Fondling Tits

The last two weeks have been busy indeed in Oxford and also quite brain draining. I think all this gallivanting around the place has left me out entirely of shape for the bump and grind (and grind) of full time work.  So I’ve officially completed the end of my second week at work. Already, it’s all hands on deck, full steam ahead. My new boss is great. Friendly, clever, approachable and remarkably normal, which for an elite academic type, that is a breath of fresh air. Though, he is also proving to be quite a taskmaster. So I’m actually quite busy, head down bum up, organizing data, learning about this new system, thinking about analyses, and all the other trimmings of starting on a new research venture! Ah well it’ll keep me honest.

At least I have managed a day out at the study site, as a break from the office.  Wytham Woods, a horseshoe-shaped area of semi-natural woodlands that runs along a small ridge line in an otherwise vast sea of farming land is only six kilometres from the centre of Oxford and only 400 ha in area. Yet, it is one of the most highly monitored ecological survey sites in the world. I remember that the first time I saw the woods on Google earth from my bedroom in Hobart, I couldn’t help thinking, “Oh my god, has all that amazing ecological and evolutionary research been conducted in that shitty little piece of highly modified remnant forest!?”  Much to my surprise, however, the woods are actually really lovely.

The day I visited was a beautiful sunny summer’s day (what the Queenslanders would consider a nice winter’s day) and the countryside was radiant: a quintessential England landscape with rolling green hills dotted with cows and geese, and quite a number of old stone pubs overlooking trout filled babbling brooks.

The woods themselves were enchanting with the dappled sunlight coming through the big oak and beech trees, and falling on all the flowering bluebells. But there was something a bit benign and safe about walking around in them. Maybe it was the lack of a significant under-story, or the lack of anything that can hurt you (except stinging nettles as I found out eventually), or the big wide cleared walking paths criss-crossing the all over the place but it just felt tame and benign to say the least. Nothing like the last bit of forest I walked through in South West Tasmania. Ha!

At least the bird work seems quite fun (though it wasn’t 5 am when I was there, those days of fun are yet to come). I have finally seen a blue tit. And a great tit. In fact I’ve lots of tits. Tits of varying sizes and ages. He he he (I don’t think the tit jokes will ever get old).

Almost all the birds in the woods nest in artificial nest boxes, which makes most aspects of finding out about their ecology a piece of cake compared with any other animal I’ve ever worked with. You just lift the box down off its hook (they’re hooked onto the sides of  trees), open it up and grab mum, or count eggs, or measure chicks, etc. The babies are so tiny when they hatch (I actually managed to see a baby bird hatching out of its egg) but they rapidly grow, get feathered and hopefully live to fly away.  But alas, fieldwork doesn’t seem to be on the agenda at present. So after a day in the woods it was back to office.

When I found out I was going to be a post-doc at Oxford University, my initial thoughts were how brilliant it was going to be to study and work in an 800 year-old gothic stone building in which generations of eminent scientists before me have walking the hallowed hallways and pondered the great questions of life. Depressingly, the zoology building is not that building. It is neither beautiful nor old. In fact it’s probably younger than I am. How this country could possess such a highly developed aesthetic eye for architectural beauty and then completely lose it in just a few hundred years is beyond me. But what can you do, at least my room has a really large window (this is a significant advantage for those who know my basement abode at UTas).

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