Bloomsbury Wildlife

Follow that falcon


This week, a guest blog by Richard Sale, Arctic explorer, photographer and author of Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife.

The accumulated whitewash identified the Gyrfalcon nest site. The little cave high in the cliff was an ideal spot, the whitewash suggesting that generations of Gyrs had used the well-hidden, well-guarded spot. This year’s female was barely visible as she sat incubating her clutch. Gyrs are among the earliest to breed of all Arctic species and this female had started before the sea ice at the base of the cliff had even begun to melt.

Access to the cave was difficult, a sloping ramp of rock offered a chance, but there was still an overhanging section below the cave. I climb rock faces as a hobby, but the week before, out on Hudson Bay, I had slipped in the boat from which I was photographing Beluga Whales, caught my hand on the gunwale, and fractured the thumb of my left hand, which was now the size of a football and hurt like hell. With my thumb splinted against my index finger with insulating tape – no medical facilities out in this remote place – I had continued to head north. But for a one-armed solo climber the cliff face was just too intimidating.

A high-angle scramble up frozen mud and scree, using the tripod as a makeshift ice-axe, allowed me to approach the spot where the male Gyr had an observation post. From this point he watched for any sign of predators on the prowl, in defence of his mate and her precious eggs. He saw me, and let out that awesome but beautiful kaa-kaa-kaa that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. He was magnificent, almost pure white, ghost-like as he flew silently through the cold air.

Over the next few days, perched in a cramped and fairly miserable hide, I got to know him well. He hunted regularly for his mate, feeding her so that she would not have to leave the eggs, which would have quickly chilled in the sub-zero temperatures. Then he would sit on his observation post, resting and peering out over the sea ice. Once he let out a sharp call, and exiting the hide I saw him dive and hit a Snow Goose which had strayed too close, killing it instantly but knocking the unfortunate bird into a stretch of open sea, from which he could not retrieve it. At other times he plucked his lunchtime grouse just a few feet away. Days passed and my hand hurt a little less. That made the long, long snow-scooter ride back to civilisation much less painful than the outward journey had been. It wasn’t the pain that stopped me now, but the need to look back for one more glimpse of Gyr.

Richard Sale is the author of A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife.


Sailing the Seven Seas (for seabirds)

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.

Hadoram searching for Zino's

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.

Pterodroma (brevipes) magnificens - what a bird.

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


Mythological birding

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.

Ra (left); various falcons (right)

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?

Thoth hard at work.

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.

Slender-billed Curlew records, 1900-2002.

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.

Learn more about Lanners here

Admiring auklets

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.

Let's all learn to love auklets.

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.

A now-famous photo of one of the greatest finds in UK birding.

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:


Birds of the Middle East

A guest blog from the authors of Birds of the Middle East


We are so pleased to have finally brought to fruition the new edition of Birds of the Middle East. Once again it has been great working with John Gale, Mike Langman and Brian Small, not only because they are fine illustrators but because of their knowledge of bird identification. It really has been a team effort.


The result is a virtually a new book. It has an entirely new layout with the text and maps opposite the plates. Over 100 new species are included bringing the total number of species covered to over 820. The detailed maps, now in full colour, have been extensively revised to show wintering and migration distributions as well as breeding.

It is only field guide to the birds of the Middle East and covers Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, the Arabian peninsula and Socotra. There are 176 colour plates and the accompanying concise species accounts cover all key identification features.

Field guides can quickly get out of date as new species are recorded, new identification features discovered and new breeding areas located with increased travel. Thus we will be starting a webpage ‘Middle East Birds’ on A&C Black’s website which we will be updating twice yearly with news of new species, revised distributions and new identification information – including revised plates that can be downloaded to fit in your guide. So we would welcome your contributions to this – all of which will be acknowledged.

Finally we are proud to have dedicated this field guide to BirdLife International’s Middle East conservation programme.

Simon Aspinall & Richard Porter
August 2010

Simon Aspinall

Richard Porter

Brian Small

Mike Langman

John Gale

Gardening for Wildlife

A guest post by Adrian Thomas, author of Gardening for Wildlife


I’ve got babies popping out all over the place!

The day before yesterday, it was the Great Tits whose family emerged from their palatial nursery inside my Starling nestbox to try their luck in the big wide world, and hopefully finding plenty of insects in my woodland garden.

Great Tit emerging from a Starling box

Then yesterday it was the turn of the Blue Tits. One of the youngsters decided to attempt a landing on the conservatory roof, which was wet from the recent drizzle. It was quite a shock to the little fledgling when it started to ski uncontrollably down towards the gutter.

This to me is the theme of June – youngsters everywhere, all learning fast. They need to, for it is a jungle out there for them. We see gardens as a benign place, when actually the survival of the fittest is going on all around us. I remind myself it isn’t grim or sad – it’s life.

But one crèche of babes that are happily going about their business without a care in the world are the toadpoles in my garden. (Apparently the ‘tad’ in the word tadpole derives from the word ‘toad’, but has come to mean junior froggies too. The ‘pole’ bit means ‘head’, as in Redpoll. I’m voting that we now move language on and have tadpoles and toadpoles.)


The reason that the toadpoles can be so cavalier is that they taste bad. The newts don’t like them; the Blackbirds that hop around my pond margin looking for pond snails don’t like them. With about 500 toadpoles currently hoovering up all the algae from my pond sides, I allow myself a little parental pride that my gardening for wildlife is having some effect.

Adrian Thomas


RSPB Gardening for Wildlife by Adrian Thomas is available now. To read the foreword by Chris Packham and see our gardening ‘to do’ list for June click the cover below!

The tale of the pickled waxwing

Earlier this year, a lot of London year-listers will have traipsed round the North Circular to Finchley, and to the Total Garage on Regent’s Park Road. Why? To see a lonely, solitary Waxwing, which hung about in these suburban surroundings for a month or so before starting the long flight north. It hasn’t been a vintage Waxwing year …

Unlike 2005, when Britain experienced a true waxwing invasion, with thousands of these striking pink birds sweeping south across the frozen country. In mid-January, we got wind of a flock of waxwings not far from our office, which is slap-bang in the middle of London. Its not often you get to see flocks of anything round here, let alone a scarce winter

visitor, so Nigel and I downed tools and set off in hot pursuit.

We were greeted just outside Warren Street tube station by a remarkable site – a flock of 110 waxwings, alternating between some tall plane trees in a nearby square and a very small tree with berries on the pavement, with an attending flock of around 110 birders. You couldn’t have got better views of either.

One of the birds had flown into an office-block window, had kicked the bucket, and was lying forlornly on the pavement. Obviously I couldn’t just leave it there – the curse of the wandering zoologist – so I was soon on my way back to the office with a pocketfull of dead waxwing. This proved useful for scaring the more squeamish among my fellow editors, but I must admit after taking the bird home I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. A brief period in the freezer was clearly unsatisactory, so this poor bird’s long journey from the Arctic north ended with it being pickled in a large onion jar in my shed, where it resides to this day.

Jim's waxwing, pre-vinegar.

Team Helm does actually have previous when it comes to pickling interesting things that turn up on our travels. For example, one of the many reasons for which Nigel is renowned in the company is the permanent presence on his desk of this admittedly gruesome item.

Now, here’s a question for the more ID-aware among you. The head of which species is pickled in this jar?

Send your answers to us by the 26th June … a Helm field guide of the winner’s choice awaits, with the winner picked at random from correct entries (UK entrants only; editor’s decision is final!).

Learn more about the land of the waxwing here:


Elephant in the room …

Since the beginning of May, you may have noticed that a number of brightly coloured elephants have appeared around the streets of London. As well as being an interesting attraction for tourists and commuters, the elephants are there to raise an important issue – the future of the endangered Asian elephants.

As one of the world’s largest mammals, Asian elephants understandably need lots of room to roam. There are over 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and their habitats are getting smaller and sparser. With the worlds’ population increasing rapidly, the elephants’ habitat is slowly disappearing and this is causing hostility between elephants and local communities.

This is the fourth, annual elephant parade and also the largest. The first parade in Rotterdam in 2007 showcased 50 elephants, seventy appeared in Antwerp the year after, over 100 elephants graced the streets of Amsterdam in 2009 and this year, running simultaneously with the London parade, is one in Dierenpark Emmen in the Netherlands.

The London Elephant Parade has been organised by the charity, Elephant Family to raise both awareness and money for the cause. Organisers hope to raise around £2million from the 260 elephants, which have been designed by artists and celebrities, and will be sold individually at auction.

For those of us who are unable to house an elephant ourselves, we are able to purchase mini elephants from the Elephant Parade Online Shop.

You can get involved in lots of other ways too, by signing the petition, donating money on the website, buying mini (or life size…) elephants, texting ‘elephant’ to 83118 and more!

The money raised goes towards securing ‘corridors’, ancient migratory routes that the elephants and other herds use to find new forests and fresh supplies of food and also moving entire villages out of the elephants’ way.

On May 22nd, the artists behind the eye-catching elephants will be standing proudly beside their elephants between 10am and 1pm to answer your questions and discuss their inspiration for the designs.

The elephants are in London until July 4th so get up to London, download the map from the website and get elephant spotting! It is such a worthwhile cause and even the smallest donation can help to make a big difference.


Written by Laura Skerritt


If you’d like to find out more about Indian elephants, check out our fantastic Field Guide to Indian Mammals

Scottish Wildlife

I recently spent a weekend walking in Scotland on the island of Skye and discovered that the Scottish highlands is home to some of Britain’s most interesting wildlife…

My personal favourite were the highland cattle

The landscape was breathtaking and it was a great place for walking and enjoying the outdoors. Dolphins, porpoises, seals, otters and puffins can be seen in the water.

However, one of the most exciting things is the range of birds of prey that you can see- if you’re lucky. Golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, kestrels and buzzards can be spotted and there are several places that offer wildlife-spotting boat trips. I went out on one of these boats and they took us to see a white-tailed eagles nest which had two chicks inside and then threw fish off the boat so that the eagle swooped down to the water to catch the fish and we got a fantastic close-up view. It was really breathtaking to see as they are huge and magnificent birds with an enormous wing span.


Written by Ellen Parnevelas.

To find out more about Scottish wildlife check out RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds:


A guest post by Celia Lewis, author of Illustrated Guide to Chickens:


Chickens always seem to have been around in my life.  My grandmother kept them along with geese (Hilary, the gander, terrorised small children with bare legs) and my mother kept Rhode Island Reds.  I have kept hens on and off for the last thirty years, the ‘off’ being after a visit from a fox.

At the moment I keep silver-laced Wyandottes and Welsummers.  I also had Anconas but these are flighty birds to say the least.  They are beautiful black birds with white mottling that lay pure white eggs – however they prefer to roost up trees and there being some holly bushes in my run, this was were they went.  As winter approached I felt they would do better if trained to live in the house with the others – the way to achieve this is to catch them up at night when hens are usually docile and put them in the house, when you’ve done this once or twice they generally get the message.  However these two were not in the least docile and flew straight over the 8 foot fencing out of the run – impossible to find in the dark, sadly all that was left in the morning was a pile of feathers.

The Ancona is a tough, hardy bird that originated in the Italian port of its name

The Wyandottes are gorgeous birds, calm and beautiful though do tend to spend a lot of the year broody – fine if you want to hatch chicks, but if you have more than one cock then you must separate them and wait at least four weeks until you can be sure the eggs have been fertilised by the right bird.

Wyandotte: a superb and showy dual-purpose bird with a strong character to match

All these birds feature in my book The Illustrated Guide to Chickens and are just some of the 200 or so watercolour paintings.  What to do with them all?  My answer is to hold an exhibition and with two friends that is what I am doing.  STRICTLY FOR THE BIRDS is being held in Haslemere Museum, Surrey from 8th – 22nd May 2010 and features not only my paintings but unusual hand-carved birds and fish by renowned wood carver Judith Nicoll and the unique and affordable jewellery of Catriona Godson.

Celia Lewis,