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People all over Britain are enjoying an avian treat just now. Thousands of waxwings have arrived here from Russia and Scandinavia. At the end of November these multi-coloured birds had been seen from Scotland to Cornwall, with many sightings in the West Midlands. Such an influx (which scientists call an irruption) happens every few years, otherwise, according to both the British Trust for Ornithology and the RSPB, only a hundred or so individuals find their way here each winter.
The birds, often described as dumpy, are about the size of starlings, and have a distinctive crest. They are buffish-brown with a black bib, black and yellow tail feathers and yellow, black, white and red wing feathers. As well as the crest another distinctive feature is the mascara-like extension of the black bib around their eyes. The name 'waxwing' comes from the red tips to the wing feathers which resembles old-fashioned sealing wax. Another name is 'silktail', presumably because of the bright colours on their tails.
Waxwings travel around in flocks varying from about a dozen to a hundred or more birds. They are voracious berry eaters, being particularly fond of red berries such as rowan, hawthorn and cotoneaster. This means that they are often seen in parks and gardens, and around landscaped areas like supermarket car parks and the grounds of large buildings. A few years ago a flock of about 40 settled in a hawthorn tree outside a fish and chip shop and a busy road junction in deepest West Bromwich. Like robins they do not seem to mind people at all (in North America they are sometimes called Canada robins) and they have been known to feed from the hand, apple apparently being good 'bait'.
No one is quite sure what triggers these intermittent southern migrations. German folklore has it that they occur every seven years, but they are not as regular as that. They may be caused by the failure of the berry crop in their breeding grounds in the northern forests, or it may be because of very cold weather moving in, or a combination of the two. The movements may also be linked to breeding success - a very good year immediately followed by a poor berry crop may force the birds to move south.
Scott Petrek, of the Staffordshire WildlifeTrust, describing the birds as 'Viking invaders' says that: 'Bird lovers can help attract waxwings to their garden by not only keeping feeders topped up, but by leaving out old apples instead of adding them into the compost heap. Make sure birdbaths are ice-free in winter too'.
It's certainly worth keeping an eye out for these colourful, friendly, birds which may come to a park or garden near to you soon.
Walking by the canal in Brindley Place recently I passed a stately flotilla of Canada geese. Nothing remarkable about that you may think, and yet it in some ways it is wholly remarkable that these birds thrive in the heart of the nation's second largest city. There are, after all, few things more evocative of the world's lonely places than the honking of a skein of geese silhouetted against a winter sunset. Yet here are some amongst the shoppers and concert-goers.
The presence of the geese indicates just how adaptable some species are. In their natural state Canada geese belong in North America, and many spend at least some of the year in the Arctic. People brought them here in the 17th Century as ornamental birds; the first record being of some in Charles II's collection in St. James's Park London in 1665. The first breeding record in Birmingham may be that of a pair of geese in Edgbaston Park in 1885.
Introductions continued into the first half of the last century by which time they were found all over the country. In addition, as flocks grew in numbers, landowners gave some of their geese to their friends on other estates. From the 1960s on their numbers seemed to explode, rising from about 50,000 to just about 190.000 now. Canada geese are now very familiar everywhere, in lakes, park ponds, canals and reservoirs. Even without deliberate introductions the Canada goose could still have become a resident British bird as individuals from wild populations across the Atlantic frequently turn up on our shores.
The geese are now considered a nuisance by many people. They despoil and foul the edges of ponds and pools, cropping the grass and leaving their droppings in picnic areas and on golf courses. This is hardly their fault - Canada geese are big birds and eat only grass and herbage. This diet is not very nutritious so they have to eat and process their own body weight every four days! They can live for more than 20 years, and share the care of goslings in the flock, making control difficult. In central Birmingham they have found the canal system to their liking. During the breeding season there are stretches where there is one nest every 100 metres or so.
Attitudes towards Canada geese vary: they have been described as 'the most loathsome bird in Britain', but there is a Canada Goose Conservation Society. I suggest that we should marvel at their resilience and adaptability rather than condemn them for their depredations. As the diarist John Evelyn wrote in the 17th Century (their presence) '.... is a singular and diverting thing'.
I am indebted to Christopher Lever's 'The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles' for information used in this article.
I got to meet Robin Langton whilst in Napa with some of the guys from Naked Wines helping them to decide on the wines they were going to bring into the UK from California. He formerly worked at the esteemed Patz and Hall and he's now heading up the Naked assault on the Californian wine scene as consultant winemaker. Obviously he wants to keep his eye in though so he's produced his own line for Naked under the Bear & Crown label.
Solving complex problems is always challenging. No matter how well thought out proposed solutions are, the law of unintended consequences often thwarts progress. The current issue of controlling and then eradicating bovine TB (bTB) is a case in point. It is one made worse by the Government's latest policy (giving permission to shoot badgers) which is not well thought out, and which many people believe will increase rather than alleviate the problems.
Briefly the situation is that trial culls are being licenced to test whether or not it is possible to control badger numbers by shooting. The intention is that populations will be reduced by 70% in cull areas. Unfortunately no one knows how many badgers are present to start with, so it will be impossible to say if and when 70% have been shot. In addition, disturbance of badgers' social groups means that infected badgers are likely to move away, perhaps spreading the infection over a wider area.
The Wildlife Trusts, amongst others, have long argued for the development of vaccines, for cattle and badgers, and methods of administering them. They recognise that bTB is a huge problem for farmers and want to work with them to find a solution. They do not though think that culling badgers is the answer, and therefore some Trusts, including Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, are now undertaking vaccination trials to show there is an effective alternative. Results of the first UK badger vaccination trial, run by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, were published in October, and demonstrated vaccination to be an affordable and viable alternative to culling.
The Staffordshire Wildlife Trust's Head of Conservation, Dr Sue Lawley, said:
"Bovine TB is a dreadful disease that is the common enemy of nature conservationists and livestock owners, a disease that we all want to see gone from the British countryside. Staffordshire Wildlife Trust believes that the future eradication of bTB lies both in the development of a digestible vaccination for badgers and the approval by the EU of a vaccine for cattle, but as neither are available today, the next best step is to run a trial of the injectable vaccine in badgers at carefully selected nature reserves in the county.
"Learning from experiences gained by other Wildlife Trusts, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust will build up its own knowledge of operating a successful vaccination programme and will be developing the expertise necessary to extend the vaccination programme to other nature reserves in the county, should that prove necessary in the future."
The trial programme will focus on two of the Trust's nature reserves which are most likely to be within any future-designated badger cull area, but they will be undertaken regardless of whether or not that is the case. It is hoped that badgers, cattle, farmers and conservationists will all benefit from this pioneering work.
I'm not normally one to push events, but wine tasting dinners with top vineyards are rare in Brum, so it's important to point these out when they do take place!
With all my previous blogs focussing on working towards the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, it seems odd somehow to now be writing a blog looking back on the show.
I've now had a couple of weeks to reflect on the occasion, and what a day it was!
As I mentioned in my last blog before the performance, we were working in the stadium and making final tweaks to the show in the days beforehand, and small changes can result in intense pressure, particularly so close to the performance. However, on the morning of the ceremony, one of our main concerns was that typically British subject of the weather - indeed, some of the volunteers even performed a little rain-dance to try and ensure conditions were favourable for us!
Joking aside, with intricate dance movements on a variety of different surfaces, together with aerial performances and elements of the show performed on rollerskates, the threat of rain was a huge concern for us, and for the safety of our cast. There must have been something in those rain-dances, though, as it mercifully remained dry on the night!
I've discussed the pivotal role played by volunteers in earlier editions of this blog, and I must again pay tribute to them for the outstanding job they did on the night. It was exhilarating, not to mention surreal, after days of working in an empty stadium, to see it filling up with people, and with that came an enormous burst of energy.
Everybody involved in London 2012 will talk in years to come of their 'Olympic Moment' or, in this case, their 'Paralympic Moment', and being backstage when the cast came off, it was like they'd earned their very own Gold medal. The volunteers have given up so much of their time and effort, all for free, to deliver this show, and it was a marvellous moment to share their excitement after so much hard work came to fruition.
It was exciting and nervewracking for those of us working in a professional capacity, too. While there are many people involved who have worked on Olympics and Paralympics and events of that scale before, for me personally, it was my first experience of working on something of this magnitude, and amid the excitement and privilege of the role, there are a number of concerns too.
For one thing, you think about the fact that people such as the Queen and the Prime Minister are in the stadium, not to mention the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking, Sir Ian McKellen and Beverley Knight in the show itself, and you can't imagine what it would be like if something went wrong!
In many ways, you have a split persona between being an excited spectator, and your professional self, tasked with the delivery of a show. Luckily, there is an entire army of people on hand to keep things running as they should, with a huge control box manned by various people using microphones and headsets to essentially co-ordinate the show and give instructions to the cast.
From costumes and props to stage management, and everyone in between, it's a real logistical triumph and something of a military operation.
The crowd were fantastic, and it's marvellous that so many people were willing to offer so much enthusiasm. From quiet moments of poignance in the performance, coupled with periods when the stadium felt alive, it seemed that the volunteers, professionals and the audience all united to create a wonderful night for the Paralympians.
I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings, the Artistic Directors, for creating such a fantastic vision, and entrusting me with the job of helping to bring it to life through dance. I'd also like to thank my Assistant Choreographer, Helen Parlo r, who was there with me every step of the way, and it was great to work with the team who brought it to life on the stage.
Aside from the ceremony itself, London 2012 also leaves behind a great cultural legacy across the whole of Britain, not least here in the West Midlands. The Cultural Olympiad has seen support given to a number of dance projects, including our own Motionhouse production of The Voyage in Birmingham. These projects have given countless people their very own 'Olympic Moment', and helped grow awareness of our industry and its work.
As for my Paralympic Moment, the show's finale, in which I Am What I Am reverberated around the stadium was an opportunity for us to relax, enjoy ourselves, dance, sing, and celebrate what we had accomplished. It was a joyous moment to cap one of the most exciting, incredible, and terrifying periods of my career so far.
As I reflect upon this most incredible experience, I can't help but think of the journey that's brought me where I am today. From the early days of Motionhouse, of making a show with three or four people and performing in a village hall, doing workshops in hospitals and prisons and schools, performing small shows in the street, right up to now, as we prepare to send our cast to tour China with our show Scattered, it feels somehow that everything led to this extraordinary scenario where I'm suddenly making something for a billion people worldwide.
While this is my final blog about the Opening Ceremony, the hard work continues with tours of China and the USA on the horizon, together with Motionhouse's 25th anniversary. I look forward to sharing these experiences with you in future blogs.
I've confessed on this blog previously that I've unwittingly become something of a wine snob. I never wanted to, and I am taking steps to address this. One of the main symptoms has been an awareness of certain wines coupled with an absolute reluctance to ever sample them, believing them to be beneath me. The wines of Les Jamelles have been one of the victims of this
The final week of rehearsals has seen us move into the Olympic Stadium, which was a hugely exciting moment not only for us as the creators of the show, but for the cast too.
It's given everybody a big thrill to walk out into the stadium and see the spectacular arena close up, and also to see all of the physical elements which make our show starting to take shape.
It's a great experience for everyone, but also a demanding one for our cast of volunteers. They have to re-orientate everything so they're au fait with their positioning within the stadium, including their entrances and exits.
All of the movement has to take into account elements including objects, lighting, graphics, and the aerial performances. It's an exciting process, but also very, very complex, and for the volunteers it means that there can be a lot of waiting around before they can actually rehearse.
With the final preparations come very long working days for everyone, but the cast are doing well. We're careful to ensure they aren't overworked, but they are very willing. We carefully plan our schedule to ensure that everybody has sufficient breaks, as it's important that everybody has a good experience working on the show.
Something else that has to be taken into account is the odd tweak to the performance. Upon moving into the venue, there are always little changes to be made to get things to work the way you want them to, especially as the various layers of the show begin to build. There are various bumps and corners to be ironed out in order to make the show as visually stunning as we possibly can, but it's very enriching to see it happening.
The backroom team are working incredibly hard, from the stage managers to the designers, crew and technicians. It's a real beehive of activity. The backstage crew is an army in itself with the organisation, and they're all absolutely beavering away at full speed. It's extraordinary to watch, and great to be a part of.
Some of the pictures within the show are looking beautiful. It's an interesting process for me to work with two artistic directors who have had a fantastic vision, and to create choreography to help them to realise it. So much art is done personally, or in small groups, but they have disseminated an idea across a vast amount of people on a huge scale to create what they have in their minds. To have so many people working to achieve a vision is a very interesting and human thing to do, a real communal effort.
With a day to go, our eyes are on the prize. It's a scary and daunting, yet exciting and thrilling time.
You can watch the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony on Wednesday 29th August on Channel 4 from 8pm.
For more information about Kevin Finnan Motionhouse visit www.motionhouse.co.uk and follow on Twitter @MotionhouseDT
The Olympic Closing Ceremony has been and gone, which means it's us next! With that realisation comes a real sobering sense of urgency.
We are now working at a site that we call our 1:1. It is an area of open ground where we have two areas of open space that are the same size as the field of play in the stadium. This allows us to practise with the right dimensions for the show. It is an amazing logistical enterprise. There are miles of tents, pre-fabricated structures and portaloos forming what is essentially a huge camp, inhabited by the cast of the show.
Daily rehearsals are taking place. For a lot of our volunteers, this means sacrifices such as booking time off work to contribute to the rehearsals, and it's really fantastic to see the effort they are putting into making the ceremony happen.
Their commitment is extraordinary, and we are all doing our best to make their experience positive. Among the team are my 'dance captains', dancers who teach the choreography and practically run the rehearsals. They are working extremely hard at the moment to make this happen, and they are a really fun team to work with.
We have two spaces at the 1:1, both marked out to the dimensions of the stadium, and we are running whole parts of the show at the same time. There are lots of things to be developed and worked upon, whilst at the same time trying to keep the group sections going. With so much going on at the same time, it's like a monumental plate spinning enterprise for us, as we run from one section to the other to oversee things!
It's daunting and thrilling to be part of, and it's very interesting to see how things are made on this scale. It's not often that you get an opportunity to work at such a size, and it's great to see how things learned in little workshops with small groups of people are scaled up to work with hundreds, even thousands at a time. For me, the fundamentals are constantly being adapted and developed, and I am learning a lot of new things and new techniques. It's extraordinary.
Another aspect is the sheer logistics of getting everybody on at the right time and the right position, then off again following the completion of their section. It takes hours of organisation to make sure everyone knows where they need to be and when. We work with a fine Mass movement team who are really experienced in stadium shows and they are a wonder to behold as they organise these movements.
With only a week until the performance, there's a lot to do until we go live at Olympic Stadium!
It often surprises some people to discover that the majority of the cast at performances such as the Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies are not, in fact, made up entirely of trained, professional performers, but rather hundreds of volunteer amateurs.
As I mentioned in my last blog, the process of creating the show involves choreographing groups of hundreds of performers to create really intricate visual effects, and the challenge increases when you consider the fact that a huge proportion of the people involve do not come from an artistic background.
It's great to see the work that the volunteers have put into preparing this show, and their enthusiasm has made the job much easier. It hasn't been easy for them - many have had to travel a long way to attend rehearsals, and much of the time has been spent working outdoors in less than ideal conditions.
There's a real positive attitude among them that they need to do their rehearsals no matter what, they're giving up their time and their effort, and it's so wonderful to see. It's a very humbling experience.
Something that really touches me is the enthusiasm of the volunteers to make the show as good as it can be. It really motivates you to do your best for them. They are putting in so much effort, and it makes you want to create something that they can be very proud of as well, which raises the bar in a very different way.
The mood at our rehearsals, even though they are difficult and challenging at times, is really, really great, and we all go forward with high spirits as we move ever closer to the big day.
For more information about Kevin Finnan and Motionhouse visit www.motionhouse.co.uk and follow on Twitter @MotionhouseDT