27 May 2016

RSPB Symonds Yat & The Forest of Dean

If you go down to the woods today...

....You just might see a Goshawk! But you will be lucky, as they aren't common, they can fly through dense forest, rather than over it, and they don't really like posing for photographs.  

However the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, is said to have the highest concentration of these elusive birds in England, and these hopeful birders, above, are keeping their eyes peeled from the old slag heap now known as New Fancy.  

The old slag heap, is a link to the industrial past, as the forest has provided coal, iron and other minerals over the centuries, with a tradition of there being freeminers whose rights were granted by Edward I in return for support in his campaign against the Scots.

There is not much industry left, but there are still freeminers, and not that many years ago I took my daughters into the dark of one of the still extant mines, guided by the miner himself.

The past is still with us, and I return from a walk to find that my car has regressed....

But that's the magic of the woods..... The Forest of Dean is bounded on the north and West by the River Wye

And falls away towards the Severn Estuary to the South and East.  The forest was also once a hunting ground for Saxon and then Norman kings and, covering about 45 square miles, it is one of the largest areas of ancient woodlands in England.

The ruins of Tintern Abbey, which stand just by the Wye, inspired William Wordsworth, on his second visit, to write Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.....

For I have learned 

To look on nature, not as in the hour 

Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes 

The still sad music of humanity, 

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power 

To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime 
Of something far more deeply interfused, 
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean and the living air, 
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man......

Wordsworth's influence may even have launched British tourism, educating travellers that there was no need to go on The Grand Tour, when there were such sights as this within our isles.

But I digress.  My main reason for revisiting the area is to stand on Symonds Yat Rock for a week, as a volunteer with the RSPB, watching nesting Peregrine Falcons and chatting with others who have come this way.

Although the Rock is on Forestry Commission land, the viewpoint has been regularly attended during the breeding season by the RSPB since the Peregrines returned in 1982.  

Peregrine Falcons are the fastest creatures in the natural world, with the most recent reported highest speed of over 200 mph in steep power dives (stoops) when hunting their aerial prey.  They live on all continents except Antarctica, and are no longer endangered, but the use of organochloride pesticides such as DDT in the 1950s indirectly led to a serious decline in numbers, with approximately 80% of the UK population being lost.  They were recorded in this area in the Domesday book, and have been continuously nesting on limestone cliffs over the Wye near Symonds Yat since 1982, after an absence of 30 years.

In 1983 a pair tried to breed here, but someone abseiled down the cliff face and stole their eggs, so the following year the RSPB mounted a round-the-clock watch on the site. Since 1986 a progression of pairs have bred here with an average of two fledglings surviving each year.

The RSPB now tries to have a representative on the Rock every day, pointing the birds out to visitors and sharing views through binoculars and telescopes.  It is still a respectable distance from the cliff, and without professional lenses it is very difficult to take portraits of the birds.  I managed the shot above from the meadows by the river below, where you can just make out the female falcon perched on a branch at the top of the cliff.  During my watch I saw them flying and on one occasion the Tiercel (male) flew in a leisurely way pasts me above the river.  Through binoculars I saw him looking at me, an expression on his beak as if to say I know you haven't got your camera ready!

I also regularly saw a pair of Buzzards circling effortlessly over the meadows, 

and watched a Goshawk hunting over the river valley to the north before disappearing into a stretch of pine wood.  Remarkably there was also a Canada Goose nesting in a hole in the cliffs at the same height as the Peregrines.  During my week there was much speculation about how the goslings would fare when the time came to take a leap.  Since they would have to drop well over a hundred feet and then have to make their way through the woods and undergrowth, evading predators like foxes before reaching the river, it seemed unlikely that the choice of nest hole was ideal.  However, the day I left I noted mother goose standing on the edge of the nest hole giving her busy little goslings a pep talk.  And then, suddenly, they were gone.  A minute later and there was a great deal of honking in the woods below.  For ten minutes or so this continued before silence fell, and the woods were quiet. Then, a few minutes later, I witnessed an adult Canada Goose sail across the river with five goslings and another adult in line astern. The rest of the afternoon was spent with one adult in the water, one on the shore and five little balls of fluff playing on the beach and in the shallows!

Peregrines are now doing well in this country, and have adapted to city life, with many nesting on Cathedral Towers and other tall buildings, profiting from street lighting which enables them to hunt later and earlier than in the countryside. There are reckoned to be 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK now, and I have heard that at least seven of these are living in London.

But these are not the only birds to be seen at Symonds Yat.  In between spying on the Peregrine nest, I watched Nuthatches:

Marsh Tits:

Coal Tits:



and, annoyingly, Grey Squirrels.

The RSPB has two reserves in the area, one at Highnam Woods in the Severn vale, where Nightingales breed, and the other at Nagshead, at Parkend, where Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts live.  Tree nesting Mandarin Ducks are also seen here, 

And the woods are beautiful with bluebells at this time of year.

The forest is full of colour, and life, and is a wonderful natural environment to explore:

Whether you choose to wander:

Or to rest awhile near the river, with a pint of local cider:

After which an ordinary sunset can become a thing of rare beauty!

Who killed the bears?

20 May 2016

New South Wales and Queensland, Australia: Flora and Fauna


"The time has come," the Walrus said,

"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax-- 
Of cabbages--and kings--  
And why the sea is boiling hot-- 
And whether pigs have wings."

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Certain ideas fix themselves in the mind, but where do they come from? I have just returned from Australia, where crocodiles and snakes and other scary things, wallowing in mangrove swamps and along undiscovered bournes, have been part of my expectations since I cannot remember when.....  But then, having got back home, I am reminded of another Australia, which I first learned about in this letter from my Uncle Robert in 1955.....

This was written on the reverse of two evening menus from the Peninsular and Oriental Steamer SS Strathmore that Robert was travelling on, to Australia....

Here is this second page, in full:

And here are those Rainbow Lorikeets as seen on an evening tree on my trip.....

All of this is part of my memorabilia and a reminder that all those years ago my Uncle Robert lived in Australia, fishing and building boats. I don't know much more than that, though I believe he was on the East Coast, perhaps near Cairns; but it could have been Perth.....  He is no longer around to ask.  I had almost forgotten these cards, but now it brings back the exotic nature of travel, then, and the colourful glories of the natural world.

So here, with a sideways glance at Lewis Carroll and the pinch-yourself fantasy of the world of magic, is a sample of some of Eastern Australia's flora and fauna that I saw on our recent trip......

This Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was enjoying a snack in Sydney's Botanical Garden....  They are noisy, busy birds, that don't worry too much about people.

While this one was resting in a palm tree on Hamilton Island....

Another common fearless bird is the Kookaburra, sometimes called the Laughing Kookaburra as its call resembles laughter.  It is a member of the Kingfisher family, though it is not really associated with water.

The Australian White Ibis has adapted to city life, and is not the most beautiful of birds when scavenging in streets, though in flight it is impressive.....

Its relative, the Straw-necked Ibis, is also known as the Farmers' Friend, after its enjoyment of insect pests.  

Another big-billed bird is the Pelican, seen here on the Hawkesbury River....

And yet another bird that fishes is the Australian Pied Cormorant, this one on the Daintree river....

Also on the Daintree river I saw this Great Egret

While I saw this Little Egret on Green Island, off Cairns....

The same island was crowded with Common Noddies, perching awkwardly in beachside trees and then swarming across the surface of the sea, before circling back and squabbling for resting places....  Not easy to perch with webbed feet!

I caught this Australasian Yellow Figbird fluting at the top of a tree in Daintree Village.  I heard it first, a strong, mellow call, reminiscent of the Golden Orioles I have seen in Tuscany. No surprise then to find that Figbirds are  Orioles, with characteristic yellows and greens - but quite a striking red mask!

I was also reminded of Italy when I identified Rainbow Bee-Eaters, relatives of which flock through Europe to and from Africa on their migrations. Also strikingly masked, this picture made me think that perhaps it was a Beef-eater, or was at least contemplating the added consonant?

And interesting head-gear marks out this Masked Lapwing, which is also known as the Spur-winged Plover, because of the sharp spurs protruding from its wings. The yellow mask is actually a wattle, which hangs down by its chin.  It is a relatively shy bird most of the time, but likes gardens, golf courses and airports, and can be very aggressive during the breeding season, with harsh calls and alarming swooping behaviour.....

The day Prince died, I saw this Purple Swamphen in Centennial Park, Sydney, tempting me to believe in reincarnation....

On the other hand this Australian Magpie seemed to be perfectly adjusted as a bird, making a living picking up crumbs under restaurant tables in the Whitsunday islands.....

Honeyeaters belong to a large family of attractive birds in Australia, but I am afraid I was at a loss to definitively identify this one in our friends' garden near Gordonvale; I think it's Yellow-spotted, but may well be wrong....

And then there are the delightful Olive-Backed Sunbirds, a bit like a honey-eater, but in a family with the spider-eater instead.....

During our trip I listed sightings of over 50 different birds, but, travelling light, and not carrying a high-spec telephoto lens, it wasn't always easy to get good pics.  I saw a lot of hawks, eagles and kites too along the roads when driving, but would still be in Queensland if I had stopped to catch them all!

While it's a bit obvious, birds are not the only flying creatures in Australia. But foxes don't normally hang upside down in trees, do they?

And this Flying Fox (Fruit Bat) was not alone.... During the day, they just hang out, wrapped in their umbrella-like wings.  Then, come dusk, they invade the darkling sky in a kind of IMAX slow-mo bat dance, staggering drunkenly about the night sky wolfing up any fruit that shows signs of ripening....  Strange Fruit?

At the other end of the winged scale, there are lots of butterflies....  Not to mention biting and stinging insects....

Though mercifully there are lots of spiders to catch them, and so all is well....

Though these arachnids are not without their foes up the food chain....

So it is nice to take a step back and admire the world of plants for a moment.... Trees in particular can be very colourful; this Callistemon (Bottle Brush) tree known as Spikey Rose, for example:

But others are just very very old, and very very big....  Like these 1,100 year old twin Kauri Pines at Lake Barrine in the Atherton Tablelands.....

Others just seem to be showing off... Like this Cathedral Fig Tree in the rain forest near Yungaburra in Northern Queensland....

Ultimately, the best you can say is that 'Twas brillig.....  Our experience was exciting and extraordinary, as you might expect on the other side of the world. 'Twas brillig - that just sums it up.....  And I expect it was just so for my Uncle, though his life thus far had not been uneventful (born in India, schooled in England, joined the US army, didn't like that much, so went to Canada where I think he joined the Canadian Air Force, then, on demob, became a lumberjack, and then lit out for the unknown in the antipodes....  Or did I just make that up?)

Strange now to realise that this dinner was on my father's 32nd birthday, (not that he was there!)

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy! 

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!' 
He chortled in his joy.

[It is also a curiosity that the SS Strathmore bears the same name as a pub I sometimes visit not far from my home in Hertfordshire, so named because it was originally built in 1858 as a house for Charlotte Bowes-Lyon (Lady Glamis). The Strathmore Estate lies at the heart of the Vale of Strathmore in Angus, Scotland, and has been in the Lyon family since 1372, when Sir John Lyon was granted the Thaneage of Glamis by King Robert II.  

Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (4 August 1900 – 30 March 2002) was the wife of King George VI and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II.  She was Queen Consort of the United Kingdom from her husband's accession in 1936 until his death in 1952, after which she was known as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

Born into a family of British nobility as The Honourable Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, she became Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon when her father inherited the Scottish Earldom of Strathmore and Kinghorne in 1904.

Following the death of the Queen Mother, Danny Blackwell took over the pub..... But this really has nothing to do with the SS Strathmore, nor with anything else. It's just an excellent English pub.....]