Dinosaur of the week: Mute Swan

Cygnus olor isn’t actually mute, but produces very little vocalisation. What you can hear when they’re flying over is the sound created by their wings.

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Swansong to a floodplain

Yeah, I’m feeling a wee bit sentimental. We’ve left our home of three years in Bratislava, said good-bye to many a good friend (who we hope to meet again in the future), and also said bye to our favourite twitching places along the river Morava / March. And because spring had already mightily started to spring, we had some lovely sightings in the floodplain near Devinska Nova Ves like a yawning stork, circling white-tailed eagle or a hare:

We also went to the WWF nature reserve -just over the border in Austria- in Marchegg, to see more storks and other birds:

I was particularly happy to have seen the breeding herons again. On top of that, I had never knowingly seen gadwalls before, so that was a rather welcome sight too.

Of course, there was some non-avian activity. The frogs and toads were mating, and snakes were around to hunt the mating amphibians.

Yep, it’s sad to leave such places, but there’s also the fact that we take some wonderful memories with us. Plus, there’s the chance to explore something new.

Exploring the East: Spišské Podhradie

The tiny town of Spišské Podhradie is home to some awesome attractions and also a UNESCO Worlcathedral-in-spissky-podhradied Heritage site. First of all, there is Spišská Kapitula, or Spiš Chapter House. It is really like a town within a town.

I did a tour of the cathedral. The different styles of altars were all fascinating, tacky at times, beautifully crafted and not allowed to be photographed.

From the hill with the Chapter House on one has several hiking options and some lovely views. One such view is of the other main attraction of the village, Spiš Castle.

spissky-hrad-from-afar

To get to the village, you can take one of the many busses going there. I arrived early in the morning to beat the crowds, which turned out to be a rather good idea. In fact, when I got there, it was still foggy, the dew hanging in the cobwebs and I was the only one hiking up to the castle.

Once I had reached the top, the weather played along nicely and the fog lifted. The castle is one of the largest in Europe.spissky-hrad

I was there just after they had opened, and it filled up quite quickly. Yes, the place is huge, but there’s a small museum inside which soon became overcrowded. Actors in period costumes put on plays, and craftspeople sold lovely looking merchandise. I was quite fond of pottery items, but for fear of breaking them while walking around I didn’t buy any. Rather, I managed to escape the throngs and enjoyed the quieter parts of the castle.view-of-high-tatras-from-spissky-hrad

The castle is divided in a lower and an upper part. Architecturally, the upper one is probably the more exciting. Twarningshere is just more to see and explore. One has to beware of dangerous animals though.

The lower part is basically an open space surrounded by an enormous wall. It’s open grassland, and signs point out that there can be a number of birds and other animals. I only saw the spermophiles, but plenty of them. All in all, I spent about three hours on the castle grounds, and two or so in the Chapter House. Podhradie is only about 20km from Levoca, so it makes for a nice day trip from there.spermophil-1

Giving a talk

At some point last August, I was kindly asked by a friend and former student of mine, Milo, to consider giving a talk at an upcoming conference called Dell3i. It was supposed to be something akin to a TED-talk; and after a week or so of weighing pros and cons I decided to say yes.

I want to use this post to do two things: firstly, thank all the people involved who helped me preparing my talk, and secondly give some sources for some of the ideas I mentioned. The reason for the latter is that I drew on a lot of things I have heard and read or experienced over the years, but some people were particularly influential. And I should probably add that this is not a Dell-sponsored post.

So, thank you (in no particular order):

  • Daniel, Monika and Milo for the rehearsals
  • Astrid for a wonderful walk through Oxford
  • Mark for being a (mostly) willing victim
  • Rhiannon, Emily, Pavol, Eva, Barbora, David, Lucia and Alica for listening
  • my colleagues and students for encouraging me
  • Marcel for the book voucher (it’s been put to very good use)

If you’ve been following this blog for longer, you’ll know that I’m doing volunteer work for the citizen science platform Zooniverse. The two photos in the talk, about Galaxy Zoo and Penguin Watch, are copyright of those respective projects.

As mentioned in the talk, Yuval Harari‘s ideas from his book ‘Sapiens’ are fascinating. I took part in his MOOC a few years ago, and I hope he’ll do a similar project again in the future.

Other people whose blogs or books I’ve recently read or who I’ve heard speaking and who had some bearing on this talk were Richard Dawkins, Tayie Selasi, Ann Morgan and Tom Hart. Any factual errors are my own 🙂 .

Now, what was it like? As a teacher, I’m used to being in front of people (I’ve taught classes of 50+ students, tricky to ‘un-front’ that), but having an audience of 100+ and on top of that the cameras was a wee bit otherworldly. And exhilarating, I’ve got to admit. If you want to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys93TAyNfHY&feature=youtu.be

Exploring the East: Levoča

If you’ve been following this little series, there’s one more post to come after this. For now, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Levoča. This tiny town is part of Slovakia’s UNESCO heritage, and it has some splendid architecture and artworks to offer.levoca

The area has been inhabited for several thousand years. Visible now, on the other hand, are mostly structures from the Renaissance period or younger, plus a bit of gothic stuff. The museum inside the town wall will tell you much more.

The town wall is almost completely preserved. It makes for a lovely one-hour long walk to follow it around the centre, especially in the evening. There are also a handful of restaurants inside the wall, sporting their own terraces. Highly recommended.

There must have been quite a bit of reconstruction going on over the years, but there’s always something to be done.

The area around the main square looked really spick and span. I felt it was almost a bit too much to be real.archive

Levoca is well-connected to public transport as well as near to a major highway. What’s more, hiking paths do start right off the main square. The closest place to go to is a Basilica Minor on the hill north of the town.basilika

From the top of that hill one has fab views over the region of Spis. If you’re in Slovakia, this is a place not to miss.view-from-hill