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Wed 2nd May 2012 21:50 by Michael Daniels
Some astronomy, some meanderings
Having commented on the need to for folk to contribute to the Members Forum, rather than just read the thoughts of a select few who make the effort, I feel I should practise what I preach.  But what can I write that may prove of some interest, difficult given the likes of Graham et al, who are hard acts to follow. 

Maybe someone would like to hear of my recent project to install an astronomical observatory on our balcony here in Holland-on-Sea.  Really my great life's interest is prehistory - fossils and because the Naze is only six miles from our home, this place has produced wonderful results for me and my fossil bird collection from the London Clay of Walton is unquestionably second to none and in that respect - I mean internationally!  But that is quite a specialist subject and think observing the heavens might be a topic of more general public appeal.  After all just go outside after sunset and look up and as long as the sky is clear of cloud (!!!), you may see, despite all the light pollution especially if you live in town, the wonderful starry expanse of the night sky.  No need for any optical assistance and this particularly applies when there is a chance of seeing meteors. These interesting, but tiny fragments of some extinct comet can provide a remarkable display when a bunch of them burn up brightly when they enter the earth's atmosphere. Could be, if you are lucky, a worthy diary entry. For those that might think a little shooting-star watching could be a worthwhile distraction, I will try and post the dates when there is a chance of seeing a meteor shower as these occur at more or less regular intervals throughout the year.

Now about my more determined endeavours in the cause of amateur astronomy. To mark my eightieth birthday, my cousins gifted me an very fine China made astronomical telescope. My Australian cousin asked me if I would like a lap-top, fair enough, but I had this device and also a desk-top, so I suggested the telescope and that is what I received, and a very impressive instrument it is.  Its arrival immediately brought me suddenly into a virtual new interest with quite a lot to learn.  I always had a fascination for looking up at the heavens and remembering my young days during WW2, there was plenty to watch up above, aerial dog fights during the Battle of Britain and because of the blackout restrictions, there was some wonderful dark nights when the the moon and the stars shone down in all their glory.

The question thus arose, where to site this impressive instrument.  Our garden is short and although quite wide is bordered by a high privet hedge that belongs to the adjacent care home. Although obscuring much of the lower south-eastern sky, it provides an important refuge and nesting place for our Blackbirds, Dunnocks etc, but also for a colony of House Sparrows which must reach, at times, around sixty in number. There are surely other more obscure avian inhab- itants in this thick cover; once our cat brought in a dead, but hardly damaged Garden Warbler, that finished up in my comparative skeletal collection to assist with identifying Naze fossil birds. It was this specimen particularly, that had features in its anatomy that lead to a belief that very primitive forms of the Passerines - song birds - were present in the Lower Eocene period, circa fifty-four million years ago.

After these digressions I'll try to return the telescope installation.  It is essential that this instru- ment has a very firm base as due to its magnification power, it must have rock-solid stability to avoid vibration when viewing far distant objects.  One day when accompanying a builder friend to B & Q buying materials, I wandered off to the sheds section.  More or less the first display item was a kiddies play hut and at a ridiculous price reduction deal. Thinking quickly, an excep- tion that day perhaps, rather than my normal more ponderous reaction, I thought play hut + balcony and given certain modifications to increase length and height, the unit could be sited over our existing access hatch accessible by a flight of stairs from our second bedroom.  So I placed an order for this small, but well designed wooden cabin.  Eventually after several weeks delay I received a call that my flat-packed shed was in store awaiting collection. My friend with his trailer was engaged to pick up the hut and we deposited it in our conservatory.  Here, the sections and fittings were unpacked and fairly quickly I had the little building temporarily assem- bled along with a plinth added to increase head height for adult occupation rather that for kiddie use.  Also I had to redesign the roof so that panels mounted on hinges, would open to reveal the sky in true observatory fashion. Next stage, with the hut reduced to its dissembled components, these to be lifted on to the balcony and then speedily, once more bolted and screwed together in their final position on the roof. 

It was soon confirmed that the little place had fully lived up to expectations indeed providing in daytime good all round views of both sea and land.  And after dark when the weather here deci- des, well at least occasionally, to allow clear views of that magnificent free spectacle, the night sky. 

From this vantage point it is also interesting to see into neighbouring gardens, oh yes I visited several local residents to assure them that this new addition on our balcony was not installed so I could pry on them from above and all seemed happy with my explanation.  Now instead of our previous restricted views we can see what is happening both near and far. Immediately bordering our property we can see into the garden of the nearby villa that was originally the summer seaside residence of the Countess of Warwick and it was she that acquired quite a reputation in late Victorian and into Edwardian times for her associations with the then Prince of Wales, he later to become Edward V11.  Also of perhaps of some interest to Essex Field Club members, she was a great friend of Professor Raphael Meldola one of the orginal founders of the society. She also was herself a great animal lover and if one still has an early edition of Warne's The Observer's Book of British Birds, you may find that the work contains her forward. Our place here was the chauffeur's house.

Due to the continuing inclement weather, have had little opportunity to do much sky-watching, but have been greatly compensated by having a cosy place to watch the sea in all its moods. The recent storms churning the waters and also giving us a good view of the Gunfleet Sands wind- farm. Maybe I am not alone in having distinctly critical views of these so called clean energy providers. No argument, being able to watch the day to day performance of these off-shore turbines has done little to help change my view that these units are obtrusive, and of marginal green benefit, except that is, to all those have acquired some very lucrative contracts!  Installed at vast outlay, expensive to service - quite sizeable vessels in regular attendence, further, given the vagaries of our climate, the evidence must weigh heavily that they are both inefficient and poorly cost affective.  We can see the days when in near calm conditions their sails hardy revolve at all and at other times, when, for some unknown reason, a number are out of commission.  Nevertheless, the powers that be already have plans to add another eighteen even taller units.

One more aside prompted by roof top observations.  Now we have a wide view of the land here- abouts, can better take in the local bird population.  Unfortunately, nothing very special to report, but thinking about the time twenty-seven years ago when we moved here, regretably the avi-fauna is now clearly much reduced. Then we had Redpolls, both Mistle and Song Thrushes, lots of Green finches, House Martins, Starlings were common, we often saw Kestrels and a Tawny Owl was disposed to sit on our gutter.  Had the occasional Great-Spot and once even had a wonderful opportunity to photograph a Lesser-Spot on our roadside tree. Now, sure plenty of Collared Doves, Woodies and one small bird we do have in quantity are those House Sparrows.  Also have a family of Jackdaws and many noisy Herring Gulls who freely nest on nearby proper- ties, but on the minus side, Blue and Great Tits are now in short supply and Wrens a rareity. Of the others earlier mentioned, most have long disappeared.  However, there is one male Chaffinch whose repetitive, rather boring call, has been regularly with us for several years now - will he ever find a mate?

I do hope some parts of this multi-topic deliberation, has created at least a modicum of interest.



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