Category Archives: fishing

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.

Days with (not so) rare birds

Today, the weather just got better and better. The day began cold, misty, and cloudy, but the sun burnt through and when my eight hour walk around the patch ended, everything was bathed in a warm golden glow.

But it was when the clouds were full and low in the morning that I ticked off my 70th patch bird of the year. At Cat & Dog pond, I found a pair of Reed Bunting; spotting the female first but soon followed by a male.

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Common Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)

Despite others occasionally seeing them throughout the winter, I had previously searched in vain. But within half an hour of ticking Reed Bunting off my list, I found a second pair in the Brooms by Centre Road.

There was no sign of our Winter, or Spring, Stonechats, but on Angel Pond I checked in on the mass of frogspawn and the feeding gulls (now largely in Spring plumage).

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

It is not just the weather that makes me feel Spring is here or near, the bird song increases each time I come out. Three of the most common songs to be heard on the patch (and indeed across the UK) are those of the Robin, Wren, and Dunnock.

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Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Talking of song birds, I always think that a much overlooked avian vocalist is the Starling. The complexity, variation, and mimicry involved, albeit to many we just hear a series of clicks and whistles, is phenomenal.

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Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Great Crested Grebe
Today (or strictly speaking yesterday as the clock has just struck midnight as I type) I spent quite a bit of time watching the Great Crested Grebe on Perch Pond in Wanstead Park. This began with watching some limited courtship behaviour in the last veils of morning mist.

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Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus)

Later in the day I was able to get a bit closer to them, and with the sun behind me, I was lit for the chance of a reasonable photo. I even had a tree trunk to lean on. In such beautiful light I was really hoping to draw out the beautiful colours of the grebe. So imagine my frustration when I glanced down at my view-screen and saw that I had somehow knocked a switch and was taking photos in monochrome.

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Accidental monochrome photo, not just me trying to be artistic

By the time I had rectified the situation, the grebes had resurfaced further away making crisp photos harder to achieve.

But seeing the black and white photos transferred me back in time. Back in time over 80 years ago in fact, long before I was born, to a time when a naturalist called Frank Aspinall Lowe was writing. In his great book , Days with Rarer Birds, Lowe reminds us that Great Crested Grebe were once much less common and widespread than they are now.

One of the reasons I like old (bird) books is the beautiful, if somewhat archaic, language used in the descriptions. Lowe describes hearing the call of the Great Crested Grebe as “a harsh groaning,  like that of a cart axle devoid of grease, rended the quiet of the tarn.

Lowe had to go to all sorts of trouble in a remote area to watch this ‘rare’ species, which is now found on every other largish body of water. The change in fortunes was largely down to the RSPB being founded to protect this bird from persecution for its feathers. Indeed, even back in 1930, Lowe notes an improvement: “Under protection, this bird seems to be expanding its range all over the Country“.

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Today, one of them resurfaced from the weeds with a small Tench. As a former angler, I recognised the dark olive sheen, thick tail and rounded fins and remembered the fight these powerful fish used to put up, as well as the thick layer of slime that coated their fine scales. That slime and power appeared to do this fish no good in the grasp of the grebe’s bill, although I was interested that the bird dived with the fish still gripped, presumably to attempt to swallow it underwater.

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With a small Tench (Tinca tinca) prey

Other great piscators I watched today included:

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Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

…and…

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Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

As well as other water fowl more generally:

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Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

…and finally this portrait of one of our resident Canada Goose:

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Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Wanstead Patchwork: Part X (From Roding with love)

Three little birds on my doorstep
On Saturday morning I set out relatively early on to the patch with the hope that fresh air would cure me of a hangover.

I was rewarded in that, within 20 minutes, I had added a new bird to patch list for 2015. Whilst navigating my way around a number of dead frogs (don’t ask me why) on the fringes of a pond known as Cat and dog, I flushed a snipe (Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago). The long-beaked wader put up in the air in a blur of russet and khaki camouflage and flew over the Flats (where it was later seen by other birders).

A little while later I heard my first warbler of the year, and probably my first summer migrant. A Chiffchaff sang out its name from the island on Alexandra lake.

River Roding
I then took directions from Nick and Josh to go and look for my 65th species of the year, Teal. I had all but given up seeing this common winter duck on the patch as I thought they might have all returned to Siberia.

The hunting ground for my quarry was the River Roding:

River Roding

I walked South, sandwiched between the City of London Cemetery and the little river. On the other side of the water, golfers swung, hacked, and FORE!’d their way around the fairways of Ilford course while the steady hum of traffic on the North Circular served to remind us all that we were contained within the capital’s boundaries, where busy roads serve as walls.

I crept around vainly looking and listening for water rail in the reeds, whilst a few metres away people wearing purple and orange (what is it about golfers and fashion?) hit small white balls around manicured parkland. I was struck almost simultaneously by the sense of both the ridiculousness and the wonderfulness of hobbies (I used to, and occasionally still do, play golf very badly myself – my crap scores must be on account of the drab colours I wear). As silly as many hobbies are, it was at that ludicrous moment that I felt very sorry for anyone who doesn’t have a pastime to indulge in.

Dear Polly
Talking of hobbies…

I often say – to anyone who will listen – that hobbies satisfy many of mankind’s ancient and primal urges to hunt and gather. In our increasingly plastic and sanitised world, some of us seek to retrace the steps – albeit through heavily ritualised and modernised (often safe) means – of our ancestors. I contend that birding satisfies the spirits of hunter (tracking down wild animals) and gatherer (the list element and need to ‘collect’ as many species as possible) that still occupy us.

A hobby that satisfies the gatherer within us, is that of the collector – for example of postcards…

River Roding

This postcard above (a recent purchase that arrived today) is over 100 years old and depicts the Rover Roding. On the other side it reads:

Dear Pollie [sic],

I am enjoying myself allright [sic], went fishing [I am trying to ignore the fact this word looks like “fisting”] here this afternoon did not catch anything, will write tomorrow. With love from Ethel

Ignoring the fact that our long-dead friend, Ethel, seemed determined to make an enemy of punctuation and grammar, I love how she writes to her friend/sibling/lover/relation daily whilst on holiday (?) in a nearby part of London. Polly/Pollie lived in Islington just a few miles away (I actually know the street in the address as I used to live nearby and know that any house she lived in was destroyed in the war or demolished to be replaced with flats).

An even smaller river
The Roding is a small river. It often flows under bridges un-named and unmarked. It eventually seeps slowly into the Thames anonymously or, rather, under the title of ‘Barking Creek’. But this belies the fact that the Roding is an ancient and important water source. The fifty-mile long river – once entirely located within Essex, until London grew – is believed to be named after a Saxon chieftain, Hrodas, and his people, the Hrodingas, who came to Essex and subdued (read ‘slaughtered’) the local pagan tribes.

I would love to see the Roding follow the lead of its western cousin, the Wandle, and become a second London home to wild brown trout.

Not many Londoners – I am quite sure – could name the Roding correctly, and yet there exists an even smaller, sorrier river, a tributary of the Roding, that has a place in this rather lengthy story/post, the Alders brook.

The earliest extant reference to this stream is from the 16th Century. But now, I can find nowhere to tell me where this brook’s source is – other than the admirable – and hopefully correct guess of Mr Ferris in his excellent online resource of all wild matters locally.

I trampled brambles to look at the heavily algae-clogged (if not stagnant) brook and then saw, far up stream, a pair of Teal. They saw me too and swam effortlessly around a bend and behind the locked gates of some allotments.

In my desire to photograph this pair and further explore this poorly-known waterway, I backtracked and and tried to gingerly make my way through the narrow and heavily overgrown bank of the stream that runs alongside the metal fencing of the allotments. The going became impassable and so, probably luckily for them, the Teal remained unphotographed:

Alders Brook

Typically, back in Wanstead Park, I saw more Teal – despite two months of blanking them in the same park:

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But I regretted nothing. Had I not gone in search of Teal in the inaccessible narrow waterways of East London, I may never have set foot on the narrow banks of the shamefully forgotten Alders Brook.

Along the way on my journey, I photographed for the first time this year so far…

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

and…

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) - presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) – presuming it was too early for Common Dog Violet

… and listened to my first singing Dunnock of the year:

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

… and completely forgot about my hangover.

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.

Amazing Grace: down by the riverside

I have blogged about the river Great Ouse before. It is one of the two important rivers of my childhood (along with the Nene). These are rivers I have fished and walked along many, many times.

The Great Ouse flows through the small town where my family now live: Olney in Buckinghamshire…

Great Ouse

The town stretches up a hill which overlooks the flood plain of the river…

Valley

… which is effectively an island surrounded by the branches of the river…

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It contains beautiful meadows…

Meadow

… and land used as pasture…

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Cow

But the riverside is also home to many wild animals:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) keeping a sharp eye out for fish or amphibians…

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Another creature that I found out hunting for amphibians is the Grass Snake (Natrix natrix)…

Grass snake

I also surprised a semi-feral Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) wandering in the grass..

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But deeper in the grasses, it was the insects that told me we were at the height of Spring. I found mating Crane Fly (species unidentified)…

Crane Fly

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens)…

Banded Demoiselle

And most wonderful, for me, were the Mayfly: one of the many species of the aptly named genus, Ephemeroptera; the Mayfly is surely the embodiment of ephemeral nature. Mayfly will only live in their adult form for a few hours – maybe a day – to mate and lay their eggs before they die (often sending trout and other fish into a feeding frenzy)…

Mayfly

On the lakes of Emberton, I saw the common Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis)…

Canada Goose

and the much rarer feral breeding population (amongst only around 1000 in the UK) of Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)…

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Goose 2

The river runs right past the impressive church of St Peter and St Paul…

Olney Church

In this churchyard is the grave of John Newton (1725-1807)…

John Newton

John Newton started life as a sailor. He was involved in the slave trade and was even enslaved himself for a short period. On his grave stone it says he was originally “an infidel and a libertine”. He had a damascene conversion to Christianity whilst on a ship in a storm.

Eventually, he joined the clergy, renounced his former wicked ways and became a prominent campaigner against slavery. He was pastor of the church and wrote some famous poems and hymns whilst reflecting on his former life and looking out at the countryside of the Great Ouse. By far his most famous hymn is ‘Amazing Grace’ which is believed to be played/sung around 10 million times a year!

The Fordwich Trout

I took these photos yesterday in a sleepy town (Britain’s smallest) called Fordwich in Kent. The famous river Stour here is supposedly home to a legendary creature, the Fordwich Trout.

There is also in Kent, near to Canterbury, a trout called there a Fordidge Trout, a trout that bears the name of the town where it is usually caught, that is accounted the rarest of fish; many of them near the bigness of salmon, but known by their different colour; and in their best season they cut very white…” – Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler, 1653

Many an angler has sought to catch such a specimen…

Two of us trekked yesterday at water’s edge through meadow and bluebell wood in search for a trout so large that apparently only one of its kind has been landed with rod and line in decades…

We were also tempted by a carp lake…

But in the end, we succumbed to the lure and hook of Kentish ale in a local pub instead and so the Fordwich Trout legend remains intact and untouched.