Best Memmories of 2006

Holidays and birds were my favourite memories of 2006. Chile, South America; last February was memorable for two reasons, one pleasant, one horrid. Despite upgrading my self to Business Class, Iberia Airlines lost my suitcase for seven days and the misery and inconvenience nearly wrecked my holiday. Existing on the clothes I travelled in from a wintry UK, supplemented by the few I was able to buy, was wretched indeed. I now realise how much of value goes into one?s baggage. SAGA rep, Christina, worked tirelessly to badger the lost luggage people into action. Fortunately, her determination paid off. Having found a shop at last to buy clothes, the bag caught up with me. When I pursued compensation, Iberia behaviour was breathtakingly unhelpful and arrogant. As their office is in Madrid, they seem untouchable, an opinion the Saga staff shared with me and as Iberia has the monopoly of flights to Chile, their mean minded attitude is well known to SAGA staff. Sight of the majestic Andean Condor riding the thermals high above the snow capped Andes on lofty 10 to 12 foot wingspan was wonderful. Patagonia is one of the windiest spots on earth and it did not disappoint. Although it blew so hard that walking was a major struggle, it proved a bonus for Condor flying as the birds are so heavy, they need all the help they can get to launch themselves into the air. Their bald heads are adapted to eating carrion as feather would become encrusted with carcass fluids. Moving on to Easter Island, a rough coated ginger female stray picked me up and refused to leave my side. She set up camp outside my patio door and ate well courtesy of my Group?s doggy bags. Stray dogs are a common sight throughout Chile and the lucky ones are fed dry food on street corners by passers-by. On my last day on the enchanting Polynesian island, my canny hound daintily consumed her smuggled out breakfast and watched as I loaded bags for the long haul back to UK. Before the bus door had closed, she had turned her attentions to newly arriving guests. A really smart hound; almost as memorable as those intriguing carved figures that stand in rows facing away from the sea. Although most were smashed, many have been restored and stand proudly displaying huge carved top knots in red stone. It was a long way to go but worth all the effort. In 2005, I fell in love in New Zealand and was literally all at sea when making a trip on a small boat to view albatross at close quarters. The craft was perched on a trailer and all we had to do was climb on and be pushed into the water by a tractor. All very ingenious. Soon the boat was being closely followed by these wonderful birds that pursued us doggedly on long slow beating wings just feet over our heads. They swooped and soared and gave the photographers in the group much to snap. When the boat stopped, nets of frozen offal, (chum) were thrown out on a rope and the battle began to grab the goodies. Giant Skuas, petrels and the albatross all fought for a beak full of the action and then these splendid crates bobbed around us, all within touching distance, emitting gentle nasal sounds as they rode the waves. Even I managed to capture one close by on my cheapy digital camera whilst I engaged with this albatross in a cross-dialogue of nasal caws and grunts. The bird seemed happy to chat. 10.000 are drowned every year when attracted by the bait of long-line fishing whence they are pulled beneath the surface and drowned. The slow speed in which they reproduce hampers them further. They pair for life and it takes about eight years for the bonded pair to produce a chick and raise to maturity. Once fledged, the young bird will have no further contact with its parents. They spend all their time at sea and only return to their breeding colonies several years later. ?Albatrosses have survived in the harshest marine environment for 50 million years; more than 100 times longer than our own species?, to quote Sir David Attenborough. He continued, ?These magnificent birds are unable to cope with man made threats such as long line fishing?. Having learned in 2006 that the RSPB has started a scheme to re-educate fisher folk into catching fish not birds, I was hooked and made a donation to their ?Save the Albatross? campaign. To lose those spectacular creatures from the planet would be an unforgivable sin. The RSPB even kindly printed ?my albatross? in an article about their training scheme, having identified it as a ?Shy Albatross? and last November, I accepted an invitation to an Albatross weekend in Titchwell Norfolk for patrons of this worthy cause. After an excellent dinner, we had a talk about the Campaign and it seems that this is a conservation battle that will be finally won. Returning to my native Norfolk is always a joy but so was the sight of thousands of Knott waiting for the tide to turn at the Snetisham RSPB Reserve during an early morning visit. Jim Scott, the Reserve Manager?s timing was perfect. As dawn broke, it took me a few minutes to realise I was staring at, not a grey pebbled, shingle beach as I first thought but thousands of small grey Knott huddled together in readiness to fly back to the beach. We beat the birds back to the water?s edge and the sound of a thousand wings rustling overhead as they moved back to their feeding grounds was magical. All too soon, it was time to go back to the Titchwell Manor hotel for a hearty breakfast and loaded with crabs and a lobster, it was time to take the long drive back to North Wales. Thank you Jim, David and other RSPB hosts for that special weekend. (Should it be thought that the Society spends precious charity funds on entertaining, off the record I paid my own hotel bill and would happily recommend the facilities, the food and more importantly the campaign to save the albatross to anyone). Alison Halford 6-1-07.

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