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.