UK 2019 Day 12: Part 1, Wells Cathedral

Posted October 5, 2019

Welcome back, my friends! Let’s get back on track with my adventures earlier this year in the United Kingdom. This update is longer than most, So I’ve broken it up in two.

May 20, 2019 

Our next stop was at the historic city (aren’t they all historic at this point?) of Wells [map]. The city is named for the upwelling of water from springs (probably similar to the source of Bath’s water features).

Welcome to Wells. There’s the old city gate, down the road.

It is also the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells – what’s known as a Cathedral – so of course we have a big church (though described as “moderately sized” by historians)!

Ornate church front with two stone towers.
The western facade of Well’s Cathedral was initially completed in the 14th century, though it has been updated as the centuries passed.

While it lacks the scaled down whimsy of Bath Abbey’s ascending angels, the saints and popes arrayed along the front are quite impressive and the stonework is beautiful.

Statues in decorated alcoves
These statues are well worn but impressive nonetheless, after 700 years.
Stone cathedral tower.
Early English Gothic splendour. This church is one of the few in England to be planned and built all in a single Gothic style.

Inside, the church is beautiful and spacious. Like most Gothic structures, it’s surprisingly airy. Even with somewhat dim light, it never felt oppressive or gloomy.

View along one of the cloister walkways. The stone tracery of the windows and the vaulting, while showing their age, are intricate and beautiful.

It might be hard to discern by the photos here, but this space is immense. The architects decided to leave the

Interior view of a llarge church nave with stained-glass windows at the far end.
The nave is 20 meters (67 feet) in height. I was a little surprised to learn that it is actually considered low, especially compared to large medieval churches in France.

Like most medieval construction, adaptations and changes had to be made as the structure was advanced. Some of this is just because of the simple fact that it took centuries to build these structures. Decades for just the basic functional layout, and then successive additions and adaptations to time and technology. One such engineering stand-out are inverse or “scissor” arches. They were added when the weight of the central tower started to cause the supports to start sinking. These arches redistributed the load and relieved the stress.

Gothic church interior with arches and a crucifix visible through the background.
One of the scissor arches that was innovated to save the structure in the 14th Century.

The cathedral also claims to have one of the oldest clocks in the world (although the internal mechanism was replaced in the 19th Century, it has it’s original face, and its time and other indicators were not interrupted). The face has a 24 hour dial and indicators for the phase of the Moon as well as the Moon’s age – or days since the last new moon. Above it is a miniature display of jousting knights that “perform” each hour.

Antique clockface with 24 hour indicators and moon phase display.
The original 14th Century clock face. I can say that, at least according to my smartphone, the time and moon phases were accurate.

The 13th Century chapter house was also impressive. Chapter houses were meeting rooms for church officials, and this one is still used for social events and other meetings from time to time.

The original stairs to the chapter house are worn down and smooth on the left side.
More impressive vaulting and tracery.

The scope and intricacies of the church are truly monumental, and I encourage you to check out more details at the Cathedral’s official website:

Wells Cathedral on a gorgeous Spring day.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace, home to the bishops of Wells for centuries (though these days, most of the palace is a museum and public space). Stay tuned for Part 2!


India Intermission 2019

September 4, 2019

Hi everyone. A brief interruption to my UK trip updates, if I may…

The end of August found me and my boss in India, of all places, to provide some software and process training. The approval and planning happened with relatively short notice just as our workload was increasing, so I wasn’t even thinking about the blog in the run up to the trip.

But in any case, here’s a selection of photos and the eBird lists for the week+ I spent in Bengaluru!

[Note to Tumblr followers: I realize the WP photomosaics don’t always work right. I’ll try to reformat and repost for you as soon as I can!]

August 25:

August 26 (not a good photo day):

Large black bird sitting on a rock.
Another Large-billed Crow.

August 27:

August 28:
Non-birding day

August 29:

August 30:

August 31:

The remainder of my time since coming home has been recovering from jet lag, getting over a head cold, and prepping and waiting out Hurricane Dorian.

I’ll get back to the UK recaps as soon as I can. Stay safe and see you later!

UK 2019 Day 11: Birding Day at Slimbridge Wetland Centre

Posted August 19, 2019

May 19, 2019

Since my planned birding day near Plymouth didn’t work out, I took Darren’s advice and checked out the Slimbridge Wetland Centre (also referred to as “Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust”) in Gloucestershire [map]. There’s a lot going at this remarkable place, but for birders (particularly out-of-country ones!) it was a bit confusing. The first part, near the visitor center, is a series of exhibits showcasing birds from around the world, including local birds! And although these birds are ostensibly “clipped” to keep them from flying free, I observed on a few occasions these birds making short flights that could carry them out of their “enclosure” habitats. I’ll post my eBird link after the photos (presented without commentary beyond captions), but take some of the duck and geese species with a grain of salt. I tried to weed out the “captive” species, but there may be a few of the ambiguous sightings that got left in.

Black and white duck with a dark purple head.
Tufted Ducks were not rare during our entire visit, but photo opportunities of this species were. This one was at the visitors’ centre, but should be representative of the many I did see out in the wild.
Small white gull with a dark brown head.
Black-headed Gulls are possibly the only – um – black headed gulls without black heads. It is actually a dark chocolate brown. I’ve seen this species as a vagrant in the USA, but this is a native, free-flying bird.
Mostly white duck (with some black on face and back).
The Smews at the visitors’ centre seemed captive, but a few of the birds flew to adjacent pools, so I listed these, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. I’ve not heard anything from the eBird reviewer on the matter. This one is a drake.
Grey duck with a white throat and russet head.
Female Smews are much different looking than the drakes (males).
White duck with a black back and greenish head, a brown headed duck behind it.
Common Goldeneyes are also seen in the USA, this pair were at the visitors’ centre, but I saw some flying out in the marshes later in the morning.
Mostly white duck (with black face and back) standing just behind a gray duck with white throat and russet head.
A Smew couple on land.
Large black bird with a gray face and bill.
Rooks are common enough around the UK, and the ones throughout the park were quite photogenic and accommodating.
A orange-red duck with a white head and black bill and tail.
Like some of the other duck species, Ruddy Shelducks were at the visitors’ centre pools (like this) and out in the wetlands, too.
Brown bird with cream belly perched on reeds.
Waterfowl dominated the visitors’ centre, but once out in the park and on the trails, there were more songbirds, like this Reed Warbler.
Small brown bird sining, perched atop twigs in a dead tree.
The tiny Eurasian Wrens made up for their size with loud, ringing voices. The song is reminiscent of Song Sparrows in North America. This caused me a deal of confusion throughout the trip.
Brown, black and white shorebird with 2 head streamers, walking on a mudflat.
Photos out over the marsh and meadows from some of the blinds were tough. This shot of a Northern Lapwing and many of the upcoming shots are heavily cropped.
Black and white wading bird with an up-swept bill.
One of about a dozen or so Pied Avocets feeding in the shallow water.
White wading bird with a spoon-shaped bill in front of tall marsh vegetation.
While not listed as particularly rare, this Eurasian Spoonbill seemed to be causing quite a stir among the other birders at the blind.
Small gray bird with a red-orange face and breast.
In the wooded area near one blind, I saw this one-legged European Robin. It seemed to be managing fine, but I wonder what happened.
Small turquoise bird with orange breast and belly and long bill.
At the next blind, it took some patience to wait for one of the Common Kingfishers to arrive back at its mud bank cavity nest site.
Large black bird with gray face and bill.
Another handsome Rook. This one was near some picnic tables, looking for an easy snack from the park patrons.
Close of of a black bird with gray face and bill.
A close-up of a Rook. It’s thought that the partially naked face is due to Rooks being opportunistic omnivores, not ones to pass up carrion. Like vultures, this avoids facial feathers being fouled by blood and such.
Black and white goose sitting among daisies.
Back at the visitors’ centre, this Barnacle Goose flew in and landed on the lawn to rest.
An adult swan keeps one eye on a nearby coot while watching its little gray cygnet swim along.
Many of the birds at the park (including the visitors’ centre) are breeding and had chicks, like this Mute Swan and its cygnet. This is one reason it is difficult to completely exclude the exhibit birds from lists. They are obviously breeding and some are flying about.

I’ve left off photos of some of the more exotic birds – like the Nene, a South American bird called a screamer (for good reason!), and some others that are clearly not UK or European birds. I may post them as bonus or extras in the future.

Here’s the somewhat confusing eBird list for the day. Ruth and Mrs. Lonely Birder came to pick me up after shopping in nearby Gloucester.

UK Day 10: Marazion and the Cornish Coast

Posted August 16, 2019

[Note: I realize it’s taking me some time to get through these posts. Please bear with me. It’s been a hectic summer]

May 18, 2019

Continuing our travels along the south coast of England, we drove back through Cornwall and to the ancient village of Marazion [map]. Off shore on the island of Saint Michael’s Mount is a castle and church that can be visited by foot during low tide. When the tide comes in, the causeway is submerged and the mount is only accessible by boat or amphibious vehicle.

Castle atop a wooded island off the coast, a beach in the foreground.
A view of Saint Michael’s Mount, looking at the harbor side.

The beach itself is quite flat, and when the tide is out one can wade quite far in places. A beach like this would be stacked with people, blankets, chairs, and fishing poles back home in Florida. Here, the beach was mainly empty, with people enjoying sea views from benches, restaurants, and shops from the village.

Rocks beyond a sandy beach at low tide.
You can see how wide the beach is, and the waters beyond were quite shallow.

The castle and chapel are impressive, even at a distance and I imagine the views commanded from this vantage-point are impressive. People do live and work on the island, and an order of monks is active at the chapel.

Close-up of a castle and chapel.
Part of the castle and the chapel atop Saint Michael’s Mount.

The main part of the island was gated and closed, which seems a shame as there are extensive gardens and a museum I would have liked to see. I hear the geology is unique and impressive as well. But it was a lovely diversion nonetheless, but we couldn’t stay long as the tide was about to come in, which threatened to strand us on the island (or at least have to hire a boat) as the causeway would be inundated.

Stone archway with a metal gate at the end of a low stone wall.
Access denied. Sorry to have to go, Saint Michael’s Mount…

Meanwhile, back on the beach…

Small metal sign bolted to a rock wall that says, "DO NOT FEED THE SEAGULLS THEY ARE DANGEROUS AND A HEALTH HAZARD"
Forewarned is forearmed?
Herring Gull standing on a rock.
Aw, this Herring Gull looks harmless!

We walked back to the beach and then into Marazion, and had lunch at a cafe that had some local fare, known as a pasty. Pasties are a pastry filled with meat and root vegetables. Traditionally, they were miners’ food. The thick crust around the edge serving as a handhold that wasn’t normally eaten since the miners’ hands might be contaminated by arsenic or other poisonous substances related to mining.

A pasty on a plate, waiting to be devoured!
Lovely pasty! (Thanks, Ruth, for the photo!)

From Marazion we worked our way west along the coast until we reached the ruins of the Botallack Mine, not far from the town of St. Just [map].

Three windmills in a filed beyond the hedgerows.
Windmills are perhaps the most visible sign of how the UK has moved away from coal generated power. While we were there, the country had just had of a couple of weeks were no coal at all was used!

This stretch of coast has to be one of the most dramatic and impressive sights we saw in our whole trip. The juxtaposition of the natural beauty of the rocky coast and dramatic cliffs with the many abandoned mining structures makes for a nearly unparalleled visual experience. Add in the roar of the waves on the rocks below and the wildflowers blooming, and you can imagine what an experience this was.

Stone ruins among rocky pastures.
The remains of the mining engine houses from the Botallack Mine.

As we approached the cliffs, a low fog was dispersing along the coast, which made the scene even more fantastical.

Rocky outcrop and cliffs over a misty ocean.
In ways, this landscape seemed a convergence of the sea cliffs we saw in Wales, the flowers and grass of Dartmoor, and the ruins of Minions. Very England.

Seabirds were circling below (Northern Fulmars, as it happens) as waves and foam churned on the rocks. We were only able to walk so far down along the cliffs due to trail closures for safety.

Stone ruins on a cliff, next to the ocean.
From these structures, miners actually tunneled under the seabed up to 1/2 a mile (800 meters) to get the valuable copper ore, even breaching the ocean, flooding the mines.
Churning waves and foam on rocks below, looking down an sea cliff.
It would be hard to find any safe harbor approaching this part of the north coast of Cornwall.

The scope and scale of the cliffs are hard to grasp from photos alone. They are hundreds of feet high, some with very narrow places to walk out on. The lingering fog helped confuse the distance cues a bit, but added to the drama.

Rough rocky coastline with mining ruins in the background.
Most of what we saw in the UK was spectacular and I’d trade none of it, but Cornwall definitely stole a bit of my heart.

We were very near both Penzance and Land’s End, but we stopped at neither. On a future visit I would like to spend more time in this part of England and take it all in, natural and human.

Rocky peninsula backdrop with cliff top in the foreground..
Darren says this is looking toward Sennan Cove, and Land’s End (beyond).

We spent some time marveling at the scenery before climbing back out, past the mining houses and the furnace ruins, looking up at smokestacks that seem to defy gravity and the elements.

More stone ruins and a tall stone smokestack on a cliff top, with two people (looking quite small) standing nearby.
Here’s more sense of scale: The two small vertical objects on the left are people standing on the cliff edge.

As we made our way back toward Bristol, we crossed into Plymouth by way of the Torpoint Ferry, rather than the bridge. It was fun.

A car ferry crossing the river.
Two boats run, one in each direction, and both were full. Photo thanks to Mrs. Lonely Birder.

Mrs. Lonely Birder and I got out of the car and went up on the deck and enjoyed some fresh air and a look at a few Royal Navy Ships. The ferries run on cables between both sides which is a safer, if more boring option for ferries ;-).

2 naval ships across the harbor.
Some Navy ships in the harbour. Photo thanks to Mrs. Lonely Birder.

We eventually got back to Bristol and walked to the local pub (The Knowle) so those that imbibe could have a pint and we unwound a bit. On the way there, we passed some trees that have been decorated like fairy homes!

small fairly door and window on the base of an urban tree by the sidewalk.
We didn’t knock to see if anyone was home. Photo thanks to Mrs. Lonely Birder.
Urban tree decorated with eyes, nose, and mouth.
This tree ended up looking a bit Entish, if you ask me. Photo thanks to Mrs. Lonely Birder.

We ended the day out at the pub, in which Mrs. Lonely Birder saw a familiar friend, reminding us of our previous epic trip to Churchill, Manitoba! I’ll leave you with a couple of parting shots.

Pub building, red brick and white trim. Sign says "The Knowle".
The local pub. We didn’t stay long, but it was sort of a checklist item of ours. Cheers, mate!
A drawing of bears framed on a wall, person pointing to Polar Bear with one hand, holding a pint of ale in the other.
It was pure cool to have a Polar Bear drawing by our table, linking our life-time trips together!


UK 2019 Day 9: Cornwall and Back to Dartmoor

Posted August 2, 2019

May 17, 2019

After a night in Plymouth, our adventures took us further afield into Cornwall and Bodmin Moor [map]. Driving past the ever present windmills and fields of the English countryside, we first stopped at a pair of stone monuments. These would have been the bases for wooden crosses, one of which bears an inscription commemorating King Dungarth (Doniert in Latin), the last King of Cornwall who is purported to have drowned nearby in 875 AD.

Ancient memorial stone with a Latin inscription. A stone wall is in the background.
King Doniert’s stone is one of two “cross shaft fragments” that were raised upright during excavations in the 19th Century.

According to English Heritage, the Latin inscription on the shorter stone (Doniert’s) is translated as “Doniert has asked [for this to be made] for his soul[’s sake’]”.

The taller fragment has no commemoration, but its proximity to King Doniert’s stone and the discovery of an underground cross-shaped tunnel beneath the stones indicate this was an important early Christian site in the 9th Century.

This stone fragment is quite a bit taller, but bears no specific inscription. Both stones are easily accessible on the roadside and the stone enclosure shows evidence of cows and sheep using the area to graze.
Two stone monuments on grass enclosed by a stone wall.
These sides of the stones seem more weathered and eroded.

From these ancient memorials, we made our way along the southeast edge of Bodwin Moor to the village of Minions. In this post-Despicable Me world, it was all too easy to snort-laugh and bring images of Gru’s mostly loyal underlings to mind. It seems to be a common enough thought.

Road sign with a 30 (miles per hour) indicator on top. The sign reads,
I don’t know if the stickers were sanctioned or not, but I suppose it was inevitable.

The biggest attractions here are The Hurlers stone circles and a natural landmark called the Cheesewring. The Hurlers are a set of 3 remnant stone circles and a pair of stone markers (“The Pipers”) from the Bronze Age. Many of the stones have been eroded away or “borrowed” as building material through the centuries.

The exact age of these stones is uncertain, but they are clearly ancient and well weathered. Some have suffered the effects of close-grazing cattle, which helps weaken the stones’ bases, causing them to tumble over.

The three circles are nearly in alignment and thus likely intentionally related. The local legend has it that the stones are in fact transformed men who dared to play the ancient game of Hurling on a Sunday and were cursed. It must have been some game!

Cows grazing among monument stones and a granite outcrop in the background.
More stones with cattle grazing and the Cheesewring in the distance.

Close up, the stones are placid, yet evocative of ancient and mysterious cultures and beliefs. Through the ages people have ascribed all manner of mystical energies associated with stone circles, and it’s easy to see why. It’s awe inspiring to see this ancient handicraft, abandoned yet so accessible.

One of the taller and more intact stones.
Three standing stones in a field with distant rolling hills in the background.
Looking out from the center of one circle to a trio of stones.

Nearby the stones were several building ruins. These used to house large steam engines, which helped drive pumps to keep water out of the mines as well as circulate air.

Stone building ruin with a smokestack attached to the left side.
One of the mining engine houses. This is a not-uncommon sight in much of Cornwall.

Much of the area beneath the Hurlers consists of mining tunnels, and some of the rumpled appearance of the landscape is due to subsidence. It’s unlikely one would simply drop through the ground casually walking, but it was perhaps best practice to avoid any obvious “dips” or potholes.

Stone building ruin with the smokestack on the right side.
This ruin serves as a small local museum, but it was closed while we were there. These sites are well preserved as a part of England’s heritage.

It’s nearly impossible to separate mining from Cornwall, or indeed much of southwest England and Wales. Just about every site we visited had evidence of mining from the 18th through the 21st Century.

After taking our fill of the Hurlers, we made the hike up Stowe’s Hill toward the Cheesewring, one of several granite outcrops sculpted by the wind over countless years. These are not artificial structures.

Granite oucrops along the top of the ridge of a hill.
The Cheesewring (on the right) is the more prominent of several natural artifacts that make up the tor on Stowe’s Hill.

The Cheesewring gets its name from it’s somewhat similar appearance to cheese slabs that were pressed in its namesake device generations ago.

Granite outcrop with a person standing beside it.
Here you can see Darren standing by the Cheesewring, for a sense of scale. The small stack of stones just in front of him was placed there as a potential aid should the larger stones fall over – it is not actually touching the Cheesewring.

The top of the tor overlooks the countryside and some well used granite quarries. Darren says that a lot of the granite here was used in London, particularly for Tower Bridge. The top of Stowe’s Hill provided us with some good vistas, despite the ever threatening rain showers and obscuring mist.

Pastureland and moorland with mist obscured hills in the background under a leaden sky.
The view from Stowe’s Hill overlooking Bodmin Moor.

As with most of the rural sites we visited, cattle and sheep have free rein and are grazing just about everywhere. There was evidence of grazing all the way to the top of Stowe’s Hill and right around the Cheesewring and the other outcrops.

A lamb laying on grass, its head up.
A lamb resting, unconcerned with our proximity. Most of the ewes we saw had lambs with them.

We made our way back to Minions and (after meeting back up with Ruth, who had some other business to attend to) drove back to Devon and onto Dartmoor. We stopped at the Two Bridges Hotel (in the village of Two Bridges, where else).

Tea, as you may not know, is actually a light meal in Britain, not just a hot beverage. A Cream Tea is tea served with scones, clotted cream, and jam. We had heard a lot about this from Ruth and Darren, but unwittingly stumbled into a long running feud between Devon and Cornwall.

Tray of scones with bowls of clotted cream and jam. A teapot in the foreground.
I’m hungry again just looking at it. My wife took this and the next photo.

According to those from Devon, the “proper” way to have Cream Tea is to split the scone in two, spread the cream first and then put the jam on top. The Cornish way is to put the jam on first and then spoon the cream on top. Ruth is a proponent of the Devonshire method while Darren prefers the Cornish method.

Two scones on a plate with cream and jam.
Whether the Devonshire way (bottom) or the Cornish way (top), our Cream Tea was fabulous.

There was much good-natured jibing, and I have to say I preferred the Cornish way (you get more of the cream taste that way), but no matter how you take it, this was a real highlight of the trip for me. Plus, my hot chocolate (in lieu of the tea and its caffeine) was amazing as well.

With full bellies we made our way back out and drove further into Dartmoor, making a stop at picturesque Postbridge and its medieval clapper bridge. Clapper bridges are simple slabs of rock placed across a river to cross it. In this case, two piers of stone were placed as supports.

Stone bridge over a river under gray skies.
The East Dart River flowing beneath the clapper bridge. Photo taken by my wife.

The adjacent roadway bridge was beautiful as well.

A stone bridge with three arches over a swiftly moving stream.
The roadway bridge over the East Dart River.

While we were admiring the view (and I was passively birdwatching), I noticed some commotion. A woman had been trying to rescue a Common Kingfisher and it had tried to get out of the cardboard box it was in and had fallen into the cold water below.

Small kingfisher (bird) floating along the river.
This Common Kingfisher was in distress. I though maybe it was a fledgling given the relative shortness of its bill, but I don’t know the species well enough.

A traveler who was hiking his way along the river immediately waded in and scooped up the bird, which was now shivering with cold, and the woman asked if we knew anyone who could help. I suggested any local wildlife rehabilitators, and she said she had tried and had no luck. Her intention was to dry and warm up the bird and give it time to recover and then release it. We wished her luck and thanked the man, who went on his way, wet and cold himself.

There were other interesting birds by the river as well, including a White-throated Dipper, gathering invertebrates of some kind, likely to feed its young. Dippers are fun little birds. They are adept at running along the bottom of fast moving streams, often completely submerged in pursuit of prey. They can also dive and swim quite well.

A small bird standing on a rock by the water. It has insects or worms in its beak.
A dipper foraging beneath the clapper bridge. You can just see the long grappling claws it uses to keep anchored to rocks, especially under water.

Another short drive brought us to Burrator Reservoir on the River Tavy and a nearby nature trail. Burrator provides some of the drinking water for Plymouth and surrounding places.

Deciduous forest canopy with a couple of tall pine trees.
The area right around the dam is wooded with a tight canopy.

It was quiet around the reservoir with not much traffic and the weather was calm, and the sun had peeked out every now and then.


We made our way along a trail after passing a small but beautiful waterfall and cascading stream. The sound backdrop was serene and almost idyllic.

The vegetation here seemed well suited to damp weather, with many of the older trees covered in moss.

And old and gnarled tree, covered in moss.
And old and gnarled tree, covered in moss.

As we walked the ground gently rose as we make our way up onto the moor. Even here, there were cows grazing and resting in fenced off fields. In Britain, the concept of conservation is a bit different than here in the States. Here, the usual focus of environmental conservation revolves around preservation or the return of the landscape to some idealized natural state. In Britain, the majority of conservation efforts involve preservation of rural landscapes, such as farms, villages, and grazing lands.

Shaggy-haired cow, resting in a filed behind a wire fence.
This shaggy-haired bovine had a very 60s mop-top vibe about it.

All the while we were walking up the path, birds were singing and darting in and out of the trees. This included Willow Tits (differentiated by their song), Coal Tits, and quite a few songs I could not identify.

Close-up of a robin singing in a tree.
The ever ubiquitous robins were singing in full force. These birds must be among the most adaptable in the world.

We didn’t walk much farther and turned back down the trail to the car park (that’s a parking lot, fellow Americans) and headed to our last stop of the day, at Lopwell Ford, on the River Tavy.

River crossing with a hill in the background.
The River Tavy was still on the rise from recent days of rain. You can see the far side of the ford to the left of the red marker on the far shore.

The water level was fairly high, and we could see it rise on the level indicator signs in the river. When the water is lower, vehicles can cross (ford) the river and get to the other side. Suffice it to say, without a taller vehicle like a truck or SUV with a snorkel, we weren’t managing that! But is was a pretty stop.

Stone building with ivy growing along one side, up the roof.
Mrs. Lonely Birder enjoying the early evening by Lopwell Ford and its nearby buildings.

With that, it was back to Bristol to plan our next days’ excursions. Dartmoor is an amazing place, and I can imagine spending two weeks just exploring that area alone. But for us, it was on to the next!


UK 2019 Day 8: Dartmoor

Posted July 16, 2019

May 16, 2019

After spending most of our first week around Bristol and Somerset, we started our second week by heading southwest to the county of Devon and spent the day around Dartmoor National Park [map].

Dartmoor is an upland area covered in low vegetation and bogs, with granite outcrops (called tors) and very few trees. Large areas are covered in English Bluebells, which even in the intermittent morning overcast were beautiful. Ruth told us that the flowers were past their peak, but the vivid purple was still quite a sight.

English Bluebells cover large sections of the moorland.

There are few trees on the moor. The large, ancient forests that covered this land were slowly cleared over the centuries. Human activities, like grazing and farming changed the soil, making it acidic, further converting the land. A few trees do grow, and there are small sections of forest remaining, and there are restoration efforts under way in part of the park.

Scrubby tree among grasses and bluebells.
Scrubby trees like this are scattered around on the moor. In a couple of denser copses, I heard European Cuckoos!

Dartmoor has hundreds of tors. These prominent high points, some topped with granite knobs or spires, are important landmarks and many can be seen for miles away (by the way, you may have noticed I’ve been using miles and feet in these UK posts. As metric as Britain is, roads and distances are more often still in “imperial” units).

Distant rock outcrop upon a hill with scrub and grass in the foreground.
One of many tors in the landscape. There are so many that a few have redundant names!

Much like the Cheesewring (which we’ll see in a future post), these outcrops are completely natural. The shapes and apparent layers are due to persistent wind and water erosion over the course of many millennia.

Rocky outcrop with stones scattered below.
Some of the rocks in the foreground are simply granite that’s been exposed from just below the surface. Some of the larger ones resting on the grass have tumbled from the tor itself as the inexorable forces of erosion do their job.

For large parts of the moorland gorse and bogs dominate the landscape. Here is a patch of gorse without the iconic yellow flowers. This thick cover is ideal for protecting various bird species which nest or roost within. I saw Meadow Pipits, Eurasian Stonechats, and even a couple of skylarks.

Gorse covering a grassy knoll.
Gorse, near some bird nesting habitat signs. I didn’t walk too far in – this stuff is thick and has a lot of thorns!

Dartmoor is famous for it’s wild ponies. They can seem quite tame and will walk up to visitors and even touch you with their noses or flanks. But they are wild and should be treated with that level of respect. Many of the mares had foals.

A foal and its mother laying on grass
A baby pony sleeping while Mom rests nearby.

As we wandered around near one parking area, one pony walked up to my wife and did in fact touch its nose to her hand. The mares were relatively unconcerned with our proximity to their offspring.

Foal standing on short grass.
There were quite a few very young ponies around the moor. This one was still a little shaky on its feet.

We drove to a few more vantage points around the park, including looks at the prison (“HM Prison Dartmoor”) and more tors. From there we made our way past Buckfastleigh and to the ruins of Holy Trinity Church [map]. On the adjacent cemetery grounds is the mausoleum of Richard Cabell, on whose legend and death Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.


Cabell was said to be an extremely angry and mean person, and would set his large dogs upon trespassers on his land. When he died, he was placed in a relatively unadorned mausoleum, beneath a heavy stone surrounded by iron bars, to “…prevent his coming up and haunting the neighbourhood,” according to an early 20th Century travel guide to Dartmoor.


The church itself is in ruins now, victim of vandals and arson in the 1990s. The elements have deteriorated the structure and the headstones more quickly than one might expect. This, combined with lichens and mosses growing on the stone makes the churchyard look even older still.


The church, cemetery, and Sir Richard’s mausoleum are popular tourist attractions, and we saw a couple of tour groups and photographers making their way around the grounds.


We left Master Cabell and his company of headstones and started for home, though we’d visit Dartmoor a couple more times during our stay in the UK. You’ll have to stay tuned for those upcoming posts!

A lichen covered and eroded stone angel affixed to a stone cross headstone.
Don’t blink. This Weeping Angel might be deteriorating, but you mustn’t let your guard down!

UK 2019 Day 7: Birding Day at Chew Valley Lake

Posted July 5, 2019

May 15, 2019

My first proper “birding day” was about 1/2 the day spent at a reservoir called Chew Valley Lake [map]. I had a chance to scout it out briefly on the way back from one of our previous day’s adventures, and it looked promising.

View of a lake with a tree covered island in the middle ground.
Chew Valley Lake.

Chew Valley Lake is named as a premiere birding spot in several places online, and it did not disappoint. The species diversity was high and added a sizable amount to my life list, as you might imagine.

The lake fills part of Chew Valley, forming a reservoir that provides much of the drinking water for Bristol and nearby locales.

View looking down a low dam with lake to the left and roadway to the right.
The dam along Wally Lane demarks the northern edge of the lake.

The morning started off cold, with temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius), but the sun warmed things up nicely as the day progressed. I walked along the dam first, but there was no public access around the west side of the lake from there.

One of several White Wagtails around the lake.

There are well defined trails and paths around the lake and adjacent woodland, some with boardwalks, and a couple of wildlife blinds to make access to some of the shier birds a little easier. Unfortunately, this did not keep the Tufted Ducks from being skittish. I was unable to get any photographs even though I had targeted this species  before leaving for the trip.

Much of the path around the north side of the lake has a high bank separating the path from the nearby road.

Although the Tufted Ducks may have been skittish, other water birds were not. I saw several Great Crested Grebes, a few Common Shelducks, and several dozen Eurasian Coots. There were also plenty of Mallards, Canada Geese, and a pair of Mute Swans.

close up of grebe swimming on surface of the water
Great Crested Grebe

The southern eastern and southern edges of the lake have areas of thick reeds and some scrub vegetation. There areas had active and vocal birds, like Reed Warblers, Eurasian Wrens, and Reed Buntings.

Small songbird perched in a bush.
A Reed Bunting making a brief appearance out of the reed bed.

The Eurasian Wrens have a loud song, for their size. The song is very reminiscent of a Song Sparrow here in North America, so it was confusing at times to orient my ears to what kind of bird I should be looking at.

Tiny wren perched among foliage.
A Eurasian Wren pausing between songs. Tiny body, mighty sound!

Similarly, the Eurasian Blackcaps and European Robins have some sounds in common and have thrush-like calls, which was confusing as there were typically Eurasian Blackbirds nearby.

Songbird singing within shaded branches.
Eurasian Blackcap male. The females and young have brown caps.

Eurasian coots were scattered out all over the lake close to the shore. I wondered if they form large rafts during the winter, like American coots do. Eurasian Coots are smaller and a bit more streamlined.

Close-up of a coot swimming on water's surface
Eurasian Coot.

Near one of the wildlife blinds, I heard a prolonged and rollicking song in the understory, and spent many minutes trying to get eyes on the bird. I managed a sound recording to use later for identification, but soon after the bird finally did pop into view. Many of the various warblers that live in these habitats are similar looking, and as they are all new to me, I thought having that recording along with my visual would help me nail it down.

According to descriptions of Melodious Warbler songs, “my” bird fit the bill (haha). It is said to have a prolonged song with many doublets and repeated phrases, similar to a Northern Mockingbird. Its song also has elements that sound like House Sparrows. To my ear, this is what I heard and recorded. I duly noted the (rare) bird on my eBird app and continued on.

I reached the end of the trail on the east side of the lake, where the woods abutted some agricultural land. I spooked a large raptor that I couldn’t identify, and then watched as a Eurasian Treecreeper worked its way up a few trees. All the while, more wrens, blackcaps, blackbirds, and robins were singing. I doubled back along the east side of the lake on a more wooded path running parallel to the way I came, which kept me out of the sun. Even 18 degrees Celsius (65 Fahrenheit) can feel hot after a few hours of hiking.

Dirt path with taller trees to the left and some grass and brush to the right.
Woodland path around Chew Valley Lake.

I made my way back around to the north side of the lake. My intention was to relocate the Tufted Ducks and perhaps catch a Common Merganser or two near the dam. I did manage to flush out a couple of Common Sandpipers and Shelducks as I approached the spillway.

This Common Shelduck headed off the spillway outlet towards the middle of the lake like he was on a mission.

A few finch-like birds were singing and flying among the small trees alongside it. It took some sleuthing and confirming later that evening, but managed to identify both as immature males, one a Eurasian Linnet and the other a Black Redstart.

Although not in bright breeding plumage, I think this Eurasian Linnet was a male because it was singing its heart out.


Another small songbird perched on a young tree's branch.
Black Redstarts are common birds in the UK, but it took me quite a while, and in some cases outside expertise to identify them. Local knowledge and experience are invaluable in birding.

By this point I was nearing the end of my morning and ready to meet up with my wife and Ruth who had been visiting shops and sites back in Bristol. By the trail head near the dam, I waited at a higher, wooded spot and watched a few European Goldfinches dart in and out of the trees, nearby.

This European Goldfinch was last bird of the adventure at Chew Valley Lake.

I walked a total of about 9 km (about 5.5 miles) and had nearly run out of water as my ride showed up and we rode back to Bristol. My species count was 37, and you can see my eBird list below.

View of a lake with tree reflections on the far shore.
Good bye, Chew Valley Lake.


Astute readers will see that my eBird list has only 36 species. After arriving back home in the States, I received an email from an eBird reviewer in the UK, asking about my Melodious Warbler identification. I had posted my sound recording as supporting material. He said my recording was a Reed Warbler and would I please change my list. I have done so, but solely on the idea that a local birder would/should know more and have more experience with the birds I saw and heard. But I’ll link to the sound file below, and if any experienced UK birders can confirm or question the current identification as a Reed Warbler, I’d love to hear from you.