We've all got our 'bogey' species of wildlife. The bird, animal, or insect that you just can't seem to connect with, no matter how hard you try. Hours spent waiting in silence, patiently and visiting sites recommended by the experts, adopting all the tricks of the trade, resulting in nothing but a sore bum and disappointment. You know the feeling.
I'm a man who spends a lot of time in wet places. Marshes, rivers (I live very close to the River Ouse), lakes and lagoons are places I spend a lot of time. I've even had a long trip to Shetland, the stronghold of my bogey, but came back with nothing. Scotland's west and north coast has provided a few glimpses (even a poor photo), but the otter remains something of an enigma to me.
I know they live on my local river; I know they're seen, often the day before, on RSPB reserves I visit with Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk and Minsmere in Suffolk places where I've heard the "You should have been here yesterday" comments. It was even slightly painful writing and working with Joel on commissioning illustrations by Robin Carter (including the one below) for our otter piece in Wildabout feature in the current (Winter 2012) issue of Birds magazine.
However, last Saturday the tide turned, the lights went green and the planets aligned. Last Saturday, on my first visit to the new Island Mere Hide at Minsmere, the otter was not a rotter - one showed and it showed well, right in front of the hide, clambering up onto land just a few yards away. It spent the rest of the late afternoon fishing in Island Mere, looking a little like "Nessie" as its head emerged in the water: a slinky, oil slick-like shape wriggling through the water before submerging with a roll and a flick of its tail. With bitterns and Bewick's swans, water rail, a murmuration of roosting starlings, barn owls, plenty of marsh harriers and bearded tits also logged from the comfort of the new padded seats in Island Mere hide, plus a surprise pipistrelle bat (considering it's mid-December) it was a great couple of hours.
So thank you Minsmere and I love the new look visitor centre, hides and play area (just for the record, I didn't actually play on it myself). I am now officially not completely rubbish at seeing otters. If you'd like to try for otters yourself, have a look at our Minsmere web pages and I hear that otters are also showing well at Strumpshaw at present so check in there too.
if you have more luck than otters than me, do feel free to rub it in by posting a comment below and letting us know about your sightings!
As promised on last Friday's blog (part one of my jungle adventure), a few more shots below from my trip to Ghana - the winter home of many of the UK's migrant birds. While researching our turtle dove feature for the April issue of Birds, it has really hit home just how many hazards our migrant birds, like this swallow, face.
Having been to the African wintering grounds, I've seen birds like wood warblers, swallows and swifts at both ends of their epic journeys. There's no doubt that looking after birds when they're in the UK, and ensuring they're able to raise young every summer, is vital but what happens on their journey south across the Sahara and subsequently on their wintering grounds is equally important. Our Malta feature in the magazine set the scene for one particularly awful hazard they face - illegal hunting - but how they cross the desert and fly from the UK to West Africa is beyond me.
This forest scorpion was an exciting sight (Mark Ward)
"Mark, you're getting a bit close to it, Mark it's raising its tail, you're going to get stung, MARK!!!" Even potentially life-saving comments from your companions can fall on deaf ears when it comes to getting "the shot" of amazing creatures like this jungle-dwelling scorpion that I'd actually walked right over. No idea how nasty a sting from it would be; probably best if I don't know.
Now THAT is what I call an antswarm (Mark Ward)
One of the wackiest fungi I have ever seen - a relative of the stinkhorns here in the UK (Mark Ward)
A spider that is almost as big as your face. Sorry, I should have got my head in there to give you a comparison (Mark Ward)
A bit of reportage photography from the bus - amazing egg-balancing skills from the lady in pink (Mark Ward)
Excited children greeted us at the picathartes site (Mark Ward)
Our visit to a white-necked picathartes colony helped to fund the building of a school for these incredibly smiley kinds who were deperate to get their hands on our empty water bottles! A 45 minute hike took us to the birds' cave-colony where we waited in silence for three hours. Fantastic views of four of these plasticine-like birds hopping around the rocks was one of my all-time wildlife highlights!
So that's it for the holiday snaps, but hopefully my reports from our migrant birds' wintering grounds will set the scene for our migrant-themed issue of Birds next April. we'll be giving you lots of tips of where to see migrant birds and revealing some of the mysteries of migration thanks to the work of people like the RSPB's amazing scientists..
You’ll be reading (and hopefully learning!) lots about migrant birds in the next issue of Birds. We’ll be bringing you the story of how the RSPB is trying to find out about turtle doves by tracking them on their perilous migration, plus showing you how you where you can watch migration, and fabulous migrants, near you.
We read a lot about ‘our’ migrants flying to Africa for winter, but Africa is a very big place with a lot of different habitats from desert and savannah to rainforest and wetland! Ever wondered exactly where they go in Africa and what they get up to in winter rather than just disappearing into some unimaginable place a few thousand miles away? I know I have, but that might just be the sceience geek in me wanting to know everything about every bird!
In the jungle
I had an eye-opening trip to West Africa a couple of weeks ago and admittedly it was the star birds of Ghana’s Upper Gunea Rainforest that were my top targets – the bizarre white-necked picatartes (remember that one from RSPB communications around Gola Rainforest in Sierra Leone and our work there?), a host of hornbills, the grebe-like Africa finfoot, the really difficult to see Nkulengu rail (but yes we did see it!) and some eye-popping forest kingfishers, including the chocolate-backed kingfisher (shame it isn’t chocolate-barred...) and another 160 or so species that I’d never seen before on my world travels.
I was surprised to see so many familiar birds from home though while craning my neck for canopy dwellers. Our own swallows among flocks of square-tailed saw-wings, wood warblers sharing the treetops with bizarre African residents such as naked-faced and bristle-nosed barbets and flocks of swifts in lots of places.
You might remember our “In and Out of Africa” feature by Mike Unwin on the work on birds such as wood warblers in Africa. When I was putting that feature together, little did I know that I’d be balancing on the 60 metre high canopy walkway (health and safety officers look away...) at Kakum that featured in it and seeing for myself the wood warblers swapping their oakwood summer homes for lush, and incredibly humid, rainforest. It was so hot in Ghana and the two night's camping with an ice cold jungle shower had me longing for some home comforts!
So, I’m happy to report that ‘our’ birds are doing ok – and one thing is for sure, they’re an awful lot warmer than we are at the moment!
I might look cool, calm and collected, but this is what I'm standing on, 60 metres above the forest floor...(Mark Ward)
Kakum's famous canopy walkway gives views of migrants like wood warblers and swallows among the Africa residents (Mark Ward)
The view below the walkway - gulp (Mark Ward)
In Africa, everything is bigger, from millipedes...(Mark Ward)
...to earthworms! (Mark Ward)
More shots from Ghana, and a bit more about what our migrants are up to at the moment, next Friday.