Archive for the ‘nature’ Category

Please Help Me to Compile a List of UK Police Forces’ Wildlife Crime Pages

July 17, 2010

This post has been moved to pigsonthewing.org.uk/help-compile-list-of-uk-police-wildlife-crime-pages. Sorry, but WordPress.com won’t let me set an automatic redirect.

BBC Balloon Release Complaint

February 1, 2010

Here’s a complaint I lodged with the BBC, on Saturday, 30 January 2010, with added links and image:

Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, on the BBC’s ‘Chemistry: A Volatile History’, (ep. 2) released a big, red, helium-filled balloon, with a string attached.

On its return to earth, the balloon will become litter. Balloons are harmful to wildlife, as documented by the Marine Conservation Society.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 unequivocally makes it is an offence to drop ‘or otherwise deposit’ litter in a public place.

The Marine Conservation Society are campaigning to stop balloon releases, both by persuasion in the short term and, eventually, through prohibitive legislation. They are supported in that campaign by a large number of reputable organisations, including the RSPB, the RSPCA, the National Farmers’ Union, the Tidy Britain Group, Keep Scotland Beautiful, county bird clubs, various Wildlife Trusts and other organisations.

Please make it BBC policy to forbid the release of balloons, as many other organisations have done.

I’ve e-mailed a courtesy copy of the complaint to Prof. Al-Khalili. I’ll let you know what responses I get.

I am not a Twitcher!

June 8, 2009

Three times this week, people have referred to me, in good faith, as a “twitcher”. I’m not, and I blame lazy tabloid hacks for creating this misconception, which I will now try to lay to rest.

I am a birdwatcher or, if you will, a birder. I like to be outdoors, with my binoculars and sometimes a telescope, to watch birds. I like to travel to different places, such as hills or the coast, to see different kinds of birds, but I also like to watch common birds, like Starlings, in my garden, or as I move around my home city.


[Picture: Common Starling, Sternus vulgaris, from Creative Commons, by Paul Stein; licenced under Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.]

I like to know their life histories, and to read about and study their behaviour, their conservation and their contribution to human folklore.

All together, this brings me a great deal of enjoyment, and helps me to de-stress after spending long hours at a desk in front of a computer, or in stuffy meetings, in my day job. I try to pay some of it back, by sharing my interest with non-birders, and beginners, and by doing voluntary work for the RSPB and the West Midland Bird Club, of which I’m a trustee.

Occasionally, I am pleased to chance upon a rare bird, or to travel a short distance to a local reserve, knowing one is present. The interest in seeing a new species this way is sometimes tempered by the fact that, if it’s a rare vagrant from Siberia or the Americas, it is likely to be exhausted and near death. At the very least, it will never get home or find a mate.

Twitchers, on the other hand, enjoy an extreme, compulsive type of birding, whereby they will hunt out such rarities, competitively, often travelling great distance, at great cost, and enduring considerable discomfort, to do so. They will often prefer to see one bird of a new species, involving a day or more travelling, over the opportunity to spend time looking at a whole range of other, more common birds (which some of them refer to as “trash birds”). There have been cases of twitchers paying hundreds of pounds to charter a boat or plane to get them to The Scillies or The Shetlands, and one once famously left his own wedding reception and missed the start of his honeymoon, to chase after a rarity.

Unlike some birders, who disdain them, I make no judgements about twitchers, and I know that some are very knowledgeable, and are just as likely as other birders to be involved in voluntary and conservation work.

But I’m not one of them. I trust that that’s now clear.

25 things about Andy Mabbett

February 20, 2009

I’ve been wondering whether anyone would tag me to give “Seven Things you Never Knew About Me”, and how on Earth I would come up with that many. My friend and colleague Emma Routh tagged me on Facebook in a similar exercise, but requesting twenty-five factoids!

For the benefit of those of you not on Facebook (where I’ve already tagged another 25 victims), here they are:

  1. I come from a long line of horsemen (following the paternal line). My grandfather was a cavalryman in India in the 1920s, then delivered bread from a horse-drawn cart. His father was a carriage driver for a wealthy Birmingham family, before that, my ancestors were stablemen for a Duke; and were from Fairford in Gloucestershire. I’ve contacted someone called Mabbett whose family has been in New Zealand for generations, but also harks from Fairford.
  2. I love flying and watching or reading anything to do with aeroplanes. I had an hour piloting a helicopter as a 30th birthday present, I’ve been up in a microlight, and I sweet-talked my way onto the cockpit of a commercial airliner for the landing at Birmingham International Airport on the return leg of my first flight (to Amsterdam) in 1989; yet I haven’t flown since a business trip to Dublin in 1996.
  3. I’m a pacifist.
  4. My spelling is appalling. I particularly have trouble using double letters when I should not, and vice versa. This is, apparently, typical of people of my generation, who were taught to read using the “” (ITA) system, which had no double letters. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a good and voracious reader (my reading age was over 16 when I was 9), and could read “proper” English while still being taught ITA. Forbidden, as a child, to read at the meal table, my mother says I would read sauce-bottle labels.
  5. I am a published writer: I have written two books on Pink Floyd ( an update of a previous work by ; all my own work), contributed to another, and written articles on the same subject for Q and Mojo, among others. When Pink Floyd were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Seattle, I wrote the programme notes. I was subsequently invited to the induction ceremony in New York, but couldn’t go as I was in the middle of buying my house. My second book is a set text on a university course in the USA.
  6. My hair used to be waist-length. Female friends were aghast when I cut it. I sold it to a wig-maker.
  7. I used to be a professional computer programmer, in COBOL and suchlike, for Cadburys. There was a time when every bar of chocolate which left their factory at Bournville had been counted by a stock control programme which I wrote. I haven’t coded for many years, though. I’d like to learn to programme again, for the web, perhaps using PHP.
  8. My books came about because, for ten years, I published and edited, with friends, a fanzine about Pink Floyd, ““. It was read in every continent except Antarctica (I really must get around or sending a copy to our research station there) and even smuggled behind the iron curtain. We had a subscriber in Kuwait, but sadly I never heard from him after the Iraqi invasion.
  9. I hold a certificate in counselling skills. I was encouraged to take my training further, but a job change took my career away from working with unemployed adults and towards on-line work. And how does that make you feel?
  10. I absolutely love dogs, but my domestic situation means I can’t keep one. My friends laugh at how often I stop to pat dogs in the street.
  11. Through my writing, I’ve met many famous people, and become an unashamed name-dropper. JohnRabbitBundrick, the Texan keyboard player with Free and The Who, once cooked me chilli and cornbread. James Galway and the London Symphony Orchestra played just for me (but he still owes me £15). The picture researcher on my first book was Mary McCartney, daughter of Paul. Bob Geldof once called me a cynic.
  12. I am a certified first-aider, and once saved a man’s life with CPR.
  13. I’ve always done voluntary work. I now do so for the RSPB, such as entertaining children at events (I’m very skilled at making dragonflies from pipe cleaners), and as a trustee of the West Midland Bird Club, for whom I am also webmaster and chairman. In my schooldays, I did conservation work at Moseley Bog Nature Reserve. Later, I was a volunteer for the Birmingham Railway Museum, doing almost everything from engine cleaning to shop sales, and from manning a level crossing to booking guest speakers. I also acted as steward on mainline steam trains, looking after the passengers as we went all over the country. The only place I never worked was on the footplate.
  14. I only passed my driving test at the third attempt, and have since been involved in four collisions requiring insurance claims. Only one, the most minor, was my fault.
  15. I’ve been managing websites since 1994 — the year Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented them founded the W3C (he invented the web in 1991, of course). I’ve been using on-line fora for work and socialising since 1995 since October 1994.
  16. I’ve been stalked online for years. If you search the Usenet archives, you will find fake accounts (including someone pretending to be me) announcing that I’m both a convicted “cottager” and a child abuser (I have a police safety-check certificate which says otherwise), have been sacked by the people who still employ me, and more.
  17. I collect things. If I had unlimited space, I’d collect everything, but I really have to stop myself, and limit my collecting to books, original artwork showing birds, fossils, and old artefacts related to Birmingham, such as bottles and badges and beermats and coins and 78-record sleeves and… Oh dear.
  18. I’m a grammar pedant: I say “fora” not “forums”, and detest the use of “bored of”. I love copy-editing and proof-reading, too.
  19. I had the job of demonstrating the World Wide Web to Michael (now Sir Michael) Lyons; the first time he saw it. He’s now head of the BBC Trust, and ultimately responsible for bbc.co.uk, ““.
  20. The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre once referred to me as “the ever-vigilant Andy Mabbett“.
  21. I own an original drawing by Bill Oddie, from one of his books, “Birdwatching with Bill Oddie”. It cost just a couple of pounds on e-Bay, in a job lot with a signed photo of Liberace.
  22. I love old street furniture, especially the old cast-iron stuff we have inherited from the Victorian era. One of my achievements was to save the street-urinal from where Birmingham‘s International Convention Centre now stands, for Birmingham Railway Museum (though I don’t think they’ve yet re-erected it).
  23. I hate bananas. I really wish I didn’t as I know they’d be good for me, and are handy to carry when out in the countryside, but I can’t stand the taste or texture. Even the smell makes me feel nauseous. I love almost all other fruits and, as a child, would usually prefer fruit to sweets.
  24. If I go near fresh paint, I can still smell it for a week or more afterwards.
  25. The Duke of Edinburgh once trod on my cousin’s toe.

Triple tags on Twitter

July 4, 2008

Triple tags (known as Machine Tags on Flickr) are a way of tagging web content with tags having three parts: a namespace, a predicate and a value. This means that we can differentiate between content about a (tagged taxonomy:vernacular=beagle) and (tagged maritime:vessel=beagle). Of course, that relies on everyone using the same tagging schema (my two examples could also be tagged with, say, pet:dog=beagle and history:ship=beagle). Fortunately, communities of web authors are agreeing on such schema.

One schema that is widely used is for geo- (or location-) tagging, where posts such as my picture of a Kingfisher on Flickr are tagged with (in that case):

  • geo:lat=-1.56403
  • geo:lon=53.60913

In other words, the coordinates of the place where I took the picture (pages using that schema are also often tagged with ““).

Kingfisher at Bretton Lakes, South Yorkshire

It is then possible for Flickr to display that picture overlaid on a map of the location.

The Flickr page is also tagged:

taxonomy:binomial=Alcedo_atthis
taxonomy:genus=Alcedo

which gives the scientific name (binomial or binominal) of the Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, including the Genus, Alcedo.

Another form of tagging, using hash tags, is used by the social media text-messaging service Twitter. Tags in twitter are prefixed with a hash symbol (#), hence the name. A “hash-tagged” message might look like:

I live in #England

Hash tags are parsed by three sites that I know of (there may be others — if so, please let me know): Hashtags (e.g. ), Summize (Summize for “#blog”) and Twemes ().

All well and good.

It occurred to me recently that it should be possible to use Triple tags in Twitter messages, so I posted these “tweets” as they’re called (I find that rather, er, twee):

#tagged post about #Kingfisher #taxonomy
( #taxonomy:genus=Alcedo,
#taxonomy:binomial=Alcedo_atthis )

(See
http://twitter.com/pigsonthewing/statuses/849630924)

and:

Is anyone is parsing #geotagged posts like this: #geo:lat=52.478342 #geo:lon=-1.895389 ( #birminghamuk #rotunda #geo #geotag #tripletag)

(See
http://twitter.com/pigsonthewing/statuses/853592240)

(line breaks have been inserted to improve readability)

Disappointingly, none of the three hash tag parsers above managed to understand these. They all see “#geo:lat=52.478342” as just “#geo” and “#taxonomy:binomial=Alcedo_atthis” as just “#taxonomy”.

Worse still, Hashtags wrongly displays my two posts without the second two-thirds of the tag content, as:

#tagged post about #Kingfisher #taxonomy ( #taxonomy #taxonomy )

(see http://hashtags.org/tag/taxonomy/)

and:

Also wonder if anyone is parsing #geotagged posts like this: #geo #geo ( #birminghamuk #rotunda #geo #geotag)

(see http://hashtags.org/tag/taxonomy/).


See also:

Wouldn’t it be great if services which parse hash tags in Twitter messages also recognised “hash-triple-tags”?

[Update: Summize was bought by Twitter and is now absorbed by them as Twitter’s own search.]

[Update: Hashtags.org now parses the triple tags as, for example, just “#taxonomy”]

[Update: David Carrington of Dabr tells me that some of these triple tags are too long for Twitter’s search API. I’ll try to find out what the limit is, and raise the matter with Twitter’s support people]

[Update: There is now a tool to automatically generate tags for Flickr images of living things; iNaturalist tagger.]

Marking up the scientific names of living things

June 27, 2008

As any web manager worth their salt knows, it’s <span lang=”fr”>trés important</span> that changes in language be marked up with HTML’s “lang” attribute, using an IETF language tag (such as “fr” for French, as shown above). This allows software like text readers for blind people to pronounce them correctly (instead of sounding like an outtake from ‘Allo ‘Allo!) and means that translation software can handle them appropriately.

But what happens when a page like this one includes the scientific (or taxonomic) name of a living thing, such as Circus cyaneus (the Hen Harrier)? It’s not English, and should not be translated, into, say, German, as Zirkus cyaneus.

It’s not really Latin, either, though some people mistakenly refer to scientific names as “Latin names”. Many of them are neologisms — new words, with no real Latin content, but based on Latinised Greek (for example Brachypelma albopilosum), people’s names (Ardeola grayii, in honour of John Edward Gray, a biologist), place names (Nepenthes sumatrana, from Sumatra), culture (Ba humbugi, a quote from Charles Dickens‘ ‘A Christmas Carol‘) or even humour (Phthiria relativitae, a play on “The Theory of Relativity”).

Back in 2003, on the IETF mailing list whcih discusses such langauge codes, I proposed that there should be a specific language code, or sub-code, so that scientific names such as these could be marked up and recognised by software. There wasn’t much interest (possibly because I made the proposal as an amateur, rather than a professional or academic taxonomist), and distractions in my work and domestic life meant that I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to pursue the matter.

However, the need for such a code has now been recognised by Gregor Hagedorn, of the Julius Kuehn Institute, Germany‘s Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, in Berlin, who has rekindled my proposal.

With the support of Gregor and other taxonomists, via the Taxacom mailing list, I’m hopeful we can at last make a case that such a code is needed.

Spotted Mimics

June 23, 2008

As a child, I was often taken to our local shopping centre in Perry Barr, north Birmingham (since replaced by a tin shed with pretensions of being a mall) to see a Mynah bird (Acridotheres tristis). It resided in what I now realise was a ridiculously small cage, on the counter of a petshop, and would delight all and sundry by asking repeatedly, “Where’s George?”, wolf whistling, or performing another of its many acts of mimicry.

Now my ears are more attuned to such things I realise that the journey was unnecessary. Still living in Birmingham, I can hear the avian equivalent of Rory Bremner any time I wish, simply by opening a window and listening to the Mynah’s relatives, my local Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). With the onset of autumn, they flock in ever increasing numbers, resplendent in new, strikingly sleek and spotty plumage, and very vocal. As well as having an uncanny ability to sound like any number of other birds, they have been known to imitate car alarms and mobile phones, and even children’s playground screaming.

The quiet suburban road where I live is rarely without Starlings, at any time of day, but the city-centre skies are no longer darkened by the flocks which came in to roost there in my childhood. A backfiring car would see thousands take off at once, and have pedestrians reaching for tissues to remove their supposedly “lucky” deposits from clothing or — worse — hair.

The birds in my garden are far better behaved, except when treated to their favourite delicacy: leftover, raw, shortcrust pastry. They descend from my and my neighbours’ rooftops the second I step back from the bird table, and the food disappears in moments, in a cloud of flying feathers and squawking and pecking bills, the birds mingling too rapidly to count accurately.

One particularly convincing, if annoying, individual has perfected the art of reproducing a Buzzard‘s (Buteo buteo) mewing call, no doubt heard in more open country. Ever gullible, I rush into the garden each time it performs this trick, in the hope of adding the real thing to my “garden list”. So far, without success.

[The above was written some time ago, with the intention of emulating the Guardian’s Country Diary column. As such, it has exactly 200 words, not counting the subsequent addition of scientific names. These are marked up with the draft Species Microformat, which I developed, and which is already being used on Wikipedia.]

Taxonomic machine tags

February 7, 2008

Images on Flickr (and other sites?) can be tagged with “machine tags“. For living things, these can convey taxonomic information. For example:

taxonomy:binomial=Larus melanocephalus

taxonomy:genus=Larus

Flickr collapses these to:

larusmelanocephalus” and “larus“, but note that subtracting one from the other gives the specific epithet, “melanocephalus“.

For subspecies, use:

taxonomy:binomial=Larus glaucoides
taxonomy:genus=Larus
taxonomy:subspecies=Larus glaucoides kumlieni

and for other ranks:

taxonomy:class=Aves

Here’s an example: http://flickr.com/photos/pigsonthewing/2238938901/

Well, what are you waiting for? Tag away!

Now tell me that moths aren’t pretty!

November 30, 2007

Now tell me that moths aren’t pretty!