Sunday 23 December 2012

Gambian Waterbirds

Here are a few more images from The Gambia: starting with the world's largest heron, the Goliath, in the act of taking off, and showing off its 2.2 metre wingspan. That's over 7 ft., an almost sky-darkening sight! We were slowly moving through the Tendaba mangroves in a pirogue (a large canoe hued out of a single tree-trunk) when we came across the heron, resting in a tree-top as it was high tide. The Goliath Heron is well distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It nests during the rains, usually 3 metres or less up in a tree or bush, on a platform of sticks and reeds. Three eggs are laid, which hatch after 27 days. 

On the same boat-trip, we saw this Hamerkop with nesting material. Hamerkops are aberrant storks, in a family of their own. They build huge domed nests with a circular entrance, usually 1.5 metres across and almost as tall. In most parts of Africa, the Hamerkop is regarded with great respect and rarely suffers any persecution. There are many local myths about the disasters that can follow from harming a Hamerkop. The name is Afrikaans for 'hammer-head.'

Jacanas are a fascinating family of birds, found in all continents except Europe and Antarctica. In 7 of the world's 8 species, the male is the sole carer of nest, eggs and young, (the exception being the uncommon Lesser Jacana of Africa). They all build floating nests, typically on water-lilies, on which the female lays four large and shiny eggs. The male starts incubating when the clutch is complete, so that the chicks hatch (fully feathered and ready to walk and feed) at the same time.  Now his role becomes one of protecting the young by seeing off predators, and leading the brood to suitable feeding grounds. Meanwhile the female, unencumbered by family responsibilities, is free to seek a new mate: a strategy known as polyandry. This African Jacana looks more shaggy and unkempt than usual: it has probably just dried off after a bath, and is about to undergo a long preening session. 

Perhaps the most sought-after species for birders visiting The Gambia is the Egyptian PloverThis exquisite wader, which breeds in Senegal and spends the dry season here, is a must for anyone with a camera. The Greek historian Herodotus first described their habits in the 5th century B.C.: he wrote that on the banks of the Nile one type of bird would enter the open mouths of the crocodiles and pick out flesh from between their teeth. Hence the name: but now their breeding range is from Senegal to Sudan. It only became extinct in Egypt in the first part of the 20th century. 

We saw Collared Pratincole on only one day, and in one place: but at the Kaur Wetlands we came across a flock of over a thousand. Pratincoles are an interesting group of waders, most closely related to coursers - a strange fact in itself, as pratincoles are mostly aerial, and coursers terrestrial. The word comes from the Latin pratum, a meadow, and cola, inhabitant. Pratincoles are elegant aerial feeders, hawking for insects like a small tern or an overgrown swallow. They nest in colonies on the ground. It is unknown whether the Gambian non-breeding flocks nest in Europe or Africa, but there are wet-season colonies in Northern Senegal. 

The Senegal Thick-knee is a very common wader in The Gambia, both along the coast and inland. At Kaur we found  flocks of them with the pratincoles. They are in the same genus as the Stone Curlew which nests in southern Britain in small numbers. The large eye gives a clue to its habits: it is nocturnal and crespuscular (active at dawn and dusk). The world has nine species of thick-knees, ranging from Mexico in the west to Australia in the east. In South Africa they suffer from a bad press: not only thick-knee but 'thick head' too - there they are known by the Afrikaans name dikkop.

 Along the Gambian coast we found impressive flocks of gulls and terns. The fishermen use small boats to unload their catches onto the beaches - a truly sustainable artisan fishery. The beaches and lagoons near these fishing villages attract gulls, terns, and reef herons, all year round.  The photo shows a Caspian Tern in its non-breeding plumage: when nesting, the forehead, crown and nape are all black. Some flocks numbered hundreds, with lesser numbers of Royal Terns, Grey-headed Gulls, and a few Kelp Gulls which have recently spread up the coast from the south. 

Many thanks again to Roger and Yvonne for the photos: in my next post, I will put up my own Gambian shots - people and landscapes for a change, rather than wildlife! 

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Gambia

The Gambia is Africa's smallest country, a thin strip of land entirely surrounded by Senegal. In November I led an Ornitholidays group of ten keen birders there. We had a week on the coast, then a week inland. On one of our journeys, these three Black Crowned Cranes flew over us. November is just after the rainy season has finished, so the countryside is still green - and most species are still in breeding plumage. 

Three families of brightly coloured birds seem to be everywhere: kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers. Here is a Blue-breasted Kingfisher, a blackbird-sized bird which can often be found in woodland away from water. Many African kingfishers have a diet of reptiles and insects rather than fish. While most of the Gambian kingfishers are widely distributed throughout Africa, this one is confined to West Africa. We saw eight kingfisher species, from the tiny Pygmy to the great Giant. (Of the world's kingfishers, the Giant is the largest, though the Laughing Kookaburra of Australia is marginally heavier). 

Of the seven bee-eater species we came across, the most spectacular was this Northern Carmine Bee-eater. To see this in The Gambia, you have to travel a long way inland, along the Gambia River. We came across a few of them close to the town of Janjangbureh, which is still often referred to by its old colonial name Georgetown. This individual was very faithful to this dead-tree perch, allowing the photographers many opportunities. In the background to the right of the bee-eater, is an out-of-focus Grey-headed Sparrow. 

Of the four roller species which are common in The Gambia, the one that drew the loudest gasps when first spotted was the Abyssinian Roller. These elegant birds have a chestnut-coloured back to complement the pale blue body and purple shoulders. In fact its plumage is remarkably similar to the European Roller, with the addition of the tail streamers. Rollers feed mostly on large insects such as beetles and grasshoppers, and are usually to be found in open scrubby country: a habitat that is being increasingly turned into farmland. Hence most roller species are declining. The name comes from the rolling display flight performed by many species. Rollers are among the world's worst songsters, uttering harsh cackling, grating, growling and screeching notes!

Widespread in wetlands and gardens, the Yellow-crowned Gonolek is a species of bush-shrike. Much more often heard than seen, it does emerge from thick cover sometimes (as here, in the garden of our coastal hotel). The African bush-shrikes are a diverse and usually brightly coloured family, that includes the Brubru and the boubous, and the South African Bokmakierie (which are all named after their calls). 

The Piapiac is in the crow family, and often known as 'black magpie' by the locals. This photo illustrates adult and young - surprisingly it is the juvenile with the red bill. This is a bird of open country, which can often be seen in gardens, peanut fields or around livestock. This is yet another bird name supposedly derived from its voice. During the trip, I concentrated mostly on binoculars and telescope, leaving the photography to others in the group. Many thanks to Roger Christopher, John Sykes and Roger Ackroyd for the above images. This brief look at some of The Gambia's more eye-catching birds doesn't begin to do justice to the biodiversity of the place: in my next post I'll cover a few of The Gambia's wetland species. 

Sunday 25 November 2012


This is rather a late post, as the Ornitholidays tour to Bulgaria was a week in September. It's one of our one-centre tours, where we stay for a week in the same hotel in Pomorie. Here we overlook the Black Sea in one direction, and a system of salt-works, great for migrating waders, in the other. Almost all week this Broad-billed Sandpiper (along with a few others) was easy to find within a ten minute walk of the hotel. These breed in the Arctic and winter mostly in south-east Asia. The bold white supercilium and bill downcurved at the tip are useful features. 

September is a great month to visit the Black Sea to watch migration. Waders, raptors, storks and pelicans can be seen in great numbers. These White Pelicans, seen soaring over the city of Bourgas, breed mostly in the Danube Delta (a little way north in Romania), and winter in East Africa. In the autumn they put on weight by feeding in dense flocks on the abundant fish in Lake Vaya, a magnet for waterbirds on the edge of Bourgas. We missed the main peak of the stork and eagle migration, but lucky observers can see hundreds of Lesser Spotted Eagles and White Storks migrating south in one day. 

Eastern Bulgaria also has some fine oakwoods where species like Goshawk, Woodlark and Hawfinch nest. In autumn Red-breasted Flycatchers and Woodchat Shrikes pass through. The Middle Spotted Woodpecker is a common resident too - similar to our familiar Great Spotted, but with smaller bill, red crown and higher-pitched voice.  

Logistically, this is a simple and easy tour: Bourgas Airport is reached non-stop from Gatwick or Manchester; and the daily programme is relaxed, with no long journeys. We had time to enjoy fritillaries and other butterflies, and this well-camouflaged praying mantis. Thanks to fellow-traveller Brian Garner for two of the above photos. Next post I'll report on my latest Ornitholidays destination, The Gambia.  

Tuesday 16 October 2012


Our Brazil trip in August 2012 had two main wildlife destinations: the Pantanal (see below in previous posts) and REGUA, a beautiful reserve in the Atlantic Rainforest. Here is a view of the REGUA wetland, created by damming a stream as part of a project to increase the wildlife interest. Much of the reserve was originally forest, then converted to cattle pasture, and now back to forest again thanks to huge tree-planting efforts by the Locke family and staff and volunteers. In the background are the beautiful mountains of Serra dos Orgaos.   

Among the many birds to inhabit the wetland is the Capped Heron, a rather solitary species that spends time patiently fishing among the water-lilies. Here are also many White-faced Whistling-Duck, Purple Gallinules and a small herd of Capybara. A huge roost of Cattle Egrets is also a picturesque sight, but is causing a problem of eutrophication in the wetland: too many nutrients from their droppings have removed oxygen from the water and algal blooms are resulting.

Guapi Assu Lodge is only a few metres away from the wetland, and is a very comfortable place to stay. It is an old converted and extended farmhouse, which in fact gives its name to the reserve. REGUA stands for Reserva Ecologica de Guapi Assu. Feeders in the garden attract hummingbirds, tanagers, and troupes of White-tufted (or Common) Marmosets. The staff are especially friendly, and the atmosphere is like staying with a family in their home. 

There is an excellent trail system around REGUA which offer the possibility of watching many bird species endemic to the Atlantic rainforest. On the beautiful Waterfall Trail, we came a cross a Black-cheeked Gnateater, the first member of that family I had ever seen. As so often with rainforest species, we heard it before we saw it: the male uttered a high-pitched trill, which sounds something like dragging a thumbnail across the teeth of a comb. REGUA has two excellent bird-guides, Adilei and Leo, who know all the calls and thereby help visitors see much more. One morning, Adilei guided us round the wetland and lodge area, where he somehow managed to find us (among many other sightings) a well-camouflaged Three-toed Sloth.

On the Wetland Trail and at Macae de Cima Leo guided us. Macae de Cima is an area two hours away from REGUA, up in the Serra dos Orgaos mountains. Here's a shot of Leo, recording all the species (by their scientific names) in his notebook. I have been lucky enough to work alongside many extremely skilled ornithological guides since I started guiding in 1977, and I found Leo was up there with the best of them. Here we were at about 1,000 metres above sea level, exploring the cloud forest.

At the top of the track at Macae de Cima is a beautiful house, which belonged to an English naturalist and orchid-collector, David Miller, who sadly died recently. As we ate our picnics in the garden, we watched the hummingbirds at the feeders such as this White-throated Hummingbird. There were also Brazilian Rubies, Scale-throated Hermits, and two tiny Amethyst Woodstars, not much larger than a bumblebee, and each weighing 2.4 grams. For comparison, a British 1p coin weighs 4 grams. We very much hope that this wonderful area, rich in cotingas, trogons, furnarids, tyrant-flycatchers and many other bird families, will continue to be protected and accessible to all wildlife enthusiasts. 

Back at the lodge, a mercury vapour light is left on to attract moths - a great attraction also for our son Douglas. He took these photos (and hundreds of others) at dawn before the House Wrens and Tropical Kingbirds came round to seek their lepidopteran breakfasts. 

A book on the hawk-moths of Serra dos Orgaos has recently been published, co-authored by Jorge Bizarro. Jorge works at REGUA and spent time showing Douglas the moths and 
other insects of the area. 

Most of these wonderfully patterned creatures, so different from the well-studied European moth species, do not yet possess English names. Dragonflies too are being studied at the REGUA wetland. A friend of mine from the Welsh borders is about to volunteer there for three months, escaping the British winter in the furtherance of Brazilian insect biology!

Our three full days and two half-days in and around REGUA came to a close much too quickly. Many thanks to all the staff and volunteers who helped us enjoy ourselves. Next time, we hope for a longer visit!   

Thursday 20 September 2012

BRAZIL - More from the Pantanal

Each morning at Rio Claro, river water would be pumped onto the lawns, providing a much-needed source of drinking water for a variety of parakeets, and also appreciated by Shiny Cowbirds, Crested Oropendolas and Yellow-billed Cardinals. This is one of Clare's photos of the Blue-crowned Parakeets, which we only saw on our last Pantanal day. Nanday and Monk Parakeets more widely distributed.

Continuing the theme of needing a drink, the swimming pool at Porto Jofre was the unlikely setting for this scene. A Black Vulture seems to have three minders, in the form of Southern Caracaras. Well used to any kind of rotting food in its diet, the vulture is probably glad of a taste of cleansing chlorine! The American vultures are not related at all to the vultures of Europe, Asia and Africa. They nest on the ground, use the sense of smell to find food (instead of just sight), and are usually reckoned to have diverged from storks, not raptors. The two groups of vultures are a textbook example of convergent evolution. Caracaras are also scavengers, related to falcons. 

Here's another family restricted to South America: the seriemas. This is the Red-legged Seriema,   which can be found alone or in pairs, strutting round cattle pastures looking for grasshoppers and beetles. Much more often heard than seen, they emit a variety of yelping calls that can sound almost melodious at a distance. We came across a family group: two parents and a fully-grown youngster. Seriemas nest in bushes or small trees, usually approaching the nest by a series of jumps rather than flight. 

The largest of the South American storks is the Jabiru, seen here with a large fish on the Rio Claro boat-trip. It is similar in size (1.3m and up to 8 kg) to the African Marabou, but always smarter in appearance. At the moment the photo was taken, the fish is in mid-air between the mandibles, but seconds later it was swallowed whole. At one feeding frenzy along the main road, we saw about 300 Jabirus together, with impressive numbers of herons, egrets and a few..... 

.......Ringed Kingfishers. Unlike our diminutive kingfishers in the UK, the Ringed is pigeon-sized. In fact, only the Australian kookaburras and the African Giant Kingfisher are larger. This is a male - the female has the upper part of the breast grey. Many of the world's kingfishers feed on lizards and insects such as grasshoppers, and often live far from water; but the American kingfishers act as their name suggests.

My next post will cover our short visit to the Atlantic rain-forest, north of Rio de Janeiro.  

Thursday 30 August 2012

BRAZIL - The Pantanal

The Pantanal is an area of seasonally inundated grasslands and cattle ranches on the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay. Clare and I visited the Pantanal during a Brazil tour in 1992, and now, 20 years on, we had a chance to take our son Douglas there. We took a boat from Porto Jofre upstream, where Jaguars can often be seen along the banks, hunting for Capybara and caiman. Douglas took this photo - one of two fine Jaguars we watched during our morning boat trip. 

An hour earlier, from the same boat, we watched a family of noisy Giant Otters as they found a huge supply of fish all around us. The otters always kept a wary eye on the caimans if they approached with the intention of stealing the otters' fish. 

The bird life was plentiful and equally photogenic. This Southern Screamer roosted at the top of a leafless tree, before flying down to feed in the wetland below. Screamers are a South American family of noisy, heavy marsh-birds, a metre long and weighing 4.4 kg. The three screamer species are in a family of their own, but in the order that includes swans, geese and ducks.

The Sunbittern is also in a family of its own. Often secretive along rivers, this one was out in the open in midday sun. They resemble a delicate heron, and nest in a tree on the river bank. I was lucky enough to watch one at the nest in Costa Rica some years ago. Their beautifully barred plumage is enhanced when they spread their wings, to reveal two huge chestnut-and-black 'eyes' near the wing-tips. When alarmed, a Sunbittern will spread its wings to give the impression of great size, designed to frighten off a potential predator.  

We spent two nights at a lodge named Rio Claro, half way along the Transpantaneira, the dusty road that crosses the Pantanal. This photo of the drive shows typical features of the Pantanal in August, such as the drying wetlands and the pink piuva trees (Tabebuia impetiginosa) in flower. The pyramid shape on the left is a termite mound. 

This Campo Flicker, a mostly terrestrial woodpecker, was a regular visitor to the lodge garden, where it would feed on ants and termites, usually with its mate. Parakeets of various species came regularly to drink on the irrigated lawn: a colourful spectacle that I'll include in my next post. 

Wednesday 4 July 2012

More from Finland

The wonderful weather we enjoyed in May in Finland seems a long time ago, as our miserable rainy British summer continues. Here are a few more photos from our sunny days around Kuusamo, just south of the Arctic Circle, and almost on the Russian border. Here's a male Hazel Grouse, perched up in a budding birch. 

 After the owls, the grouse were the family that excited the group most. These two Capercaillie, male and female, were feeding by the side of the road, but flew as we approached and perched up high. Thanks to Miles, one of the Ornitholidays group, for sending me these two. Black Grouse are also flourishing in Finland, but the Willow Grouse is declining. The Willow Grouse is the same species as our Red Grouse, but on the continent it turns white in winter, and is often known as Willow Ptarmigan. 

Next comes a portrait of an Arctic Tern, taken close to our hotel by the lake in Kuusamo. Most of my photos are taken through the telescope ('digiscoped') but this tern was close enough not to need the scope treatment. After breeding, these record-breaking fliers migrate to the southern hemisphere, and many reach Antarctic waters. Hence, of all species on earth, the Arctic Tern sees the most daylight. 

The Siberian Jay is a species I especially wanted to see, having missed them on Arctic Norway tours in the 1980s and 90s. Bold during the winter, these subtly-coloured jays become silent and secretive in the breeding season. We increased our photo chances by throwing the pair scraps from our breakfast buffet. After eating the first few offerings, they disappeared to cache our later missiles for their future enjoyment.   

Our last two days were spent in the Helsinki area, where the sun still shone, and the days were positively hot. The Thrush-Nightingale is a close relative of our nightingale, also with a loud song. It is not often as obliging as this one, as it perched in the open, close to the path. 


Wednesday 30 May 2012

Finland's Owls

Finland is a wonderful country, with a small population and fantastic natural resources, including plenty of owl species! Owls were the focus of this latest Ornitholidays tour, and here are a few of our sightings. We saw 6 species, and I managed to photograph 5. The Short-eared Owl was the one that escaped, but at least that can be seen in Britain. The first (right) is a Great Grey Owl, here seen on its man-made nest in a spruce forest. (Yes - the nest was constructed just in the hope of attracting this owl).

Next is a Hawk Owl (left). This was the hardest to find, as there have been no nesting records this year. Voles were abundant last year in Northern Finland, but (just our luck) they are very scarce this year. However, it made our discovery of this bird all the more satisfactory. We concluded after watching it for nearly an hour that it wasn't nesting, just living a solitary life trying to survive. 
Smallest of all is the Pygmy Owl (right) - not surprisingly the photos are not to scale. This is smaller than a thrush, but a fierce predator on small birds. Our local guide Ari found it for us (just as he found most of the others) thanks to his great knowledge of the local area, and thanks to a network of other birders who all share their sightings by text messages or mobile phone calls. 

Next comes a Tengmalm's Owl - this is a juvenile waiting patiently in the nest box for the next vole. This is the only one of the 5 photos which was not taken through the telescope. It is about a month old, on the point of fledging. Its older siblings had already left the nest - so at least one area had a good vole year.

Finally, one of the most beautiful owls is this Ural Owl (right). It's a larger, paler relative of our Tawny Owl. This one had recently-hatched young in a nest-box nearby. These owls can be aggressive near the nest, so Ari had to move very slowly to avoid its displeasure. It watched us carefully, giving a quiet woof! - rather like a dachshund. We soon left it in peace. In mid-summer there's little chance for these northern owls to be nocturnal - it's light all round the clock. 

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Preparing for Finland

Not long back from Belarus, but now I'm getting ready to head off again! This time it's Finland, with another Ornitholidays group. This is another 9 day tour, concentrating mostly just south of the Arctic Circle at about 65 degrees North. Our first centre will be Oulo - regarded by birders as the owl capital of Finland. We will also be visiting the Oulanka National Park, on the Russian border north of Kuusamo. There are seven possible owl species - including this Pygmy Owl, taken in Belarus two weeks ago. It's only six inches long, the length of a Chaffinch, and weighs 60 grams. It is a fierce predator on small birds. Another hoped-for owl is at the other end of the size scale: the Great Grey. There's a photo of this fine owl on the nest, below, on my Belarus blog.