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Holiday

Naturalists flock to Chris Packham’s DIY ‘Springwatch’ on Facebook

Lockdown day 10 in south-east London. A loud rhythmic tweeting is emanating from the cherry plum tree in my back garden. A great tit? Blue tit? I catch a glimpse; too small for a great tit, not as colourful.

I don’t know my birdsongs beyond the basics, but I remember a friend imitating calls to coax birds nearer so he could identify them. I have an idea and grab my phone and Google “coal tit song”. I press play and the rival tweeting produces instant results. Hopping from branch to branch towards me a delightful but agitated coal tit emerges and alights on a branch barely two metres away (I think it knows). Is it angry or amorous? My exhilaration at our proximity turns to doubt and guilt – I’ve used gadgetry to disrupt the natural world. What was I thinking? The coal tit flies off, its song tinged with irritation.

Clearly, playing birdsong on phones can produce results but could this be unethical? I decide to ask Chris Packham through the Facebook page he’s set up, the Self-Isolating Bird Club , which is crewed by thousands of nature enthusiasts.

There can be few better online platforms than this in showing how modern, accessible tech has revolutionised local wildlife reporting. People have put mini cameras in nest boxes, on feeders; installed trail cameras on patios; and remote-triggered DSLRs have been placed in tree canopies. This stuff is no longer the preserve of well resourced global-roaming wildlife film production teams.

Packham says of the daily morning live feed, the focal point of the group, which has attracted more than 500,000 viewers daily: “We’re doing it all on mobile phones and Skype with earpods, and I’ve got a digital microscope. Fabian Harrison, a former RSPB guy, is mixing it in his bedroom in Norwich. It’s Dad’s Army makes TV. It’s very real and in the moment but with no campaigning – no banging on about shooting or anything. It’s all just joy and enjoying wildlife and getting people to engage. As long as it [lockdown] lasts, we’ll just keep going.”

The results are extraordinary, and not just on the live show. Each day, the public posts gems such as barn owls evicting jackdaws that had attempted to squat their nest box; sea eagles being mobbed by red kites; hedgehogs scurrying under garden furniture; and adders emerging into the spring sunshine.

Michaela Strachan, Packham’s colleague on the BBC’s Springwatch programme, who has also featured on the Self Isolating show from her home in South Africa, tells me that even she has now changed the way she enjoys wildlife: “A whole new wave of birdwatching is happening. Amazingly, I’ve never taken the time to sit down and watch birds on my feeders.”

Strachan says the appeal of placing cameras in the garden comes from a different place to the motivations of expert birdwatchers: “The birds become like family. Right now our lives have never been so uncertain. You know the birds are coming to feed every day… we look for those kind of certainties. The mental health benefits are proven. When I took those two hours in my garden, I instantly felt better.”

Others go further, suggesting that watching animals is instinctive behaviour. In an essay for Aeon, biologist David Barash writes: “Our well-being – survival, even – depended on relationships to other animals, many of which were predators, with us as their prey.” Our ancestors’ awareness of animal behaviour would hold a “potent selective advantage”.

Strachan says it’s important that people remember that webcams will show violent, upsetting scenes and warns that we shouldn’t turn against species for being predators: “There’s nothing wrong with getting emotionally attached but you have to put it in perspective. Don’t demonise animals.”

She recommends webcams such as those run by the Dyfi osprey centre (ospreys are a favourite bird of hers), and local wildlife trusts featuring “flagship” birds such as peregrines (Leamington Hall) and barn owls (Dorset), as well as badgers, bats and waterfowl. With several webcams on screen at once you’ll soon be feeling like naturalist security guard.

Watching webcams can be monotonous of course, but the action, when it happens, is often spectacular – ospreys touching down, peregrines returning with their prey, an otter passing a lakeside nest … and anything you might have missed will be picked up and pored over by the commenters.

Osprey webcams are already up and running this year, the majestic birds returning from Africa in recent weeks, others will be online early in April. Among them will be Wild Days on the Earthwatch Europe platform, featuring Strachan as part of a team offering an hour’s worth of daily activities online, to show you what’s going on in your gardens, patios and balconies.

Although Packham says his group is about enjoying and engaging with wildlife, webcams also play a role in campaigning for nature. Rewilding Europe invites you to “become a citizen scientist and help analyse camera trap photos”.

Using the Zoological Society of London’s Instant Wild platform, animals such as wolves and wild boar, pine marten and porcupine have been tracked in Italy since the programme’s start in August last year, with plans to expand into more rewilding areas across the continent. “With camera trap photos and videos from locations around the world posted online, Instant Wild lets citizen scientists take part in vital global conservation work,” says Kate Moses, a project manager with ZSL’s Conservation Technology Programme.

Back with the Self Isolating Bird Club, I’m waiting for my admonishment for using Google to attract a coal tit through recorded birdsong. Meanwhile, naturalist Lucy Hodson is waxing lyrical about woodlice (“crustaceans not insects”) and millipedes (“absolutely love ‘em”). Then I get my answer: it’s OK as long as you don’t keep doing it in the same place with the same species, and don’t do it with rare birds at all. It’s a partial let off, but I get the feeling that for me and many others, our relationship with the natural world is about to become more intimate.

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Travel

Five best travel documentaries to watch during coronavirus self-isolation revealed

Coronavirus has made the days seem longer and emptier as social events get cancelled and holiday plans get put on hold. Many Britons were just getting ready for summer to begin before lockdown thwarted their plans. But while some people have taken to dreaming about their holidays plans on Google Street View, others have decided to give some classic travel documentaries a go.

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From Louis Theroux to Simon Reeve, below are some of the most essential travel documentaries to watch while in self-isolation.

Simon Reeve

Simon offers what most documentary series do not – endearing enthusiasm that is infectious.

Who can really say they have been put in a bad mood by Simon Reeve?

From Ireland to the Indian Ocean, and Bangladesh to Columbia, Simon will take you on an adventure across the globe that is jam-packed full of information and stunning sites.

His documentary on the tropic of cancer sees him track 23,000 miles through deserts, mountains and simmering conflicts.

All Simon’s documentaries are available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Louis Theroux

Louis’ documentaries are not travel-based per se but instead explore the people in various corners of the world.

The infamous documentarian has remained a favourite on our TV screens for decades with his programmes covering both the weird and the wonderful.

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His best series include Dark States, LA stories and Altered states which all cover the vast land of America.

The series looks at murder, drug addiction and the world of dogs in LA.

All of the above are available on Netflix or BBC iPlayer.

The Trip with Rob Bryden and Steve Coogan

Rob and Steve provide plenty of laughs in this hilarious travel documentary that sees the two men journeying to different locations while bickering.

The series has everything you want from a documentary: delicious cuisine, stunning scenery, local culture, inside jokes and lots of impressions.

Some of the series is on Netflix.

Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days

Michael is a kind soul that immediately makes viewers feel relaxed and in safe hands as he takes you on a trip around the world in just 80 days without using aircraft.

Based on Jules Verne’s classic book of the same title, the documentary series sees Michael go from Egypt to Singapore, to America and back to the UK as he trecks around the world.

The series is available on Google Play.

Bethany Hughes

Bettany offers up a historical look at the Mediterranean.

Her documentary-style is serious rather than jokey but offers authority on the subject.

Rather than learning about the modern-day Mediterranean, the programme delves deeper into the past which makes you feel as though you have walked back in time.

Some of the series is available on Channel Five.

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Holiday

Why ‘can I get a refund?’ is travel’s biggest issue: Coronavirus travel Q&A

For the past two weeks we’ve addressed several questions in our Q&A but increasingly readers want to know the answer to just one: can I get a refund? We answered one specific query on this last week and my colleague Miles Brignall also outlined consumer rights in this piece. But as it keeps being raised, we thought it worth addressing again.

Under the Package Travel Regulations (PTR), you are entitled to a refund if your holiday provider cannot fulfil the holiday but – and it’s a big but – tour operators are struggling to meet this legal obligation while facing a massive loss of income and, in some cases, repatriation costs.

In short, the travel industry is in freefall. It has weathered problems from natural disasters to terrorism to recession, but nothing comes close to the Covid-19 crisis, which is disastrous for countries and tourist destinations all over the world. A ludicrous, hypothetical scenario – what would happen if no one could travel? – is now a shocking and surreal reality.

Of course, many sectors are on perilous ground, but the knock-on effects of this global paralysis are arguably worse for travel. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates that a million jobs are being lost every day in the travel and tourism sector because of the pandemic.

“From waiters to taxi drivers, tour guides to chefs and caterers, pilots to cleaners, the relentless cascade of job losses is plunging millions of families into terrible hardship and debt. The domino effect of Covid-19 is right now having a massive impact, wiping out an entire economic sector,” said WTTC president and CEO Gloria Guevara.

Where does this leave holidaymakers?

As Brignall says, you should keep contacting your travel provider for a refund. If the government acts on calls from Abta for the refund window to be extended from 14 days to four months, you will wait longer for the money.

But tour operators are pleading with customers to postpone instead of cancelling, warning that mass cancellations will lead to a meltdown of the sector. Credit notes are protected in the same way as holidays and if the company does go under, the Atol scheme means you will be compensated.

The most responsible tour operators are being as flexible as possible. Much Better Adventures, for example, is offering refunds as an option but incentivising customers to postpone by offering a 5% discount (for life) on future trips. So far it has worked: 80% of customers have opted to postpone instead of cancel. There will be no increase in the cost of trips for 2021, and no expiry date for credit notes. Co-founder Sam Bruce admitted that small companies can be more adaptable but he’s also critical of companies that are refusing refunds. “Lots of companies in our position aren’t being as flexible.”

He also said he doesn’t support Abta’s call for changes to the PTR rules and believes there is “a lot of love being lost between the travel industry and consumers. If customers bought under those terms, they should be honoured.”

For some tour operators that is simply not possible. They are being asked to give full refunds for air-inclusive holidays, often without being able to recoup money from airlines – leaving tour operators out of pocket. “Until governments step up, and bring the airlines to heel, the consumer has to rely on the quit wits and sympathy of small tour operators,” said Douglas Durrant of Caribbean Fun Travel.

As Bruce sees it, this is a test of loyalty – those companies that work with customers during this challenging time will be the ones that benefit in the long term.

“There are a lot of travel companies making rash decisions, and they may not come out of this looking too rosy at the end. This is about treating customers well so the terms know who to trust when this passes.”

That is small comfort if you are trying to get money back right now, but worth bearing in mind when you come to book a future holiday.

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Travel

NSW bush fire Koalas’ return to wild expedited by coronavirus

Australia can’t catch a break. No sooner had catastrophic bushfires died down, regional tourism was hit by crippling travel restrictions.

However, after the fires, there’s one group of marsupials for whom the Covid 19 pandemic could mean an early return to the wild.

In New South Wales a group of koalas, have been released back into the Kanangra-Boyd National park after a three month stay in Sydney Zoo.

Last week, a group of twelve koalas plus a joey, born during their stay in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, were returned to Blue Mountains. The return to the wild has been fast-tracked due do the new travel restrictions being put in place by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Travel

Coronavirus Covid 19 has closed Disneyland, but millions are visiting virtually

For anyone planning a family holiday to Disneyland, the past few months have been an emotional roller-coaster.

Walt Disney’s parks were some of the first attractions to close their doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 12, the day after the WHO announcement, the two US theme parks, and their international counterparts declared they would shut to visitors for the foreseeable future.

While the park has been offering rebookings for cancelled holidays as soon as June 1 and pledged to pay suspended park workers until April 18, as of last Friday the park has admitted that “an opening date has not been identified.”

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Travel

Covid 19 coronavirus: New Zealanders from cruise ship anxious to get home

By RNZ

New Zealanders being repatriated from a cruise ship off Western Australia were escorted by police to their flight.

Yesterday, after two weeks on board the cruise ship without disembarking once, the 108 New Zealanders were finally allowed on solid ground in Fremantle in Western Australia overnight.

They are expected to arrive in Auckland this afternoon.

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Travel

Coronavirus: Gatwick Airport plans to shut down terminal as deadly pandemic takes its toll

London’s second biggest airport has been forced to shut down its north terminal thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which has seen many airlines cancel their flights. Gatwick Airport has decided to temporarily shut its north terminal from the end of the month.

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The terminal is usually served by carriers including easyJet.

The decision is expected to be announced later today, according to Sky News.

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The drastic move is just one step away from a full airport closure.

Although, reportedly, the option to close the airport is still on the cards.

Earlier this week, London City Airport announced it would be closing completely for several weeks.

Meanwhile, Heathrow and Stansted have seen a huge plunge in passenger numbers as countries around the world prohibit travel.

Numerous regional airports are thought to be suffering with the same problem.

Currently, airport operators are in talks with the Government about rescue packages.

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The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak wrote to aviation bosses this week that support packages could be available to some individual companies.

However, this will only be made available once private sources of capital have been exhausted.

Gatwick is mainly owned by VINCI – the largest private airport operator in the world.

The London airport serves a massive 46 million passengers each year and flies to 230 destinations.

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Last week, Gatwick said that its chief executive Stewart Wingate, and his executive team would be taking a salary cut.

The team is expected to cut their pay by 20 percent and waive bonuses.

The airport also said it was cutting 200 staff who are on temporary fixed-term contracts along with contractors.

It is expected that further announcements of cost-cutting measures will be taken in the next few weeks.

Mr Wingate said last week: “Gatwick is a resilient business, but the world has changed dramatically in recent weeks and we have been forced to take rapid, decisive action to ensure that the airport is in a strong position to recover from a significant fall in passenger numbers.”

Gatwick airport has been approached for comment.

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Travel

Coronavirus: Australia sets up covid-19 hotels for new arrivals in tougher new measures

Covid-19 has led to some extreme travel measures but now Australia is setting up its new arrivals in hotels. But these aren’t the fancy hotels you would wish to relax and take a holiday in. The hotels are especially for new arrivals in Australia from overseas and will likely include some protective measures.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the measures on today, just a week after a cruise ship called the Ruby Princess saw 2,647 disembark in Sydney without being checked.

Since the cruise liner’s slip up, 162 of the ship’s passengers have been diagnosed with coronavirus.

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A Princess Cruises spokesperson said:”As NSW Health has stated publicly the Ruby Princess cruise that began in Sydney on March 8 was regarded as low risk for COVID-19. Notwithstanding this assessment, our onboard medical team was rigorous in its treatment of some guests who reported flu-like symptoms and these guests were isolated. In line with existing protocols, the ship reported these cases to NSW Health, which in turn requested swabs to be provided following the ship’s arrival in Sydney, some of which subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is practice the world over that tests for COVID-19 are not conducted on board cruise ships. The protocol is for swabs to be tested by the relevant public health authority, and this was done in relation to Ruby Princess. Disembarkation of the ship was in line with the then existing process for health clearance for vessels on arrival in port.

“On disembarkation, guests were aware that anyone arriving in Australia from abroad, irrespective of whether it was by air or sea, would be required by the Australian Government to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. This applied to Ruby Princess guests who arrived in Sydney from an overseas port, in this case from New Zealand.

“Princess Cruises has robust public health standards and practices that are based on the best international public health advice. Ships have sophisticated medical centres that are staffed by medical practitioners and other health professionals.

“The advice from NSW Health that COVID-19 had been confirmed among Ruby Princess passengers came as a disappointment. We share the public health authority’s concern and have worked closely with them to make direct contact with all passengers.”

From midnight on Saturday, which is at 12pm GMT today, all arrivals at international airports will be made to stay at hotels for two weeks for mandatory self-isolation.

The isolation will take place under the eyes of border force officials.

Once the two weeks is over, people will be able to return home.

Currently, 228 passengers from the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship are residing inside the Swissotel in Sydney’s CBD after being escorted in through the hotel’s backdoor at 4am.

The passengers were forced to wear masks, gloves and protective suits as they arrived.

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Passengers will also be given an $1,000 (£495) on-the-spot fines if they leave their hotel room.

Mr Morrison said that international arrivals will be put in quarantine in the city they touch down and won’t be allowed to catch a connecting flight to their home state.

He said: “States and territories will be quarantining all arrivals through our airports in hotels and other accommodation facilities for the two weeks of their mandatory self-isolation before they are able to return to their home,” he said.

“If their home is in South Australia or in Perth or in Tasmania and they have arrived in Melbourne, they will be quarantining in Melbourne.

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“If it’s in Sydney, it will be if Sydney. If it’s Brisbane, and so on.

“The ADF will be supporting those states and territories with compliance checks to ensure that people are at their residences, that they have so worn sworn they would be at, to ensure we get compliance with the self-isolation.”

Australia’s borders closed last week to foreigners, with only returning Aussies allowed to fly back to the country.

However, people on Twitter have mixed feelings about the Australian government’s latest measures.

One user said: “How much is the government going to pay hotels, caravan parks and any other accommodation facilities, for disinfecting their premises totally, after allowing international people into Australia again. No wonder there’s more coronavirus coming into the country!

“If people flying into Australia are put in hotels to isolate – fantastic.”

Another said: “But what about those who arrived here in the last two weeks, who are meant to be in their homes isolating but are not there?”

Another posted: “Enforced quarantine in hotels to all arrivals into Australia for two weeks is a good step by Scott Morrison and team.

“This is a huge element that has made Singapore, Taiwan and Japan so successful.”

But another passenger said they had arrived back in Australia last night and would not be quarantined.

They said: “Arrived in Australia last night after 26 hours. I now hear that if it was tomorrow I would be in a hotel in Melbourne for two weeks. I do feel for those that are yet to make it home.”

Another said jokingly, “In a nutshell, Australia is a holiday hotel masquerading as a nation.”

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Travel

Room Check: New Zealand weekend getaway at the Hilton Lake Taupō

Courtney Whitaker reviews the Hilton Lake Taupō

Location:

The hotel sits beside the popular DeBretts Hot Springs, just a five-minute drive from Taupō’s city centre, on Napier Rd, and 15 minutes from Taupō Airport.

Getting there: We drove from Auckland and it took us just over three hours. The hotel offers free outdoor car parking, which was brimming with rental cars and four-wheel-drives with bike racks attached (we happened to time our stay the same weekend as the Ironman event in Taupō).

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Travel

Covid 19 coronavirus: Qatar Airways adds extra flights to New Zealand

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While most airlines are slashing or suspending operations due to Covid-19, Qatar Airways has extended its service for the Doha to Auckland route, to help get more Kiwis home.

The original date of suspension for the airline was April 15, and the service until then was only running four days a week.

The airline has now decided to operate daily flights to New Zealand until April 17, when it will suspend the service until June.

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