Monday, 30 April 2012

one sunday afternoon

Wouldn’t it be nice to get on wiv me neighbours,
But they make it very clear: they’ve got no room for ravers.

The Small Faces, Lazy Sunday.
Yesterday was the annual open day of our local branch of the People’s Liberation Army, whose base our balcony overlooks. Not that we can actually see anything: our direct view is blocked by two large trees and a huge clump of bamboo, so we can hear far more than we can see. We’re reduced to looking left or right, which provides limited information on what is happening at any given time (see photos below).

A squad of PLA soldiers practises kung fu. They aren’t very good.

An armoured personnel carrier stands by ready to ride to the rescue when required. The climbing frame appeared last summer and rather spoils the view, but by way of compensation we get to see China’s finest in action. They aren’t very good.

Our neighbours provide a new meaning for the term ‘racketeer’: although we’ve become accustomed to random noise from the camp—formerly garrisoned by the British under the name ‘Gallipoli Lines’—the PLA excelled themselves last week as they practised for the open day, which meant lots of shooting and shouting. While shouting is so common that I was driven to conclude, when we moved into the area, that it must be a battlefield tactic to confuse and intimidate the enemy, shooting is a mercifully rare occurrence, except when the soldiers are practising for an event.

Shooting and shouting are not the only ways in which the PLA annoys its neighbours. Heavy military helicopters fly in over the rooftops from time to time, and the base also has its own brass band. You might expect such a band to play patriotic Chinese tunes, and so it does, but I’ve also heard Strauss’s Radetzky March and the coda from Rossini’s William Tell overture from time to time. The former was featured yesterday in the build-up to the main event of the afternoon, which is captured in the second of the two audio clips below.

The most prominent feature of the first audio clip is the two disputatious black-collared starlings in the tree directly in front of our house. These are quickly joined by a pair of crested mynahs, while in the background the band strikes up the Radetzky March. The other musical background is provided by my stereo, which just happened to be on when the ‘entertainment’ began. Towards the end of the clip, a koel kicks off and provides an excellent example of how this bird’s call grows progressively louder and more strident as it warms up.

Welcome to the asylum (click to play):

The second clip is the mock battle scene. Listening to this, you will have no more idea of events than I, except that I was able to observe the armoured personnel carrier leave its place of concealment all gun blazing. The birds have fallen silent. The loudest explosions are not captured adequately by my recorder: all that you can hear is a short hiss followed by a generalized roar, but in reality these are so loud that they invariably set off alarms in all the cars parked in the vicinity. The music playing quietly in the background, which I think is splendidly serendipitous given that it is one track on a thousand-track random playlist, is Dance for the One by post-hippy band Quintessence, which was active in the early 1970s and was heavily influenced by Eastern mysticism.

Let battle commence (click to play):

Noisy neighbours? Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, who has applied this epithet to his crosstown rivals, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

photographic abstraction #2

The aesthetic raison d’ĂȘtre of the photographs in this post is defined in Photographic Abstraction, but briefly I believe that a photo doesn’t have to be of or about anything as long as it works as a composition. On the other hand, whether it does work is for the audience, not the creator, to judge.

As before, I’ve given the photos fanciful titles, which may or may not reflect the actual subject matter, although you are welcome to suggest alternatives. Also as before, there has been no fiddling with the original photos other than cropping to achieve the desired composition and, in the case of Let There Be Light, a slight increase in contrast.



wake of the flood

let there be light

Thursday, 12 April 2012

a day in the life

I saw the news today, oh boy!
Four thousand graves in Fanling countryside
I didn’t count them all
But I know how many ghosts it takes
To hear a koel’s call.
And this may turn you on….

with apologies to John Lennon.
Yesterday was a typical day: routine errands in the morning, and an afternoon spent working on rehabilitation. I’ve been cycling along the riverbank for the past three weeks, but last week, looking for slightly hilly terrain, I discovered a quiet road that meandered up and down the spurs and hollows at the base of the ridge that overlooks the river. I’d known about the road, but I’d assumed that it was a dead end, leading only to a small village. However, it turned out that an access road to the scores of graves on the hillside below the ridge led from the other side of the village. This is the very hillside that was consumed by a carelessly started conflagration during Ching Ming.

First, the errands. Nothing to write about here, except that on the way home I suddenly noticed a partial sunbow overhead. This relatively uncommon phenomenon is caused by ice crystals in the stratosphere diffracting the sun’s rays, in contrast to a rainbow, which is caused by refraction of those same rays. Refraction occurs when light passes from one medium into another with a different refractive index and can be described as a bending of light. Diffraction, by contrast, is where light is scattered; this scattered light forms a halo around the primary light source.

A partial sunbow. This is a genuine picture and not mere glare caused by pointing the camera at the sun.

My afternoon bike ride began in similarly auspicious circumstances. I’d gone less than half a mile before I noticed a white-throated kingfisher perched on the railings alongside the river. Kingfishers are not rare—there are six species in Hong Kong—but they are not a common sight either. It took off as I stopped to take a closer look, and as it skimmed low over the river I could have been forgiven for thinking that it was scattering sand in a thin arc beneath its flight path. Actually, the disturbance in the water would have been fish close to the surface executing crash dives to avoid attracting the predator’s attention as it swooped overhead.

Two uncommon sights in one day! I wondered if there would be opportunity for a third. I turned off the road along the riverbank towards the village of Wah San Tsuen. After leaving the village, the road passes through an area of thick woodland before emerging onto open hillside and an area where there are many graves. I stopped to photograph the damage wreaked by last week’s hill fire.

This hillside almost certainly burns every few years, because there is little except low scrub, elephant grass…and graves.

I continued on my way until it was possible to double back along the riverbank to my starting point. Naturally, one circuit is not sufficient, and it was not long before I was again passing through the thickly wooded area. I remembered that someone had asked me whether I had any recordings of cicadas, and I couldn’t help but notice the intense screeching all around. Very little unwanted background, I thought, so this should be a good place to make a recording. However, as I drew to a halt, I suddenly became aware of an unfamiliar song, and I almost fell off my bike in my haste to dismount and get the recorder out. I have no idea of the identity of the singer (there were two, presumably of the same species), and I’m posting the songs here in the hope that someone can identify them. Cicadas can be heard rasping in the background.

Two duets by the same two unknown songbirds (click to play):

I’ve previously enthused about magpie robins, which are common where I live and are the pop singers of the avian world, but these birds, which were recorded in undisturbed woodland, are opera singers by comparison. Naturally, I went round for a third circuit, but I heard nothing else. However, I will be back.

Just another day in Fanling.

Monday, 9 April 2012

we all stand together

Frog he would a-wooing go,
“Heigh ho!” says Rowley,
Frog he would a-wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no.
With a roly-poly, gammon and spinach,
“Heigh ho!” says Anthony Rowley.

traditional folk song.
Paul McCartney has composed quite a few turkeys in his time—Mull of Kintyre and Give Ireland Back to the Irish spring immediately to mind—but perhaps the most turkish of the lot is We All Stand Together, allegedly by the Frog Chorus. If I’d written this horror I think that I’d want to hide behind a pseudonym too, so I shall not be providing a link, and if you haven’t heard this recording, you will have to take my word for it that it is as grim as I’m suggesting.

By way of compensation, I thought that some genuine frog choruses might make for an interesting diversion. It’s that time of year again, the breeding season, and a walk along our local river after dark reveals the frog population in full voice. There are 20 species of frog and three species of toad in Hong Kong, and they are found in a wide variety of habitats: rivers, mountain streams, ponds, swamps and flooded former paddy fields.

The concrete shafts that form part of the territory’s storm water drainage system can be regarded as a habitat sub-type, because Asiatic painted frogs (Kaloula pulchra pulchra), individually the loudest of the local species, are frequently heard at the bottom of them. The shafts, which are one metre square in cross-section, act as acoustic resonators to amplify their croaking; you can hear the effect in the first two audio clips. The booming sound that you can hear in the first clip, similar to and almost as loud as a mooing cow, is an Asiatic painted frog several feet away in a large storm drain, while the other types of croak in the recording belong to two other species, as yet unidentified.

This chorus is loud enough to drown out two barking dogs a mere 15 yards away (click to play):

The second recording also features an Asiatic painted frog, but in this case I held the recorder next to the entry drain to a shaft. You could say that the sound is like that of a euphonium fed through a Marshall amplifier. Paula was standing on the concrete cover of the shaft and said that she could feel the reverberations. You can certainly hear them. The third recording was made in an open field and features at least four frog species.

Feel the vibrations (click to play—be sure to turn the volume to maximum):

How many different ‘croak’ styles can you identify? (click to play):

At this point, you may be wondering why I chose to begin this post by quoting the well-known song about the courtship habits of Mr Frog. In fact, all this creaking, croaking, clicking, clacking, clucking, stuttering, muttering, rumbling, grumbling, groaning and moaning can loosely be described as a series of ‘love serenades’, although it isn’t obvious what sound qualities an amorous amphibian might be looking for in a prospective mate. Purity of tone? Musicality? Loudness?

Many years ago, when I lived in the Sai Kung area, I was walking home along a quiet country road late one night when my attention was attracted by a cacophonous racket emanating from the storm drain on the opposite side of the road. I discovered that the drain had been blocked by fallen leaves, and in the pool behind the dam a dozen frogs were floating lazily, their cheek pouches rhythmically inflating and deflating in a honking concerto of booming croaks. It all seemed very lackadaisical, a kind of ‘I’m here if you want me, take it or leave it’.

And what about the apparently cooperative nature of some croaking? The village where we lived between 2005 and 2008 still had its paddy fields intact, and a path led through them to the next village. To stand in the middle of that paddy and hear thousands of frogs, all of the same species, croaking together as if they were following the baton of some invisible conductor, was an unforgettable experience. Not surprisingly, it was also a happy hunting ground for the local snakes, and it was a common occurrence to hear a thrashing kind of commotion out in the darkness as yet another snake found its dinner, a meal that from the snake’s point of view would have been preferable to a wedding dish of gammon and spinach.

Mention of the darkness reminds me to point out that our frogs are nocturnal, and they are hard to spot during the day, when they are probably hiding in rock crevices, under the leaf litter or in the long grass, where their natural camouflage helps them to resist discovery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to work against egrets, which are common hereabouts. I often see these voracious predators in the field opposite our house after heavy rain, walking stealthily through the grass, head bent low to the ground and every so often snatching at something I cannot see that is then swallowed immediately. I can only surmise that what the egret is eating is a frog, because a lot of croaking emanates from the field at night, and the main diet of an egret is fish. However, the easily caught frogs are a bounty the egrets cannot resist, and many perish in this way (an individual egret can gobble down a dozen or more). Roly-poly pudding is not provided!

I’ve not been able to take any pictures of frogs in their natural surroundings to date. This spotted narrow-mouthed frog (Kalophrynus interlineatus) was snapped as it attempted to cross the concrete access road that runs along the river, where its natural camouflage will not stop it being trodden underfoot by an unwary pedestrian or squashed by a passing cyclist.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

fire: the transforming element

Scientists believe that early hominids made use of fire as long ago as one million years. Of course, this is not to imply that these early cultures knew how to make fire, and there is no way of knowing how, in the first place, they learned how to use it, but this early use would have been contingent on tending naturally occurring fires from such as lightning strikes, whenever these occurred.

Nowadays, the equipment for making fire has been condensed into a small plastic vessel containing volatile fuel attached to a small device for generating a spark. Most people, if they were required to make fire from scratch, would be completely helpless, but because the task is now so easy using a device that can be purchased for pennies, it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental role of fire in early civilization. Without fire, potters could not have made their cups and bowls, metallurgists could not have extracted what we think of as common metals from their ores, and smiths could not have fashioned these metals into tools and weapons.

I have made these obvious and banal statements about fire because yesterday was one of the most important dates in the Chinese calendar, the festival of Ching Ming. This is the day when Chinese people traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors, principally by ensuring that the graves of these ancestors are neat and tidy (Ching Ming is referred to colloquially as the ‘grave-sweeping festival’). Many of these graves are on the hillsides of the New Territories, and part of the ritual involves the lighting of joss sticks and the burning of paper money, which the aforementioned ancestors can spend in the afterlife.

For as long as I can remember, the Hong Kong Observatory has always issued a red fire danger warning for Ching Ming, even when it rains heavily and the possibility of a hill fire is nil. However, yesterday was dry—we’ve had little rain for weeks—and there was a massive hill fire on the ridge overlooking our local river. I wasn’t aware of it until mid-afternoon, when Paula and I went out for a short bike ride, by which time a mile-wide swathe of hillside had been reduced to smouldering ashes. I had planned to return today to take some photos of the devastation, but—this is sod’s law in action—it has been raining heavily all day.

And this is my reason for starting this post by bemoaning the ease with which fire can be produced nowadays. The hillside that went up in flames is peppered with graves, and it is absolutely certain that the fire started with the careless burning of paper money using a cheap pocket lighter. One can but marvel at the boundless stupidity of some people.

Although I was unable to take any pictures of the fire itself, work was still in progress to try to put it out. I took the following photograph of a helicopter refilling its ‘bucket’ from the local river to help douse the flames. I can’t help wondering whether it caught any fish, because the river is full of them.