I’m looking back with pleasure to a challenge completed. The eagles have been shot and are none the worse for the experience. I met lots of interesting people, saw and experienced some fantastic places and shot hundreds of pictures. The only disappointment was that so few people followed my website. This, I now discover, was partly due to a technical hitch which has now been sorted, so if you would like to keep in touch, please try again with the subscribe button on the home page . In the coming months I will be keeping records of interesting wildlife, landscapes and people and working on a selection of goods and services for sale at really attractive prices.

Posted in Shooting Eagles with a Canon | 5 Comments

Immigrants versus Natives

For the first time yesterday, my volunteer day at Dinefwr deer park, Llandeilo, I was able to spend some time in the newly rebuilt Castle Woods Hide at the southern end of the park. The resident mallards and coots had been joined by the advance guard of the winter population of wigeon, still in eclipse plumage with little sign of the distinctive yellow stripe on the head of the males. I was pleased to see the most recent immigrant to this area: a single Great White Egret, probably the same bird who was here most of last winter. Twenty years later than  the Little Egret, the GWE nested for the first time in Britain in 2012, and is now well established at estuaries in southern England and Wales. We now regularly see Spoonbills and expect to see Cattle Egrets very soon. In my lifetime Britain has been naturally colonised by Fulmars, Collared Doves, and these four members of the heron family. As with human colonisation, it’s all to do with resources – food and secure breeding sites, and no doubt climate change is playing its part in redistributing these. 

He or she was stalking the shallow water at the far end of the first lake. Then I saw a heron flying towards it. There was a brief flurry and the much larger egret moved back. The heron landed and for the next twenty minutes the egret seemed to be following the heron.

This could easily be a co-incidence, but I felt that the native heron knew this feeding ground better than the immigrant egret:  first being aggressive towards it, then more tolerant. Anthropomorphic? Probably, but interesting behaviour anyway. The same theme occurred to me later in my slow walk round the boundary. Moving very carefully I was able to spend a good 10 minutes observing and photographing this splendid very pale coloured buck; clearly a Dinefwr native.
Moving slowly along the southern fence I suddenly saw the fence being violently pulled to and fro. The aggressor was a large medium brown buck who was clashing antlers with another buck glimpsed between the trees on the other side of the fence. Both were beyond a slight rise so I had to move to get pictures. I had a few seconds before they took fright – just enough time to catch the “native”,

but I could not achieve focus on the intruder – one of the feral population of Fallow deer from the Cawdor estate, drawn to the park by the  surplus of females. Autofocus works by selecting contrasting edges, and here, in deep shade, there was no contrast. The intruder was all black!

Posted in This Wild Life | 3 Comments

Genoa: the noise, the dirt and the splendour

We arrived by train on Sunday, and it took a long time to find a toilet, which then charged us I euro each. How I miss the old French style pissoire: a simple shelter, a modicum of privacy, zero-carbon and free! We then had to find the underground rail line. My guess was the red letter M, but there was no other indication, so eventually we asked someone, who pointed to the red letter M. The ticket machine had an English version, but since the barriers were all open, and nobody seemed to bother with tickets, what we were supposed to do with them remained a mystery.

All this is no criticism of the Italian rail system, but an indication of how much of their world city dwellers take for granted. If you don’t know that the underground is called Metro, you don’t know what the M means. Eventually two weary rustics with luggage which seemed OK at Bristol airport but which was now far too  heavy, emerged into the harbour area – a mass of heavy traffic, bounded on one side by the massive slab sides of cruise ships and on the other by a steep hill covered in high-rise apartment blocks. It was very noisy and very dirty. We had the name of the street, but did not know which way to turn to find it. There’s a map on a bus stop which shows the street, but it’s facing the wrong way and I was too tired to work out how to reverse it, so we ended up going too far in the wrong direction. A kind man came with us all the way back and showed us the right way – just round the corner and uphill.

More dogged trudging past piles of discarded furniture  until we see a smiling but anxious looking lady beckoning us into an elegant entrance hall.  She is our Air BnB host, and she shows us into a strikingly modern and expensive looking flat with no discernible daylight. The table is crowded with decorations – candles, place settings, baskets, ornaments and best of all, two cake stands with delicious looking cakes.

There is actually an outside space – a little yard bounded by a sheer rock face and a tiny patch of sky five stories up. The yard has chairs and a table; even a parasol, so we worked out that it must get an hour or two of sun in the middle of the day, and in the hot days of summer might be quite pleasant.

When Thelma found the flat online, the idea of being by the harbour conjured up visions of Bristol Harbour, but Avonmouth would have been a better example. There are two major roads between us and the ships – one on stilts on top of the other. Then comes the huge ferry terminal with ferries going to places as remote sounding as Tangiers. Beyond that is the container port, all of which has its own magic in the early morning.

Genoa: noisy and dirty, population 580,000, is an industrial city, in contrast to Florence: noisy and clean, population 382,000. Genoa also claims the largest old city centre in Europe, a maze of little alleys and squares. The centre is only two stops on the Metro, and we step up into the old harbour with its film-set galleon. Heading inland, we soon find ourselves entangled in an area very different from  the equivalent in Florence. Here we are a minority: the alleys are alive with a very urban population speaking, as the TV subtitles insultingly say “own language”, in this case Italian. 

As you go deeper into the maze you come across young ladies with provocative clothing standing on the corners and eyeing the men. Did I instinctively move closer to Thelma? It is at the same time a rough area and a palatial one. Every little square has its palace and the Via Garibaldi is nothing but palaces. It seems the 16th C Genovese merchants vied with each other to build accommodation suitable for inclusion on a sort of Renaissance Trip Advisor, the “Palazzi dei Rolli”: 160 of them, all grand enough to host a state visit. Some of these palaces are now banks, some house city institutions, some are still privately owned. Most have sumptuous courtyards, wonderful frescos, columns, statues, putti, and stucco, but the only way to admire the roof line is to be in the fifth floor of the palace opposite. You can imagine these  obscenely wealthy merchants glowering at each other from across the narrow street.

This is a city where the buskers sing arias and look like this: We spent two glorious sunny days out of the city. First a ride in the longest of the 5 funicular railways which are part of the metropolitan transport system:It takes us to a quiet road which follows the line of the astonishingly extensive outer city walls, up to a hilltop fortress, now ruined.  Here I am overjoyed to catch, after many attempts, a decent picture of a European Hornet: On another day we went to the glorious little resort town of Portofino:

where we had the most expensive lunch imaginable in a perfect setting.

Three of the Rolli Palaces are open to the public and on our last day we spent several exhausting hours examining a series of huge and grandiose paintings. They chart the cultural trends of the late 15th to late 17th centuries, and the “revolutions” in style which marked each phase. In the middle was a strong Flemish influence which brought a greater degree of realism and more detail, but that gave way to Baroque and then Rococco, both styles characterised by the same writhing half-naked bodies, the surfeit of cherubs, the same old biblical and classical themes that we saw in the earlier rooms and saw far too much of in Florence. I give up.

Exhausted, we indulged in coffee and cake therapy and then set off to walk through what turned out to be the African quarter, peopled by tall, elegant  young men looking poor but stylish, and some women in flamboyant African robes. It was a fascinating way to spend our last afternoon in Genoa.
Final verdict: a place of extremes: great beauty and dirty streets, a place where vast wealth rubs shoulders with real poverty in a densely packed living space –  and has done for a good 600 years.

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Florence re-evaluated

I like to record my first impressions of places and people. These are quite literally prejudices – pre-judgements. With more knowledge I can revise my opinions, so here is the way I see Florence after a week as a tourist.
The crowds were not quite so bad in the early evening. We had a pleasant stroll around the Piazza del Signoria, enjoying a beer in one of the pavement cafes where we could watch the Japanese couples having their wedding photographs taken.
Most of the world as represented here is “selfie crazy”, thrusting their phones out on poles so that they can be seen with some famous building in the background – the Ponte Vecchio being the favourite, as can be seen to the left in this picture, where a mass “selfathon” is going on:
I could never adapt to the noise in the centre. It wears me down. The traffic is horrible and I was always afraid of being hit by a bicycle, a scooter or a car. 

So, not much change there from my initial impressions. However, there is much to admire:

I never got tired of gazing up at the Duomo complex – the sheer grandeur of the architecture, the lovely muted colours of the marble. Much of old Florence has been restored, and the quality of restoration is excellent – lime plaster perfectly applied, delicate colours. Even the stairway in our building – one of the early ones on the river – is decorated with trompe-l’oeil mouldings in subtle greys and browns. Frescos are everywhere, and although I got bored with the biblical themes, the colours and shapes are very restful.

There is very little that is cheap in Florence. Everything on sale seems to have been passed by the taste police, who have eliminated the vulgar – with one colossal exception, the thing Florence is most famous for:

the art of the Renaissance.

Here I have to admit that I do not understand the appeal of Renaissance art. The fantastic skill of the artists is evident, as is their joy in their understanding of human anatomy. What I refuse to admire is the way the obscenely wealthy nobility of the 15th Century used that skill. I take as my example the Pitti Palace, one of the Medici palaces. Here no room is fit for use until every available surface is putti encrusted, gilded, stuccoed, frescoed, carved, painted, carpeted, veneered, and adorned with hundreds of human figures, naked but for wisps of drapery, and all with similar poses: the men glorifying, mourning, killing, abducting, or otherwise being heroic; the women beseeching, tantalising, posing, grieving.  All seem based on stories from classical Greece and Rome or the Bible. To me it seems horribly ostentatious.

Despite all this I love the packaging – the buildings. The architecture seems to belong to a different aesthetic, one of order and proportion. Take the wonderful convent of San Marco for example.

Nothing vulgar here:  the cloisters, refectory, library and cells have been beautifully restored, as has this example of a 15th C nun.

Each of the nuns cells has a fresco painted in the 15th century by Fra Angelico. The architecture is simple and delicate, the art restrained by the limited palette available when applied to fresh plaster.

As an atheist I of course found the obsession with the crucifixion in many of the pictures deeply disturbing, but there is a wholeness about this severe, inhumanly  narrow way of life which you have to admire.Why is there an almost total lack of public green space in the old city? I found the lack of non-human life quite eerie. Even in the supremely tranquil Bardini Gardens there was little bird life, though plenty of insects.

The only birds I saw in the city were pigeons and hooded crows with a few mallards on the river, keeping company with the odd heron and little egret. This is partly down to the season, with Florence presumably off the migration routes. But I think the main reason is that when the centre was created the only things that mattered were the glory of Man and the glory of God. Nature was to be conquered and tamed. It would be another three hundred years until the Romantics changed things. 

Do I still think Florence is tourist-unfriendly? To those amongst the crowds in the streets who can be identified as local we are either invisible or barely tolerated. To those servicing this vast industry, these 10 million visitors a year, we are welcome guests to be charmed and helped. When I lived in Bath I probably ignored the tourists. I don’t blame the Florentines, but I do condemn the tourist industry. It has made special places ordinary, and has damaged local communities. It is time to apply the brakes to the juggernaut.

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Conspicuous Consumption in Florence

Florence: a city dependent on tourism that doesn’t like tourists. Almost nothing is free – even the green spaces in the old city are expensive. Motor scooters scoot down every back alley, elegant cars squeeze into tiny spaces, everywhere in the historic centre, the traffic roars and howls. Everywhere too the dense crowds jostle each other for the use of ultra-narrow pavements and cobbled streets. The crowds are organised by hundreds of tour guides who hold up flags to show their flocks where to go and what to admire.

There is of course much to admire.  Down every back alley are fabulous studio workshops and show spaces for very special crafts. Shop fronts are works of art. Restaurants are works of art. The city is home to some of the most impressive buildings you will see anywhere. The museums are home to more of the world’s most famous art works than anywhere else. If you have deep pockets you can jump the endless queues waiting to pay a fortune for tickets to the greatest cathedrals, the most famous museums, the greatest sculptures.

And then there  is leather. This is the home of Gucci, and I cannot imagine anywhere with more leather outlets than Florence. In particular this open-air market of two long streets crossing each other must have contained a million leather belts.
I have never seen so many stalls selling the same range of products in one place – and never want to. How on earth do they all survive? Does every single tourist buy a new belt? Well, looking up the figures, even if there are a million belts on sale, only one in ten of the tourists needs to buy one! Yes, that’s correct: 10 million people visited Florence last year. This year it will be 10 million and two.

What particularly stuck me on our first venture into the city was the big name fashion shops near the river. One in particular had a whole window display devoted to what looked like a single shopping bag. OK, it was made of leather and a nice green colour, but otherwise there was nothing special about it – except the price: 3600 euros. It had a famous brand name of course – in this case I think it was Dolce and Gabbana. I could imagine that a really well made leather bag could cost up to £100, but there can only be one reason to pay thousands for a bag: you buy this thing to show how wealthy you are.

There are parallels in a world I am more familiar with: the natural world, and  in particular the evolutionary phenomenon called “sexual selection”. There are certain animals, which grow fantastically elaborate appendages such as tail feathers (birds of paradise) or antlers (the elk – in this case the extinct Irish Elk). These cost the animal a huge amount of energy to grow, and the only thing they are good for is to attract a mate. What the animal with ridiculously huge horns, or the person with a ridiculously expensive bag is saying is: “I am so powerful I can afford to waste resources. If you mate with me your offspring will be powerful too.”  The only problem with this theory is that the animal examples I quote are male and the human mostly female. Still, it’s not too hard to find examples of male conspicuous consumption. I rest my case.

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Concert for Madagascar

This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the first missionaries to travel from Wales to Madagascar, and Money for Madagascar, a brilliant charity that began life here in South West Wales, organised a stellar concert to mark the occasion. It took place last Saturday in the magnificent Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Since Thelma is a Trustee of the charity, and I introduced the virtuoso player of the valiha – Justin Vali – to Wales, we couldn’t miss the occasion, even though we are due to leave for our Italian holiday barely a day later. 

It was a wonderfully happy occasion with the Needham Ensemble, a wonderful  string sextet based in Wales, playing the first half, and the Justin Vali group with Paddy Bush, just about the only Brit to have mastered the other kind of Malagasi harp, the Marovani. Justin has a long association with the family, having performed on sister Kate’s legendary “Blue Shoes” album. The group became personal friends and it was wonderful for me to catch up with Justin, Doudou  and Paddy, and be introduced to Doudou’s daughter Mimi and the bass player Mami. 

At the end of the concert, a big group of adults and children processed round the stage dancing various versions of the traditional “Salegy” dance. 

Here are the pictures:

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