Red Lady of Paviland

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 Adam Tilt 4 Comments


Paviland Cave on Gower has long featured at the top of my list of places to visit with past attempts being thwarted by high tides and a degree of doubt over the caves exact location. Armed with GPS coordinates and a favourable tide on Sunday however, it finally looked like we were ready to make a successful infiltration. We set off from Port Eynon just after midday and walked the couple of miles to where a steep sided valley cuts a narrow track down to sea level and the cave entrance. The latter is completely obscured from view unless you are out on the water, but putting our trust in technology we were confident it was there. Low tide was still about an hour away at this point but it was dropping at such a rate that more rocks were appearing with each passing minute. We still had a half hour or so to wait though, time which was spent in slightly surreal surroundings. With almost vertical cliffs of rock on each side and just a narrow view out onto the sea we felt completely isolated and it wasn't hard to imagine what the place must have been like when our ancient ancestors lived and hunted there. That sense of times gone and life spent was only heightened by a leaden sky and one Raven whose croaking calls were amplified greatly in our confined surroundings. All we needed was a Vulture perched on one of the cliffs to complete the sense of foreboding, but I guess a Peregrine Falcon passing within a couple of meters will have to suffice. I'd be lying if I didn't say that it came as a relief to finally cross over the newly exposed landscape and clamber up the twenty or so meters to the cave entrance (you can approach from above but that requires climbing gear and ropes).

29019 - Paviland Cave, Gower

The pear shaped opening that greets those intrepid enough to make the journey measures about seven meters tall by four meters wide, an impressive entrance to what is undoubtedly one of the worlds most famous caves. It first burst onto the international scene back in 1822 when two locals from Port Eynon, Daniel Davies and Rev John Davies, carried out its first exploration and discovered animal bones which included a Mammoth tusk. Following more 'elephant bone' finds in December that year, a week long dig was organised for the following month. This was to be led by the Professor of Geology at Oxford university, William Buckland. It was during those excavations that he made the startling discovery of a human skeleton, better known today as the Red Lady of Paviland.
"I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of rubble ... which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch around the surface of the bones ... Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by rubble were about two handfuls of periwinkle shells. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs were forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods also some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods ... Both rods and rings, as well as the shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones."
The hollow where the skeleton lay is still clearly visible in the cave today.

29022 - Paviland Cave, Gower

Bucklands creationist upbringing meant he did not believe that any human could exist from before the Biblical great flood, leading him to vastly underestimate the age of his find. He dated it as Roman and believing it to be a women presumed that the red colouration must have indicated she was either a prostitute or witch. It wasn't until a second dig in 1912 that the similarities with other European skeletons was realised, allowing its age to be pushed much further back into the Palaeolithic era. With the invention of carbon dating in the 1950's that date was further refined until in 2009 a final age of 33,000 years was stated. This makes the Red Lady the oldest ceremonial burial of a modern human ever found in western Europe.

29025 - Paviland Cave, Gower

The Red Lady name is slightly misleading these days as we now know the 'lady' to have been a male of about 21 years when he died. He was most likely a tribal chieftan and lived just before the last ice age at a time when sea levels were much lower than today. Back then Paviland Cave would have offered commanding views over a lush plain and was probably chosen as a final resting place for those very reasons.

29030 - View from Paviland Cave, Gower

If you get a chance and the tides are with you I highly recommend a visit, not just because the cave is an impressive sight but also because of what it represents. I find it fascinating that in relatively recent history such a place could have existed and yet its secrets be completely unknown. In a similar vein of exploration I have found reference to another cave system less than a mile away from Paviland and running about 150 meters underground. The entrance to this one will be on hands and knees but somewhere within lies an abandoned mining cart and allegedly an engraving from a first world war soldier. Needless to say my appetite has been suitably whetted and it is on my list of things to do in 2013. Watch this space.

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Submerged Forest and Gower Views

Thursday, November 22, 2012 Adam Tilt 2 Comments


You'd have thought that after five years of walking on Gower each weekend there wouldn't be many places that I haven't yet been to or explored. As it turns out that couldn't be further from the truth. Saturday was a perfect case in point where a slight variation on a familiar route opened up a whole new series of views that had up till then eluded me. I've often struggled to take a pleasing photo of Whiteford Sands as although the expansive beach is mighty impressive to the human eye, it always seems to lose something through the camera lens. I wasn't expecting anything different this time as we prepared to walk along its length to Burry Holms. However, instead of taking the beach route we followed the actual coast footpath up onto the surrounding hills. The vistas that opened up before us really are some of the very best I've seen on the peninsula and finally I get to show the Whiteford area in its full glory.

29004 - Whiteford Sands, Gower

29007 - Whiteford Sands, Gower

29006 - Whiteford Sands, Gower

More new discoveries were just around the corner thanks to erosion in Broughton Bay. If you cast your mind back you may remember the extremely high tides we experienced last month and the resultant movement of sand along the areas beaches. Those on Gower itself seem to have been particularly effected with a noticeable loss of material at both Port Eynon and Rhossili. Broughton has suffered a similar fate resulting in the exposure of its underlying peat layers to a far greater extent than I've seen previously. These deposits date back about 10,000 years to when sea levels were much lower and the coastline lay about 80 miles off its present day position. At that time the Severn estuary was an expansive and heavily forested valley, roamed by such mammals as Mammoth and Sabre Toothed Tiger. As water levels steadily rose following the last ice age those forests were inundated and slowly died away, their timbers ultimately becoming covered by a combination of mud and silt. Today continual erosion has once again exposed them in a remarkable state of preservation. Walking amongst the fallen trunks and massive stumps feels much as it must have done soon after the last tree slipped beneath the seas.

29018 - Submerged Forest, Broughton Bay

29017 - Submerged Forest, Broughton Bay

29014 - Submerged Forest, Broughton Bay

29015 - Submerged Forest, Broughton Bay

This section of submerged forest is certainly the best example I've seen in terms of preserved wood, but similar peat layers are gradually emerging at Whiteford, Port Eynon and around Swansea Bay. There is also a great example of a submerged forest up at Borth in Cardigan Bay where they have also found preserved footprints amongst the trees. I didn't spot any of those at Broughton but you never know what the sea will reveal in the future.

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Snow Buntings in Norfolk

Monday, November 19, 2012 Adam Tilt 15 Comments


In the words of everyone’s favourite Austrian, I'm back. From where I hear you ask? Norfolk I answer, hoping to bring this slightly awkward opening exchange to a swift conclusion. Ah you say in clear disregard to my previous statement, see any Waxwings? I think we may be about to fall out.

I shouldn't be surprised really that I'm still sat here proudly wearing my 'not seen a Waxwing club' badge, though the constant stream of tweets on my twitter feed as people leave our once expansive membership is starting to rub. It's not even as if I haven't been trying to join them. Kitted out with the excellent new RBA iPhone app we were well aware of how many were being seen all around our base in Wells-next-the-Sea, often popping up just where we'd been or gone just before we got there. I'm sure it's nothing personal but I get the distinct impression that Waxwings and I may actually be mutually exclusive.

Thankfully the other winter visitor we really wanted to see couldn't have been more accommodating, often popping up in such close quarters that I came perilously close to unwittingly stepping on one at Cley. I am of course talking about Snow Buntings, little bundles of joy and mischief whose tameness and character managed to wipe any lingering thoughts of Waxwing failure from my mind (I may as well try denial). Coincidentally I saw my very first Snow Buntings on Cley beach way back in the 1990's, a sighting that in no way could prepare me for the sheer number present this year. The largest flock by far was at Holme-next-the-Sea where 60 individuals had joined forces with another 30 or so Goldfinches and Greenfinches to perform a finch ballet in the air. It was a mind boggling display and easily one of the highlights of the trip, though rain and a case of photography fatigue means that my memories are the only record. Fortunately a spot of sun and more Snow Buntings at Titchwell, Cley and Holkham did tease my camera back into action for these shots.

28994 - Snow Bunting, Holkham Gap

28991 - Snow Bunting, Holkham Gap

28996 - Snow Bunting, Sley

28984 - Snow Bunting, RSPB Titchwell

While we are on the subject of Buntings I did keep a close look out for any of the Lapland variety, and believe we my have glimpsed one at Holme though not well enough for a positive ID. We also did our best to search through a supporting cast of hundreds if not thousands of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits at Holkham Gap but that proved to be an almost impossible task. I take that as a positive though as it's those sheer volumes of birdlife that make Norfolk so special. As much as I love where we live it's never going to be able to compete with the sight of thousands of noisy Pink Footed Geese flying overhead in waves that stretch across the entire sky, nor the Barn Owls that are to be found in the same locations almost without fail. Whereas our fields are full of sheep Norfolk's are crawling with Grey and Red-Legged Partridge, slightly artificial in the landscape I agree but a joy to see nonetheless. All that's even before you get to my favourite nature reserve, RSPB Titchwell. The beach there was several miles of feeding birds with thousands of Sanderling, Knot, Turnstones, Oystercatchers and a smattering of Black and Bar Tailed Godwits turning the sand into a constantly moving mass. Amongst the chaos it was still possible to find an occasional moment of tranquillity such as this Bar Tailed Godwit grabbing a few minutes of sleep.

28983 - Bar Tailed Godwit, RSPB Titchwell

But there was still more to come. Marsh Harriers over Cley, Ruffs feeding alongside the road at Salthouse, Avocets on the freshwater pools at Titchwell, Bramblings on feeders, our first Fieldfare of the year near Blakeney, a Guillemot swimming up the channel towards Wells, Grey Plovers, Ringed Plovers, Golden Plovers, flocks of Lapwings, a Starling on every rooftop, suicidal Pheasants, Common Scoters streaming over the sea, Gannets fishing, Little Grebes calling and almost, but not quite, a Partridge in a Pear Tree. That's not even to mention the Seals hauled out or in the water at various locations and the stunning landscapes that despite lacking my beloved hills and mountains still manage to create a charm all of their own.

28981 - Titchwell Beach

And how could I forget the female Red Crested Pochard at Titchwell?

28998 - Red Crested Pochard, RSPB Titchwell

There were also a couple of real surprises along the way, chief of which was a single Swallow and three House Martins over Wells beach. Now that's two species of bird I really didn't expect to be mentioning this far into November! Wells was also rather well populated with Brent Geese, the vast majority of which were the dark bellied variety. They were typically staying a little further out into the channel than last year with the exception of this group down by the lifeboat station.

28985 - Brent Geese, Wells-next-the-Sea

28986 - Brent Geese, Wells-next-the-Sea

We didn't manage to make it across to Snettisham during our visit (the tides were rubbish anyway) or Dersingham Bog as the time quite literally flew by. Before we knew it we were starting the long drive back west, oblivious to the final treat that was lying in wait for us somewhere in Cambridgeshire. While I was busy conducting the latest in a long line of death stares at the car holding us up, Emma had thankfully been keeping an eye on the passing scenery and suddenly shouted out that there were some Storks in the field to our left. I glanced across just in time to see four magnificent Common Cranes feeding amongst stubble, their shape and grace unmistakeable in the almost featureless landscape. I've been wanting to see some for ages and although this was probably the least likely place I had ever expected to, I certainly wasn't going to complain.

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New Garden Visitors

Thursday, November 01, 2012 Adam Tilt 3 Comments


One of the joys of having our own garden is the constant discovery of new wildlife species within it. Birds are our most obvious visitors but over the last couple of years we have begun to realise just how much variety is out there. Spiders, Moths, Slugs, Foxes, Hedgehogs and more recently Frogs and Water Beetles are just the tip of an ever expanding iceberg. The abundance and appearance of several of these species is down to the work we've been doing to try and improve the quality of habitats available. Up until last month however we'd yet to find a reptile on our land despite both Slow Worms and Grass Snakes being spotted just the other side of the fence. That's all changed now though with the discovery of a Common Lizard sunning itself on the house (not sure which is more unusual, the appearance of a lizard or the fact that it was sunny!).

28834 - Common Lizard, Garden

It posed perfectly while I grabbed a couple of photos but this sadly may have been down to the injuries it was carrying. One of its rear legs was crushed beyond use and the tail was missing, all suggestive that this individual may have fallen victim to one of the local feral cats. I kept checking on it throughout the day but it remained in the same place until the sun had moved round, casting the area into shade. Hopefully it found a safe place to recuperate though I've yet to see it again.

On a smaller scale I found another Orb Web Spider in the garden and managed to get a decent photograph despite its small size. For the exact species I am currently torn between the very similar Metellina segmentata and Metellina mengei, though I think the former is the more likely.

28844 - Orb Web Spider (Metellina segmentata)

Speaking of spiders there was a fascinating piece on the BBC's Autumnwatch program last night featuring the mating story of two House Spiders. If you live in the UK I highly recommend looking it up on iPlayer as it was a stunning film that succeeded in showing these normally unwanted visitors in a new light. I'll certainly think twice next time I get asked by Emma to remove one from the house. Do you think she'd notice if I merely moved them out of sight?

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