Bloomsbury Wildlife

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,


The Peregrine Falcon

Much admired by city dwellers, I swiftly scan their pavements for my next victim, my catch of the day. High above the sprawl, overpowered by my speed and dexterity the city lies beneath. Scattering creatures await my next landing…

Who am I? I hear you ask…

I am, of course, the great Peregrine Falcon.

Continuing on the theme of my last blog, urban wildlife, I have decided to delve deeper into the subject and address, more specifically, our urban birdlife.

A newer addition to the urban landscape is the Peregrine Falcon.

This large and powerful falcon is swift and agile in flight reaching speeds of up to 180kph. It is recognisable from its long, broad, pointed wings and short tail. It is blue-grey above, with a blackish top of the head and white face.

Chasing prey requires vast, open terrain for hunting. Peregrines are most often found along rocky seacliffs and the uplands of the UK, as well as east coast marshes in the winter. Recently peregrines have started to inhabit urban environments, using man-made constructions, especially tall buildings, as nesting sites.

The peregrine feeds primarily on birds, such as medium-sized birds, such as wading birds, pigeons, doves, waterfowl, songbirds, waders and small ducks. They can exist in most environments as long as there is enough prey available for hunting.

Written by Ellen Parnevelas

To read more about Peregrine Falcons, check out our book RSPB British Birds of Prey

Hooked on harriers

This week’s entry is from Japanese ornithologist and author Tadao Shimba, about a favourite spot on the coast of Japan.


“A harrier gliding over the reed bed is a common winter scene in southern Japan. This winter we have had more Hen Harriers visiting than usual.

Adult male Hen Harrier soaring.

Hen Harriers are known to roost together and we have found a new spot near the coast in central Japan, close to the town of Isshiki. The roost can be viewed from a car parked on the embankment above, which is a great place from which to study individual birds.

A hunting female Hen Harrier.

The harriers start returning to the roost as early as 2pm on windy days. The birds continue to arrive until dusk, by which time they are virtually invisible to the watchers on the bank.

Japanese reed beds are also home to Eastern Marsh Harriers.

Eastern Marsh Harrier.

The plumage of the Eastern Marsh Harriers that breed in Japan differs greatly from that of birds migrating down the Asian continent in winter, and further research is required. This location near Isshiki contains about 10 birds at the moment, in a variety of plumages, offering us a great opportunity for study.”

Eastern Marsh Harrier. What a cracker.



Tadao is the author of Photographic Guide to the Birds of Japan and North-east Asia.

Urban Wildlife

For my first attempt at the art of blogging, I have decided to stick to familiar territory and address the topic of urban wildlife. At first sight, our towns and cities may not seem to be havens for wildlife but after researching the subject, I discovered that there is a lot more life amongst the concrete than is immediately obvious.

Urban areas are often built up and covered by paving and tarmac, but also include rivers, canals and suburban areas with gardens and parks. The fact that urban environments are so densely populated means that there is often food readily available for scavenging and many places for creatures to find shelter and nesting places. In Britain, the urban landscape is heavily populated with a variety of wildlife. Red foxes, rodents, a variety of birds, squirrels, insects, amphibians, bats and sometimes even badgers can be found scavenging on scraps of food left by humans and nesting in buildings.

A couple of years ago I realised just how much urban wildlife there was when I found a mouse nesting inside one of my trainers which I promptly put outside in my garden, only to find that a fox had run off with it and it was then never to be seen again. In fact, I later discovered in my garden in south east London, that there was a whole family of foxes living there which seemed to be multiplying rapidly much to the horror of my next-door neighbour who was keeping chickens. Suddenly I realised that my own garden was full of wildlife- not only foxes, but visiting cats, birds, insects and many other creatures appeared on a daily basis.

Red foxes are widespread in urban areas throughout the world. They populate many Australian, European, Japanese and North American cities and thrive in the urban environment. Fox populations are generally higher in urban areas than rural areas.

Colonies of foxes were first established in Britain in cities such as Bristol and London during the 1940s. They survive well in cities because they are not limited by food in urban areas. Most eat a wide range of food items and food is often deliberately provided by householders. Foxes also eat a large variety of wild food stuffs including fruit, invertebrates, and small mammals and birds.

Tips for spotting urban wildlife
• You can attract garden birds and animals by providing food, water and nestboxes
• Lakes, ponds and canals are great places to spot waterbirds, as well as plantlife, insects and amphibians
• The best time of day to spot wildlife in city parks is early in the morning, before people appear and disturb the wild creatures
• Night time and evening are the best times to see foxes and badgers can sometimes be seen in some suburban areas


Written by Ellen Parnevelas

Birding in the Cook Islands

I’m just back from a remarkable month on the Cook Islands. No, I’d never heard of them either. They are a collection of fifteen tiny dots in the Pacific, about four hours flight from Fiji. Remote doesn’t quite do them justice.

They are amazing islands though. Hot, sunny, lazy and with just enough scarce regional specialities to keep me happy. Having said that, they are rather short on landbirds – just six endemics. No doubt there used to be a few more that were eaten into extinction long ago.

The main island, Rarotonga, is stunningly beautiful if a bit bleak for the birder. The only species you are likely to see outside the mountains are Common Myna – which have reached plague proportions – and, erm, Red Jungle Fowl. The two endemics – Rarotonga Flycatcher or Kakerori and Rarotonga Starling – just about cling on in the mountain forests. Both are very hard to find, and the starling in particular is in serious trouble.

Spot the starling.

The best place in the Cooks to see land birds, by far, is the awesome island of Atiu, a forty-minute flight away. Black Rat-free, Atiuan birds are able to get on with life without having to worry too much about predators or habitat loss. I was lucky enough to spend a day on the island in the company of local guide Birdman George. George is able to whistle up pretty much anything, from the endemic Cook Island Fruit Dove to Chattering Kingfisher via Kakerori, a population of which has been introduced to the island (and, with 150 pairs and rising, is doing spectacularly well).

Chattering Kingfisher - noisy and common in Atiu

The star of the show, though, is the recently re-introduced Rimitara Lorikeet. This stunning parrot is also doing well on Atiu, helped by George and a few other like minded souls, who have been bumping off the mynas with poison and buckshot. They’re doing a great job.

Birdman George (left) prior to a healthy myna-poisoning session

I had an amazing time, but didn’t see perhaps my favourite bird of all – Bristle-thighed Curlew. I am unable to explain quite why I am so exceptionally fond of this wader. But I dipping on it gives me a good excuse to vanish to the South Pacific again next year …

Maybe this book hold’s the clues for Jim’s fascination with that curlew.

The Champions of Bird ID

And so the publication date of the Helm Dictionary of Bird Identification hoves into view. Advance copies arrived today and it looks fantastic. This also means our competition based on the cover has come to an end, and the winners announced. Have a look at the Challenge website to find out the names of the victors in this fierce battle for identification supremacy.

I must admit that I foolishly though that one photo would prove virtually impossible to identify, but I’d reckoned without these masters of bird species separation.

Nik Borrow's New Britain Hawk Owl. Sweet.

Its a New Britain Hawk Owl, Ninox odiosa. A flick through Claus König’s Owls of the World shows us that these Ninox owls are really, really hard to tell apart, though the pattern of banding on the chest and the white below helps eliminate quite a few of them. Anyway, a total of seven entrants managed to correctly ID this rather smart owl – powerful skills all.


Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names

Hello from Bloomsbury Wildlife!

Well, there’s only one story in town, and a First for Britain to boot. The South Shields Eastern Crowned Warbler wowed the (vast) crowds, BBC News had a full report, and even the Sun devoted a page to discussion of the twitch – including a photo of the poor, lost, wind-battered little bird, which right now should be sunning itself in a forest in South-east Asia but is instead shivering amidst the gloom of a disused Tyneside slate quarry.

The warbler that launched a thousand twitches (Rebecca Nason)

Its been an astounding month for megas – where will the madness end? Highlights included a Sandhill Crane that set off south from Orkney before vanishing somewhere over eastern Scotland – I was convinced it would pitch up somewhere handy like Rainham Marshes – and an obliging Brown Shrike. This little Siberian beauty picked a superb transport hub to hang out at – right beside the M25 and slap-bang next to Heathrow Terminal 5. I had to go and have a look – what a bird. When I was there a Sparrowhawk was soaring overhead, keeping a beady eye on events below. This may all end in tears yet.

Find out where these birds are supposed to be in Birds of East Asia