Birding during the Pandemic: 2020

May 3, 2020

As we move into a second month of local quarantine and social distancing both at work and at home, a small grace has been the ability to get out to some of the parks (which have remained open, by and large here) to get regular fresh air, some exercise, and to keep from getting too stir crazy! Here are a collection of mostly unedited photos over the past several weeks.

 

UK 2019 Day 14: Big Pit National Coal Mine and Newport Transporter Bridge

Posted March 22, 2020

May 22, 2019

Our final “big day” on our UK trip was back to Wales and a tour of the Big Pit National Coal Mine in Blaenavon (that’s near Pontypool, if that helps?) [map]. Last active in 1980 after 100 years of operation, the mine is now run as a museum and national heritage site. Most of the tour guides are former miners who, along with their first-person accounts and in-depth knowledge of mining history, have become perfect ambassadors for their contributions to history.

Entry sign that says
What is a mine, after all?

Mrs. Lonely Birder’s family comes from a strong tradition of mining and related work in the coal regions of Appalachia. Generations of her family have worked the mines and even lived in mining camps and towns. These people are hard working and proud. There can be no denying coal’s importance to the development and transformation of modern life around the world. As we struggle to adapt to new power sources and new understandings of the environment, it’s all too easy to lump in the miners and the equipment operators and the truck drivers with the “coal industry” and bad mouth the whole lot. Fossil fuels are indeed responsible for as much negative transformation of the environment as they have been necessary for the advancement of modern technology. Even as that trade-off has become unbalanced and we recognize the need to move away from coal and other fossil fuels, we should not forget the debt we owe to the miners and their families for providing the power to live our relatively comfortable lives.

A toddler, wearing her father's mining helmet and partly covered in coal dust, sitting in her father's lap.
My father-in-law with his Coal Miner’s Daughter, in the early 1970s, West Virginia.

It was eye-opening to delve into the mine and see the conditions and equipment used through the 100 years of mining on-site. Some of the scenes depicted in the display spaces and videos would be instantly as recognizable to someone from West Virginia as Wales.

Photo display of Big Pit miners after their shift.
Photo display of Big Pit miners after their shift.

They did not allow any photos to be taken inside the mine. We rode the same cage (the large elevator) as the miners did when the mine was operational, and observed the same safety rules. Nothing was allowed down the mine that could generate any kind of spark. There was always the danger of natural gas or coal dust exploding, more then than now. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Mining elevator with a large No Smoking sign on it.
This cage (as the miners called the elvator), crammed with miners, was the only way in or out of the mine.

We saw some areas that were restored to a turn of the 20th Century set-up, with pit pony stalls and equipment. These ponies might not see the light of day for their whole lives once in the mine. That finally changed when mining safety and health regulations were changed and they were allowed on occasion to have a break and more humane treatment by the early 1900s. Human health and safety regulations were also updated. Child labor was common throughout the 18th and 19th Century coal mines, but eventually was legislated out.

A few more displays showed the working mine through the 20th Century, leading up to it’s eventual closure in 1980. By then, the mine was not profitable enough to keep open.

Intermission: Roast Ox Crisps

After our mine tour, I had one bit of unfinished business that I was finally able to complete on this trip.

Years ago my life was changed when my big brother and I stumbled onto the local PBS channel showing this amazingly violent (at least for its time) and hilarious comedy from the UK called The Young Ones. Think “The Three Stooges” meets “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and you’re most of the way there.

Cast photo of The Young Ones.
Neil (Nigel Planer), Rick (Rik Mayall), Mike (Christopher Ryan), and Vyvyan (Adrian Edmonson) – The Young Ones. Rik Mayall passed on a few years ago. R.I.P. (P)Rick!

The show ran for 2 series in the early 1980s, and was important for introducing me to the band Motorhead during one of the show’s at-times random musical intermissions.

Rock band lead singer close up, wearing sunglasses and singing close to microphone.
The late Lemmy Kilminster with his classic shades and trademark mustache. Built for speed until the end.

One episode has the boys head to the local pub, where Madness is just finishing up a set. Vyvyan is about to go order their food at the bar, and Neil asks for something vegetarian so Vyvyan promptly orders a bag of roast ox crisps.

Imagine as a preteen in 1980s suburban America, where at the time the most exotic crisp (potato chip) was probably either salt and vinegar or if you lived near Canada, ketchup. Roast ox chips sounded so preposterous and amazing!

Fast forward to The Big Pit mine visitor’s cafeteria in 2019. I’d mentioned roast ox crisps during our trip and had been told by our friends that THEY DO EXIST! It took some time and hunting, but finally we found some in the snack bins. They were every bit as amazing and terrible as I had hoped!

A bag of roast ox crisps
“Oh, just a bag of crisps please, Vyv. But, not meat flavored. Because I don’t abuse my body and the world I live in.”

My friends and followers in the UK are probably wondering what the fuss is about. After all, there is a dizzying array of crisp flavors available there (like prawn cocktail and Worcestershire sauce). Only now is the US getting caught up, though the specific flavors differ (grilled cheese and tomato soup and roast chicken are fairly new here).

And We’re Back

After leaving the mine, we stopped in Newport on our way back to Bristol to check out the Newport Transporter Bridge [map]. This engineering marvel was built in 1906 as a means of crossing the River Usk, which had some specific challenges. The banks are low, but the span quite wide. A bridge needed to span the distance while allowing for ships to pass, and a drawbridge would be impractical. The solution was to erect two tall towers on either side and have a transport car, hung from above, operated by cables. This way, the transport car would be safely on the banks of the river while a ship passed.

Steel towers with a catwalk suspended by cables high above.
A view of the transporter bridge. The gondola is the light teal object near the bottom of the tower on the left.
Ferry gondola hanging beneath a steel tower.
Close up of the gondola, on the far bank.

On the day we went, the gondola was closed for maintenance, unfortunately. But the towers and catwalk above were open. It’s over 60 meters (nearly 200 feet) to the catwalk, up an unrelenting set of stairs. Having spent most of the last 17 years in Florida, you can imagine this was no small task (in fact, it was a crash course in relearning hills and stairs for two weeks, since we arrived).

View of a muddy river and some industrial buildings in the distance.
A view of the river and surroundings from part way up the stairs.

The bridge is open to visitors and tourists until late afternoon, so we had to hurry up and across and back without much time to rest or take in views. Mrs. Lonely Birder opted not to make the climb, so the remaining three of us clambered up.

These catwalks were designed for maintenance, and allow access to the suspension cables and upper superstructure.

Looking along the upper structures of a suspension bridge and catwalk
I thought the bridge looked very well maintained for something over a century old.

The views we did get from the catwalk were spectacular, and the weather was particularly nice.  The River Usk is a tidal river here, and you can see the tide was out, exposing a lot of mud near the river banks.

An arch bridge and buildings in the middle distance, a river in the foreground, and distant hills.
A river view and City Bridge, in Newport.
buildings and tress with rolling hills
Newport and the Welsh countryside beyond.

We managed to get back down to the visitor center in plenty of time, and had a nice chat with the person there before heading back to Bristol and getting ready for another evening and then another day. I think Wales is rather pretty, and if we get a chance to go back to the UK, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it than we had time for. Diolch a ffarwel, Cymru!

UK 2019 Day 13: St. Mary Redcliffe

Posted March 1, 2020

May 21, 2019

After almost two weeks of intense riding around England and Wales (Darren and Ruth doing all the driving, bless their souls), we took a slightly slower day and focused on Bristol itself. We did have a lovely visit to the Bristol Museum [map], which is probably one of the better local museums, but decided to leave the picture taking behind. But the centerpiece was the church of St. Mary Redcliffe [map].

Gothic church with spire.
St. Mary Redcliffe is situated right inside urban Bristol, so there aren’t many clear overviews of it. This view is looking east.

This church building has been called the epitome of high English Gothic architecture, and it isn’t hard to see why. The ornate stonework and tracery, as well as the flying buttresses and the tall spire, mark this – one of the largest parish churches in England – a real stand-out. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”

Stone church facade with tall arched winows and flying buttresses.
Part of the northern facade of the church. The tower and spire are just off to the right.

Inside, the church as a couple items of historical note. There’s a model of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, to commemorate his 1497 voyage to North America, as well as a piece of whalebone he brought back to England. We had visited the observation tower named for Cabot on our first day in Bristol. Cabot’s expeditions sailed from Bristol under the commission of King Henry VII.

Whalebone affixed to the interior wall of a church, by a stone archway.
Whalebone from North America, via John Cabot’s expeditions in the 1490s.

There is also a wooden carving of Queen Elizabeth I, dating from her reign (likely circa 1570). She is known to have visited the church in 1574, but I don’t know if the carving was already there, or done later to commemorate her visit. It is remarkably well preserved, though I suspect the paint’s been touched up now and then.

Painted wooden carving of Queen Elizabeth I
HRH’s likeness in painted wood.

The rest of the interior is quintessentially Gothic, with high, almost delicate looking arches and vaulting and exquisite stained glass. Much of the original stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation, but later replaced. Bombing in the second world war destroyed the glass on the west side, and was replaced again.

Church interior with high vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows at the far end.
A view along the nave toward the restored stained glass on the west side of the church.

That bombing could have destroyed the church, and a poignant reminder of that is a section of tramline (from a light rail system) that was blown up and onto the church grounds, where it remains today as a memorial and reminder.

Memorial plaque and tramline (rail) section stuck in the ground behind it.
This section of rail was left embedded where it landed after a German bombing in 1941. On Good Friday, to be exact. [Thanks, Mrs. Lonely Birder for the photo!]
St. Mary Redcliffe’s interior is stunningly beautiful and, like most Gothic churches, airy and open. It’s tempting when we hear “Gothic” and architecture of the Middle Ages (“The Dark Ages”) to think of heavy, dark, and oppressive themes. But on the whole, this church and the other medieval structures we saw during our visit, were more atmospheric and almost ethereal. The designers were building these spaces to evoke heaven and salvation, and that’s very much reflected in this church.

04_St-Mary-Redcliffe_04
Another interior view of St. Mary Redcliffe. The ceiling decorations are more golden than what shows up in this photograph, but really, no photos truly do justice to this amazing place.

As a final note to this spectacular church, the tall spire you can see today was finished in 1872. The original was destroyed in a storm – perhaps struck by lightning – in the 15th Century. For much of it’s existence, the church had short, truncated cone cap on its tower.

South_Porch_of_St_Mary_Redcliffe_Church,_Bristol_c.1791-2
This watercolor by J. M. W. Turner shows St. Mary Redcliffe with its truncated spire. It would be almost 80 years before the current spire would be built. Image copyright Bristol Culture.

 

13_St-Mary-Redcliffe_13
One final look at St. Mary Redcliffe and its spire.

We also visited the M Shed museum, though we took no photographs as some areas expressly forbade it, and we were so engrossed that we didn’t think of it! There were some interesting Banksy pieces and some great tributes to Bristolians and their city. If you visit Bristol, M Shed is a must-see!

 

UK 2019 Day 12: Part 2, The Bishop’s Palace and a Little Bite of Cheddar

Posted November 14, 2019

And we’re back!

We had a good look at Wells Cathedral in Part 1, so let’s continue on to The Bishop’s Palace.

May 20, 2019

24_Bishops_Palace_01
The palace has been extensively modified and added to over the course of 800 years, and is reflective of many architectural styles.
28_Bishops_Palace_05
Some parts of the palace are ruins or have been adapted, like this wall which now forms part of the enclosure for a large lawn space.

The grounds were fairly extensive, with opportunities to see many stages of development and abandonment. They also serve as space for art – both secular and religious – and even political expression.

Stature of a person in a tunic.
There were nice art installations – some religious, some secular – throughout the grounds.
Colored glass sculpture shaped like bird wings.
Stained glass wing sculpture (there were a couple of them).
33_Bishops_Palace_wings_10
MCU Falcon character reboot?

Many of the ruins on the palace grounds are at least somewhat intentional. As parts fell into disrepair, the structures were modified to be “more picturesque” as successive bishops and architects sought to mold the expansive ruin to their own ideals.

35_Bishops_Palace_12

The formal gardens and landscaping are indeed beautiful, and the views of the Cathedral itself are as worthy as any artistic masterpiece, in my opinion.

Stained glass arch window with topiaries in the foreground.
Looking in on the Bishop’s Chapel
A pond with evergreen and deciduous vegetation behind and water plants in the foreground.
Springs and gardens on the palace grounds.
40_Bishops_Palace_Cathedral_View_17
As optimally designed, this church would have a tall spire atop the central tower. Weather and fire have made all but a few lost over time.
Cathedral tower rising with the church in front of trimmed hedges and trees.
Another magnificent view of the cathedral from the formal gardens.

Similar to the city of Bath, Wells gets its name from the abundance of accessible groundwater and natural springs, many of which were harnessed or enhanced on the palace grounds.

Water feature with small waterfall flowing away and down into the gardens.
The small waterfall drops water down into a system of channels.
Channelized flow between manicured lawns.
Another formal water feature based on the natural upwellings.

The interior of the palace, including the chapel, is a progression and mixing of the various historical periods, spanning from the 13th century to modern day. In the essence of saving time, here’s a slide show of the interior shots.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some interior shots of the Bishop’s Palace. Most of it is a museum and public space now, but the nearby Bishop’s House is still used as a residence and church office.

Both the church and the palace were immense and impressive, and it’s hard to portray the grandeur from these photos. With any impressive space, be it natural or human, it’s best to experience it in person. Hopefully that’s something that you can do one day, if it is in your means.

Ancient stone gatehouse with two turrets over a pointed arch entrance.
Farewell, Wells!

But our day was not over yet. We had some time to make an almost too-quick run to Cheddar, where we did buy and eat some “genuine” Cheddar Cheese, and make a brief drive up the gorge. Cheddar is a quaint village, and if we ever do return to the UK, I’d like to spend a little more time there.

Old stone storefront and wall.
The village has many quaint shops and picturesque views.

The waters that carved the gorge and associated caves is the Cheddar Yeo, and it emerges above ground in the village. It’s been a traditional source of power for centuries.

Shallow stream running toward the foreground alongside a stone wall.
The Cheddar Yeo, emerging in the village of Cheddar. Part of an “Excalibur” sword, for tourists has surely rusted in place by now.
stone walls topped with herbaceous plants lead into a village.
A pretty view of the village and the animal sculptures in the channelized water feature.

We did some window shopping and I bought some local fudge before we headed back to Bristol for the evening, having had another full and satisfying day out with friends.

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).

01_Wells_01
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.

06_Wells-Cathedral_05
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 caused 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.

11_Wells-Cathedral_chapter-house-stairs_10
The original stairs to the chapter house are worn down and smooth on the left side.
12_Wells-Cathedral_chapter-house11
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:
https://www.wellscathedral.org.uk/

51_Wells_Cathedral_28
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:

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59240136
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59240289
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59240951
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59241652

August 26 (not a good photo day):
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59265577
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59273571

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

August 27:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59320598

August 28:
Non-birding day

August 29:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59344285

August 30:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59365698
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59367771

August 31:
https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S59396553

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.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S56496450