By Charlie Elder, author of Few and Far Between
There is something about rare wildlife that captivates us. From seahorses to snow leopards, scarcity bestows a certain quality, an undeniable allure. Encounters with seldom-seen species can be among our most treasured memories. And not only do rare animals embody a celebration of the diversity of nature around us, they also highlight the uniqueness of species and the fragility of life on earth. To see them can be both a thrilling and a moving experience.
When I set out to find a selection of Britain’s rarest and most endangered animals, and tell the stories of conservation work to save them, I was relying for the most part on expert help to track down my targets. But there are plenty of scarce and charismatic species that everyone can enjoy, scattered like precious gems across our islands. All it takes is to be in the right place at the right time, narrowing the odds of success in your favour. And if you don’t get lucky, you’re bound to see something else of interest. Nature always rewards those who make an effort to get out and get searching…
So here is a selection of five uncommon delights, including a number of favourite encounters from my travels for Few And Far Between. Some are more elusive than others, but then seeking out rarities wouldn’t be any fun if it was too easy!
Capercaillie – one of Scotland’s most famous birds, this giant grouse is found in the ancient pine forests of the Highlands. In the spring, the glossy black males strut their stuff on the woodland floor to impress females, emitting bizarre clicking and popping sounds. To see one of these scarce and localised birds, head for the RSPB’s Abernethy Reserve where early morning ‘Caper-watch’ sessions run during April and May at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. And if you don’t spot one, you can treat yourself to a local osprey sighting instead.
Smooth snake – Britain’s rarest reptile, this secretive heathland species is restricted to a few sites in southern England. It’s a mini-constrictor, grabbing lizards or small mammals and coiling around its prey before swallowing it whole. Greyish-brown and non-venomous, it has a distinctive black heart-shaped mark on the head and subtle but attractive patterning. The RSPB’s Arne Reserve in Dorset runs reptile events during late spring and summer with the chance to see these protected rarities.
Fen raft spider – as British spiders go, they don’t come much larger than this spectacular wetland species, which is capable of catching sticklebacks. It is handsome too, with two cream stripes running down its dark body. Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Redgrave and Lopham Fen reserve has a special ‘spider trail’, which passes pools of still water where the rare semi-aquatic spiders can be spotted lurking amid the reeds at the edges waiting for passing prey.
Pine marten – these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agile arboreal hunters, shaped like supersized stoats and capable of chasing down squirrels, are our rarest carnivores after the Scottish wild cat. Almost entirely found north of the border, they are striking and handsome woodland dwellers. Speyside Wildlife runs guided evening visits to a hide on the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms, where pine martens regularly visit feeding stations.
Natterjack toad – our nosiest amphibian, with a croak that can be heard up to a mile away, this rarity is confined to a few dozen heathland and coastal sites. Mostly active after dark, they run rather than hop, are weak swimmers and have a thin yellow stripe running down the back. Even if you don’t spot one, the males in chorus are well worth hearing as they attempt to lure females to shallow breeding pools with load croaks, amplified by an inflatable vocal sac. Head to Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve where National Trust rangers conduct evening toad walks in spring and early summer.
When I started to write about birds’ eggs I wondered whether anyone had established which of the different shapes was most common. Obviously when we talk about something being egg shaped we are usually thinking of a hen’s egg, which is ‘oval’, but with an obvious blunt and pointed end and whose greatest width lies closer to the blunt end. To my surprise nobody seems to have quantified egg shape across all families of birds. Part of the difficulty, of course, is coming up with a simple index of shape. Researchers have devised several complicated ways of describing egg designs but there is no single number that captures the full range of shapes. For this reason most books dealing with egg shape simply show – as I do here – a set of outlines or silhouettes illustrating the different types that exist.
One thing we do know is that as well as being characteristic for a particular species, shape is also fairly characteristic for particular families of birds, too. Owls, for example, typically lay spherical eggs;
Different shapes of birds’ eggs. From left to right: Ross’s turaco (spherical), ruff (pyriform), hummingbird (oblong oval or elliptical), crowned sandgrouse (oblong oval or elliptical), African thrush (oval), Slavonian grebe (bi-conical or long subelliptical), alpine swift (ellipitical ovate or long oval). Redrawn from Thomson, 1964.
waders (shorebirds) lay pyriform eggs; sandgrouse produce oval or elliptical eggs; and grebes produce biconical eggs. As a biologist, two questions come to mind. How are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? The first question is about the mechanics of making an egg; the second concerns the adaptive significance of different egg shapes.
Thinking about how a female bird produces eggs of a particular shape, my natural inclination was to imagine that the shape was determined by the shell: shape and shell created together. The truth is more bizarre. The contours of a bird’s egg are governed by its membranes, the parchment-like layer inside the shell – as my eggin- vinegar experiment suggested – rather than by the shell itself. Once you know that the membrane determines the shape it isn’t too difficult to imagine the process.
In an ingenious X-ray study of egg formation conducted in the late 1940s, John Bradfield could see that the shape of the hen’s egg was determined before the shell had even started to form, prior to entering the shell gland. Instead, he could see that the egg’s shape was established in the isthmus, the region of the oviduct immediately anterior to the shell gland, where the shell membrane around the egg is created. He noticed, too, that the part of the isthmus adjacent to the shell gland is ‘more contractile and more like a sphincter’ than the other end adjacent to the magnum, suggesting that: ‘Since the egg greatly distends the narrow isthmus [region of the oviduct], it is to be expected that the caudal [tail] end of the egg, situated in the more contractile part of the isthmus, will become more pointed than the cranial [head] end.’ He adds, however, that this suggestion is far from proved ‘and the problem remains without a clear-cut solution.
At the end of the egg-shape spectrum opposite to the guillemot are certain owls, tinamous and bustards that lay almost spherical eggs. How is that done? Does the isthmus in these birds lack the sphincter that Bradfield saw in the hen? Or does the egg turn continuously as the membrane is laid down so that the sphincter applies a uniform pressure all over the egg? We don’t know.
In humans the maximum size of a baby at birth is determined by the size of the ‘birth canal – that is, the internal diameter of the pelvic girdle. Our present ability to perform caesarian operations removes this constraint, but prior to the twentieth century and the routine use of caesarian section, babies who were too big – or whose heads were too big – failed to be delivered successfully, got stuck and died, usually along with the mother. Strong selection indeed. Because the bones that form the human cranium are still not fused at birth there is some flexibility (literally), permitting the skull to adopt a different shape during birth and allowing some relatively big-headed babies to be born.
Read more in Tim Birkehad’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg
With Easter holidays coming up, we’re looking at creative ways of getting the family away from the screen and in to the green! Our author, Hattie Garlick, has come up with hundreds of ideas in her book, Born to be Wild. Given the season, we’re sharing her tips on ‘how to make an Easter tree’. And it goes, roughly and messily, like this:
- Go out, and hunt down some fallen sticks and twigs.
- Put the sticks and twigs in a vase or empty jar at home to make the basis of
your tree and hang decorations from.
- Sprigs found intact can be added to the vase whole, sticks can be painted in
- Next, hunt for blossom.
- Remove petals from any blossom that’s been bashed about.
- Glue the petals to paper shapes (stars, or whatever shapes you fancy).
Some of the shapes can then be painted, beautifully or otherwise.
- Thread a needle and pierce each shape near the top, drawing the thread
- Tie each thread into a loop, so the decorations can be hung
- Hang the decorations on your twig tree
- Have a piece of cake
Toddlers: When little ones are involved the paper can be precut into easy, nonfiddly
shapes, and the blossom applied with an abstract abandon (think Jackson
Pollock in petals).
Older children can get more ambitious. They could cut the paper into the shape
of a chick, for instance, and try recreating the texture of feathers with the petals,
or cut the paper into a basic rectabgle and use petals of different shades to create the contours and colours of the image itself
Blog post by Mark Carwardine, author of the best known and best-selling guide to Whale-watching in Britain and Europe
No one ever says ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. Over the past 34 years, I’ve spent countless thousands of hours watching whales (and dolphins and porpoises – by ‘whale’ I am talking about all cetaceans), yet I still remember my first encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day commercial trip from Long Beach, California, when a Grey Whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye I can see this great leviathan leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible.
Worldwide, whale watching has grown from humble beginnings in the mid-1950s, when people first began to take an interest in Grey Whales migrating up and down the coast of California, to today’s US$2.1 billion industry involving 119 countries and overseas territories. There are an estimated 3,300 whale-watch operators around the world, and no fewer than 13 million people now join their trips every year. The industry plays a valuable role in local economies, because museums, science centres, bookshops, gift shops, bus companies, hotels and guesthouses, restaurants and cafes, taxi companies and many other businesses can all benefit from the tremendous influx of visitors. That, in turn, encourages everyone to care for the whales that the whale watchers come to see.
Europe may not be as well known for its whales, dolphins and porpoises as, say, the United States, New Zealand and South Africa, but it is rapidly gaining a well-deserved reputation as a top-class whale-watching destination. Europe’s first commercial trips took place in Gibraltar, in 1969, when an ex-pilot began taking people to see three species of local dolphin. Today, no fewer than 24 European countries and territories, and nearly 200 communities, are involved in whale and dolphin watching of one kind or another. From the Azores and Croatia to Greece and Greenland, they attract millions of whale watchers every year.
Nearly half of all the cetacean species known to science have been recorded in the region at one time or another. Some, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale and Grey Whale, were once abundant in Europe but have now virtually disappeared. There are a few Right Whales left, which are seen occasionally; and on 8 May 2010, a single Grey Whale unexpectedly appeared in the Mediterranean Sea, near Tel Aviv, off the coast of Israel, and then again, 22 days later, off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It was the first sighting of a Grey Whale in Europe (or indeed, anywhere in the North Atlantic) for more than three centuries. It is uncertain whether a previously undetected, small remnant population survives or, more likely, if this individual broke all migration records and swam from the North Pacific via the Northwest Passage.
Other species have been recorded just once or a handful of times, or occur in Europe at the extreme edge of their range. For example, a lone Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin – a species not uncommon in the Red Sea but otherwise unknown in Europe – apparently entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. But many are residents or regular visitors, and are surprisingly easy to see if you go to the right places at the right times of year.
It is even possible to choose how to watch them – from the shore, or from a host of different vessels, including yachts, rubber inflatables, motor cruisers, research boats, kayaks and huge, ocean-going ships. Moreover, there are tours to suit every taste, from comfortable one-hour, half-day or full-day excursions, to adventurous two- or three-week expeditions.
Some of the most unlikely (and rewarding) whale watching takes place from passenger ferries sailing across the Bay of Biscay, between the UK and Spain. At least nine species are seen regularly from the observation decks, while beaked whales and a number of other more unusual cetaceans are sometimes recorded as well. At the other extreme, a single Bottlenose Dolphin called Fungie has been attracting as many as 200,000 people every year to his adopted home off the coast of Dingle, in the Republic of Ireland, since he arrived there suddenly and unexpectedly in 1984. In between, you can spend a day watching Blue Whales in the golden light of the midnight sun in Iceland, follow a family of Orcas against a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains in Norway, catch a glimpse of an elusive Cuvier’s Beaked Whale in the Canary Islands, be surrounded by playful Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in the Azores, or spot a male Narwhal lift its tusk above the water in a remote Arctic fjord – and so much more. So get out there – and good luck!
There’s a moment in The Chronicles of Narnia when Hwin the mare meets the great lion Aslan. “Please,” she said. “You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anybody else.”
I’m always reminded of Hwin when I see a leopard. Particularly when I see a night-hunting leopard in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.
The Valley is a different place by night. The day-shift has clocked off, the night-shift is in full-swing. Creatures you never see in the day are now centre-stage: and you can see them because in the Valley you can check them out in a vehicle with a big spot-light.
Some animals hate it, elephants and hippos especially, so you never shine on them directly. You can influence the outcome of a hunt by dazzling potential prey, and that’s strictly forbidden. But many of the other animals take it in stride.
These include genets, small spotty cat-like creatures, civets, porcupines, hyenas and honey-badgers, which have a glorious reputation for ferocity. It’s another world, and quite as enthralling as the world of daylight. Or perhaps even more enthralling because at night the stars come out.
And brightest star of them all is the leopard. To catch one in the spot-light is to know how Hwin felt. Nothing moves so beautifully as a cat, no cat moves as beautifully as a leopard. They walk as if every joint had been bathed in a vat of oil and when the light hits them they glow as if lit from within.
There is a feeling of astonishment that something so inexplicably beautiful should exist, and that you should be allowed to see it. They are immaculate: though since they have spotted coats they are technically speaking, maculated. Immaculately maculated, then.
Leopards have become for me a kind of confirmation animal. When I get back to the Valley there is always a great sense of joy, a combination of familiarity and the unknown, of comfort and of danger. But when I see a leopard I feel that yes, indeed, this is my spot. This is, indeed, the sacred combe that I have been seeking all my life.
This is a blog piece from Simon Barnes, inspired by his new book The Sacred Combe out January 2016.
Less than a week to go until the feasts of all feasts – Christmas Dinner. Whether it’s Turkey with all the trimmings, or a box of Quality Streets, it is always a treat to look forward to. But let’s not forget our feathered friends in the garden this year! As the nights are drawing in, you will have noticed a flurry of activity at your bird feeder as things get chillier. This is because birds, like us, need a stodgier diet over the winter months to keep warm. Often on the hunt for a hearty meal, they turn to our gardens to find extra sustenance!
So why not share your Christmas dinner this year? Here are some hints on what to feed and what not to feed the birds over Christmas.
What to give:
- Christmas cake and Christmas pudding – packed full of fruit and fat, making them a perfect treat for wildlife.
- Unsalted nuts – High nutritional value
- Mild cheeses such as Cheddar and Wensleydale with high-fat content –
- Leftover roast potatoes – good source of fat and easy to follow
What to avoid:
- Cooked meats and vegetables – can attract vermin to your garden
- Chocolate – contains chemicals which are toxic to birds
- Bread -little nutritional value for birds
- Leftover fat and dripping from your roasting tin -bad for birds
For more information on feeding the birds over Christmas, visit the RSPB page here:
Just over a year since Nigel died suddenly, some great news which would have pleased him immensely. Rivers has won the much coveted ‘Marsh Book of the Year’ 2015, a prize sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust. The British Ecological Society awards the honour annually ‘to the book published in the last two years that has had the greatest influence on the science of ecology or its application’. Nigel may even have done a cartwheel for joy, just like he did in a water meadow by the River Test back in 1994 as we embarked on a series of ‘benchmarking’ visits to the very best rivers in the country (see Chapter 4 in the book).
Over the next 15 years we visited many dozens of top-notch rivers across Britain and Europe, and some of Nigel’s wonderful photographs in the book are from that series of visits. There were usually three or four of us in the team, with botanist Hugh Dawson a regular companion.
The Dawson/Holmes/Raven river survey team in snowy Austria
Each visit had a serious purpose, but there were many memorable moments and adventures along the way. Some of the more bizarre memories included: a bone-chilling overnight stay in the Highlands at Altnaharra – which must have the coldest hotel in Britain; sitting out a snow-storm on the Cairngorms plateau in early June and having to use GPS to navigate downhill safely; a nail-biting landing on the Corran Ferry as a gale battered Loch Linnhe; Mark Everard climbing though a bathroom window at midnight to let us in to our B&B hotel in Ireland; the sudden appearance of armed soldiers from dense undergrowth as we were surveying the River Wissey in East Anglia; and a pre-supper tick-extraction session after a day on Exmoor.
The Continental trips had several special moments as well. The spectacular limestone gorges in the Cevennes (south-east France) and Picos de Europa (northern Spain); midnight sunshine illuminating the Arctic tundra; and the seasonal rivers of southern Portugal.
A nice surprise: Lady’s slipper orchid in fine fettle
Finding Lady’s-slipper orchid (orchids were another of Nigel’s passions) in the Austrian Alps; seeing beaver dams as we canoed down the Bierbrza and Drava Rivers in Poland; fresh bear footprints and poo as we surveyed mountain streams in Slovakia. Skinny-dipping in the freezing cold Baltic after a traditional birch thrashing in a Finnish sauna; being eaten alive by mosquitoes in Lapland (midges did the same in west Scotland); some rather disturbing murals on the bedroom walls of our hostel accommodation in Bavaria; a white knuckle ride to Lyon airport after we’d badly misjudged the time it would take to get there; getting hideously lost in the Austrian Alps after I’d famously said that the hotel was ‘just around the corner’; Nigel capsizing a canoe in Slovenia and then diving down to retrieve some very wet cameras and notes. There’s a book full of stories about the fantastic scenery we saw – in all weathers – the adventures we had and the people we encountered. Nigel’s photographic record of the trips appear in the European benchmark reports available as free pdfs downloads on website riverhabitatsurvey.org.
From this you’ll probably see why Nigel’s infectious enthusiasm, practical mindset and consummate skill with a camera shine through ‘Rivers’. And how my more prosaic, academic perspective (and fascination with historical documentary records) were a perfect match for writing what we both wanted – a book that had plenty of new perspectives for all those interested in British rivers. We also had a speedy way of drafting the book. Nigel was a famously early riser, whilst I work best in the evening. I could email a draft chapter to Nigel at midnight, knowing that his comments would be waiting in the in-box at 9am the next morning. The Marsh Award is a great honour and I’m privileged to have been asked by Nigel to write the book with him.
To celebrate winning the award, British Wildlife Publishing are offering signed copies of Rivers at the special discounted price of £25 (RRP £35) – call the office on 01865 811 316 to order.
More information at www.britishwildlife.com
Are owls, bats, spiders and creepy crawlies really as spooky as we make them out to be? Bloomsbury investigates our biggest wildlife phobias…
Many creatures in the animal kingdom are associated with fear, loathing and in some cases sheer terror. Bats, spiders and owls are often seen as the biggest offenders. But why do these animals frighten us? Are there reasons for this or are our fears completely unfounded? This month we’ve been investigating the myths and legends behind these creatures – why they started and why they continue to trigger fears and phobias.
Owls, nocturnal and mysterious, have long been associated with magical goings-on. In times of old, they were believed to be messengers for magical folk – a tradition recently re-popularised by a famous Boy Wizard! Nowadays we recognise owls as valuable assets to our ecosystems, perfectly adapted to be nature’s best pest controllers.
Bats and vampires go together like witches and broomsticks – to the extent that the anti-coagulant saliva of vampire bats was named draculin after Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula – and it seems we can’t picture one without the other. True, the two do share some characteristics, both being nocturnal, fanged, flying things, but it is worth noting that very few bat species feed on the blood of other animals, and none of those species are native to the UK. In fact, British bats are harmless, mostly very tiny and, well, rather cute really. This is the perfect time of year to spot pipistrelle bats swooping around at dusk.
It’s perhaps not surprising that spiders are a symbol of Halloween when it is estimated arachnophobia affects 30 per cent of the world’s population. Spiders have been the focus of fears and embedded in the mythologies of many cultures for centuries, and no witch would be without one when it comes time to add some toil and trouble to their cauldron’s bubble. They also notoriously build their spectacular webs in dark, dusty places, like abandoned or ‘haunted’ houses – perfect venues for Halloween trickery. Yet witnessing spiders’ extraordinary web-building abilities and seeing their amazing spider senses in action is likely to leave non-arachnophobes spellbound. With the notorious ‘spider season’ upon us what better time to dispel some of the spookier spider myths and take a closer look at the many species we share our homes with.
Happy Happy Halloween!
From Bloomsbury Wildlife
This month, we’re celebrating one of nature’s real unsugn heroes – the Herring.
Scots like to smoke or salt them. The Dutch love them raw. Swedes look on with relish as they open bulging, foul-smelling cans to find them curdling within. Jamaicans prefer them with a dash of chilli pepper. Germans and the English enjoy their taste best when accompanied by pickle’s bite and brine.
Throughout the long centuries men have fished around their coastlines and beyond, the herring has done much to shape both human taste and history. Men have co-operated and come into conflict over its shoals, setting out in boats to catch them, straying, too, from their home ports to bring full nets to shore. Women have also often been at the centre of the industry, gutting and salting the catch when the annual harvest had taken place, knitting, too, the garments fishermen wore to protect them from the ocean’s chill.
In his book, Herring Tales, Donald S. Murray has stitched together tales of the fish that was of central importance to the lives of our ancestors, noting how both it – and those involved in their capture – were celebrated in the art, literature, craft, music and folklore of life in northern Europe.
Donald contemplates the possibility of restoring the silver darlings of legend to these shores. And to help spark some imagination, he provides some engenious examples of how we can make them live on via the box they arrive in!
A Wheel Barrow
A Baby Cot
A Dog Carrier
A Milk Box
Celebrate the Herring this month with Herring Tales – and join Donald on his campaign to restore this versatile little creature back to former glory!
Phoenix – arise from the ashes
Taken in the rubble of a bombed house in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra this photo, which appeared on Facebook, was immediately tweeted throughout the world, including by Frank Gardner, a keen birdwatcher.
The Facebook message from the Syrian birdwatcher who owned the book:
‘What is very precious to us, is totally worthless to others.’
Plans are now well underway for an Arabic version of the second edition of Birds of the Middle East and the exciting cover has just been unveiled. This book is a joint venture between Bloomsbury, BirdLife International and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East. I hope the Bloomsbury’s ‘Helm Imprint’ Arabic logo catches on. I love it, especially as it translates into ‘Dream Field Guides!’ The plans are for a launch in Arabia next year.
Apps are now the new book and rapidly becoming the way of the world. Books, of course, will always be important and have their place, but sending them to remote places or where mail is not reliable can be a problem. With this in mind a new App has been developed for the remote mountain range of Peremagroon in Iraqi Kurdistan – internationally important for its fantastic wildlife.
One young Iraqi has just written, saying:
‘I loved it, now I know what bird I was seeing everyday in my faculty, thanks for the app its very useful. just one thing if possible put the Arabic and Kurdish name, if that is possible.’
Not only will this be done, but the whole app will be translated into Kurdish and Arabic.This App is just one part of a conservation education programme in Kurdistan between Nature Iraq, BirdLife International and the Centre for Middle Eastern Plants under UK’s Darwin Initiative. Read the story about some of its achievements:
It has been great to have Bloomsbury’s support for this.