A day of birds and beasts

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Wetlands and Spanish Moss on trees, Brazos Bend State Park

Following our truncated stay and hasty departure from our visit to family in Houston ( to get back before all planes stopped flying, no other reason!) I’ve finally got around to looking at the photos I took there. So distracting and disorientating is this period of lockdown (what day is it…?) I’d forgotten about our family day out at Brazos Bend State Park and what we’d seen there.

It’s one of our “must go to” places when in Houston, so before our departure we had a family day together and enjoyed a walk around these wetlands. They are alligator- inhabited, a bit of a birder’s paradise, and they always delight us. We’ve seen roseate spoonbills, ibis, blue herons, bitterns catching fish just feet away from us, red-winged blackbirds and alligators basking on the banks.

Trees are festooned with Spanish Moss, noisy American coots hoot and squawk, anhingas (cormorant-like) sit with wings spread in the sunshine and large dark blue butterflies make their presence felt as their wings brush by.

P1080543There’s always something new to see, and this time it was the large brown furry creature in the marshy area, which some of our party thought was a beaver, some thought was a coypu, and some some just didn’t know. It’s taken me a while to get round to the ID job, and I had to check it out and do a spot of research too. It’s a nutria, which I’d not heard of before, but they’re quite common, are similar to beavers and are related to coypu, which are found in Europe. It’s the size and tail which give the answer – large body, rat-like tail. Beaver tails are flattened.

One down, one to go. What was that unusual bird with an orange and black head I saw lurking in the undergrowth? I took a few shots very quickly and managed to get enough for an ID. But what was it? I’d seen something like it before but couldn’t remember where.

P1080546Lockdown days offer more time to browse photographs. This bird looked vaguely familiar, so I tried a long shot and looked at photos I’d taken in Costa Rica, and there it was – a Crested Caracara. I’d seen one there. They’re listed as being seen in Texas, and specifically at Brazos Bend. It was quite¬† thrill to see this large bird – and not only that, on the way to Brazos by I spotted a male Hen Harrier (called a Northern Harrier in the US) flying low over a field.

This was probably the most significant sighting of the day for me. Hen Harriers are persecuted and endangered in the UK, and although I’ve been fortunate enough to see both male and female of this species on the wing in the UK, they still give me goosebumps on my neck when I do.

York’s Northern Lights

IMG-20191024-WA0002The minster has been cleared. The spectacle is to be viewed standing in the nave, empty of chairs, and used as cathedrals were in the middle ages. Standing space, no seats, just looking up in wonder and awe. The organ roars and vibrates, playing an overture to set the scene. The music and the blue/green lighting creates an anticipatory atmosphere before the show begins.

York Minster’s Northern Lights spectacular is a totally immersive experience of sound, light, voices, music, sound effects and dramatic, apocolyptic, spirit-ful elemental images projected on to the east window and the roof. Its message includes – in graphic flames and thunderbolts – current concerns about climate breakdown. Nature is there: the sound of a sparrow as it flutters across the high ceiling of the nave, flowers bloom and entwine across the vaulted roof; images of stained glass windows form patterns there, and the east window is an ever-changing backdrop of colours and shapes and eras.

I experienced this a few days ago. It’s on for just one week. If you’re in or near York – go and see it!

Valley of the Saints

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On a grey, chilly, windy day in August I visited the Valley of the Saints in northern Brittany. Like a modern-day line up of Easter Island-like giant statues, some of the many religious saints associated with bringing Christianity to Brittany are depicted in stone, sculpted by modern-day artists who are taking part in this developing project.

About 50 saints are already in place, standing proud on a windy hillside with views of the surrounding countryside and the sea. Each one is different and has it’s own story – there is a guidebook outlining the story of each saint, and there are guides too, to tell their stories.

The teenager in our Anglo-French family group took it upon himself to entertain the younger members of the group, making up stories for them about the statues and acting as an alternative guide – his stories were very funny and creative and while the children half-beleived what he was saying, the adults were chuckling a lot. If there was a saint with a sense of humour somewhere on that hillside, he or she would have been proud of our alternative guide and his amusing tales.

The saint with an axe in her head, pictured above, is touching a lion’s head – you can just see it’s teeth. Our alternative guide’s take on this one was that she reminds us to be kind to animals and the environment, otherwise we will come to a nasty end.

I fully concur with that.

Brittany rocks!

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Excuse the pun. There are a lot of rocks and boulders in northern Brittany and I saw some of them on my recent visit there. The lush green valley with moss-covered boulders is at Huelgoat (pronounced Hwelgwa, according to the French branch of the family I was holidaying with).

We took a walk in the Argent Valley, where these huge mossy boulders tumble down into the river, and are invitingly easy to clamber on and explore. The surrounding forest is a peaceful, shady place and the star feature is the Trembling Rock, which is said to move. One of the teenagers in our party tried to get some movement out of it by leaning on it and pushing. I have to be honest and say it didn’t appear to move to me….

The pink rocks of the Cote de Granit Rose stretch way along Brittany’s northern coast, near Ploumanac’h, and their formations are weird and fascinating. The sea has shaped them such that it’s possible to see (with a little imagination) recognisable objects – is that¬† tortoise? Or a lizard? Or an elephant? – were some of the suggestions we came up with.

We were following part of the sentier des douaniers – a path by the coast used by smugglers and strewn with these fantastically shaped rocks.

The Smallest House in Great Britain

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This tiny, quirky, bright red house is wedged into the walls of Conwy in North Wales. It’s been a tourist attraction for as long as I can remember and I went into it many years ago when my children were small. On this occasion, I was there with grandchildren who decided they didn’t want to go in (there was a queue) but went up to inspect it so they could see just how small it is.

I have vague recollections of how poky and gloomy it was inside the two small rooms – one up, one down. It was built in the 16th century. In 1900 it was occupied by a tenant, a 6ft. 3in, tall fisherman, who eventually had to move out ( perhaps he kept banging his head on the ceiling?!). It’s still owned by the same family and is open in the summer season as a tourist attraction.

There is always a lady in traditional Welsh costume on duty to take the entry fee and sell a small selection of souvenirs.