Swan Life

I saw the Union Canal swan family on my walk home at the weekend. This year the usual mating couple of adult swans had nine cygnets, back in the early spring, and I have been taking photos of them and watching them over the last few months. Back in mid-May they were just these tiny little balls of adorable fluff:

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By June they were growing, the fluff moulting out and their grey feathers starting to appear, as they got larger:

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By August they had grown to around the same size as their mum and dad – here they are being hand-fed by the lady who runs the Union Canal Swans twitter feed which reports on them:

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And now in September they have learned to fly, with most of the babies having now left the canal and gone off to find their own spot, probably one of the nearby lochs like those on Arthur’s Seat, where large groups of young swans stay until they mature (and the grey feathers go to white), then they find a mate and strike out to find their own spot, like their mum and dad have on the canal near me. I passed them at the weekend, and now there is only one cygnet still with the parents, the left have flown the nest. It’s remarkable to see them go from tiny creatures to these large, elegant birds taking wing in just a few months, a small miracle right here in the middle of the city, but at the same time it is also sad to see them leave.

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Family Outing Vid

New life

Out walking along the nearby Union Canal, and at last managed to get some decent photos of the swans with this year’s cygnets. I’ve managed to bag pics of them in previous years (I wonder if it is the same swan couple who return to this area each year?), and had heard from friends that they and their babies were in the area, but each time I walked along that way I didn’t encounter them, until a few days ago.

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The whole family was on the ramp by the towpath, across from the old boathouse at Harrison Park, some preening themselves while out of the water, others sleeping, while the mother and father swans kept guard so nobody got too close. I managed to take several photos, the cygnets still in the utterly adorable “fluffy” stage of down rather than full feathers yet, beautiful wee things. Amazing the magical sights you can find just a few moments from your home…

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I’ve seen the swans and the ducks along this stretch of the canal with their babies a number of times over the years, but each spring it is still something special and quite wonderful to see, and with so much uncertainty and trouble in the world it’s no bad thing to be reminded of the magic and beauty of nature all around us.

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And there goes the whole family, off for a wee paddle down the canal after their rest!

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Blue

Blue,
Directed by Karina Holden,
Sparky Pictures

Wherever you live on our planet, you are connected to the sea.”

This powerful and thoughtful documentary by Karina Holden (Magical Land of Oz) arrives at a very opportune time, as recent reports on the unbelievable amounts of plastic waste in our oceans is highlighted in reports and the media, and the Extinction Rebellion movement is pushing the environment further up the news and political agenda. Blue is a sort of ensemble documentary, taking in different aspects of human-made problems in different parts of our vast world oceans, with several guides, Lucas Handley, Madison Stewart, Philip Mango, Doctor Jennifer Lavers, Tim Silverwood, Mark Dia and veteran diver and campaigner for aquatic life, Valerie Taylor, taking us from bleached corals to the industrial slaughter of sharks to seabirds dying of malnutrition with stomachs full of small pieces of plastic and sea turtles dying a long, slow, lingering death caught in abandoned old fishing nets.

From that you may well infer that Blue is pretty heavy going, and in places you are correct – in fact there are moments here that are not just disturbing but sickening and horrific. Lavers performs an autopsy on a young fledgling, which died while still in the “fluffy” stage, its flight feathers not even fully formed. She strokes the tiny, vulnerable body very gently, her sorrow as yet another animal killed by our throwaway junk culture quite clear from her body language and how she handles the small body. When her autopsy reaches the stomach it crunches when pressed, because inside it is full of pieces of plastic, bits of old buttons, pen tops and more, which the chick’s parents had seen floating in the water, mistaken for food and taken back to feed the chick.

Stewart walks among Indonesian fisherman landing large numbers of sharks. She spots many species she has swum with back home in Australian waters, but these are all relatively small, because the fishermen are catching younger and younger sharks, and since this species is slow to mature and reach sexual reproduction levels, this over-fishing is especially devastating, giving little space for the species to recover, new sharks to mature. As the lifeless corpses are hauled into the sheds with hooks, they are lined up and then assaulted with knives, cutting off the fins – the mutilated remains of the bodies are then dumped back in the oceans, the fins sent off to richer markets, often China. It is to Stewart’s credit that while clearly revolted by this mass slaughter for so little (over seventy million sharks a year), she doesn’t blame the fisherman entirely, she is aware that most of these coastal villages are extremely poor, that they know the sea, they know they cannot continue like this, and yet if they don’t then they and their families will starve, they have nothing else but to harvest these creature’s fins to sell to richer markets.

Each of the experts and campaigners here shines a light on different aspects of how humanity is destroying the oceans, from industrialised fishing that exhausts the seas far beyond their ability to regenerate, to disgusting, huge amounts of plastic pollution (not just floating and looking bad but breaking into smaller pieces that life, from microscopic krill upwards eat, then they are eaten by larger fish, dolphins and whales and birds, moving this pollution up the food-chain – eventually to humans), to the increasing damage to delicate corals (and the great array of life they support around them) to the many old nets cut loose by fishermen around the world, drifting slowly in the currents and all-too often claiming more lives – an especially horrific scene shows a long string of nets, dotted with several bodies of seals, gently bobbing in the underwater current, dead. It’s sickening. And as one expert replies when asked who is responsible for all of this, we all are.

But no, this is not just about the horrors humans have inflicted – often not deliberately, just mindlessly, careless of the consequences of our actions – there is also a huge amount of beauty and even wonder to take in here too. There is some truly beautiful cinematography on offer in Blue, which stands in stark contrast to the vileness of the scenes of pollution or the large-scale slaughter. An early aerial shot shows clear water with moving dark patches – for a moment it looks like oil slicks, but then the dark patches move and it becomes clear these are huge shoals of fish, their movements synchronised, creating what looks from the air like dark moving blobs, then we are below the waves, the silvery, teeming balls of fish zipping and darting around Silverwood as he free-dives among them. In another scene he floats upside down as a whale floats above him, as if man and cetacean are observing one another peacefully. It’s stunningly beautiful, majestic, delivering a real sense of wonder – and reminding us what we’re fighting to save.

Blue is a mixture of the shocking and disturbing and even horrific contrasted with remarkable beauty and wonder, and for all the human-made disasters visited on the oceans – the seat of all life on our blue planet – there is a positive message here: we can slow then stop this brutal assault on the natural world (which is, in the long-term, an assault on ourselves too), we can undo some of the damage, protect others sites (the film highlights how some parts of the seas are now getting the protection national parks enjoy on land), and the film actively encourages the viewers to consider what we can all do as individuals to try and help.

There’s a fight going on here, and despite a depressing toll of awfulness, there is hope, there is still a chance, and Blue, for all the devastation in our oceans that it shows, retains a lot of positive energy and optimism that is infectious. More of us should be watching this and thinking about these issues, no matter how far from our own shores some of these events may be, as the opening quote reminds us, all our shores are connected to those great, globe-spanning tides on our vast world of water, and we all have a responsibility to it.

Blue Trailer from Blue The Film on Vimeo.

Blue is available now on digital on demand, and will be released on DVD on July 1st by Sparky Pictures Ltd.

Growing…

Remember the tiny young cygnets I photographed back in early June, sleeping in their nest among the reeds by the side of the canal near my home?

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I snapped them again about a month after that, swimming along the canal with their parents, now shedding the adorable fluffball look and starting to grow in their proper feathers:

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That last one was early July. Tonight I saw the whole Swan Family again as I walked home alongside the canal, one parent and cygnets all snoozing by the side of the canal and on the towpath, while one of the parents kept a watchful eye open:

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It’s as well one of the parents was on guard duty – most walkers, joggers and cyclists moved over onto the nearby grass to give the birds plenty of space, but one utter arsebag of a cyclist came charging at them full speed, with a “out my way” look on his face, he tried to zip past them only inches away. And the parent swan reared up, huge wings opened up, started hissing and lunged to peck his legs. Frightened the hell out of him, you better believe he finally swerved out the way then. Just pure stupidity and arrogance, he could have avoided them easily. Stupid thing to do, he could have harmed one of the swans, and swans can be quite bad tempered anyway if you get too close, but to do it to one guarding its children is just asking for the swan to have a go at you!

Frankly I’d have happily shoved him and his bike into the canal myself if I could. Anyway, most people passing were more considerate, gave them space and were clearly enjoying seeing such a lovely little natural bit of beauty and wonder. Quite lovely to just see things like this on your walk home in the middle of the city, from tiny, fluffy baby cygnets to rapidly growing youngsters, won’t be long before they are taking wing themselves.

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So. Much. Fluffiness

Walking home a couple of weeks ago along the Union Canal at Fountainbridge I came across the lovely sight of Mr and Mrs Swan taking their new fledglings along for a wee paddle, a flotilla of fluffy cuteness:

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Then this afternoon I found this little natural wonder: the fluffy cygnets all curled up together in their nest in some reeds by the edge of the canal, dozing in the warm afternoon sunlight as their parents floated in the water nearby, keeping an eye on their young charges. What a lovely little wonder to just come across…

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And here is one of the proud parents:

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Bright eyed and bushy tailed

Made a new friend while walking down Middle Meadow Walk. Extremely busy at rush hour with folks walking home from work and legions of students from the nearby university, and here is this handsome wee chap darting around among the trees just a few feet from hundreds of people, most walking past without even noticing he was there. I love that little things like this can happen even just walking home from work in a bustling city:

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Hello, little, furry chap!

Walking through historic Greyfriar’s kirkyard at the weekend (walking off a delicious Semla – a Swedish cream cake made only for a few weeks as part of an old Lent tradition), spotted little squirrel sprinting across the grass between the old tombstones, pausing to pick up little twigs and leaves. Couldn’t get a photo as he was too darned fast, zipping along then onto a tree, up and around to the other side. I followed him around but there was no sign of him. Then I saw movement, and noticed a small hole in a knot of of the tree trunk. And sure enough it turned out to be his little hidey-hole, and as I watched patiently he stuck his cute wee head out for a look down at me (you can see him right in the centre of the pic):

A few moments later he darted out, grabbed more of his little collection of twigs and leaves and dragged them back into his little tree home, front paws fiddling around inside while his bum and bushy tail hung out the entrance. Either that or I had just been mooned by a squirrel…

The Swan

A few days ago I took a black and white photograph of a swan on the Union Canal, close to my home in Edinburgh. I’ve taken plenty of shots along the canal, including many of the swans, ducks and other wildlife that enjoy the waters, but this one, for some reason, has proved to be incredibly popular on Flickr. A simple shot, last hour of daylight (sun setting so early this time of year) giving some great reflections, and a swan which instead of paddling along was drifting, slowly, as if gently dozing, or perhaps lost in admiring its own reflection. I lined up to fit in both swan and reflection and took a pic, posted it up one evening last week, to discover by the next evening, less than twenty hours later, it had received over six thousand views. It’s now sitting just a shade under nine thousand. It had, like my recent Edinburgh in Blue Hour shot, made it onto Flickr’s Explore front page, so a lot more people saw it than usual, but even so I’m blown away with how many views, I’ve never had any shot gather to many views in such a short time (and so many favourites too). I’m also slightly puzzled – don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely picture, but I think I’ve taken many that are far better and they never got that sort of reception. Guess you can never truly predict what people will really like, and I never take a photo with number of views in mind anyway, I take them because I see something interesting, or unusual, or beautiful, and I want to capture a little of it and share it. And if people really like it even more than usual, then I’m quite happy, if slightly puzzled, but certainly happy and satisfied too…

Low tide

Musselburgh harbour at very low tide – looks almost like you could walk out off the beach and right into the harbour mouth – I don’t recommend it, tried that once at low tide, but the sand near the entrance becomes increasingly ‘sinky’ and unwilling to tolerate the weight of any creature heavier than a mudlarking bird

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I’ve understood how the tides work since I was a boy reading my astronomy books, but even now as an adult I still find it a little bit magical that somewhere like a harbour can become absolutely empty of water, the boats left on the mud, high and dry, tilted over on their keels, awaiting the return of the water to float them again and make them useful.

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Chap sitting by the sea wall looking out, while the harbour mouth awaits the salty kiss of the returning tide…

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Meanwhile nature makes good use of the changing conditions tidal spaces bring each day (twice), with birds probing at the wet sand in the harbour floor with their specially adapted long beaks, looking for supper. Odd to see them walking pass the bottom of the hulls of boats knowing that in just a few hours this will all again be submerged, the floor hidden and the boats bobbing up and down on the water. The birds had colouring on their feathers that made them blend in very well with their surroundings, had to wait for them to walk near a small muddy pool to try and get some contrast to make them stand out even this little amount:

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A short conversation with a squirrel

I was out in town to take a photo of the Easter mural at Saint John’s church on Princes Street last week (they often put up great art works commenting on current social, ethical and political events and concerns) and, having bagged my picture, I was about to head off to the Filmhouse. On a whim I decided not to go back out the gate and along the pavement and round the corner, instead opting to go down the stairs and cut through the church’s cemetery and past the fair trade shop and cafe that are underneath the church in the crypt area (the cafe has seats outside for the better weather, you can sit and have your coffee and cake but the Victorian tombs!). And I am glad I suddenly decided to cut through the kirkyard, because look at this splendid little fellow who I found poised by an old Celtic cross headstone as I walked through. I still had the camera around my neck and so very slowly picked it up so as not to frighten him off, and managed to get this shot:

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To my surprise he didn’t dart off in that rapid way squirrels usually do, he stayed in his spot, little look around and then often looking right at me, as if we were having a quiet little chat, so I moved over a few feet (slowly again so as not to alarm him) and zoomed in for some more shots:

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Even got him calmly looking right at me – how cute is he? And what a magnificent tail! I thought my Pandora puss had a big, bushy tail, but this is something else…

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After a few moments he scarpered away over the wall and the tops of the gravestones, leapt onto a low branch and scuttled up into his tree, but before I left I noticed he had again paused and was looking right at me, so I took one last picture:

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Although the kirkyard is sunken below the level of the nearby roads and streets and a nice quiet, peaceful spot, only twenty feet from where this happened are two very busy city centre bus stops and a main road, hundreds of people and vehicles passing by every few minutes in the middle of the day. No-one else came down the steps while I was there, all those people busily walking by up above on the street just feet away totally oblivious to the wonderful little scene I alone was witnessing. I love when little moments like this happen – especially when I can catch them on camera (another reason I keep my camera in my bag most of the time). With most others walking by unaware it feels like my city is giving me a little present, sharing a little moment of magic with me as a reward for being able to see such things. Little magical moments like this just make a day…