Tag Archives: Conservation

Blitzing spiders and stringing butterflies

A weekend of wildlife began with a sunset.

IMG_5043v2

Heronry Pond, Wanstead Park (having been re-filled)

A crowd of people waited in the warmth (we are about to break June temperature records again in London with five consecutive days when the mercury has topped out over 30 degrees centigrade) and watched dark shapes scythe through the sky.

We had come to watch bats, but in the light cloudless skies of the evening, it was a huge flock of swifts at first that cut through smoke-like murmurations of midges rising up from the trees like Ashphodel souls.

The bats did come out later, also appearing silently from the trees, and were silhouetted against the sky or water like the bat-sign from comic legend. Silent, that is, apart from the fact that several of us were armed with bat detectors. Common Pipistrelle were picked out from their tiny shapes in the sky, but also from the fast-paced pricking at frequencies well out of range of human hearing. Also too high to hear unaided, but positively bass-like compared with their tiny cousins, were the abstract beats of the beefy Noctule bats punching and pulsing out of the speakers in a way that would have many hip-hop artists drooling with envy.

Friday night ended, not with multiple gin and tonics, as is my normal wont, but with the strangely hospital-like glare of moth traps drawing some moths, but tens of thousands of midges and other tiny flying creatures of the night.

IMG_2601v2

Moth (and midge!) trapping

All of this activity was for our local conservation group’s annual bio-blitz weekend. Check us out here: Wren Group.

IMG_5601v2

The wonderful, knowledgeable Tricia Moxley teaching us about introduced and wild plants

I started Saturday leading several of my neighbours (people I know and people I didn’t) on a walk around our local wood. I talked a lot about trees, but the highlights were the butterflies including a year-first Ringlet and a location (but not full patch) first with a Purple Hairstreak (a species that would get me in trouble the following day).

IMG_0333v2

Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)


IMG_6711v2

A temporarily trapped Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) and a rather disinterested baby

Overall, it was a reasonable weekend for butterflies. I counted thirteen species in total (a little way off my record patch day total of 16 from last July).

IMG_9824v2

Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)


IMG_1524v2

Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)*

The number ’13’ is unlucky for some. Unlucky ever since that 13th disciple betrayed Christ for some silver. Well, I too felt mildly betrayed, or was it simply embarrassed, soon after I saw another hairstreak on the ground near some elm trees whilst I was trailing behind one of Tricia’s walks. Elms, as in the favoured tree of the White-letter Hairstreak

I peered down at the little lepid and started breathing a little faster when no large orange eye peered back at me from the hindwing. The hindwing was a little crumpled, not only obscuring the eye, but also rippling the hairstreak into a ‘W’ shape. The newly emerged butterfly was promptly, but gently scooped, into an inspection pot and whisked off to be held aloft triumphantly in front of the wondering eyes of my fellow Wren members. But, on closer inspection, it was, of course, simply another Purple Hairstreak despite my earlier innocent efforts to ‘string’ it into something more exciting.

IMG_6065v2

Purple Hairstreak again with the offending unfurling hindwings

So we may not have scored any super rare butterflies, but the far less excitable (than me), and far more expert, arachnologist, David Carr did find some great spiders.

IMG_1528v2

The maestro at work, David Carr

We believe that one of his finds of the weekend was the 19th specimen ever found in the UK, of Philodromus buxi:

IMG_1946v2 Philodromus buxi

Philodromus buxi


IMG_1702 v2

David and Araneus triguttatus

Across all the activities, we had about 300 participants. An opportunity for many people to find out a little more about the wildlife on our doorstep.

*All photos on here were taken with the iPhone 7. I really am very impressed with the quality of the camera on it.

Advertisements

The Wanstead Teal and a 92 year old vision for the Park

On the numbers of Teal

“This very prettily marked species, the smallest of our Ducks, but one of the best as an article of food, is an early and constant winter visitor” 

So Mr Yarrell (he of Pied Wagtail fame – the British sub-species is known as ‘yarrellii’) opens his description of my favourite duck when he was writing 170 years ago.

IMG_7807v1

John Thompson’s engraving of a Teal from Yarrell’s History of British Birds, 1843

In the early Victorian era there seemed to be some confusion about whether Teal actually bred in the UK (BTO estimates about 2000 pairs breed in the UK), although Yarrell gives plenty of examples from his network of contacts to prove that they do.

But we all know that this is largely a winter migrant in the UK when their numbers increase one hundredfold (literally) on the summer residents. The Wanstead Flats/Park patch is not a noted site for Teal, where only small numbers appear, and somewhat irregularly, during the winter. On last weekend’s Wetland Bird survey on the patch, we counted 22 Teal in Wanstead Park and this morning one of the local birders counted 26 on a single lake in the Park – possibly a patch record – especially if any had also been on the Ornamentals or Alexandra lakes at the same time.

IMG_7085v2

Eurasian Teal (Anas crecca)

But… I haven’t just been reading Yarrell. I was perusing another one of my antiquarian bird book collection *he boasts* and read something very interesting.

In his book, Birds in London (1924), W.H. Hudson writes about Wanstead Park and says: “this park is peculiarly rich in wild bird life, and among the breeding species may be mentioned mallard and teal”.  Teal breeding on Wanstead Park less than a hundred years ago?! This doesn’t sound like a record of a rare occurrence, but rather the statement of a common fact – mentioned in the same breath as Mallard no less (no other ducks were mentioned as breeding here). In Andrew Self’s recent book The Birds of London, historical records of Teal breeding in London are scarce – the first ever recorded being in 1880 at Epsom and then other sites listed, but no mention of Wanstead.

I wondered at first if the lack of mention of Teal was because a hundred years ago, Wanstead was more of an Essex village than a London suburb, but Epsom is even more rural and distant from central London. Hudson could have been wrong, of course, but he was an eminent ornithologist (a founding member of the RSPB no less!) and a London resident who, as we shall see, clearly personally knew the area well. I would be willing to wager he had personally witnessed evidence that Teal bred at Wanstead.

IMG_7808

On a vision for the Park

Furthermore, Hudson’s list of breeding birds in the park contained some other surprises: Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale! I would be delighted to see any of those birds – even fleetingly – on the patch now (I should add that all three have been seen, but are rare birds on the patch), let alone have them breed.

As many know, the three bird species mentioned above all have ‘red’ conservation status in the UK, so the fact they no longer breed in Wanstead Park would not be a surprise to anyone. I am actually quite surprised that they bred as recently as the 1920s.

Hudson was ahead of his time in being conservation-minded, and he was also full of praise and hope for Wanstead Park which he described as: “perfect wildness” (many decades before rewilding was recognised as a ‘thing’). He set out a vision for the park, suggesting: “it would be well to make Wanstead Park as far as possible a sanctuary for all wild creatures.” He also singles out the City of London Corporation for praise in the way it managed the Park:

“The Corporation are deserving of nothing but praise for their management of this invaluable ground. Here is a bit of wild woodland nature unspoiled by the improving spirit which makes for prettiness in the Royal Parks”

Hudson goes on to describe specific practices, or the lack of, which support wildlife.

My concern is that recent ‘management’ of the park has seen a shift in the direction that Hudson clearly saw as a being a threat to nature: valuing ‘prettiness’, or tidiness, over wildness. Those who care about the wildlife on our patch have watched with dismay as a slash and clear policy has sometimes been used in the name of ‘management’ or to (re)create ‘vistas’ (from a long lost age when the park was a private garden) whilst destroying habitats for who knows how many living creatures.

I would encourage the City of London Corporation and those involved in the management of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Flats to heed Hudson’s words with care otherwise there are breeding birds – Skylark, Song Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat for example – which could go the same way as Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, and Nightingale!

A tale of two winters

IMG_7690v2

Bush Wood under snow

The weather
The deliberate mangling of Shakespeare and Dickens for my latest blog post title is the best way I can sum up what is going on with the weather. Last weekend was snowy and cold, a couple of days later the patch recorded the lowest temperature for three years (-5.7 degrees centigrade … I know there might be a raised eyebrow if anyone is reading this from the blizzard-struck eastern US at the moment, but London is a mild-weather city). This weekend, we have probably just broken another record, but in the other direction. It hit 15.3 degrees today which may be the warmest recorded 24 January in London’s history! (I am indebted to Wanstead_meteo whose hyper-local weather reports on Twitter I find invaluable and fascinating).

I assisted the local conservation group (WREN) with the winter wetland bird survey (WeBS) and all numbers were very low as most of the park’s lakes were frozen over. I did, however, get a question answered (about how they survive winter) as I watched a kingfisher perform an apparent kamikaze dive towards the ice only to pull up at the last second and deftly scoop some food item (a frozen insect?) off the surface of the ice.

Even with the much warmer temperatures this weekend, some of the ice has melted stubbornly slowly. I listened to the creaking, squeaking, and splintering of thin ice under the weight of gulls:

IMG_6674v2

‘British’ Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii)

(Increasingly un)common birds

We are incredibly lucky on the patch to get a range of interesting, and sometimes rare, avian visitors, but when I think of the patch, I think of Skylark and Meadow Pipit. These year-round residents breed in the long grass of the ‘Flats’ – one of the closest points to central London where you can reliably find these birds. Last year, I remember seeing seven skylark regularly moving from one part of the Flats to another. This year I don’t believe that anyone has seen more than three at any one time.

And so it was, that I finally ticked off Skylark for my patch list for the year (last year I did it within an hour of being on the patch) by watching three flushed from the long grass by a dog land on a football pitch literally a few metres away from runners and footballs:

IMG_6608v2

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)

Shortly before this I watched seven Meadow Pipit (I am not sure a bigger number has been seen on the patch this year either, despite frequently gathering in larger and more numerous groups last year) also flushed by a dog, fly up to the relative safety of a tree:

IMG_6508v2

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

IMG_6526v2

Same bird, different neck: poised for flight

Another bird I ticked off my year list was Linnet – I found six feeding on the short and gravelly grass known as the ‘Police Scrape’. Like Skylark and Meadow Pipit, their numbers have been falling drastically in the last 30-40 years (Linnet and Skylark are both ‘Red’ conservation status and Meadow Pipit is ‘Amber’):

IMG_6710v2

Linnet (Carduelis cannabina)

This brings me to the topic of ‘conservation’. Whilst I am no ecologist, Meadow Pipits, Linnet and, more particularly, Skylarks  seem to be clinging on in London. If anything tips them over the edge, one of the most important sites for nature in the capital could lose its iconic birds forever and that could be a step towards a reasonable chance that these three birds will simply cease breeding in London. A solution seems relatively straightforward to me and some of the local birders:

  1. Reduce the number of football pitches – I am not just being a killjoy. There are currently 60 and rarely  close to half are even in use at one time. I believe this is a loss-making activity for the City of London and so they could let some of the pitches grow wild again in strategic places to give greater space for many species of invertebrates, mammals and the breeding birds to have a chance. The CoL would save money, footballers wouldn’t lose out at all, and wildlife would have a rare minor victory.
  1. Protect the breeding areas from dogs – It won’t be long before breeding season again, and a handful of pairs of Skylark and a few more Meadow Pipits will attempt to breed and raise young in the long grass. If a person treads on a single nest, or a dog eats or breaks the eggs, that is significant proportion of the population of Skylarks destroyed. (To put this into context, there are 2 million people in East London, around 250,000 dogs, and probably only ten or twenty breeding skylark – that is 10-20, not 10,000-20,000!) So maybe the CoL could use some of the money saved from reduced pitch maintenance and from fining the pitch users who leave the ground looking like a plastic landfill site (credit to Nick Croft for the idea) to erect proper fencing or cordons to protect these delicately balanced sites – the signs put up last year were frequently vandalised by people who, one can only imagine, were angry at being told they couldn’t take their dog “wherever the f*** I like”.

OK, I have climbed back off my soap box now

Switching from birds we would expect to see, but increasingly aren’t, to a bird we wouldn’t normally see on the patch at this time of year… I was pleased to catch up with a single Stonechat which has been seen for a few weeks now just a stone’s throw (I couldn’t resist that) from my house:

IMG_6468v2

Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus)

…To a bird we really shouldn’t see in East London

Picture the scene: me in my local Bush Wood armed, as always, with binoculars and camera… Smiling at the sound of early-season song from Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, and Great Tit… furrowing my brow at the signs of invasive (only first discovered in the UK less than 20 years ago) Holm Oak leaf mining moth:

IMG_7694v1

Leaf mines from Ectoedemia heringella moth

…Furrowing my brow even more at the sight of almost industrial quantities of beer cans discarded (I would have posted a picture as there were hundreds but there was someone relieving himself nearby – don’t ask! – which made me reluctant to point my camera in that direction)… raising my eyes back up at the sight and sound of some disturbed Magpies… pondering on what might have disturbed them and then seeing the Turaco:

IMG_6448v2

White-cheeked Turaco (Tauraco leucotis)

The light was fading due to the onset of dusk, but my eyes did not deceive me. This was my first time coming face to face (Literally. The Turaco perched directly above me and peered at me expectantly, but I did not have any fruit on me) with this now-famous Wanstead resident (Jono and others have seen this escapee on and off for around six years now).

I scurried off home quickly to chop up some fruit and returned. I briefly watched the spectacular tropical bird open its red wings and glide deeper into the woodland. As I left, I placed some strategically skewered fruit on a tree or two – but I did not see it again. Instead I was left with a small, but unmistakeable, gnawing of sadness. Perhaps I was anthropomorphising, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this bird feels lonely as it glides from garden to woodland and back again in a country where it has no chance of ever meeting another member of its own species for year after year (just imagine being stranded somewhere on your own for the rest of your life where the closest relative to humans present was a squirrel monkey). But I realise many feel this is an acceptable price to pay to enable people the ‘right’ to own exotic pets. Oops! I just climbed back on to my soap box. I had better get off it now at last and go to bed, and will leave you with a photo of an observer Tim and I had whilst counting water birds for our survey:

IMG_6362v2

Summer stories of France: Part I (a grey ghost and silhouettes)

As any regular reader of this recently irregular blog will know, aside from my relatively new birding patch in East London, I have another patch.

My second ‘patch’ is in a remote part of Southern France in the foothills of the Pyrenees. As I type, it is a sweltering evening in East London. And so it was also sweltering a couple of weeks ago in France. Whilst I tried to avoid the mid-day heat, I walked out every morning and evening to record the wildlife as I have attempted to do for the last seven years.

Every day I would scan the sky for dark shapes… for raptors, such as…

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)

But what I was really hoping for was … other than the dreamy hope that a Griffon Vulture or Lammergeier might soar down the mountains to us … a view of a Hen Harrier. I have watched these birds glide low in the valley a couple of times before but not for a few years. Their horrendous persecution and near extinction in the UK intensifies my desire to see it anywhere now – like the sudden, almost guilt-driven, desire to see a terminally ill friend or relative.

One evening I walked back along our long dusty track to try and see a Turtle Dove – which I duly did, or rather I listened to its purring of bottled summer song.

I got to the point where I knew I needed to turn around to get home before dark, but sat for a few minutes by a small deserted building.

Ruin

The rocks I sat on were annoyingly uncomfortable, but the views in the golden light of evening, and the almost mystical awareness of nature that enveloped me on the hillside in the shadow of this ruin, compelled me to stay longer than I should. As I stood and wiped the dust from my shorts I became aware of something in the upper periphery of my vision.

After the initial flick of my head to see what what happening, I stood as still as the ruin and watched a Hen Harrier. Far closer than I have ever been before, it glided in front of my eyes, tracing the contours of the land and bushes as perfectly as if it was connected by some invisible wire to the ground. But the Harrier was connected to nothing. It was free, and by the time I had slowly exhaled a single breath, it had slipped over the brow of the hill like wind-blown smoke.

It was a male. As grey as dry slate with its wingtips dipped in black ink. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. And it was gone.

These words do not accurately depict what was going through my mind at the time. When the Harrier had disappeared over the brow of the hill, it was as if I were an anxious parent whose child had just slipped from his hands into great peril. Any reverie I had been in as it flew across my sightline had been shattered. I ran. In some dreadful contrast to the grace of the Harrier, I chased it like a greedy, chubby child might pursue a dangled chocolate. As the Harrier had only been 25-30 metres in front of me, I was over the hill in a small matter of seconds and ready with sweaty palms to claim my prize: a photo of my favourite bird.

But it was gone. Of course, it could not have ‘gone’ as it had been there just a few moments before and I now had a perfect view over the scrub and cultivated land for almost a mile in every direction. But it was gone. Logically, I can reason that it had swooped down on some unsuspecting prey just a few feet beneath its talons, or it had landed to avoid the sweaty ape that was invading its territory, but it seemed like it had vanished like a phantom, or disappeared like its kin due to the persecution of man. My greedy desire to photograph the Harrier then seemed to horribly mirror the greedy desires of those who cannot tolerate the competition the Harrier poses on their grouse moors. I stood in silence, still looking, but with the downcast outline of man shamed by the grotesque actions of his kind.

I felt like I had seen a ghost. And perhaps, tragically, in a way, I had.

If you can help the Harriers, please do.

A Big Birding Year: Part XIX (good creature of mud)

This blog has described Rainham Marshes before, (here and here), and Saturday was my second visit as part of my Big Birding Year. There have been numerous sightings recently there of the very rare Spotted Crake, and I always go full of hope to see my first Bearded Tit. Unfortunately, I did not get any life-firsts or see any particularly rare birds, but I did add a tick to my year list.

But first, I want to re-cap a bit on the terrain as it fascinates me. As I have pointed out before, Rainham Marshes sits next to the Thames about 18 miles down river from Central London, but the steel and glass spires of London can just about be seen looking West up-river in the distance:

Rainham and view to London

The marshes are now protected from the tidal Thames by some flood defences, although every time I visit, I am struck by how close to the water level the marshes are:

View East

To illustrate this better, I want to return to my new favourite online map tool (topographic-map.com) which shows clearly that most of the marshes sit below sea-(and Thames) level.

topographic-map.com

In fact, Rainham Marshes is the lowest lying land inside the M25. Despite its importance for wildlife, I would guess, sadly, that the chances these marshes will still exist in 100 years are very slim indeed.

But, for the moment, the marshes provide refuge to important wildlife, including the bird which has become my 92nd species to be photographed of the year (A Kingfisher nearly became my 93rd as well, but was too fast for me), the Black-tailed Godwit. In the heavily cropped and fuzzy zoom image below, two Godwits can be seen in flight along with a Lapwing and Black-headed Gull whilst you can see another Lapwing in the background and a third (male) Godwit looks on from the right almost nonchalantly:

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa)

Godwit, as a word, is from two old English words meaning ‘good creature’, and its Scientific name, Limosa, means mud, which is appropriate as these beautiful birds hunt for small creatures in the mud with their long bills.

Formerly heavily hunted – shamefully it still is in France – even 170 years ago Yarrell noted that numbers of these birds were declining:

Yarrell

In fact less than 40 years after Yarrell was writing, the breeding population was extinct in the UK. Luckily, these migrant waders started breeding again 70 years later in the 1950’s and every year around 100 birds will spend the Summer in the UK, like the birds I photographed, and even smaller numbers will breed.

The UK is already starting to feel a bit Autumnal and soon these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. However, unusually, it is in Winter when you have the best chance these beautiful birds. this is because the UK receives its own Winter migration influx from a slightly different sub-species that breeds in Iceland. Around 44,000 Black-tailed Godwits will winter in the UK, but I was particularly pleased to see the much rarer (in the UK) European form here during breeding season.

Black-tailed Godwit has been assigned red conversation status in the UK. If important sites like Rainham Marshes disappear under water, the threat to these birds will increase further and they could disappear from the UK as a breeding bird like they did in the 1880’s for another 70 years, or perhaps even forever…?

A Big Birding Year: Part XVIII (‘introducing’ another owl)

Last time I went birding in Kensington Gardens, I posted shots of Tawney owlets.

I returned last weekend, and finally got a photo of a Little Owl (another blogger – google Hyde park birds and you will find him – posts pictures of this owl almost every day) which was my third owl species of the year and my 91st species of bird photographed for the year:

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

This male perches in the same place, in the same tree almost every day through the summer (his mate is more secretive) in one of London’s busiest parks. Despite the millions of people who visit the park, I suspect a very, very small number of people ever see this bird other than those who know exactly where to look (thanks to Ralph’s blog).

There are believed to be around 5,700 pairs in the UK, although this number is declining significantly. But there is unlikely ever to be a conservation effort to protect them as the Little Owl is (apparently – see my doubts below) an introduced species.

According to Wikipedia (actually from Francesca Greenoak’s book on British birds), the Little Owl was introduced to the UK in 1842 by the Ornithologist, Thomas Powys. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I am unsure this is true:

First, the Ornithologist Thomas Powys was nine years old in 1842! It could have perhaps been his father (also Thomas Powys), but he was a politician, not an ornithologist.

Second, in my 1845 (published three years after the Little Owl was apparently first introduced) edition of Yarrell’s ‘A History of British Birds’ (a wonderful gift from a dear friend), he describes the bird as “an occasional visitor” in Britain:

Yarrell

Yarrell also sources older books referencing the Little Owl visiting Britain and refers to instances of the bird being found in different locations – hard to believe occurring if the bird had first been introduced just three years earlier. Whilst it is perfectly possible that some Little Owls were introduced by man in the 19th Century, I put it to you that the Little Owl really introduced itself to this country.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the Little Owl would be determined to be a natural species of our country and would be given a conservation status (rather like the Collared Dove which introduced itself here a few decades ago and is now common) and could be protected.

Safari: Part I – “The Big Five”

Having just returned from two weeks in East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), my mind is still spinning with the incredible wildlife I was privileged enough to see and experience – I have separated out these two verbs for a reason which will hopefully become clear after you have read this blog post.

‘The Big Five’

People often go on Safari with the hope of spotting ‘The Big Five’ (I was no different). As many people know, the term was coined by the Big Game Hunters of the past (or they certainly should be a thing of the past!). The consensus appears to be that these five animals were the most coveted of game trophies and among the most difficult and dangerous to hunt and kill.

Nowadays, the vast majority of visitors to the great reserves and national parks of Africa simply hope to shoot these animals with their cameras and take the memories of seeing these mighty animals in their wild environment home as trophies. Some are more difficult than others to spot, largely as a result of their increasing rarity (critically in the case of one) due to habitat depletion and poaching.

I feel a great sense of privilege and joy that I managed to see all five animals on my visit. Let me introduce you to them:

Lion

The TOP predator in Africa needs no description or introduction. Wherever you live in the world, the Lion has an important place in our cultural psyche and identity. It is the very embodiment of danger and beauty, strength and speed. Every child knows of, admires, and fears the Lion.

Despite being nocturnal or crepuscular (active during twilight), we were lucky enough to see lions on every single day of our safari (I will probably post more pictures in future blog posts). We saw lions relax, sleep, show affection to one another, and eat – including one group of female lions on the Maasai Mara just after a daylight kill. On a couple of occasions, our safari vehicles were within touching distance of these stunning creatures.

I took the photo above of two females on the Serengeti.

African Bush Elephant

This photo, also taken on the Serengeti, was one of hundreds I took of these mighty creatures during our travels. The African Bush Elephant (one of three extant species of elephant along with the smaller African Forest Elephant and Indian Elephant) is the largest land animal in the world.

Elephants are poached for their ivory and also killed by humans for the threat they pose to human life and crops. Seeing these largely inscrutable animals interact as family units amongst the wild beauty of the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorogoro reserves was an experience I shall treasure all my life.

African Buffalo

I took this photo of a male in the Maasai Mara.

Have you ever felt nervous walking through a field of cows? Just be grateful it wasn’t a field of African (formerly known as ‘Cape’) Buffalo. They can weigh more than ten times as much as a large man, run at 56 kph, have horns (and males have skull-plate) that can withstand a rifle bullet, and are known to gore and kill around 200 humans in Africa every single year! No wonder this bovid has never been domesticated. Apart from human hunters, only a group of lions or a Nile Crocodile (when a solitary animal is in water) are a threat to this beast.

Leopard

I always knew the chances of seeing this elusive nocturnal hunter were slim and so was elated when our eagle-eyed guide spotted this stunning animal up a tree in the Serengeti.

A Leopard has been recorded hauling a 125kg giraffe (twice the Leopard’s weight) nearly 6 metres vertically up a tree! The Leopard blows my mind in every way – seeing it in the wild was incredible.

Black Rhinoceros (or Hook-lipped Rhinoceros)

I know what you are thinking: I have posted a hazy photo of distant rock and am pretending it is one of the world’s rarest mammals. But no, I have it on good authority from our expert guides that the distant rhino-shape (this photo was taken at maximum zoom with a 300mm lens) is actually a Black Rhino.

Whilst we can jest about whether I really saw a Black Rhino or not, the chances are that my grandchildren, or even my children, will never even have the chance to see even a distant visage like this. The Black Rhino is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ – it declined by a ridiculous 96% from 1970 to 1992, and despite huge conservation efforts and some increases from a few years ago, there are still believed to be only four thousand of these creatures left in the wild. The market for rhino horn as an aphrodisiac means poachers risk their lives for enormous rewards. The ignorance and destructiveness of some humans responsible for the demand for this ‘commodity’ makes me feel sick and enraged to my core.

Although smaller than its cousin, the ‘White Rhino’, the Black Rhino is considerably more aggressive. Not even a pack of lions would attempt to hunt the Black Rhino. They will charge at almost anything (including trees) and have the highest rate of mortal combat in the animal kingdom – it is believed that 50% of all male Rhinos will die fighting each other!

“The Ugly Five”

In the same spirit, though slightly less well known, Safari aficionados also seek out ‘the ugly five’. I also saw all five of these creatures. So how monstrous are they?

Hyena (in this case, a Spotted Hyena)

Hyenas are widely despised for being ugly scavengers, even as cowardly killers. I believe they should be highly respected. The Spotted Hyena – seen here in the Serengeti – is the most successful and common large carnivore in Africa. They mainly scavenge, but they can most certainly kill, often chasing their prey over long distances, and their jaws can snap through thick bone. Chilling, but admirable!

Wildebeest

This is not the clearest portrait of a Wildebeest that I took whilst in Africa, but I think it better conveys what I believe to be the essence of this mighty antelope than a close-up of its supposedly ‘ugly’ face.

This muscular creature kicks up dust with its hooves in the Ngorogoro Reserve, but every years hundreds of thousands of them gallop and stamp their way across huge distances, migrating across the great reserves. I think they are beautiful creatures.

Vulture

I took this picture of juvenile African White-backed Vultures (let me know if you think they are Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures instead, but I am pretty sure I have identified them correctly) in the huge Caldera of the Ngorogoro Reserve.

Vultures are also successful contributors to a healthy African ecosystem. Whilst I know this gang are not the ‘ugliest’ of vultures, I would question whether they are ugly at all. Anyone who has watched the silent soaring of a vulture on high thermals cannot help but be impressed. Should we really class them as ugly simply because they – very sensibly – have featherless heads?

Warthog

To most wildlife lovers, the Disney-ish anthropomophisim of wild animals is a grave sin, but warthogs really do ooze ‘character’. Watching a family of warthogs zip about the Savannah with tails erect like little flags so that the young can follow them was a fantastic experience.

Maribou Stork

OK! You got me! This really is a face and neck that only a mother could love. Reverting to anthropomorphism again, watching these dudes strut about slowly like ugly old men in suits is a sight to behold.

But anthropomorphism (yes, use of this long word three times in a blog post is excessive) is the point behind ‘the Ugly 5’. Humans see these creatures as ugly, but nature is blind to such petty labels. The five creatures above may not be pride of place on a hunter’s trophy-wall (thank Darwin!), but they all look as they do for good reason in the ultimate display of survival of the fittest that can be witnessed on the great plains of Africa.

Postscript: Five of the rest

Seeking out ‘The Big Five’ was great fun and hugely satisfying, but there really is so much, much more to see than these five great creatures on Safari. Here are just five examples of other fantastic creatures we saw…

Serval

Seeing Lions up close with a ‘kill’ on the Maasai Mara, Cheetah cubs playing on the Serengeti, a Serengeti Leopard in a tree were all amazing experiences for me, but I was equally thrilled to see the less well known, but equally stunning, Serval cat padding its way across the burnt fringes of the Ngorogoro crater.

Secretary Bird

I am lucky enough to have seen the bizarre Hoatzin in South America. Equally weird, but wonderful, is the unique Secretary bird of the African Savannah. This long-legged bird of prey stalks snakes, lizards and rodents across the vast African plains (normally in pairs so it has some company). Apparently the spikey black feathers at the back of its head gave the bird its name as they resemble either the black writing-quills or victorian hair-do’s of antiquated secretaries.

Bat-eared Fox

I hoped to see Lions and Elephants and antelope, but seeing amazing and strange creatures like the Bat-eared Fox helped make Safari an incredible experience for me.

Grey-crowned Crane

You surely can’t blame a keen birder for including this beauty in my list of Safari highlights? I photographed this Crane on the banks of small fresh-water lake and swamp in the Ngorogoro Reserve.

Zanzibar Red Colobus (or Kirk’s Red Colobus)

This really was a ‘cheeky monkey’.

We spent a few days relaxing in a five-star beach resort on the Unguja island of the Zanzibar Archipelago after the relative ‘roughing it’ of camping on Safari, but for me the Safari did not end. As well as seeing numerous gorgeous bird species, I was lucky enough to get up-close and a little too personal with a very rare monkey indeed.

The Zanzibar Red Colobus is endemic to Unguja island. Just to stress, that means it exists nowhere else on earth. Its ideal habit is the Jozani forest reserve (where I first saw one) which at 50km sq is nearly 300 times smaller than the Serengeti National Park.

In between a massage (overlooking the Indian Ocean) and a post-massage smoothie being brought to me (yes, I am spoilt and bourgeois) this monkey dangled down to us from out of the branches of a tree, repeatedly turned his backside and flashed his genitals at us, and then casually climbed back up his tree again. From his leafy viewing post he was repeatedly mobbed by crows (pecking him and biting his tail) whilst he brushed them away with lazy swipes of his hands.

What a star!

Overall, I think you can probably tell I enjoyed myself rather enormously on Safari. I realise that re-living other people’s holidays can be rather boring, but for those of you long-suffering enough to click through to my blog-link frequently, I intend to post further Safari-themed updates.