Saturday 7 December 2013

More Otters in the garden!

In the second half of November we had a succession of Otter sightings on the camera traps by the stream and the pond. Clare has stitched them together into a single video, making them appear more abundant than Rabbits or Grey Squirrels!

I am due to leave tomorrow for another Antarctic season on the good ship Vavilov, returning on 17 January.

Friday 15 November 2013

Ethiopia part 3

My final Ethiopia blog illustrates a few of the songbirds we came across on the recent Ornitholidays tour. This is a Ruppell's Robin-Chat, a common garden bird in the Highlands. Africa has a large number of robin-chat species, which are mostly shy forest dwellers with fine songs heard especially at dawn and dusk. The name commemorates the German Wilhelm Ruppell, who was busy collecting specimens in East Africa from 1822 to 1833: many species bear his name.

The African Paradise Flycatcher is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in light woodland rather than dense forest. The male has a long tail that extends its length from 7 inches to 14. This is a female, which we watched as it caught insects above cattle in an area of recently cleared forest. Some males exhibit an alternative plumage that is pure white, except for black wings and head. There are few more dramatic sights in the bird world than a white male darting through a shady forest with long tail trailing behind. 

The Orange-breasted Bush-shrike is a spectacularly coloured inhabitant of Acacias and other woodland in East, West and South Africa. It is often called Sulphur-breasted. It can sometimes be enticed into view with a simple imitation of its repeated high whistle. Both sexes have the same bright plumage, and share all nesting duties. 

A long journey took us to the south of Ethiopia, and a small area where Stresemann's (or Ethiopian) Bush-crow is common. These sociable crows are most closely related to choughs, and are often found in Acacias close to villages. Research has shown that there is a small climatic bubble limiting their range: they occur only in a basin of 6,000 square kilometres which is (surprisingly) cooler than the surrounding higher areas. The young are unable to survive anywhere else, though adults are more tolerant. With global warming occurring in Ethiopia as in other lands, there is much concern for their future.  

One of the most distinctive Ethiopian endemics is the Thick-billed Raven, a huge crow with a fearsome weapon of a bill. At a carcase, vultures stand aside to let the raven in, since its strong bill can tear hide more efficiently. They are common in the capital Addis Ababa, and can often be seen soaring above the city with kites and Hooded Vultures. It also feeds on small mammals, birds, insects, fish (when catches on the Rift Valley lakes are unloaded), and grain. Not much of a songbird, it utters a variety of throaty rattles and croaks. 

My final choice is one of East Africa's most spectacular birds, the Golden-breasted Starling. Many starling species in East Africa have brilliant plumage, with various shades of iridescent blue or purple that appear differently coloured according to the light. We found them feeding among the huge thorns of the Acacias, and we wondered how they keep their feathers in such great condition in such a spiky habitat. Their diet is insects, caught on or near the ground; and they nest in tree-holes, laying three or four eggs. Male and female are equally brightly coloured, and they share all nesting duties. Thanks again to Howard and Gabor for this group of photos.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Ethiopia part 2

Following the previous post about Ethiopian waterbirds, I've had a look through the photos of the landbirds in my album - there are far too many good ones for a single post! So, here are some non-passerines, with a final post to come later covering the passerines (broadly speaking the songbirds). Here's a Secretarybird that we found stomping around the Awash National Park looking for snakes and lizards. The usual method of overcoming prey is with a sharp stamp on the snake's neck. However, grasshoppers and beetles make up most of their diet. Raptors of the world are classified in five families - hawks (including eagles and vultures), new-world vultures, falcons (including the South American caracaras), and two monotypic (single-species) families: Secretarybird and Osprey. The species is named for the quill-like feathers on its neck, though it could be for the black tights they wear.........

 The Lammergeier is a remarkable vulture whose speciality is feeding on the bone-marrow from the carcases of cattle and goats. To break the bone, it flies up and drops it onto rocks below. Its wing-span reaches 2.5 m, and the diamond-shaped tail is distinctive from a great distance. In Europe it can be found in the Pyrenees, Crete and Russia, and it occurs too in the Himalayas. But in Ethiopia it reaches its highest density, as there are plenty of suitable cliffs for nesting, and stock for food. I prefer its alternative name of Bearded Vulture, since the official name (of German origin) suggests that they prey on lambs and gives them an undeserved reputation.

This Tawny Eagle was being harassed by a pair of Cape Crows - interested in the small rodent prey that the eagle had found. We watched a crow nipping the tail feathers of the eagle. This is the most abundant eagle in Ethiopia, a resident that does not migrate at all. During the northern winter, they are joined by many other similar eagles from Russia and Eastern Europe, such as Steppe, Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Imperial Eagles, which migrate through Turkey, Israel and Egypt. On one day we recorded 20 Tawny Eagles, mostly at a lakeside in Debre Zeit where (above the cultivated cabbages and lettuces) a dozen or more were perched in the trees, calling loudly.

 The Kori Bustard is the world's heaviest flying bird, (with the male weighing up to 19 kilos - almost an international luggage allowance!) Usually found in pairs in East and Southern Africa, they roam the savannah in search of seeds, insects, small birds and mammals and reptiles. Every one of the world's 25 species of bustards is in decline, mainly because their grassland habitats are also in demand for cultivation. Many of the smaller bustards are masters of camouflage, and can be incredibly hard to see if they stand still in long grass. All bustards have an impressive breeding display, (in some smaller species involving remarkable aerobatics). The Kori male is too heavy for such frivolity, but struts about or stands upright, puffing out the neck until it becomes a pure white puffball of downy under-feathers.     

Like the bustards, the coursers are another cryptic family that spend their time on the ground. Strangely, their closest relatives are the pratincoles, which are aerial feeders. This is Heuglin's Courser, a Blackbird-sized species that's hard to spot when it crouches down. The large eye suggests that it is nocturnal and crepuscular - active at dawn and dusk. Some books call it Three-banded Courser. Ethiopia is the northern end of their range, which stretches down to Zimbabwe; but nowhere are they common. 

White-bellied Go-away-bird may not sound like an official name, but it is. It's a member of the turaco family, one which is  confined to sub-Saharan Africa, and called  lourie in South Africa. Most of the family are bright green, shy, forest-dwelling fruit-eaters, but this species lives in Acacia savannah and is common in East Africa. It is especially fond of eating the flowers and fruit-pods of Acacia trees. It is so named for its ga-wah calls.

Owls are a favourite group of birds for most people. Up in the Bale Mountains National Park a ranger took us to see this Abyssinian Owl, a medium sized species very similar to our Long-eared Owl at its usual roost. Strictly nocturnal, this bird spends all daylight hours resting in one spot, unless disturbed. The mossy trunks show the high rainfall of the Bale Mountains: something we experienced ourselves, even as we watched this owl. It is not an Ethiopian endemic, as it occurs also (in very small numbers) on Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzori Mountains in West Uganda. 

I was about to upload a photo of the stunning Northern Carmine Bee-eater, until I remembered that I'd featured it in last year's Gambia blog. So here is a Blue-breasted Bee-eater, one of six species of bee-eaters that we came across on our 13-day safari. This species lives in highland forest and forest-edge in small groups. They nest in banks, often along mountain roads. The green background of many of these photos shows that we travelled at the end of the wet season, which usually ends in September. Many of my previous visits to Ethiopia were in the dry and dusty months at the beginning of the year.

The Red-billed Hornbill has recently been split into five species, a trend variously regarded as annoying (as it plays havoc with previous lists) or exciting (as it often leads to new species seen!) This one is now known as Northern Red-billed Hornbill. It is usually found in Acacia habitats. This individual was one of a pair that watched us (two mornings running) eat our breakfast from the nearest tree to the lodge dining-room. We wondered why they didn't get on with finding their own!

Finally here is a beautiful Red-throated Wryneck, which we watched eating ants with its long tongue flicking in and out with sewing-machine speed. This is a resident of East Africa, while the world's only other wryneck nests in Europe and Northern Asia and winters in Africa. In the woodpecker family, it has two toes pointing forwards and two back, unlike all passerines. The finely spotted and barred plumage aids camouflage. Many thanks again to Gabor, Howard and Roger for the camerawork.


Wednesday 30 October 2013

Ethiopia part 1: waterbirds

I am recently back from my 6th visit to Ethiopia. All of them have been co-leading Ornitholidays groups, starting in 1983. The country has changed a lot since then, with a far larger human population; but the wildlife remains magnificent. Birds are especially approachable and make great subjects for photographers. On many days of our 13-day tour, we were able to see more than 100 species in a day. Here a group of Great White Pelicans rest and preen on the shores of Lake Ziway, one of a chain of large lakes in the Rift Valley. (As always, click on the image to enlarge).

One Rift Valley lake, Abiata, is alkaline, and attracts thousands of Lesser Flamingos. They are joined by industrial quantities of terns, avocets and other waders, many of them migrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Abiata is in a national park, but villages have sprung up within the park, with crops, herds of cattle and flocks of goats: even a school has been built. I haven't seen encroachment like this in any other African national park. The pressures on wildlife reserves in many parts of the world are intense and ever-increasing.

The Horn of Africa has 30 or more endemics which were of special interest to us. We saw most of them, including the rare Spot-breasted Lapwing. Small flocks occur up in the Bale Mountains, where this photo was taken at 4100 m. On this cold and damp plateau, we watched 30 or so as they frequently vanished into low cloud. As many plovers do, each one would vibrate one foot gently on the ground to bring invertebrates to the surface. On this day, the only place for our picnic lunch was inside the coach (during which we watched an Ethiopian Wolf hunting Giant Mole-rats). 

Rails and crakes are usually shy and hard to observe. However, the endemic Rouget's Rail is common and conspicuous in the Bale Mountains, in similar habitat to the lapwing. A little smaller than a Moorhen, it seems happy to wander about in the open making loud whinnying calls and dueting. Recent declines in the rail's population can be ascribed to grazing pressure, although occasional years of drought will not have helped either. 

It's always great to have a chance to compare two similar and often confused species. Close to Awassa town, we found this Greenshank (on the left) feeding with its smaller relative the Marsh Sandpiper. Both breed in the north (probably these ones came from Russia); they migrate to Africa for the winter. The needle-like bill of the Marsh Sand is always a good clue if you can get close enough - we were amazed at how approachable even the migrants are in Ethiopia. The branch of Orthodox Christianity followed by most of the population has always been protective of wildlife (though perhaps not so protective of wildlife habitats).

Many of Africa's kingfishers are dry country specialists that feed on lizards and insects rather than fish. However, the Pied Kingfisher is strictly a piscivore and spends much time hovering above shallow water, before plunging in vertically. This is a male, with a double black breast-band. The species has a wide range, throughout Africa as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean, and as far east as Hong Kong. It is also the most monochrome of Africa's kingfishers, which are mostly adorned in brilliant plumage, often vivid blues and oranges. 

Maybe the Grosbeak Weaver is not strictly a water bird, but it always builds its nest over water. This is the all-dark male (unlike most weavers which are usually yellow or orange). In some books it is known as Thick-billed Weaver. The female is heavily streaked below. The male has white patches on its wings which are fluttered to attract the attention of the females. Males are responsible for most nest construction, but the females add a grass lining, before undertaking all the incubation and feeding duties single-handed (or perhaps single-beaked). They occur in suitable habitat throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

Many thanks to my co-leader Gabor Orban, and to Roger Christopher and Howard Gorringe, who took the photos while I was busy with the telescope. My next post will concentrate on a few of Ethiopia's colourful and interesting land-birds.


Thursday 26 September 2013

A Weekend on the North Norfolk Coast

Clare and I spent last weekend on the North Norfolk Coast, visiting some of the wonderful reserves such as Titchwell, Cley and Snettisham.  Here is a tiny part of the impressive high-tide roost of waders at Snettisham (with plenty of Greylag Geese in the background). In the foreground are thousands of Red Knot (in their grey winter plumage) and hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits. (Click on the photo for a larger image). During this roost, the knot flock was constantly alert, as newcomers continued to land among them. After an hour, the flocks began to leave again, heading out to the mudflats of the Wash. There were also great numbers of Oystercatchers, Common Redshank, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew, and a few Turnstone, Spotted Redshank, Avocet and Grey Plover. Add in heaps of Shelduck, various gulls and a few lingering terns....a great experience. 

 We watched Pink-footed Geese grazing on the pastures at Holkham - here are a handful of the thousands that have just arrived from breeding grounds in Greenland and Iceland. Their flight call is a characteristic wink-a-wink, typically uttered by a skein as they fly over in V-formation. At Titchwell, we found Bearded Reedlings in the reed-beds, Spoonbills asleep as usual, and even a Pectoral Sandpiper, a vagrant from Arctic Canada. The new hides offer superb views of a great variety of duck and waders which seem oblivious to waving arms, chattering visitors, and mobile phones ringing. 

I particularly enjoyed visiting Cley for the first time...after almost 50 years of birding in the UK. It's an old stomping ground of Clare's so she was happy to guide me round. Highlights were a Lapland Bunting, just arrived and quietly feeding on weed-seeds on the shingle by the beach, and a Hobby aerobatically chasing dragonflies. There was also a Red-backed Shrike on view. The flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Lapwing were frequently re-arranged by the resident Marsh Harrier. The panorama over the marshes from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust's superb reserve centre is magnificent.

From Morston we took a short boat trip to the tip of Blakeney Point to see the Common and Grey Seals hauled out on the shingle. The Common Seals (known as Harbor Seals in North America) have already had their pups this year, but the Greys give birth in October and November. In this photo most are Common, but the near-right seal is a Grey, with a longer, straighter nose. The Greys are steadily increasing in number. Most notable among the birds of the boat-trip was a large flock of Golden Plover, which wheeled round indecisively for ages before landing in the saltmarsh.

We visited our friend Stephen Clark, photographer and picture-framer, at his superb exhibition in Brancaster Staithe Village Hall. Here's Stephen chatting to Clare. With his wife Deanee, he runs Pebbles Photographya showcase of his wildlife and landscape work. Our Norfolk days were a great break, but now it's back to the serious stuff...I'm all packed and ready to leave for a two-week safari in Ethiopia, with an Ornitholidays group. 

Monday 15 July 2013


Svalbard is a group of islands administered by Norway, far north of the Norwegian mainland and only 600 miles from the North Pole. I'm just back from a voyage round the main island, Spitsbergen. I was working as one of the naturalists aboard the Sergei Vavilov, a Russian ship charterered by One Ocean Expeditions. Here's an aerial view of part of Spitsbergen in mid-summer, taken from the SAS plane as I flew out. 60% of the landmass is covered in ice, with many huge glaciers. (Click on the picture for a larger image). 

We had 72 passengers on board ship, mostly from UK. Many were from a group specializing in landscape photography, Light and Land. As with my Antarctic adventures on the sister-ship the Akademik Ioffe, the Vavilov uses zodiacs to reach remote beaches where we usually made two landings each day. In this photo one zodiac is offloading passengers at the gangway at the end of a shore excursion; while another (to the left) is awaiting the crane to be lifted back aboard. 

Most visitors to Svalbard are hoping to see Polar Bears. We found five, following a great deal of searching from the ship, the zodiacs, and from shore. This young bear was well camouflaged on the snow. The pack-ice was already a few miles north of the islands - which is where the bears are most at home. Here they can continue hunting seals in the ice. The ones that stay in Svalbard over the summer (such as this one) have to make do with a meagre diet of carrion and ducks' eggs until the ice envelops the islands again in the autumn. 

Another iconic mammal in Svalbard is the Walrus. During one beautifully sunny zodiac cruise, we came across these three sleepy individuals. Formerly they were hunted ruthlessly for their tusks, meat and blubber, but numbers are now recovering. Their scientific name Odobenus means 'tooth-walker,' since their feeding method consists of trawling the muddy sediments upside-down in search of bivalve molluscs (especially clams), which they feel with their whisker-like vibrissae. With great powers of suction, the clams are transferred to the mouth. An adult male weighs on average 900 kg, making the Walrus the third largest pinniped, after the two elephant seal species. 

Svalbard has a short bird-list, but among them are some gems. Here is a female Red Phalarope - sometimes called Grey Phalarope after their much duller winter plumage. Phalaropes are waders, in the sandpiper family, which spend most of their time swimming. Often they swim in tight circles, disturbing their tiny food items (fly and midge larvae) and making them easier to catch. Phalaropes are one of the few families in which the female is brighter than the male. She initiates courtship, and as soon as the four eggs are laid, she plays no further part in the nesting process. The less brightly coloured male incubates the eggs and looks after the chicks. 

Another special Svalbird bird is the King Eider. Here, in an alternative version of the three drake Mallard which are often seen adorning sitting-room walls, are three drake King Eiders in their icy home. Common Eiders are far more numerous here, but small numbers of Kings breed too. Other Svalbard specials include Little Auks in their thousands, Brunnich's and Black Guillemots, Glaucous and Ivory Gulls, and Arctic Terns. There are thousands of Fulmars and Kittiwakes. 

The Svalbard subspecies of the Reindeer is a common sight in many places. This individual had strayed onto an area of polar desert where food was very scarce. In summer reindeer are happy eating grasses, sedges, and leaves of dwarf willow and birch. In winter, their main diet is reindeer moss, Cladonia, which is in fact a lichen. This they find by scraping away the snow. The lower photo shows an area in the polar desert where a Reindeer has died. Nutrients from its decaying corpse have fertilized the ground, allowing a growth of grasses, moss and saxifrages: and providing a little nourishment for future generations of Reindeer. These photos were taken on the barren island of Nortaustlandet. When the channel freezes over in autumn, this Reindeer will be able to cross back to the more fertile vegetation of Spitsbergen.  

Spring comes late at 78 degrees north; and the season is very short. A Svalbard poppy, about an inch high, has just come into flower. More common were purple and tufted saxifrages, and several species of Arctic buttercup. Willow and birch survive on Svalbard too, but both grow prostrate, seldom more than an inch or two high. At this latitude, if you get lost in the forest, all you have to do is stand up!    

Monday 17 June 2013

A Rogue Capercaillie!

During the recent Ornitholidays tour to Finland, we came across an adult male Capercaillie in the Kuusamo area.  Occasionally unmated males with too much testosterone defend their forest patch aggressively. This one, well known locally, spends most of its days by the road and is liable to attack anyone who steps out of the vehicle. My Finnish co-leader Pirita gives us due warning, but we are still amazed by our encounter. 

For a while, the crazy Caper keeps his distance, strutting around with tail fanned and making quiet popping and gurgling sounds. We're all enjoying amazingly close views and photographic opportunities, before it suddenly launches an me! 

I take this shot a second before the moment of impact. It is a privilege to be beaten around the thighs by the wings of this grumpy old grouse! Neither of us suffers any harm, but after a short break he shows he's ready for Round Two. 

Now Pirita steps forward. She has had the good sense to arm herself with a pine branch, a soft object that will deflect his charge and not hurt him. Mr C gets most upset at our departure, trying to attack us as we jump into the minibus, biting Andrew’s finger, and running  after us.

We flag down a motorist coming the other way to warn him since he's still strutting around in the middle of the road. But the driver tells us in English that he knows the bird well, and gestures that it's time he was shot for the pot. Finland is a country full of hunters, who shoot many thousands of  grouse in a year. (During one recent year, the figures were 200,000 Black Grouse and 70,000 Capercaillies). Both species have become rare in Southern Finland, and only up in the north are the grouse holding their own. Habitat loss is implicated in the decline as much as hunting. None of us who were there on that sunny day at the end of May will ever forget our closest grouse encounter.  

Wednesday 15 May 2013


In April I co-led the Ornitholidays tour to Hawaii, visiting the four major islands in 13 days. We began in Oahu, flying into Honolulu from San Francisco. On the north coast we visited a golf-course that is well known as a wintering ground for wintering Bristle-thighed Curlews: the bristle-like feathers are visible if you click to enlarge the image. These rare waders are much easier to see here than on their breeding grounds in West Alaska. I remember going to find them from Nome in 1992 - we did see a pair, but not without a three and a half hour drive each way and an exhausting tundra-yomp of 7 hours, mostly on a carpet of dwarf willow!

Near Waikiki we walked up a wooded valley to see one of the forest endemics, the Oahu Elepaio. This is in the monarch flycatcher family, whose closest relatives are in the South Pacific. A simple squeaking noise attracted this recently-fledged juvenile to the branches above our heads. The local conservation authorities had been active here, spreading rat poison on the ground in the breeding territories. Almost all Hawaii's native forest birds are desperately endangered, and need some kind of helping hand. 

From Oahu we flew to Hawaii itself, always known as the Big Island. Here on the slopes of one of the most active volcanoes in the world we saw our first Ne-ne or Hawaiian Goose. The world population had dropped to about 30 individuals when the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge stepped in with a successful captive breeding programme. Now their future is assured, especially on the island of Kauai where the Small Indian Mongoose was never introduced. Unlike most wildfowl, this goose has only partially webbed feet, and the goslings don't need to be led to fresh water by their parents. Much of their food consists of berries, and they can be seen in dry, partially forested areas.  

Most of the Hawaiian forest birds are in one endemic family, the Drepanididae. Their ancestors were probably a pair of wind-blown honeycreepers from Central America. The remoteness of the islands has allowed plenty of adaptive radiation, such that at least 40 unique species evolved from the original colonists. Sadly most of these are now extinct, but on our tour we managed to see 12 drepanid species. (We would have seen far fewer without my Hawaiian co-leader David). Most are small green forest canopy feeders, but the two bright red ones, the Apapane and I'iwi, are the most successful. The one illustrated here, with ibis-shaped red bill, is the I'iwi. The most deadly threat to the survival of these native forest birds is avian malaria, which was introduced accidentally. The birds that evolved here have little or no resistance to it. 

Compare the I'iwi's bill with this one (right), belonging to the Palila. The Palila is also a drepanid, but has developed a crossbill-like beak, which it uses to prize open the pods of the mamane tree, (Sophora chrysophylla), in the bean family. This bird is critically endangered, and has suffered a two-thirds decline in numbers in the last 20 years. It only survives in one small area on the southern slopes of Mauna Kea, one of Hawaii's great volcanoes. The bird-songs most often heard here are of Eurasian Skylark, California Quail and even Wild Turkey (if you can call its gobbling noises 'song'): all were introduced, the latter two for hunting.  

Our next island was Maui. Here is one of the most massive volcanoes on earth, Haleakala. It rises to 10,023 ft above sea level, but it starts from great depths on the sea-floor. The endemics here are hard to find and still harder to photograph, but we found plenty of obliging waders such as this Wandering Tattler, another Arctic breeder on its northbound migration. Only in breeding plumage does it show these fine bars on its underparts. Some of us went out on a whale-watching boat too: Maui is famous as a breeding ground for Humpback Whales. Like the tattler, the whales were beginning their northbound migration. During their long sojourn in the warm waters the whales fast; only in the cold waters to the north do they gorge themselves on fish and krill - a feast that has to last them six months.   

Finally, we visited Kauai, the oldest of the main islands and the furthest to the north-west. Here, suburban gardens in Princeville have very distinguished breeding residents: the Laysan Albatross. They nested in this cliff-top location long before the plots were developed; and recent pairs have proved amazingly tolerant and site-faithful. Each year a successful pair raises a single chick: we saw one on a lawn, and another on a driveway, blocked off by parking cones for its own safety! The residents are proud of their annual visitors, and tolerant of folk like us snooping round their neighbourhood with long lenses.  

Kauai is a great island for seabirds. Here we watched a large breeding colony of Red-footed Boobies, with a few piratical Great Frigatebirds in attendance. Sometimes a frigatebird would chase a booby and force it to disgorge food. Here is a Red-tailed Tropicbird, which nests on cliff-ledges in the same area. Tropicbirds are always a delight to watch, and used to be popular with sailors, since they rarely fly more than a day's sailing from land. So, seeing the first tropicbird meant land ahoy. 

Also nesting on the same promontory were many pairs of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Their burrows were a common sight as we wandered along the tracks of the nature reserve. Many shearwaters only visit their nests at night; but the wedge-tail is happy to be seen by day, and at close range too. After the harrowing stories we heard about the relentless declines of the native forest species, it was a wonderful climax to the tour to be able to watch such a thriving mixed seabird colony. Hawaii is a brilliant place for a naturalist to visit - and Ornitholidays are likely to return in 2015. Many thanks to Peter Munro who has allowed me to use his excellent photos.