Now I’m back home I can’t quite believe I tried to fit so much into such a short period of time, but between 12 July & 21st I visited East Lothian twice, Mull (+ Ulva and Lunga) and Aviemore and in this time I photographed seabirds, birds of prey and mountain hares with varying degrees of success. Slightly insane, but an enjoyable, if exhausting, trip nonetheless. I’m going to split this blog into three to cover each of these locations starting with the couple of days I spent based in East Lothian.
Why East Lothian before Mull? It’s in completely the wrong direction from Glasgow! Well, my parents had kindly volunteered to look after my crazy hound Murphy, and it was a nice opportunity to spend a couple of days with them before my trip officially started.
My Mum and I went down to the John Muir Country Park and soon found ourselves at the small Seafield Pond on the outskirts of Dunbar. There was a family of swans with quite well developed cygnets.
…but the bird that really caught our attention was a juvenile grey heron. There were a number of herons both adult and juvenile around the pond, but this one, a scruffy yet endearing individual, didn’t yet seem able to fly. It pottered about at the edge of the pond and I crept a bit closer – it’s not often you can get within a reasonable distance from a heron as they are quite flighty (only other place I’ve ever had any success was Gosford, also in East Lothian and that too was a juvenile). This bird didn’t seem at all stressed by our presence and on more than one occasion moved even closer – too close sometimes.
At one point the bird decided to go for a stroll across the grass…
…directly towards the swan family – fortunately it veered away into some reeds just before the swans became too feisty although it then disturbed some nesting moorhens and came rushing back out the reeds at speed.
I was concerned that any dog off lead might cause an issue but none appeared while we were there, and it might of course have been the impetus it needed to finally take flight. It did try to fly (but failed!)…
The following day after persuading Murphy (the dog) not to bring a roe deer carcass home from our walk in the local woods, my parents and I drove down to St Abbs Head. I’ve visited many times but I confess on most occasions I haven’t walked much further than the first cliff side populated by guillemots. By now, mid-July, most of the young had fledged and the cliff face was almost deserted except for the odd razorbill and shag. Having never gone much further I didn’t really understand why people talk about how special St Abbs Head is but this time we walked on to the lighthouse where we’d heard there were a few gannets. Wow – so many seabirds and I imagine quite a few had already departed! This was the rock face with the most guillemots and where the gannets were – apparently they have begun nesting here now, and there are also juveniles who have failed to find any real estate on the Bass Rock. Chances are good therefore that this will become a new nesting colony for these fab birds.
There were still a few guillemot chicks on the cliffs (these aren’t the best images so I’ll keep them small!).
Great to see nesting kittiwakes too – I’d been concerned when I visited Dunbar Harbour in June that there were so few nesting this year – but here, at St Abbs Head, there were a lot of chicks.
Plenty of razorbills too – a bird I like almost as much as puffins – I love the interactions between the parents (more on that in my forthcoming Lunga blog). It’s always hard to spot razorbill chicks, they must have them, but… I did however see one nestled between its parents.
So a very enjoyable afternoon and I could have sat there for much longer watching and listening to the birds. I love seabirds and appreciate every minute I spend with them during the summer months. It’s always sad to see them depart.
Oh, and I made an attempt at photographing butterflies too. Really needed to spend more time on it and bring a tripod but this was my best attempt – a small copper.
So, definitely somewhere I’ll be revisiting next summer!
I took advantage of the late May Bank Holiday weekend to visit my parents in East Lothian and for the first time since he entered my life, I left my dog Murphy behind, allowing a bit more freedom and a bark-free drive through to the East (bliss!)
I left Glasgow on Friday evening with the car telling me it was 21.5 degrees C outside and thought to myself how great it was to finally be going away without having to pack winter clothing as the weekend forecast was brilliant. Unfortunately I (and the online weather apps) forgot to take into account the East Coast haar (fog) – 10 degrees when I arrived in Athelstaneford less than two hours later, and I immediately regretted leaving those warm clothes behind! Still… I’m actually a little allergic to sun so I told myself it was for the best…
The haar was still hanging around on Saturday morning, but we headed down the coast towards the Scottish Borders nonetheless.
I had hoped to find some brown hares and wasn’t disappointed as my eagle-eyed Mum spotted two in one of the fields close enough for photographs. So we stopped the car and watched them for a while. Beautiful animals, I’d really like to spend more time observing and photographing them.
Next stop was Dunbar Harbour. I make a point of visiting this location every summer I’m in East Lothian so that I can check in with the kittiwakes, my favourite member of the gull family. They nest in the wall of the old castle in the harbour and can be heard making their “kittiwake” calls. This year it was concerning to see that there were far fewer birds than in previous years and, even more worrying, very few had nests – their numbers are declining everywhere and they are now on the red list of UK birds facing risk of global extinction so I suppose this shouldn’t have been a surprise. I don’t know if they are just running late this year due to the crazy weather, but you’d think they’d all be here by now.
St Abbs Head is home to a large number of seabirds, especially guillemots, so that was our next stop. The mist had cleared so we had great views of the birds nesting on their precarious ledges and thousands bobbing about in the sea below. Too far really for decent images though without hanging over the edge of the cliff & I’m not crazy enough to do that!
I’d hoped the eiders at Eyemouth might have had their young, but I couldn’t find any birds and therefore I presume they were still nesting. So this was a very short stop especially as the haar was making a bit of a comeback.
We drove home via the Lammermuir Hills. Last time I was there at Christmas they were covered in snow
– they look entirely different now! The sun was shining here though and it was a beautiful afternoon. We watched some curlews from the car as they had chicks so didn’t want to disturb. My photographs were dismal unfortunately as all the grass and heather made focussing almost impossible at that angle. Great to see so many though as curlews are now endangered in many parts of the UK. I did photograph this red grouse and little bird (pipit I think, but I’m not going to try and say which one!).
Later that evening we returned to the Lammermuirs to search for mountain hares. I wrote a blog about my attempts to locate them in December (took three days but I found a few eventually), and was keen to try again, hoping they might be more visible now the snow was gone. We walked along a track with many more curlews flying and calling overhead. I was pleased to see quite a few hares in the distance and running away.
Given that the Lammermuirs don’t have a great reputation when it comes to preserving wildlife, any hare spotted is a bonus. I wasn’t really expecting to get close enough to photograph any of them except as a wide shot as they are understandably flighty around people, but I came across one having a lie down close to the track. I was pretty sure it would run, so crept slowly closer taking photographs as I went. It eventually moved, but rather than immediately running away, it raised itself up on its hind legs for about 30 secs looking in the direction of my parents. I’ve never actually witnessed a mountain hare doing this. Only times I’ve seen them on two legs they’ve been boxing. Then it ran! But I had a few close images which was brilliant. Soon after this we saw the haar rolling in so headed for home as the mist swirled around us.
Sunday we were up early to drive to Argaty Red Kites who have just opened a wildlife hide. The haar followed us up the coast, but fortunately as we headed inland we found ourselves in beautiful sunshine although it was a tad windy. The hide is in a lovely location across a field of sheep with their young lambs. It sits just inside some woodland and fits 3 (or maybe 4 at a push) people. One good thing is that it has two openings at ground level which are great for eye-balling the red squirrels. Not the most comfortable position to lie in mind you, I had my legs sticking up in the air behind me but few hides I’ve visited have this option so I didn’t mind the discomfort. The light was challenging all morning due partly to the trees with their summer foliage and the bright sunshine creating a lot of contrast. There are quite a few perches and peanut butter (or something similar) has been put in crevices in the trees and tree stumps which attracted a couple of great spotted woodpeckers – an adult male and a juvenile – they visited throughout the morning. Sadly we weren’t visited by nuthatch, jay or treecreeper which apparently have all been seen there fairly regularly.
At least three red squirrels made appearances. One was small and nervous – it was much darker than the others and never stopped in one place for more than a second – very tricky to photograph especially with the difficult lighting! Very entertaining to watch though – we nick-named that one Speedy.
Another spent most of its time at one peanut feeder working its way through huge quantities of nuts. It rarely went anywhere else sadly and feeder shots weren’t what I was looking for. It only really moved when it spotted Speedy – as it would always chase him away.
The third appeared less often but was easily the most photogenic as it did sometimes move away from a feeder and pause for a moment or two. The best shots of the day were when it sat on a branch with gorgeous new green leaves surrounding it. It did, however, favour going completely inside the feeder to eat!
None of the squirrels really spent much time sitting on the perches and stumps provided which would have given more opportunities for photographs which was a shame, but that’s wildlife for you – you can’t guarantee where it will go! It was great though to watch the squirrels as they fed and zipped about.
In the afternoon we went up to the red kite hide. There were quite a few birds circling above the farm all day – beautiful birds and quite possibly my favourite bird of prey. I’ve visited Argaty for the kites a few times, but never before have I seen them start diving for the food before the guy putting it out has left the field. It was all over in a blink of an eye. Exhilarating to watch but I think these were my poorest ever kite images which is strange given that I had a high shutter speed and am normally pretty good at flying birds. Still… it was an enjoyable afternoon as always and I came away with a few photographs.
I had intended to rise early on Monday and go find some brown/mountain hares, but yet again the garden was shrouded in thick mist so I returned to bed. I was due to go out to the Isle of May with the Scottish Seabird Centre to (hopefully) see some puffins having missed that opportunity on Mull due to the cancellation 3 times of my trip out to Lunga. Seeing the weather in North Berwick I feared the worst – visibility was very poor, but the boat set sail anyway.
It’s now a covered rib which is much warmer than the old one. It was a strange, spooky journey out to the Island as we couldn’t see anything other than the odd seabird appearing out of the mist every so often.
The Bass Rock was nowhere to be seen. Simon, our guide, said this might mean more puffins were on shore rather than out at sea and I was looking forward to taking some atmospheric images though the haar.
However, just as we arrived at the Isle of May the mist cleared and for the afternoon I enjoyed beautiful warm and sunny conditions. Unfortunately what this meant was that the puffins were few and far between. This is the third largest puffin colony in the UK, and based on my experiences at this time of year (and a month earlier than this on Lunga on a couple of occasions) I’d have expected the birds to be on land sorting out their nests or even beginning to feed their young. But no… I believe they are running late this year due to the weather, and also, it seems, behave a bit differently from the other places I’ve been. It may partly be due to the fact that visitors to the island are very restricted in where they can go to protect the burrows, and that the puffins are choosing to land in places that aren’t visible, or that they prefer to leave when we arrive, but I struggled to find anywhere I could photograph them. (Apparently there were a lot on land on Saturday when it was quite windy).
Eventually I spotted 3 perched on the cliff and moved into a better position
In doing so I found a couple more sitting on the rocks just below me and much closer! Phew! I photographed these two until they flew off.
And another close by. It was standing with orange lichen covered rocks in both the fore and background which gave the images a lovely, almost sunrise-like glow.
And that was it on the puffin front. Quite disappointing as I witnessed none of the behaviours that make puffins special, but, fingers-crossed, I’ll have a day on Lunga in July which should reap rewards if we make it there!
There were plenty of other seabirds to enjoy though:
Arctic terns who have only just started to nest so hadn’t yet got to the attacking passers-by stage yet, but who would all take off as one and fly around the harbour which was amazing to watch.
And a lot of rabbits!
On departing the Isle of May we did a slow circuit of the Bass Rock to see the gannets. I love these birds and the landing trip I did last year was at the very top of my highlights, quite an awesome experience. On this occasion the birds were all around and above us, searching for nesting materials.
as well as crowding every available space on the island.
Worrying to see one bird with a piece of plastic in its mouth and although these birds unlike many other seabirds are a success story right now, man is still doing its best to cause problems!
Strangely I came away with more decent images of these, taken from a slow moving boat, than I did of the red kites!
So all in all a very enjoyable weekend in the East in which I packed a lot in. Next weekend I’m off on my travels again, this time to Perthshire for a weekend hopefully watching beavers and yet more red squirrels, more on that on my next blog.
What a year! I’ve already written about the first 6 months, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s fair to say that from a photographic/wildlife watching perspective 2017 has been brilliant. From the bucket list I’ve now landed on the Bass Rock amongst the gannets and photographed fishing ospreys – both unforgettable experiences. I’ve learnt a lot: photographic techniques, field craft and wildlife behaviours. My ambition for 2017 was to focus entirely (okay… so I did venture South of the border to the Farne Islands), on Scottish wildlife, learning as much as I could about a small number of locations and the animals living there. Personally I don’t want to be the kind of photographer who just ticks species off, I want to get to know them intimately and in doing so take better images that capture the essence of the animal I’m photographing. On top of all this I just love being out sharing airspace with these amazing creatures, it’s a real honour. If anything my love of wildlife, Scotland, the outdoors and photography has increased during 2017.
August found me back in my spiritual home – the Scottish highlands. Basing myself again in Tomatin I had a brilliant week. It began with Aviemore Ospreys early on the Sunday morning. I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of these magnificent birds fishing for as long as I can remember but I’ve never quite got my timings (or bank balance) right. I only just made it this year as the birds were already packing their nests up to head South, but fortunately a few were still around and I was treated to a great show. Admittedly it was a little on the dark side, but my D500 coped well (just as well as I bought it for this experience) and I’m pleased with the images I took in the conditions. That said, I fully intend to return in summer 2018, earlier in the season to try again in better light. This is a link to my blog about the ospreys & the D500.
I also spent a day in Neil McIntyre’s new red squirrel hide set in the magnificent Caledonian pine forest. There was non-stop squirrel action from early morning until approx 4pm with 4 or 5 visiting continuously. The setting is gorgeous and at that time of year it was carpeted in glorious pink and purple heather. Beautiful. Red squirrels are entertaining to watch, the time passed so quickly. Definitely a highlight of 2017.
I made three visits to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins. Chanonry Point itself isn’t one of my favourite places. Personally I like being out alone with nature and you’re anything but alone here! Still, if you want to see dolphins close to the shore this is still the place to be. I was fortunate to see quite a lot of breaching, although sadly not on my evening visit when the light was glorious. Not easy to photograph as it’s difficult to know exactly where or when breaching will occur, but I did pretty well, again I think the speed of the D500 helped a lot.
And, of course, I visited the mountain hares a couple of times. They aren’t nearly as active at this time of year as in March, but there’s still much to observe and photograph, plus quite a few sweet little leverets. The heather was blooming up here too, and the midges for the most part stayed away. I love little more than sitting on the mountainside in the company of a hare as it accepts my presence and gets on with the daily business of grazing, grooming, stretching and (mostly) snoozing. Sitting in a hide is all very well, but the satisfaction of being out in the open with a wild animal where there’s no cover and no baiting really appeals to me.
It’s difficult for me to get away from Glasgow due partly to a full-time job, but also because I have a rescue dog who doesn’t travel and is a little complicated so I can’t just leave him with friends. I have to plan weekends well in advance so I can book him in with his very popular dog sitter. It’s hugely frustrating – I love him but… Anyway, I did plan a weekend down in Dumfries and Galloway although as luck would have it, it coincided with the tail end of two massive storms and the weather was pretty awful. That however didn’t stop me from having two enjoyable days. I visited the Bellymackhill Farm red kite feeding station en route down. My second time here and it’s a fabulous place to see these birds up close. Challenging to photograph them diving for food though, because there are so many of them! Beautiful birds and exhilarating to watch as they all suddenly decide it’s time to feed and swoop down. Blink and you’ve missed it!
I also spent a day at the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide as I’d never had a chance to really see or photograph sparrowhawks up close. Great to see some red squirrels here too. Sadly the male sparrowhawk was a no-show but I was treated to a juvenile female making a kill and pausing just long enough for me to rattle off a few frames. I stuck around for the evening tawny owl visit too which was great.
My final big trip of the year was a return to Mull, this time on an organised otter workshop with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden. I’ve only just recently written about this, but suffice to say I loved every minute of it, even lying on seaweed in torrential rain when it was too dark and wet to take photographs anymore. Otters are my favourite mammal and wonderful to watch, especially when there’s a family unit – of which we saw many. I was lucky to have 5 and a half great days of otter experiences many of which will stay with me for a long time.
So it’s been a fantastic year. What’s next? Well, I return to the Scottish Highlands for a week in March, and Mull in late April/early May, hopefully little owls (although I’ll have to cross the border for those!!), more ospreys and I’d like to spend a bit of time in Bamff with the beavers. After that who knows. On the wish list black grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie. However, my primary focus will be on the species I’ve spent time with this year – mountain hares, red squirrels and hopefully otters trying to work on locations and lighting to achieve better images using the techniques and experiences of 2017. Stay tuned!
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I’m working on an episode of my americana radio show “The Miller Tells Her Tale” featuring my favourites of the first six months of 2017 and it occurred to me I could do the same for photographic experiences.
I don’t get out an about as much as I’d like to – a full time job, two radio shows and a dog who doesn’t travel make it problematic to venture far from home except on holidays when I can pack the dog off to someone else to deal with. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on 3 vacations so far this year (Scottish Highlands, Mull and East Lothian) and a few outings.
First highlight was without a doubt the 3 days I spent with mountain hares in the Scottish highlands in March. You can read all about this on my mountain hare blog. Spending time with these magnificent creatures was wonderful and I can’t wait to return in August. The highland trip was also memorable for all the people I met, especially whilst hanging out in the RSPB Loch Garten carpark waiting, mostly fruitlessly, for crested tits to visit. Wildlife photographers, for the most part, are a friendly bunch!
In April I travelled down to the Borders for a day with Laurie Campbell to photograph river otters. Otters are undoubtedly my favourite animal, there’s something really special about them and there’s little better than watching a family fish and cavort. It was a fantastic day – the warmest and sunniest of the year so far (not necessarily ideal for photography, but good for sitting and waiting) – great company and plenty of otters. We were much more successful in finding them than I could ever have hoped for, beginning with an otter cub we stumbled upon at the river bank. Good to visit some of the locations photographed in Laurie & Anna Levin‘s “Otters – A Return to the River” book. The day was rounded off with a quick visit in almost darkness to a badger set where I could just make out a family – the first I’ve seen. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spend more time with the badgers in the future.
I had a tip-off about a location in Glasgow where I could photograph fossorial water voles – these are water voles that don’t actually live on river banks, but instead reside in the east end of the city in undeveloped grassland and parks. It was a surreal experience, visiting a city park and finding the voles. They were adorable! Once I got my eye in I spotted them everywhere popping in and out of their burrows munching on grass. They have been very successful in this area, primarily because the reasons their numbers have declined so drastically on river banks are the american mink and the re-development of their habitat neither of which are such a major issue away from the rivers (and in fact the voles in areas being developed are being relocated). Interestingly these voles were black not the normal brown. I haven’t yet managed to locate any traditional water voles, but I’ll keep looking.
In late April I travelled to Mull for a week. I failed miserably to take any decent photographs on the Mull Charters Sea Eagle trip as I spent so much time ensuring one of my cameras was set up correctly for my Dad to borrow that I forgot to sort mine out! Rookie mistake… I was also less successful at finding otters than I’d have liked, tides weren’t in my favour although I did spend time with one on my final day.
However, I was able to spend four wonderful hours on Lunga with the puffins. More on that experience on my Lunga blog.
My parents live in East Lothian, a great place for seabirds during the summer months. I went to visit them for a week in late May, and had my most enjoyable time there yet. Not only did I spend time photographing the kittiwakes in Dunbar Harbour…
the puffins and other seabirds on the Farne Islands…
and a brown hare near Fast Castle.
But I also finally went on the Scottish Seabird Centre Bass Rock landing trip to spend 3 hours surrounded by the magnificent gannets – fantastic experience. Again, more on this on an earlier blog.
Aside from trips I’ve been published for the first time – four national newspapers and the mail online published images of a puffin being mobbed by a gull on The Farne Islands.
I’ve had photographs chosen for BBC Pictures of the Week and a BBC Springwatch gallery (neither had anything to do with me being a BBC employee!) and I won a Gold Wildlife Award in the June The Societies members competition for this image of a mountain hare from my March trip (the light for the first hour that day was wonderful).
So all in all, not a bad six months. I still have a lot to learn and experience so I’m looking forward to the second half of 2017. Already planned, ten days in the Scottish Highlands in August, an otter workshop in Mull with Andy Howard in November and hopefully my first proper beaver sightings in late July. Stay posted for updates!
My parents live in East Lothian in Scotland, and whenever I spend time there in the summer I spend much of my time watching and photographing the many seabirds that frequent the coastline – I make at least one annual pilgrimage to visit the kittiwakes nesting in Dunbar Harbour (see below) for example, and always look out for the Eider ducks in all the harbours, but most especially a little further south at Eyemouth (I’ve seen an otter here too and there’s always at least one or two seals).
I also like to visit with the gannets that nest on the Bass Rock, off the coast of North Berwick. Every year I book a round the rock trip with the Scottish Seabird Centre to marvel at these magnificent birds crammed into every available space on the island. Photographing them is tricky from a moving boat and there isn’t really time to compose the shots adequately, it’s really just a case of spotting photogenic birds and hoping I can get the camera on them before we move on too far!
I have often therefore toyed with the idea of the Seabird Centre‘s landing trip – the idea of actually setting foot on the Bass Rock and experiencing the gannets at very close quarters was appealing. However, it’s expensive (currently £130), often fully booked far in advance and more often than not it’s cancelled before sailing or the fishing boat is unable to land on the island so I’d never been. This year I checked again and there was availability on the Friday trip. It was an early start, but the weather forecast looked promising, no wind to speak of and not too sunny, so I signed up.
Before leaving, Maggie, the knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide went through safety instructions – this included being provided with plastic chopping boards to protect our legs from nesting gannets on the path and also how to get from the boat onto the island – this involved shimmying along the side of the boat, climbing over a rail and then leaping onto the path! We were also warned that landing might not be possible, and if that was the case we’d turn around and head back.
Before attempting to land on the Rock, we did some “chumming” where the boat crew threw fish in the water for the gannets – wow! It’s hard to describe this part of the trip other than to say it was a little like being inside a snow globe, where the snow was gannets. Looking up and all around we were completely surrounded by the birds flying, swooping and diving.
It was incredible, and worth putting the camera down for a minute or two just to revel in the experience. Photographing gannets diving is challenging though! Even if lucky enough to press the shutter as the bird enters the water it’s difficult to achieve a good shot. I was quite interested in the birds just under the surface. I used a couple of different lenses, a wide angle 24mm on my crop-frame Nikon D7200 as well as my 70-200 f2.8 VRII on the full-frame Nikon D610.
Once the fish ran out we headed to the Rock, and amazingly were able to land without too many problems. I had expected the island to smell, but was pleasantly surprised on that front, the gannets were incredible noisy though. We were told to just drink it all in initially whilst Maggie went up to the area she’s managed to reserve for island visitors and I took this time to observe the birds and marvel at how many of them there were!
It was also interesting to note that although so very graceful in the air, the birds were quite ungainly on land, and when landing – I saw quite a few crash into walls, cliffs & other birds! Many were sitting on nests (anywhere there was space including on top of the old ruins) whilst others gathered nesting material or hopped around pestering the other birds.
The chopping boards were definitely a good idea, walking up the path the birds protected their nesting sites by stabbing with their beaks, but so long as I just kept walking and positioned the protection correctly it was fine!
Once we reached our area we had plenty of space and could also go back down towards the landing area, but I chose to stay put for the first hour watching and trying to capture on camera the behaviours of the birds.
What amused me the most was after two birds had a squabble they would often turn back to their partner and have a reassuring cuddle. One bird wandered around for ages with a bill full of seaweed, apparently not knowing what to do with it – whether it had forgotten where to take it, or was just a young bird practising for parenthood, I don’t know, however it looked very pleased with itself!
Experienced birds didn’t leave their nests unattended, but the first-timers sometimes made that mistake with disastrous consequences.
I also spent a fair amount of time photographing the flying birds as they swooped over my head. My favourite shots were when they prepared for landing with their feet sticking out. Fortunately it was a slightly overcast day which assisted greatly in photographing white birds. It was bright enough that I could push the shutter speed up but was able to avoid blowing the highlights.
One of the hardest things to do was isolate birds as there were so many. It made clean images quite difficult. A shallow depth of field helped with static gannets, but was less successful if photographing disagreements.
Our three hours on the Bass Rock passed so quickly. Apparently the best time to land is July when the young are visible and active, but there was still plenty to observe and it was wonderful to learn more about these beautiful birds. It’s definitely a trip I’d recommend whether you’re photographer or bird lover. When it comes to lens choices I’d suggest a short wide angle and a mid-range telephoto – I had up to 200mm and that was more than enough. I would love to visit with a fish eye lens although I’d have to buy one first!
More photographs of my trip can be found on flickr
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