Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas walks in Nottingham

Christmas Day: The Little Prince

I received a gift on Christmas day during a stroll in Woodthorpe Grange Park; I saw one of my favourite birds. The Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is truly a little prince (regulus means prince in Latin). The smallest bird in Europe, but with a certain majesty topped off with a crown of gold:


Boxing Day: An Elizabethan Park

A late afternoon stroll in the grounds of 16th Century Wollaton Park in the heart of Nottingham…

Wollaton Hall

Wollaton Park

28 December: Lord Byron’s home

Newstead Abbey was an Augustinian priory operating from the reign of Henry II until it was dissolved (along with so many others) by Henry VII and became a residential home of the Byron family…

Newstead Abbey

The 6th Baron, who we know as one of Nottingham’s most famous sons, the poet Lord Byron, could not afford the upkeep of the estate. He described the romantic ruin of his family home…

“Thro’ thy battlements, Newstead, the hollow winds whistle;
Thou, the hall of my fathers, art gone to decay”

The Abbey was eventually sold and is now a museum to its most famous occupant. The grounds include walled gardens…

Newstead garden

… and wilder parkland…

Newstead lake


29 December: toll path into the wild

Nottingham Canal

The Nottingham Canal courses out of the town and meets the River Trent:


Looking South across the Trent, smoke and steam can be seen billowing from the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal power station…




In the name of Sir David

The Trent leads to a complex of lakes now part of the Attenborough Nature Reserve:


In turn this wetland is home to a range of wildlife. From common ducks such as:

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)


… and Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula):

Tufted Duck

… to the less frequently seen, such as these distant shots of female and male (left to right) Goosander, or Common Merganser, (Mergus Merganser):


I also had fun exchanging whistles with a very bold (but tiny) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes):


… and trying, and failing, to get a good photo of an elusive Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). This was the best I got:


But the treat for me, was to see Tree Sparrows – rarer cousins of House Sparrows – (Passer montanus) at feeders at the reserve, as they have been almost wiped out from southern parts of England:

Tree Sparrow

As we eat, drink, make merry, and nurse winter colds, it is pleasant to get out in the fresh air, walk, and appreciate some of the beautiful sights that places – such as Nottingham – have to offer.

Happy New year everyone!


What is a duck?

I spent yesterday photographing waterfowl at the London Wetland Centre.

I was reminded of the inductive reasoning ‘duck test’: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.

At first glance, this is reasonable enough (for those of you having sensation of deja vous, don’t worry, it isn’t a glitch in the Matrix, it is because you might remember this previous post).

I am sure if I showed most people this photograph, they would tell me it is a duck:


You wouldn’t need to know that it was a Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope), to be able to correctly assume that it was a type of duck.

But what is it about a duck that tells us it is a duck?

Also, I would hazard a guess that a reasonable minority of people, if they had joined me yesterday, would have told me that this Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis):

Little Grebe

…or this Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)…


… were ducks. They are not.

So I conducted some scientifically robust polling of non-birding friends and family to try to find the answer: what is a duck?

The answers I received were remarkably similar: ducks live on (or like) water. Some people were more specific about habitat – informing me that ducks “like lakes”; whilst others gave me further clues about behaviour, telling me that ducks are not very good at flying.

Not ducks

Whilst the Coot and the Little Grebe, might confuse a few people, I would guess that fewer people would be fooled by this:

Great Crested Grebe

That was, of course, a juvenile Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus).

And I doubt (I hope!) anybody would think this Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) was a duck:


Both of them are water birds, but they just don’t look like ducks – largely because they have completely different bills. So, it can’t just be their love of water which makes them ducks.

But then ducks do share many physical characteristics with swans and geese such as Mute swan (Cygnus olor):


…and Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus):

Egyptian Goose

But my fictional companions would be able to identify them as swans and geese respectively, largely because of their size and neck length. But here is the rub…

Swans, geese, and ducks are all part of the same scientific family: Anatidae. OK, that isn’t particularly surprising. But what if I told you that that the Egyptian Goose wasn’t really a goose at all. It belongs to a sub-family called Tadorninae, which mostly includes shelducks and other large ducks.


So, there is a blurry area on the edges of the duck family, but there are a whole number of ducks (about 80 species) where you would have no difficulty in labelling them ducks.

But there remains great variety in this grouping.

The biggest genus is ‘Anas’, often labelled the dabbling ducks. Such as this Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata):


… the wigeon we saw above, and this beautiful Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)…


…like many ducks found in the UK, the birds above are migratory, and sometimes fly thousands of miles twice a year to spend the winter in warmer climes than their homeland in the frozen north. So, some ducks fly very well (although others have almost lost the ability to fly altogether, such as the torrent ducks).

The word duck comes from the Old English verb, ducan, meaning “to duck or dive”, and it is appropriate for a large number of diving ducks, such as the Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)…

Tufted Duck

And so, I shall end with the words of a far wittier man than me, Douglas Adams, who answered the question both accurately and amusingly:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.”

Costa Rica: Part II – three ecosystems explored

We have already explored how Costa Rica is a birding paradise. However, it is much more than that. Costa Rica is believed to contain the greatest density of species in the world. There are a couple of good reasons why this should be so…

Forming the Isthmus

Costa Rica is geologically young. Only a few million years ago, the North and South American continents were separate. The Pacific and Atlantic oceans freely intermingled in an increasingly narrowing gap. As the continental plates pushed together, the pressure caused fissures and volcanos to form; breaking up out of the sea. Sediment gradually built up around these volcanic islands and around 3 million years ago, the oceans were separated and the Central American Isthmus was formed.

The area remains volcanically active, and we were lucky enough to see a number of volcanos such as with Poas Volcano below…

Poas Volcano

The narrow corridor that was formed between two continental giants allowed species to flow in both directions and mix in the tropical lands in between. This is known as the Great American Interchange.

Ecosystem I: Cloud Forest

Crater lake

Rich tropical forests coat the slopes of the volcanic highlands, and between the altitudes of 500m-3000m, there is semi-permamnent cloud or fog that keeps everything perpetually moist.

Cloud forest stream

This means that every tree is its own micro-system, covered in bromeliads, moss, and fungi…


Only 1% of global woodland is characterised as cloud forest, yet they support an enormous array of flora and fauna. This includes some fabulous mammals such as the White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica), seen here, foraging in a bin like its northern racoon cousins:


We were immensely lucky to see the almost scientifically unknown Bang’s Mountain Squirrel, or Poas Squirrel, (Syntheosciurus brochus) which has only been found on three mountains/volcanos in the world (one in Panama, and two in Costa Rica including Poas pictured above):

Poas Squirrel

Cloud Forests are also rich in insect life including butterflies (about 1,250 species of butterfly occur in Costa Rica) such as this clearwing (Ithomia heraldica):

Heraldica clearwing

As with many tropical habitats, cloud forests come alive even more at night. The light below was set up at a research station in the Los Angeles cloud forest near San Ramon to attract and study insects:

Los Angeles

Seeing a squirrel that is only found in three hills was special, but it was walking through cloud forest at night with an expert scientist and guide that we were treated to something incredibly special: we saw one of the rarest frogs in the world. The Red-eyed Tree frog is relatively common, but far, far rarer is the critically endangered Costa Rican Red-eyed Brook Frog (Duellmanohyla uranochroa). Only captured on film once, I feel an immense sense of privilege that I was able to photograph an amphibian that may be one of only c.250 individuals still alive:

Re-eyed Brook Frog

Ecosystem II: Rain Forest


Rainforests are estimated to contain somewhere between 40%-75% of all biotic species in the world. And Costa Rica contains some absolute corkers! We flew in a small plane into the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast…


Much of Tortuguero is a remarkable example of the resilience of nature. It had been heavily logged, but has now largely grown back as lush secondary forest (simply lacking the mightiest of trees that characterise primary forest). The forest is criss-crossed with a network of rivers and loggers’ canals that can now be navigated by tourists and scientists exploring the rainforest:


The jungle is a noisy place at most times, but never more so that when the loudest creatures on earth are in the vicinity: Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata)…


I photographed three of the total of four species of monkey found in Costa Rica. Aside from the peaceful, but noisy, howlers, we also saw clever, but aggressive, White-faced Capuchin (Cebus capucinus)…

White-faced Capuchin

… and the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), a juvenile male below:

Spider Monkey

One of the other mammals found up in the trees is the extraordinary Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus)…


… and the widespread (unlike its Poas cousin) and bulky, Variegated Squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides)…

Variegated Squirrel

Bats are the most diverse family of mammals. They include the fascinating Long-nosed Proboscis Bat (Rhynchonycteris naso), which sleep during the day nose-to-tail on the underside of branches…

Proboscis bats

… These small bats have been known to fall victim to the large species of spider, Argiope savignyi which encase the sleeping victims entirely in silk before feeding on them:

Argiope savignyi

Another impressive spider is the female (much larger than the male) Golden Orb-web Spider (Nephila clavipes), which has occasionally been known to feed on birds, but is generally recognised as being less aggressive than most spiders and has even been known to share its web with smaller spiders…

Golden orb

It is estimated that there are over 300,000 species of insect in Costa Rica. One of my favourites that I saw was this monstrous purple lubber grasshopper (Taeniopoda reticulata)

Mr lubber lubber

I was pleased not to bump into any of the venomous vipers present in Costa Rica such as the Bushmaster or Fer-de-lance, but we did see this beautiful non-venomous snake slithering out of a river in the northern tropical forests, known as the chicken snake or oriole snake (Spilotes pullatus):

Chicken snake

On the same river, as we paddled past trees you would often hear a splash and then watch a lizard run across the surface of the water which is why one of its names is the Jesus Christ lizard, otherwise known as Plumed Basilisk Lizard (Basiliscus plumifrons):


I also saw several of the much larger Green Iguana (Iguana iguana):


In the rivers we saw:

Meso-american Slider (Trachemys venusta)…


… and Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)…


Out of the water, in the rainforest, amphibians we saw varied from the large Savage’s Thin-toed Frog (Leptodactylus savagei):

Savage frog

… to the small Stawberry Poison-dart Frog (Dendrobates pumilio) which builds up its toxicity through a diet of specific beetles and ants…

Strawberry poison dart frog

Ecosystem III: Caribbean coast

Tortuguero National Park is named after the fact that the jungle borders one the most important turtle-breeding beaches in the world:


We were lucky enough to witness, by infra-red light, a huge Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) laying its eggs late at night. Cameras are prohibited, so no pictures I’m afraid, but it takes us back to where we started which is the fact that these long-lived titans of the sea will have been visiting the beaches in Costa Rica since they were formed three million years ago.