A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge

Birthday bashes

My mother-in-law, Margaret, and I recently shared a joint 120th birthday party: we both hit zeroes within the same month, and of course we didn’t want to make it too obvious exactly which ones… but since Margaret wouldn’t want it to be thought she was 80, and I’d hate people to think I was 60, the disguise is a bit thin, to say the least.

On my actual birthday a few guys came down from Cheltenham. I was keen to honour those friends who’d been there in the tough times, so this was a good opportunity.

John and Dave came down at lunchtime so we went birdwatching in the afternoon. The weather was cold, grey and damp – unlike the previous day when I’d seen the ferruginous duck, which unfortunately was now no longer in evidence.

However, we were in a good position for seeing the starlings arriving for the evening. I had rather low expectations, with the grey weather almost guaranteeing that they would dive straight into the reedbed, which is exactly what it did – though seeing enormous flocks of starlings all flying into the small same patch, many going directly overhead, was still impressive.

They’d almost completely settled, with the last ones having drifted in so that we were about to leave, when, for reasons that can only make sense in the minds of starlings, they all decided that they didn’t like the reedbed on the north side of the track, and headed to the one just south of the track, about 20 metres away. For about five minutes, in the gathering gloom, they put on a full murmuration very close to where we were stood.

The starlings’ birthday murmuration at Ham Wall (1)

The starlings’ birthday murmuration at Ham Wall (2)

Afterwards we went to a wonderful Indian restaurant in Taunton called “Guddi and Gikki”, where we met up with Dave and Carolyn Kania, and Dave Slight. Whereas in most Indian restaurants you receive a menu with about two hundred choices, this one provides you with an A5 sheet of paper containing three choices. They pride themselves on doing Punjabi home cooking, and the hostess (‘waitress’ would do her an injustice!) sets the tone with a warm, friendly manner, as if she were welcoming friends into her home.

Birthday curry at Guddi and Gikki: Carolyn Kania, Dave Slight, Jen, me, John Linney, Dave Doughty and Dave Kania.

For the 120th, we had a large family gathering with my mum coming from Cheltenham, and Jen’s family from various parts of Warwickshire and Devon. We were generously catered for by Elaine Ellis in Catcott. Unfortunately none of us did a good job on recording the occasion photographically, apart from some entertainment on the swingseat.

How many kids can you pack on a swing seat? Mary, Katie, Natasha, Austin, George, Sophie and Andrew (who built it in the first place).

Jen’s looking slightly alarmed, which Sophie finds funny…

Somehow the birthday girl managed to avoid the camera. You won’t be able to get away with it next time, Margaret!

Some Cornish refreshment in Polruan

Jen and I have just come back from a much-needed few days of rest and refreshment in Cornwall. We were able to stay in Polruan thanks to our friends Rico and Lucy, who have a house there.

Not too bad a view from the bedroom window!!

Polruan is a very picturesque large village at the mouth of the river Fowey, directly opposite the town of Fowey, to which it is connected by regular ferry trips throughout the day.

Fowey from Polruan Harbour

We were extremely fortunate with the weather – hardly any rain, and even a cloudless sky on the Friday. We took advantage of this by going on several coastal walks. Two of these were east of Polruan: one to Lantic Bay and the other from there for another couple of miles. The third was from Fowey round to the headland named ‘The Gribbin’, and which gave some stunning views back towards the Fowey river mouth. We also did the ‘Hall Walk’, which is a 4-mile loop around Polruan, Fowey, and the lower parts of the river, and also involves two ferry crossings! Most of these walks we were able to do straight from the front door.

Lantic Bay, a couple of miles east of Polruan

Polruan harbour, viewed from the path going west towards the Gribbin.

On Sunday we went to the church in Fowey, and we were impressed by the warm welcome and the commitment to the faithful teaching of scripture. We met and chatted with a lady called Anne, who then invited us to join her and her husband Dick at the local sailing club for lunch. This was an unexpected and very enjoyable occasion!

Boatyard at Polruan

From the house, we could see a boatyard which was in active operation throughout the working day. One of the people we met at the sailing club happens to be the owner of the boatyard. The orange boat above (and you can tell that I’m really into precise sailing lingo!) is being built from scratch and is nearly complete, while the blue boat, which is from St. Martin’s in the Scillies, is one that they built twenty years ago, and is now being refurbished. Tourism may be the main part of the economy, but there is clearly more to the area than just that.


The fudge duck at Ham Wall

Seeing a ferruginous duck at Ham Wall brought back memories from when I was about 8 on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a distinctively-coloured duck which normally lives in south-eastern Europe, but a handful come to the UK each year.

Dad had previously been very excited to see a black-throated diver, which didn’t interest me at all. But a bit later he was also thrilled to see a Ferruginous Duck – pointing out to me the unusual colouring. For some reason that did catch my interest, and the event has stayed in my mind since then.

I’ve wanted to see another one ever since – and dipped ignominiously a few years ago (apparently a female was in full view but I hadn’t recognised it). Thus when a drake showed up a couple of days ago at Ham Wall, I had to go.

Ferruginous Duck with coot and female mallard

I arrived in the hide at about 10.30 to find an array of birders already there. It was all quiet. One guy smiled and pointed into his telescope – and there it was, in full view. He also showed me where to view with my binoculars, and I was able to watch it for about an hour. With its colour it’s not hard to see why it’s called ‘ferruginous’ – the white tail end is also very characteristic.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck with gadwall

On my way back towards the car I stopped off at the first viewing platform as there were plenty of birds to see. The unexpected bonus was to see the glossy ibis: it’s been at Ham Wall for a couple of years but although I’d seen it several times, I’d never had as good views as I had today. The lighting was reasonably good and the photos below capture something of their iridescence – which leads to their ‘glossy’ name.

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

An obliging woodpecker – and the day I took Jen on a twitch…

There’s a green woodpecker that turns up on the back lawn at the Vicarage occasionally, and yesterday afternoon it appeared again. Because of the slightly odd construction of the covered area between the kitchen and garage, there’s a convenient half fence that allows me to photograph birds in the garden unnoticed. I used that for the woodpecker, as it bounced around the lawn energetically. Unfortunately it was soon heading exactly in the right line for my cover to no longer work, so that the moment it caught sight of me it flew off agitatedly. Nevertheless I secured a couple of reasonable snaps…

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

Green woodpecker at Shapwick Vicarage

One of the local specialities is the number of bearded tits which frequent the nature reserves: dozens of pairs nested at Ham Wall this year. They are notoriously rather elusive, and until last month I hadn’t had a good sighting of one. However, elusiveness does not equate to shyness – a point I hadn’t realised until I was told about the boardwalk on the way to the Island Hide at Westhay. This is where seed is put out for them, which they eat in full view of the birdwatchers around.

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Bearded tits at Westhay Nature Reserve

Obviously a better photograph would be to catch one in a more natural environment – but as this was my first proper sighting of them, I’m content for the time being!

Meanwhile, last month a mega rarity showed up in South Wales, near Abergavenny – in the quarries around Pwll Du. This was a common rock thrush, a bird which breeds on rocky mountain slopes in southern Europe, but should winter south of the Sahara. Why an adult male should head in the opposite direction is something of a mystery. I persuaded Jen that a cold, grey, drizzly day wouldn’t dampen the excitement of seeing such a rare bird – or at least, I persuaded Jen to tolerate my enthusiasm on the matter! We arrived the day after the bird first showed up: over the next few weeks it became bolder and more amenable to photography, but while we were there it was fairly distant even while clearly visible. I did at least manage a few decent record shots!

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

Common rock thrush, Pwll Du

There’s a nice account of John Marsh’s discovery of the bird here – he’d actually been looking for ring ouzels when he stumbled across it. Unfortunately the bird disappeared a few days ago – I say ‘unfortunately’ because the weather is turning cold, and the bird’s capacity to be sensible and go south rather than north seems a bit limited.

After spending an hour or so admiring the rock thrush and wishing it had got closer, we decided to go for a walk up one of the nearby hills. We chose Blorenge, the hill that overlooks Abergavenny: it is next to Pwll Du and was walkable within the time available. It was cold and damp, shrouded in fog and boggy on the top – but we enjoyed it!

Looking a bit damp on the top of Blorenge

Seeing mammoths and woolly rhinos

One of the highlights of our time in France was seeing some of the Ice Age cave art. Dating from about fifteen thousand years ago, it provides a fascinating but tantalising glimpse of the humans who were around at the time. They evidently had an intellectual capacity similar to humans today – but the exact purpose of their art remains just beyond reach, provoking many questions but few answers.

Some years ago, I’d read a book about Lascaux, a cave art complex which is sometimes called the Sistine chapel of prehistory. It is now closed to the public because of human-induced damage to the art. I didn’t realise that there were other examples of cave art that were still accessible. When I saw that Lot is close to some of the best examples, I was keen for us to go.

We went to two of the caves. One was to Pech-Merle, about an hour and a half south of Gramat (where we were staying), which has art from what appears to be two different eras. The oldest of these features a stylised painting of two horses, around which are stencilled human hands: these have been carbon-dated to about 29,000 years ago. Elsewhere there are a large number of outlines of other animals, which appear to be from a later era (possibly 15,000 years ago), including mammoths, bison and horses.

The painting of the horses in Pech-Merle cave, dating to 29,000 years ago. Picture credit: http://www.pechmerle.com

The other cave we went to visit was Rouffignac. This is near to the town of Les Eyzies, located in the Vezere valley (a hotbed of prehistoric art because there are so many examples in the region). The art within Rouffignac is extraordinary for many reasons – not least the remarkable detail and accuracy of the drawings of the animals that the artists saw in the world around them. There are over 150 woolly mammoths represented – over two-thirds of all of the art in the cave – as well as horses, bison, and ibexes. There are also ten woolly rhinos, which are comparatively rare elsewhere.

The three woolly rhinos in the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The ten-mammoths freize at the Rouffignac cave. Photo from http://donsmaps.com/rouffignac.html

The most stunning feature of the cave is the Great Ceiling, with 66 animals, many drawn in great detail (exemplified below).

Ice age art in the Rouffignac cave: mammoths and ibex. (Public domain image from Wikipedia)

The art provokes many questions: for example, why did they produce this art in deep caves, which do not reveal the evidence of human habitation that in other caves is abundant? This lack of human detritus enhances the sense of the specialness of the art for the communities that produced it.

The Great Ceiling at Rouffignac was produced when the floor level was only a meter from the ceiling (it has only recently been lowered for the sake of modern public viewing) – so at the time it would have been notably inaccessible. Thus, it wasn’t an Ice Age art gallery. There seems to be widespread agreement that there was deep spiritual significance to the art – but exactly what that significance was is again obscure.

Some other reflections that struck me:

  • The atmosphere of cave art is remarkably peaceful: this is particularly evident in Rouffignac. There is little evidence of conflict with humans or between the animals themselves: however much humans may have hunted animals at that time, there is little evidence of it here.
  • There is a curious lack of correlation between the animals being painted and those that show up in the remains of contemporary habitation. Thus, of the animal bones found in human shelters, the biggest proportion belong to reindeer and other mammals of a similar size – mammoths and rhinos feature to a much lesser extent.
  • There are remarkably few representations of humans, and those that are there are notably incomplete. Given the artistic abilities clearly present, the lack of similarly complete humans in art may suggest some form of taboo.

One reason I find this cave art intriguing is because it suggests that spirituality is a deeply-rooted characteristic of being human. However, much as I would like to press the evidence further to know what that actually looked like and how it was expressed, the glimpse we have provides a tantalisingly incomplete picture.

My other reason for fascination with the art is the light that it sheds on the wildlife of southern Europe during the Ice Ages. The woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos became extinct around the end of the last Ice Age – but these works of art were produced by humans who saw them with their own eyes.

Mammoth remains are relatively common in the fossil record – their huge size meaning that they are less vulnerable to decay than those of smaller animals. Occasionally, complete corpses appear in the melting permafrost of Siberia (such as Lyuba, the baby woolly mammoth found on the banks of the Yuribei river). They were the dominant mammal species of a type of steppe ecosystem which they themselves helped to shape, but has no equivalent today: perhaps unsurprisingly it’s now called the mammoth steppe. It was a grassland rich in flowering parts, and had few trees – partly because young trees would have been uprooted and eaten by the mammoths. This is the vegetation type that would have prevailed around the caves at Pech-Merle and Rouffignac.

The National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies contains, amongst many other remains from the era, a cast of a woolly rhino found in a tar pit at Starunia in Poland in 1929. It’s much older than the animals depicted in Rouffignac, but remains like this generally attest to the overall accuracy of the artwork – although not in every detail. For example, while the large humped shoulders are confirmed, the legs in the paintings are shorter than in the fossils. However I do wonder whether there was just one form of woolly rhino, or whether there was some geographical and chronological variation, to which the cave art is actually evidence.

Cast of a woolly rhino discovered in a tar pit in Poland in 1929

I took a bit less interest in the pictures of horses at Rouffignac – after all, we have horses today – but in so doing I missed spotting a detail which is significant. The forms shown are much closer to the wild horses of Mongolia (the Przewalski’s horse) than to our modern domesticated varieties.

The Ice Age cave art is a wonderful testimony to the life of the people living in Ice Age Europe, and of the wildlife they shared it with. Yet it also teases us with so many unanswered questions! What does seem clear, though, is that they were a deeply spiritual people. Their life and art reminds us that part of being human is to be spiritual.

I’ve been helped in my reflections by Christine Desdemaines-Hugon’s book, “Stepping Stones”. Also, “Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age” by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, was a valuable resource.  

Miles from Texas in Shapwick

It was halfway through Miles Pike‘s concert when I thought, “how on earth did we manage to get a singer this good here in Shapwick Church? For his first ever concert in the UK?!”

In practical terms it happened the following way. Some years ago, the pastor of Harvest Church in Street, Dylan Thomas, went to the Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, Tennessee where he met Miles for the first time, discovering that he was a very gifted singer with an unusually wide vocal range. It was Dylan who invited him over here to do a tour in the UK. Nigel Steady (whose wife Rowena leads our music group Polden Praise) realised that there was an opportunity for an event in Shapwick church, and set about organising it.

Shapwick Church was full for the Miles Pike concert

Miles sang a range of songs from traditional hymns, through modern worship songs, to some that he himself had written. The one which has stiuck in my mind the most was the finale, called “The Son Of A Carpenter”, which was a powerful and moving story from the perspective of the man who became the thief on the cross, who recognise that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. This was a wonderful composition that was truly the climax of an exceptional night in Shapwick Church.

Miles singing in Shapwick Church

As well as singing, Miles also spoke about the nature of the gospel and of Christianity. He managed to combine winsomeness with directness, which is something which is done all too rarely: I felt that this sprang out of the depth of his own personal faith which meant he was authentic in what he was saying.

Miles & Martha, with Rowena and Nigel Steady, Jan Jones, Jen, and Martha’s mum Jill.

As he’d appeared at cafe church in the morning, Jen and I had the prviliege of hosting him and his wife Martha for lunch. They are a lovely couple and very easy to chat with. It was great to hear how they had first met at music school: for Miles it was love at first sight, followed by four years of enabling Martha to recognise that they were meant to be together! A couple of days later we were invited round to Dylan and Liz’s house (unfortunately Jen missed out as she was in London), where Miles cooked a great chilli con carne followed by a traditional poundcake.

Miles & Martha at Dylan & Liz’s house (with Adam Smith on guitar)

They are off to Sweden for a few days and back in the UK for some more concerts in the area from the 22nd to the 24th of September, and I’d highly recommend anyone with the opportunity to go to do so. You won’t be disappointed!

Miles Pike’s website is here: https://www.milespikemusic.com/home