After volunteering as a bird guide at Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu (REGUA) in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for one month, I was asked by the World Land Trust to write a series of blogs about my experiences. This blog was published here first.
Driven by my desire to find and photograph a sloth, I took a route alongside the wetlands leading to one of the forest trails. But, as much as I tried to hurry, the wetlands proved to be full of distractions that couldn’t be overlooked: stunning Blue Dacnis fed on fruit trees as ridiculously bright-coloured Saffron Finches foraged on the ground below; a cloud of Cattle Egrets floated over their reflection in the water; and on the island a beached gang of Capybara kept a wary eye on a sunbathing Broad-snouted Caiman.
Masked Water Tyrants darted after insects at the water’s edge, a large Squirrel Cuckoo made me jump as it crashed out from a bush on my left, Jacanas and Gallinules tiptoed across lily pads, and three species of heron stood like statues in the shallows as a Green Kingfisher whizzed past. Unseen but certainly heard, a raucous soundtrack of Kiskadee, Red-rumped Cacique and mechanical sounding White-bearded Manakin filled the air. All the while, three species of Vulture and Southern-crested Caracaras patrolled the skies silently above.
I remember shaking my head as I tried to comprehend the sheer amount of life, how different it must have been before the wetlands and forest were restored. What was once a piece of farmland was now an oasis of life.
I had been told that no one had seen a sloth for a few days, and this made the challenge even more exciting; plus, I was now armed with the valuable nugget of information that sloths love Cecropia trees. The light dimmed as I headed from the open wetlands into the trees. From the darker reaches of the forest floor I trod lightly, my eyes scanning for snakes on the ground and up into the tops of Cecropia trees, hopeful for a sighting of the most delightful of stagnant furballs.
I stopped. A familiar instinct told me I wasn’t alone, something I’ve felt often enough to have learned to trust. I looked up and focused on a beautiful red Cecropia leaf set against the blue sky above. Slowly, I noticed two faces in the leaves that had gradually turned to look at me. A mother sloth with her contented looking youngster clinging to her underside. My emotions suitably stirred, I sat on the ground and watched them going unhurriedly about their business.
Griffon Vultures are quite massive, an adults wingspan can be anywhere between 7.5 and 9 feet (2.3 – 2.8 metres). I am used to seeing these birds in nature documentaries on the plains of Africa but they are still here in Europe too, and that’s pretty cool. As they cruise the altitudes on impressive wings they seem to be masters of the sky, but life isn’t without it’s dangers being a Griffon, threats from poisoning and from wind turbines ensure that conservation measures are required.
As I stepped on to the tarmac at Jerez airport , my skin suddenly wrapped in warmth, I looked up to admire the blue sky and incredibly I saw what I had come here to see. Filled with happiness and excitment I suffered from a rare infusion of over-confidence, I let myself think that this was going to be easy!
The opportunity to have a little break in Andalusia to see these gargantuan birds and hopefully photograph them was a very exciting prospect for me. But if there is a difficult path to an otherwise easy to reach destination I know which way I’ll go. There are public feeding stations for the Vultures and there are guidebooks telling you exactly where to find them, but where’s the fun in that!?
I had a week to chill out, go birding and explore the beautiful Andalusian countryside and coastline. It was the end of May and the temperature was in the high twenties and low thirties, mosaics of flowers carpeted the meadows and graced the verges, it was a heavenly place to be.
I saw Griffon Vultures gliding on thermals everyday right across the region, every time that I was anywhere near a rocky outcrop I scanned with my binoculars hoping to find a nesting colony. On the penultimate day I started to worry a little bit, I’d seen some amazing birds but I hadn’t found a colony or got the photos of Vultures that I so badly wanted.
That evening I made my dinner early and scanned the Spanish equivalent of an ordnance survey map looking for the most likely place to find my colony. I decided that the contours near Bolonia looked good..and then I cheated..I googled it just to make sure, the prognosis looked good.
My alarm went at 4am the next morning, breakfast, shower, packed lunch made and out the door into the hire car and onto the deliciously empty motorway. The sunrise creating poetic scenes across the Andalusian countryside, it felt good to be up before the rest of the world.
On arrival at my destination I decided to head straight for the rocky outcrop on the highest peak, about half way up the mountain road I stopped and scanned. A tiny looking (see above photo) but perched Vulture bought some of my earlier confidence back! I kept my fingers crossed and drove the car as high as i could drive it then I got my gear together and started to walk. It was still early morning and thoughts of another bird that had captured my imagination popped into my head. Then right on cue as I answered the call of nature, whilst enjoying an amazing Spanish vista, a song echoed amongst the rocks. I knew what it was so I didn’t waste time doing up my fly and I peered out from behind a rock to see a resplendent Blue Rock Thrush sitting on the wires that went over the mountain and beyond.
It turned it’s head and spotted a strange my man with his flies open and flew far off to the left, then something caught my eye over to the right, it was another one. Things were starting to get exciting. It was also starting to get quite hot, but there was no time to apply sunscreen or drink water, I wanted to get a shot of a Blue Rock Thrush on a rock!
I followed with camera ready as the thrush disappeared behind every available rock. There seemed to be a pattern, it would disappear behind a rock for ages making me believe that it had vanished completely then as soon as I lowered my camera it would perch on top of a rock for about a second then disappear again. I wised up and waited for my one second window of opportunity. With fingers twitching on the manual focus ring, arms attempting to steady with the weight of the lens, the bird perched, I focused and shot. It wasn’t the closest of views but it didn’t matter, I was well happy.
As I turned revelling in my success a bloody great Griffon Vulture soared straight above me, I reached for my camera faster than Billy the kid.
It was joined by another..then another..Griffon central! I spent a good couple of hours giving myself neck-ache watching these beautiful and magnificent creatures. It was worth getting up at a ridiculously early hour for an experience that I’ll never forget.
The Cadiz region of Andalusia is awesome for birding all year round but is particularly good at migration times in Spring and Autumn.
I stayed here in La Roche near Conil de la Frontera for the duration of my stay. This villa is ideally located near the coast and is within easy reach of all the best birding spots including Doñana and also other areas of interest for tourists and birders alike. Prices are cheaper in Spring and Autumn. It has four bedrooms, spacious kitchen and lounge and of course your very own pool. It’s a great villa for group or family trips. I had it all to myself, it was an absolute luxury!
I struggled giving this post a title. “Bear Hair”..”If you go down to the woods today on the Finnish/Russian border”..”Super sized Furry Animals”!?..is there really a rule that you have to give a post a title? I’m only writing to fill in the gaps between the photos anyway, I don’t know if anyone actually reads it.
So there we were driving along gravel tracks through a Finnish forest, the written directions that we were following went something like – turn left, take third right, second left, first right etc, etc..and the tracks all looked the same.
After a while of driving along tracks through the forest we managed to cross paths with the only other person in the forest, who kindly told us that we were going in the wrong direction and which way we should be going.
If for some unforgivable reason you hadn’t guessed, we were here to look for Eurasian Brown Bears(Ursus arctos). These bears are pretty big, they’re quite strong, they have big teeth, , but they do look very cuddly..yeah, probably not a good idea!
The plan was to meet up with our guide who would lead us on a 3k walk through the forest to a wooden hide. Our guide was a big lad who sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had every faith that if we were attacked by a bear then this guy would take plenty
of time for the bear to eat, allowing the rest of us to make a run for it.
We stayed in the hide all evening and through the night. We watched as the bears ate, dozed and played. It was an incredible and captivating experience.
The bears all looked different and were easy to tell apart, not only that , they seemed to have different personalities and mannerisms too.
The interactions and the apparent hierarchy played out like a bear soap opera before our eyes, it’s an episode that I will never forget.
Maybe I had a lot on my mind last year, I seemed to spend more time looking at the ground than I normally would, maybe years of wearing binoculars around my neck had caused it to weaken and refuse to carry the weight of my head anymore!? Who knows, but the upshot was that I noticed more of what was going on at ground level. This included many sightings of beautiful Grass Snakes, but with their powerful senses and my not so deft footsteps, they always seemed to be avoiding my camera lens by disappearing at great speed through dense undergrowth. But with great determination the voice in my sagging head made a vow to get some decent shots of this gorgeous snake in 2016.
So it was that just over a week ago signs of spring started to appear, including sunshine that had warmth to it. The excitement of the change in seasons in the northern hemisphere is at least doubled when the transition is from winter to spring, life and colour gradually emerge from the darkness. I can feel my senses starting to come out of hibernation without even realising that they’d gone into hibernation. A feast of life and interactions starts to build, sounds, colours and smells, as pheromones and endorphins
enter the atomosphere and get tangled up with text messages.
So it was time to rein in the excitement, lower the heart rate and tread like a modern day nature ninja on the little trodden path next to the sewage works.
As I turned off the lane and reached the start of the path…I saw that it was covered in dry leaves…..”shit!”. The path is about 50metres long, it took me about half an hour
to get three quarters of the way down it, but success, a grass snake stretched out in the sun!. As i reached round in ultra slow motion for my camera, the snake vanished and a dog
came belting down the path folllowed by two people. There was quite a lot of silent swearing going on at this point, but at least i knew that this was the spot.
Sunday the 3rd of April, the forecast is sunshine, nice one, time to go to the sewage works…as you do. This time I scanned the lane up and down before entering the path and I’d only taken two ninja like steps before my eyes met those of a large grass snake and in one slow fluid movement I reached for camera and crouched down. My model obliged and i retreated with stealth so not to disturb.
My smile was wide!
Friday the 8th of April, I have a day off work, the forecast is sunny spells, I can’t resist going back. So this time I get three quarters of the way down the path again and hope is dissipating, then, mouth drops open and heart stops.
A writhing mass of grass snakes (actually there were four) mating in the middle of the path.
The feeling of euphoria has to be controlled, for one I want to get some unblurred photos and two, I don’t want to put these beauties off of doing their thing, the next generation of grass snakes is at stake! I get my shots and again I retreat with stealth. This time I have a wider smile and I may have even skipped along the lane, alright I didn’t but I felt like it.
What I think is opinion based on casual observations, I’m not a qualified scientist and I haven’t kept detailed notes on paper or in spreadsheets. Many years ago I did get accepted, as a mature student , to study Ecology at the UEA. However, I didn’t even last the first day! After arriving at UEA, being processed for my course and sitting my first lecture I went to the student bar and had a pint. I don’t know what was special about that pint, but I decided to get back into my borrowed car and go and buy a ticket to Australia so I could look for some real wildlife…and had some amazing adventures.
Anyway, I’m supposed to be writing about the question, that if I’m seeing lots of Water Voles in my local surroundings then is that a good indicator for the relevant local ecosystem? Well, certainly the local pair of Barn Owls and their three fledged young are doing very well. The Barn Owls have made good use of the relative abundance of Water Voles, it was noticeable that this was particularly the case during the first couple of weeks after the young owls hatched. After this time the owls seemed to vary the diet more, taking lots of smaller rodents. I’m pretty sure that I can work out the reason for this, but I’ll let you speculate on that one.
The fact that there are plenty of Water Voles around must mean that some things have gone in their favour, what are they? – a mild winter? the vegetation that they feed on has experienced good growing conditions? Yes, I believe those factors are true, but there is another vital factor. This as always, is the effect that humans have on their surroundings. In the general area where I live it appears that landowners are sympathetic to the existence of riparian zones.
I’ve read several statistics that nationally Water Vole and Barn Owl numbers have declined massively. Just by personal observations and the observations of others it leaves me hopeful that these two species seem to be showing good signs of recovery in parts of Suffolk and elsewhere.
So, what of the question I asked originally? well, my totally unscientific conclusion – surely the answer is obvious, yes they are a good indicator species. But maybe the most pivotal point that arises from the question is that we can provide nature reserves that act as a refuge for individual species and for ecosystems, but the volume of land that is in private hands makes partnerships with landowners a key factor in the preservation of our planets ecosystems. This is as relevant in Suffolk as it is in the Amazon basin.
Yesterday on the heath, Westleton Heath that is, something caught my eye through the vegetation, a pile of Adders. I counted five, but there may have been more as the pile moved separately but as one, interweaving itself under roots and a carpet of dried gorse needles.
As ever, moving as quickly and quietly as possible without one of the above adverbs being compromised, I tried to get shots of the snakes through the grass. I would have liked some beautiful crisp shots of the Adders in the open, it wasn’t going to happen, they knew very well that I was there and they weren’t going to break cover.
The silver lining is that I paid more attention to the snakes that I had the clearest shot of. One of those happened to be the blue-eyed beauty in the photos above. Adders usually have red eyes (see pic of photo-bomber, below) however, when they are about due to shed their skin, fluid builds up between the outer(old) and the new inner skin, which gives the appearance of the adder having blue eyes. The fluid seems to act as a lubricant aiding with the shedding process and also as a moisturiser, nice, it’s always good to moisturise after exfoliation!…. that’s what my girlfriend says anyway!. Maybe I should finish up with trying to use the correct terminology here – the process of skin shedding in snakes is known as “sloughing”.
About twenty years ago I decided that I would never visit a zoo again. Last Monday I broke that vow for the second time, at the same zoo…..zoo? Actually, it’s known as the Durrell Wildlife Park, but what really allowed me to override my conscience is the knowledge of what sets this place apart from most other animal collections. Infact, I think it’s more appropriate for me to use the name that greets you as you arrive at the main entrance “Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust”.
Gerald Durrells vision was that zoos should not only be somewhere that members of the public could view and learn about animals that they wouldn’t otherwise experience, but that zoos should aid in conservation and be centres for research and education. This vision certainly became a reality on the island of Jersey and the effects have been far reaching. The Trust achieves it’s goals internationally by gathering scientific information from field programmes and animals in the wildlife park, by successful captive breeding programmes for endangered species and by running a conservation academy providing a seat of learning for todays and tomorrows conservationists.
So, on Monday, my good friend James and I met up with Dr Lee Durrell MBE. Lee gave us a guided tour of the “Gerald Durrell Story” exhibition and made us both feel relaxed, inspired and contemplative with her affable nature and utter dedication.
I’m not going to try and relay Gerald Durrell’s story or go into great detail about what a great team Gerald and Lee have been or indeed the amazing work that Lee and her colleagues do now, but I will try and convey the abiding thought that I was left with. It’s the example that some people set to the rest of us, that their desire and dedication to stick to their guns and do what they want to and what they believe in can make an enormous positive difference and not only that, can pave the way for many others to join in the same cause and efforts, it’s a legacy that will live on in this example, forever I hope, but then that’s down to the rest of us too.