Monday 17 October 2016


Here are some of my latest Ornitholidays group in the cloud forests of Papua at 2600 metres. We are looking for a Spotted Jewel-babbler (which on this occasion remains unspotted). We visit three main lodges, two in the highlands, and one in the lowlands. I work with a different birding guide in each place. In the picture wearing red is Joseph, who has turned this patch of forest into a nature reserve. Since he can't get any local or national authority to protect it, he has a team of locals maintaining trails and deterring hunting or tree-felling.

In the same area, we visit these colourful characters, who are Huli Wigmen. The Huli have a long tradition of tribal warfare, which is now illegal. However, they keep their customs alive, such as growing their hair and cutting it ritually to make into wigs that are worn on ceremonial occasions. On the left is the professor of the wig school, with three of his students. A number of bird of paradise feathers can be seen in two of the wigs. (Click on the photo to enlarge). 

A 40-minute flight in a 10-seater plane takes us quickly from highlands down into the steamy lowlands of the Sepik region, in Northern Papua. Our lodge is connected to the outside world only by air or river: there are no roads. For the local inhabitants, the coffee-coloured river is both larder and highway: there are plenty of barramundi in the murky depths which the boys learn to spear from dugout canoes at an early age.  

The villagers harvest sago from the widespread sago palms, and export cinnamon bark by the sackful. For us, the main attraction of the area is the great numbers of parrots (such as Eclectus Parrots and Dusky Lories), imperial pigeons of three species, Blyth's Hornbills, cockatoos - both Palm and Sulphur-crested - mynas, manucodes and many more! We have to be active from dawn to mid-morning and again in late afternoon, since the middle of the day is too hot for man or bird to be out and about.  

 This female Blyth's Hornbill was saved from the local village as a chick after the tree with the nest was felled. Free-flying but totally habituated, she takes slices of banana from the hand, tries to drink beer from the glass and likes to explore the guest bedrooms. Males have chestnut necks. The three wrinkles on top of the bill show that she is three years old. Mature birds have six wrinkles. 

Dawn is a magic time in the Sepik. Flocks of Metallic Starlings and Papuan Spine-tailed Swifts hurry past our boat. Great-billed Herons fly up ahead of us, and the Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise calls from his favourite dead palm just beyond the airstrip. We cover great lengths of river silently by drifting down with the current. The chorus of Hooded Butcherbird, Spangled Drongo, Zoe's Imperial Pigeon, Helmeted Friarbird and many others is memorable. At present the villages are only small, and almost all the forest intact. But how long before palm-oil plantations change the place for ever? 

Back in the highlands, we spend time watching birds of paradise - such as this male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia - at another lodge. Huge amounts of papaya, pineapple and passion-fruit are put out to satisfy great numbers of honeyeaters - mostly Common Smoky Honeyeaters and Belford's Melidectes - plus a few astrapias, Brown Sicklebills (another bird of paradise) and Brehm's Tiger-Parrots. 

Our final full day is in the Varirata National Park in the hills above Port Moresby. The quiet road passes through many beautiful landscapes, including a very Australian-like eucalypt zone, before reaching a patch of rainforest at 800 metres, where one of the highlights is displaying Raggiana Birds of Paradise. The birdlife is rich throughout, with each visit producing a different set of birds. This time Forest Bittern, Purple-tailed Imperial Pigeon and Papuan Cicadabird were just a few of the species new to me. There was even a new bird of paradise - Growling Riflebird, a recent split from the Magnificent, since instead of whistling, it growls! 

On this latest tour, we recorded an amazing 117 New Guinea endemics. Finally, back to the reality of airports. The instructions in Pidgin are worth a look! For a more comprehensive look at PNG spread over three blogs, see October 2014. 

Friday 22 July 2016

Uganda July 2016 - Birds

I am just back from my third tour to Uganda with Ornitholidays. The theme was 'Birds and Primates', and we saw almost 350 species of birds in two weeks. (Mammals in the previous blog, below). Strangest of all the birds we saw is this Shoebill, an inhabitant of huge papyrus swamps, where it feeds mostly on large fish. 

Shoebills only breed in seven countries - South Sudan, western Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. They can reach 140cm when standing up, and weigh up to 7 kilos. They can also catch frogs, water snakes, water monitors and small crocodiles. The estimates for the total number of birds are uncertain, but it is currently thought that there are 5,000 – 8,000 Shoebills, most of them in South Sudan. On take-off, it reminded us of a 747, lifting its huge bulk into the air!

Turacos are mostly forest-dwelling fruit-eaters found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This Great Blue Turaco has also managed to adapt to open, cultivated habitats in western Uganda. A distinctive sound in Ugandan forests is their (impossible to describe!) hollow rattling, bubbling call. 

The Martial Eagle is Africa's second largest raptor, where it inhabits open Acacia savanna and feeds on guineafowl and mammals as large as small antelope. This adult allowed us to drive right below it without taking off. Later we came across a white-headed immature, almost as impressive in its size. 

From the huge to the tiny, here is a family of Red-billed Firefinches; but look carefully! (Click on the photo to enlarge). Close inspection shows that one chick is a firefinch, but the other two are juvenile Village Indigobirds, with streaked backs, a little larger than the firefinch chick. Indigobirds are nest parasites on firefinches, but both species are raised together in the nest.   

On our last day, we had a long drive from Bwindi back to Entebbe Airport, with few opportunities to stop. A legstretch by the road also gave us a chance to find this bush-shrike, a Papyrus Gonolek, on the edge of its marshy habitat. Many thanks to Carren and Mark for the photos that illustrate these two blogs. 

Uganda July 2016 - Mammals

I am just back from a two week Ornitholidays tour to Uganda. 'Birds and primates' was the theme: one major highlight was our 90-minute visit to a family of Mountain Gorillas in the highlands of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Our trackers led us down a steep slope, slipping on vines and logs as we went, until we found the gorillas at the bottom. But they were on the move, climbing the opposite hillside! Eventually they settled down to feed and rest, and we were able to get our breath back too.

There are 17 in the Oruzogo family, with an alpha male (silverback, above) and a beta male, not much younger. Perhaps in a year or two this large family will split into two, as the older male will not tolerate a second silverback. There were several females and youngsters, all climbing small trees to feed on the vines they love. An adult gorilla can eat 25 kg of vegetation in a day, so feeding is a fairly constant activity. We had a great team of trackers and porters, who helped us over the challenging terrain - often having to pull and push us! 

On another day, in Kibale Forest, we tracked a family of Chimpanzees. This 17-year-old was on the ground when we found him, but he soon climbed a tree for a mid-morning rest. Other family members were already sleeping in a large fig-tree, while another was testing the green fruits and finding them still unripe.

The western Uganda forests - close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo - are also home to various monkey species, notably the handsome Black-and-White Colobus. At present the forests are well protected, but there is great pressure from the ever-growing human population that lives all around it. The considerable income from gorilla tracking permits (over US $25,000 per day in Bwindi alone) is ploughed back into forest conservation, including the training of forest guards and trackers.

In more open country near the Queen Elizabeth National Park, we had to wait for these heavyweights to cross the road. This landscape is a transitional one, between the forests further south, and the acacia savanna in the Ishasha sector of the park. 

Following a tip-off from other drivers, we soon found this pride of Lions draped over the branches of a huge fig-tree in the Ishasha Loop. Their main prey is an Impala-like antelope called Uganda Kob (below). During the chaos of the Amin presidency, unpaid soldiers killed most of the park's game animals, but they have recovered their numbers very well. Controlled burning in some areas ensures fresh green grass, which in turn attracts both herbivores - and inevitably carnivores too. 

Due to a camera battery malfunction, my photography was virtually non-existent this trip: how could I have forgotten to pack a spare!? I am very grateful to Mark and Carren for allowing me to use their images. My next blog will feature a few of the special birds we watched. 


Thursday 18 February 2016

A week in St Lucia

Clare and I are recently back from a relaxing week in St Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles. She was on holiday, while I was leading the Ornitholidays group. The profile of the island is dominated by twin volcanic plugs, called Pitons, that rise sharply out of the Caribbean. Here only one is visible: the other is directly behind it. 

Our resort, Anse Chastenet, is on the west coast. It has two beaches, including this quiet and little used one, Anse Mamin. Good birding is available right there, including two endemic species, St Lucia Warbler and St Lucia Pewee. Our room had views over the sea and across to the Pitons. 

 A number of birds could be enticed to our verandahs with a few crumbs liberated from the breakfast buffet. Boldest are Lesser Antillean Bullfinches and Bananaquits, but with patience this shy Grey Trembler was tempted away from its usual diet of fruit and small lizards. The trembler is so-called as it quivers its wings as if in excitement. In family terms, it is a thrasher, related to mockingbirds. 

On three days we had early starts with picnic breakfasts, guided by one of the top birders on the island, aptly named Vision. Here we are on the Des Cartier Rainforest Trail, where Vision is explaining the importance of some of the rainforest trees. In particular, we were keen to see the national bird, the St Lucia Parrot. The island has six endemic species of birds, which can all be seen fairly easily in the company of a good naturalist guide.

After finding shelter from a passing shower, our driver Sherman summoned us back along the trail to watch a pair of parrots that he found. At their low point, in 1975, the parrots declined to about 150 birds. A national campaign and education programme persuaded islanders to protect them and their nesting trees, and made it illegal to keep them as pets. Now there are over a thousand birds, and all the schoolchildren know about 'Jacquot.'

On another day out with Vision, we watched Magnificent Frigatebirds and this Red-billed Tropicbird flying around the southernmost point of the island. Tropicbirds were always a welcome sight to seamen in the sailing ship days, since they rarely fly more than a day's sailing from land. One morning we took a boat out from the resort, where we found a school of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, many Brown Boobies, plus one Red-footed Booby and two wintering Pomarine Skuas. 

The afternoons were for relaxing, or exploring the coral reef just off our two beaches. Here a Yellowtail Damselfish swims past Yellow Tube-Sponges. Among the brain corals, sea-fans, sea-plumes and giant clams swam a great diversity of fish, in many shapes, sizes and colours. In addition to Clare's and my photos, many thanks to Eoin Hanley and Sue Goodyer for the others. 


Tuesday 9 February 2016

Emperor Penguin!

One of the highlights of my Antarctic season came at 2100 hrs local time on Christmas Eve. In GMT terms, that's the moment Christmas day started! The Vavilov was sailing past Waterboat Point, where the Chilean station of Gonzalez Videla is situated. It was a clear, sunny evening, and we had just finished dinner on board. We had heard from our sister ship that a lone Emperor was among Gentoos on the isthmus that links the mainland to the peninsula where the station is built, and where the Gentoos have a colony. We rushed up to the port bridge-wing and manned the two ship telescopes. There, lying down on the isthmus, was the unmistakable bulk of a huge penguin. At that late hour we had no chance to get closer, as we were heading for Paradise Harbour to offload our campers for a night in bivvy-bags on the ice. 

Our plans to return for a landing or a zodiac cruise in the morning were foiled by an unfortunate medical emergency that had us passing Waterboat Point at full speed - there was the Emperor again, standing up this time. (Happily our patient was safely evacuated and has recovered well.) 
This is how we saw the Emperor on Christmas Eve: the rounded shape on the left of the image! (Click to enlarge the picture). Luckily it remained in the same spot for several days, enabling One Ocean staff photographer Tony Beck to capture his portrait (top image), with a Gentoo for size comparison. 

Here is the Chilean station, with the isthmus on the right of the picture. Our ships could only reach 64 degrees south in December on account of ice; Emperor colonies on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula are well south of the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. Nevertheless the odd vagrant is reported at this latitude from time to time. This one is in immature plumage, with white rather than golden cheek patch. It is probably 18 months old, since Emperors chicks hatch in August. It will spend most of the next two years at sea, returning to its nesting colony aged four, and breeding at five. The weight range of Emperors is 20 to (an unbelievable) 41 kg, while a Gentoo averages 6 kg. So, although it is not much taller than the Gentoo, it is probably four times its weight. 

Despite our views being distant, it was a fantastic Christmas present! Many thanks to Tony Beck for the main photo; also to Nate Small for alerting us to look for it and then spotting it first, and to Alastair and Ruthie McLauchlan for the other photos.  

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Antarctica October 2015-January 2016

My latest Antarctic adventure was my longest: 12 weeks on the Akademik Sergei Vavilov, seen here on a sunny morning off the Antarctic Peninsula, at 64 degrees south. In recent years, there has been too much ice to head further south than this much before Christmas. February and March are the easiest months to cross the Antarctic Circle, at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. As usual this and her sister ship are operated by One Ocean Expeditions, from Canada. Although my main jobs are spotting and identifying wildlife, and giving presentations on the seabirds (especially penguins), we staff all have plenty of other roles. Most revolve around ensuring that our passengers are safe and have a wonderful time!   

We had six groups of passengers while I was on board. The first voyage was just for South Georgia, since October is too early to visit Antarctica. Here King Penguins - with their brown downy chicks aged 8 months - form great colonies close to the beach. On some beaches they have to share space with hundreds of Elephant Seals and (from late November) Antarctic Fur Seals too. 

 Once we reach the Antarctic Peninsula, these are the three penguins we see most: (from left to right) Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap, though it's not common to see the three standing together as here on a beach in the South Shetlands. They usually nest in one-species colonies, apart from the other two. This part of Antarctica (the west side of the Peninsula) is changing quickly, with far less sea-ice remaining in winter compared with a century ago. This has caused a decline in Adelies and Chinstraps, which feed on krill. (Krill feeds on algae on the underside of the sea-ice). However, the more generalist Gentoo - a fish-eater too - is increasing rapidly at the expense of the other two.  

This Gentoo has a nest with two eggs, laid in mid-November. Then came a snowstorm, as often happens early in the season. Like all penguins, both Gentoo parents share all the nesting duties. In a day or two, the other partner will return to take a turn incubating. Provided the nest has a good foundation of small stones to help the eggs dry out quickly, they should hatch as normal - around Christmas or New Year's Day.

Adelies begin their nesting season earlier than Gentoos: this is the colony at Brown Bluff on 3rd January. After two more weeks the chicks' down falls off, revealing their first waterproof plumage underneath. Their first underwater forays are fraught with danger, as they have to learn to swim, find food, and avoid Leopard Seals and Orcas. 

Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, is home to large colonies of Macaroni and Chinstrap Penguins. Here two Macs pose on the rocks with a Chinny. Macaronis are the world's most abundant penguin, with about 9 million pairs, but by no means the easiest to encounter. They nest in large inaccessible colonies on steep slopes, either under tussock or in scree. Although they lay two eggs, they only ever raise one chick to fledging. The first of the two eggs is often smaller than the second, and usually fails to hatch. 

On a snowy day on South Georgia, we are watching Albatrosses (Grey-headed and Light-mantled) on their nests. Some passengers are busy with cameras, while others enjoy the 30x magnification of the ship's telescope. In early November, the albatrosses are at the courtship stage, strengthening their pair-bonds with mutual preening on the nest and synchronized fly-pasts.

This is a pre-digital slide I took many years ago in South Georgia, of two half-grown Light-mantled Albatross chicks on their nests one February. As with all of the family, only one egg is laid. 

In the evenings there is 
often a chance to make music in the bar. Michael, Kaylan and I have just recreated the song 'My Hut on Elephant Isle' - written in 1916 by the crew of the Endurance as they awaited rescue by Shackleton. Some of these photos are mine; many thanks to One Ocean staff and passengers for the others.