Friday, December 21, 2007

After a hard day's flying, you might think a blue tit would get more than enough exercise to stay in shape.But this body-conscious bird appears to have found time to practice some chin-ups.
Or maybe it has simply lost confidence in its flying abilities and is hanging to the twig on a wing and a prayer.Spotted on forestry commission land near Farnborough, Hampshire, this bird displays a stunning agility with its claws wrapped tightly around the wood.And the strange looking position is in fact a regular part of the blue tits feeding strategy. Grahame Madge of the RSPB explained: "Blue tits are extremely agile and light weight birds and are very acrobatic feeders."They often hang upside down on branches to catch insects, and this is a very comfortable position for them to be in."He added: "Around bird feeders, birds will wait for their turn to eat. There is a definite pecking order."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It is one of the greatest examples of human devotion on earth - a sea of white robes as hundreds of thousands of Muslims poured onto the plain of Arafat east of Mecca today as the sun rose over the rocky hills for the day marking the climax of the annual haj pilgrimage.They came on foot, by bus and in pick-up trucks from Mina and other sites in the direction of Mecca, adding to a throng which will reach more than two million in the afternoon.Saudi authorities say more than 1.6 million people have entered Saudi Arabia for the event, the largest religious gathering in the world, which poses a huge logistical and security challenge for the Saudi authorities.Pilgrims make the journey to Mecca in the second week of Dhu al-Hijjah - the twelfth month in the Islamic calendar - and perform prayers and rituals in the days before the haj begins.
The haj has been marred in previous years by fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protestors trying to politicise the haj and deadly stampedes caused by overcrowding.
In January 2006, 346 muslims were crushed and a further 200 were injured on an overcrowded bridge.This year, more than 35,000 security staff are on hand to ensure that this show of unity is a peaceful one.The government is also wary of any militant actions. Al Qaeda-linked militants launched a campaign to destabilise the U.S.-allied monarchy in 2003, and Saudi radicals opposed to the royal family seized control of Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.

A representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei managed to give a speech to a group of Iranian pilgrims at Arafat today denouncing "enemies of the Muslim nation". Shown on Iranian TV, pilgrims waved signs saying "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" and chanted slogans.President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is performing haj this year at the invitation of Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally.Some of the most enthusiastic pilgrims spent the night on Mount Arafat, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or the Mountain of Mercy, nestling in cracks between the boulders. The night air was pleasantly cool, with a breeze from the desert.
Pilgrims perched on the hillside said they had prayed for the welfare and success of Muslims across the world.Zaki Ali Ibrahim, an Egyptian driver working in Saudi Arabia, said he spent the whole night in prayer with friends."I prayed that all Muslims may prosper, and that I may prosper with them," he said. "I felt that my prayers for Muslims were reaching God with strength."

Shazli Atallah Mohamed, a plumber from the southern Egyptian province of Qena, said that on the hilltop he felt he was closer to God than anywhere else on earth. "I prayed that God might accept us all into paradise," he said.A large group chanted prayers in unison, asking God to help fellow Muslims in areas of conflict including the Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Kashmir and Sudan.As day spread across the plain, the size of the pilgrimage came to light.A sea of people wrapped in white cloth streamed along six-lane roads to fill the plain, carrying mats, food, screens against the sun, Korans and prayer books.It is the duty of every able-bodied Muslim to make the haj at least once in their lifetime.In a display of solidarity and faith, the pilgrims walk seven times around the Kaaba, touching the sacred black stone at its corner.They wear sacred robes called ihram and are forbidden to use cosmetics, shave or cut their nails while dressed in these.They are also not allowed to swear, argue, kill a living creature or have sex.Over the five days of haj, more than two million Muslims, 25,000 of whom are British, will pass through the Grand Mosque.
Fruit sellers set up stalls and tea stands suddenly appeared. African trader women spread their wares on the ground, offering prayer beads, incense and prayer mats.One man offered rides in the howdahs of camels, richly decorated with brocade and coloured pompoms.The afternoon at Arafat, known in Arabic as the wuqouf or "standing", is an essential part of the pilgrimage but the requirements are not strict.The noon prayer and sermon at the Namera Mosque is a major event, evoking the sermon which the Prophet Mohammad made from the hill in the year of his death in 632.

Monday, December 17, 2007


More than two million Muslims began their annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca today amid tight security.The pilgrims, including Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, started the week-long religious event at the Saudi Arabian city with a three mile walk to the holy site of Mina.The faithful, wearing white robes, make the symbolic trip tracing the journey made by the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago.Sleeping at night in tents before heading further south to Mount Arafat, where the Prophet is believed to have received the last passage of Islam's holy book, the Koran.
The Haj climaxes on Tuesday, when the faithful will spend the day praying and asking God's forgiveness at the summit.
During the pilgrimage Muslims numbering nearly 2.5 million will walk anti-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure in Mecca toward which all followers of Islam pray.Also among the pilgrims were 1,000 residents of the Gaza strip who were allowed by Israel to leave the territory as a gesture of goodwill.Yesterday 491 Palestians were taken by bus through the Erez checkpoint, which is controlled by Israeli troops and normally closed to civilians.
Another 500 pilgrims are expected to be allowed through today, befor heading to Jordan and flying on to Saudi Arabia.
The move came as 10,700 Chinese Muslims, an isolated minority in the communist state, were given permission to travel - and fulfil their faithful duty of making the pilgrimage if they can.They will join president Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian leader to take part in the event since the 1979 Islamic revolution, who was invited by Saudi King Abdullah.Before leaving, he said: “If I made a mistake or in one of my speeches or said something that was not in line with the interest of the nation and has hurt the nation or I was not able to defend its rights, then I ask people to forgive me."His invitation is a highly symbolic move as the pilgrimage has in the past caused major diplomatic strains between the two regional heavyweights.Relations reached an all-time low in July 1987 when 402 people, mostly Iranians, were killed in clashes between Iranians and Saudi security forces during the Haj.Iran's late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini subsequently accused the kingdom of being a lackey of the United States that was unable to look after holy sites.But the two countries have tried to give an impression of unity in recent years, vowing to work together to end the political crisis in Lebanon and bring stability to Iraq.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Scientists think they have discovered the energy source of auroras borealis, the spectacular color displays seen in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.New data from NASA's Themis mission, a quintet of satellites launched this winter, found the energy comes from a stream of charged particles from the sun flowing like a current through twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun. The energy is then abruptly released in the form of a shimmering display of lights, said principal investigator Vassilis Angelopoulos of the University of California at Los Angeles. Results were presented Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting. In March, the satellites detected a burst of Northern Lights over Alaska and Canada. During the two-hour light show, the satellites measured particle flow and magnetic fields from space. To scientists' surprise, the geomagnetic storm powering the auroras raced 400 miles in a minute across the sky. Angelopoulos estimated the storm's power was equal to the energy released by a magnitude 5.5 earthquake."Nature was very kind to us," Angelopoulos said. Although researchers have suspected the existence of wound-up bundles of magnetic fields that provide energy for the auroras, the phenomenon was not confirmed until May, when the satellites became the first to map their structure some 40,000 miles above the Earth's surface. Scientists hope the satellites will record a geomagnetic storm next year and end the debate about when the storms are triggered.