Wildlife

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Post title kind of says it all, really. Spider crabs en masse. Cool (rather than creepy, as the video calls it, if you ask me).

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Moving Pictures On A Friday. Offered without comment, this one, except to say – for those curious about the inner life of writers – that it touches (in, for once, a relatively positive and encouraging way) upon what, after family, friends and all that, I think engages and interests and impassions me the most. I tend to see the world in shades of grey, which makes my opinions on a great many things kind of complicated, not always that strongly held. Not so wildlife and the natural world. If you want to see me go all black and white and angry about something, what our one species has done and is still doing to the millions of others we “share” the planet with would be the place to start …

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Long, long ago I had a job that occasionally involved looking at old trees. There’s not much in Nature that speaks with a richer, stronger voice to us, I think.

Was up on the banks of the River Tay (one of Scotland’s two or three nicest rivers, imho) last week, and found two wonderful examples of timbery ancientness. First up, the Birnam Oak, of indeterminate age but a half millennium plus old. Supposedly the last survivor of the forest Shakespeare referred to in Macbeth:

” … Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”

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Leaning on its crutches like a Yoda of the forest, or a declining ent. And though you can’t see it in these photos, hollow as a drum, with enough space for a modest hobbit house inside its trunk.

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And right next door to it, what’s supposed to be Britain’s biggest sycamore. A mere 300 years old this one, but if anything bigger and more spectacular than the oak alongside:

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It’s the oak that’s got the richer voice of the two of them, though. All texture and age and wrinkles and character. Ancient trees are cool.

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Here’s some stuff I’ve harvested from around the web of late:

The Nerdist Podcast put out a couple of interesting/fun interviews that caught my ear: Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, talking about the comics and the movies; David J. Peterson, language guy, talking about inventing languages (including for Game of Thrones) and various real-language stuff.

Rio 2 has been all over cinema screens around the world lately. Here’s the real parrot it’s based on, Spix’s macaw:

Very pretty, no? Really quite beautiful in fact, if you ask me. But not as widespread as Rio 2, that parrot. In fact, it’s extinct in the wild as far as anyone can tell. Has been for some time. Good job, humanity. (And yes, I know the whole extinct in the wild thing is kind of a central plot point in the movies, but I still find the whole ‘let’s make fun movies and a bajillion dollars based on this’ thing a bit weird, even if it’s sort of well-intentioned.)

Amazon took over Comixology, the biggest purveyor of digital comics, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. I can’t begin to tell you how despondent the big river’s acquisition avalanche makes me. They’re a fine and clever company, I know; I use their excellent services now and again. But it’s in precisely no-one‘s long-term interest (except their own, of course) the way they’re hoovering up competitors and add-ons that incrementally turn them into a leviathan of truly leviathanic proportions. If you want to buy books online, take a look at Wordery. Good prices, good service, free delivery worldwide.

Talking of comics, I thought I’d take a moment to point out my favourite comic produced by IDW Publishing, the good folks who put out the Rogue Trooper comic what I have been writting. Locke & Key is an inspired, beautifully crafted and beautifully illustrated dark fantasy/horror comic from Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Complex and intriguing, it’s loaded with terrific character writing, clever world-building and eye-popping set-piece action. Give it a try (at Wordery, of course).

And here’s one of my favourite blogs, which I don’t believe I’ve mentioned here before: Abandoned Scotland. An exploration of ruined, forgotten, derelict Scotland that’s kind of hynoptically fascinating if you ask me. Stuff that’s hidden in plain sight, overlooked and disregarded, comes alive when you pay close attention to it. Investigate it. The most grungy and crumbly places and buildings become kind of beautiful. The Abandoned Scotland YouTube channel is a goldmine of strange discoveries. Don’t suppose this is exactly how the Scottish Tourist Board wants the world to see Scotland, but as a resident it’s all simultaneously familiar and surprising. Great stuff.

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A long while back, I highlighted the lovely film A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout by Gary Yost in a Moving Pictures on a Friday post. You never know who’s watching when you do internet stuff, of course, but in this case it turned out the film-maker himself was. So recently he dropped me a line to point me at a new film of his, which I’m happy to offer up for your consideration. It’s a collaboration between Yost and various other folks, including the actor Peter Coyote (whose fine voice you might recognise doing the narration).

Why am I happy to put it up here? Well, it’s a nice film, with some of the gorgeous and rather clever time-lapse stuff going on that made A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout so pleasing to the eye. It’s got an environmental slant, which pleases me since that’s the kind of stuff I’ve spent much of my life involved with for both career and pleasure. It’s got a history and culture angle, too, which also pleases me since what happens when the natural world and human history and culture rub up against one another is one of my more lasting interests.

And it’s just plain interesting, if you ask me. The world is so complicated, so full of stories, that you could pick any piece of it, any time slice, any angle, and unravel a story encompassing huge bits of history, Nature, human experience. This is just one of those stories, I guess. And the views are gorgeous. Never been to Marin County (or California at all, for that matter), but it does look nice.

The Invisible Peak from Gary Yost on Vimeo.

More on Mount Tamalpais here, and more on Gary Yost here (give it a moment to load, and you’ll be rewarded with some nice phosots and films).

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Aaaand I’m back on the blog treadmill after a festive break that ended up being a bit longer than intended. Busy, you know. Holidaying, working, thinking up new stuff. Got plans and hopes for 2014 – as I hope you all do, too! – but more on that another time.

Holidays mean holidaying, of course, but they also mean reading and watching, especially over Xmas/New Year. So here’s a quick summary of how some of my time got itself occupied while I’ve been keeping a low profile round here.

Reading first.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is something I got to later than most other folks with an interest in this kind of stuff, but courtesy of a well-judged Christmas present, I read it in the last week of December. Fascinating, for those of you with a longing to see what was wriggling under the rock of all those superhero comics that overtook the medium in the US in the second half of the last century. The lasting impression I’ll take away is of a company, and to some extent an industry, that was winging it most of the time, populated by big, often abrasive personalities, riding momentum without the time or inclination to pay much attention to what – or who – got trampled along the way. It’s kind of a feverish vision, but I’m glad to report it hasn’t put me off the idea of dipping my own toes into the comics waters.

Then, Stealing Light, by Gary Gibson. Got this on kind of an impulse, because the e-book happened to be (and still is) ‘competitively’ priced one day when I was browsing for an impulse buy. No regrets: a fun, accessible space opera, the first of a series, featuring engaging alien masterminds, bonkers human cultures, an interesting and sympathetic heroine, and a narrative that increases the scale of the action and concepts as it goes along. I’ll be giving part 2 a try at some point (which I guess = job done, competitive pricing).

And here’s an oddity, which I include to illustrate the randomness of some of my interests. River Monsters, by Jeremy Wade. The book of the TV series, in which Mr. Wade goes to remote places and catches large, dangerous freshwater fish. I’m a long-standing fan of the TV version. It combines lots of my interests – wildlife, unusual travel, fishing (yes, believe it or not I used to go fishing now and again in my youth, but no longer) – and I find both the TV and the book refreshingly different and novel, compared to most natural history stuff.

Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I’ve heard of a lot more animals than most folks (being a naturalist/conservationist by inclination, education and past employment) but even I’d never heard of a Goliath tigerfish until Mr. Wade introduced me to it; and if you’ve not seen it’s teeth, well … check them out. Most surprisingly interesting bit of the River Monsters book, in a way, is the stuff about Jeremy Wade himself. Guy has issues – it’s not only aquatic monsters he has to deal with – and he’s pretty frank about discussing them.

On to the watching.

We’re experimenting with Netflix UK in the Ruckley household. As far as I can tell, the selection of stuff available on Netflix UK kind of sucks compared to what’s evidently available on the US service. But it’s easy and convenient and efficient and there’s still quite a lot of stuff on there. It’s meant I’ve watched more movies in the last month or so than in the preceding three or four at least.

For example: I re-watched Thor (the first one) and Captain America. That firmed up my initial impression: I much prefer Thor as a movie and a spectacle. Did reinvigorate my interest in seeing the imminent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though. Hot tip here, if you haven’t already heard: there’s rumours floating around the internet, from people who should know roughly what they’re talking about, that Winter Soldier is going to be something a little bit special. As in, seriously good film. Wouldn’t surprise me, because I really, really liked the trailer.

I also re-watched, after years, Funeral in Berlin, the second Harry Palmer film. Michael Caine doing much darker, grimier, more realistic version of James Bond. They made three of these films back in the 60s (and crappy sequels much later, which are best ignored), and I like them all. Caine does tremendously under-stated yet magically charismatic and kind of sexy stuff here, working with a nice script. They just don’t make films like they used to, do they? You should check them out, if the idea of the young Michael Caine doing this kind of thing appeals:

And I watched, for the first time, Battle Royale. Holy cow. That, let me tell you, is … different. Difficult to explain just how fascinating I find it, beyond saying that just as I’m captivated by the strange things manga offers that Western comics don’t, so Battle Royale is not quite like anything I’ve ever seen in any US/European production. The sensibility, the preoccupations, the humour, the hyper-acting. The wonderful composition of some of the images. The bonkers violence. It’s kind of unique, and feels very, very Japanese. Extraordinary. Not sure what else I can say about it, really.

Oh, I know what else I could say: It’s crying out to be watched in a double bill with Lord of the Flies.

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The Frosts Have Come

The weather’s given us an occasional glorious Edinburgh day in the last week or so.  If, at least, there’s a certain kind of weather you like (as I do).

Pristine blue skies, still air that’s clear and sharp enough to make you feel you might see forever.

These are the small gifts Nature gives us hereabouts to compensate for the less than delightful weather that often also shows up at this time of year (rain, gales, cloud, that kind of Autumnal thing). That’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

The days are beautiful, but their mornings are made more so by the magic that Nature weaves at night. I’ve been seeing stars of late, more often than is usually the case, and that means clear, cold nights. And those nights mean morning frost, of course, which delivers tiny, tiny wonders. Little paintings and sculptures that are things of beauty when you get close. Cue an outing at the weekend, getting close.

When the frost gets to the grass, it does pretty things:

But when it gets something more basic to work with, in a nicely sheltered and shaded corner, it drapes whole coats of frost hair over surfaces:

Or encrusts fallen trees with thousands of ramifying crystals:

It’s all free, this stuff. The most delicate and infinitely varied of shows put on for us. All we have to do is wrap up warm and go look for it. Which I’m more than happy to do, but maybe not again for a few days. It’s c-c-c-cold out there …

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Owls

Owls must be right up there amongst the groups of birds most heavily loaded with myth and folklore and romance.  And they are rather magical creatures.  If you watch an owl for long enough – especially if you look into its eyes, or it into yours – you could easily start to imagine there’s something mystical, intelligent, fierce, wise going on there.  And cute, of course.  They’re nothing if not cute.

I watched a whole load of owls at the weekend, making a quickish visit to the Scottish Owl Centre.

So here, just because, are some photos from that visit.  You decide.  Owls: cute, awesome, beautiful, avatars of mystery?

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… looked like this for me:

And since it’s a reasonable time of year for a bit of reflection, here’s a piece I discovered the other day that I reckon is rather well-written, and although it might not be the kind of challenge to our habits and behaviour and priorities that I guess Easter is really meant to be, it’s certainly a challenge.

Not saying whether I agree with some or all of it or not, just that it’s good to read something now and again that makes you think, and this made me think if nothing else: David Cain of Raptitude.com on the subject How To Make Trillions of Dollars. Actually, all of Raptitude.com is nothing if not interesting, provocative and well-written, and it has a handy Best Of page if you want to explore it further. I think it makes really quite appropriate Easter reading, in many ways.

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Two of my very favourite podcasts this time around. Paradoxically, the two specific episodes I’m going to point at are not exactly typical of the podcasts concerned (if anything, they’ve kind of swapped their normal areas of interest with one another in these particular cases), but they’re both good and they’re right in the bullseye of some of my own interests. Zombies! Biology! Cryptozoology! This is exciting stuff to me, hence the exclamation marks.

Monster Talk is pretty much always a fun show, especially if you’re interested in … well, not strictly monsters, but cryptozoological and superntural oddities in general.  All of it seen from a skeptical, scientifically informed point of view.

This time around, though, with the March 20th episode, entitled The Zombie Apocalypse, they’re talking real science and real creatures, and real crazy stuff at that.  Fungi that turn ants into zombies.  Parasites that (this sounds crazy, but it’s actual science) … parasites that live in 12% of Americans’ brains, 60% of French brains (!), and can affect human behaviour.  Rabies as a behaviour-modifying parasite.  All sorts of fascinating stuff.

TetZoo is a new kid on the podcast block, and a rather different kettle of fish.  It’s a pretty full-on zoology ‘cast, going into fascinating detail on all manner of things relating to animals, extant or extinct.  Those with four limbs, anyway, which is why its full title is Tetrapod Zoology.  Lots of serious and (if you’re like me) fascinating science, strange facts about the living world, stuff about dinosaurs and their kin.  Plus occasional discussions of sf and horror movies.  Just because.

But the hosts, Darren Naish and John Conway, are also interested in cryptozoology (approaching it from a scientific, skeptical but not entirely dismissive point of view) so this week for their third episode they produced a looong episode all about bigfoot and the sadly ever less convincing evidence for the big hairy ape-man’s actual existence (not that I ever thought it was remotely convincing, mind you).  All the background you could ever wish for, if you’re curious about what sensible, informed folks think about the sasquatch these days.

And as a side-note, John Conway makes nice pictures.  I think he’d be an interesting choice for anyone looking for an out-of-the-ordinary book cover …

Previous instalments of Perusing the Podverse, wherein I reveal just how odd my listening habits are (and believe me, we’ve only scratched the surface of my podcast addiction so far), can be found here.

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