Author Archives: PK Read

About PK Read

I'm a writer and environmentalist. I live at the crossroads of prose, social change and scientific inquiry.

Wall Magic

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We awoke this morning to a view of the sun setting through a graceful swirl clouds taking place on our bedroom wall.

A perfect vision of what was going on outside, but the bedroom shutters were still closed and the room was dark except for this bright globe, the size of a breakfast egg, making its progression from wall to door frame.

The sky on the wall. Any blurriness is the fault of the phone camera, as the image on the wall was sharp and crisp.
Photo: PKR

A round-ish chink in the stone window frame was the culprit, of course. It forms a pinhole lens between the frame and the shutter, and when the light hits it from the right angle, as it did this morning, we get an inverse view of the horizon cast against our wall like a dream vision.

The natural camera obscura phenomenon has been known and discussed for millennia and there’s some good evidence that we owe some of the world’s finest paintings to it. A good article on the effect here, and on Vermeer’s likely use of it here.

We’ve just repaired and repainted all the wooden shutters, and filled in some of the cracks in the stone window casements. In such an old stone house, there are always bits and corners to be mended. However, a flaw that invites the upside down sky to visit is one we will continue to embrace.

Here’s a short video of what it looked like as the clouds moved across the miniature sun.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

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A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.

Common Beauty in the Margins

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I was on a walk yesterday around my running path – a walk, not a run, due to a tumble taken on a mountain hike, and two damaged wrists. One broken, one sprained; a full cast and a metallic brace. It’s slowed me down, but at least I can move my fingers and still type. And I can walk.

The slow pace going around my regular loop was an excellent opportunity to take in some of the smaller sights. There were butterflies, too many for me to photograph in my clumsy phase, but I did get a shot of this little beauty, one of a pair (the other flew off as I crashed along the shoulder of the road).

A female Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus), no less beautiful for being common.

Photo: PKR

The butterfly’s flower head was in an interstice between the road and an apple orchard, the slender line along the fence posts between the mown grass of the agricultural land and the trimmed green shoulder of the road. These flowering lines, miniature hedgerows, do better now that road maintenance no longer includes spraying herbicides.

As to that name, ‘Common Blue.’ It caused me to reflect on how we evaluate the life around us. Mostly named in times of abundance, many of these species are now less common than they once were. The Common Blue was named back in the 18th century and has been a regular part of the scenery for so long that we might assume its commonness is an unwavering constant.

Sparrows, starlings, pigeons, all disdained by city and country dwellers alike as common in the sense of being ordinary and undistinguished (to the point of being undesirable), are in decline in many regions. In some cases, the population loss has been precipitous and sudden.

Kind of like my mobility. Something I usually took for granted until I found myself in a completely new and uncomfortable situation in the blink of an eye.

As for the Common Blue, it seems to be a robust and adaptable species that is anything but common in its lovely colors and grace. As long as it continues to find sustenance in the margins, it might do just fine.

Dusk Reflection

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​​​It’s been a long week of heat.

A massive storm blew through, the crashing wave of a  weather front, flooding streets and downing branches in just a few minutes. It feels like the weather is echoing current events.

Now, at least, a bit of evening quietude as the thunder moves on down the road, leaving only rain in its wake.

A bit of water for the dry plum tree and the rest of the thirsty garden.

It’s A Hot One

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The little digital thermometer on my window here in south-eastern France read 50.1°C (122.2°F) yesterday. Today it’s even higher.

55.3°C (131.5°F). I definitely need to move this device. The actual temperature is 32°C (89.6°F).
Photo: PKR

Not that the outside air is really that hot. It’s just the sun heating the glass of the window to that searing temperature. Until I get around to moving the thermometer to a location that offers more accuracy, there’s not much point in panicking about the numbers on the display.

Still, according to Meteo Swiss, yesterday was the hottest day of the year so far in our region, 35.5°C (95.9°F). These days, the announcements of monthly, yearly or all-time heat records being broken beat down with the worrying regularity of a leaky faucet.

It’s not just a subjective feeling that the summers are getting hotter and drier, the winters shorter and warmer. When we moved to this area of high mountains and lakes, winter meant thigh-deep snow at least three times per season. Now it’s knee-deep once a year. And summers?

Hm. Let me go have a look at that thermometer again.

There’s a pretty video making the rounds this week, a striking representation of temperature anamolies over the past hundred years or so, broken down by country.

It starts off as a rayed sphere of blue, yellow and orange, showing average highs and lows above a baseline. By 2000, it’s a pulsing sun of spiky red lines.

Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, created the visual using publicly available data from NASA earth sciences programs. These are the very programs that have had their budgets cut by 9% under the new U.S. administration, in favor of planetary science programs.

Unlike my window thermometer, this climate data is accurate. Ignoring it won’t make the raw information change, and it won’t change the fact that anyone and everyone with the means needs to act now to make Lipponen’s visual – and our planet – stay in the safety zone.

Swift Moment

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A cloudless evening and the shrill cries of a small group of European swifts on an evening hunt for insects.

A summer concert told in sharp notes.

The swift has a wide range and enough numbers to be merit a population status of Least Concern from the IUCN. Considering the slow but persistent declines in common birds such as house sparrows due to habitat loss, it’s good to see a familiar bird adapting to changing circumstances.

The old farms in our French village all have ledges placed between the beams of barns for to support nesting birds (and to keep the floor beneath somewhat cleaner), a nice old habit that made space for wildlife in a way that modern garages and houses don’t.

Our own garage is still open and has old beams, home to several swift nests every year. Seeing them whisk in and out of the buildings at breakneck speeds is a thrill that never gets old.

A few of the many ledges for nests in the barn next door.
Photo: PKR

 

I found this interesting clip on the extreme lifestyle of the European swift – it can stay aloft for up to ten months of the year, and naps while gliding. Swifts might be common, but they are very special.

Summer Field Moment

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I was out running yesterday and there was a cushion of sound, a papery hum, that accompanied me for a long stretch.

At first I thought it was the standard ambient noise of my run: a bit of mountain wind, shards of birdsong, maybe an underlying rush of water from the creek in the middle of the nearby forest (but only if it’s just rained). And then there’s the busy road at the lower end of our village, and the occasional plane above. It’s a familiar palette.

But this was closer, and I was pounding along and breathing heavily, so the soft crackle carpet of this sound took a while to push through to my awareness enough to make me stop and take a detour into the neighboring field.

I should have known all along. A field of rowdy insect song, full of hidden animals drunk on the heat of a summer morning.

So I thought I’d share it.

Root Migration

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What do a rare high-altitude Alpine snow flower and a sturdy South African cousin of the daisy have in common? They aren’t related, they look nothing like one another, and they are natives to completely different habitats in different parts of the world.

But over the past few years, they have both been on the move.

Rockfoil – Saxifraga androsacea
Source: Wikimedia

The saxifrage species, also known as rockfoil, is a tenacious ground plant with that waits all winter under snow cover before bursting forth with a graceful stalk and small blossoms. It’s a plant of extremes – extreme cold, extreme altitude, it thrives in rocky soil where little else grows. But the temperatures for which it is adapted are becoming more seldom, and with them, so is the plant.

Meanwhile, the South African ragwort (Senecio inaequidens), a tall herbaceous plant with bright sunny blossoms, is happy to take up the space. Able to survive higher temperatures and unfussy about altitudes, it is adapting well to Alpine heights. The ragwort’s seeds arrived in exports of South African wool, and are proving very comfortable in a number of regions across Europe and the rest of the world.

South African ragwort – Senecio inaequidens
Source: ResearchGate

According to a long-term study of one Italian region, Alpine winters are rapidly becoming warmer, up to 1.2°C (2.16°F) over the past 20 years, with tourism and skiing heading ever higher in search of winter sports, impacting the environment. And while both tourists and ragwort are happy at a variety of altitudes, saxifrage is running out of places to go.

What the two plants share mobility, but are separated by the extent of their comfort zones. With climate change, the ragworts will settle in, the saxifrages will be unsettled. Whatever other plants or animal life that relied on an ecosystem that includes this little saxifrage species will change along with its disappearance.

It’s a sign of profound transition that a plant native to South Africa is growing on Alpine rock faces. What we know of this ancient landscape as it has always been will have to be altered.

For the moment, the plants have movement and terrain in common. Their destinations, however, won’t be the same. One will likely adapt and move onwards, the other will likely move into memory.

Rockfoil
Photo: Florasilvestre

Another Harvest Moment

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Summer harvest continues in our village. How do I know?

I can hear the tractors. But even with the windows shut, I know a field of grain is being cut.

​Look at that kettle of hawks, circling, waiting for the easy pickings of field mice in the newly shorn field.

Or maybe they’re just riding the thermals on a perfect summer day.

Harvest Moment

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Out on a run, I could here the jangling racket of large farm machinery somewhere in the distance. It echoed across the low hills of my running loop. 

Finally, I found it. The crackling dry wheat was being cut. 

Here’s a slow summer moment in south-east France. 


The scent is an intoxicating mix of warm baked grass, honey, and a hint of something sharp and invigorating. 

And here’s what it looked like two days later.  The summer scent drew a small flock of ducks from a nearby pond. That, and probably the scattered grain. Lucky ducks.