Chirk Aqueduct and Tunnel

A short 2 night break in our campervan saw us in Chirk, just over the border of Wales and not far from Wrexham. The campsite is surrounded by trees, is adjacent to the grounds of the National Trust Chirk Castle estate, and a short and pleasant woodland walk from the Chirk Aqueduct.

The aqueduct spans the valley between Wales and England, with green fields, grazing sheep and the RivP1080886er Ceiriog way below. It carries the Llangollen canal with the railway line, supported on arches, beside it. A stroll across the towpath, taking in the scenery and any passing canal boats along the way,  takes you into England.

Keep walking and you’ll reach a canalside pub; turn back and you’ll re-enter Wales, and on the other side of the aqueduct there is the Chirk Tunnel, it’s dark mouth waiting to swallow the narrowboats into its murky depths.

The tow path continues into the tunnel. It’s possible to walk its 420 metres/460 yards length, but a torch is required along with a fair bit of care as the path is narrow. There is a rail but in these days of social distancing it would be a bit daft to try it. And there is supposed to be a ghost somewhere in there too…..

No, we didn’t do it but we have done walked it with children, and most recently with granddaughter who surprised herself with her bravery. It’s not actually that scary as the tunnel is straight so the end is always in view. Boats have to pace themselves and have a light on while they’re chugging through, so there is sometimes a queue waiting to go enter.

And then, when they emerge from the tunnel on the Welsh side, passengers might catch the enticing aroma of chocolate, drifting from the chocolate factory, hidden behind the trees and on the edge of the town.

The Dee Estuary

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On  recent visit to the Wirral, staying there for a couple of nights in our campervan, we enjoyed walking on the Dee Estuary beaches. Tide out, plenty of space for our dog to run, sniff and explore, and a few birds about too, it was all very pleasant. Across the water from the Wirral side are lower Welsh hills and small towns, such a Flint.

The estuary leaves the boats moored there high and dry, then buoyed up again as the tide comes in. Low tide reveals rocks, mud, pools and the remains of maybe piers? Maybe breakwaters? Maybe the back bone of a buried dinosaur?

The sound of oystercatchers peep-peeping is unmistakable, but I need binoculars to find them as they potter about feeding on the beach. The warbling cry of a nearby curlew draws my attention as it obligingly stands still for a photo.

 

RSPB Deeside is located further up along the coast on the English side, and it’s a good place for birds, as is Parkgate, with its grassy, silted up seashore, promenade and ice cream parlours. Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Short-eared owls, Merlins and Kestrels can be seen here, but patience is required, especially in winter months when it can get very cold taking part in one of the regular Raptor Watch events.

P1080832At the mouth of the estuary is Hilbre Island, which you can get to across the sands at low tide. A tide table is essential for this activity!  Further round the coast on the English side, is Liverpool, and nearby is Crosby Beach with the cast iron bodies of artist Antony Gormley forever looking out to sea, continually being covered then revealed by the rising and ebbing tides.

It’s always ourselves we find in the sea

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Last week I went away to the coast for  a couple of nights and returned recharged and refreshed after weeks of lockdown. There were small, simple pleasures, like walking on beaches and seeing seabirds. I wonder, do we appreciate what we already have? Why do we want more when we already have more than enough, if only we take time to enjoy it.

This poem came to mind as I was looking through the photos I took:

 

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were:

and molly was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as the world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

e.e.cummings

Black vulture, Turkey vulture

P1080446This pair of black vultures were hanging around on the trees by Buffalo Bayou in Houston while we were there, taking a walk one sunny morning. It’s not a particularly good shot with out of focus leaves blurring it, but it offers a clear enough view of the scaly bald head of this bird.

I find vultures fascinating. They’re fairly ugly and they have grim associations with carnivorous tastes for dead animal matter. I didn’t at first like their scaly heads until I learned that they’re bald and without feathers so that the bird can insert its head into the carcass and feed without getting head fearthers messed up. Quite a neat trick of nature really, and rather practical in a gruesome kind of way.

There are always plenty of black vultures around in Huston, and they can be seen wheeling overhead in gangs or, as we noticed on this visit, hanging out on the banks of the bayou. We once counted 21 of them on a dual carriageway road tussling and vying for a morsel of the dead squirrel which several of them were having a tug of war over. Those not joining in were watching from nearby rooftops. It was reminiscent of a scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Turkey vultures are similar but significantly different. They also have bald scaly heads, but theirs are red, not black. They are larger, their wings have white patches underneath (not visible in this photo because taken against the light) and they’re more likely to be seen in open countryside. They soar overhead seeking out carrion and have a keen sense of smell.

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When we visited Brazos Bend State Park, a group of them were involved in seeking out something hidden on the ground, repeatedly wheeling around returning to the same spot. Nature being nature. I took this shot of one of them and its red head is just about visible. Its finger-like wing feathers make it easy to ID. Trying to get a shot of them on the wing is always a bit of challenge though.

Since I’ve been back in the locked-down UK, I’ve been doing a fair bit of on-line singing with my choir and think I must have been doing too many vocal warm ups because as I typed the title  “Black vulture, Turkey vulture” I started saying it as a tongue twister – like “Red leather, Yellow leather”…….oh dear!

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.