Tag Archives: travel

The woodpecker in the cherry blossom

Why am I a birder?

There are many reasons. Here is one…

Twenty miles South East of Mt Fuji, the world famous volcano appears to be floating in the sky like some fantasy in the imagination of the great animator, Hayao Miyazaki. This other-wordly image is not something I can share with a photograph as the ghostly white shape seems to disappear like a mirage if you photograph it through the haze of distance as if the mountain gods simply prohibit images.

Ohiradai is a village in the hills served by a small mountain train.


Across the tracks and down a narrow, steep path, there is a small, abandoned, wooden house with an old cherry tree growing next to it.


I was stood watching a small flock of Japanese White-eye, when a tiny woodpecker sailed over my head onto the mossy trunk of the cherry tree: Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.

The diminutive dendro, or petit piciform (depending on where you place it, taxonomically) proceeded to forage for insects meticulously right in front of me. As you can see in the photo of the scene, above, the tree was in heavy shade so this was not really an opportunity for good photos. But, for a several minutes, early on a Spring morning I just watched this stunning little bird feeding in this shady pocket of picturesque Japan.


Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

After a little while, my reverie was broken as the JPW wisely flew off on the arrival of one of the international scourges of small garden birds.


Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker is not in any way scarce in Japan and I was to see the species on several other occasions through my trip, but this was my first sighting and the moments I shared with this bird were truly special, albeit unremarkable for the bird one would imagine. That is birding at its best for me; a bird, and a unique moment I shall never forget.

Japan: trip report part I (The Top Ten)

I have just returned from a long holiday in Japan. It was a family holiday with very little dedicated birding involved.

This was a trip of:


Kinkaku-ji (Buddhist temple), Kyoto




But, I did see some birds (including 20 life ticks) and so thought there may be some value in a sort of trip report from a non-birding trip. In other words, if you are planning a trip to Japan that will include all the best birding sites and the utilisation of local guides, etc, this may be of limited use. On the other hand, if you are interested in birds but unlikely to have much time to dedicate to birding (as I didn’t), I hope, and aim, for this to be of some value. For these reasons, I haven’t really bothered with logistical aspects as the purpose of this ‘top ten’ is to highlight the birds that can frequently be found all over Japan (on the main island of Honshu where I stayed).

Intro: general comments on birding Japan

At the risk of starting off on a bit of a sour note… there weren’t all that many birds. I am aware that anyone with real experience of living in, or birding in, Japan may have just spluttered on their sushi, but that was my experience. There seemed to be less bird song than I am used to in the UK (although I did love how various street signs played different bird songs/calls as a guide for the blind) and the variety of commonly seen birds also seemed relatively low.

It’s all about the hills. Japan is a country full of contrasts and this includes the topography. Much of Japan seems incredibly flat and low altitude and nearly all of this low-altitude land seems to be taken up with urbanised buildings or agriculture. The hills then seem to appear out of nowhere; they are steep; and mostly covered in forest. It should be no surprise that this is where the wild things are.

The top ten

When I go somewhere new, I often go with very little conception of what I will and won’t see. Taking a bird field guide (in this case, Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil) is obviously useful, but they inevitably include everything you might possibly see with very little indication of what you are most likely to see. With that ‘gap-in-the-market’ in mind, the following list is what I would have found useful to read before I left: A list of the birds (7 species and 3 families) that you would almost struggle not to see.

1.Brown-eared Bulbul – my comment above about lack of bird calls or song should really have a caveat exempting the loud and varied calls of this ubiquitous bird. Before I left, one of my Patch-birding colleagues repeatedly said ‘Brown-eared Bulbul‘ whenever Japan came up. To me it was simply one of the thousands of birds I still hadn’t seen. Little did I know how quickly and thoroughly that omission would be righted when I reached Japan. They. Are. Everywhere!


Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

2.Large-billed Crow – I saw a fair few Carrion Crow on my trip, but they were outnumbered significantly by Large-billed Crow. Only marginally smaller than a Raven, these chunky and noisy corvids were frequently found in large numbers in the cities we visited.


Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

3.Black-eared Kite – look up to the sky in Japan. If you see any birds circling, they are probably Large Billed Crow. If they aren’t, they are probably Black-eared Kite. Again, these birds – like many kites around the world when they aren’t persecuted – seem highly comfortable in densely populated areas and can be seen in large numbers. Unfortunately for my world list, Black-eared Kite is still considered a subspecies of Black Kite, despite several distinguishing features. Apparently, it has evolved quite distinctly and separately from Black Kite for a long time, but the intermingling of genes in the overlap areas have prevented the experts from separating completely.


Black(-eared) Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

4.The Tits – The first bird family, rather than species on my list. As in the UK, and handful of species of tits are seemingly common and well distributed across Japan, cropping up again and again wherever I went. Japanese Tit, closely related to our Great Tit was ubiquitous, closely followed by the attractively-coloured Varied Tit. Other species encountered were: Willow Tit, Coal Tit, and (although, strictly speaking, not in the Paridae family) Long-tailed Tit.


Varied Tit (Sittiparus varius)

5.Wagtails – Having lumped an entire bird family into the list above, I feel less guilty about now introducing a genus. Wagtails were one of only a couple of groups of birds where I felt they were more common in Japan than they are in the UK. Japanese Wagtail and Black-backed Wagtail (the subspecies of the familiar European White Wagtail) were most common with Grey Wagtail present as well.


Japanese Wagtail (Motacilla grandis)

6.Oriental Turtle Dove – I saw this attractive dove frequently. It’s commonness was bittersweet for me as it reminded me how increasingly scarce the closely related, but slightly smaller, European Turtle Dove is in my home country; a bird I haven’t even seen for a couple of years in the UK.


Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

7.Hirundines – We chose our time to visit Japan to coincide with ‘Sakura’, the cherry blossom, but this also meant I got to experience some of the Spring migration I was missing back in the UK. Just as the swallows and martins are returning North to breed from their wintering grounds in Africa, so swallows and martins have also been appearing all over Japan from their wintering grounds of Borneo, the Philippines, Java, etc. Our familiar Barn Swallow was common as was the Asian House Martin which was a life tick for me.


Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) subspecies guttaralis

8.Tree Sparrow – Interestingly, this species seems to have filled the niche of House Sparrow almost entirely in Japan and was far more commonly seen than I have ever found this species to be anywhere else that I have seen it. Anyone used to Tree Sparrow in Europe will be able to see that this subspecies has a richer brown hue to it and a large bill.


Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus saturatus)

9.Ducks – This section of the anatidae were relatively strongly represented and mostly familiar species to me (more on this in the next blog post), with the exception of the Eastern Spot-billed Duck which was one of the most regularly seen species throughout my travels.


Eastern Spot-billed Duck (Anas zonorhyncha)

10.Japanese White-eye – Lastly, this attractive little bird was a lovely addition to my world list and is relatively easy to pick up in small flocks across Honshu.


Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus)

It was only when re-reading this, that I realised I missed off a bird that easily deserves to be in this top ten. As I didn’t have the heart to knock one of the top ten off the list, I have simply cheated and created an eleventh.

11.White-cheeked Starling – Not quite as frequently seen or heard as the Bulbul, but not far off. This Starling is almost as common as our own Common Starling.


White-cheeked Starling (Spodiopsar cineraceus)

From dawn til dusk: in Spain

This Sunday I spent all day birding. From dawn until dusk. In Spain.


Juvenile Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

The architect of this short and intense day of birding was my patch colleague, Jonathan, who has written up a great trip report on our day (and night) out. So, I don’t wish to duplicate what already exists on t’internet, nor can I duplicate the quality of his photos.

So, instead, I will do what I do best on this blog: ramble on a bit about my experiences in the wild: or rather, the impressions the wild leave on me and pepper these thoughts with lists and poor photos of the birds I see. Sounds gripping, huh?!

Spain is an important country for me. I spent a formative early-adult year of my life there and fell in love with the country, the culture, the people, the food, and even the language. I know some people think Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, or French, but nothing beats Spanish for me.

¡Ay sol! ¡Ay luna, luna!
Un minuto después.
Sesenta flores grises
enredaban sus pies. – 
Federico Garcia Lorca

The day began in the hills near Alicante. Just up from a rural town called Xixona.


As we drove along a narrow lane, Rock Sparrow flocks bounced through the olive trees in front of us with Serin, and Goldfinch in accompaniment.

Bushes clicked at us with Sardinian Warbler whilst Cirl Bunting threw their colourful heads back and sang to us in the bright light of a November morning.

But it was further down the hillsides where we found the first of our avian targets. Down in the rougher, drier land in the shadow of industrial factories and warehouses.


Abandoned building near Xixona

Way above us there were dots circling the peaks slowly like flies drunk on fermented fruit. Flys with bald heads and close-to three metre wingspans that is.


Four, possibly five, Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus). No, really!

I could zoom in more, crop, and present a more feasible record shot in all its pixelated glory, but the picture above captures the moment better for me.

We stood on one side of a small gorge and looked across to the other. Below us a small farmstead house (finca) obscured unidentifiable, parachuting larks (Thekla Lark or Crested Lark we wondered?). The finca’s inhabitant, an elderly Spanish farmer came up to see what two men with telescopes and cameras were doing above his land. But there was no hostility. He walked up the steep slopes, stood behind us for a while and must have wondered what kind of strangeness had been visited on him as we took turns to peer through a scope and celebrate distant views of Black Wheatear. The old farmer wished us a good journey as we left him alone on the rocks.

The gorge was surveyed by a Blue Rock Thrush and a small dole of Rock Dove nestled in holes in the vertical slice of sedimentary rock; geological time made physical.


Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Jono and I swapped dust and sand for water and reed at the famous wetland site of El Hondo:


El Hondo


It was from here that Jono found a Bluethroat on the shore

We were lucky enough to watch a single Marbled Duck, a life first for both of us, paddle silently amongst the Pochard, Mallard, Coot, and Shoveler.


Marbled Duck (Marmaronetta angustirostris)

Outside of the threatened marshes of southern Iran and Iraq, these are very scarcely and patchily found ducks. Whilst that was Jono’s only life tick of the day, I had three other lifers including a monster. Not a monster find or tick, just a monster…

There was an amusing moment as we first approached a pool when I smiled into my binoculars and told Jono I’d just seen a life tick. “What? A Moorhen?” came the reply. But eventually the giant came into view for Mr L as well; a bird superficially similar to Coot, but twice the size and stunningly coloured, looking like it had just swallowed three Moorhen whole.


Western (formerly ‘Purple’) Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)

The artist formerly known as Purple Swamphen strutted about the reserve with its bright red, raspberry beret (sorry! I couldn’t resist that). Its relative size emphasised when a flock of ibis collected around it. We saw many more that day of both Swamphen and Glossy Ibis.


Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)


We were also treated to brief appearances from Bluethroat and the onomatopoeic Zitting Cisticola. This was all whilst eagles crossed over our heads repeatedly. I had really hoped to see Bonelli’s Eagle, and perhaps the level of hope almost allowed myself to ‘string’ some of the early views of Booted Eagle into my intended quarry. Whilst not a lifer, the pale morph of these diminutive eagles showed well and we saw several throughout the day.


Booted Eagle (Aquila pennatus)

The vast El Hondo reserve was great but still largely remains a mystery to us both as its largest lake was hidden behind a biblically large wall of reeds that would have taken hours (almost literally) for us to walk around and peer behind its curtain. Time was against us and so we moved on to an even larger wetland system of salines called Santa Pola.


Torre en Santa Pola

We watched a number of waders ranging in size from Dunlin, Sanderling, and Kentish Plover, through Turnstone, RedshankGreenshank, Avocet, and Black-winged Stilt up to Greater Flamingo.


Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)

We stopped at several sites around the salt ponds and I saw another lifer; a large flock or two of Slender-billed Gull dotted with Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull.


Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei) and Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

We stayed until the sun, which had blazed through clear blue all day, eventually bathed us in soft and cool golden light.


The chevrons point towards Mr L and the sun

It was close to dusk when I ticked off my fourth lifer of the day: a pair of Whiskered Tern that circled and skimmed a small roadside pool.


Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)

Finally it would feel rude of me not to mention one more bird. Throughout the day, the species that seemed to keep us company the most – irrespective of habitat, was Black Redstart.


Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Jonathan travels a lot. I mean A LOT. He signs off his excellent trip reports with a photo of a stuffed panther called Snuffy. So I decided to do something in the spirit of an Attenborough documentary style ‘diary’ (US readers won’t know what this means as I believe the ten minute short ‘making-of’ films at the end of wildlife documentaries don’t make it across the pond as they are the result of packaged-up ad break times).

Here is a secret peak* into the making of the famous ‘Snuffy shots’:


Jono and Snuffy with the end result courtesy of Wanstead Birder

*At a couple of points, passing cars would sound their horns at us. I wondered why, but then I was taking a photo of a man taking a photo of a stuffed panther. Nothing to see here! Move along now people!

The valleys

No, not Wales. I mean the valleys that make up my second patch in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I often climb our highest hill, Mont Major (about 530m above sea level), and just sit and look over the next valley and further South to the Pyrenees.


200m vertically from me down to the valley floor –  a view I have photographed a hundred times

I have sat here and watched Golden Eagles on several occasions, but not this trip. Crag Martins seemed to scrape the rocks (to the right of the photo above) they flew so close in. One afternoon a much bigger shape scythed past me – it was noticeably larger than Common Swift – which I had seen drifting past in small migratory flocks – and the bright white underside showed well. For a life tick I identified it almost immediately: Alpine Swift. Unfortunately, I didn’t really manage to photograph it and only got the back view with a slight showing of the white as it flew hard and fast and south, parallel with my eyeline over the valley and towards the mountains beyond.


Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba)

Further down the hillside, there was a lot of noise. I saw a pair of Bee-eaters hawking low over the maquis bushes. They settled back on the same tree time and again. I then realised that there weren’t two, but three, then four, five, eight, and eventually 12 of them all together. They were a long way away and below me, but I managed this photo in which nine Bee-eaters can be seen together.


European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

What do you mean you can’t see them?! Treat it like a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ – there really are nine showing in the photo. if you have given up, here is the photo again with each Bee-eater circled, including the four together on the lower-left branch.


12 Bee-eaters together was a European record for me. A record that would be broken just a few days later when 33 flew over our house in a single flock or ‘colony’ – I managed to get all of them in a single frame.


Crossing over the ridge from one valley to the next was another bird hawking for large insects.


Hobby (Falco subbuteo)


At one point another shape flashed out of the trees beside me and straight at the Hobby as if to mob it. I managed to steal a single usable photo of of it as it went over my head. Given the proximity, it had me thinking Goshawk at first, but was actually a large female Sparrowhawk.


Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Over the week we were there, the number and variety of raptors was poor. I imagine many of the Short-toed Eagle‘s must have flown South already. But the paucity of variety was mitigated by a second patch sighting of Griffon Vulture which flew straight over our house, albeit very high.


Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus)

Back down on the land, my wife must get the credit for spotting a bird fly across our path as we went for a walk. It turned out to be another patch tick for me (one of the three this trip, alongside the Alpine Swift and a Western Orphean Warbler): Red-backed Shrike. It obviously enjoyed hunting on the land as I saw it again, along with a second bird a few days later. I have long known that the area is ideal for Shrikes and so am amazed it has taken almost a decade for me to find one two here.


Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

The wonderful – but at the same time, difficult – thing about my French patch is that I am the only birder. All the birds are self-found in just two or three short trips a year.

So, a three patch-tick trip – not bad. About average actually, although inevitably the number of new species will taper off as my list starts to creep up into respectability. But there was actually another ‘tick’ to be had on this trip. Not a patch tick (sadly), but a full-blown life tick, albeit belatedly…

I had nipped out to the shops for some groceries and drove out a bit beyond the nearest villages – wonderful examples of rural French charm.


“Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet” – Saint Laurent-de-la-Cabrerisse

I watched a chattering of Red-billed Chough circle in the sky and then drove on. Through tree-lined roads and fields of French farming… when something caught my eye. Acrobatic flight from narrow-winged raptors low down over the field. A male and female by the look of it. I am used to seeing Hen Harrier on my patch so I didn’t question that they could have been anything else. That was foolish! I pulled over and clicked off a couple of very distant shots from the car and then drove on to get supplies of cheese and wine.

It was only later when reviewing the dreadful quality photos that I realised these weren’t Hen Harrier at all, but Montagu’s Harrier. In the cropped versions of the photos the thin  black wing-band can be seen and the extensive black wing-tips stretching down much further on both upper and under side of the wing than we would see with Hen Harrier.


Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

These could be birds that have spent the summer here or they could be stopping for food and frolics part-way on a journey south through Europe on their way to Africa. This means I have finally seen all of the European Harriers, having only relatively recently ticked off Pallid Harrier in Norfolk, alongside our Hen Harrier (or what is left of them before grouse-shooting estates make them extinct in England and beyond) and the conservation success story that is Marsh Harrier.

My French Patch list is still small, but it has some cracking birds on it and I feel a real sense of achievement with every new sighting as the sole birder in these remote valleys. After a scorching day in the field, I often sit back in the late afternoon and early evening with a glass of wine, beer, or a gin & tonic looking out over our valley and reflect on what I have seen and how lucky I am to experience it.



So, Amsterdam, where have you been all my life?

I have actually been to Amsterdam a few times before, but only changing flights at Schiphol so I had never actually seen the famous city. I rectified that last weekend with my wife and in-laws (my sister in-law is lucky enough to live in this amazing city).


It is, of course, the city that never should have been. A city reclaimed from the sea, with a web of famous canals below sea level while the city itself is propped up by pillars.

The famous canals curve round to feed (or, more accurately, be fed by) the Amstel and the mighty IJ – defined by some as  a river and others a lake, whilst it looks like a narrow strip of sea to me from the map. The Amstel not only gave its name to the beer, but to the city itself.


The Amstel







Amsterdam is also famous for bicycles (millions of these!), and art…

The Rijksmuseum is impressive.


The Rijksmuseum

The Vermeer’s are exquisite , the Rembrandt’s are sublime, and there are some other hidden gems in this huge gallery that drew my attention but wouldn’t, perhaps, be featured in any highlight guide of the museum.

From the titillating (this painting of a young woman removing her stocking and exposing her thighs was seen as so outrageously erotic when first unveiled, it was partially painted over)…


Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havicksz. Steen, 1655-1660

… to the spiritual. I was captivated by this chap (below). His name is Ajita. He is one of the legendary Arhats or lohans, a Buddhist sage tasked with preserving the doctrines until the time when the teachings can be understood. He is listening carefully and serenely to a sutra being recited. In an age where we struggle to listen, I think many of us could learn from Ajita.


A lohan, anonymous. China, c.1200-1400

I drooled over the museum’s library…


Rijksmuseum library

…and even got some satisfaction for my main interest…


Drake Pintail, Rochus van Veen. 1682

Amsterdam is, of course, famous for one or two other things as well. All I will say on those matters is that if the salesperson in a coffeeshop tells you that a ‘space-cake’ is for sharing between two, don’t eat a whole one!


Coffeeshop, Amsterdam

An ancient tree of poison and tales of bloody murder

2068 years ago Julius Caesar had some difficulty from some tribes in Gaul. It wasn’t Asterix and Cacofonix, but very close. There were two kings, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, of a Belgian tribe called the Eburones who rebelled against their Roman overlords. They fought very bravely and took out a sizeable chunk of the Roman legion based in the area, leading to Caesar camping there for months to oversee the campaign against them. He praised them for their bravery, but made them pay in the most vicious manner; Caesar effectively wiped out the entire tribe. Ambiorix has gone down in history as a Belgian legend and – King Arthur style – seemed to disappear. Catuvolcus was a lot older and, despairing at the bloodshed, took his own life by drinking the poison of a Yew Tree.

If you don’t like my version of the story, why not read it from the first-hand account of Julius Caesar himself:

Catuvolcus, rex dimidiae partis Eburonum, qui una cum Ambiorige consilium inierat, aetate iam confectus cum laborem belli aut fugae ferre non posset, omnibus precibus detestatus Ambiorigem, qui eius consilii auctor fuisset, taxo, cuius magna in Gallia Germaniaque copia est, se exanimavit. – Julius Caesar, Gallic War vol VI

Around five hundred years after this genocidal event had taken place, a Yew sapling was growing on a burial ground near, what is now, the Welsh border with England. Some eight hundred years on, that sapling was still alive and now a mighty specimen of a normally smallish tree. A Church was built on the holy land right next to this ancient tree. Turn the clock on more than seven hundred years again and you reach the present day. The church is still standing and so, remarkably, is that ancient tree.

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

European Yew (Taxus baccata)

For a tree species that is described as small-medium, this 1500 year-old specimen has a trunk that measures almost 9.5 metres in circumference and it blocks out the church built in its shadow.

As Catuvolcus knew well, Yew is deadly poisonous. Interestingly, the only parts of Yew that are not filled with poison are the juicy bright red berries. But the harmless flesh contains a hard seed that could kill a man if swallowed. The needle leaves are even more deadly and will likely stop your heart within hours of ingestion of even a small amount. For hay fever sufferers – like me – the Yew tree is rated 10 out of 10 for the potency of the allergenic pollen. Watching the wind blow a pollen-heavy male Yew is a natural wonder, but beware that you are not caught down-wind from that cloud of dust, as respiration problems, light-headedness and other nasty symptoms will surely follow.

The tree in the photograph has become hollow over time. Its enormous girth has allowed the local people of Much Marcle to put a bench in it.

Much Marcle Yew

Over hundreds of years, just think of the lovers who will have sat there and the children who will have played among the deadly branches. One boy who may well have sat on that bench, as he grew up in the village, was Fred West. As anyone English will know, the farm boy was terribly head-injured in his teens and grew up to become one of the most notorious, sadistic, serial killers in our country’s history. It is sad to think that this beautiful village is now far better known as the place of birth of a man who committed the most terrible of crimes than for an incredible tree. I ran my hands over the dense and complicated swirls of wood reflecting on the history that will have occurred around this ancient, deadly, but peaceful giant…

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Inside the Yew at Much Marcle

Post Scriptum: It is hard to be believe, but across the border in Wales is an even more ancient Yew. In fact, at around 5000 years old, it is believed to be one of the most ancient trees in the world. When the Much Marcle tree was sprouting from a seed, the Llangernyw Yew is believed to have already been a staggering 3500 years old – 3 millennia had passed it by before poor old Catuvolcus topped himself with a draught of poison from the dried needles of one of its European cousins.

Zanzibar: the end of Safari?

The archipelago of Zanzibar, located off the coast of Tanzania, is a beautiful holiday destination and made a relaxing end to our safari trip. We stayed in a luxury resort on the South-eastern coast, looking directly out over the white sand and turquoise waters into the Indian Ocean.

Aside from being a stunning tropical holiday destination, Zanzibar is rich in culture, history and wildlife. I intend to focus on the latter, but here are a few historical facts you may, or may not, know about Zanzibar:

  • The capital, Zanzibar City, contains the ancient port of Stone Town, once one of the wealthiest cities in the world because of the spice and slave trades.
  • It is the site of the shortest war in history. The Anglo-Zanzibar war lasted 38 minutes on the morning of 27 August 1896.
  • It was the birth place of Freddie Mercury, who was born with the name, Farrokh Bulsara.

The largest island of Unguja has a mixture of tropical forests, mangrove swamps, rocky scrub-land, white beaches and coral reefs. The areas of highest vegetation, including the Jozani Forest Reserve are spectacularly biodiverse.

The wildlife includes the rare and endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirkii) with about 1500 specimens remaining in the wild…

The islands are also home to some stunning birds including, the Old World equivalents of the Hummingbirds, the Sunbirds…

The unidentified female above and the male Purple-banded Sunbird (Cinnyris bifasciata), below, were both seen in the garden grounds of our hotel…

I took the photo of this Broad-billed Roller (Eurystomus glaucurus), below, from the terrace of our suite…

Some of the bird species in Zanzibar have been introduced, or appeared, very recently, such as the very familiar House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)…

… and some of the introduced species, such as this Indian House Crow (Corvus splendens), below, pose a competitive and/or predatory threat to native species…

The sea on the eastern coast of Zanzibar is quite extraordinary. The fisherman and snorkellers below are paddling in very shallow water which extends out about half a mile to where you can see the waves breaking to the upper right and where the darker blue of the oceanic deep water begins…

This can be seen very clearly in a satellite image (Warning! I am about to break my rule, of only posting photos I have taken, for the first time in this blog) with the hotel shown by the red bed symbol (you can even see the swimming pool) and then the turquoise water suddenly stopping to the right…

The long extension of shallow water means that the tide goes in and out by a huge distance every day. During periods of low tide, the sea exposed a sandy/muddy expanse of pools which is fertile feeding ground for wading birds…

Aside from a lot of seaweed, the tide would expose a large number of Crustacea and Mollusca, including crabs. Some of which blended in nicely with the white sand…

… whilst others were brilliantly camouflaged against the green-stained rocks of the water-carved short rocky cliffs, below, (I know I have been failing as a taxonomist by not naming the crabs, but there are at least 4,500 species of crab and very few easy references online to identify them)

Nearly every crevice in the rocks seemed to house a crab or a lizard…

At low tide, the beach was strewn with an array of shells. Frequently, the shells would walk off with their resident hermit crabs (not true crabs at all don’t ya know, but still with around 500 species!) scuttling away…

Every evening I would walk along the beach at low tide watching large numbers of wading birds and gulls feast on the exposed bounty of the sea. Although often taking photos in dusky evening conditions, some of the waders I managed to capture digitally included…

Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea):

Crab Plover (Dromas ardeola):

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola):

… and Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia):

Zanzibar may have been the relaxing end to our Safari trip, but the wildlife watching continued whilst relaxing on our veranda, walking along the beach, and even sitting by the pool…

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:


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.


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!


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.


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?


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…


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.


First aid kit…


Mosquito-repellent clothing…


Tilley hat…


Anti-malaria drugs…




Wildlife field guides…

…check! check!

This can mean only one thing…

We are about to go to Africa on Safari!

When I return I shall bore everyone stiff with thousands of photos of distant specks which I shall claim are Leopards, or Hyena, or Giraffe. You have been warned!