12 December 2008

Senecio rowleyanus

A friend gave us a plant of Senecio rowleyanus (String of beads) recently, and it has been thriving in the sun on our front windowsill.

This plant grows wild in arid habitats, and has spherical leaves to reduce its surface area and help to conserve moisture. (Well... they should be spherical, but apparently I've not been giving mine enough water.) The centre of the leaf contains special transparent cells for storing water. However, this leaf shape is a disadvantage when it comes to photosynthesis, so it has made yet another rather curious adaption. Each leaf has a narrow band of transparent tissue, and this lets light in like a window. The leaf is then able to photosynthesize from the inside as well as from the outside.

Cross section through a leaf:

Soon after it arrived, our plant also produced a rather bizarre flower. Although belonging to the daisy family, this flower has only disc florets and no ray florets and looks more like a little brush than a daisy.

See also:

Senecios with windows in their leaves

11 December 2008

Elliott Carter 100

...and don’t forget the American composer, Elliott Carter, who was born on 11th December 1908, one day after Olivier Messiaen. What is more, he is still alive to celebrate his centenary, and still composing prolifically.

Find out more at his centenary website

Events in the UK

Listen to his music - listen to this today! It will be gone in 3 days


10 December 2008

Olivier Messiaen 100

There are many websites and books where you can find out about the composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). For something a little different, I will recall how I met him in the church of La Trinité in Paris on 29th December, 1974, soon after I had left university where I had specialised in his music.

As I entered the church, I was met by the most glorious blaze of organ sound - full organ in the style of very resplendent Bach. What a tremendous welcome to La Trinité! When the mass I was attending had finished, a helpful lady was insistent that I should meet the organist and went to ask a priest where I should wait. The priest said that the organist would be "longtemps." There were some others waiting – four organ students from Vienna. One of them had met Messiaen before and the others also wanted to meet him.

Messiaen certainly was "longtemps." The others were about to leave, thinking they must have missed him. It was 20 to 25 minutes after he had stopped playing when there was the sound of a key turning somewhere above us. We argued about who was going to speak first. None of us wanted to, especially in French!

Suddenly the door opened and Messiaen’s wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, appeared. When she saw us, she smiled and stood back for her husband to appear. We were all quite overcome and struck dumb by the sight of him, but he paused as if waiting for us to speak. In the end it was I that broke the silence, and then the others joined in. Messiaen seemed interested in us, kind and friendly, and I apologised for my bad French, explaining that I was English. He asked if we were all English, so we explained our various nationalities. Messiaen enthused about the organ at La Trinité, saying what a magnificent instrument it was, and gave us a brief history of the instrument which I didn't quite grasp since he spoke only in French. He spoke of it with great warmth, affection and quiet enthusiasm. I mentioned that I knew the organist Gillian Weir and Messiaen immediately began to enthuse about her, saying what a magnificent organist she was. Was she really mon "amie?" He had a rather soft, musical voice and seemed very kindly, but also business-like and obviously didn't want to hang around for too long, though he wasn't in a hurry either. Then he turned, shook hands with me and said "Merci" really warmly, and did the same with a couple of the others. He went to join Yvonne Loriod who was already in their car, and they drove off, while we, in a state of euphoria, hardly knew where we went.

Messiaen, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, must have had visitors like this regularly, yet he was gracious enough to spend time with us and take a friendly interest, even though we were total strangers.

Listen to some Messiaen today:

Some other particularly interesting videos of Messiaen on YouTube:

Messiaen teaches his students about Debussy and Colour

Websites about Messiaen:

07 December 2008

Highland cows

Today, while out walking, I met a herd of these rather special cows quite high up on a hillside.

I didn't want to get too near to those horns though!

The frosty air made this one look as if she was breathing out fire like a dragon.

03 December 2008

Ice spike

Last night we had a very hard frost, so this morning I went outside to break the ice in the paint tray that we use as a bird bath.

In the middle of the tray was a remarkable ice spike, which measured 53mm in height.

After finding another tray that I could use for the birds, I went to fetch my camera. After taking the first picture, the sun rose, and I took this second picture when the rising sun lit up the spike.

There are more ice spikes on our website and you can read more on the website of the Physics Department of the University of Toronto.

19 November 2008


Today we went beachcombing along the shore beside the estuary.

Along this stretch of coast, old ice-age beds are exposed so that one can find shells that are about 10,000 years old. Some are no longer found living around the British coastline.

Below are some Icelandic scallop (Chlamys islandica) shells. These can still be found living around Iceland, but are extinct in British waters.

Here's my collection for today. These are all ice-age shells, plus a marble and a broken clay pipe. Some of the shells are in remarkably fresh-looking condition, as they were buried in heavy clay which preserved them perfectly. Pictures of these and more, along with their names, can be found on our website

Among my finds today was this pair of Chlamys islandica. I've added a juvenile shell to each picture for scale, and it measures 35mm in its longest dimension.

The Trophon shell (below) is one of my favourites, though the specimen I found today is a little bit broken.

And who would expect that we would find a PENGUIN??

17 November 2008


For the last 2 weeks there has been an influx of waxwings into the Clyde area. These beautiful birds are rarely seen in Britain, but occasionally arrive from Scandinavia in large numbers during the winter.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spot a flock of 12+ waxwings as I was driving through Dumbarton, close to the River Clyde.

Waxwings tend to congregate in a medium sized tree and then fly down, a few at a time, to feed on berries from low bushes nearby. At a distance they look a bit like starlings, but are paler and have a shorter beak, so they appear to have a spike out of the back of their heads (crest) whereas starlings have a spike at the front (beak).

The best places to look for them are within a few miles of the Clyde, anywhere from central Glasgow to Arran and beyond. If you see any, please note the date, time, location and number of birds present, and let me know.

The picture above was taken in our garden during a previous irruption. For more pictures of waxwings in our garden, see our website, where you can also see a picture I painted of a waxwing.

15 November 2008

Ondes Martenot

Now for something different!

I have been writing programme notes for a recital of music by the French composer, Olivier Messiaen, whose centenary we celebrate next month.

Some of Messiaen's music, notably his Turangalîla-Symphonie of 1948, requires a rather strange electronic musical instrument called the Ondes Martenot, invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot who was a cellist.

The Ondes Martenot has a traditional keyboard, and also a sliding ring which can produce glissandi. These are normally played with the right hand. The left hand is used to control the volume, attack and timbre. The keyboard is capable of moving sideways a few millimetres when played, producing a vibrato which can be controlled by the performer.

Wikipedia has an article about the Ondes Martenot.

Here are some links to YouTube videos where you can find out more:

A good introduction to the Ondes Martenot in English

Another in French

If you want to take it a bit more seriously (but watch your bandwidth - this one is 131MB) there is an Ondes Martenot lesson given by Jeanne Loriod on the website of the ondist, Claude-Samuel Lévine. Jeanne Loriod (1928-2001) was the first well-known ondist and was also Messiaen's sister-in-law.

The Ondes Martenot has a large repertoire of 20th century music, most of which is French.

Another strange musical instrument which has fared less well since its invention in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin, is the glass harmonica, for which Mozart wrote a number of pieces. It fell out of favour, largely due to rumours that playing it would drive you mad, though this was without foundation.

An introduction to the glass harmonica

A less sophisticated form of the same instrument and also dating from the 18th century, known as the glass harp, consisted of wineglasses either permanently tuned or with water added to control the pitch.

Thanks to those who made these videos available.

05 November 2008

Mud tubes

After we had passed the tree with the resin yesterday, we came out of the forest onto open moorland. In the middle of the path we saw the dried-up patch of mud which you can see in the foreground.

My stick gives an idea of its size.

The surface had dried into little spikes of mud, up to about 5cm tall, sticking up all over the surface.

The only reason we could think of was that this had been caused by ice forming crystals which had since melted and dried.

June 2009
We are finding these tubes at all times of year, and they have tiny holes at the top. We now wonder if they are caused by some kind of worm.

22 June 2009
Thanks to Chris Townsend for the suggestion that these mud tubes were caused by Tubifex worms.

16 July 2009
Today I have received a suggestion that these are caused by "bloodworms."

Futher suggestions or conclusions would be very welcome.

04 November 2008

Resin and amber

Recently Fred and I watched a film about amber and the insects and other creatures that get trapped in it (David Attenborough's 'The Amber Time Machine'). Amber is a resin produced by some trees which has hardened over a period of millions of years. The creatures are trapped on the sticky resin when it is first produced by the tree, and they are then preserved in perfect condition within the amber. They can tell us a lot about the conditions at the time when the resin was produced.

Today we were walking through the forest and found a tree which was producing a large amount of resin. We thought it would be interesting to see if any creatures were trapped in the resin.

We were amazed to find quite a collection of creatures. In this picture, to the left there are two spiders plus part of a third, and to the right there are two small insects which look like a mite and an ant.

Perhaps such creatures will be found in amber millions of years in the future.

03 November 2008

First snow of the winter

I always find it exciting to see the first snow in winter. Usually it arrives on the tops of the hills late in November, and sometimes not until even later. This year there was some snow in October but, owing to gales and rain, this was the first chance I had to go into the hills in wintry conditions.

I went up Ben Challum, and this view shows Ben More and Stobinian to the south.

Ben Challum has two tops, and this is the first and slightly lower one.

A narrow ridge joins this top with the summit. This view is looking north, so the hills don't look so snowy because there is less snow on their south slides. Fortunately there was no wind, so it didn't feel as cold as it looks.

Below is a view back towards the lower top, taken from near the summit.

08 October 2008

Crab spider

Last week I visited the south-east of England and came across an unusual white spider. I think it is a female Misumena vatia.

This spider does not make a web. It sits among flowers, waiting for passing insects which it catches with its two pairs of long front legs. Each time we approached, it stretched out these front legs, but it was hard to know if it regarded us as a threat or as potential prey.

It was sitting in one of these Hydrangea bushes.

28 September 2008

Ben Lomond

Today I went up Ben Lomond again.

Ben Lomond is 974m high and you start from not much above sea level.

At first the weather was fine, with mist drifting over the hills. But soon it deteriorated and began to rain, getting harder every minute. What a nuisance it is, having to put on waterproofs. My waterproof jacket is too narrow to zip up over my camera and GPS, and the waterproof trousers are a struggle to get on without taking my boots off. Of course, as soon as I had put them on, the rain became less. Soon the clouds turned back to mist, drifting away across the loch.

The summit of Ben Lomond was clear of cloud and I thought I was now in for a fine day.

Near the top, the clouds closed in again.

Soon it was not only raining, but windy and rather cold. I had to put my gloves on as well as the waterproofs.

At the summit trig point there was no view in any direction but, as it had only recently started to rain, I decided to hang around and hope for it to stop.

Patches of blue sky kept appearing overhead, but I had quite a long wait before the clouds started to move away. At last I had a view to the north, with a rainbow over the head of the loch.

As I started the descent, I could see sunlight on the loch below.

Suddenly the sun burst through the clouds overhead, so I hurried up to the summit again in the hope of seeing a Brocken spectre.

I was in luck.

The only other person still on the summit to share it with me was someone for whom Ben Lomond was his first Munro (hill of over 914m), and it was quite a celebration to see such an unusual phenomenon.

The descent continued to be a mixture of sunshine and showers.

The same view as the first picture, but now with better weather.

For more about Ben Lomond, see the virtual walk on our website.

27 September 2008

More algae

Today we have been looking at some water we collected from a ditch yesterday. It was full of various sorts of algae (primative plants). The most frequent in the sample was this rather beautiful feathery-looking one (Draparnaldia sp.), seen here under the microscope.

Very long, fine hairs can be seen extending from the ends of the branches.

Among the strands of this alga were numerous desmids, such as the large round green one in this picture (Micrasterias sp.), diatoms, and other small algae.

Here is a larger picture of Micrasterias, showing its structure.

For more desmids, see also 28 August 2008.

26 September 2008

Insects on ragwort

While walking in the forestry near our home, we found this moth feeding on some ragwort flowers. It is an ear moth (Amphipoea sp.). There are 4 British species of ear moth, which are very hard to tell apart.

These flowers were also popular with other insects including a strongly patterned hover-fly (Helophilus sp.)

21 September 2008

Shaggy Ink Cap

The Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) is also known as the Lawyer's Wig.

We found a whole lot of these beautiful toadstools while on a walk above Loch Lomond today.

After reaching maturity, the cap breaks down into a black liquid - a process known as auto-digestion. The picture below shows four stages in the process. At bottom right is a perfect specimen. The ones in the middle have just started to widen and turn to liquid at the margins. Those on the left are half way through the process, and those at top right have completely liquified.

Below is a photo of the view from where we found them.

18 September 2008

Garden spider

Today Fred found this spider crawling on some rushes by a pond we were visiting.

It is the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) which is very common in Britain.