if carry these mini-me’s down to the bottom of the hill”.


Himalayn Balsam

Over the last  couple of weeks, on my patch walks,  I’ve been marveling at the variety and sheer abundance of these seedheads.  A windy day transformed a field full of thistles into a downy blizzard. Berries have been ripening – an ‘eat-me’ advertising campaign. Himalayan Balsam has been setting seed booby traps – ready to turn bazooka at the slightest touch.

It’s not just members of patch’s plant community that have been busy scattering their genes. A few weeks ago the swarms of  flying ants were testament to the biological  prime directive – ‘go forth and multiply’.

It’s been raining DNA. Those thistle seeds  (so good at dispersing, that they manage to find their way to the upstairs bathroom)  are tiny  instruction manuals – ‘this is how to make a thistle.’ The urge, the impetus to do this, is so strong it’s as  if the patch has exploded – one great stretch of  genetic code.


Hairy Tare

Yellow Flag Iris

A Swarn of flying ants is just as much a 'blizzard of DNA' as the plant version


Broom seed pod - the white hairs give it a fantastic fringed effect

Recent Patch Sightings
28/9 - Rare Moth - Blastobasis rebeli (my second in garden & 5th for Lancs)
1/9 - Juvenile Chiffchaff in the garden do its ' crazy thing '
5/9 - Moths Pinion-streaked snout (new) and Dusky Thorn (new)
6/9 - Ichneumon wasp Macrocentrus bicolor
7/9 - Moths Ypsolopha sequella (new) Mompha locupletella (new) Black Rustic moth 13/9 - New fly - Geomyza tripunctata
16/9 - Birch Sheild bug
17/9 - Pink-footed Goose 110 south - early arrival

Birch Shieldbug (Elasmostethus intersinctus)

Dusky Thorn

*‘It’s been raining DNA’ is a phrased borrowed  phrase from Richard Dawkin’s book 'The Blind Watchmaker'.
** My patch walks have also been punctuated by my trying to get seedhead photographs from below, for no better reason than the fact that it’s view you don’t normally see and also it puts them centre stage.  

It’s a question of scale - a Redwood Tree is majestic – from down here a  Hogweed seedhead on a tall stem appears almost a striking.

Together these photographs form a 'Vole’s Guide to the Seedheads of Britain'.  The voles, along with other small mamals, seem to be massively under-resourced in this area.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Conscious Patch

If consciousness is viewed as being on a dimmer switch - i.e humans have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it, bees have a bit of it - what might a patch map of consciousness look like?

In Nick Lane’s fantastic book ‘Life Ascending’ he lists consciousness as one of the “ten great inventions of evolution”. Reading this got me thinking about how, if at all, the concept of consciousness could be applied to the patch.

Within this are two questions 1) is there consciousness on the patch? 2) is the patch conscious?

An answer to either of these will hinge on which of the various definitions of the word we choose to employ. These definitions range from the rigorously scientific to the rigorously unscientific - new-age beliefs, via religion and metaphysics. An interesting way to approach this question is to look at the various attempts to explain consciousness and speculate how a ‘map’ of consciousness on the patch might look on each of these views. To put simply if consciousness is like this where would you find it?

What is it to be consciousness?
What's it like to be a starling? Is a starling conscious?
Stephen Hawking thinks so.
I wake up in the morning, I think to myself  'time to get up', moments later my body moves - I get out of bed. Waking up is accompanied by a kind on mental switch, I start up the thing called consciousness. I have the thought, the intention, to get up.  This seems to be a non-physical phenomenon - and yet the physical world - my body- is affected.

The so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is the question just what IS a sensation, what IS the green of a leaf, what IS the painfulness of pain, what IS my intention to get out of bed. How does the firing of neurons generate these phenomena? Why does the feeling which accompanies awareness exist at all?

The question of consciousness has, until recently, been seen to be out of bounds to science - more the realm of philosophy or theology. Even though, each of us has a consciousness1 we are not well equipped to analyse it. We are biased towards a belief that feelings, sensations, hopes, fears are in some way ineffable – ‘feeling stuff’ seems different to ‘body stuff’.

The brain is pretty much blind to itself, we can feel the beating heart, the heart can feel pain, but thoughts and feelings just seem to arise like magic. Consciousness is for this reason often seen as belonging to the spiritual realm…how can it be explained in purely physical terms??

Levels of consciousness
Neuroscientists often distinguish between two (some, as many as 8) levels of consciousness – 'core' and 'extended'.

'Map' of core consciousness on the patch.
Core consciousness – animalistic, raw feelings – hunger, pain, thirst, fear etc. The function of these is clear – putting your hand over a flame is not a good thing for you to do – so evolution has come up with ‘pain’. There is nothing inherently painful in the flame, it is not a property of fire – instead your brain invents the feeling.  It is a powerful bodily ‘to do’ - move your hand away - that shoots straight to the top of the list of priorities. Good old evolution.

Humans clearly possess this kind of consciousness, but so do animals. The analogy of a dimmer switch is often used to describe the way the ‘light’ of consciousness is turned up as you go from primitive organisms to human beings. That’s to say, apes have a lot of it, dogs and magpies have some of it. But so, to some extent, do honey bees – the sweetness of nectar is the reward offered by the flower – prompting the bee to seek it out. When you get down to bees the dimmer switch maybe nearly off but there’s still some light.

'Map' of extended conciousness taking
 the restricted view that it is only possessed by
human beings
Core consciousness occurs on a moment by moment basis, when this is layered with memory, language, thoughts of the future, society etc, extended consciousness arises -  raw feelings are overlain with emotion.

Here is the dimmer switch turned up to full - we have the full and rich scope of human mind. So we have what are thought of uniquely human ‘complex’ emotions - nostalgia, love, sympathy, regret etc – and the things that have been the products over the centuries – a Beethoven Symphony, the Mona Lisa, Stonehenge, the moon landings, Buddism, the United Nations and yes even UKIP.

Even amongst humans there must be degrees of consciousness – adults having the dimmer switch turned full on, babies less so. If this is true then perhaps it follows that magpies and dogs (which, at least seem, as intelligent as a baby) are conscious in the same way that a toddler might be. That’s to say they also possess extended consciousness...just less of it.

The idea that having consciousness is something that extends beyond just Home sapiens is gaining currency.  In 2012 an international group of prominent scientists, including Stephen Hawkins, signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.  They proclaimed their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and squid.

The illusion of consciousness
Consciousness on the patch taking Daniel Dennett's view that it is
 an illusion, or more accurately taking his opponent's view that
that he denies the existence of consciousness.
Daniel Dennett – in his book Consciousness Explained argued that consciousness is, in fact, an illusion.  According to Dennett, the mind consists of a set of mental faculties (memory, reasoning, perception etc) which are physical systems that can be reduced to ever simpler sub-systems - what Dennett calls the 'army of idiots'. Dennett, therefore, thinks that there is no-one 'in charge' over and above the idiot army. We are under the misapprehension that there is an overarching conscious agent – this is the illusion.

Opponents of Dennett have referred to his book as ‘Consciousness Explained Away’ or ‘Consciousness Ignored’. John Searle has summarised Dennett’s view as denying the existence of consciousness. I think I agree, I read Consciousness Explained some years ago and when I got to the end thought, 'so when is he going to start explaining consciousness??'

Panpsychism views all matter as conscious - it's everywhere
David Chalmers has argued that consciousness must be a generated by physical processes, however feelings don’t correspond to any known property of matter. His rather startling conclusion is that matter must have some additional property which we are unaware of – and that, in fact matter itself is conscious. He further suggests that this must mean that consciousness is universal – it’s everywhere. If you are a Panpsychist you see yourself as a mind in a world of minds.

Not just would this mean that you’d have to extend the realm of consciousness down past honey bees but to microbes and then rocks.

This kind of idea has been around for a long time and Chalmer's work chimes in with the theories of Plato, Leibnitz and Spinoza. With attention turning to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness Panpsychism has, started, perhaps surprisingly, to become fashionable again.

Is the patch conscious?
On almost every definition of the word 'consciousness' and in almost every way it is explained we can conclude there is indeed consciousness on the patch, but what about the second question - is the patch itself conscious?

James lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis contends that the earth behaves as if it were a single organism. Organisms interact with their physical environment to form a self-regulating system that’s helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life.

The theory has been eagerly jumped on by some in the environmental movement and a 'Gaian Philosophy' has emerged. Subscribers to this strand of thought have gone a long way beyond Lovelock’s ideas and suggest that not only does the earth behave as if it were a living organism, but it actually is a living organism and a conscious one at that.

It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system
Some so-called ‘new-age’ beliefs and several religious traditions hold a view that the earth, or even that the universe is conscious and so have embraced the notion of Gaia as being scientific proof of the fact.

Opponents of this view brand it has un-scientific and indeed wishful thinking - Lovelock himself would absolutely disown these ideas. Many scientists these days treat the Gaia hypothesis as a useful metaphor but nothing else.

Just to suppose for a moment that it were the case that the Earth were conscious – would that mean that a hemisphere was conscious? What about an eco-system? What about the patch?

What if the panpsychists are correct in their, seemingly hard to swallow, contention that all matter is conscious?  The patch is comprised of matter so on this view you'd have to conclude that, yes, in some way, the patch is conscious.

Perception per se
The map of core consciousness could also work as a map of neural activity and also of perception per se. Everywhere there are organisms with nervous systems. Sense organs are sending information to these 'brains'. There is a lot of perception going on.

Would it make any sense at all to view to these organisms collectively and contend that this collective has self awareness? Does this equate to a kind of collective consciousness?

In my view if the patch were ‘conscious’ then the meaning of the word has been stretched so far that it’s not at all the same thing as the kind self-awareness of internal states that humans possess. It’s certainly possible to imagine that some Gaian-type self-regulation happens at the level of an eco-system, but it’s not necessary to invoke ‘consciousness’ to explain it.

The Noosphere
Although, not totally relevant to the question 'is the patch conscious’ a fascination diversion is the concept of the ‘Noosphere’. If, as some contend, consciousness is a property that emerges from computation, then we should be able to a build a conscious robot with computer for a mind, if a robot why not a whole planet?

Humans are currently engaged in linking up the earth using the internet. Not only will the ‘internet of things’ link man made objects – fridges, cities, cars, but humans will be directly ‘plugged in’ to this web. Might the Earth itself then become conscious?

Recent Patch Sightings
27/8 - Tree Pipit -1, Chiffchaff - 21, Barn Owl -1
26/8 - Trickle of bird migrants overhead
25/8 - New Beetle - Silpha atrata
24/8 - Influx of Painted Ladies
5/8 - 'Flying Ant Day'
New Moths - Oak Hook tip, Cabbage moth, Dinghy shell, Blastobasis adustella, Ancylis badiadana

Another moth with beautiful metallic markings - Gold Spot
This Lesser Water Boatman was in the moth trap - it wasn't very happy until I put it in some water - then he was as happy as Larry (whoever he is)

Following on from my Minimal Wildlife Quiz I made these mugs with some of the designs
- Jay, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Goldfinch.

1 I can only ever know with absolutely certainly that I, myself am conscious - my mind is the only one I have access to. I have to make the working assumption that other people are also conscious. It makes sense to assume this - they behave as if they were conscious.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

An inordinate fondness for beetles

Ground beetles, in the garden pitfall trap during a seven day period (nb these are not to scale). There were other kinds of beetles in the trap - several species of Rove beetles for example these are just the Carabidae - Ground Beetles

The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reputed to have been asked what could be concluded about the nature of god from a study of his creation -  his reply was that he has -  "An inordinate fondness for beetles."

Yes there are a lot of beetle species - nature has got beetles coming out of its ears. I had my own taste of this during my week long 'beetle drive' (fans of pointless stuff your parents used to do should check out the beetle drive). I put a pitfall trap in the garden - this being a glass jar placed into a hole in the ground. Beetles stumble into the trap and can't get out - simple, yet...erm...simple.

Almost every time I inspected the trap - I would see one or two ground beetles scurrying around and bumping into each other like tiny dogem cars. Black and shiny and all the same - until closer inspection revealed them to be mostly different species  - an inordinate fondness indeed.

There are are around 400,000 described species of beetles (and probably over a million in total), compared to 5,487 species of mammal, for example.

Why are there so many species?

A number of suggestions have been put forward:
  • Many beetles are plant feeders and plants provide a large number of ecological niches.
  • As they go through metamorphosis the different stages are able to exploit a range of habitats.
  • As they have a hard exoskeleton they are able to withstand extreme conditions. 
  • Some groups are innately good at speciation.
It has also been suggested that, as beetles are a relatively old group they have had longer to diversify than newer groups such as mammals. There are, however, other orders of a similar vintage which are nowhere near as diverse as beetles.

Recent studies of the fossil record indicate that the key factor is that beetles tend to be extinction proof.  So while they're good at producing new species they're even better at not going extinct - and clearly didn't pass on any tips to the dinosaurs.

Very few beetle families have ever gone extinct through their evolutionary history.

This begs further questions however - why are beetles resistant to extinction? Why are there so many insects per se, and indeed why are there so many species of anything?

In common with the reggae song by Johnny Nash this blog has 'more questions than answers'.
Ruptela maculata
Phyllobius glaucus
Athous haemorrhoidalis
Gastrophysa viridula

Black Sexton Beetle (Nicrophorus humator)

I quite often catch beetles in the moth trap and particularly the carrion eating sexton beetles - these have a fascinating mutual relationship with mites.

Mites of the genus Poecilochirus produce nymphs that crawl on the beetles and are transported to carrion. Once they arrive at the carrion the mites leave the beetle and proceed to feed on nearby fly eggs and immature larvae.

Mites help sexton beetles reduce the amount of competitors on carrion. With less competition the beetles' larvae have a better chance of maturing to adults."

It's win-win - the mites get free transport to sources of carrion - the beetle larvae get more food - hoorah!

Rosemary beetle (Chrysolina americana)

This beetle originates from southern Europe and has been found in Britain since the mid-1990s. It feeds on Rosemary and Lavenda and is now considered a pest

It's a bit of a beauty though!

Scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii)

Sometimes wildlife should come with a Parental Guidance warning!

Carabus nitens

My blog rule is that I only include wildlife from the patch - I've made an exception for this jewel of a beetle however found in the Bowland Area

Monday, 1 August 2016

Arthur C. Barnett's Mysterious World

There are mysteries around every corner. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool, a charlatan and/or Ezra Pound, without an ounce of poetry in their soul (I personally have 3.02 grams of poetry in my soul).

With this in mind, I embarked on a patch expedition to get to the heart, of the kernel, of the crux of these riddles, that have puzzled precisely no-one since the dawn of time. Camera grasped to my sweaty palm like a diseased sailor (nonsensical similes ahoy) I embarked on the Odyssey of a Lunchtime, armed only with my ‘weak lemon drink’…and some clothes…and shoes…and the aforementioned camera.

'Giants Back-Alley'

The first port of call was the conundrum, not known in these parts as ‘Giant's Back Alley’ (also ‘Large Person’s Lego’). These ‘building bricks’ were on a truly gargantuan scale, with a girth and breadth of...oh…easily…..that much.

Did celebrity giant, Fin Mctool use this site as a dry run for his later piece – the famous ‘Causeway’. Is it performance art? Is there a sense in which it works on several levels? Will it ever be finished?

A more prosaic explanation is that these are the stones that previously belonged to some kind of ‘building’ as it were – who can say...perhaps we’ll never know.

Mystery one – nailed it.

'The Fire Trees of Doom'

Buoyed by having definitely solved my first mystery I strode on with the confidence of a small anteater. I felt like some latterday ‘Richard Dawkins’, debunking sloppy thinking left, right and centre, one god delusion at a time - whilst getting really annoyed at religious fanatics and totally loving the evolution.

The next stop in my patch puzzle pilgrimage was the breathtaking ‘Fire Trees of Doom’.

Dude, this really is an all-time top eight mystery! It’s a cornucopia of confusement and a plethora of perplexitude. This is also ’something like a phenomenon’, which only happens at certain times of the day – nearly always in the morning – a fact that only deepens the mystery.

Certain fir trees appear to glow! Yes that's right you heard correctly - hold off the ear syringing for the moment. They are backlit with an eerie radiance, looking for all the world like a star (or a kind of ‘sun’, if you will) rising up in the background!

Is this a magical transmission from a sparkly netherworld of sprites and spirits? …or maybe celestial yobbos starting a fire for no reason??...or maybe these are glowworms on a truly industrial scale??

The answer…it’s definitely a magical transmission from a sparkly netherworld of sprites and spirits.

Mystery 2 - cracked! 

The Hatch (also of Doom)

Warming to my task, like an underwater salesman, I proceeded to the best, boldest and baddest of all possible enigmas - The Hatch!!! This is also of course 'of doom'.  Viewers of the long-running reality series, ‘Lost’ will be well aware of the significance of a hatch.

What we learnt from the well-researched and easy-to-follow documentary was that ALL hatches lead down to a chamber, in which sits a little Scotsman, preventing a global catastrophe by the simple expedient of pressing a button.

This hatch was, of course, no exception - I shouted down to the Jailed Jock –‘don’t bother pressing the button, it’s just a poorly explained psychological experiment – no disastrous consequences will ensue if you don’t do it”. He shouted back ‘oh, ok’.

Mystery 3 Solved!

And so I returned home, tired but happy in the knowledge that the final pieces in the jigsaw of time had fallen at my feet.

Bestriding the mysteries of the patch like a bloomin’, big colossus? – job done! where's me breaky.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

'Minimal Wildlife' - quiz

When doing my blog post on camouflage I was messing about with a couple of moth designs in photoshop. I found that I could simplify the design a lot and it would still suggest the moth.

So I thought what's the minimum amount of information, that's needed to suggest a certain species? I've tried to use just geometric shapes. I've also tried to get as far away as possible from any kind of representation of the species and still have it be in some way recognisable.

I also quite like these as wildlife art - I'm going to hang them on my wall!

What do you think these are? They could be birds, mammals, insects, flowers or fungi.

I was asked by a local RSPB group to do these additional images - as fun / educational resources for Children