Eight days with Eight Blokes

In September 2015 I joined a bunch of top birders on a trip to Fair Isle. There were eight of them and me.

‘I cannot think of anything worse’ is what my daughter said.

Needless to say, I had a fabulous time and so, I believe, did they!

Below is a selection of photos from the trip.

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Overnight ferry to ShetlandDSCF0505

My flight onto Fair Isle was a day later than the rest of the team. I spent a very comfortable night with  Rebecca Nason at her B&B in down town Lerwick. Rebecca is an extraordinary photographer and naturalist. I loved her house, brimming with fine things including a delightful collection of bird bones and bills!

Sumburgh, Shetland

Sumburgh Head

Fair Isle, Church of Scotland

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View of Sheep Rock from Bu Ness

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Heligoland trap

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Bu Ness, whale tale.

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Hunting for petrified fish having dipped on the Thick Billed Warbler found at Quendale the evening before. This rarity pulled all the local birders and  left an audience of may be 4, plus the 8 of us for the Shetland bird club talk that 2 of our team were due give.

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The bird of the trip was Yellow-browed Warbler. On 21 September 53 birds were seen and 12 were ringed. These birds, weighing just 5g, are likely to have travelled from the Urals, 3-3.5,000 miles away, to winter in Britain.

Fair Isle’s roads are lined with Angelica, a kind of wild celery. Their flowers are host to numerous insects that Yellow-browed warbler’s find utterly irresistible after their long flight. The photo below was taken by Andy Mason.

Yellow-browed Warbler (1 of 26)

 

Alpujarras in February

Another quick jaunt, this time to southern Spain and the Alpujarras, made famous, in part, by the books of Chris Stewart. This corner of Spain is quite different to the open plains of Extremadura where birds, and particularly birds of prey, abound. In the Alpujarras, it is rare to see these wild beasts. They are are shot from the sky and smaller birds are caught in nets. But we did not go to the Alpujarras for birds. This trip was focussed on three mountain walks, a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, and another to the Picasso Museum in Malaga, all packed into 6 days including the travelling days. Alpujarras SpainFirst evening, a short walk into the almond groves.Alpujarras SpainFirst morning, in Lanjeron, looking for Panaderia Jiménez – the baker.

Alpujarras SpainThe empty main street of Lanjeron

Walk 1: Acequias del Poqueira.

Alpujarras SpainChimneys on the roof tops of Capilerira

Having found the baker and spent a bit too long enjoying breakfast in the rising sun, we were too late in the day to get the full way around this 17km circular walk. Had we driven as far as the disused hydro station, a few km above the village, we might have done it. As it happens, the lower section of the path was particularly beautiful. The highlights of this walk were the distant snowy peaks coming in and out of view, the steep terraces hosting goats and cattle across the valley, the bubbling acequias (aqua-ducts) and a herd of curious Ibex.Alpujarras SpainAlpujarras Spain

Alpujarras SpainCampileria

En route down the incredible twisting road back to Lanjeron, we stopped briefly to look back up to the village of Campileria, visible just above the sun-lit wintery branches, mirroring the snow on the mountains above.Alpujarras Spain

Walk 2:  Pueto Palo Loop

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This 13.5km valley walk passed through mixed forrest and then up and around a lovely mountain pasture following a beautifully maintained acequia. It was sufficiently warm for us to picnic on its bank and doze in the sun. The return part of the walk was down a wide forest road, easy walking. With time on our hands at the end of this walk we drove up to Trevelez, the highest village in mainland Spain at 1476m, and the home of Serrano Jamon. We arrived just as the sun was setting. It was very cold up there. We warmed up in a small cafe, muscling in on what appeared to be a family celebration. One of us was treated to the delights of Jamon Serrano, the speciality of the region. That same one, was sorely tempted to purchase a hind leg to bring home. The other, being a sensible type, pointed out that it might not fit in her carry-on bag.Alpujarras Spain

Walk 3: Albunuelas – Cruz Chiquita

Our third and final walk started in the village of Ablunuelas. This is a lovely village hugging the edge of a canyon. We struggled to find the start of the path and eventually an old women with whom we had quite a conversation, which neither side fully understood, insisted on accompanying us to the top of the village and send us on our way.

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Albunueslas

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Alhambra

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Alcazaba, Arms Square

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View of Granda from the Alcazaba Tower

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Sala de Dos Hermanas, exterior

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Looking up into the fine stucco work of the dome of the Sala de Dos Hermanas

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Patio de los leones

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Mirador de Daraxa

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Even if visiting off peak, it is important to purchase tickets in advance. Entrance to the Nazrid Palace is restricted. We arrived by 7am on February 19th having been told we could buy tickets on site. However, on that day we could only buy tickets to the garden and not to the Palace. Fortunately, we were able to buy tickets online. The early start was worth it just to have the place to ourselves. We spent a good 8 hours at the Palace. We had lunch and afternoon tea at the excellent Parador which lies in the heart of the complex.  Under no circumstances venture into the Guadelope Hotel for refreshments, even though it is close the main entrance. The coffee is appalling! We drove back to base via Orgiva and the very nice Teteria Baraka restaurant. By coincidence, this Moroccan restaurant is on the Guardian readers top 10 list for best restaurants in rural Spain!

On our final day we visited the Picasso Museum in Malaga. Based at the foot of the Malaga Alcazaba we took a circuitous root to get there, climbing the very steep path to the top and down again. From the top there are expansive views of the port and the Med and you can imagine of the north coast of Africa just beyond the horizon.

Perfect web site for walks: https://treksierranevada.com/walks/start-point/alpujarras

 

 

 

 

 

Extremadura ‘Phlog’

28 April to 2 May 2017

Early departure at 03:45 for a flight to Madrid from lovely Luton. Temperature on arrival a mere 3 degrees centigrade.  Extremadura boasts a wide variety of  habitat (Cork and Holm Oak forests (Dehesa), grass land, rivers, reservoirs, scrub, mountains) and low human population with the result that it supports a wealth of wild life.  Having some insider ‘birding gen’ certainly is critical for the hard-to-find species, but quite frankly,  it is amazing what a non-expert could spot along the quiet roads and byways without too much effort.  The land scape was sweeping and colourful with a back drop of the Sierra de Gredos mountains, snow capped and rising to 2,591 at Pico Almanzor.

We dropped bags at Villar de Plasencia, a maze of a village where we got quite disoriented. This became the norm in most of the villages we travelled through. The road map was hopelessly lacking in detail but made for some exciting driving on incredibly narrow and sometimes steep streets, watched by bemused residents.  We headed to Puerto de Tietar in Monfrague National Park and with patience were welcomed by a Spanish Imperial Eagle as well as Griffon Vultures, Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures.

The following morning the weather was poor. We explored the Embalse de Arrocampo-Almaraz where there are a number of hides, ideal to escape the worst of the rain. These however proved a mixed blessing – one had a door that would not open, one had a door that once opened, would not close, forcing us to sit in a howling gale. The last had no seating, so it was impossible to see out of the hatches. Fortunately the weather cleared and hiding no longer a necessity. We saw, black shouldered kite, little bittern, swamp hen and purple heron, Spoon Bill, amongst much else.

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Purple Heron, Swallows, Sand Martins and Swifts

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White Stork

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Cattle Egrets and Black Winged Stilts

We drove to Salto del Gitano and the Monfrague Castillo in the heart of the National Park. The sun now high in the sky, Griffon, Black Vultures and Black Kites cruised, drying their wings after the rain. Also a wonderful sighting of Black Storks, far less prevalent elsewhere than their white counterpart.

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Griffons

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Black Stork

We climbed the steps up to the castle and then up the tower. We followed the path down to the river. The walk made me realise that our planned hike up Breche de Roland later in the summer, was going to be more of a challenged than previously reckoned, cancer treatment through the winter having knocked me back.

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Serin

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Dehesa

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That evening we supped on fried Dorade at Villar Real de San Carlos.

The following morning we were up for the dawn and out looking for Western Orphean Warbler.  Alas it eluded us due to gale force winds and driving rain. Next stop Embalse de Talavan.

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Then on to Rio Almonte to seek nesting Alpine Swifts. After a while we realised we were at the wrong river crossing. Eventually we found the correct bridge but no Alpine Swifts. However, we did get a rare sighting of a lovely Golden Eagle.

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Old and new roads over the Rio Almonte

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The roads were so empty we could reliably stop bang in the middle

That evening we landed at Casa Rual El Recuerdo, just south of Trujillo, home of Martin Kelsey whose knowledge of the bird populations is unsurpassed. The following morning armed with Martin’s clear directions we went in pursuit of Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Rollers all of which we saw.

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Trujillo in the morning haze

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Corn Bunting

 

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Roller boxes on electricity pylons

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Scrub and grassland

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At sun down, we walked 2/3rds up one of the village lanes and perched ourselves on a sun-warmed stone wall. Holding our breath, we listened for a Red-necked Nightjar. The weather was perfect, warm and still. Insects, particularly moths, in abundance. And then we heard it – a car alarm. That’s it! The bird soared right over our heads, circled, and came back over. A world tick for Andy.

Up and out early on our final morning to seek out more Bustards. We got them. A gaggle of males, females all hidden away egg sitting.

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There’s a Cattle Egret in there somewhere!

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Great Bustard in the scope

Then we took a slow route back to Madrid crossing a great plain between Belen and Deleitosa where we came across a Vulture fest in full swing!

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Five Griffons crossing the road

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Griffon Vulture

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Black Vulture

Then on through Valdecanas de Tajo, Bee Eaters and Theckler Larks at close range.

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Bee-eater

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Thekla lark

A mad dash to the airport followed. No time to pick up petrol. Walked straight through on onto the plane, last on. Great trip!

Trip list

(All logged en route on BirdTrack – never leave home without this fabulous app!)

Ducks:
Mallard
Gadwall
Red-crested Pochard

Herons:
Grey Heron
Purple Heron
Great White Egret
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Glossy Ibis
White Stork
Black Stork
Spoonbill
Little Bittern
Night Heron
Cormorant

Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe

Great Bustard
Little Bustard

Red-legged Partridge
Quail

Moorhen
Coot
Purple Swamphen

Birds of Prey:
Griffon Vulture
Black Vulture
Egyptian Vulture

Black Kite
Red Kite
Black-shouldered Kite

Spanish Imperial Eagle
Golden Eagle
Booted Eagle
Short-toed Eagle
Buzzard
Marsh Harrier
Montagu’s Harrier
Kestrel
Lesser Kestrel

Waders:
Black-winged Stilt
Little Ringed Plover
Common Sandpiper (dog place)
Lapwing
Stone Curlew (opposite side of road to track to first bustards, under trees)

Pin-tailed Sandgrouse
Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Common Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Black-headed Gull

Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Turtle Dove

Little owl
Red-necked Nightjar

Swift
Pallid Swift

Near passerine (perching birds)
Bee-eater
Roller
Hoopoe
Cuckoo
Great Spotted Cuckoo

Passerines:
Swallow
House Martin
Crag Martin
Red-rumped Swallow
Sand Martin

Calandra Lark
Thekla Lark
Short-toed Lark
Crested Lark

Wren
White Wagtail
Tawny Pipit

Corvids:
Azure-winged Magpie
Magpie
Jay
Jackdaw
Raven

Golden Oriole

Sardinian Warbler
Subalpine Warbler
Blackcap
Great Reed Warbler
Reed Warbler
Zitting Cisticola
Cetti’s Warbler

Blue Rock Thrush
Blackbird
Wheatear
Black Redstart
Song Thrush
Spotless Starling
Nightingale

Corn Bunting
Cirl Bunting

Finches:

Chaffinch
Goldfinch
Greenfinch
Linnet
Serin

Rock Sparrow
House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow

Green Woodpecker

Life behind a camera

Something my sister said last weekend got my goat.  We were hosting a combined celebration, our mothers 80th birthday and our father’s memorial. We were talking about our parental legacy. Amongst other things, the list included home made meringues, mayonnaise, marmalade and strawberry jam, long distance walking and, here we go, photography.

First camera

I got my first camera in 1972 for my eighth birthday. To my shame, I cannot recall what make it was, but my father picked it up second hand from a shop on Tottenham Court Road. It had a fixed lens and came in a leather case that had a lovely smell. I still have the black and white prints somewhere. I am intrigued to find them and see what caught my 8 year old eye.

That first camera was relatively short lived; it broke. I don’t think I was irresponsible with it. It was an old apparatus and my father was cautious not buy a more expensive piece of kit that I might lose interest in. However, I did not and it was quickly replaced. He next got me a second hand AGFA Silette, which had an orange shooting button. With this camera I moved to colour. It came with me  on a family trip to my mothers birthplace in Madagascar, in 1976 (note to self – scan the prints!)

First SLR

When I was 16 my father took my sister and I to Tecno’s on Tottenham Court Road and bought us both AV1s, semi automatics. He had been invited to attend a scientific conference in Hawaii. He planned to take us with him and walk Kalalau Cliff path. For that we needed cameras (note to self, find these shots). She got a zoom, I got a 50mm and a couple of years later, a 24mm.

The 24mm was a particularly special present. I had been sailing on the fated square riggers, Marques and Inca. We were due to sail through Tower Bridge at the beginning of a circumnavigation of the British Isles and my father had planned to cycle over to see me before we set sail.

Time and tide wait for no man and this unfortunately was the case that day. We were already mid Thames by the time my father arrived and our chance of a farewell or bon voyage was dashed. What I did not know was that he was carrying the gift of a wide angle lens. Having missed the boat, he packaged it up and sent it to me  c/o The Harbour Master, Portsmouth. We docked there a few days later and the parcel was duly delivered.

Below is a selection of photos I took on that voyage. I used Kodak slide film and enlarged and printed (using Cibachrome) in the down stairs loo at home which doubled as a dark room.

It took a little while but I got quite used to being aloft. We did not use harnesses. One of my tasks was to paint the button, the very top most part of the mast, without spilling a drop. It was another kind of recklessness that destroyed the dream that these boats engendered. The sad story of the demise of these two extraordinary vessels can be found in Tall Ships Down, The last Voyages of the Pamir, Albatross, Marques, Pride of Baltimore, and Maria Asumpta by Daniel Sargent Parrott.

Square rigger 17

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040 copy

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Square rigger 20

 

A violin maker’s studio

When I was a kid I wanted to become a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments). I loved the idea of working with wood and transforming it into something beautiful, tactile and functional. I put this somewhat romantic idea down when I passed A levels in science and opted for a degree in biochemistry. Many years down the line, 1999 ish, I attended yoga classes in Cambridge. No one ever talked to each other at these classes; we just arrived focussed on the breathing, stretching and  strengthening exercises and then buggered off to the mayhem of home.

Impulse 

One day the teacher announced she was leaving and by way of farewell we took her out for a drink. I found myself sitting opposite Jonathan Woolston, a luthier. A few weeks later I went to visit him at his family home. A table tennis table occupied the greater part of his back room and on it, on its side, was a violin. ‘That one’s for sale’ Jonathan jokingly said as I picked it up. ‘You just sold it!’ I responded, astonishing myself as much as him. That was the biggest impulse purchase I have ever made, but my god was it was a good one. My children were still small; I had no idea whether either would have an interest in music let alone play the violin.  I was a cellist! But now I was also the proud owner of Jonathan’s 5th violin. He had made it 20 years earlier but had left it ‘in the white’ unvarnished, as his mother had liked it that way. He had given the instrument to her and it had hung on her wall for many years and had only recently made its way back to him, to finish, after she  had died.

Lord Wilton

In time I took up the violin myself. By now, my son Fabian, was playing and he quickly progressed to the full sized Woolston instrument which we had to share. In 2010, I found myself between jobs and so for 6 months I played intensively. By the time summer arrived, I decided I needed an instrument of my own. My father suggested that I sell a pair of leather bound horn duet manuscripts that I had inherited from my grandmother, and use the proceeds to purchase another violin.  Mine, like Fabian’s is a model of the Guarneri del Gesu ‘Lord Wilton’ made in Cremona in 1742. The original was owned and played by Yehudi Menhuin from 1978 until he died in 1999 when it was sold for a mere $6million. Fortunately, copies made today have a more affordable price tag.

Returning to its maker

Once in a while, I take my fiddle back to its maker. This tends to happen at the time of year when I put the heating on and again at the other end of the year, when I turn the heating off. It is at these times, with changes in temperature and humidity that the instrument needs the TLC that only Jonathan can supply. This year I went to see him at the beginning of April and I decided to bring a picnic lunch with me. This I purchased at the truly fabulous Alamin shop on Mill Road. I bought samosa’s, rice and a spinach curry, oranges and chocolates for afters. Quite a feast. After lunch, while Jonathan worked, I took some photos of his studio.

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Full circle 

In his penultimate year at school, my son had to undertake an ‘extended’ project. Being a practical and creative lad, he decided he wanted to make a violin. Jonathan recommended that Fabian talk to Chris Beament, who runs the Cambridge Violin Workshop, located a few minutes away from Fabian’s VIth form college. Just over a year later, Fabian completed his first violin, and the price tag? It’s priceless needless to say!  IMG_5825