Ecuadorean Squirrel Hawk

During the evolution of the hawk species, one particular branch, the males of the Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk, started attacking other animals to satisfy their own vanity.

The male Ecuadorian Squirrel Hawk would build a nest in the traditional manner. It would then have to attract a mate. The unusual method of attraction used by this bird was not a display of hunting prowess or an elaborate dance. The male hawk would clinically remove the tail from any mammal it could find and then hang these tails from the nest to try and attract a female hawk. Over the years, the squirrel hawk must have deduced that squirrel tails worked the best and so decided it could hunt rats, mice, and other rodents for food, but squirrels should be left alone as their tails were more important than their meat for the preservation of the hawk species.

The male hawk would place the tails in fetching arrangements designed to impress the female hawk. Some hawks would drape the tails over the sticks in the nest to make the nest more comfortable for their potential partners. Other hawks would hang the tails from the nest, where they would sway in the wind and catch the eye of any passing females.

The unusual behaviour of these birds has also led to a change in the appearance of Ecuadorian squirrels, whose tails are, on average, 65% shorter than in other squirrel species. These squirrels also sit on their tails when at rest unlike other squirrels whose tails stick out behind them when they are sitting still eating a nut. It’s also believed the Ecuadorian Ground Squirrel may have evolved from particular families of Ecuadorian Squirrels who lived close to hawk’s nests and who were attacked more than other squirrels.

Extract from Animals Evolution Forgot

Arles – France

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, in the city of Arles there’s both a Roman Arena and a Roman theatre for tourists to see. The Arena was the largest Roman building in the whole of France and staged gladiatorial contests when 30,000 people would have crammed in to witness the spectacle. Looking at the Arena today, I found it difficult to imagine a third storey on top of the existing two, along with a canvas roof to protect the lower classes of Roman society from the vagaries of the weather, mostly the intense sun of the summer.

Sadly, the Arena in Arles is used for traditional bull-fighting where the bull usually ends up being killed unless it somehow shows immense bravery whilst staying alive in the arena. The only hope for the future is younger people don’t become interested in this awful spectacle and stay away. Bullfighting has been banned in Catalunya over the border in north-eastern Spain and hopefully this ban can be extended into France.

If people must go and see bulls and men in a contest, they should make sure it is the indigenous genre of bullfighting known in Provence and Languedoc as “course libre” or “course camarguaise”. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is for the men in the ring, known as raseteurs, to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull with only a claw-shaped metal instrument called a raset. The men who do this have trained for many years as they have absolutely no protection in the ring. The stars of these spectacles are the bulls, who get top billing and stand to gain fame and statues in their honour. This type of contest seems to be descended from the bull-leaping feats practised during Minoan times in Crete around 3,750 years ago.

The Roman Theatre is not well preserved, in fact only one pair of columns are still standing along with some of the original seating. Most of the original stone was taken away to build local churches such as St Trophime, but this doesn’t prevent the theatre being an atmospheric setting for 3,000 people to see plays and musical performances.

Continuing down Rue de la Calade and turning left into Place de la Republique the visitor comes to the aforementioned Church of St Trophime, named after a 3rd Century bishop of Arles. This western doorway of the church is stupendously carved. The whole scene shows the Day of Judgement. Jesus is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists. The 12 disciples are depicted underneath Jesus. On the right, those heading for Hell can be seen chained together. St Stephen is being stoned to death underneath them. In times when few people could read, the message was very clear. It is also the message that modern day pilgrims see as they head away from Arles on the Way of St James towards Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The scallop shell markers indicate the way.

Extract from the book : Travels through History – France

Cape Town – 1

No matter how many times I gazed at Table Mountain, rested on the Atlantic beaches, or savoured the food at one of the many restaurants at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, I could never really escape the history of Cape Town. Robben Island, the Slave Lodge on Wale Street, and the Bo Kaap district all lead you back to a dark past, a past that adds a certain zest to any visit here. There’s a reason for everything here and this intriguing past makes Cape Town a must-visit city.

Book well in advance for your trip to Robben Island especially in the summer holidays when there can be a wait of two weeks before there’s a free spot. Try and get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront early to board the boat as the best seats are on the top deck with the views of Table Mountain especially eye-catching.

Extract from – Ten Traveller’s Tales

France – Orange

Orange is justly famous for its Roman Arena, known as the Theatre Antique, and the Arc de Triomphe on the opposite side of the town. The Romans first arrived in 35BC and soon provided Aurisio, as it was known to them, with its two most visited sights of today.

Aurisio was founded as a retirement colony for veterans of the Roman Army who had served under Augustus during his campaigns against Marc Antony – yes, retirement communities were first thought of in Roman times. Aurisio became the seat of a bishop towards the end of the 3rd century AD and hosted two important synods, in 441 and 529. The Second Council of Orange was important for its condemnation of what later came to be called the Semipelagianism heresy relating to the salvation of Man.

After the Romans left, Charlemagne made Orange the seat of the Counts of Orange. When William the Silent, count of Nassau, with estates in the Netherlands, inherited the title Prince of Orange in 1544, the principality was incorporated into the holdings of what became the House of Orange-Nassau and the title passed to the Crown of Holland. One of William the Silent’s descendants, also called William, became King of England in 1688 along with his consort Mary. This William was crowned as William III and won the battle of The Boyne in 1690 defeating the Catholic former James II. This is how Protestants in Northern Ireland became known as Orangemen. It seemed ironic to me that when I was visiting Orange, the marching season had just begun in Northern Ireland and that these two things were connected albeit in a tenuous way.

The Theatre Antique has a vast curtain wall, the outside of which is visible from the town centre. It is the only theatre in Europe to have preserved this wall in its entirety. This theatre is quite possibly the best preserved Roman theatre in the entire world and would have held different entertainment to that seen at the Arena in Nimes. Here at Orange plays, musical shows, and comedy would have been on offer, sometimes throughout the day. Audiences could have been as high as 10,000 and, as at Nimes, the social order of Roman times was preserved in the theatre – the nearer the front you were, the more important you were. Across town, the triple-arched Arc de Triomphe commemorates the victories of the Second Legion over the Gauls in the third-to-last decade before the birth of Christ. The Arc is in the middle of a large traffic island allowing visitors some peace to inspect the carvings of the Roman victors, which seem to be better preserved than those of the vanquished Gauls.

Rhône glacier installation by Noémie Goudal – in pictures

The Rhône glacier in the Swiss Alps is shrinking due to climate change. Artist Noémie Goudal produced and photographed an installation of the changing landscape for Project Pressure

Bhutan

Standing by the doorway I watch, in the paved courtyard in front of me, the individual deities performing their final pirouettes for the crowd, who warmly applaud each balletic finale. As the dancers pass by me, they are displaying the more human traits of tiredness and exhaustion, a result of performing in a heavily masked costume under a warm sun for nearly an hour. This is the end of the Dance of the Terrifying Deities at the Paro Festival, one of the most important cultural celebrations in Bhutan, the Land of the Dragon, in the Eastern Himalaya.

Bhutan is bordered to the North and East by China and to the South and West by India. I flew to Paro from Kathmandu with the National Airline Druk Air, over some of the world’s highest peaks including Mount Everest. This flight gives you a teasing introduction to the hiking opportunities in this country on their wonderfully named treks: the Druk Path trek; the Bumthang Culture Trek and the strenuous Snowman Trek, a 221 mile, 3 week journey along some of the remotest and highest valleys of the northern areas of Bhutan, parts of which can be cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year.

However, like me most travellers from abroad choose to attend instead, one of the fascinating Tsechu festivals as part of their visit. These Tsechus are Buddhist religious festivals where masked dances performed by trained monks depict events from the life of an eighth century Buddhist teacher and provide Bhutanese from far and wide with a wonderful reason to dress up, gather together and enjoy a cultural experience in a light-hearted atmosphere. It is also an occasion to renew their faith and to receive the blessing of a lama or Buddhist monk.

This mixture of humour and faith is also reflected in the presence of atsaras in the dances. These clowns, who mingle on the periphery of the performance, sport fiendish masks, make lewd gestures, crack salacious jokes, and are entitled to mock both spiritual and temporal subjects, so bringing a lighter side to otherwise serious matters. Musicians accompany every performance and play a variety of instruments from drums to high-pitched flutes. The most atmospheric is the deeply resonating yak-horn that lends an immense sense of importance and solemnity to the dances, which have evocative names, such as the Dance of the Lord of death and his consort; the Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds and The Dance of the Four Stags.

My personal favourite was the Dance of the Terrifying Deities. In this dance, each dancer’s mask is primarily of one colour, with the eyebrows high-lighted in another. The teeth are bared in an evil grimace. Every mask has five small horns, each with a skull at the base of it and each with a piece of differently coloured ribbon attached to it, which lends a sweep of drama to head movements. As a costume, the dancers wear a light coloured cape over a highly coloured brocade dress, which has flowing sleeves that mimic the pattern of the dress, as do the pants that are worn underneath. A pair of beige coloured boots completes the outfit and each participant carries a ceremonial dagger.

Tourists to the festival are provided with a program describing in English the schedule for the 5 days of dances and also a description of their religious significance and meaning. The local people are incredibly accommodating, waiting patiently while I take pictures of them in their national dress and very politely ushering me forward to get close-ups of some of the action. An outdoor market takes place at the same time as the Tsechu in the monastery grounds, where you can buy local souvenirs or foodstuffs and indulge in some rather dated gambling games which are officially frowned upon but nevertheless tolerated on such occasions as these.

At Paro Tsechu, a large and beautifully appliquéd ‘Thanka’ scroll, known in Bhutanese as a “Tongdrol”, is gradually unfurled from the roof of a four storey building before dawn on the final day. This Thankha measuring 90 feet by 70 feet, embroidered in silk, is more then 300 years old. The devout line up to touch it and receive merit before it is rolled up again before the first rays of the sun hit it. Bhutan only allows a few thousand visitors per year into the country and this ensures that like the Tongdrol, its essential character isn’t faded by outside influences.

Extract from : Julian’s Journeys

France – Provence

Gordes looks spectacular as it tumbles down the hillside towards the Luberon Valley. The houses and hotels appear well-kept and largely unspoilt with clumps of trees and the occasional swimming pool breaking up the sporadic pattern of buildings. Gordes doesn’t immediately strike the visitor as a place where wealthy people live, but that is probably the appeal. Gordes is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, one of just 156 French villages with that classification.

Around a hundred years ago, Gordes would have looked very different. Dilapidated houses were being abandoned by the villagers and the whole village was falling into ruin. This began to change slowly once Cubist painter André Lhote discovered Gordes in 1938 followed by Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and other modern artists who visited and spent the summer in Gordes. Gradually, Gordes became the place where painters, musicians, and film directors wanted to be seen. The houses were restored and the prices soared as artists took a second home in Gordes.

Today, Gordes is one of the most visited places in The Luberon with some of the most costly housing on the planet. The art shops are expensive as are most of the places to eat. However, most visitors seem to amble around the castle and main square, so the back streets tend to be almost deserted allowing the lucky visitor to sample the quietness with just the bees buzzing in the bougainvillea and birds singing in the sunshine. There is a chance to admire the cobblestones, the lovingly restored walls, and the intricate chimneys and roofs.

There is a view over the valley towards the village of Roussillon, which is built on ochre. In between Gordes and Roussillon are some of the most photographed fields in the world. Here is grown lavender in lovely lines disappearing into the horizon. Surely there is no other place in the world with such vibrant and contrasting colours as ochre and lavender in this close proximity. However, all is not sweetness and light. When the lavender is blooming there is a stampede of photographers to certain places with views of the purple-streaked fields, so much so that the police have to restrict access. In 2015, one photographer tried to mow down with his car some people he felt had deliberately got in the way of his potential prize-winning photograph. Luckily, he missed the people and hit a telegraph pole instead. There are murky, hidden depths even in the loveliest countryside.