Author Tim Harris gets a rare opportunity to watch critically endangered vultures dine…
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in a covered trench in pitch darkness. Beside me, my friend Neil crouches behind his enormous lens, waiting for the first indications of a new day. The odour of rotting flesh wafts through the screen in front of us, not too bad but enough to remind us that the previous day a cow’s carcass was dumped on the ground a few metres away. Time moves slowly and I’m constantly trying to find a more comfortable position. No padded seats here. In fact, no seats at all, and the log I’m sitting on was definitely not ergonomically designed. We speak not a word, however, since silence is all-important.
Just after 6:00 now, and the ‘whoosh’ of a very large bird passes directly overhead, followed by some flapping and an evil-sounding hiss. I risk parting the reedy screen a few centimetres and notice that the sky has lightened by a few degrees, revealing the silhouettes of several vultures in the top of a tree. Much closer, several of these giants are already jostling with each other on the ground, just 30 metres away. I’ve never had a problem watching others eat but this is very special. The vultures spent yesterday afternoon investigating how best to gain access to the deceased bovine’s best joints. Clearly that is no longer an issue since the animal has been reduced to a pile of bones and offal.
As the sun comes up over this corner of dipterocarp forest on the northern plains of Cambodia, the diners’ identities are revealed. Most are Indian White-backed Vultures but there are also a handful of Red-headed Vultures with their strangely perplexed expressions. The latter seem to spend most of their time standing around, doing very little, but they are clearly one step up in the pecking order. Then there are the Slender-billed Vultures with their black, snake-like necks, perfect for going deep inside any dead animal. It is quickly clear that they always get what they want. The others back away when the Slender-bills hiss out a warning. Screams, hisses and the sound of wings flapping … this is the accompaniment to the end game as bones are stripped of their last morsels of flesh.
Apart from their love of carrion, these vultures are sadly united by one thing: their extreme rarity. The 60-odd birds we are watching represent a significant proportion of the world’s population of each species. All are classified as Critically Endangered, and extinction is now a real threat. It was not always so but vulture populations have crashed catastrophically since the 1990s, down by as much as 99 percent, due to the treatment of cattle with Diclofenac. Those populations that remain are now disjointed.
The drug was never used in Cambodia and only on the northern plains of that country are the vultures holding their own. In fact, here they are just about increasing in number, largely thanks to a series of ‘vulture restaurants’ where geriatric cows are slaughtered on a regular basis to provide a supplementary food source, a strategy driven by the Sam Veasna Center (sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society), which works with village communities to encourage them to engage with their local wildlife.
Visiting birders and photographers pay for the privilege of witnessing the vultures (and other threatened species such as Giant and White-shouldered Ibis) and the cash goes into the hands of the villagers who provide the carrion. To be fed and guided by local villagers, who also maintain the hides, is an inspirational experience. Families gain extra income; villages are able to fund water pumps, schools and roads; the community is actively involved in conservation. Everyone benefits. This is a magnificent model for sustainable conservation and ecotourism, one that should be adopted elsewhere. Even if you couldn’t stomach the spectacle of vultures poking around in a dead cow’s digestive tract, it is an initiative worth supporting.
For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see
Photos: Neil Bowman
Tim is the author of RSPB Migration Hotspots. You may like to read more on critically endangered birds in Facing Extinction.
Photographer Mark Sissons shares his passion for Puffins.
They are often called the clown prince of the cliff tops and with good reason given their comical appearance, but for many nature photographers here in Britain the summer just wouldn’t be the same without heading to the coast to spend some time with one of the most enigmatic and amazingly approachable birds, namely the Puffin.
For me they are an addiction. Not simply from a photographic point of view (although I have tens of thousands of Puffin images on my hard drives it has to be said) but also because of the sheer enjoyment that I have had over many summers spending time in their colonies. These colonies have been spread far and wide too – from the nearest major one to my land-locked home county of Shropshire at Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, through the Farne Islands in Northumberland, multiple colonies in the Shetlands, their main breeding grounds in Iceland and also in the late grasp of winter in northern Norway where there was still snow when the early birds returned ashore.
There is simply always something going on in a Puffin colony especially if you have an eye and a love for such things. Whether it be the head shaking, bill raising acts of courtship, the digging out of a new burrow, the bill tapping communication that can sometimes lead to aggression and some amazing beak-locked squabbles, the appearance of a new parent on the cliff top with a beak full of sand eels for the below ground Puffling to consume, the agony of watching the effort of said fishing expedition grabbed away by a marauding Gull, or the delight of a late summer evening when the youngsters make their first wing flapping ventures above ground before literally jumping off the cliff to the sea below probably not to return to shore for a year at the very least. A Puffin colony is much like a classic soap opera really and the more time you spend there the more you understand in terms of just how these pocket rockets of the bird world live and interact.
Photographing this iconic bird for ‘The Secret Lives of Puffins’ was therefore so much more than just another assignment or project and one thing is certain – I’ll be back on the cliff tops once more next summer!
Copyright for all photos: Mark Sisson.
Conor Jameson has a mystery to share…
It has some of the hallmarks of a Conan Doyle murder mystery, complete with period costume, a shooting, a body, a fairytale Victorian Highland setting, suspects, big city and small town locations, journeys in between, and – for good measure and Hollywood appeal – a strong American angle. In fact the central character is a ‘Yank’ – Accipiter gentilis atricapillus to be precise – the fabled Northern Goshawk.
It’s spring 1869 and there is unrest in the British Empire – Canada, this time. The finishing touches are being put to the Cutty Sark in a Glasgow shipyard. She will be one of the last of the tea clippers built, as the age of sail gives way to steam power. The journal Nature is also launched, and the People’s Friend. A gamekeeper called Stewart is patrolling the slopes of Schiehallion – the ‘hill of the fairies’, some say – in Perthshire. Spying a bird of prey, in the tradition of the day he shoots it dead.
By and by, he gets into conversation with a road surveyor called Menzies, who relieves the keeper of the bird, which has been crudely gutted. Menzies takes it to the town of Brechin, on the east coast, and a shop owner there by the name of Lyster. Lyster can turn his hand to taxidermy, and sells many things, chief among which are fishing lures, for which Red Kite Milvus milvus feathers are particularly suited. But the skin he is presented with is no kite, or gled, as they were then known. In any event he has better things to work with, and puts it aside.
Some time later a man called Gray drops in. He’s a keen ornithologist in his spare time and an inspector of banks by day. It’s not in great nick by this time but he recognises the bird skin as that of a Goshawk. He takes ownership of the specimen, and arranges for it to be sent on to Glasgow. There, he has another taxidermist clean, stuff and mount it. Goshawks were by this time rare, even in Scotland. It would be extinct as a breeder in Britain in little more than a decade. Having collected his order from the stuffer, it is only now that Gray realises there is something particularly unusual about this Goshawk. It is of the North American race atricapillus. At face value, this is the first record of its kind for Britain. The record is generally accepted. Gray later becomes a renowned and respected ornithologist and author of books on the subject.
Fast-forward a century, and cutting a long story short, this American Gos is dropped from the Scottish list. No one today seems very sure why. By this time there were several records of American Goshawk from Ireland and one from England (Tresco, Scilly, 28th December 1935). In each case the birds were evidently shot, enabling close inspection.
Forward again, this time to the present day, when the Perthshire record is reviewed once more, and officially rejected. Over at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, experts are once again peering at the mummified corpse. The identity of the bird is not in dispute, but there is apparently sufficient doubt over provenance, with the possibility that a different (American) Goshawk skin replaced that deposited by Gray in the Glasgow shop.
The verdict suggests a general doubt over the American Goshawk’s ability to cross 5,000 km of ocean, a doubt in which it is easy to share. Even with a hurricane at its tail (there was such a weather event and a major fall of Goshawks in the USA in the late 1860s) and/or with the help of a boat, believing the gos can achieve this feat assumes a voyage of weeks or even months rather than days, and a diet of seabirds caught on the wing, over the waves, en route… unless Roger the Cabin boy had taken pity on the stowaway in the rigging, and was bringing it ship’s rations, or rats.
Some ornithologists I’ve spoken to have shrugged at the idea of atricapillus being capable of crossing the Atlantic. ‘Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius and American Kestrel Falco sparverius can do it,’ they’ll say. But this is to equate the talents of Mo Farah with those of Usain Bolt. The Gos, we know, is a bird that will spend most of an average day loafing, waiting for prey to come within ambush range: a sprinter, not a distance runner. They are three times as heavy as harriers. We know they can cross the North Sea, but show a peculiar reluctance to do so, if the low number of records for Shetland, the oil rigs and coming in off the east coast are anything to go by (one Scandinavian ring recovery, ever).
But is it any more feasible that a Victorian trader would import such a specimen, and not label or market it for maximum value as an exotic? That it would be so casually or carelessly switched by a professional taxidermist for no apparent additional fee?
In the end, we can only speculate. Despite some of the finest minds having been trained on it, the Perthshire Goshawk saga will probably remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of ornithology, and just one of the many riddles surrounding the enigmatic, spectral, much-studied yet poorly understood and dare I say widely overlooked Northern Goshawk.
Conor Mark Jameson
Footnote – the Irish goshawk records are also currently under review. The fact that two of the Irish records occurred within days of each other (both birds shot), and within weeks of the Perthshire gos, merely adds further intrigue to the overall tale.
Conor’s book Looking for the Goshawk has recently been published by Bloomsbury.
Freelance wildlife and natural history photographer Adrian Davies, author of Digital Plant Photography reminisces on the fungi of 2012!
Of all botanical subjects, fungi are probably the most unpredictable in terms of numbers and species. An area brimming with specimens one year may be virtually devoid of them the following year, even though conditions are seemingly favourable. 2012 was no exception here, with a dearth of specimens during the main fungus season in September and October. I even heard of fungus forays being cancelled due to the lack of specimens. I visited several of my favourite sites, but shot very few images during the main season, though there was an unexpected flush in November.
At my favourite fungus site, Ebernoe Common in Sussex, I always make a point of visiting my favourite Beech tree, complete with excellent specimens of the Artists fungus, (Ganoderma australis). I have known the tree for over 10 years. This is one of those specimens where a wide angle lens is very useful, enabling you to show the fungi in their environment. Visiting the tree in October I was taken completely by surprise to find that the tree had blown over during the previous winter. It was like losing an old friend. However, of course, fungal attack on trees, causing their eventual decline, is all part of the natural process , and this tree will eventually rot down to provide food for a new generation of trees, keeping the woodland healthy.
In the first shot I used a 17 – 55mm zoom lens at 20mm to capture the fungi growing at the base of the tree, and still show the trees in the background. Note the reddish brown spores which have fallen from the brackets.
I always make a point of going out looking for fungi with experts if possible, on a foray. Not only are they usually much better at finding them than me, but can also identify them for me! By doing that, even though specimens were hard to find, I did manage to see some fascinating specimens. I would never have found this tiny Earthstar fungus (Geastrum fimbriatum), growing amongst the leaves on the woodland floor without their help. I used a 105mm macro lens, couple with a 1.4x tele-converter to try to throw the background out of focus.
Bracket fungi are long lived and often have wonderful patterns underneath, such as the aptly named Oak Mazegill (Daedalea quercina). Someone had knocked this specimen from its tree, and it was a simple shot to prop it up against a tree stump, and shoot it with my 105mm lens.
My favourite fungus is the Magpie Fungus (Coprinus picaceus) one of the inkcaps. They are not common, but when you do find them they often grow in abundance, and when I visited this woodland in November there were hundreds of them, lit by early morning sunlight shafting through the trees. I shot this with my 17 – 55mm lens at 24mm, making sure the lens hood was in place to prevent excessive flare.
I always look for different viewpoints when photographing toadstools, and a view looking straight down onto these again aptly named Earthy Webcaps (Cortinarius hinnuleus) seemed most appropriate.
For practical advice on photographing plants and fungi, try:
Conor Mark Jameson writes …
The RSPB holds its annual weekend for members at York University each spring during half-term. The students are away and the wildfowl own the campus. Members (and staff and volunteers present) are treated to a range of stimulating talks and activities, guaranteed to recharge the batteries, and remind us what multi-tentacled beast is this organisation, grappling with challenges on all sides. Most of all you leave York with the strong sense that there is hope yet for saving nature. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk that I call Silent Spring Revisited – Rachel Carson’s legacy.
As I did a bit of last-minute adjustment I realised the significance of the date. Tuesday 14th April was the day in 1964 when something very significant happened that is much less well remembered than Silent Spring itself, published just over a year earlier.
On that spring morning, Rachel Carson died. It comes as a surprise to people when I tell them this, just as the event itself came as a shock even to many of those who knew well the naturalist, scientist, author and campaigner. They didn’t know she’d been ill, and they didn’t know because she hadn’t told them. She thought that knowledge of her condition would be used against her by her opponents, deniers of the widespread harmful effects of indiscriminate pesticide use.
In fact Rachel Carson had been battling cancer and a succession of illnesses for a large part of the four and a half years it took her to research and write Silent Spring. Arthritis required her at times to use a wheelchair.
Forty-nine years on, this anniversary Sunday morning fittingly brought strong, mild blustery winds from the south and west. With them came the long awaited and much delayed spring migrant birds from the south, where they had been backing up around the Mediterranean and beyond. Chiffchaffs at last were calling from the bare treetops among the halls of residence on a misty Yorkshire dawn.
The turbulent air also encouraged our Scandinavian visitors to head once again north and east. Redwings streamed overhead and out towards the sea, and we craned our necks seeking our first glimpse of swallows arriving to replace them. Someone reported seeing a waxwing and a willow warbler in the same hedgerow – an unusual collision of arrivistes and the departing. But it wasn’t till I’d made the journey home afterwards, south by train against this general flow of returning nature, that I found my first swallows. There were three of them, surfing the wind over the village a few hundred metres from the house, by way of welcome. They’ve made it again, as always oblivious to all that’s going on below them, in our increasingly uncertain world.
Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s passing. It would be fitting to mark the occasion then not with a minute’s silence, nor even with a minute’s applause, but with a minute’s birdsong, and other springtime sounds from nature. Perhaps we might even officially designate it Rachel Carson Day.
People wherever they are might then listen for the birds, and take a moment to recall Rachel Carson’s determination, courage and sacrifice, in the face of powerful opposition, in raising the alarm about the danger of biocide misuse. She didn’t live to find out what came next. She did this work not for her own benefit, but for those who would follow. This is one hero we mustn’t allow to be unsung.
Conor’s book, Silent Spring Revisited, is now out in paperback.
Conor Mark Jameson describes his meeting with the elusive Goshawk…
Berlin. Late February. As chill, and still and drab as all the Cold War, spy thriller clichés. I am here with ‘Altenkamp!’. That’s how Rainer answers his hands-free, as we drive to the fourth and last of our destinations this afternoon, here in the east of the sprawling city. This is Rainer’s ‘precinct’. This is where he does his stake-outs, stalks his quarry, makes his notes. We aren’t looking for dissidents, however. Those days are gone. We are looking for goshawks.
Improbably, we are in a swing park. And not a very big one. It makes a change from the first three venues of my whistle-stop tour – cemeteries. We found evidence of goshawks in all three – plucking sites, nests, tantalising goshawk calls.
The park is dotted with people. The quiet is punctured by the cries of children and small dogs. There is a tennis court, a roundabout and swings. Mallards loaf on a tiny duck pond, ice still intact around its muddy, scummy rim. It doesn’t look promising, all this. I’m still stuck in my image of the goshawk as a bird of remote and expansive conifer woodland, where they remain strangely invisible.
The trees here, however, are towering in places. In one, Rainer points out a gos nest from last year. Further on, we spot what must be this year’s: another huge, dark cone against the grey, in the highest fork of a beech. And I notice dark feathers on the ground. They catch my eye because some are still stirring in the faintest breeze. Not
wet and stuck to the grass like in the graveyards. Fresh. There is a trail of them. And I notice downy feathers too, and some of these are in fact still airborne.
I absently follow these round in the air with my finger (I realise now this probably looked like the exaggerated, gormless gesture of someone in pantomime). Without realising it, I am looking up open-mouthed and pointing at the source of this feather trail: a hooded crow, prone on the branch of an oak, ten feet above our heads, in the firm grip of a juvenile female goshawk.
It is a hyper-real scenario. The phantom of the forest, the grey ghost, the bird you normally see well only in books or glass cases – glass-eyed – now close, animate, fiery-eyed, moving, pulling and tearing, twitching as she dips her head. Purposeful, focused, alert and aware, yet somehow not really looking at us. Looking beyond us, or through us; as though maybe we are now the ghosts, the phantoms. A little disconcerting. Haunting. And quite amazing.
‘Don’t point at her!’ hisses Rainer. Of course, I immediately feel like the gauche, rooky cop, liable to give the game away in his enthusiasm after a prolonged investigation that has led finally to the clinching encounter. I pull my hand away abruptly.
‘We need to not look at her – she might not like it,’ he whispers. ‘We should take turns to look over, while talking to each other – like this…’ As he demonstrates the ruse, I sense that Rainer, even after 15 years of study, is nearly as excited as me. Not old and cynical like the veteran cop of cliché. In a way, I’m also gratified to confirm that I can still have feelings like this myself. I’m like the kid that once was me, seeing my first buzzard, up close.
We attempt a rather awkward, stilted semi-conversation while I at least am struggling to disguise my excitement, stealing glances at this mythical bird, come to life. The goshawk – ‘the bird you know is there, because you do not see it’, as they say in rural Germany – plain as day, relaxed as a pet, more beautiful than books, pictures, films and of course taxidermy can ever hope to emulate – is right here before us: in a city centre swing park.
It becomes steadily clear that she has not batted a mad, raptor eyelid. This is confirmed when a pram-pushing couple stop immediately below the branch and, as one, look up at her and, yes, point. Perhaps they too have noticed the crow’s stomach on the path, discarded by the dining hawk with the bulging crop. Or maybe they just couldn’t miss her.
She is 26-inches long, lean, muscular, saffron-tinted and streaked with chocolate-coloured arrowheads. She has that goshawk glare – looks invincible. Perhaps she is. Perhaps the routinely persecuted goshawk has at last found real sanctuary, so close to us now no one could find it in their heart to hate it, far less shoot it, or trap it, or poison it, or put it in a glass case. In Berlin at least, the goshawk is now out of the woods, and back in our lives, and no longer considered a threat to the state.
This story first appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine, as the winning entry of the 2010 Nature Writer of the Year competition.
Looking for the Goshawk, the full story of what happened next, is out now.
Tim Mackrill, author of The Rutland Water Ospreys has some news…
Picture the scene. It’s early March on a West African beach and 03(97) – Rutland’s most successful breeding Osprey – is tucking into a Needlefish which he has just caught. He glances up to watch a fishing boat drift past, a mixed flock of terns alights nearby and a Pied Kingfisher zips past, calling noisily. The early morning sun is warming the beach; by the middle of the day the temperature will have reached more than 30 degrees. Things couldn’t be more tranquil.
Fast forward a few weeks and the scene is very different. Yesterday 03 returned to his nest at Site B to be greeted by a blizzard and thick fog. Yes, you read that right, 03 is back in Rutland!
The weather of the past week – not just in the UK, but in much of France – meant we were expecting many of our summer visitors, Ospreys included, to be delayed by a few days. 03, though, has confounded this by returning two days earlier than either he, or any of the other Rutland birds, has ever done.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Our recent satellite tracking studies have demonstrated the extraordinary migratory ability of Ospreys. For instance, unlike most other birds of prey, they don’t rely on thermals to aid their migration. In his urgency to get back to the nest where he has raised 27 chicks since 2001, 03 obviously just powered on through the worst that the European ‘spring’ could throw at him.
Once back at the nest Sunday morning – he may even have arrived on Saturday evening – 03 set about rebuilding his nest. It wasn’t long, though, before heavy snow forced him to take shelter on the nest tree. A couple of hours later the nest was shrouded in thick fog. The contrast with his wintering grounds could hardly have been more pronounced.
03’s early arrival will ensure that he has no competition for his long-established nest, but it is likely to make fishing difficult for a few days. The temperature is forecast to drop below freezing most nights this week, meaning fish in the reservoir, and 03’s other regular fishing spots, will retreat towards the bottom of the water column, making them more difficult to catch that usual. However, many Scandinavian Ospreys return to find snow at their nests each spring, so we know that 03 will be fine. If a little colder than usual.
With 03 back in Rutland, we wonder who will be next? Last year 5R(04) returned to the Manton Bay nest on 19th March. So keep a close eye on the webcam over the next few days! Even better, why not come and pay us a visit at Rutland Water. The Lyndon Visitor Centre is open 7 days a week.
Read the whole story of the successful rentroduction of the Ospreys to England in:
Marianne Taylor shares the drama of the bird race…
First light on a January morning, hot tea and bacon sandwiches in Nigel’s conservatory. There is a cheery babble of conversation around me but I’m not joining in, because I’m staring at a bird feeder. The birds come and go like lightning. I keep my binoculars up at my eyes, aimed at the feeder, it’s the only way. Then, sneaking in among the colourful Blue and Great Tits, a little mousy bird with black cap and bib. ‘Marsh Tit! On the feeder now!’ I yelp and everyone snaps round to look. There are congratulatory noises and I scrawl its name down on a list already more than a dozen strong. We’ve got what we were waiting for, now it’s time to go.
We follow tight, high-hedged country lanes towards the coast. In and out of Hastings town, then eastwards to Fairlight. We park up and scramble across a squashy mudbath of a field, over the pulled-down barbed wire to the crumbling cliff edge. A sheer drop and a wide, still expanse of English Channel lies before us. Nigel scopes the sea, the rest of us watch a pair of Foxes as they gingerly explore the scene of last year’s rock-fall over to our right. Out on the water bob rafts of Great Crested Grebes, among them the odd diver and scoter. Fulmars hang-glide over the tiny wave crests. Any moment now a Peregrine or Raven might round the Cliffside and give us a jaw-dropping flypast. But we have limited time and lots more to do.
Pett Level is just a few miles along. Here we look out across miles of intensely green, soaking wet pasture, interspersed with shallow pools that teem with wildfowl. The ecstatic whistled whoops of the Wigeons predominate, the soft purrs of the Teals provide a backing track. Lapwings and Curlews busily patrol the fields, further out a family of White-fronted Geese graze alongside their commoner Greylag cousins. Nigel finds two Peregrines having their mid-morning break on a picturesque wooden gate. The list grows and grows.
At Dungeness, we find a gleaming white male Smew among the Pochards on the ARC pit, and in the willow scrub there’s a split-second, heart-stopping glimpse of a Firecrest. A Cetti’s Warbler sings from some hiding place or other, rich, vibrantly fruity notes that sound out of place here in this chilly shingle wilderness. Our six sets of walking boots scrunch along the pathway back to the car.
Post-lunch, the light evaporating fast, we’re gathered at the end of a row of fishing boats, watching a great swirl of gulls. Among them flies a single Glaucous Gull, a great barrel-shaped bird, its wings tipped white rather than black like the others. Kittiwakes are commuting to and fro along the shoreline. Further out, there’s a melee of seabirds – Guillemots and Razorbills rubbing shoulders with grebes on the water, Gannets circling above. Once in a while a Gannet folds itself shut like an umbrella and freefalls headfirst into the water. I imagine the undersea chase, the Gannet gulping down its fish prey and fighting its way back to the surface. We head back to the Dungeness RSPB reserve.
In near darkness, we’re all getting cold and ready to head for somewhere indoors. But Nigel stands on a hill of shingle til the last, watching and hoping for the Bittern that would bring our day list to 86. He doesn’t see it. Instead, a Water Rail squeals from the reedbeds, and far away a Sparrowhawk is hunting over the fields, hoping for one last meal before nightfall. It’s the last to join our list – 87 species in one January day.
Marianne Taylor is the author of:
Happy New Year! To launch us in to 2013, we have a post from Steve Spawls on some of the amazing wildlife you can see in Kenya.
Once in a while my wife lets me off the leash to go and look for snakes, usually in Kenya, on the strict proviso that I do some serious field work and don’t stay at any fancy lodges or hotels; which would make her jealous. So I went to Kenya at half-term, and spent a couple of days with Glenn Mathews, my co-author and long time friend, at his smallholding on the southern edge of Nairobi National Park. It’s a lovely place; you sit on his veranda and look across the Mbagathi River straight into the park. On a good day you might see a rhino or two. Glenn’s plot slopes down to the river, and the bush is thick there.
A stroll by the river is hazardous. It’s not like walking on Buxton Heath; there you might see a roe deer, or hare, and an adder or two in the right season. And yellowhammers, always. But at Glenn’s place, the thick bush often provides shelter for buffalo, and you don’t want to startle them. I always sing or whistle when going through the riverside bush, which scares the birds, of course, until you can find a vantage point and sit quietly. The first morning, after being awoken by an irritable variable sunbird banging on my window – he wanted to fight with his reflection – I went down to the river. I was sitting there, watching a gymnogene on her nest when Glenn’s son Jesse spotted a young rock python and shouted for me to come. I lost my balance on the slope, covered myself with mud and by the time I arrived the python had slipped into the river. So back to Glenn’s house to clean up, and I decided to go for a walk higher up along the ridge, not forgetting to spray my legs with insect repellent. In the grass there are pepper ticks, which are really tick larvae, and if you get these tiny mites on your skin they get into the pores and cause intense itching. A stroll along the ridge produced a real gem. It’s always the way, when you walk in a wild place. As I pottered through the grassy savanna, among the low whistling-thorn trees, a nightjar suddenly fluttered up from under my feet. Usually, when you flush a nightjar, it floats away on silent wings, flies off thirty or forty yards and settles. You can try to stalk it again, if you can spot it. Their camouflage is superb and if they think you haven’t seen them, they will sit tight. But this nightjar didn’t respond normally. She squawked as she got up, plumped down five yards away and began limping away, trailing a wing and hissing at me. She was trying to drag me away, which meant she had young nearby. I took a couple of pictures of her and looked around carefully, but could not see the chicks. So I walked away, sat down thirty or so years and waited. She didn’t come back, so I made a little cairn of stones and went back to the house for some coffee with Glenn and Karen.
I came back an hour later, and approached my cairn slowly. This time the mother nightjar tried a different technique; she shuffled off her nest very quietly and began to creep away. I saw her as she was shuffling off. I sat down, and after a few minutes she crept back, into a patch of grass. Then I approached obliquely, and eventually, after staring for a good five minutes, saw her blink an eye. And she had two chicks, right in front of her. I got a couple of photographs, and then backed off.
I find Nightjars are tough birds to identify. I can tell a few by their calls – the freckled nightjar, often on stony hills in Africa, has a squawk like a little dog, but all nightjars look very similar, although the males of two species develop magnificent wing projections that enable identification. I sent my pictures to Nik Borrow, an expert African ornithologist, and he said either Montane Nightjar or Dusky Nightjar. But not even he was certain. However, Nigel Redman copied the pictures on to a friend who specialises in nightjars, Nigel Cleere, and he reckoned it was dusky. But when you struggle with a particular group of birds, it’s nice to know that even the experts are sometimes unsure.
Steve is the co-author of Kenya: A Natural History.
Find out more about Nightjars:
Posted in Author blogs
Artist and author, Celia Lewis shares her experience of hatching and keeping Turkeys.
I’m lucky enough to own a small incubator. It’s the most fascinating piece of equipment that does the work of the hen or whatever bird’s eggs you’ve chosen to hatch. As turkeys come into the Ducks & Geese book I thought I would hatch a few to really get to know them.
Firstly one must find someone willing to sell their eggs – google to the rescue and although September is late in the year for turkeys to still be laying I easily find someone willing to post me 6 eggs. Into the incubator they go, it is programmed to stay at the correct temperature, and rolls the eggs slowly backwards and forwards to mimic the mother bird who would turn her eggs several times a day. All you have to do is make sure the humidity is correct and fill up the water containers when necessary.
It is a long wait – 4 weeks in the case of turkeys but at last the day comes, often preceeded by cheeping from inside the egg before it even cracks. The chick pecks its way out and is dry and standing within minutes. All this you can watch through the lid of the incubator – a great time waster. Patience is required as its very important at this stage not to let the humidity or temperature fall so one has to resist the temptation to take the lid off for a better look.
Once all the eggs have hatched they can be transferred either to a broody hen or under a lamp. I was lucky and had a broody that I’d settled into one corner of a stable. Four eggs hatched and were soon settled with their new mother and all seemed to be going well. However a week later I found the largest chick dead. The only explanation I could come up with was that the hen had trodden on it by mistake – down to three.
When the chicks were large enough I put the hen back in the run with her friends – I intended the turkeys to be free range in the garden reckoning that when full size they would be more than a match for a fox. They grew and grew, 2 male and one female and eventually I allowed them out of their temporary run and they took to roosting high up in an oak tree. They stayed by the hen run (occasionally flying in as I think they were convinced they were hens having been brought up by one) and became charming friendly birds. However, you’ve probably guessed, one morning only two came to greet me and I soon discovered that a fox had indeed managed to catch one and carry it away – incredible, these were full size birds standing a metre high and heavy.
Now there were only 2 left and for their own safety they had to join the hens in Fort Knox aka the hen run. Turkeys are delightful birds, not beautiful perhaps but surprisingly gentle – I don’t think they will end up on the Christmas dinner table.
Find out more about keeping Turkeys in Celia’s book:
Celia is also the author of: