Bloomsbury Wildlife

Neat Parakeets

With their emerald-green plumage, bright red bills and raucous calls, Ring-necked Parakeets seem to be everywhere these days. Admittedly rather pretty, these tropical parrots have been ‘naturalised’ as UK birds since the early 1970s. Theories abound on how they got here in the first place; some say they escaped from a studio during the filming of the African Queen; others claim that Jimi Hendrix liberated a few to jolly up London a bit. All enjoyable bunkum, but either way, their population has boomed over the last decade; they are now common throughout the London area, and are spreading fast.

Pretty with pink.

I love Paris in the springtime; I was there a couple of months back. Like many other European cities, Paris, too, now has its very own recently established parakeet flock. I was pleased to watch a group screetching away merrily in some trees outside the Panthéon, before taking off in a swooping green flash across the city.

Later that day, I ambled into the Musée de Cluny, and popped inside to see, among many wonders, one of mediaeval Europe’s most famous tapestries – La Dame à la Licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn, a series of six imposing, largely red panels, five of which are loosely based on the ‘senses’. Made around 1490, they truly are a wonderful sight. Among the richly detailed needlework, and nestled among the intricate leopards, monkeys and giant white rabbits on the panel known as ‘taste’, I was truly gobsmacked to see this:

Its a parakeet! But on a tapestry made in 15th-century France. It has to be a Psittacula parakeet, but which one? The absence of a red on the wing strongly suggests that this is Ring-necked (as opposed to Alexandrine, the only other contender). How on earth did this exotic wonder crop up in a tapestry in mediaevel France? The bicoloured bill is suggestive of the north Indian subspecies of this bird (as opposed to the geographically closer African one).

A little research suggests that the species has a long history in aviculture, so it may be that the bird our Lady is feeding was actually bred in captivity. Or it might have been traded across from eastern Europe or, who knows, even further afield. Either way, birds of the same introduced exotic species that was swooping above my head some half an hour before were presumably kept in the very same city, more than 500 years before.

So although it seems like they’ve only just bustled into our lives, these noisy green parakeets have been with us in Europe for a long time – I had no idea just how long.

Ring-necked Parakeets on the Eiffel Tower, yesterday.

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Learn more – lots more – about parrots in this Helm guide:

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“A pig is a jolly companion”

This week we have a delightful guest blog from our cherished author and award-winning artist, Celia Lewis, who discloses how life really is living with a pig or two.

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“Mum, there’s a pig at the front door” is not necessarily what you want to hear when you’ve just changed and are about to go out to dinner. “A” pig rather than “a couple of pigs” is even more tiresome as it means one is missing. Never give your pigs names you are advised, if they are going into the freezer – this is fine advice until it comes to calling them when they are lost.

Pigs can be kept on very little or a great deal of land. If you give them as large an area as you possibly can, with plenty of room to root, they will follow their natural instincts.

The pig at the front door is very happy to trot back down to its field with the help of a bucket of nuts, but then there is the problem of finding out where its strong snout has managed to lift up the fence in order to squeeze under. It is quite remarkable how small a gap a large pig can slip through.

Gloucestershire Old Spot sow. The Gloucestershire Old Spot is a pig well suited to the smallholder with a bit of land as they are hardy and excellent foragers.

Finding the lost pig is another matter. We are lucky enough to live on the edge of a huge area of heathland and one feels awfully foolish wandering about shouting “piggy piggy piggy”. Dog walkers are rather surprised, though not half as much as when they meet a large spotted pig trotting merrily along the footpath towards them. Our pigs never went far, however, and were always overjoyed to see you when found.

A healthy snout is cold and moist. The snout is used to dig into the soil to find food and is a very acute sense organ.

The field where our pigs live has a hill right in the middle, which necessitates a long walk all the way round if the pigs aren’t visible, so I taught them to come to a whistle which also saves a lot of calling. The only problem is that lop-eared pigs have trouble locating where a sound is coming from, not to mention being unable to see because their ears hang over their eyes – they hear the whistle and run, but frequently in the wrong direction. Stop, look about, I whistle again and they hurtle in a different direction. Eventually they see me and come running, ears flying – their funny stiff gait always making me laugh. Pigs have the reputation for being intelligent but mine never seemed to learn that when I whistled I was always by their ark where they were fed.

Gone are the days where you could feed your pigs with scraps or kitchen waste. But you may feed fruit and vegetables from your garden and your pigs will certainly appreciate it - windfall apples are a perfect example.

Pigs are characterful creatures that become extremely tame and I did rather regret the way they trotted happily and trustingly up the path and into the stable to start their journey to the abattoir. These two were lucky pigs though, that had five acres to root up – which indeed they did.

Celia Lewis and her Gloucestershire Old Spots.

Celia Lewis is the author and artist of the wonderful Illustrated Guide to series, which are delightfully illustrated and informative books ideal for anyone interested in keeping pigs or chickens who wants to choose the most suitable breed for their circumstances.

There are two published titles in the series so far: the best-selling The Illustrated Guide to Chickens and, brand new this month, The Illustrated Guide to Pigs.

Celia is currently hard at work writing and painting for her next title in this series The Illustrated Guide to Ducks and Geese, due to publish in summer 2012.

Seeking skulkers

Small, drab, dull-brown birds that like to skulk deep in the undergrowth are of disproportionate interest to large swathes of the birding community, and I must admit I’m as susceptible as the next man to their allure. So I’m particularly pleased to be working at the moment on our forthcoming Helm Identification Guide Reed and Bush Warblers, which is jam-packed with hard-to-see (and often extremely-hard-to-identify) species such as these.

I was double-pleased, when researching the images, to find that there were a few species that have simply never been photographed (or if they have I can’t find any!), and one of these was the Cook Islands Reed Warbler. And I was about to go to the Cook Islands. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and fill this gap myself.

The bird occurs on two islands – Mitiaro, which is virtually impossible to get to, and Mangaia, which is only very, very difficult to get to. I plumped for the latter.

To say Mangaia is remote is something of an understatement – I was met off the tiny plane from Rarotonga by the Minister of Tourism, who told me that not only was I the only tourist on the island, I was the only one they’d had for three weeks. Its an amazing place, once you get past the initial shock – the people are warm, friendly and rugby-obsessed, and there’s good birding to be done – watching two species of tropicbirds soaring high above the coral cliffs was a sight I’ll never forget. However, the undoubted star of the show is the island’s endemic kingfisher, found nowhere else in the world.

White-tailed Tropicbirds do their thing, high above the taro swamp.

And then there’s the reed warbler. Very much a bird for the connoisseur, this little brownish-yellow bird is common throughout the island, even in the ghastly, useless introduced pine plantation on the coral plateau that girdles the island. It doesn’t seem too bothered by the lack of habitat, or the infestation of rats and cats the island seems to suffer. Its jangling song, a bit like a Blackcap after a few too many rums, became a welcome soundtrack for my time on the island.

My favourite acro. What's not to love?

The world will see the fruits of my subtropical labour of love when the book comes out in November … if by chance you’re heading to Henderson Island in the Pacific before then and you fancy tracking down and photographing a small, brown, endemic warbler, do let me know …

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Learn more about Cook Island, Henderson, and many other warblers here:

Snapping scavengers

This week, a guest post from author and photographer Clive Finlayson, on an incredible encounter around a carcass in the Pyrenees …

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It’s cold, actually it’s freezing – hard to believe that I am in the Iberian Peninsula and not somewhere in the Arctic. The temperature has plummeted to -11oC here at 1,600 metres in the Pyrenees. It’s January. Having to keep motionless in the dark really doesn’t help much, nor do the layers of thermal underwear, tights, pairs of socks … the sky outside is intense blue. That should, at least, ensure good conditions for photography. But will our target birds arrive today?

It’s now 10am and my wife and I have been in the hide for four hours. The sun is up but the temperature stays below freezing. Some silhouettes flit past. They are large. We focus the cameras on the deer carcass laid out barely 15 metres away, and we wait … out of nowhere a Griffon Vulture appears, as though by magic, but he’s been soaring cautiously above the bait – we just couldn’t see him with our limited view. A blink of the eye and there are now twenty vultures on the ground. They look around nervously, unsure. We avoid the temptation of clicking away. This would be the wrong moment. If they get spooked now, that will be it for today. Ten minutes later and a hundred or so Griffons approach the carcass. The first one goes for the intestines and starts to open up a gash. Others come in quickly. They start to scream and chatter at each other. The frenzy has started. Now we can start to shoot!

Griffons doing their thing.

Twenty minutes and hundreds of photos later the deer is a skeleton but our work has only just begun. Hanging around the edge of the frenzy, eight Black Vultures now come forward. They may be larger but they cannot compete with so many Griffons. But there is plenty for them to eat now; tough tendons, sinews and hide all get torn to shreds by their powerful beaks. Even now we haven’t got what we came for and we know we may not get it at all. Previous visits have ended in disappointment – they didn’t come down or they kept some distance. Today is different. We can see their distinctive shadows on the ground – large with a wedge-shaped tail …

Black Vultures - the Face of Death.

Then, as unexpectedly as the first Griffon, our first Lammergeier is down – a first-year bird. This one stays on the edge of the commotion. It looks around nervously but then starts to walk towards the hide. A second bird puts it up as it lands. These birds seem to have the habit of landing close to each other in threatening fashion, often displacing each other. And the young ones seem more aggressive than the adults. Then the “wow” moment as the first adult lands. Its hard to believe how spectacular this bird is when it is just a few metres away.

The Lammergeier.

Anvils? Who needs anvils. The Lammergeiers find their ideal bones, manipulate them with dexterity and swallow them whole! That’s just one lesson from watching birds close in. It’s only when the optimal bones are exhausted that the larger ones are carried away, held in one foot or with the beak.

The scene I have described would have been a familiar one to our prehistoric ancestors. In fact, most of the Palearctic species around today predate the last two million years of glaciation and many are much older. Lammergeiers shared their Palaearctic range with the Neanderthals – the fit is almost too exact – and they must have come into close competition for bone marrow. No doubt the Neanderthals watched the vultures, who led them to sources of food.

An Egyptian Vulture joins the fun.

I’m now back at home in Gibraltar, going through the palaeontological collections that I have been excavating here for twenty years. I bring out a set of bones from a Neanderthal occupation level. In my hand is a metatarsus of a Lammergeier and the box also contains Griffon, Egyptian and another large vulture (probably Black). The bones are 40,000 years old. I reflect on the history of the avifauna of the Palearctic. How did climate shape the fates of the birds? Can we combine the fossils with the living birds to give us a better understanding of the history and biogeography of Palaearctic birds? In Avian Survivors I hope to answer these questions and more …

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Clive is the author of Avian Survivors: The History and Biogeography of Palearctic Birds – on sale next month!

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A sticky situation

A few years back I had a memorable journey through Sri Lanka, and I’ve had a soft spot for the birds of this magical island ever since. I’m currently busy compiling photos for our book Cuckoos of the World, and was drawn to a series of snaps of one of my favourite Sri Lankan endemics, the scarce and rather beautiful Red-faced Malkoha, taken in the famous Sinharaja rain forest by tour guide and photographer Amila Salgado.

A nice portrait, but what really blew my mind was this. Take a look.

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A bird carrying nest material? Wrong.

This cuckoo is actually feeding on a gigantic, branch-sized stick insect!

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I had to know more, so I had a look at Amila’s blog (his profile claims that he ‘holds the record as the first birder from Colombo to visit the Sinharaja rain forest in a tuktuk’ – very much our kind of chap). Amila took the photo during a trip to Sinharaja in 2004, just days after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami had hit the island. After seeing the bird in one of the mixed-species flocks (or ‘bird-waves’) that are a speciality of the forest, he took photos as the bird gave the insect a good bash, removing the limbs and the possibly defensive chemical-containing thorax, before tucking in.

Far from being any old stick insect, this is actually one of the world’s biggest insects. After an initial misidentification, an expert in the phasmid world told Amila that his malkoha was munching an adult female Phobaeticus hypharpax, one of the largest of the so-called ‘mega-sticks’, with a body length of up to 236mm. What a whopper.

This wasn’t just a great photo of a great bird doing something remarkable. It turns out that prior to the publication of these photos, the range of this insect was mysterious (with the handful of ancient specimens in collections all labelled simply ‘Ceylon’). So entomologists now know a little more about the beast, although its biology remains almost completely unknown.


Mighty though P. hyparphax is, it is some way behind the world record holder – P. chani, Chan’s Mega-stick, which lives on the island of Borneo. Formally described in 2008, Chan’s Mega-stick has a body length of up to 357 mm; its overall length with the limbs stretched out is an astonishing 567mm! Just imagine that.

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Read about Amila Salgado and his tours – and see more of his great photos – here.

Amila is a contributor to Cuckoos of the World by Johannes Erritzøe, Clive Mann, Frederik Brammer and Richard Fuller – coming soon.

A birder in government

Not many people know this, but the newly appointed Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition government is a birder. He is John Randall, known to his closest friends as Alex. He’s an old chum of mine and was even best man at my first wedding, many years ago now. In those days, he used to lead a few birdwatching tours to places such as Hungary and Poland, and at that time I too was a Birdquest tour leader, in my pre-publishing days. We all had fewer commitments then before marriage and families intervened and we were free to travel to exotic destinations to watch birds.

Alex was elected as MP for Uxbridge in 1997, in a move that surprised even his closest friends. Since then he has diligently worked in the whips office in opposition, with rather little time for birding, though he does manage to get away on a few family holidays (for example a trip to Borneo last year with one of his sons).

I won’t bore you all with tales of lunches in the House of Commons, but Alex did send me the photo below recently. He’s on his way to the State Opening of Parliament (no, he doesn’t travel to work like that every day!). Apparently one of the perks of his new job is to ride in this fancy coach behind Her Majesty. How the other half lives!

To find out more details about John Randall, check out his entry in the latest edition of Who’s Who.

 

A case of mistaken identity

Spring is a busy time for birders. This year, it got off to a slow start after the severe winter, but suddenly it was all happening! The trees burst into life and there was much to do in my kitchen garden. There were also the Timed Tetrad Visits to complete for the new BTO Atlas (this country-wide project is now more than half way through its four-year cycle). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I had to go off on a Birdquest tour to Georgia and Armenia (I know that sounds tough, but someone has to do it – more about this later, if I get time). When I returned in late May, I was busier than ever. But there is only so much gardening and survey work that you can do, and a fix of local patch birding is what was needed to remedy this.

My local birding is largely confined to Rye Harbour and Dungeness, both of which are within easy reach of my home in East Sussex. I was spurred on by the welcome news that a pair of Purple Herons was nesting there. This southern European species is a regular spring overshoot to Britain, but it has never nested here before. I set off with the usual enthusiasm and confidence, but Purple Herons are well known for their secretive habits when breeding in dense reedbeds. I should have known better! I arrived at the site near Dungeness where the only other vehicle was a Winnebago containing three middle-aged men drinking tea. A camera on a tripod with a huge lens pointing at the reedbed indicated they must be birders, so I asked them if they’d seen the Purple Herons. Their response took me by surprise. They claimed not to know about any Purple Herons, so I assumed they were not serious birders who just happened to be at the precise locality for the herons. I scanned the reedbed and pools diligently until an old friend turned up. Ray Turley is a well-known figure at Dungeness. He lives just down the road and birdwatches there most days. We chatted for a bit, before he wandered over to the Winnebago. He seemed to know its occupants well, and then the penny dropped. These guys were serious birders after all, and they were pretending not to know about the herons in case I was a dodgy character! Maybe they thought I was there to disturb the birds or, worse, to try to steal the eggs. As it turned out, they were indeed part of the official round-the-clock rota that was put in place to protect the birds while the eggs were being incubated. Having cleared up this little misunderstanding, I stayed another hour, but the herons were not playing ball.

It took three more visits before I finally caught up with these elusive birds. Presumably they will become a little more obvious when they are feeding young, but during incubation they tend to keep well hidden. My visit last weekend was enhanced with another scarce European visitor. A first-summer male Red-footed Falcon spent a week in the area. I hadn’t seen one in Britain for more than 20 years, and it was a real pleasure to see this charming little falcon hunting insects over the marsh, though it actually spent most of its time perched on telegraph poles and wires. Although most of its plumage was blue-grey, it showed the dull red vent and bright red legs so characteristic of the adult male, but a broad buff collar indicated that this bird was only a year old. An interesting plumage.

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Find out more about Nigel’s local patch in the brand new edition of Where to Watch Birds in Britain, due to be published at the end of June.

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“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience”

Our guest blogger this week is David Tipling – a well-known professional wildlife photographer who for the last 20 years has travelled extensively, photographing some of the world’s most iconic wildlife. In this week’s blog, David reflects on the early days of wildlife photography and some of its pioneers.

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I was recently asked to take part in a programme for Radio 4 on Emma Turner. If you live in the Norfolk Broads and have a keen interest in wildlife you may have heard of Turner, but largely she has been forgotten. Yet a hundred years ago she shot to fame within the wildlife photography and conservation world, for it was Emma who discovered the first Bitterns breeding back in Britain since their extinction in 1868 and she took images of the young that even a hundred years on are still striking. For these photos she was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Gold Medal, a once prestigious award. Blowing the dust off Turner’s best-known book Broadland Birds I got thinking about those early photographers.

Bittern stalking through the marsh in autumn.

Emma Turner was very much a pioneer; she started taking pictures with a plate camera in 1900 just five years after R.B. Lodge took the first ever image of a bird, of a Lapwing on a nest. The limitations of her equipment meant she needed to be within just a few feet of her subject. Turner would get one of her helpers to cover her in reeds or any other natural material to hand and would lie prone for hours in pursuit of often just one image, because once her plate was exposed she had to reload the camera with another. At the same time the Kearton brothers were also experimenting with concealment; they tried disguising themselves in a pantomime horse, made a false tree in which to hide and employed countless other ways of getting close to birds, but neither they nor Emma had yet to start using a simple canvas tent that later became known as a hide.

Early wildlife photographers had to improvise their hides from whatever materials were to hand.

In spite of these rudimentary beginnings remarkably by the start of the First World War nearly every species of British breeding bird had been photographed. Cherry and Richard Kearton blazed a trail and became very well known, indeed Cherry Kearton’s films were screened in cinemas around the world. And by the 1920s there was an ever-growing army of photographers, many still choosing to use the plate camera as it gave such excellent image quality. Plate cameras were still restrictive, however, both in reach (as you had to be so close to your subject) and because you could only expose one image before having to remove and reload the next plate – a far cry from the 10 frames a second photographers can capture now.

It was during the 1920s that camera manufacturers started producing single lens reflex cameras for smaller formats. This was a huge leap forward for wildlife photographers and a decade later another major breakthrough came with the invention of Kodak colour film.

Today's wildlife photographers can use lenses to create the illusion of proximity with their subjects. The long lens used to photograph this resting fox helped isolate the fox's head and provide focus on its one open eye.

Since then our equipment has evolved to allow us to be able to capture the most amazing images from the natural world. But there is still one requirement of wildlife photographers that was as relevant to taking a great picture in 1911 as it still is in 2011, and that is perseverance. Kearton, Turner and the many great photographers that followed them have, of course, all experienced moments of luck when something special happens at exactly the right moment, but the harder you try the luckier you get.

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David is the author of several books and his wildlife photographs have been published widely throughout the world. The fully revised second edition of his RSPB Guide to Digital Wildlife Photography was published earlier this year and is available to buy on our website now. It’s the ultimate reference book for all aspiring and established natural history photographers.

A glimpse of a golden dragon?

This week, a guest blog from author and photographer Marianne Taylor, in search of elusive insect visitors …

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What an Easter weekend it was. Every day was wall-to-wall sunshine, and the heat was more suggestive of August than April. We’d already had one full day out, watching Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Peregrines at Seaford Head in Sussex, and now it was Sunday night and I was surfing around the wildlife websites, looking for inspiration for something to do on Easter Monday. A thread on a message board caught my eye – ‘Vagrant Emperors at RSPB Dungeness’. I read on – three rare dragonflies that were supposed to be in Africa had been found hawking over a ditch down in east Kent.

Twitching, or rarity-chasing, isn’t just for the birders. When we arrived on Denge Marsh Road on Monday morning, there was already a long row of parked cars – everyone eager to see the exotic dragonflies. People were standing on a nearby stone bridge over the ditch that had seen all the action yesterday. No Vagrant Emperors to be seen – perhaps they had flown on north, but it hardly seemed to matter. We were surrounded by wildlife.

A male Marsh Harrier soars away (Marianne Taylor)

Overhead, the local Marsh Harriers cruised and wheeled. Through the morning they shared their airspace with a mini-procession of migrant raptors – a Red Kite, another, a Hobby, a third kite. Closer to hand, a Sedge Warbler sang with extraordinary verve and exuberance. I watched as it pirouetted around a reed stem, then launched itself skywards, singing furiously all the time. Over the creek flew little Hairy Hawker dragonflies, while right below us in the water lurked a hefty Pike, regarding the humans above with a cold and disenchanted eye.

A Sedge Warbler doing its thing (Marianne Taylor)

Then a shout came from down the creek – when all hope seemed lost, someone had spotted the Vagrant Emperor. The electrified crowd moved as one, racing down the path alongside the creek, trying to control swinging binoculars and cameras and dodging ruts and furrows underfoot. We caught a glimpse of the golden-winged dragon just as it disappeared around a bend.

Vagrant Emperor in flight, Dungeness (Robert Cardell)

We waited, and eventually it came powering back along the creek, a volley of camera clicks tracking its progress. We sat in the long grass and watched it go by again, once, twice, three times, and then it was gone. Everyone began to drift away, but we stayed a little longer, watching Swallows skimming the fields around us while fat, clumsy alderflies settled on our shoes and a freshly emerged Hairy Hawker climbed slowly up a reed stem, the sunshine glistening on its brand new wings.

Hairy Hawker (Marianne Taylor)

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Marianne is the author of our brilliant new book RSPB Nature Watch – click the cover below to pick up a copy! You can read more about Marianne’s adventures on her blog, The Wild Side.

Seabird adventures in the South Seas

A few months back, I wrote an article about A&C Black author Hadoram Shirihai and his fearless quest for seabirds. In this piece (written on behalf of the Tubenoses Project and Extreme Gadfly Petrel Expeditions Ltd), Hadoram and his colleague Vincent Bretagnolle update us on an audacious and truly amazing research expedition to the Western Pacific in April and May this year. Prepare yourself for a tale of adventure and some fascinating discoveries …

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We have just completed an extraordinary research expedition to Vanuatu. Our main focus was collecting additional material for our taxonomic investigation of the brevipes-leucoptera complex, within the gadfly petrels. Our first major expedition to this region was conducted in December 2009–January 2010, and on this occasion we again reached the remote Banks Islands, in the north of Vanuatu. There we tried to relocate and study our new petrel, which we have recently named and described as a new taxon to science, the Magnificent Petrel Pterodroma (brevipes) magnificens (for full details see Bretagnolle & Shirihai 2010).

Magnificent Petrel, April 2011, off Mota Lava Island. The smallest but most attractive of the gadfly petrels – and endemic to the Banks Islands, North Vanuatu! Note the combination of small, delicate appearance, particularly the slender bill and body, and proportionally longish tail. The Magnificent Petrel occurs almost exclusively in this dark form (in at least 99% of the individuals examined); note also the predominantly dark underwing with a very broad black diagonal band and grey greater-coverts, leaving an extremely limited pure-white covert area.

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The new data and some of the discoveries made on our latest expedition (especially from northern Vanuatu but also from elsewhere from Western Pacific) will be analysed and published in the ornithological literature before becoming available in full to the public. However, we are delighted to give a taster of some of our findings and photos now. This expedition was easily the most challenging of our careers, but also one of the most successful, especially regarding the new discoveries we made on the way.

During a pelagic search in the Banks Islands, especially off Gaua, Vanua Lava and Mota Lava Islands, we found in the space of just three days no fewer than 107 Magnificent Petrels, and counted 420 Vanuatu Petrels P. (cervicalis) occulta.

Vanuatu Petrel, the other endemic gadfly petrel of the Banks Islands, April 2011, off Mota Lava. This petrel was first collected in 1927, but it was only seen alive at sea in 2006 (by the authors); on the latest expedition more than 400 individuals were counted at sea, and good numbers of birds were studied at night at the colonies in Vanua Lava.

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Many birds were documented with the most advanced camera equipment, with issues of plumage variation, moult and ageing of the petrels being the main target in these observations. We also collected data on oceanic distribution, pre-evening inland penetration, gathering behaviour, movement and feeding behaviour. To see video footage of the team in action at sea, click here!

(Left) Hadoram during the pelagic survey, documenting plumage variation and behaviour of the petrels; (right) Herald Petrel Pterodroma heraldica was among the surprises during the pelagic – a truly rare breeder or vagrant in the West Pacific. April 2011, off Mota Lava Island.

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Following an earlier 2011 expedition conducted by scientists from Australia (S. Totternam) and New Zealand (Colin Miskelly and Alan Tennyson), and partly with the same local guides, we reached the highest volcano complex of the Island of Vanua Lava, Banks Islands, where we were able to confirm our 2009 discovery of the Magnificent Petrel’s breeding island.

With three islanders we climbed the forest in Vanua Lava Island, entering the complex of the volcano, Qwelrakrak. Here we are crossing the volcanic sulphur fields at the base of the caldera.

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The location of the breeding colony is suspected to be on a very steep cliff (inaccessible by all means); this forms part of the caldera of a still partially active volcano! Despite this sizeable challenge, and with the help of three local villagers, we camped out, spending four nights on the top of the caldera, just above the colony and where non-breeding birds were making powerful nocturnal aerial displays.

The breeding locality of the Magnificent Petrel, a cliff top on Qwelrakrak Volcano’s caldera on Vanua Lava, Banks Islands.

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Each night, between 20 and 40 Magnificent Petrels were involved in these impressive and highly vocal flight displays – to hear some of these extraordinary calls, click here: the deep call is of the female, followed by an unsexed bird uttering ‘machine-like’ tig-tig calls; these may also function to help the birds avoid crashing into each other in the dark!

By comparison, during the initial discovery of the breeding location on the 2009–10 expedition, only 5–10 birds (presumably breeding adults) were displaying at this location in December (some also gave ground calls). The possible differences in the age-class and display behaviours between the two expeditions – December (adults) versus April (non-breeders) – augment our hypothesis that the Magnificent Petrel is a summer (instead of winter) breeder within the brevipes-leucoptera complex.

Magnificent Petrels on Vanua Lava Island.

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We managed to mist-net quite a few of the displaying petrels, allowing us to collect highly valuable biometric data, to perform DNA sampling, and to photograph all the Magnificent Petrels we trapped. Many hours of tape recordings were collected for acoustic investigation too. The new data will help to refine the taxonomic relationships and taxonomic rank of the Magnificent Petrel.

A Magnificent Petrel on Vanua Lava Island. When handled, Magnificent Petrels are very calm, almost as if they are ‘allowing’ examination. Birds were trapped for measurements and blood sampling. Note the broad diagonal black underwing-band, leaving a limited pure-white covert area.

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Magnificent Petrel on Vanua Lava, an extreme dark individual with a smaller white facial area; note the typical dark bluish-grey below.

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During the work on Vanua Lava Island, we also took biometric and acoustic data and carried out genetic sampling of the Vanuatu Petrel, from the recently discovered breeding colony of this petrel – these data will complement current studies of this petrel lead by the Australia/New Zealand team mentioned above, along with local islanders of Vanua Lava. A report on the first at-sea sightings of Vanuatu Petrel as well as on identification and variation in the taxon can be found here.

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This was a difficult and challenging expedition, with some serious life-risking situations for us to deal with. Perhaps the most dangerous was a night escape from a volcanic sulphur eruption. At midnight on 26th April, while Vincent was located at the bottom of the caldera (to improve acoustic conditions for recording Vanuatu Petrels at night) and Hadoram was trying to monitor and capture displaying Magnificent Petrels at the top, there was a steaming eruptive event, with dramatic increases of air temperature and the release of toxic gases. The dense volcanic cloud trapped Hadoram, unfortunately while he held two Magnificent Petrels in his hand. Vincent managed to run away back to the forest, escaping intoxication, but stuck at the top of the caldera, Hadoram had no choice other than to take the two petrels into his sealed tent, and to wait for a few hours with a gas mask attached to his face until the air had cleared up. Hadoram also tied a wet towel around the heads and bills of the two Magnificent Petrels to protect them from the gases. Only at about 03.00 the next morning had the gases dispersed and the air cleaned up; at this point the two Magnificent Petrels were released safely, unharmed.

The source of the sulphurous volcanic eruption on Qwelrakrak.

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The next day Hadoram was very ill – due partly to the cold, wet conditions, and partly to exposure to the gases – and an eight-hour struggle through the forest back to the ocean did not help matters. However, on an expedition such as this one has two choices – recover quickly and continue, or die. Indeed, we continued to another island group, where we made additional petrel discoveries at sea and on land, and where Vincent became the first European to reach several summits (according to local islanders), discovering the breeding grounds of other petrels. The complete story of that part of the expedition will be published soon (hopefully), and everything is documented in the expedition’s diary as well …

In addition to our discoveries, and work on Magnificent and Vanuatu Petrel biology mentioned above, the expedition was invaluable for the completion of collecting information on all the known populations of the brevipes-leucoptera complex of gadfly petrels, including at-sea chumming photographic documentations, biometrics, acoustic and genetic data, and which hopefully will help to reveal some of the secrets of these incredible and still little-known seabirds.

Sunrise at the breeding locality of the Magnificent and Vanuatu Petrels, at the top of the Qwelrakrak caldera, Vanua Lava. The bottom of the caldera is still steaming away after the midnight eruption.

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To view Driven by the Petrels, a short (and fairly amazing) movie summarising events on the first leg of the expedition to the Banks Islands discussed above, click here!

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Hadoram Shirihai and Vincent Bretagnolle are the authors of the forthcoming Albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters of the world: a handbook to their taxonomy, identification, ecology and conservation, and Field Guide to the Seabirds of the World, both published by Christopher Helm.

Extreme Gadfly Petrel Expeditions Ltd is a non-commercial body with the specific goal of searching for and studying the least-known and rarest species of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, and to increase awareness for the conservation of seabirds in general. Extreme Gadfly Petrel Expeditions and the Tubenoses Project perform two or three major research expeditions to remote waters and islands every year.

Vincent (left) and Hadoram (centre top), with some of the Lalngetak islanders that are protecting and assisting the study of the petrels on Vanua Lava, Manman (right) and Brown (centre below), with the photo taken by Jackson.

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For Mike Imber: The authors dedicate the expedition and this report to the memory of a recently lost friend and collaborator, Mike Imber (New Zealand), who died while the current expedition was taking place. Mike’s contribution to petrel ecology and conservation had no match, and we both owe him a lot. We were deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Mike; the petrel community has lost a true authority.