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Thursday, May 31, 2007


I wonder what you think this is?

Did you think this was an insect? Some sort of fly, maybe? Actually, it's a flower of the Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera. Evolution has generated a flower that mimics the Digger Wasp, which even emits an insect pheromone that attracts the wasp. The insect attempts to "mate" with the flower and in so doing picks up pollen that can be transferred to another flower to ensure fertilisation.

A Digger Wasp

I found a couple of flowering spikes of this rare plant in my research site at Roudsea Woods and Mosses National Nature Reserve. In fact, I observed a digger wasp actually settled on a flower, but by the time I had excitedly fumbled with my camera focus, it had flown away.

Here is a more complete picture of the plant

The habitat of the Fly Orchid - outcrops of limestone in woodland

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Coto Doñana

A year or so ago I had a wacky idea to hold my retirement party in the Coto Doñana - one of Europe's iconic wildlife wetlands, situated in the delta of the River Guadalquivir in Andalusia, south from Sevilla in Spain. Since most of my friends have some interest in wildlife, I figured I might be able to tempt a few to join me.

I therefore felt delighted, flattered and honoured when no fewer than 26 representatives of my family, former colleagues and students, Maalie Courtiers and friends (including one from Australia) sat down to dinner with me at the restaurant of La Aldea camp site in El Rocio on 12 May.

The town of El Rocio across the lagoon formed by La Rociana River. The town is host to a Romerio (pilgrimage) of millions of gypsies every summer

Apart from the dinner, the principle focus of the weekend was a birdwatching tour of part of the Coto Donaña guided by John Butler of Donaña Bird Tours (he took us in groups of eight over three days). On these, and other excursions, we were able to accumulate sightings of some 125 bird species, some of which are specialities of the region, for example Azure-winged Magpie, Purple Gallinule, Crested Coot, an assemblage of wetland species of herons, egrets, flamingoes, waders (including Collared Pratincole), waterfowl and spoonbills.

Part of the marismas (marshes) of the Coto Doñana, habitat of huge colonies of wetland bird species

Simon (from Australia) and Pam take a stroll round one of the board walk trails in the Donaña National Park

Trudy, Alun and Simon at the headquarters of the
Doñana National Park

Trips were also made into the surrounding countryside to find such Andalusian goodies as Black Vulture and Griffin Vultures, White Stork and Black Stork, Booted and Golden Eagles and Golden Oriole and Red-necked Nightjar.

Popular on the list of sights was the castle at Niebla which (in addition to housing in the dungeon a museum of instruments of torture dating to the Spanish Inquisition) provides nesting sites in the crevices for colonies of Pallid Swift and Lesser Kestrel, and a White Stork's nest on top of the tower!

Niebla Castle - the crevices provides nesting places for some interesting bird species

Happiness at the realisation of my (completely unexpected) retirement present of a bicycle!
Photo by Davy

Independent reports of the party have been written by the Pretender and Lorenzo the Llama

My guests at the party were: Alun & Trudy; Jill & Peter: Stuart & Christine: Tom & Gisela: Graeme & Marianne; Will: Dave & Jude; Ken; Pam; Richard, Maria & Niki; Kate & Kelly; Dave; Ken & Linda; Simon; John & Rebecca Butler.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


DachaBoris' and Tanya's taiga forest dacha - "somewhere in Russia"

I arrived in St. Petersburg on Saturday evening, April 21st as the guest of Boris, Tanya and Lena. Early the next morning Boris and I set off to spend the next five days at the family dacha, some 150 miles east in the tiny village of Crasnaya Gora surrounded by taiga forest. If you have Google Earth you can zoom in to 58°50'N, 33°51'E to locate it. We were joined by Boris' hunting friends Dmitri and Tanya.

Boris, Dmitri, Jim and Tanya have dinner at the dacha

The first spring migrant birds were already established, with Redwings and Fieldfares (that might have been wintering in Britain a fortnight earlier) singing on territory, and Pied Flycatchers and Wheatears passing through. A beautiful male Pallid Harrier was a "lifer".

However, it is the speciality birds of the taiga forest that were of special interest. Hazel and Black Grouse were found quite easily but the hunter's Holy Grail, the Capercaillie, secretive in the more inaccessible swamps of the deeper forest, presented more of a challenge. I had not seen one since visiting Scotland as a teenager.

Dmitri and Tanya display their hunting spoils - capercaillie, mallards and woodcocks

Dmitri and Tanya located a covey one evening and returned with a magnificent cock (restricted to one bird per hunter). Early the following morning I set off, equipped with GPS, and spent a couple of hours treading carefully around the forest swamps, totally lost in orientation "somewhere in Russia", depending entirely on the GPS to find my way out!

The tangle of the swampy taiga, habitat of the elusive capercaillie

I had practically given up hope when a hen Capercaillie flushed just ahead of me and I was rewarded with a brief but clear view as she rose steeply and disappeared into the impenetrable tangle of the taiga.

I was happy to spot the architect of this arboreal sculpture (beaver)..

But maybe just as well I didn't encounter the author of this forest track (brown bear)...

I felt quite wistful to leave the peace and isolation of the beautiful taiga but also excited at the prospect of exploring St. Petersburg during my remaining week.

Evening view from the dacha


One long ambition has been to see a performance by one of the great Russian ballet companies. So a chance to see the Kirov Ballet in the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre was not to be missed. It definitely became one of those "What the heck, you only live once" moments when I was able to snap up one of the only two remaining tickets for Sunday's performance!

Mariinsky Theatre
Now, I am not saying that upon entering the tiered auditorium of the Mariinsky Theatre and setting eyes on the famous stage curtain I was instantly visited by the spirits of Diaghilev, Grigoriev, Fokine, Petipa, Nijinski, Anna Pavlova, Léon Bakst, and many other names associated with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes that I have read about and studied. Nevertheless it was impossible not to be moved by the occasion and to be minded of the importance of its place in the history of the performing arts.

The magnificent guilded circles
The performance comprised three ballets by Balanchine: Serenade (Tchaikovsky), The Prodigal Son (Prokoviev) and Ballet Imperial (Tchaikovsky). The latter represented an additional bonus as the music is Tchaikovsky's less-often performed second piano concerto, and Ulyana Lopatkina in the lead role was stunning. I was pleased too that a historic link was made as Prodigal Son was the last work that Balanchine choreographed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1929 with Serge Lifar in the title role.

I shall not attempt a full review here except to say I saw some wonderful dancing during a truly memorable occasion.

Inside the Mariinsky

Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I spent my very first earned income (twenty-five shillings, picking apples, aged 16) on an 'Ace of Clubs' recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Opus 64) played by L'Orchestra de la Swisse Romande, under Earnest Ansermet. This rather brooding music might not have been in accord with the tastes of my peers but for me marked the beginning of an enduring passion for his music.

I discovered some time ago that his grave is located in the Tikhvin Cemetery in the grounds of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery close to the Riva Neva in St Petersburg and ever since it has been my intention to visit it in to order to mark my respect for the composer who has given me a lifetime’s joy.

Image of a genius

And so I met up with my charming hostess Lena who helped me to choose six white roses (“one for each of his symphonies”) to place on his memorial.

Tchaikovsky's memorial


During my week in St. Petersburg I was able to visit many of the finest sights. The Hermitage Museum; a boat trip down the Neva to the Gulf of Finland; the remarkable cathedrals and the Admiralty building; a five km stroll along the Nevsky Prospect to the monastery; a visits to the chemist Mendeleev’s study, now preserved as a museum, his original manuscripts of drafts of his Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (a component of A-level chemistry syllabuses everywhere).

So much to see and do. I hope these few images will give a flavour of the city.
Peter and Paul Fortress at dusk - the view from my window!

The Hermitage

The Winter Palace from the River Neva

St. Isaac's Cathedral from the Riva Neva

Thank you Lena for looking after me so charmingly!