Category Archives: architecture

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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The Amstel

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

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.

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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)…

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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.

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

I drooled over the museum’s library…

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Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…

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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!

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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

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Evelyn Avenue

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

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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

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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…

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Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons)

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Greyish Saltator (saltator coerulescens)

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Clay-coloured Thrush (Turdus grayi)

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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

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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.

Birding the Yucatan: Part I

Disclaimer: If you are looking for a standard trip report, this multi-part meander may not be for you, although you could zip through the text focusing in on the species in bold, and the photos – I will also give a few location details in later sections. 

Introduction and an excuse

The Yucatan Peninsula is the Southern claw of the crab of land that stretches around the Gulf of Mexico (the Northern claw is Florida) – or that is how I have always looked at it on a map.

Tropical, lush, and archaeologically rich, with hundreds of miles of beaches and coral reefs (second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size). Little wonder it attracts vast numbers of tourists; mostly crowded together in holiday towns like Cancun and Playa del Carmen or in one of the many huge gated resorts where they roll from the all-you-can-eat buffet to the sun lounger and back again, seemingly oblivious to Mexico that is happening all around them. If my tone appears to be sneering, I should add that for almost a week of my two weeks in the Yucatan, I stayed in one of those resorts and can certainly see some of the appeal.

We were there for a wedding, we did touristy things, and partied a few times like my 35 year-old body can barely manage anymore. But I also attempted to do some birding.

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Magnificent Frigate Bird (Fregata magnificens) – rarely out of sight on the coast

I say “attempt”, because I am a little embarrassed by my species haul (only 87). This is partly down to the fact that it was not a birding holiday and so I was often doing other things, but also because I failed to be out early enough (due to a combination of: not planning ahead, driving too far and so arriving too late for the best birds (it was often over 40 degrees centigrade), and the fact that going to bed at 7am is not conducive to getting up at… err… 6am to go birding (if you know what I mean). I also did all of the birding alone and without a guide, although I realise that is nothing to brag about in this day and age.

But, excuses aside, there were some birds that were almost impossible to miss…

The Ubiquitous

The first bird I saw, soon after stepping off the plane was Tropical Mockingbird – a life tick for me (its range skirting many of the countries I have visited before) that seemed to rarely be out of eye-line or ear-shot.

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Adult Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) with young

If any bird could compete with the above in terms of common presence and volume of voice, then it was surely the Great-tailed Grackle. A bird I remember well from Costa Rica and the southern states of the USA where these jack-of-all-trade opportunists have massively expanded their range; they are brazen and omnipresent even in the urban centres.

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Male Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) gaping in the stifling heat at Chichen Itza

While on the subject of scavengers, it was also difficult to raise your eyes to the skies and not see an American Black Vulture (almost half the size of its Eurasian namesake) or Turkey Vulture (maybe someone can explain to me why some Americans call this vulture a Buzzard?) soaring on the thermals or cruising over the treetops sniffing out carrion.

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American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)


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Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

As with Costa Rica, Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, and Tropical Kingbird were present in almost every location we visited, but I was disappointed not to add Boat-billed Flycatcher to my list.

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Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis texensis)

I didn’t see many species of dove, but those I did see were common flavours nearly everywhere I went: White-winged Dove (these guys are everywhere), the introduced Collared Dove (that I am well familiar with back in the UK), Ruddy Ground Dove (one of my favourite miniature doves), Feral Pigeon, and Common Ground Dove [listed in approximate declining order of commonality].

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White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica mearnsi)


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Ruddy Ground Dove (Columbina talpacoti)

Once these common birds had been ticked off the list, many others were somewhat harder to find, but they shall be the stars of my next instalments.

To be continued…