My morning began with a murmuration. That's the proper term for a flock of starlings. I didn't see the birds here in Maine, though Pamelia and I are finally back home from our trip to England and New York (more on that below). I saw this swarming, weaving, shape-shifting marvel of nature in a video shot by two women in a canoe on the River Shannon in Ireland. A friend sent me the link. Click here and imagine yourself in the canoe as the birds darken the sky above you: http://www.swiss-miss.com/2011/11/murmuration.
Farther above I've pasted in an additional video of a murmuration, one that grows larger and more dramatic as the images unfold. This gathering took place at a bird refuge near Oxford, England, the millennium-year-old university town where Pamelia and I spent the final day of our three-week British work/vacation getaway.
We'd taken the train from London to Oxford to hear a lecture by noted biologist Richard Dawkins. The talk was great, but, like starlings in a murmuration, other sights and sounds came winging in too as we walked around town. We found ourselves in a swirl of ideas and learning.
We lingered in the school's renowned natural history museum, a beautiful neo-Gothic structure that has been the site of such milestones as the first public demonstration of the wireless telegraph and the famous 1860 evolution debate that boosted awareness of the science behind Darwin's then-brand new theories. With the skeleton of a Iguanodon dinosaur looming behind us, we examined the Oxford dodo, the most complete specimen anywhere of the flightless, helpless bird wiped out in the 1600s by the dogs, pigs and rats brought by European explorers to the island of Mauritius. The museum's display inspired Oxford graduate and math lecturer Lewis Carroll to create the character Dodo, a parody of himself, when writing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
From the museum's bones and stones to the dahlias and European robins in a university courtyard, Oxford was the perfect slice of England on which to end our trip. The city was never bombed in World War II because Hitler fancied it a future capital for his empire. The architecture and layers of history remain. As we headed to the Dawkins lecture Pamelia walked along a set of dinosaur tracks (see photo) to the Ghost Forest, an exhibition of ancient, gnarled tree stumps from Ghana's rainforest, which has been reduced by 90% in the last 50 years. It was an apt display to ponder on the week the world population hit 7 billion.
Perhaps you're sensing that we liked our time across the pond. Quite. I don't know how many of you have been to England, or more specifically to the museums, forests, gardens, fields and aviaries that help a visitor understand the country's passion for nature and natural history. You don't have to walk in Oxford's dinosaur tracks to know which way the trail of English naturalism goes: along a path of scientific inquiry, built by generations of Newtons and Darwins and Attenboroughs, to a place of clear thinking about the physical world, our connections to it and our responsibilities for it.
And so a visitor turns on the BBC in prime time on a Friday night and finds Autumnwatch Unsprung, a live, unscripted nature show, complete with the weekend bird-migration forecast and a guest raven walking around on its own. There's a studio audience gathered around the cool, smart hosts and a weekly quiz (linked to viewers at home by email and Twitter) to challenge everyone to identify, for example, half a dozen creatures plucked from a tidal pool (or a rockpool, as the Brits seem to call them).
Mind you, it's hard to sum up our travels in a brief post. From Maine to Connecticut to New York to England (and back), Pamelia and I traveled for four weeks, slept in 10 places, walked up to six miles a day, went to museums galore, survived train misadventures, dined with an expert on the Magna Carta, almost became zookeepers, got a private tour of an 800-year-old pub from an award-winning gardener, made art, soaked in Bath's thermal waters, toured (at least in my case) the 2012 Summer Olympic venues with members of the world press, ate the world's tastiest shortbread cookies, played hide-and-seek with a kingfisher and took a flight from London to New York that—thanks to the freak snowstorm that hit the U.S.—ended up as a 44-hour odyssey that included 22 hours on the ground in, of all places, Bangor, Maine.
You'll be hearing more about some of those things in future posts. As it is, I'll leave you with a few more random photos and a reminder that we are planning to re-open The Naturalist's Notebook for three Saturdays of holiday shopping and fun starting after Thanksgiving (11/26, 12/3 and 12/10). Stay tuned for more details.