Sunday, 15 July 2012

To the lighthouse!

Killantringan Lighthouse
It's been another long break between camera outings, but during the last week I have managed to get out and about in Scotland - during a week of amazingly nice weather in comparison to the rest of the UK.

Knock Bay
In between bouts of wall building and painting we made a few trips out and a star day was the trip to Killantringan Lighthouse. It has a nearby car park overlooking Knock Bay and is the point where the Southern Upland Way (which starts in lovely Portpatrick) cuts inland. As usual across the Rhins of Galloway there were miles of farms with a variety of livestock (well varied sheep and cattle).  We dropped down to the coast on a road guarded by cattle grids, separating sheep, suckler herds and young beef cattle fattening on the lush grass.  Galloway does grow good grass.
We parked up and enjoyed the fabulous scene across Knock bay, hugely busy with people - well OK - maybe just the one family of about 6 people, enjoying the huge stretch of hard packed sand left by the receding tide. Having tossed a coin on direction we headed south along the Southern Upland Way, past the lighthouse, Portamaggie and Portavadie, following the cliff top path.  Every spot had a special view and the peaceful location boasted only the natural sounds of the coast - waves on the cliffs, gulls, kittiwakes, larks and pipits.

Lesser spotted orchid
Bird's foot trefoil
We passed through one gate to find there had been no grazing beyond it, and the difference was amazing. Swathes of different grasses, reminding me of the hedgerows and hayfields I passed as a child, full of flowers. There were flowers I cannot (yet) name, to my shame, as well as a spectacular collection of lesser spotted orchids. We sat and enjoyed them for a while hoping that the birds would forget us and come closer too - to no avail - distant views of stonechats, pipits, wheatear, grouse, gulls and kittiwake were all we got!



Variety of grass in front of the foghorn

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Logan Botanic Gardens: a feast of colour

Wollemi pine in an Australian shrubbery
Olearia bush
On Monday the weather had warmed up markedly and the sun was shining ... so gardening or a day out? Well as soon as we were up it became obvious, as there was no water - a quick call to Scottish Water established a burst main affecting the whole area, likely to be out until afternoon. We set out to find a garden with a tea room to visit - there are after all lots to choose from in Galloway. Our first choice was Glenwhan, but they were affected by the lack of water too, so we headed further afield - all of 15 miles to Logan Botanic gardens.
Olearia close-up
This is one of the National Botanic Gardens of Scotland and a gem, taking advantage of the narrow peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea and the effects of the warm gulf stream. The garden is built around a large walled garden, with a huge Koi pond, and well established shrubs and perennial plantings. I was expecting the rhodedenrons and azaleas, but these were present selectively, amongst a wide range of flowering plants as well as collections of trees from around the world, particularly Australasia, but also South America. One of the more famous trees here is a specimen of the Wollemi pine - a primitive, ancient pine tree found in an isolated gorge in Australia in recent years. It was obvious not from it's showy presence but from the large exhibit notice standing in front of it!
The pictures selected here illustrate the things that struck me as I wandered round, particularly the range of colour to be found. Green was obvious - in all its shades. Clean and outstanding whites in abundance in such plants as the pristine arum lilies, glorious Olearia - aka New Zealand holly or the daisy bush, or the bottle brush plant. The Olearia in particular was stunning, forming mounds of frothy, scented balls of flowers, set off by the backdrop of evergreen trees from around the world.

Scarlet showing
For blue, there was the last of this year's bluebells under the tree canopy but most striking of all for me the meconopsis - aka Himalayan poppy which is the clearest blue and unbeatable in my book. Blue also featured among the rockery plants colonising the garden's huge brick walls, mixing with a white daisy and yellow stonecrops.Yellows and oranges appeared mostly in the form of azaleas and also in the fresh young leaves bursting everywhere and in the flashes of the huge Koi in the pond. Stunning reds blazed in the rhodedenrons and in the Chilean Flame trees just coming into flower. finally there was black - featuring in the arid beds in the form of aeonium gleaming in the sun.

Wall plantings

Arum Lilies

Rhodedenron close up
bottle-brush plant
Making a feature of an island bed
Formals Walk
Tasmanian Glade with Dixonian pine

big fish!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Back on the road

Pied Wagtail with camoflaged chick
In some ways I can't believe it's been over a month since I posted a blog, but then again it's either been so hectic, I just haven't had time to get out or the weather has been foul.
Last week we were due in Scotland and I was really looking forward to getting out with the camera... until the day we were due to leave when I twisted my ankle and landed on both knees on concrete.  Not a pretty memory, but after a trip to A&E to confirm nothing broken, it took the first 3 days of the long weekend resting to get mobile again.
Waiting patiently by the pond: pied wagtail chick
Ahhh water!
So we finally got the cottage and a good thing too, because although the weekend was cold and windy for June, it wasn't the wet misery experienced further south.  It didn't take the birds long to find the refilled feeders, using them to supplement the ample natural food in and around the garden. The pied wagtail was busy hawking for insects in the lane to feed their fledged young along the top of the stone walls. The sparrows and finches were teaching their young about feeders and also about drinking from the pond, which was lower than normal, providing good perches on the exposed stems of the water lilies.
The story of the wildlife though was yet again the things I missed because the camera wasn't close enough. A pair of ravens playing in the strong winds, the wrens, the full sparrow family drinking at the pond, the buzzards and star of the weekend a beautiful stoat, scurrying along the top of the wall across the lane, who stopped in surprise when he realised I was watching. We stared at one another for a long minute then he bustled on his way, using the wall as his highway.

Male sparrow

Jackdaw eyeing the field

Male siskin

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Back to wildlife

A friend recommended a walk at Little Paxton in Cambridgeshire, in particular as a site where you can hear nightingales.  So as we were both awake early we headed out there to check it out.
Little Paxton, South Heronry lake
Almost as soon as we hit the path around the lake we realised what a special habitat it was.  Managed by a local group, there was a variety of vegetation from pasture and crops to scrub, trees and lakes.  The dawn chorus was in full swing.  We hadn't gone 400 yards before we found the first nightingale.  Well when I say found ... I mean heard.  It was in hawthorn seemingly right above our heads but we couldn't see it.  The sound was amazing though.
cooperative male chaffinch
We heard them several times and also a very near cuckoo - again well concealed in trees.  The recent floods made the riverside walk impassable, so we wandered back spending time in the hides where I saw a kingfisher and common tern - none in a position to be photographed.  Across the lake a colony of cormorants were raising some very advanced young, who were chuntering noisily as the parents began to come back with breakfast.

Along the way I remembered I had my movie camera for once, so I filmed a very photogenic bush (not) in an effort to capture the nightingale's song.  As a final treat, a male blackcap was hunting for food in a tree by the entrance, stopping every now and then to treat us to a tuneful song, giving me a brief opportunity to film him. Both recordings are in the attached video ...the bushes have been "digitally enhanced!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

La Serenissima: Venice at last

The Rialto bridge
La Serenissima: The local nickname for Venice.  I've wanted to visit for many years and we finally got there this April, as part of a 3-city break.

The Grand Canal
 We arrived by train from Padua - a little the worse for wear after a woman did her best to break my toe on the platform in the scrum to get on the train. The toe was beautifully black for a few days but fortunately that was the extent of the damage, so although it slowed me up (further) it didn't stop me getting round the city - and as we had Vaporetta passes, we could always retire to one of those for a rest if we were tired of slogging along on foot.
We had tried to get a hotel within walking distance of the station and by and large achieved that. although we might have done better with 2 light bags to negotiate the intervening bridges, rather than one larger bag between us. At least I would have felt less guilty as George lugged the bag up and over every bridge.  Although it was on wheels, the uneven pavements weren't ideal for the clearance we had!

Mansion with frescoes
 Once we got settled we headed back to claim our Vaporetta passes and to get started by taking the "number 1" vaporetta down the Grand canal from the station.  Definitely a good way to sample the atmosphere and become orientated. I was lucky that the boat we ended on had a lower window than some, and a free window seat, letting me get some early shots from the boat.
As it was lovely and sunny, we decided to stop on the boat to the end of the line, going all the way to Lido - a good move as the weather closed in and a prolonged shower made the rest of the day a bit damp, to say the least. It was great to get out into the lagoon and get a view of the famous city skyline.
Building in Venice: barge-born concrete mixers (Gritti Palace)
More external art work
 Our hotel was in Campo Sta Margharitta which we discovered was a lively place frequented by students in the evening, but luckily we weren't too disturbed by any late night revels.  There were several nice bars and restaurants and an artisanale ice-cream parlour. What more could anyone want?
Campo Sta Margheritta
One of the other best things we did was to book Doges; Palace tickets for 9am. (OK - I could have got as early as 8:30 am but I thought that was pushing my luck!). I'm an early bird anyway, but we headed out as soon as we were awake, taking the boat to St Marks Square arriving before 8am.  We almost had the place to ourselves and got plenty of opportunity to get some images.  My favourite of these is the sun streaked arcade around the outside of the palace. However I did get a selection of others including the campanile and the Bridge of Sighs without having to use my elbows to obtain shooting space. Apart from the obvious targets there was a lot to capture, including the usual selection of frescoes, mosaics and statues, my favourite being the ones carved to fit around the exterior corner of a building - the Doge's Palace has several.  The palace itself was amazing and full of prime 14 / 15th C art.  My favourite of all the rooms was a map room with enormous terrestrial / celestial globes as big as 2 metres across and frescoes depicting Venice's view of the world, including a map of the south China sea painted "upside down" compared to our normally expected view of the region. The palace reflects the riches of the Venetian empire as well as the power and organisation of the civil administration centred there. Because of our timing we almost had some rooms to ourselves.

Gondola boat-yard
 When we finally emerged it was a bit of a shock. So many people were queueing for St Marks basilica and wandering through the square, it was hard to move - a real change from 8am!
We then spent the rest of the day touring the streets enjoying the nooks and crannies we found as well as all those magnificent buildings and views,  with the odd stop-off for a coffee - or later on the almost obligatory Campari Spritz... when in Italy...!!  Later in the afternoon we took the boat to Murano and wandered through the glass-making area admiring the fantastic art glass work on display - way beyond my budget.

Classic Venetian view from St Marks Sq.
Doge's Palace with Venetian Lion
On Saturday we headed out to the northern lagoon. We had a later start as we had to meet the hotel staff to check out - our hotel was only staffed at limited hours, meaning we couldn't book out in the evening or early morning - the only drawback with an otherwise nice pied-a-terre.  Our big mistake was to try and catch the vaporetta at any stop other than the first - as a result it was crammed, standing room only, and too many people trying to get off at Mazzarbo that the crew got fed up and just left, taking us all on to Burano - not a great distance but annoying all the same. we took the boat out to Torcello immediately, which turned out to be a gem - an oasis of calm in comparison and mostly a wildlife island with a few houses - and the oldest Basilica in Venice- founded in the 7thC and the building largely complete by 11thC.  As usual I was a good rule-abiding person and didn't get the camera out as it was banned (note to self - and other travellers: Get a compact!) so I have no pictures of my own to share.  However I can't recommend this church enough as a highlight of my tour - the walls are decorated with glass mosaics and are the most incredible art works, along with the worked stone and marble tiled mosaic floors - and not at all crowded as other churches in Venice might have been.  So to see what I mean take a look here to get a flavour of the place.

The Campanile in St Mark's square
We then headed to Burano for a walk through it's lace vendors, and very colourful streets. I must admit I found it very attractive and not as busy as the vaporetta had led me to believe.  As we'd headed to the islands. we'd taken a picnic, so we headed across the bridge to Mazzorbo, courtesey of a web recommendation and we sat in the public gardens, beside a vineyard, under the shade of some fruit trees, looking at the small community at the other end of the island - perfect!

Corner statue of (?) Mayans? - St Mark's.

One entrance to the palace
External arcade of Doge's Palace

Torcello - "High Street"

Torcello: Basilica maintenance


Colourful Burano

Burano: the leaning tower