Category Archives: Travel

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

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That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

Like ships in the light

I woke up full of optimism this morning. The clear skies and wind direction did not point to anything great, but the air just tasted ‘rare’. There is nothing quite like the sense of hope and expectation at dawn during migration season. It is helped by the fact that the misty dawns of early Autumn are some of the most beautiful times to be out on the Patch.

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Low double figures of Meadow Pipit came nowhere close to last weekend’s total of 257 (and my patch PB of 239), but there were also lots of Chiffchaff and few more finches than usual.

My rare-radar is obviously finely tuned as I was thrilled to receive a call from Tony telling me that he had found a Yellow-browed Warbler, only the third ever seen on the Patch, and the added bonus of being during a season where numbers of these Asian visitors have been low. I was less thrilled that, despite a couple of hours of hard searching, three of us couldn’t re-find it – although it felt a bit like the one that got away as I chased a very small warbler with my bins as it raced ahead of me through a canopy, but I got no features whatsoever. A shame for my year-list, but I would have been a lot more sore if it wasn’t already on my patch list.

This afternoon Jono and I had a switch of scenery and followed the masses to get a look at the extraordinary sight that is the Beluga Whale in the Thames. This has been thoroughly well reported on the news and the beast is now in at least its fifth day in the Thames; enormous distances, of course, from its Arctic home.

We gambled with the shorter journey to the Essex shore at Tilbury where the views have been far more distant than from the Gravesend, Kent shore. At first the views were somewhat blocked by some rather big boats.

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Panamanian ‘MSC Florentina’ in from Le Harve and Italian ‘Grande Tema’ in from Hamburg

After one of the ships had been tugged in a full 180 degree turn and got out the way, we were soon pointed towards the narrow strip of water where the pale whale had been seen multiple times already that day. And, sure enough, we were lucky enough to watch it breach on multiple occasions spouting water jets and briefly even poking its bulbous head up. The views with the scope were distant but good, the views through my camera were less so and this is about the best I could manage – the pigment appears dark because we were facing into the light.

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Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

As incredible as it is to see such a rare sight as an arctic whale in my local river, it is clearly worryingly abnormal and I think we all hope it makes its way back out to sea and back up north as quickly as possible.

 

July 2018: review

I have decided to try and complete a short monthly review of my birding activities on and off the Patch. Here is my first attempt for last month: July 2018.

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Summary: I made five Patch visits in July 2018 and recorded a total of 61 species of bird, two of which were new for the year (Mediterranean Gull and Common Tern). There was a record-breaking heat-wave through much of July and every visit was made in hot weather. On the 15 July Wanstead Flats suffered the largest grassfire in London’s recorded history causing extensive damage to the SSSI and Broomfields.

Highlights were:

  • The returning large numbers of Black-headed Gulls, with over 100 birds (and many young juveniles) seen on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • A juvenile Mediterranean Gull with the Black-headed Gull flock on the Western Flats on 7 July.
  • Tufted Duck bred successfully on Jubilee with 8 ducklings seen with adult female on 7 July.  
  • Finding two Little Grebe chicks on Alexandra Lake on 28 July (still present as of 19 August).
  • An unseasonal record of 5 Lapwing circling over SSSI and Western Flats on 8 July.
  • My first and, so far, only sighting for the year of Common Tern flying East over Shoulder of Mutton pond.
  • It was a relatively successful July for woodland birds with multiple sightings of Coal Tit and Nuthatch and a single sighting of Treecreeper in Bush Wood.
  • Seeing Skylark, Meadow Pipit, and Lesser Whitethroat (with juveniles) after the fire.
  • A single Red Kite seen over Bush Wood on 21 July.
  • This was a record-breaking month for Little Egret. I counted 14 on 21 July with most on the Ornamentals, but this was surpassed a few days later by Bob with 39 across the Patch!
  • Non-birding highlights were my first White-letter Hairstreak on the Patch (by Heronry on 7 July), and an Elephant Hawk Moth found in the long grass between the Brooms and Long Wood.

Lowlights were:

  • The Great Fire of Wanstead Flats.
  • Missing out on Clouded Yellow and Marbled White.
  • Not seeing any Buzzard in July.

Highlights from ‘elsewhere’

  • Finding my first Yellow-legged Gull (juv) for the year at Beckton Sewage Works.
  • Finding two Mediterranean Gull by the Thames Barrier.
  • Seeing Marsh Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes on 28 July.
  • Also successfully twitching the Red-necked Phalarope at Oare Marshes on 28 July with other good birds including Little Stint, Curlew Sandpiper and at least nine other species of wader.

The month in five pictures…

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull on the Western Flats

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Tufted Ducklings on Jubilee

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The aftermath of the Wanstead Fire

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A Spitfire over Oare Marshes

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Waders on Oare Marshes

A late evening twitch: Stone-Curlew

I woke up last Sunday morning intending to right a wrong. Sadly I don’t mean combating a great global injustice. I simply wanted to add a bird to my UK life list.

A Stone-Curlew had been present at RSPB Bowers Marsh at the top of Canvey Island in Essex, about 22 miles due East of my house. But there was no news on the bird sites or social media, so I stayed locally and saw the sub-adult Yellow-legged Gull amongst other things. It was only much later in the day that late news dripped through that the Stone-Curlew was still present. And so I headed out for the 45 minute drive in the evening, somewhat racing against the fading light.

The reserve is accessible 24/7 although the car park was closed. I had the words of a well-known birder ringing in my ears:

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When I arrived, the small lane was littered with literally hundreds of the tiny nitrous oxide (laughing gas) canisters and a couple of cars were parked up as people conducted a car sale (I didn’t stop to ask them why they needed to be doing that down a deserted lane). I started the walk not knowing how far it would be until the Stone-Curlew would be visible. In fact, I had no idea where the bird might be as I had never visited the reserve before. The closest thing I had to directions were a tweet from someone saying the bird was visible from the ‘two benches’ area.

The empty car park was not quite empty as a father taught his young son how to ride a mini-motorbike. I walked on.

I stopped briefly at the slightly sorry-looking reserve noticeboard and map which confirmed that the reserve was big. super! I walked on.

The skies opened up and were huge with a few Swift still circling (all of our local ones seem to have long-gone) and a few Swallow trickled through. I walked on.

Sign-posts pointed to different bits of the reserve in different directions with mile+ distances attached. I was running out of time and needed some ‘gen’ or some luck quickly. I walked on.

Most of the wetland parts of the reserve were obscured/protected by high hedges. I walked on.

I saw some people in the distance: a chance for local knowledge/help. I walked on.

They turned out to be a couple out for an evening hack on horses. I asked them if they had seen any birders, to which they replied that they had, but some time ago and some distance away. Oh! Thanks. I walked on.

The light seemed to bleed out of the sky faster than ever. I walked on.

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RSPB Bowers Marsh at Dusk

The wind-pumps add to the sense of desolation and slightly foreign feel of the bleak landscape – it felt more like the US Midwest than Essex. I walked on.

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Bowers Marsh, Essex (not Kansas)

And then I stopped.

There were two benches, diagonally opposed and overlooking the water stretching out back towards the car park from whence I had come. I set my ‘scope up tall and stood on one of the benches to get the best possible view. I scanned the parts of the wetland and grassland that looked most promising  for the Stone Curlew, and just as the light was getting so gloomy that it was beginning to get silly, a distant bird scuttled into the view of my scope. My first Stone-Curlew in the UK. Another rather embarrassing gap filled on a list.

 

It was an odd sight. Not the bird, although Stone-Curlew is a strange large-eyed bird, of course, but me in the landscape. A man stood on a bench looking through a telescope at a distant bird on a vast reserve all alone apart from the midges and the weather. I strained the technical capabilities of my iPhone to photograph the Stone-Curlew through my scope.

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Eurasian Stone-Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus)

The output was rubbish, of course, but it just about counts as a record shot of a bird I last saw when I spooked a running gaggle (I don’t know what the collective noun is for Stone Curlew) from the hiding place in a parched field in a remote part of Ibiza. The remoteness was even more intense in Essex, but the landscapes could hardly be more different.

As I watched the Stone-Curlew a tiny Yellow Wagtail pottered past in front of it. I was also pleased to see a Black-necked Grebe (possibly two as one disappeared around a corner and another materialised somewhere else suspiciously far away) in mid-moult. I am not sure these birds had been recorded at the site on that weekend by others so a reasonably nice find, perhaps. I photographed the bird in the murky light and remembered the last time had been watching these birds, in full black and gold breeding uniform, like science fiction fascists, in Japan.

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Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)

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And here is a photo I took of them in full breeding plumage in Japan earlier this year

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani

“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” – Led Zeppelin, Immigrant

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Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) – at Jigokudani, Nagano prefecture

There is a place called Hell. A sheer and narrow rocky valley high in the Japanese mountains. It is freezing cold and under snow for several months a year, and yet jets of super-heated steam shoot out of crevices and pools of boiling hot mud bubble malignantly. Jigokudani (‘Hell Valley’) is appropriately named. It is also home to the most famous group of wild macaques.

Japanese Macaque is the most northerly existing species of wild primates, other than humans, in the world, and so also the only primate to regularly inhabit and flourish in the snow.

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The hot spring pool at Jigokudani

Jigokudani is remote and the landscape is inhospitable. Few people would visit the small number of dwellings high in the hills except a few locals taking advantage of the ‘Onsen’  (naturally geo-thermically heated baths) up here. However, something happened in the early 1960’s which was to change that and turn Hell Valley into a major tourist attraction.

During a period of particularly fierce snowy weather, a female macaque and her baby descended from the icy rocks and climbed into the warm water of the man-made Onsen in the tiny mountainous hamlet. This species of monkey exhibits high levels of intelligence and, soon after, large numbers of the group would follow this example and warm up in the baths.

In 1970 a photograph of this behaviour graced the front cover of LIFE Magazine. A new pool was constructed a few hundred metres away to capture the hot spring water and give the monkeys their own place to bathe. Wildlife documentaries and hundreds of thousands of visitors followed. I was one of them.

Although we visited in early April, it was unseasonably warm and so most of the snow had melted. The monkeys roam around the mountain slopes as wild macaques should but their diet is supplemented by grain from the local reserve management which ensures people get a reasonable view of them.

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Watching this large group was utterly fascinating. The social dynamics are highly complex. There is a strict hierarchy from the alpha male (the visitor centre has photos of each ‘boss’ from 1964 to the present) to the lowliest youngster and this was often painfully clear when a juvenile would commit some undecipherable infraction against an angry senior.

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A male exerting his authority

Great howls and screams would sometimes precede slapping, biting and shoving and the series of photos below surely depicts something along the lines of protest, distress, resignation, and submission of a young macaque moments after it was harshly disciplined by the large male above.

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But there were also wonderful moments of tenderness and affection displayed through grooming or parental care.

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Whilst order and discipline is meted out largely by the male hierarchy, the organisation is actually matrilineal in design – females largely staying faithful to the group whilst most males will be expelled at some stage or are nomadic between troops. The females choose who to mate with and when to mate (apparently not always with the alpha male), and shape most of the organisational decisions. A fascinating observation I have read about since my visit is that there are very high levels of homosexuality in this species with females, in particular, likely to show bisexual preferences as the norm rather than the exception.

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Being around such a sociable troop of highly intelligent primates, it is difficult not to relate and anthropomorphise. I defy you not to find this toddler cute…

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I watched this poor little thing picking grains up off the floor for a while and then – in response to something another macaque may have done – it suddenly started bouncing up and down looking like it was dancing while playing an invisible trumpet*.

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Three images stitched together here of our ‘dancing baby’ monkey

It was a shame not to have seen them in the snow, from the perspective of my photographs, but just amazing to get to watch wild primates so closely.

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*None of the behaviour here is trained or induced for human observation. This troop has become used to being watched over the last fifty years and largely ignore the bald primates who mill about a bit every day whilst dropping lots of grain.

Birding Eastern Poland: Part II (Forest)

I was straggling at the back of our small group on an unsuccessful walk in the hope of finding Hazel Grouse when I heard something. At first it took my mind a few seconds to register the sound. But on the third or fourth occasion the sound penetrated me at a deeper, primal level. A long, distant, moaning howl. I stopped, felt a small surge of adrenaline and felt my senses sharpen. This was my first wild experience of Wolf in Europe.

The day before, we had encountered an even more distant relic of Europe’s all-but-entirely lost megafauna: Bison.

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European Bison (Bison bonasus)

Our experience of the Białowieża forests began exceptionally early in the morning on the Saturday. It felt like we were tracking something; a guide-led walk to a known nesting site. That nesting site happened to be in a wooded wetland largely created by Beaver.

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How often do we see sights like this in the UK? I would contend very rarely indeed. We no longer have Beaver (other than a few trial reintroductions in Scotland, but lets hope that increases soon), and our country is the most denuded of forest of any country (other than the tiny city-states) in Europe. Where we do have woodland, they are largely lifeless plantations or forests managed and fenced off for pheasant shooting.

The Woodpeckers

This site was to be our first encounter with a target woodpecker. And we did indeed get views of White-backed Woodpecker – a life-tick for me and one or two of the others. We didn’t stay long as the mosquitoes were vicious and legion.

A few minutes drive and another spot of forest where we watched a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpecker making multiple visits to their nest hole.

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Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocoptes medius) – Female in hole and male to right

At the same site we had our first trip encounter with Black Woodpecker; only my second ever. I remember the first time I heard, then saw, one and being taken aback by how loud and big it is (read about that here). The feeling was similar on this occasion – it sounds like an effing dinosaur (I imagine) and the drumming is that of heavy machinery rather than a bird. Later in the day we watched in awe as one of these giants tore a rotting tree trunk to shreds with a large pile of wood chips accumulating at the base.

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Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius) through a gap in the hornbeam leaves

At the other end of the size scale, we felt lucky to get a single view of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (a bird I am sad to say I have only seen on three occasions in the UK).

Whilst neither Black nor Lesser were ‘ticks’ for me, the next two woodpeckers were. Bob helped locate the only Three-toed Woodpecker we were to encounter on the trip and this led to the guide discovering its exact nest location. We watched from a respectable distance.

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Finally, on a second attempt, we watched a Grey-headed Woodpecker emerge and then fly from its nest in some parkland near the strict reserve forest.

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Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) – this was the only photo our group got of this bird

We saw and heard our familiar Great Spotted Woodpecker on numerous occasions but failed to connect with the common Green Woodpecker or Wryneck (which also breed locally). We also made an aborted attempt to see Syrian Woodpecker in Warsaw. The point I am building to with this rather rapid list is that ten of the eleven species of woodpecker which breed in Europe are found locally in Eastern Poland. It was just one sign of many that we saw, on our whistle-stop tour, of the diversity which can be found when natural habitats are preserved or left untouched. The contrast with the UK could not be more stark.

A similar point could be made about owls found locally. As it was, we actually only saw one: a life-tick for me as Europe’s smallest owl, the Pygmy Owl, peered out of its hole to investigate the possible Pine Marten scraping at its tree (which was actually our guide with a stick).

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Eurasian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium passerinum)

The Flycatchers

A different guide walked us around the Strict Reserve. She was an expert in Collared Flycatcher and told us that in some years there are more recorded in the forest than Chaffinch! The gloom of the forest meant that the photos I got belied just how wonderful our views of this species were.

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Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis)

It was a similar case with the stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher and a handful of Spotted Flycatcher. It was great to see these birds in song, and nesting in their home environment as flycatchers (Spotted and Pied that is) are just passage migrants on our Patch back home.

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Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva)

The Wood Warbler and the hidden birds

In my three and half years of birding the local Patch, we have had a single Wood Warbler singing from the tiny copse we call Motorcycle Wood. In Białowieża, the forests rang out with the wonderful song of these stunning birds.

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Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

As with forests everywhere, birds are not exactly easy to find or see – our failure to see Hazel Grouse or Nutcracker is certainly testament to that. Woodland tits were harder than I expected in Poland: Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit seemed less numerous than I am used to in the UK; we only heard one Coal Tit once or twice on the trip, and had no sign of Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, or Crested Tit (although we are aware that they are there).

Such is the enigma of forests. They teem with life and yet the ‘life’ does not always make itself easily found. We were aware that the forests hold Lynx, but did not expect to see one (nor did we).

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The long walk back from an unsuccessful search for Tengmalm’s Owl

The trees

The majestic parkland oaks we are used to seeing in the UK, rotund and sprawling, are  virtually anathema to primary forests. There is far too much competition for such overindulgent horizontal growth.  I remember the thinner, taller trees in the wonderful Atlantic oak forests on the west coast of Scotland. But I was taken aback at the size (girth, but particularly height) of some of the trees in Białowieża. They seemed to be freakishly tall versions of familiar trees we are used to in the UK. Maybe that is what thousands of years of uninterrupted survival of the fittest does in a forest?

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The fringes

Some birds seemed easier to find on the fringes of the forest; often as different habitats met. And so it was on the edges of Białowieża village, where we picked up good views of Hawfinch, Golden Oriole, Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Tree SparrowRed-backed Shrike and lots more. It was often in these fringe areas where from within deep vegetation we would listen to, and on one occasion had reasonable views of, Thrush Nightingale which was another life tick for me.

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Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes)

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Female Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

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Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus)

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Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

The lesson

Białowieża opened my eyes to what much of Europe, including the UK, could and, perhaps, should be like. Białowieża began, for me, as a place in my imagination, but let’s all hope that it remains a reality for Europe and for the world. Primary forest is part of the primal heritage of all of us; wired into our instinctive synapses. To lose it altogether is surely to lose something deep within our identity. I think we all need the wake-up call in the form of the penetrating howl of a wolf or a Black Woodpecker drumming into our skulls the message of fragile vitality that exists in the remaining fragments of our once great forests.