Category Archives: architecture

From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.

IMG_4637v2

Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.

IMG_9367v2

As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.

IMG_3688v2

Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.

IMG_4350v2

Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.

IMG_4354v2

Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:

IMG_9118v2

El Hondo

IMG_9491v2

It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.

IMG_4409v2

Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.

IMG_4370v2

Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.

IMG_4533v2

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

IMG_4520v2

We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.

IMG_4571v2

Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.

IMG_5992v2

Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.

IMG_4765v2

Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.

IMG_4662v2

Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.

IMG_3585v2

The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.

IMG_4854v2

Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.

IMG_4629v2

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:

IMG_1679v2

Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

Advertisements

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.

IMG_2350v2

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.

IMG_2165v2

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.

IMG_2139v2

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.

IMG_2139v3

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.

IMG_2840v2

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

IMG_2051v2

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

fullsizeoutput_99

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.

IMG_2023v2

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.

IMG_2708v2

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.

IMG_2515v2

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.

Dubonnetv2

“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.

IMG_2742v2

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.

IMG_5501v2

Concrete at Creekmouth

My local river, the Roding, leaves the ‘Patch’ through a grate and flows a final five kilometres before discharging into the Thames at Barking Creekmouth. I finally visited this stretch a few days ago, finding a path hidden behind a cinema on an uninspiring retail park.

Government money has poured into this area and a mini nature reserve around the final muddy stretch of the river is well maintained.

IMG_1137v2

Warehouses, reeds, then mud and water. The low-tide trickle still had over seventy Teal dotted along the water like punctuation marks added at random to a stream of consciousness, and ended with the exclamation of a few paddling Shelduck. But what consciousness?

Fences and reeds provide barriers and curtains as if protecting the modesty of this dying river. But is it dying? It certainly meets its end at a Guillotine.

IMG_1145v2

The barrier at Creekmouth

Some three hundred tons of metal that can descend down forty metre towers of concrete to decapitate the river and cauterise the risk of flood.

The river oozes through mud and is seemingly contained in a sarcophagus of concrete on either side. To the East, the industry of demolition and waste, of scrap, rubbish, and recycling. Things being churned up by metal claws and blades and then re-processed somehow, I don’t know how; or disposed of somewhere – burnt or buried, but – like energy – never truly destroyed.

IMG_8240v2

Meanwhile, on the western bank, another form of waste is processed. The huge concrete dials of Beckton sewage works with hands that turn day and night, but tell a story other than time.

IMG_1155v2

Beckton sewage

Effluence in, again processed, and then water out. On one side of a path, the slow snaking river – the Roding – and on the other, a man-made waterway of processed man-made waste flowing straight and dark towards the same fate as its natural neighbour: discharge in the Thames.

IMG_1142v2

The concrete, the waste, the rubbish, the noise, but also… the wild. It is also here. While peering into the deep flow of this canal, this final sewer, an explosion of sound alerted me to the presence of a Cetti’s Warbler in the reeds behind me; present yet, of course, invisible.

Willows line one side of the path, while prison-style fences line the other, not keeping inmates in, but trespassers out – as if a sewage farm is an enticing prospect for break-and-entry.

IMG_1141v2

And then it ends. Both waterways, ‘natural’ and constructed, empty into the estuarine Thames. It ends, but it does not die – a river is surely the ultimate riddle or dichotomy of life: it has a beginning and an end, but it does not finish; finite yet also ‘in’-finite. So not death. But death has visited this place.

In 1878 – where the freshwater flow of the Roding meets the brackish behemoth of the Thames – two boats collided and sank. Some 650 souls lost in a matter of minutes – many drowning, not in water, but in raw sewage according to accounts of this horrendous disaster – to this day the worst ever single incident recorded in British history.

IMG_1143v2

The water continues to flow, the waste continues to churn… and a Chiffchaff continues to sing in this extraordinary place of life, death, change, and continuity. A place out of sight for most, unattractive to many, abandoned by some… perhaps abandoned by many… but not by all.

IMG_1139v2

Underneath the bridge

Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling

– Nirvana, Something in the Way

Sometimes, life clings onto existence despite our best efforts.

IMG_1063v2

Underside of bridge, Trafalgar Way, Canary Wharf

There is, perhaps, nowhere in the UK as synthetically urban as Canary Wharf. The towers of glass and steel, the steeples of Mammon, that rise out of the graveyard of industrial London’s docklands. Concrete on top of brick on top of mud with the wild ghosts of the ancient marshlands which, for the last two hundred years, have been choked and buried beneath rubble, foundations, and man-made waterways.

But still life pushes its way through, crowding the unloved and functionless corners and crannies. These are places of ‘weeds’ (“a plant growing in the wrong place”); ‘wrong’ as in unwanted.

Underneath a bridge on the eastern boundary of Canary Wharf, pushing aside the pebbles and litter grows a selection of these weeds in the shadows of the graffiti-emblazoned concrete. Catching only the morning sun and occasional spray of horizontally blown rain, these are hardy plants defying the odds of survival like some rarely encountered high-altitude mountain perennial.

IMG_1065v1

Plants and litter

Amidst the rubble and litter (and yes, those are a pair of pink mens’ boxer shorts), I counted at least 12 species of plant, and there were probably many more.

These are the ‘despite’ organisms. Things that flourish despite the best efforts of humans to sanitise the environs for the office workers like me. ‘Weed’ is a word constructed by humans placing a subjective value judgement on another living being; its life reduced to its value, or in this case ‘lack of’ value, in relation to our lives. This can also be said of the word ‘nature’, almost defined by its ‘otherness’ to the life, existence, and influences of humans, as if, really, we are anything other than just one of the 8.7 million species of lifeforms clinging to this rock as we all hurtle through space.

But perhaps there is an ‘otherness’, not so much of the perceived inferiority of all other life on our home planet, but in the way that we desperately seek to separate ourselves from it, to tame it, to exploit it, or simply to destroy it. That ‘otherness’ has been culturally stamped into us through the centuries by the Abrahamic religions and their comprehensive rejection of anything that might be perceived as ‘animism’. That ‘otherness’ that justifies our subjugation of everything else in the world in the name of ‘progress’.

Setting aside the organisms trampled by ‘progress’ – the birds, butterflies, mammals, and plants now extinct due to the excesses of us – these swarming narcissistic bald apes – a few living beings have the audacity to flourish in our shadows. The ‘weeds’ under the bridge; the gulls that circle the fish market just a short walk from the bridge; the rats that are largely unseen, but we all know are there under the bridge and shudder because of it; and the feral pigeons that roost and brood in the gaps under the bridge. These are organisms that disgust us; feeders on filth, parasites, and vermin. But what really disgusts us? Is it the rats, and pigeons, and weeds, or the fact that they simply reflect the wasteful profligacy with which we live our lives? 

‘Nature’ is ‘good’ when it is beamed into our warm living rooms preserved within the aspic of pixels and remoteness, and preferably with a voiceover by Sir David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. The vulnerability of distant endangered creatures pulling at our heart-strings as we cook, burn, pollute, and trash our planet, whilst the small section of life that has adapted rather well to our appetite for excess and destruction, makes us recoil in fear and disgust.

If you ever want to be reminded that humanity and nature are ‘one’, just take a long hard look underneath the bridge.

If this post was a little hard for you to stomach, don’t worry I shall return with quainter tales of patch birding soon. If this post intrigued you, you may wish to investigate some of these thoughts – more elegantly and thoughtfully put – through The Dark Mountain Project.

Amsterdam

So, Amsterdam, where have you been all my life?

I have actually been to Amsterdam a few times before, but only changing flights at Schiphol so I had never actually seen the famous city. I rectified that last weekend with my wife and in-laws (my sister in-law is lucky enough to live in this amazing city).

img_6476v4

It is, of course, the city that never should have been. A city reclaimed from the sea, with a web of famous canals below sea level while the city itself is propped up by pillars.

The famous canals curve round to feed (or, more accurately, be fed by) the Amstel and the mighty IJ – defined by some as  a river and others a lake, whilst it looks like a narrow strip of sea to me from the map. The Amstel not only gave its name to the beer, but to the city itself.

img_6445v5

The Amstel

amsterdam-v3

img_6507v2

nightamstelv2

bikelightv2

img_6658v2

img_6707v1

Amsterdam is also famous for bicycles (millions of these!), and art…

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.

img_0723v2

The Rijksmuseum

The Vermeer’s are exquisite , the Rembrandt’s are sublime, and there are some other hidden gems in this huge gallery that drew my attention but wouldn’t, perhaps, be featured in any highlight guide of the museum.

From the titillating (this painting of a young woman removing her stocking and exposing her thighs was seen as so outrageously erotic when first unveiled, it was partially painted over)…

img_0729v4

Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1655-1660

… to the spiritual. I was captivated by this chap (below). His name is Ajita. He is one of the legendary Arhats or lohans, a Buddhist sage tasked with preserving the doctrines until the time when the teachings can be understood. He is listening carefully and serenely to a sutra being recited. In an age where we struggle to listen, I think many of us could learn from Ajita.

ajita-v2

A lohan, anonymous. China, c.1200-1400

I drooled over the museum’s library…

img_0727v4

Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…

img_0728v2

Drake Pintail, Rochus van Veen. 1682

Amsterdam is, of course, famous for one or two other things as well. All I will say on those matters is that if the salesperson in a coffeeshop tells you that a ‘space-cake’ is for sharing between two, don’t eat a whole one!

coffeeshopv2

Coffeeshop, Amsterdam

The Two Towers

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

IMG_9357v2

Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers, Leytonstone

I was surveying trees on the patch when something caught my eye above the tree-line. Four shapes danced and tumbled together acrobatically in the air. It was a family of Peregrine. They raced, swerved, practised food hand-offs, and span, all with dizzying speed. These were the closest and best views I have had of Peregrine on the patch – they normally seem to be on their way somewhere else, but today this bit of sky was their play and bonding ground.

With no cliffs or hills on the ‘Flats’ (the clue’s in the name), the falcons eventually came to rest, split up and perched on the two towers:

IMG_3572v2

Peregrine Falcon (Falco perigrinus)

The towers they perched on are 50 years old this year. They are the tallest local structures and stand like sentinels over the Wanstead Flats. When I return from a day on the patch, I head towards the towers as that is my direction home. I can even see them and their neapolitan-style colouration (representing the green of the flats, the beige and grey of the urban, and the blue of the sky – or so I assume) from my office window several miles to the south in Canary Wharf.

I have always had a soft spot for the best of the 1960’s brutalist architecture: the scale, the clean angles, the functionality, and the fact that so many people love to hate them. These local features mean something to me and so I recently bought some original artwork to celebrate them:

fredwigg1

Hand drawing of ‘Fred Wigg & John Walsh Towers’ by Sarah Evans aka Oscar Francis

In the shadow of the towers stretches something much older: Evelyn Avenue and the grass land, scrub, and copses of the semi-re-wilding ‘School Scrub’ of the Wanstead Flats.

IMG_9360v2

Evelyn Avenue

This time last week, I assisted with a wildlife walk in the area…

Ferndale Roadv1

Me showing a temporarily captured Small Heath butterfly to a group of locals

Shortly after this was taken I also found the first ringlet butterfly on the patch this year. This evening, after heavy rains, the grasses only gave up the odd Skipper butterfly as well as hundreds of tiny Garden Grass Veneer micro moths (Chrysoteuchia culmella).

IMG_3481v2

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

In recent weeks I have seen all three resident species of the Skipper family in the area (the other two being the ‘Large’ and the ‘Essex’). All being grassland specialists, they seem to be doing well on the patch. The Wanstead Flats is surely the richest grassland habitat in London, and possibly in any major city.

IMG_9365v2

Grasses in School Scrub

Birding the Yucatan: Part III (Sacred Cenotes)

As everyone knows, something pretty cataclysmic happened about 66 million years ago. A ten kilometre wide lump of rock from space hit the earth with a pretty big bang. It is widely believed to have been responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals and birds. As a mammal who likes birds, I am somewhat guiltily grateful that this happened.

I have another reason to be grateful for this event. That piece of rock hit the earth (or rather the sea as it was then) where I went on holiday, the Yucatan Peninsula, and is also credited as a major reason why there are so many Cenotes in the Yucatan. Cenotes are naturally occurring sinkholes in limestone that expose (under)ground water. They are often very pretty:

IMG_8477v2

Dzibilchaltan Cenote with my wife posing in front of it

But Cenotes are/were more important than just being pretty. They are the major source of freshwater in the Yucatan (very few rivers or lakes exist there) and allowed the Mayan civilisation to flourish.

IMG_0989v2.jpg

Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltan

The Mayans clearly recognised that they owed a lot to these exposed underwater sources of fresh water and showed their gratitude by throwing precious artefacts and people (human sacrifices) down to the watery depths. Nowadays tourists pay money to swim in them. Brightly coloured fish nibbled my feet as we cooled off in the water above.

Aside from their penchant for human sacrifice, the Mayans were a pretty cool civilisation, not least because they believed many birds were sacred. Everyone who goes to the Yucatan visits Chichen Itza ruins – with some of the most famous Mayan architecture:

IMG_8606v2

The largest Chichen Itza Pyramid

We just walked around on our own, but any tour guide will show you the Quetzal call clap. Stand in front of the main pyramid and clap your hands and you get an extraordinary echo that sounds nothing like your original clap. In fact it sounds rather like the call of the sacred (and very beautiful) Quetzal bird family; a layered-pitched squawk (presumably due to the vibrations returning to your ear at marginally different times due to each layer of Pyramid being a different distance from you – but feel free to correct me if my hypothesis is nonsense). The Mayan priestly class used this technique to persuade the people that there really was a Quetzal-headed god (Quetzalcoatl) inside the Pyramid and so they had better do what the priests told them. As if that wasn’t enough, depictions of the serpent-bodied god appear at the bottom of one of the set of steps  and at the right time the shadows from the setting sun make it look like a large snake is slithering down the pyramid.

As sources of fresh water and clearings in the forest, ruins and cenotes are useful places to watch birds. In the ruins of Chichen Itza , I saw lots of the notorious cuckoo-style brood parasites:Bronzed Cowbird

IMG_1550v2

Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus)

Other birds found in, or near these places included: the Yucatan sub-species of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Greyish Saltator, Clay-coloured Thrush, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-olive Flatbill…

IMG_0877v4

Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons)

IMG_1716v2

Greyish Saltator (saltator coerulescens)

IMG_1650v2

Clay-coloured Thrush (Turdus grayi)

Flatbillv2

Yellow-olive Flatbill (Tolmomyias sulphurescens)

Some of the birds were just fly-overs that had little to do with cenotes or ruins, such as this Osprey

IMG_0887v2

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

… while others – as I am about to describe – seemed infinitely more closely connected with these geologically ancient water features…

Yokdzonot Cenote

A spectacular Cenote not given justice by my photo (the wide angle has distorted the image to make the limestone walls look lower than in reality – the water level is some 22 metres below the lip of the sink-hole):

IMG_1504v2

This cenote actually plunges a further 45 metres (150 feet) down to the black depths below the turquoise surface. The organic mirrors the geological as tree roots and stalactites both hang down to the water surface. Tropical freshwater fish, from brightly coloured slivers to whiskered brown catfish swim around the surface, predatory fish lurk in the rock holes and even more mysterious fish swim way, way below the surface and out of human sight. Some have evolved to the particular cenote or cave system they inhabit, and blind fish exist in the deep, purportedly catching their prey by touch or smell alone.

Given the stifling heat, the cool waters were a blessing to swim in. The distinctive calls of the Great Kiskadee meant its name echoed around the limestone chamber:

IMG_1522v2

Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) on tree roots

Turquoise-browed Motmots dropped down into the cenote like stones only to swoop up onto a branch, root, or rock ledge at the last moment and then swing their tails in a mechanical fashion like a colourful pendulum:

IMG_1508v2

Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa)

They are stunning gargoyles of these ancient and natural churches of rock and water, but the most breathtaking residents were smaller and plainer.

Tens of Cave Swallows would swirl around the perimeter of the cenote in a dizzying blur gaining speed and height. When ascending, they would explode out of the mouth of the cenote like steam from a pressurised container or the horrors of Pandora’s vase (it was never meant to be a box in case you are wondering). When descending, they would corkscrew all the way back down again, tracing the ancient contours of the rock until just above the surface of the water, they would disappear. I swam out to investigate this vanishing trick and found that the rock walls also vanish as they approach the water. There are deep cavities stretching several metres under the lip of the cenote far over head. On the cavity roof are the swallows’ mud nests. When we visited, there was almost constant activity in and out of the nests.

At another Cenote I received a fright when I swam out to see if there were similar nests near the edge. I swam into the gloom of the cave where the water became gradually colder due to the lack of light, looked up at the roof and out flew, not a swallow, but a very large bat. Bats are wonderful creatures just like birds, but it is hard to escape the cultural construction of fear and demonic foreboding that bats can draw out of our deep primeval subconscious – especially when encountered in a cave (what must our early ancestors have thought when they flicked around their heads in the firelight with their shadows cast huge on the cave walls?).

That the cenotes were deeply important sacred places to the Mayans was no surprise to me at all. I felt an enormous sense of privilege in being able to explore them.