This week, a guest blog from ace wildlife photographer Ramesh Anantharaman, introducing the amazing and beautiful region of Sikkim, and an encounter with a very special bird indeed …
Sikkim is a nature lover’s paradise and, with more than 550 species, a birdwatcher’s dream. Set in the eastern Himalayas, this primarily Buddhist Indian state extends from the foothills to some of the highest reaches of the Himalayas, with habitats varying from moist deciduous forests to alpine meadows, snow-clad peaks and high-altitude deserts. As in other parts of the Himalayas, the climate is highly variable. It can rain or be nice and sunny at any time, with extremely cold winters. This makes it testing for the photographer, as the lighting and weather conditions are similarly unpredictable. But many a time the birds do oblige.
This winter was not great for me as a bird photographer. I had not made any major birding trips. I had reached a kind of desperation and my right index finger was itching to work on the shutter of my camera. Then the opportunity for a week-long trip to Sikkim came by! We covered just a few places around the south and west of Sikkim, mainly ranging in the altitudes of 1400m to 3000m. The forests here are mainly of moss-laden oak and sal trees, and the bird diversity is stunning.
One day on our trip, we had already seen and taken nice photos of Pygmy Wren Babbler, and were visiting the edge of a lake in western Sikkim, hoping to photograph Black-tailed Crake. My dear friend and guide Chewang Bonpo and I were scuttling around the edge of the lake, trying to find a good spot with the best light, and where we could wait in relative comfort, perhaps for a long time – the Black-tailed Crake is a very shy bird. We came across a large oak tree root, which had a depression behind it. This seemed to be a good place to stay put and start the waiting game for the crake. The sun was right behind us, and everything was painted beautifully by the light, with the large root acting as perfect cover. We succeeded in spotting the crake, but it would not come out of its hideout of reeds and bamboo clumps.
Then, suddenly to my right, a small dark shape hopped out of the dense reeds towards us. Chewang suddenly grew restless, and I could see tension on his face. Whispering, he urged me to at least get a record shot of the bird. All he said was that it was something rare. I took a few shots. The bird kept staring at us, but was continuously hopping around the reeds. We sat extremely still and quiet; my hand began to ache, as my 500mm lens felt like a ton now, because of the tension in the air. All of a sudden the bird popped out onto a broken bamboo twig. This was any bird-photographers dream. Green background, perfect light, a natural perch, and a wild bird sitting in the open! I focus-locked and the let the shutters go like a bullet.
Satisfied, I stopped and looked at poor Chewang, who was trembling with excitement. He told me that what we had just seen was a Blue-fronted Robin Cinclidium frontale, that this was the first time he had had a good view of the bird, and that this was probably the first time the bird had been photographed in the open, wild and free. He told me that people have spent months on its trail just to get a distant half-glimpse of this shy, shy fellow. Only then did the whole scene started to sink in, and I was left breathless and astonished at what nature can throw at us. We had to come out of our spot behind the root for a bit of fresh air. The excitement had been too much for us.
We’d forgotten all about the Black-tailed Crake …
So there we go. The inside story of the finest photograph ever taken of this species, the most elusive in Asia. You can see more of Ramesh’s stunning photography here.
I have just returned from a great 10-day trip to the hills of Andalusia in Spain. The birding was, frankly, a bit of a wash-out, partly because I was busy walking over tough terrain, partly because it was bit too early for migrants (a soaring Black Stork provided a sensational exception), and partly because it did rain rather a lot. So attention turned from the skies to the ground, with a spot of orchid-hunting on the shrubby hillsides.
I must admit I’ve never really been interested (at all) in flowers, but I was inspired by the enthusiasm of our guide, Dave from Walk Andalucia. It was a bit early in the year, and the ground had been stripped bare by severe rain over the winter, but after a day of searching we found this little beauty, right next to the car park.
Its a Sawfly Orchid, one of the bee orchids, flowers that are among nature’s craftiest tricksters. Each species depends on a single species of insect (in this case, a sawfly) to spread its pollen about. The flowers look a bit like a female sawfly, and they release chemicals called pheremones into the air; these mimic the pheremones released by the insects to attract a mate. To a male sawfly, the combination is irresistible. Seduced by the flowers sexy looks and great scent, he swoops in to ‘mate’, but ends up with nothing more than a dusting of pollen for his trouble, and flies away. Should he be fooled again the pollen will be transferred to another orchid, at which point seeds can develop.
Close to the Sawfly Orchid was another species, the Early Purple Orchis mascula.
Later, we found this:
The last of our orchid discoveries. A glance at Marjorie Blamey’s excellent Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean reveals that these bee orchids are really, really hard to tell apart. But I think this is the Dull Bee Orchid, Ophrys fusca. If any orchid experts out there want to put me right, by all means drop me a line …
So, orchids – jewels of the undergrowth. I’ll be looking hard in spring for some English varieties. But just to show we did enjoy some fauna to go with out floral finds, here’s a sumptuous Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina.
Learn more about Europe’s orchids in this Bloomsbury title:
This week, a guest blog by ace wildlife photographer Martin Goodey – an amazing encounter on his patch on the Isles of Scilly …
‘Come the summer months of July and August, I like to spend an evening or two fishing for Mackerel from the shore. My favourite spot for this is on the east side of St Mary’s at Deep Point. No two visits are ever the same; one day you can fish for hours without a bite, another time you can catch a dozen in a quarter of an hour. Either way there always seems to be something to enjoy, be it a distant pod of dolphins or a curious Fulmar passing so close you feel you could reach out and touch it.
These encounters are, by and large, unpredictable and fleeting. The exposed, salty rocks are not a place to take an expensive camera, and images are captured only in the memory. One day in August last year I had finished fishing and was clambering back up when I heard the familiar peeping call of a Rock Pipit. It was perched on a rock and was close enough that even without my bins I could see it had a beakfull of juicy insects. I expected it to disappear amongst the boulders to find its waiting brood, but instead it bravely stood its ground, waiting for me to pass.
I reached the cliff top and sat down to watch where he or she might go. To my surprise the pipit flew about 50 yards to my left where it was greeted not by hungry offspring of its own but by a monster!
In a wide granite cleft warmed by the late afternoon sun sat a huge, fat Cuckoo.
Over the next twenty minutes or so I watched as both foster parents worked tirelessly to bring in a range of insects. Of course while I was enjoying every minute of this I couldn’t help ruing not having my camera to hand. Finally I cracked and decided “what the hell lets nip home and get it. If its gone when I get back then so be it.”
It took me about ten minutes to make the return trip and to my delight the Cuckoo was still there! I took a few record shots from some 50 yards away, and watched as the pipits came and went with food. I was sure they must have been aware of me but seemed unconcerned. With this in mind I started to cautiously close the gap between us.
Once I was happy I was close enough without causing any disturbance I settled down and was able to take a series of quite intimate photos.
It wasn’t long before the sun dipped below the trees and I lost the light. I packed up and slipped away, leaving the well-fed Cuckoo with its doting ‘parents’. I saw them together several times over the following days but never at such close quarters.
Sadly the Cuckoo has suffered a significant decline across its range, and the numbers returning to Scilly are much reduced. I fear I may yet live to witness a year without that familiar harbinger of spring. But oh, I do hope not.’
Martin is one of the contributing photographers for our forthcoming Helm Family Guide Cuckoos of the World. To see more of his work, click here.
I read an interesting paper yesterday that will appear in the next edition of Bulletin of the BOC. It’s co-authored by Hadoram Shirihai – Bloomsbury author, fearless adventurer and probably my favourite ornithologist.
Perhaps the most difficult of all bird groups to separate to species is the seabirds, and this is where Hadoram’s specialism lies. While he does his share of museum work, Hadoram is happy to head out into the field to look for things himself, often in spectacularly demanding conditions. And what can be tougher than spending week after week far out at sea, up and down and up and down among the choppy waves, doling out barrelfulls of a mixture of fish oil and fish guts to tempt in shearwaters, petrels and storm-petrels? For a firmly committed land-lubber like me it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
The fruits of this hands-on approach to seabirdology are impressive. Recent investigations include the first at-sea identification of Zino’s Petrel off Madeira, and some sensational rediscoveries of species ‘ lost’, presumed extinct. While the search for Jamaican Petrel was fruitless (this one really does seem to be a goner), Beck’s Petrel – a diminuitive version of Tahiti Petrel – was rediscovered by Hadoram off the coast of New Ireland in 2007, 79 years after the last (and indeed first) record. And in this latest paper he’s hit the jackpot again, with the discovery of a new ‘taxon’ related to Collared Petrel, found in surprising numbers off the coast of Vanuatu in the eastern Pacific. Bretagnolle and Shirihai dub the new bird the Magnificent Petrel, and here’s why.
This beauty was photographed in a mixed-species seabird flock, along with Wedge-tailed and Audubon’s Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, ‘tens of noddies’ and Red-footed Boobies. Imagine that. The authors haven’t plunged in to state that its a new species, though there seem to be good grounds for it to be so (and there is DNA work in prep.).
I like seabirds a lot. Though to my shame I have never actually seen one. I realise this is bad. I thought I saw a Herald Petrel when I was on Rarotonga last year, but it turned out to be a frigatebird – a new low in a litany of misidentification.
Hadoram’s next book for Bloomsbury Hadoram’s previous book for Bloomsbury
Yesterday I had a long and fascinating amble around the new exhibition at the British Museum on the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This was a series of spells to help the dead on their path through the netherworld, which were painted onto papyrus and placed in the sarcophagus with the mummy. Rich with colour, the parchments really do form a stunning exhibit.
A couple of the gods caught my eye. First, Ra, god of the sun. Obviously half man-half falcon, but which falcon? I must admit I wasn’t sure. A quick flick through Raptors of the World reveals that there are only a few possible candidates, assuming the Egyptians wouldn’t have gone for a passage migrant.
I’m going to stick my neck out and state that the god Ra was at least part-Lanner Falcon. Ra has a clear white cheek, which, though perhaps not as obvious as it might be on my little illustration above, suggests the yellowish-cheeked Barbary wasn’t the one they had in mind. The artists on the Book of the Dead produced a seriously impressive likeness of this fine falcon, complete with a stylised rufous nape.
All good fun. But then I stumbled upon this beaky chap, doodling on the wall. Without looking below, what’s your first thought?
Mine was ‘Slender-billed Curlew’. It turns out that this is Thoth, who apparently has the head of an ibis. Fair enough, I guess, though as I looked for more examples of this god it became apparent that the thickness of Thoth’s bill seems pretty variable. I wonder though … while SBC today is Critically Endangered and quite possibly extinct, this map from the Slender-billed Curlew Working Group shows that there are historic records of regular wintering in the Nile Delta, and presumably this was the case back when pyramids were in vogue, while we know from other reliefs that the locals back then loved a spot of fowling.
Perhaps there was a dab of conflation of SBC with ibis in Thoth – who knows? Though I’m willing to accept the alternative hypothesis – probably not. What do you think?
Regular readers will know that I’m slightly obsessed with curlews, and my elevation of one to the level of deity is maybe not that surprising.
A few months back, I asked the more ID-aware among you to have a go at identifying a pickled bird’s head, freshly photographed on the desk of my esteemed colleague Nigel Redman.
Maybe this was a bit tricky.
The answer is its a Rhinoceros Auklet. What do we know about this rather mysterious seabird? Well, it breeds in colonies around the coastal North Pacific – a hotspot of auk diversity – from Sakhalin and Hokkaido via the Kuriles to western Canada and California. The horn that gives it its name appears during the breeding season, when it digs burrows in the earth for nesting. The parent birds visit the colony at night, bringing tasty treats of fish for the chicks. After fledging the auklets head out to sea, far from land, for the winter.
Nigel’s gruesome find stems from a trip to Verkhovski Island in Peter the Great Bay, near Vladivostock. The unfortunate bird had been caught and neatly decapitated by a Peregrine. Like any good birder Nigel salvaged his prize, popped it into pickling vodka (the only spirit to hand) and brought it back to dear old Blighty, for the dual purpose of impressing people like me while driving non-ornithological members of staff away in disgust.
There’s rather an interesting piece by David Callahan in this month’s Birdwatch magazine, discussing which species might soon become ‘Firsts’ for Britain – in other words, extreme vagrants that might be recorded here for the first time. There have been some astonishing finds over the last few years, from a Long-billed Murrelet off the coast of Devon (and, ludicrously, one on landlocked Lake Zurich in 1997 – how on earth did that get there?) to the famous Ancient Murrelet of Lundy, and the undoubted crowning glory, last year’s now-legendary Tufted Puffin off the north coast of Kent.
While Rhinoceros Auklet wasn’t mentioned by David as a possible First for Britain in the near future, maybe it should have been. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled, though I doubt I’ll manage to whistle one up the next time I go to Rainham Marshes. There’s nothing for it, I’m going to have to go to Siberia one day to see one of these funky little beasts – hopefully this time with the head still in the vicinity of the shoulders.
The full story of Britain’s Firsts can be found in these two Poyser monographs: