Friday 31 July 2015

A dream comes true in Uganda

Put two or more birders together in a pub or indeed any convivial situation and the conversation will often turn to a discussion on what are their respective favourite birds. We all like seeing birds of any shape or size but some are more special, more desirable than others and we are all familiar with this aspect of our interest. There are certain species that we cherish or covet and desire to see above all others.

Often these favourite birds are to be found, not in Britain but residing at all points of the globe and too often the hopes and desires of seeing them will never become reality and just remain a fantasy. Some are happy to leave it at that whilst for others it becomes almost a holy grail involving considerable sums of money and long distance travel.

My personal favourites are, in no particular order Southern Giant Petrel, Pallas's Gull, Great Grey Owl, Shoebill, Picathartes and Steller's Sea Eagle. Unfortunately for me none are native to Britain and only two are to be found in Europe. They all have that certain something about their character or appearance, even their habitat, that sets them apart and creates a sensation, a longing, almost a craving that feels it needs satisfying at some point in a lifetime. How often do we say 'Oh I would love to see that' when an image of a bird or animal appears in a book, magazine or on the television?

Of my special birds I have only managed, so far, to achieve seeing one - the Shoebill in Uganda but then my chosen special birds would not be special if they were easy to see and could be ticked off simply. The fact that they require considerable planning and effort to travel to their specific locations in the world adds to the attraction and promises a real sense of achievement if and when the fantasy becomes reality.

I went on a birding trip to Uganda with two birding friends, Ads and Chris in June 2009 and on our second day we visited the Mabamba Swamp, which is home to Shoebills and is about a one hour drive from Entebbe. It is a strange sensation being in close proximity to something that has been just a dream, a casual subliminated desire for so many long years that one never thought it would become real. In fact I never considered I would get the opportunity to go to Uganda let alone see a Shoebill, but chance circumstances meant that here I was in Uganda and hopefully minutes away from realising this particular fantasy. It was not without a certain anxiety however, as it was by no means guaranteed I and my friends would see a Shoebill. A number of birders have come to the Swamp and failed to see a Shoebill and the contemplation of having travelled thousands of miles at relatively great expense and with the distinct possibility of failure, understandably made the situation more than a little fraught.

The world population of Shoebills is between 5000-8000 individuals and they are only found in tropical East Africa. They are considered one of the five most desirable bird species to see in Africa and there is currently much debate about whether they are a true member of the stork family or more closely related to pelicans. 

I had seen pictures in books and even TV programmes of Shoebills but now here I was in a primitive wooden canoe being paddled down olive coloured, opaque water channels running through vast stands of papyrus, reeds, lilies and other exotic aquatic plants towards the huge heart of the Mabamba Swamp. I was now minutes away to either realising a dream or enduring the misery of failure.This was my one and only chance.

Slowly we wound our way down the narrow water channels, the steamy heat combining with the sickly foetid smell of rotting vegetation to suffuse the air with that familiar distinctive scent of riparian Africa. The boatman's paddle disturbed the shallow bottom of the channel, pushing us ever deeper into the Swamp, a magical world of still, dark water and alien looking plants that made me realise I was a very long way from Oxfordshire. We passed through the papyrus stands, our seated position in the canoe, just inches above the water, was so low that the height of the papyrus on the banks made it seem as if we were passing through a long green tunnel open to the eternally blue sky above. Mysterious croaks and squeaks, strange other worldly, unrecognised amphibian sounds emanated from the depths of the papyrus and lilied banks. Frogs plopped from the reeds into the water at our approach as various birds briefly came into view and then disappeared just as quickly back into the green, humid depths of the surrounding vegetation. 

We were in two canoes. I was in the first one with a boatman and my two friends were in another following, as we were paddled gently along, almost silently, apart from the quiet splash as the boatman's paddle regularly entered the water to propel us along the channel. Slowly we glided through the water until we came to where the papyrus died away and were confronted with a vast area of open swamp, an area of water completely covered with floating plant life and with a couple of vague, lily festooned channels of open water meandering through the trackless green wilderness and into the haze blue distance.

Yours truly in the Mabamba Swamp
As our canoe rounded the end of the papyrus stands I saw a massive, blue-grey, prehistoric looking head towering above the swamp vegetation. It could be nothing else. It was a Shoebill. The colloquial name of whalehead never seemed more appropriate. The realisation of finally seeing a live one so unexpectedly was invigorating, as was knowing that the long arduous journey from the Northern to Southern Hemisphere had been worth it for this bird alone. This was a dream literally coming true and I called in excitement to the others. At that instant they had not quite cleared the papyrus so frustratingly for them could not see the bird but eventually they too drew alongside my canoe and we all gaped in awe at this monstrous member of the stork or pelican family as it stood motionless in the swamp.

A creation of antiquity. a morose, solitary giant of a bird. It stood absolutely still, almost monumental. A bird of extremes its  almost freakish ugliness and gargantuan proportions, made it absolutely fascinating. Its head was huge but needed to be to carry such a massive appendage as its bill from which it gets its name. In antiquity the Arabs called it 'abu markub' which means 'one with a shoe'. True its bill looks like an enormous straw coloured clog but the ski slope proportions and appearance of that enormous bill would dwarf any shoe known to man other than for a giant.

c Ads Bowley

Grey all over, it stands almost five feet tall and its feet are huge, which allows it for all its great size and weight, to walk or stand on the floating vegetation of the swamp.  All I could think of as I looked at its prehistoric countenance and pale reptilian eye was of the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex. In fact its Latin name is Balaeniceps rex. It hardly moved at all but stood statuesque and forever silent. Its formidable weapon of a bill with razor sharp edges to the mandibles is adapted to catching sizeable catfish and lungfish in the mud of the swamp. Its main prey consists of these fish and it can tackle catfish up to three feet long and well over a kilo in weight but it is also partial to snakes, lizards, frogs and even small crocodiles.

This individual was obviously stoically waiting for a catfish or lungfish to come within range of its specialised bill but eventually it flew on huge wings, they are between 7.5-8.5 feet across, further off into the swamplands. 

We paddled further into the Swamp and soon came across another, flying in to do exactly what the first one had been doing. In the distance we could see yet another, a grey hulking presence standing pillar like in the green wastes of the Mabamba Swamp.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Shrike One 26th July 2015

Red backed Shrike c Stephen Burch
Having spent a very pleasant Saturday with Peter chasing after heathland butterflies and Brilliant Emerald dragonflies at a couple of locations in Hampshire I returned home weary but pleasantly fulfilled. A hot bath and a glass of white wine helped to soothe aching limbs and feet before I slipped into bed and as is customary checked Twitter on my I-phone to see what other people had to say about matters consequential and more often than not, inconsequential.

I scrolled through the various tweets and there was a tweet from Paul Wren plus a picture of a Red backed Shrike which he had just been to see that very evening at Churn which lies on the southern border of Oxfordshire. Inwardly I groaned. Any chance of the eagerly anticipated lie in on Sunday was now out of the question as I had never seen a Red backed Shrike in Oxfordshire, unlike just about every other Oxfordshire birding acquaintance of mine who already had seen one at Otmoor last year whilst I was birding in Ecuador. This was my chance to set matters right.  Also, the weather forecast was for yet more rain, arriving sometime during Sunday morning, so to pre-empt its arrival I would have to rise at a very early hour. 

Above all else though, it would be nice to see a Red backed Shrike as they are a considerable rarity in Oxfordshire and now, regrettably, also nationally. I can remember in my youth how they bred in many a hedgerow throughout England but sadly they are long gone and I doubt they will ever return.
Five am on a grey and gloomy early Sunday morning found me driving southwards to the other end of Oxfordshire in search of the shrike, which was to be found near a long abandoned and disused Field Study Centre lying in a far corner of the Churn Estate, near to the Ridgeway.

At this time in the morning the roads were virtually free of traffic and the world seemed to be just for me and no one else. However I could not relax as the roads, although free of vehicles, persuaded portly Woodpigeons that they would be ideal to stand or waddle about in, the birds seemingly unable to comprehend that the black car approaching them at speed heralded their nemesis if they did not flee. Only at the very last moment would they decide to fly and on a number of occasions I was obliged to take evasive action and steer around them as they failed to move fast enough. It is always Woodpigeons that seem to be so slow on the uptake. Any other bird would be long gone. If not Woodpigeons to avoid it was young rabbits, not yet savvy to the dangers of playing about on the road and the threat from motorised vehicles. Thankfully I managed to avoid any fatal collisions with both bunnies and pigeons but several corpses along my route, already being investigated by Magpies and Red Kites, signified that not every motorist was so vigilant or sympathetic.

A hunting Barn Owl flew along the roadside verge as I descended down the long hill to Burford. Ghost white under the grey cloud. I hoped it would retire to roost before this normally busy and fast road became populated with cars. Too many are killed on this fast stretch of road year after year by the passing vehicles.

After forty minutes I found myself  turning off the main road and onto the long unclassified track that leads through expansive corn fields to a dead end adjacent to the former Field Study Centre at the distant perimeter of the Churn Estate.

I was a little unsure as to the exact location where the shrike was to be found and was hoping and expecting to find other birders already there but no, I was alone. I therefore had to get on with it on my own and without the aid of a map, which in my haste I had left at home. I did however have a vague idea, based on the reports from yesterday evening, as to where to commence my search, which was near the Field Study Centre, now just a forlorn and decrepit brick building much overgrown by vegetation and gently being reclaimed by nature. 

Parking the car on the only available grass verge I set off along a rutted and grassy track running between the Field Study Centre and an immense cornfield to my right. The long, dew soaked grass stems left damp smears on my trousers as I passed through them, the non descript beige and green carpet of grasses enlivened by random oases of colour; the blue-mauve flowers of Field Scabious, purple-red heads of Greater Knapweed and the flat white flower heads of Yarrow. Remnants of our natural flora that were once abundant but now are to be found cowering, depleted and in retreat from our herbicide saturated land and making one last desperate stand in neglected hedgerows and byways.

At this early hour in the morning all was quiet and still apart from the birds and even their calls seemed to be diluted and diminished by the immense acres of cornfields and straggling hedgerows rolling gently upwards like a tidal swell to the Ridgeway, that ancient road that eternally traverses the Downs. Indeed the sense of space and isolation, the history and wonderment of all those souls who through the centuries have trod the Ridgeway came to me like some forgotten whisper and was strangely re-assuring at this early hour. In spirit I felt I was not alone. 

The area I was currently in looked likely habitat for the shrike as scattered hawthorn bushes, some fully leaved and others dead and skeletal formed a semblance of a boundary on each side of the track and looked to be ideal vantage points for the shrike.

The track looking towards the Ridgeway.The shrike was in the bushes to the right
The track looking  from the Ridgeway towards the disused Field Study Centre
Initially there were quite a number of birds perched on the various bushes. Most favoured a couple of dead bushes, using the exposed twigs and branches to enable them to keep a lookout. Optimistically I checked these birds through my telescope but they were only juvenile Starlings and, surprisingly, a flock of ten Mistle Thrushes which also seemed to be mainly juveniles, judging by their scaly upperparts. Another brown bird flew up onto an exposed twig, bringing brief excitement, but it was a Song Thrush.  A Curlew commenced calling repeatedly nearby, its call, so evocative of wild and lonely places embellishing the sense of space and isolation around me, and as I walked to investigate it took off from the overgrown edge of a close by field, its cries still audible long after it had vanished in the sky. Families of Goldfinches and Linnets, twittering fussily and insistently amongst themselves flew off before me and a couple of Common Whitethroats dodged through the twiggy confines of the bushes, peering out and churring softly in anxiety. I slowly walked further on and by now all the birds had fled from my presence leaving the bushes seemingly devoid of any life. I came to another isolated hawthorn bush, stopped and stood, uncertain of what to do or where to go next. I was running out of options. Feeling slightly downcast, I disconsolately regarded the bush and as I did a previously invisible, thickset brown bird about the size of a thrush, hopped out from the centre of the bush and clung on an outside twig. I could hardly believe it was the Red backed Shrike but it was.

Overall it was a dull red brown on its upperparts and drab white with prominent black scaling on the underparts. Its head was thickset and a substantial black bill with a prominent hooked tip enhanced its bull necked no nonsense appearance.

A juvenile, it looked at me with a large, liquid black eye as if it could not quite countenance my presence. Almost point blank it regarded me for a couple of minutes but then thought it wise to put some distance between us and flew to the next bush along. I followed it and with my scope studied it as we gently progressed from bush to bush each time the shrike changed its position. Not overly aggressive, nevertheless it showed obvious signs of having no apprehension in tackling prey of all kinds. It briefly showed interest in a whitethroat, pursuing it in a desultory fashion through the twigs of a bush but mainly it was on the lookout for insects and other invertebrates. I watched a couple of times as its head moved laterally, closely following the trajectory of passing bees but it decided against pursuit. It was adept at hiding away in the centre of the bushes it frequented or making sure it was always on the opposite side of the bush to me but occasionally it would perch openly on an exposed twig but never for long.

What a joy to see this bird having missed the one from last year and such luck to find it so relatively quickly and easily.To complete the morning a Quail commenced calling from far out in the ripening cornfield to my left as a Red Kite mewled querously overhead and some twenty Swallows twittered on distant telephone wires.

Many thanks to Steve Burch for allowing me to use his picture of the shrike to illustrate this blog

Monday 13 July 2015

Brighton Hairstreaks 11th July 2015

I planned a visit to Brighton to see my good friend John Reaney which would coincide with a visit to the Royal Pavilion, former home of The Prince Regent, and its restored gardens where a Monarch Butterfly, a very rare vagrant not normally found in northern Europe had been present for the last few days. Sadly when we got to the gardens there was no sign of it and although we waited a whole afternoon to see if it would show up it never did.

The Royal Pavilion and Gardens
Visiting the Royal Pavilion Gardens reminded me of a funny story. Years ago I lived near Brighton but worked at Heathrow Airport for a big shipping company. One Monday morning I got into work and Rob, one of the young lads from Accounts, came over to my desk. 'Here Ewan, you live near Brighton don't you?' 'Sure' I replied. 'We were down there on the weekend and saw a demon curry restaurant but we were just on our way home so we are going to give it  a try next weekend'. Curious, I asked where it was in Brighton. 'Just by the main road to the seafront. It's huge with pinnacles and minarets and all that eastern stuff. It looks really classy.' Rob blithely informed me. Then the penny dropped. 'Rob that's not a curry restaurant it's the Royal Pavilion!' Bless.

Standing around in the not unpleasant sunny surroundings of the gardens, dodging the colourful crocodile hordes of young foreign students being led by their various teachers and chaperones through the gardens to the Brighton Museum we became aware that another desirable and often elusive butterfly was sharing the gardens with us. We first noticed one feeding on some white flowers, picking its way across the delicate white blooms, probing with its proboscis as it went. So small that it could be easily overlooked and often is! It was a White Letter Hairstreak. Normally they spend virtually their entire short lives at the top of their favourite tree, the Elm, but here they were coming down to feed on the nectar in the flowerheads. 

Elms as many people are aware have been decimated for years now by Dutch Elm Disease and very few full grown Elms survive, only the regenerating saplings which once they reach a certain height of regrowth are attacked by the beetle carrying the disease and die back and so the cycle goes on. 

In Brighton a far sighted council have for many years preserved the full grown Elms in the centre of the town by treating them each year with a chemical which keeps the disease at bay.  The Elms are famous and a unique feature  of Brighton and grow in and around the Royal Pavilion gardens which doubtless accounts for the presence of the hairstreaks. 

After our initial encounter we found up to six more White Letter Hairstreaks at several locations in the gardens, all near to the Elms, feeding on various  flowers. They showed no alarm at the point blank proximity of a camera lens aimed at them but happily carried on their wanderings over the flower heads in search of sustenance.They never stopped for long, maybe ten minutes at the most and then would rapidly fly upwards in erratic flight into the trees but others arrived in their place and probably there were many more than the six we saw. 

An unexpected, welcome surprise and some consolation for missing the Monarch Butterfly.

Friday 10 July 2015

Emperors and Admirals 9th July 2015

Nine in the morning finds me standing at the beginning of the main track through Bernwood Forest. The sun has yet to warm the forest but the clear blue sky intimates it will not be long before the air will lose its chill, dissipating in the  sun's strengthening rays.

There is a sense of tranquillity about the forest that enters my soul each time I come here. The ancient Oaks impart an air of permanence and peacefulness and seem to absorb all the problems of life into their leafy arbours.

The sun increasingly encroaches on the shadows of the trees across the track as it moves through the sky. Although I am partially shaded below, the tree tops are in full sun with butterfly and insect life well and truly active.

The main track through Bernwood Forest.This particular section is much
favoured by Purple Emperors due to the combination of Oak and Sallow
Silver Washed Fritillaries, huge and obvious, full of the sun's vitality, bright orange in the white light, bustle across the leafy stands or rest on high upon a leaf with wings open to the sun, before careering off on yet another breakneck mission. They are so frequent here that one almost but not quite dismisses them such is their abundance, but undeniably they always bring a  frisson of excitement when yet another appears in a headlong odyssey to a destination unknown. Others have found the pale pink bramble flowers at the edge of the small car park and are feasting on the nectar, forever flighty and touchy, constantly flexing their wings and ready to fly at a moment's notice, Unwilling to share a flower with any other insect, the slightest touch or intrusion causes them to zoom off, forever restless.

Silver washed Fritillary  (male)
The humble Ringlets, those plebiean lepidopteran denizens of the grass, appear drab, dreary and mundane compared to the exotic and extrovert fritillaries but are present in their dozens, flopping and flouncing in their jinking restlessness at all levels from ground to tree top. They are literally everywhere, fluttering deep in the lush stalks of the long summer grasses to spiralling high in the dark green leaves of the Oaks  as they enact their brief existence. 

A pale grey flickering high in the trees, moving dizzyingly fast and erratically is not a wind blown scrap of leaf but resolves itself into a Purple Hairstreak, delicate and paper thin it ceases its flight and clings to an oak leaf at the highest point of the tree, a tiny pale triangle just about visible, drinking in the honeydew from the leaf.

I stand in contemplation, pleasantly warm now in the middle of the morning. A dark shape careers past and behind me, to be almost dismissed as just an imaginary shadow but not quite. It is a large dark butterfly and flies strongly down the track and then returns to land by the side of the track a few feet away from me. At last. A Purple Emperor. A male, he allows me a glimpse of white bands and imperial purple on his open wings before he is away, unsatisfied with whatever he sought on the ground and disappears into the forest.

It is never commonplace to see a Purple Emperor. Unpredictable, capricious and frustrating they appear almost contemptuous of those of us that wait for them to descend from on high. And why not? For the month of July they reign supreme in the forest and bring a beauty, a regal majesty and mystique that lasts long after they have perished and left the forest somehow bereft until next summer.

Another 'Emperor' descends to the earth from its throne of leaves and remains for a minute or so. This one is huge and with no purple sheen on either wing no matter from what angle it is viewed. It is a female, so perhaps should be called an 'Empress.' Females are far more hard to see than the males and it is unusual to find one at ground level but soon she too is away and then there are no more. Some days you can sit within inches of one for a long spell as it absorbs nutrients from the ground but on other days like this they seem nervous, edgy and unsettled and will not remain still. That is the charm of them. They are never easy to see and chance plays a huge part in any success, which only adds to the attraction.

Purple Emperor
I slowly become more aware of the White Admirals which although never abundant seem to be here in greater numbers than I can recall in other years. They are the prima ballerinas of the wood, bringing an ethereal and fragile grace to the wood, buoyantly gliding the air currents on flat wings as they float through the sun dappled edge of the forest. Occasionally they delicately come to rest on a leaf but are rarely still for long. Their lives are all too short, days only and there is much to do. Procreation, the all consuming driving force of nature inexorably guides their purpose.

White Admiral
Then an aberration. Flying in low glides just above ground level along the track, stopping for seconds and then fluttering onwards with a series of short flights, interspersed with brief stops to examine the ground for nutrients or who knows what. It is a White Admiral but there are no white markings on its matt brown wings. It is a rare form of the White Admiral, colloquially called Black Admiral and the first I have ever seen. I follow its unhurried progress along the track and finally it settles on a nettle leaf long enough for me to record the moment on my camera before it flies off once more.

Black Admiral- a rare aberrant form of White Admiral in which the white on
the wings is virtually absent
It is now noon and I am forced by the strength of the sun to seek the shade at the side of the track. The Purple Emperors are enthroned high in the Oaks and it looks unlikely that they will be granting further audiences. Only the White Admirals continue their gentle quests along the wooded rides of the forest. I turn for home. It has been a good day.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

It Seems like Yesterday 7th July 2015

European Stonechat drawn by my good friend John Reaney of Brighton
More years ago than I care to remember, maybe around thirty although it is hard to believe it can really be that long ago, I lived in a village called Ditchling, in the shadow of the Sussex South Downs and much of my free time was spent studying the stonechats that bred along the gorse topped cliffs of Beachy Head, further east in Sussex. In those days they used to be called Common Stonechats but are now European Stonechats.

I loved the times I spent at Beachy Head and was never happier. There are so many fond memories associated with 'my' stonechats such as the time I was ringing a brood of stonechats and looking up noticed a Crag Martin flying back and fore just above me. I finished ringing the stonechats and then watched the martin for another twenty minutes, feeding above the grassy slope before it disappeared off to the east never to be seen again. I was completely alone at the time as it was July, the  dead time for birding. My sighting of the Crag Martin turned out to be only the second ever record for Great Britain. 

Another time and another year I was lower down the same slope trying to find a stonechat's nest when a strange melodic call came from a small hawthorn. I went to investigate and a non descript greyish bird, about the size of a Greenfinch, with a few dark streaks on its breast and a beady black eye revealed itself to be the origin of the call. It flew to the next bush. It was another rare bird, a Common Rosefinch or Scarlet Grosbeak as it was in those days. Again there was no one else around to tell. 

Finally a famous pop and session musician as well as good friend, who also lived in Ditchling, asked to come one morning to share the experience of checking stonechat nests in my study area. His name was Herbie Flowers, formerly of T Rex and who played the famous base accompaniment on Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side'. That morning I learnt an awful lot about the pop music industry, its stars and gossip whilst Herbie learnt a lot about stonechats and watched me ringing a couple of broods.

I was asked to write a book about stonechats and their relatives which I eventually did and it was published in 2002 under the title 'Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola.' The book that finally appeared was, as befitted the modern trend full of technical detail but I always regretted that it could not be allowed to be written in the relaxed style of the bird books of old. I was brought up on the likes of Walpole Bond and Bannerman who were both excellent ornithologists and capable of writing in an interesting and fluent style. They were so much more readable and to my mind just as instructive without being burdened by the now fashionable scientific approach of churning out a wealth of sterile statistics, graphs and genetics which in some cases can render the book concerned almost unreadable to the average person with an interest in birds.

Below is the preamble to the original manuscript I wrote but was considered not suitable for the book in its final form, which I completely understand but to my dying day will regret could not be included. I scribbled it down in a quiet moment as I was sitting on a steep, sunny slope at Beachy Head watching my beloved stonechats.

'On an early morning in June with the sun just two hours above the horizon I am sitting on a steep grass
 slope called Cow Gap just east of Beachy Head and where the chalk of the South Downs meets the sea. I am waiting to find a stonechat's nest which is somewhere hidden in the rank grass further down the slope. Some hundred metres below me the slope flattens out to a wide flat area covered in an abundance of downland flowers that runs down to the sea. Marbled Whites, Dark Green Fritillaries, countless Meadow Browns and Chalkhill Blues cruise and flutter over and amongst the Purple Knapweed, Yellow Rattle, Spotted and Fragrant Orchids and swaying downland grasses. The scent of Wild Thyme blows on the warm breeze, the sea is a dull murmur on the distant shore and my arms glow yellow with reflected colour from a swathe of Horseshoe Vetch stretching away on the bank to my left. This is the haunt of the stonechat.

Conspicuous on top of a small hawthorn bush, framed by the colours of the early summer flowers and the blue sea sits a male stonechat. His black busby head, white neck flashes and orange breast handsome and bright against the backdrop of sea and sky.

Somewhere fairly nearby his mate is sitting on a nest incubating red stippled blue eggs but it is useless to randomly search for the nest as stonechat nests are always wonderfully well concealed and as is the way of such things, that which is most desired is often the hardest to obtain or in this case to find.

But I am now, from much practice, familiar with the ways of the stonechat and know that the best way to find the nest is to be patient and wait for the female to leave her nest and appear on one of her feeding trips which usually occur every forty to sixty minutes. It is of course no hardship to sit here patient and solitary in such spiritually uplifting surroundings. I have no idea how long I will need to wait but the secret is to keep a constant eye on the male as he never remains far from his incubating mate and will accompany her when she leaves the nest to feed. Time drifts by on the breeze. An Adder appears out of the gorse winding its way through the grass below my feet as I sit silent and motionless, then coils itself sinuously into a tiny grassy hollow to absorb the sun. Its head rests on its coiled body. A black unlidded eye, glittering in the sun, is unfathomable. The three week old Fox cubs, yet to learn caution and in between bickering and play fighting are also sunning themselves at the entrance to their Earth under a Wayfarer bush whilst the male stonechat sits atop his hawthorn doing very little. I keep watching him. We are both waiting.

Suddenly he becomes excited, flicking his wings and flirting his tail. I scan my binoculars some ten metres to his right and there is his mate, perched on another small hawthorn bush busily preening and shaking her feathers, a sure sign she has just left the nest. She is the epitomy of  nervous impatience as she flies a few metres at a time from perch to perch, dropping to pick prey from the ground at every stop, constantly in agitated motion. I follow her intently with my binoculars, ignoring the male. She is soon many metres away from where she first appeared but finally starts heading back in a series of longer flights between perches. It will not be long now as she is concerned for her eggs. Five, ten minutes is the longest she wants to leave them. Arriving at a small bramble spray half risen above the grass, she is edgy and alert, constantly flicking tail and wings. She looks around anxiously, furtively, a slight hesitation and then makes a sudden dive into the grass and is gone from sight. I wait for five minutes but she does not re-appear. Unknowingly she has revealed her nest but she and its contents are safe. Known only to me and I will return but once to disturb her and hopefully ring the young stonechats in a couple of weeks from now.

Thursday 2 July 2015

African Memories Part 2 - The Okavango Delta Botswana

Another memorable holiday trip to Africa some years ago with my wife and young daughter found us spending a few days in the watery wilderness of the Okavango Delta moving by light aircraft across the vastness of Botswana from camp to camp.

The wildlife as always was abundant and thrilling but I had one desire above all others and that was to see a Pel's Fishing Owl, a huge ginger coloured owl with eyes as black as the African night and that lives entirely on fish.

I had met other birders and guides who told me I would be extremely fortunate to see one and if I did it would probably be just briefly, usually at night and would first entail much searching without any great chance of success.

After a week in the dry savannah of the Kwai Concession we arrived at the luxury Kanana Camp situated in the heart of the Okavango Delta and I immediately asked if there was any chance of finding a Pel's Fishing Owl but was met with a sympathetic smile and a negative reply from the young couple running the Camp who seemed skilled in providing drinks, food and every other creature comfort known to man or woman but not so knowledgeable about the wildlife. 

I let matters rest for a while but undeterred decided to bypass the official route and get some local knowledge from one of the native Africans working as a guide at the camp. He told me that he knew of a pair of Pel's Fishing Owls nesting in a huge tree half an hour's boat trip from the camp but as most people visiting the camp were more interested in Lions and other big game rather than birds the camp did not really make much effort to inform visitors about the owls.

For a consideration of some US dollars we came to an 'unofficial' arrangement and the next day, making my excuses, I declined the early morning game drive and met my African friend at the dock and away we went in a motorboat, cleaving our way through the steamy humid waters, following deep mysterious channels through huge papyrus stands to eventually transfer to a small canoe and pole ourselves across a shallow lake profuse with lilies.

A channel through the Papyrus

The shallow lily lake with the owl nesting tree visible centre on the far shore
We silently glided through the clear water, scattering Greater and Lesser Jacana's before coming to rest under a huge tree by the water's edge in which the owls had their nest, containing I was told, a young owl secreted in a hole of a branch high above us. I looked up. There above me in the tree was an enormous owl, a Pel's Fishing Owl looking every bit as impressive as I had been led to believe. Its ginger plumage with wavy dark brown bars almost glowed in the dappled shade as its huge claws clamped it firmly to a stout branch. It looked down at me in that casual way owls do and its fathomless black eyes were impassive and expressionless.

We sat for over two hours in the narrow canoe, shaded from the burning sun by the tree, taking time also for a light lunch as I just enjoyed this very special time with a beautiful and mysterious owl. The only sounds were natural in this liquid tropical wilderness and an inner peace came over me as finally yet another of life's little challenges came to successful fruition.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect an encounter such as this. A few seconds view, which was apparently more typical would have made me very happy but to have a Pel's Fishing Owl just sitting motionless for hours on end above me was almost unbelievable.

Apparently I was extremely fortunate in my timing as when  Pel's Fishing Owls are nesting and have young it is not uncommon for one of the parent owls to sit outside the nest hole guarding the young one and to show no fear at this stage in their nesting cycle. The individual owl I was looking at was the larger female, the smaller male which I also saw later but much more distantly was in another tree further away and much more circumspect about showing himself

I sat dreamily in the boat, watching the owl, luxuriating in the humid warmth, listening to the tiny frogs croaking in the lilies and inhaled the dark steamy swamp smells of the Okavango. 

The owl fiddled briefly with its breast plumage and a long ginger feather drifted slowly in the windless hot air, spiralling down to the water. I retrieved it from the water's smooth surface, a memento of this unforgettable moment in the heart of Africa.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

A Surprise Visitor 1st July 2015

Brown Long eared Bat  
Today was the hottest July day in England ever, with temperatures reaching a record high. Probably like many other people, myself and my wife took advantage of this welcome visitation of a Mediterranean climate to eat alfresco in the garden this evening, as such opportunities do not arise that often in an English summer.

After the meal and a bottle of wine we retired to our living room to watch yet more episodes of The Sopranos. Sad I know but we are both hooked. Due to the continued warmth we left all the doors of our three hundred year old house open to allow what little cool air there was to flow through the ground floor of the house.

By eight thirty in the evening and with broad daylight still outside we were now well into watching The Sopranos when suddenly we found ourselves not alone. We became aware of a large brown flying shape that appeared in the living room and silently flew round the room at just above floor level then rose a few feet to repeat the process. My initial reaction  was that it was a hawk moth but it was way too big and we quickly realised it was indeed a bat. A fair sized one as well, with prominent stick up ears, pale brown fur and similarly pale brown parchment wings. We are quite familiar with bats as one of the delights of summer in our rural location is that we get bats flying around in our garden every evening but to have one venture into the house was certainly out of the ordinary.

There was no panic on our part or indeed from the bat. It was obviously hunting, quite at ease in this strange extension of its normal habitat and flew at a comparatively slow pace around the room, comprehensively examining every nook and cranny in the room as well as every piece of furniture including the television, gently twisting and turning with great agility as it did so. It made at least four or five slow, measured circuits of the room rising up to the ceiling and down to floor level. It even flew in and around the inglenook fireplace and partially up the chimney before re-emerging. Its flight was wonderfully light, controlled, acrobatic even and totally silent. Not one object in the room was touched as it flew and it never settled on anything.  We just sat on the sofa totally entranced and marvelled at our good fortune to have this unexpected treat before our very eyes in our own living room. The Sopranos on the television was for now totally forgotten.

Having completed its thorough examination of our living room, and us by the way, the bat then proceeded to make a leisurely exit from the living room and flew down the hall and into our farmhouse kitchen and repeated its minute examination of every feature there, even entering the cramped utility room but again skilfully and with consummate ease evading all the potential hazards in there. 

Unlike the occasional bird that comes down our chimney there was no wild panic and crashing into windows or objects in a bid to escape but a gracefully smooth and controlled flight that even took it behind a Welsh Dresser at almost ground level before re-emerging, and  having completed its examination of the ground floor of our house's interior to its satisfaction, departing out of the open kitchen door and back into the garden on the other side of the house.

Both myself and my wife had to pinch ourselves about what had just happened. It was all over in six or seven minutes but for that time we had been privileged to watch from our own sofa, a bat flying gently around our living room.

I checked on the internet and found that our welcome visitor was a Brown Long-eared Bat. They are reasonably common and well distributed in Britain but who cares about that. They are not so common in one's living room.