Category Archives: Alcohol

The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.

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200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.

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Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.

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European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.

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12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.

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Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.

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Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

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At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.

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Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.

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Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and the … err… Lesser Whitethroat): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.

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“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.

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Norfolk Broads and the Common Crane

Sometimes it is good to be out in the wild but not birding. I actually have two weekends of that in a row. This weekend just gone saw five old school friends and me on a boat on the Norfolk Broads (what could possibly go wrong?!) and this weekend coming I will be hill walking with two other friends in the Peak District. On both occasions, I am the only birder.

I could wax lyrical about the history of flooding and marshlands and navigation and… water and wetland generally in East Anglia, but tonight I just don’t have time. As many will know, the Norfolk Broads are flooded peat-works (excavated by the monasteries back in the Middle Ages) and joined by some of the major rivers.

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Historic wind drainage pump on the River Yare

The six of us chugged along in our hired boat doing a spot of fishing, playing various musical instruments, drinking beer, bird watching, sunbathing, drinking beer, playing poker, drinking beer and various other activities that may have also involved drinking beer.

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My pals armed with guitar, harmonica, and fishing rod and comedy captain’s cap of course

But a lot of the time we just enjoyed the expansive waterways, the expansive vegetation, and the even-more-expansive skies.

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Rookburgh St Mary Broad

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Distant rain and rainbow over the marshes

I obviously had my binoculars to hand most of the time, although trying to operate them in one hand whilst standing on a boat and drinking beer simultaneously with the other hand is not all that easy, so sometimes I lay down to do it more easily (you understand?) and was occasionally snapped naturally for a photo.

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Yours truly ready to pounce into birding action

We didn’t spot anything unusual, but by the end of the trip I made sure my friends could all identify a Cetti’s Warbler by its song. I think they struggled a little more with all the Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, but were suitably impressed with the Hobby, Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, and Short-eared Owl sightings. I didn’t have my camera, so no bird pics this time, just iPhone shots of landscapes and thirty-something-year-old men.

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One of the narrower waterways linking a flooded ‘broad’ with the river

One of the birds you might hope to see in this area is the Common Crane; made extinct but reintroduced to a couple of secret sites in East Anglia. However, it was only when back in London that I heard this bird was at Rainham Marshes – a huge London tick for me and many others, and a first ever site record.

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Common Crane (Grus grus)

This record shot was taken from up on the ridge of the Rainham landfill site and looking down several hundred meters on to Wennington Marsh towards the A13.

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X marks the spot

Not a bad weekend overall.

Wanstead Patchwork: Part XII (Hearing is believing)

I was blind, but now I see
I woke up this morning blind. My eyes were glued together by the revolting discharge that is caused by conjunctivitis. A cold I have been fighting – and twice smugly proclaimed victory over – has finally bloomed and seems to have infected my eyes as well my respiratory system.

I am sat in bed useless and ill but quietly pleased I have not been missing too much on the patch as the weather is atrocious.

Yesterday, before this rhino of a virus (do you see what I did there?) charged me down, I went out early to conduct my breeding bird survey of Bush Wood.

A job for ears, not eyes
Even before my corneal membranes became infected, my eyes were somewhat redundant as this survey is all about singing birds, not about birds seen, and I often don’t see the birds I am ticking at all.

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Territories of singing Song Thrush

Some bird counts were up (Chiffchaff arrivals were clear), some were the same (as with the Song Thrush above), and some were down (sadly I didn’t hear any singing Coal Tit or Goldcrest – although I am sure they are still there). It will need more weeks of work before any really useful trends can be drawn.

But I did also witness some wonderful breeding bird behaviour including a fascinating courtship dance between a pair of Green Woodpecker on a tree trunk which followed shortly after this chap chased a female around for a bit (I have noticed recently how much courting Woodpeckers – Great Spots in particular – love chasing each other around):

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Drinkers beware!
With my ears straining to cut through traffic noise, Blue Tit song, and the cackling and cawing corvids to be able to hear the songs of the birds I am counting, as well as peering up at the trees (in the vague hope of seeing an elusive Nuthatch or Treecreeper), my survey work means I am probably missing a lot of stuff at ground level. If there are any new wildflowers out, I didn’t see them, but I did see this mini fungal jungle which I may well have mis-identified:

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)??

Common Ink Cap gets its name from the black liquid produced after being picked or by the withering cap – in antiquity it was used as ink.

However, this fungus has another name – Tipplers bane. The mushrooms are edible, but only if you are teetotal. The chemicals contained in this fungus are hyper-sensitive to alcohol and will cause palpitations and severe nausea if ingested even within days of sipping alcohol.

My blogging century

This is my 100th blog post as iago80. It has been fun…

100 photos: one from each blog post

100 photos: one from each blog post

I have shared my travels, including to some exotic places:

Volcano, Costa Rica

Volcano, Costa Rica

… where I have seen exotic wildlife…

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)

… and been privileged to photograph some extremely rare animals in the wild…

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa)

Closer to home, I have explored history…

Nottingham

… and shared landscapes that I have found interesting and beautiful…

Trent

Many of you have also shared my journey to photograph birds in the wild…

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)

Thank you for reading. I look forward to sharing my next 100 photo-stories with you.

A stroll in the Chilterns

There is a grand union between the UK’s two largest cities, London and Birmingham. It is a canal that is named after its purpose. The Grand Union is the longest waterway in the UK, some 70 miles longer than the River Thames.

Grand Union

The Grand Union cuts through a low point in the Chiltern Hills at Tring, about an hour north of London in the Hertfordshire countryside.

We got off the train at Tring and did a circular walk for a few miles. Starting by walking down by the canal…

abandoned boat

… and then breaking off the tow-path at bridge 137, a two hundred year old structure concreted and strengthened just before the First World War…

Bridge 137 and Lily

Before we left the canal, we walked along to the sound of Spring birdsong, from Warblers like the onamatopeic Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), so difficult to distinguish from the Willow Warbler by sight, but so easy by sound…

Chiff Chaff

… and its cousin, the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) a summer migrant from sub-Saharan African that I spotted singing on the other side of the canal…

Whitethroat

There was also plenty of noise from Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great Tits, Jays, and, one more I did manage to capture, the ubiquitous Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)…

Chaffinch

One Swallow does not a summer make according to Aristotle, but two?… (Hirundo rustica)…

Swallow

From the canal there is a steep walk up into the Chilterns. The hills are a chalk escarpment formed at a similar time to the Alps (and a number of other mountain ranges) when Africa collided with Eurasia, buckling so many of the geological formations to the north.

Carpeting the top of much of the Chilterns is protected woodland where the trees wear jackets of moss to display their age…

Mossy tree

… or badges of fungi where their branches have been wounded or breached (I’m hoping my attempt at poetic language will mask the fact that I cannot identify the species of fungi)…

Fungi

We found the raided husk of a Song Thrush egg…

Song Thrush egg

… alongside the matching Forget-me-nots…

Forget-me-not

… And then the trees open to the largest pasture land in the Chilterns, Northchurch Common…

Northchurch Common

… before a steep walk back down the other side of the escarpment into the picturesque village of Aldbury …

Aldbury

Note how the signpost on the village green actually points back to the pub, the Valiant Trooper, which I thought was exquisitely named following our walk on a warm spring day. I didn’t need another sign, and so the walk ended – as all good walks should – with a pint of locally brewed ale enjoyed in the sun…

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I can heartily recommend the beer, Ridgeway Bitter, named after the very paths that we had walked across less than an hour before enjoying the ale

Wine tasting in Florence

Just occasionally you dine or drink out and you experience something truly special. I am sure most people have memories of the finest restaurants they have been to. A number of factors make an evening special: the food, the drink, the surroundings, the atmosphere, the service, the company you share it with, and so on. Rarely, all of these factors come together brilliantly and you experience something you will remember forever.

And so it was for me just over a week ago in Florence at the Enoteca Pitti Gola Wine Bar. My partner and I were celebrating our engagement with a wine tasting that I really will remember fondly forever. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, so I had to make do with my iPhone (which can take great pics, but less so at night).

Enoteca Pitti has a wonderful location immediately opposite the hugely impressive Pitti Palace of the Medici. We were guided through an incredible range of 17 Italian wines in total and several delectable plates of Tuscan food throughout a long and wonderful evening by our expert sommelier, Zeno:

Zeno, with his brother and another business partner, is one of the three owners of Enoteca Pitti. On their website, it says, “Zeno is known for creating a comradery with his clients, drinking  along with them, as it is a pleasure for him.” Well, whether comradery or camaraderie, I can confirm this statement 110%. Never have I felt so welcome, so involved, and so enthused by the passion of a someone working in, or running, a bar or restaurant. Zeno’s love and knowledge of wine was abundantly clear and he gave us an incredible tour of some rare and amazing wines of the region accompanied by fantastic local delicacies cooked by chef, Marzia Sassetti. Notice how I said the food accompanied the wine, and not the other way around. First and foremost, this is a wine bar. The food was exquisite, but simple enough not to distract from the stars of the show being poured into your glass.

Just to give you a flavour of the food, we were given a selection of stunning local cheeses and cured meats as well the finest Steak Tartare I have ever eaten and the best pasta including this ravioli lovingly prepared from scratch only minutes before being set on our plates… (click here to see their photo of Marzia preparing the fresh pasta)

But, for me, it was the wines and the stories of the wines – lovingly told by Zeno – which made the evening so incredibly special. We were treated to tastings of three sparkling wines, four whites, seven reds, one dessert wine, and two Grappas (with Zeno often refilling my glass in the process as well!). All of the wines were Italian, many of them Tuscan, and all from small producers who focus all their attention on producing quality rather than quantity. We tried wines which were produced in the hundreds and thousands of bottles rather than hundreds of thousands.

Wines included the lovely white Capezzana Trebbiano 2009 – from a family vineyard that has been producing wine since 804!! And no, I haven’t missed a digit, that is 1200 years of wine production culminating in this…

When you next plan to buy a bottle of Prosecco from a shop or restaurant, see if there is an opportunity to buy a different Italian sparkling wine instead, Franciacorta. They will not rival the finest champagnes, but they are excellent at a fraction of the price. We tried three of them, including, Faccoli brut which had a lovely dry taste with an appley finish…

We worked our way through seven distinct and remarkable reds, finishing on the Langhe Rosso Status from 2001 by Giuseppe Mascarello, a powerful blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Freisa grapes that, if you can track it down, you might be able to order for around £60-70 a bottle…

Zeno explained his sadness and shame that a by-product of the fame of Chianti has meant that so much of what is produced for the international market is mass-produced and unworthy of the name. We tasted a number of superb Sangiovese grape wines including this Monteraponi Chianti Classico Riserva from 2009 produced in an ancient vineyard in the hills of Chianti…

If you go to Florence and you like wine, I could not recommend Enoteca Pitti highly enough – it was a truly superb experience.

Here are the other wines that we tried:

Il Mosnel Franciacorta

Faccoli Franciacorta Rose

Tenute Dettori Renosu

Laimburg Riesling

Renato Keber Collio Friulano 2007

Rosso di Montalcino, Cerbaiona di Diego Molinari 2009 (no website found)

Ragnaie V.V. Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (possibly my favourite red of the evening)

Le Potazzine, Gorelli, Brunello di Montalcino 2004

Il Colles di Carli, Brunello di Montalcino 2004 (no website found)

Barbaresco Roccalini, 2008 (no website found)

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the details of this lovely Passito dessert wine

Finally, the two Grappas:

Marolo, Grappa di Barolo (50%!)

and

Milla (by Marolo) (a much friendlier 35%)

The Elixir of Long Life

What should one drink on a hot and sticky Saturday night?

How about Chartreuse and tonic…

I used one part Chartreuse to nine parts tonic with lots of ice. For some reason I fancied it in a large wine bowl glass.

If you were to get the ratios the wrong way around -nine parts Chartreuse to one part tonic – then, at 55%, you could be in a little bit of trouble…

As far as liqueurs go, I am not sure that many can match the history of Chartreuse. The Chartreuse monks in France held an ancient manuscript with the wonder-drug known as the ‘Elixir of Long Life’. The complicated instructions from a long-dead apothecary were translated in 1737 and Chartreuse was born.

Apparently the monks risked the wrath of the most powerful man on earth when they refused to give the secret recipe to Napoleon following a direct order. They continue to distil Chartreuse to this day.

Photos taken on iPhone 4 with Hipstamatic