It’s not often one enjoys a refreshing saltwater facial courtesy of an eight-metre long shark – but that’s what happens if you sneak up and try to rub its back.
There are few creatures in our oceans quite as awesome as the basking shark, and a close encounter was one of the highlights of a year I spent travelling around Britain in search of our rarest and most endangered animals for my book
Few And Far Between.
I was fortunate in being able to join licensed researchers from Manx Basking Shark Watch who were collecting DNA samples from feeding sharks that cruise the bays around the Isle of Man in the summer. This involves steering a small boat up behind them and deftly rubbing the slime-covered dorsal fin with a pad on an extendable pole.
Drawing alongside the world’s second largest fish, and being showered with cold seawater as they headed off with a flick of an immense tail, was an unforgettable experience.
I had set myself the daunting challenge of tracking down 25 of the UK’s scarcest species, ranging from the surreal spiny seahorse and elusive Scottish wildcat to the striking golden oriole and noisy natterjack toad.
During my travels I enjoyed sightings of a number of species that very few people have been lucky enough to come across in Britain. These included the ice age vendace fish which lives in the depths of a few glacial lakes; the streaked bombardier beetle that ejects a boiling mixture of toxic chemicals to deter predators; the heavyweight wart-biter cricket once used to remove warts; and black rats living on an uninhabited Hebridean island – the last stable refuge in Britain of this one-time plague-carrier.
Some animals had the ‘ahhh’ factor, like the dormouse, and others a touch of the ‘yikes!’ (a nippy smooth snake among them), but without doubt the most breathtaking was the basking shark. It was the biggest on my target list (scooped on size, however, by a chance encounter with a sperm whale off Scotland).
Shark slime is pretty dark and smelly, but the Manx Basking Shark Watch team I accompanied got enough of the stuff to help build up genetic profiles of a dozen sharks during the day, and tagged a male with a satellite transmitter, which tracked its travels to north-west Scotland. The information will help efforts to prevent this once-abundant species, whose size spawned numerous tales of sea monsters over the centuries, from following its own legends into the history books.
Harvested around the world for their oil-rich livers, for shark fin soup and the Far East medicine trade, numbers of threatened basking sharks have been seriously depleted. Thankfully they are protected in our waters – the seas would certainly feel a lot emptier without them.
Charlie Elder’s travels in search of Britain’s rarest animals are described in his book Few And Far Between, published by Bloomsbury and available at book stores and online.
(Guest edited by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East)
When I was eight my next door neighbor in London, Miss Walcott, gave me a book: Birds’ Alphabet, a mixture of strange poems and even stranger illustrations! Over sixty years later I still have it and can recite, almost word-for-word. It started me watching birds – just a simple book that inspired. We all have our own examples, for most birdwatchers in Britain it will surely be that wonderful Observers Book of British Birds or maybe I Spy Birds? Yes, Big Chief I Spy had a role to play.
I’ve never forgotten the power of that book to capture the imagination and so when I became involved in conservation education in the Middle East, the promotion of bird books – in Arabic, of course, – seemed so natural. The first, written with Rod Martins (but translated by others!) was Birds of Yemen. Sponsored by BirdLife International, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, various embassies and oil companies, it covered 100 species – a blend of the common, familiar and threatened. Delightfully illustrated in colour by Mike Langman, it was aimed at children and, supported by the Ministry of Education, was widely distributed to Yemeni schools. Ten years later, this time teaming up with Tony Miller of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, we produced an Arabic (and English) Birds and Plants of Socotra – another simple guide, aimed again at children. It proved so popular on the island it was soon reprinted.
Dipping my toe into Arabic literary waters made me realise just how vital ‘wildlife material’ was in a developing – conservation-wise – region, so when Birds of the Middle East was published in 1996 I asked RSPB to help fund a translation into Arabic. This proved problematical: English technical terms don’t naturally translate into Arabic; layout is back to front and finding a suitable publisher – and funding was not easy. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon rose to the challenge and once again OSME came up trumps with sponsorship, as did the World Land Trust, Dutch Embassy in Beirut, European Life Fund and others.
Now we had a blueprint the next step was to produce Arabic country editions, and this is where environmental advisers in the World Bank stepped in with encouragement and sponsorship. At the World Bank they had became very excited about promoting local language field guides and had already helped fund translations of more than 110 titles around the world into local languages.
We took advantage and, spear-headed by the leading ornithologists of the country, the first ever Arabic country field guide was hatched – Birds of Iraq, soon to be followed by Birds of Syria and Birds of Kuwait. The English publisher – Bloomsbury – and artists were happy to waive any royalties in hope the books would kindle and inspire an appreciation of wildlife.
(The Yemen Minister for the Environment even asked for an Arabic Birds and Mammals of Yemen! Yes, even in unsettled times in the Middle East, these countries want their own wildlife books, in their own language).
And a further delightful spin-off has been Arabic bird books for children for Iraq and Jordan – aimed at five-year olds!
Now we have the second edition of Birds of the Middle East, authored with the late Simon Aspinall. With over 130 new species, advanced identification text, new maps, many new illustrations and easy-to-use layout I hope it will yet again inspire. As I write, an Arabic version is slowly taking shape.
Field guides on birds are only one cog in the conservation journey, enabling us to identify, quantify – and appreciate – the wonders of our natural world. For my generation these guides are books, but for the children of today it will increasingly be the eBook and App. But, leaving that aside, wouldn’t a wonderful next step be to see Arabs, who are such spell-binding story tellers, take up their pens – or iPads – and tell their own stories about their wildlife. I’d love to read the conservation equivalent of Arabian Nights.
This blog has been put together for us by Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East. Richard has been involved with birds in the Middle East since 1966 and is an adviser on bird conservation for BirdLife International. He is the author or co-author of several books on the Middle East and the groundbreaking Flight Identification of European Raptors.
It’s January, which means one thing to us nature lovers – The Big Garden Birdwatch. Bird populations are a great indicator of environmental health. That’s why it’s so important to take part in surveys like this to keep an eye on the wildlife wherever we live. All you need to do is spend an hour over the weekend of 24-25th counting the birds in your garden.
And to support Big Garden Birdwatch, Bloomsbury have selected some of their top guide books, including the RSPB Handbook of British Birds to help you identify any new species you see in your garden. Order any book from our list and get 30% off this month!
If you’re not on kitchen duty over Christmas, forget slumping in front of The Sound of Music – instead, pull on your thermals, grab your binoculars and go out for a bit of birding. Winter is an exciting time for birdwatchers, especially in the lowlands and around the coasts, as there’ll be visitors from the uplands and from countries far north and east of us. Wild swans and geese, Scandinavian finches, moorland raptors and roaming seabirds could all turn up. Here are a selection fo species to look out for – some pretty common, others scarcer, but all of them easier for most of us to find in winter than in summer.
You have to feel sorry for our resident Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes. As autumn approaches they’ll be eyeing up the berry-laden hedgerows and ploughed fields full of worms, and thinking that surviving the winter will be a doddle. But then, around October time, the invasion comes – three-quarters of a million Fieldfares from Russia and north-east Europe. They come in big noisy flocks, with their sidekicks the Redwings, and together they eat the lot. Look out for these colourful thrushes anywhere in the open countryside. Sometimes a lone Fieldfare breaks away from the group and sets up home in a single garden, usually one with an apple tree, and fiercely guards the windfall apples from any other bird that goes near.
Heaths and moors are bleak and particularly chilly in winter, so most of their birds decamp to milder spots over winter. Stonechats tend to move to coasts and low-lying farmland in winter. They draw the eye because they like to sit at the tops of bushes, rather than skulking within like shyer birds. If you find one, you’re very likely to find another, because Stonechats defend their winter territories in pairs. Though these are invariably male-female pairs, the birds don’t actually stay together to breed next spring – they find new partners when back on their breeding grounds.
Seeing Razorbills in summer isn’t difficult – go to a cliff-face seabird colony and there they’ll be, rubbing shoulders with the Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags. In winter, the colonies are deserted, and Razorbills and other seabirds disperse much more widely, meaning that you don’t have to live near the northern cliffs to stand a chance of seeing them. Try your nearest bit of sea – if you have a choice, opt for the more sheltered place, and pass an hour or so scanning the water. Weather has a strong influence on seabird behaviour – if there’s a day of storms, it’s always worth checking the next day in estuaries, harbours and other sheltered places for traumatised seabirds recovering and feeding before heading back to sea.
Nearly all of the duck species that occur in Britain are easier to find in winter. Goosanders breed on fast upland rivers but in winter they turn up on lakes and reservoirs across the whole UK and seeing one (or more) is a highlight of any winter birding trip. Look out for a big, sleek, rather predatory-looking duck that makes frequent long dives (it’s busy chasing fish while it’s down there, to seize in its ‘saw-toothed’ bill). Males look black and white at any distance (though the head has a green sheen), while females are mostly cool grey with a chestnut head.
5) Brent Goose
About 100,000 Brent Geese spend their winter in Britain, mostly on the south and east coasts. These Arctic geese are small and very dark, and lack the tidy discipline of the bigger geese in flight – rather than neat V-shaped skeins they tend to travel in clumps or straggling lines like unravelled knitting. They’ll stop to feed anywhere where there is saltmarsh and tasty eelgrass to eat, but you could see groups on the move over the sea from any seaside.
6) Black Redstart
This little bird is an oddity – a real rarity in Britain, but one that shows a distinct fondness for urban habitats – the grottier the better. Most of the handful of breeding pairs we have nest in old buildings in city centres. In winter numbers rise (a little – it’s still a rare bird) as visitors from the continent turn up, and they are then most likely to be found on the coast. Again, they show a liking for urban set-ups, particularly in the south-west, and if you live by the sea you might even find one in the garden, looking for all the world like a black or smoky-grey Robin as it hops pertly about and poses on garden ornaments.
Many pairs of Peregrines stay near their nest sites through the winter. But those that breed in inhospitable uplands, plus young birds that are yet to find a territory, will roam about more widely and turn up in places where you won’t find them in summertime – especially marshy coastlines where there are lots of ducks and waders for them to hunt. When you’re watching big flocks of birds on the marshland, a sudden uproar among them is a good sign that a bird of prey – very probably a hungry Peregrine – has just hoved into view, and you could be treated to a dramatic show of predator versus prey as the Peregrine tries to single out a victim from the swirling flock.
Most of our strictly insectivorous birds migrate thousands of miles south at the end of summer, to Africa where insects are much easier to find than they are in the depths of a UK winter. One that doesn’t is the Goldcrest, our smallest bird. Its size, agility and needle-like bill make it expert at finding and winkling out the tiny scale insects that shelter between pine needles, and so it scratches out a meagre living (though huge numbers of Goldcrests will die in very harsh winters). Look out for it in the garden and anywhere where there are conifer trees, calling incessantly in its squeaky-mouse voice and hovering at the tips of twigs.
If you’re still standing on that beach looking out to sea and trying in vain to see a Razorbill, have a look on the shoreline instead for our next bird. Most waders like squishy, muddy shores, but the Sanderling is happy to forage on all kinds of beach, from shingle to sand to rock. It’s also unusual in that it’s easier to identify in winter than in summer – if you see a small, hyperactive and pearly grey-and-white wader on a beach in winter, it’ll be a Sanderling (and probably it’ll be with a dozen or more other Sanderlings). They rush back and forth at the wave-line on sandy beaches to find morsels carried in on the sea, but on pebbles they search more deliberately, for flies, sandhoppers and other little seaside creatures. They are often very approachable and with a close look you’ll see another Sanderling trait – they have no hind toe. This helps make them extra fast when running after prey.
For many birdwatchers, this is the winter Holy Grail of birding – a spectacular, colourful, outlandishly crested bird that comes our way from Scandinavia and further afield. Part of the excitement is that Waxwings are ‘irruptive’ – in most years they are rather rare and more or less confined to the north and east, but in some years we get absolutely loads of them throughout the whole UK. An irruption happens when there is a serious shortage of berries in between here and their breeding grounds, forcing large numbers to move further south and west than they would like. They love mountain ash, pyracantha and cotoneaster berries, and often descend upon shopping centre car parks that have decorative stands of these plants. They will also come to apples, so if you have a garden apple tree keep an eye on it.
11) Snow Bunting
This is one of the most charming of all our ‘winter’ birds. In fact you can see Snow Buntings in Britain in summer, but only if you’re willing to climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm or other similarly huge Scottish mountains. In winter, though, the buntings descend the slopes (and more arrive from colder countries). Sandy and shingly beaches along the east coast are the best places to find them – in Northumberland you might find flocks 100 strong, while in Kent it’s more likely to be the odd one or two, but they are worth seeking out, being both very beautiful and almost totally unconcerned by human presence as they quietly pick their way along in search of weed seeds and other scraps among the stones.
So you didn’t fancy going out after all? Never mind – you probably need only walk to the nearest window to see the most Christmassy bird of all. Or indeed to hear it – the Robin is so invested in territorial defence that it sings even in the depths of winter when other birds are too busy finding food to bother. With nearly 7 million Robin territories in the UK, chances are there’s (at least) one in your garden. If you want to make your Robin’s Christmas extra special, the best thing you can do is offer it some mealworms, either dried or (even better) alive and wriggling. With patience you should be able to persuade even a shy Robin to take mealworms from your hand – a lovely bonding experience for both you and the Robin. Happy Christmas and good birding!
Happy Christmas and good birding!
This piece was written by Marianne Taylor, author of: RSPB British Birdfinder, RSPB British Birds of Prey, RSPB Nature Watch, Where to Discover Nature on RSPB Reserves, Owls, Dragonflight, RSPB Seabirds, Watching Wildlife In London, 401 Amazing Animals Facts, Photographing Garden Wildlife, Wild Coast, RSPB Spotlight: Robins
This week we’re hearing from Harold Greeney, author of the forthcoming Helm Identification Guide, Antpittas who is offering you the chance to contribute to his book, published by Bloomsbury Wildlife.
In recent years the nesting behavior of antpittas has become fairly well known. Concurrently, the development of feeding stations has made antpittas go from one of the least photographed to one of the best photographed group of birds out there. This latter change now provides us with the perfect opportunity to learn something about what happens to baby antpittas AFTER they leave the nest. As an example, let’s take one of the showiest (and rarest) of the antpittas, the Jocotoco Antpitta. Here is an adult feeding their youngster in early August of 2009.
Although its plumage did not even remotely resemble that of an adult, it left the nest a few days after this photo was taken. Flash forward 5 months and here is our little guy, still with its parents, in mid-January of 2010.
Help us figure out how the plumage develops in the Jocotoco Antpitta and other species! Every photo helps to complete the timeline. For the Jocotoco Antpitta we are tracking plumage development in fledglings from 2006 to present. So, if you visited Tapichalaca and had the chance to take a few snaps, please send in your photos. In addition, at feeding stations across the Andes, we are beginning to track juveniles and plumage changes for many other species! To learn how to contribute your images for possible inclusion in the book I am writing for Bloomsbury, and how they can help with research into these magical South American birds, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Autumn is upon is – and although it means saying goodbye to those balmy summer nights, it does mean we can turn our minds to something else: mushrooms. Time to get off the hammock, and in to the woods for some foraging.
Wild mushrooms are abundant in Britain and Ireland. They flourish in the warm, wet month of September and can continue right through the autumn. And whether it’s dinner you’re after, or simply a new unknown species, there is a whole other world to be discovered scrambling around on the forest floor.
But to make sure the goods that you bring home, won’t be your last supper, there are some essential guidelines to follow:
- Wear disposal gloves when touching mushrooms.
- Don’t mix mushroom types in the same container.
- Don’t wrap mushrooms in cling film, but paper – they need room to breathe.
- Examine each mushroom carefully for insects, slugs or grubs. If the mushroom has been nibbled in any way, discard.
- Ignore folk tales on mushrooms like ‘Poisonous mushrooms are brightly colored’ – in contrast, two of the most deadly are white and brown.
- Be careful if you are a pet owner and want to take the dog foraging – they are the highest on the list of victims of poisonous mushrooms.
- Do not leave the house without a mushroom field guide to help you identify mushroom types.
Recommended mushroom books:
Nicola Chester invites you on a trip to see that well-loved British mammal, the otter.
I am obsessed with all manner of British wildlife, but particularly so at the moment with otters – having just spent the past year writing about them. I read about otters, track them and, very occasionally, see them. But this winter’s flooding has meant my usual riverine haunts are off limits – changed and overwhelmed.
So I dream about them more, think I see them in unlikely places: I have an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.
The flooding will have displaced them, as it has so many other species, including our own. The tunnelled tracks through the grass, the slides and the sprainting ‘seats’ on the tumps of greater tussock sedge – all my touchstones, as well as their holts – are still under water.
On my last foray, I went as far as my welly-tops allowed, to stand in awe at lakes gated and divided by fences, drowned snowdrops gleaming below the surface like a submerged village. Half-forgotten streams, brooks and bournes had risen and swelled, rioting like a pack gone wild, hunting downstream to re-plumb their map of old routes and break over new ground to pour into a river already too full of itself.
Even now, as I look for the river’s edge through the wood, leaves from the tall poplars still carry the reverberations of all that rain like tuning forks; their frisson of rustling making the sound of rushing water. I find my way in at half-past-five, testing alternate steps for solid ground. Barbed wire and bramble arches are festooned with rags of reeds tugged from the water’s flow.
It is impossible not to avoid the crack of so many fallen branches or creep quietly over such sticky, sucky ground. I concentrate hard, and before I have time to register a singing whine of steel rails, a train rushes up from Exeter and a brief moment of panic nearly sends me into the river as it blasts right by. I had forgotten the track was there at all. I compose myself in the quiet afterwards, and find a tree to lean on.
This benign chalk stream, famed for its gin-clear clarity, is not like itself. It is flint green and grey as bath water and moving frighteningly fast. I think about the local stories of otter cubs being rescued downstream. Otters are intelligent, resourceful, curious and nomadic creatures and, although the challenges are many and varied, experienced, independent adults are equipped to deal with such a rapidly changing environment.
Just before the light starts to fail and I must go, something eel-like rises from the water in a curve and vanishes, downstream to where I’d been looking. There was no splash and it was not a fish. I watch the river until my eyes sting and run, but nothing re-appears. I know that, sometimes, this is all you see of a passing otter: a wave of its thick rudder tail as it dives, having spotted you first. What I saw whispers otter – but does not shout it. It could have been a branch, smooth and turning in the strong current – and I know, to be here at the precise time the otter was passing, in a river in spate such as this – and to see it? Almost – but not quite – impossible.
Nicola is the author of RSPB Spotlight: Otters
Also look out for: