Friday, March 16, 2012

The water in Majorca...

Those of a certain age might remember an old Heineken advert. It was a send-up of My Fair Lady and featured a Sloan Ranger being trained to talk in a cockney accent. She fails miserably until one swig of the amber liquid has her drawling, The worta in madjorca, don't tayste like it orta! 

This last week I've been to see for myself- not drinking lager but riding my bike with Andy Cook Cycling. It was my first visit to Majorca, and before going I'd have struggled to say much about it.  If you'd pushed me I'd probably have ventured that Magaluf wasn't quite my kind of town! The truth is, our pre-conceptions of places are often pejorative and unfounded - and no more so than mine of this stunning island.

The day I left, my friend and blog-hero Michelle sent me an email vouching deep envy. She'd once worked on an environmental project in the mountains near Alcudia - by coincidence, where I was staying. She wrote of eagles and kites, of fabulous coves and of ancient monasteries in the hills. I saw all of these and more, riding 400km in the Serra du Tramuntana, through orange and lemon groves, under cobalt skies and a temperate sun. On Wednesday I rode to Cap Formentor, the northern-most tip of the island - mile for mile I can't think of a more scenic ride in thirty years of cycling.

It's estimated over 80,000 bikers come to Majorca each year, providing an early boost to the tourist season. I vaguely knew this, but wasn't aware how comprehensively the island has embraced the influx: the resurfaced roads, the signed routes, the cafes with free oranges and cakes, the cries of hola from the locals. Add those to the mountain landscape and it is near enough cycling heaven.

You might suppose that hills and heat would make it more like a cycling hell. But it's surprising how the landscape inspires. One lady on our trip had never peddled more than 30 miles; she rode 100km with us on Sunday and beat me to the top of a 400-meter climb. I spent much of another day riding off the back with Andy, the trip organiser and a friend who goes back almost as far as those Heineken adverts. Confidence makes the biggest difference we agreed, and I thought how it applied to him too; he left a steady job to started his business two years ago, a leap of faith that's paid off in self-belief as much as financial returns. Hopefully, both will continue to grow.

I came home on Thursday, into a damp Bristol with the usual queues and traffic jams. Today I rode the Fosseway in a southwesterly headwind, the sky inking and the temperature barely 6 degrees. Not quite cycling heaven, but just as surprising in its way. Recently, I lamented the ripped hedges on Common Lane and doubted there'd be bullfinches there this year. Yet as I turned for home, a male was calling from the top of a hawthorn, its peach-pink chest as dazzling as the Majorcan sun - actually, that's not quite true, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bird Sense: what it's like to be a bird

Last October I was lucky enough to hear Tim Birkhead speak at a conference. He has that deceptively relaxed style which gets you laughing at the same time as you're scribbling down every detail. I came away both smiling and with the feeling I'd just listened to something of real significance.

Birkhead's lecturing prowess is rooted in a command of his subject, combined with the talents of a natural communicator. His new book, Bird Sense: What it's like to be a bird, takes both these qualities into print. It's a mind bending account of the ways in which birds perceive the world; a description of their recently discovered 'super powers' that's had me reeling off examples to friends and family for weeks. More than that, it's findings give rise to thoughts on our own species - suggesting our experience of the world to be a mere simulacrum of how it really is.

I was careful in that last sentence to avoid the word 'view'. For Bird Sense confirms how fuzzy are human optics. Most hawks have a visual clarity we only experience with telescopes; Birkhead explains this is because they have two retinas in each eye. Guillemots, he tells us, can recognise their mating partners from over two kilometers distance - quite how, we are still not sure.

Staying with vision, we know that kestrels detect ultraviolet light, and use it to follow the trails left by mice and voles. That might not sound much, but think on it a moment; the kestrel isn't seeing the electric-purple we use to simulate ultraviolet in films; what it sees is an entirely new a colour! That's something we can never experience - something, literally beyond us.

As too are most of the capabilities Birkhead describes. We learn that kiwis aren't probing randomly with those curved beaks, they're pinpointing worms with an olfactory sense that can smell them six inches below ground. In other chapters, we learn how birds taste; how their beaks (even those of woodpeckers) are acutely sensitive, how they hear (did you know that owls hunt largely by sound?) and use sonics much the same way as bats. In the last chapter, the book explores the research into avian emotions.

With so many revelations it's hard to pick a favourite. But perhaps the standout is the recently discovered ability of some birds to see magnetism. Yes, they actually see it. And Birkhead's description of the techniques used to confirm this are as readable as they are convincing. This is where he excels as a popular science writer - hooking you with a claim so extraordinary that before you know it, you're devouring pages and wanting more.

Much of Birkhead's personal research is based on Skomer and Skokholm - just across the water from my house in Wales. But his canvass here is much broader: the book is a summary of the world's leading research, from Wales to South America to Africa and more. If I had one churlish criticism it would be Birkhead's tendency to include back-story about his fellow academics - I'm sure they're delighted with the limelight, but frankly, the characters are much less interesting than their findings.

Birds Sense, is the most fascinating book of popular science I've read in years. Certainly, I've retained more QI type facts than I usually do. And in a way, that analogy isn't too bad a summary. Except it risks trivialising the broader message - that birds are more extraordinary than we ever imagined. And perhaps by understanding them better we might look again at ourselves, at our own limitations - and give light to the hubris that is our human-centric view of the world.

Bird Sense: What it's like to be a bird is published by Bloomsbury who gave me a copy for review. It is available from all good bookshops and I'd recommend it for anyone interested in birds, nature, weird facts, philosophy and life.