Nature 2011 October

The View from the other end of the telescope

By the time you are reading this Supernova PTF11kly will be no more. At the time of writing these Notes I had just returned inside, telescope and binoculars in hand, having convinced myself that I had seen the last throws in the life of a star on the edge of the Pinwheel Galaxy some 21 million light years away. In other words I had been focussing in to view an event which had occurred a little over 21 million years ago. Although akin to using the BBC iPlayer to view a never before seen version of a black and white Test Card it nevertheless brings home to one how immense the universe is in both space and time, maybe or maybe not how unique amongst all the galaxies, stars and the planets which interact with them is the Earth The View from the other end of the telescope is the vista of our villages set cheek by jowl with fields and woodland and set within the more diverse but distinctive landscape of the Chilterns which, in turn forms but one of so many and very variable landscapes in the British Isles.

Another way of reflecting on the richness of our local landscape and the wildlife we are lucky enough to be close to is to view it from afar. This summer this opportunity arose when I spent a bit of time in Barcelona. Not only was the climate a complete contrast (34°C) but walking around a cityscape, with its own distinctive sounds and pace of life, was as far away as you could get from the tranquillity of the Hilltop Villages. Despite this, I was rewarded with some interesting examples of what has recently been coined as synurbia. This is where animals adapt to living with humans. At an unusually late-night football match the resident bats were disturbed from their roots high in the stands and spent the whole game flying from end to end. I realised after a while they were gorging themselves on the moths and other flying insects attracted into the stadium by the floodlights and that these bats had identified this as an ideal location to ensure a regular food supply. Locally, barn owls exemplify this adaptation choosing to live near human habitation and benefiting from the small mammal prey that is also attracted to this habitat. Another example that has adapted to city life was the Monk Parakeet. They congregate in large numbers, producing a cacophony of high- pitched sound in morning and evening in the trees of the many parks. Although they appear oblivious to the people in the street below, much like our garden birds they are opportunists, all too well aware of the benefit a close association with humans brings can bring. I saw them frequently swoop down to secure morsels of fruit or the like left by the careless picnicker. Similarly, in the countryside around here their nearest equivalent could be the thrushes and starlings bolstered by the seasonal arrival of redwings and fieldfares that gorge themselves from this month on orchard apples ripening soft fruit and the man-managed hedgerow hawthorn.

One feature that does bring these two distinctly different places together is the trees. Barcelona was laid out at the start of the 20th Century in a grid system of roads with wide straight boulevards. It was planted with large numbers of trees, much like fifty years later when, the ‘Barcelona of the North’- Milton Keynes – was first laid out. It was surprising to see in Catalunya’s capital city, throughout the criss-cross of byways, some familiar trees. Both oak and chestnut are familiar friends, though in both cases they were Mediterranean varieties with distinctive waxy leaves. Along most avenues though, the most predominant tree is a relation of the sycamore, the Oriental plane tree. It is closely related to the London plane which is a cross between the Oriental plane and the American sycamore. Despite the abundance of trees both, in Barcelona and in the surrounding countryside, by August the predominant colours are not the magnificent greens of the Chilterns, but dull oranges and dark yellows. The million shades of green we are so familiar with in the Chilterns are not to be seen in southern Europe, something I found you can appreciate from afar. Spend just a few days in the dry heat of northern Spain and as soon as the aeroplane starts its descent over middle England its like switching from black and white to colour television. Walking around each day one of the most unexpected sights was to see an army of street sweepers in orange jumpsuits (possibly a Spanish version of community service) all over the main streets in the city with brooms gathering up the leaves. No sooner had a section been swept clean was it smothered in more leaves. I would judge by mid September all the foliage would be gone. What a contrast with the glorious autumn kaleidoscope of colour emanating from our beechwoods just about now. Perhaps one of the most unusual experience I had was on a visit to the zoo. If you are ever there it’s well-worth seeing. Much like London Zoo collected animals from the British Empire it was built up on species obtained from the Spanish- speaking world and includes many interesting exhibits we do not see in this country. I came all of a sudden to one well-appointed enclosure of animals from what was one the Spanish East Indies and there, just a few feet in front of me, was as described on the label: – ‘Muntíaco de Reeves – Filipinas’. It took a few moments to realise I was staring at a very tame deer which was calmly staring right back at me before lowering its head to browse unconcerned about my presence. We may see muntjac most days of the year, but try to approach one and after a few steps their white tail goes up like a flag and they skip into the distance. Seeing a well-fed domesticated one who was not concerned about my presence was quite an experience.

This autumn has all the signs of being one of the very damp ones and no doubt although this will be well suited for the fungal flora to ‘fruit’ they also need some of those sparkling days with a light breeze to spread their spores. The wet ground also brings to the surface this year’s crop of earthworms, woodlice and beetles. Already, there seems to be more than the normal crop of ground beetles. In particular, the bloody-nosed beetle also known as the blood spewing beetle. This is a very black shiny beetle about the size of a five penny coin. Totally harmless, but if you disturb or pick one up it is likely to disgorge a gob of nasty red liquid. I’ve never tested it out but gather it is foul-tasting which is sufficient for any sensible bird to spit it out. I’m not sure if it is hedgehog proof, though. A call awhile back from one of my regular ‘field-correspondents’ was to report seeing a ‘furze-pig’ as they were called until the 15th century. Now hedgehogs are not encountered frequenting our gardens as much as they are in the back yards of towns. In discussion we thought in part this is because, unlike an urban environment, they do not need to rely on garden habitats for food. Also I think there has been a slow decline in numbers over many years due to shifts in agricultural use from pasture to arable which reduces the opportunity for foraging for invertebrates. I would be interested to hear of any sightings. They should be very active at this time of year building up the fat reserves before they head for the log pile to hibernate as the temperatures fall in November.