Friday, 30 December 2016

Watching wildlife across Europe and Africa in 2016

I have had another hectic year leading tours for Naturetrek, sometimes revisiting previous locations but also going to some new countries. I have already written blog posts about the first half of this year, including on The Gambia,  Tanzania, JamaicaRomania and Iceland. More recently, I have returned to Ardnamurchan, in  the Scottish Highlands (August and October), been back to Iceland for the Autumn tours (September), made my first visit to Hungary (October) and returned to The Gambia for the third time this very month!

Sadly, the state of emergency in Ethiopia led to the cancellation of the "Best of Ethiopia" tour in November. These are very hard times and I feel desperately sorry for the local guides and drivers with whom we work. Ethiopia is an extraordinary country and the people deserve a much better future than that which currently confronts them.

I must once again express my appreciation to everyone who joined me on tour in 2016 - best wishes for your travels in 2017. And finally, a huge thank you to all the local leaders, drivers and staff who work so hard to make us welcome and to ensure that every tour is a success.


Pied Kingfisher

Variable Sunbird

Little Bee-eaters

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Iceland - a destination for all seasons

So far this year I have visited Iceland in Februray, March, May and June, leading tours for Naturetrek. I am lucky that my brother, Simon, lives with his wife Lara near Reykjavik - I have a home from home when I need it!

It is an amazing country, close to the Arctic Circle and positioned mid-way between Europe and North America. It is geologically fascinating, with active volcanoes and a wealth of geothermal sites. Vatnajokull is Europe's largest glacier but there are several more dotted around the island. Ongoing volcanic activity, glaciation, extreme weather and the sea have combined to produce an incredible landscape. Black lava flows crunble into the raging Atlantic, tumultuous waterfalls cascade over towering cliffs and snow-topped, precipitous mountains give way to vast sand plains. I can honestly say that it is the most impressive scenery that I have seen anywhere in Europe.

Icerbergs on black sand beach, near Jokulsarlon

And Iceland has a unique atmosphere; the viking heritage lives on in a fiercely independent culture. With a total population under 300,000, there are vast wilderness areas where birds dominate. There are relatively few species compared to the UK but the sheer abundance of breeding birds in the short sumer is astonishing. There are several species that have their most important breeding grounds in Iceland, a few that breed nowhere else in Europe. Winter is the best time to look  for Gyrfalcon, the largest Falcon in the world.  Finally, Iceland is the premier whale watching location in Northern Europe, where sightings of Minke, Humpback and Sperm Whales are very likely.


19th Century Church
Roadside waterfall


There are two different winter tours, one to the north-east around Lake Myvatn and the other to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the west. We witnessed the Northern Lights in both places. The scenery is arguably better in the far north, where we had heavy snow. The lake itself is warmed in places by underwater thermal springs and some areas remain free of ice.


Lake Myvatn


This is the only time to visit Iceland for serious birders - there are breeding seabirds and waders everywhere! During back-to-back tours, I travelled all the way around Iceland along route 1, the main ring-road. Perhaps my favourite area is the east coast because it is so wild and relatively unknown. The most exciting birding was around Lake Myvatn and the whale watching from Husavik was superb. Snaefellnes has a unique atmosphere and taking the Laki Tours boat from Olafsvik, we had close encounters with huge male Sperm Whales. I appreciated having Mike Youdale as co-leader on the second tour, he's an excellent birder and good company! I am due to return to Iceland this autumn, when the Northern Lights should again be visible and flocks of migrating geese can turn up anywhere.

Red-necked Phalarope

Tail fluke of  Humpback Whale

Long-tailed Duck

Common Eider

Jamaica - April 2016

I spent a week with a small Naturetrek group, based at the  Greencastle Estate in north-east Jamaica. The island was a lot more scenic than I expected, the Blue Mountains in particular are truly impressive. The island has more endemic bird species than any other in the Caribbean, and a good number of other regional specialities.

Greeencastle Estate

The Greencastle Estate is superb, with a beautiful colonial-style house set on a hill, with views of the sea and mountains. The staff are great and help to create a really relaxed atmosphere. The 1600 acre grounds used to be run as a sugar plantation but now include a diversity of agriculture and varied habitats. Most of the land is given over to verdant forest, teeming with birds. It makes an ideal base for visiting birders.

Although we only saw around 100 species, there is a great diversity of bird families on Jamaica. The variety is superb and we enjoyed a bird-filled week. We saw all but one of the 29 endemics - my personal favourites being Red-billed Streamertail and Crested Quail Dove. We also saw a good number of American Wood Warblers, the males in colourful breeding plumage. I am now working with Greencastle to help spread the word to birders who have yet to visit Jamaica.

Red-billed Streamertail

Crested Quail Dove, taken with phone through scope!

Romania - May 2016

It amazes me how little most Brits know about Central Europe and our ignorance allows the media to demonise migrants from countries like Romania. In reality, it's a fantastic place with such friendly people! This was the second tour that I have led to this country for Naturetrek. We visited the precipitous Carpathian Mountains, the tops covered in snow but the forested valleys alive with birdsong. Here we visited a private hide to see Brown Bears - we had prolonged views of a dozen bears in a forest clearing.

Then we drove south east across wide agricultural plains to Tulcea. Here we boarded our "Floatel" to spend four days exploring the Danube Delta. This is Europe's largest wetland and home to many thousands of breeding birds. It offers arguably the best birding on our continent!

Pelicans gather together in huge flocks and at dawn, they can be seen flying in long, undulating lines, across the vast reedbeds. At one point, we found ourselves in the middle of a big flock as they gorged themselves on a shoal of small fish, in the company of hundreds of Cormorants; it was one of the most memorable wildlife experiences of my life!

Great White Pelican

There are several species of heron and egret in the Delta and we saw dozens every day. If I was picking a favourite species, it would be hard to choose between Squacco  and Night Heron, both of which have a subtle beauty that is hard to catpure in a photograph.

Squacco Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

The variety of birds is surprising. Whiskered, Black and White-winged Terns all breed, laying their eggs on floating vegetation around the many hidden lakes.  Grebes include both Black-necked and Red-necked, Grey-headed Woodpeckers are quite common and we had close views of Black Woodpecker. We heard many Golden Orioles and Nightingales but they were hard to see; more obliging were diminuitive Penduline Tits, building their hanging nests in the reedbeds. At the other end of the scale, we had fantastic views of Red-footed Falcons and  majestic White-tailed Eagles.

White-tailed Eagle

We completed our tour around Tulcea and the Black Sea coast, where we saw such specialities as Paddyfield Warbler and Levant Sparrowhawk. It's not all about birds though; apart from Brown Bear, we saw several other species of mammal including Golden Jackal and lovely little Sousliks.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Tanzania - January 2016

Northern Tanzania is a classic safari location where Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs hunt huge herds of Wildebeest, Zebra and Gazelle. I have made two trips to Ethiopia, which is an amazing country with a wealth of wildlife. However, it does not have large herds of game and big cats are very hard to find. So when I was asked to fill in as leader on the Naturetrek Tanzania Highlights tour, I didn't hesitate!

Lioness - Serengeti

We flew into Kilimanjaro and met up with our driver/guides, Yusef and Leakey. They were very experienced and it was real pleasure working with them throughout the tour. We spent our first full day in Arusha National Park before three nights in Tarangire. After a short visit to Manyara, we travelled farther west, left the tarmac road behind  and continued on to the vast plains of the Serengeti. Our tour finished with three nights in a lodge overlooking the incredible Ngorongoro Crater.

Tarangire is famous for its Elephants and we were able to approach very close in our landcruisers. We saw mainly females with young of varying sizes. We had great views of Banded and Dwarf Mongoose as well as many Rock Hyrax. One of the highlights was a majestic Martial Eagle, perched in a roadside tree.

Manyara is famous for its tree-climbing Lions but we saw only a frustrating silhouette in a tangle of branches - we were to get much better views at Serengeti. However, the wetland birds were superb, including a frenzied feeding flock of Black Herons.

Serengeti means "endless plains" in the Maasai language and it is a genuinely awe-inspiring sight. As we drove through Naabi Hill Gate, a vast panorama was revealed, where herds of game number in the thousands. Lions and Hyenas can be seen loping along or resting near the roadside. We saw a total of three Leopards, all in the same afternoon. However, the highlight of the whole trip was when we were able to photograph a pride of Lions, resting in a large acacia tree.

We visited at the end of the short rains and many of the Zebras and Gazelles had small young. Near Lake Ndutu, we watched a Cheetah stalk down a baby Grant's Gazelle, as its helpless parent looked on. At the lake shore, we came across a herd of Wildebeest trying to cross; we followed them for some time as they repeatedly charged into the shallows, only to give up and return again to the shore. More relaxed were the Maasai Giraffes, who fed in the woodland around our tented camp; they are so impressive when seen close up!

Ngorongoro Crater was a fitting finale and here we saw our  only Black Rhino of the trip. We drove down each morning into the huge caldera and spent hours driving around the crater floor. We were lucky to witness the birth of a Wildebeest, which was on its feet and following its mother within five minutes of being born!

Ngorongoro Crater - view from rim

The Gambia - January and March 2016

January and March - The Gambia

I flew out of London Gatwick on the morning of January 1st, leaving winter behind to land in the warm sunshine of Banjul, capital of The Gambia. The smallest country on mainland Africa, it was established around the mighty Gambia River and played a key role in the slave trade. The people are very warm and welcoming, despite the fact that many struggle with poverty. The culture is fascinating, with the Muslim faith being combined with many aspects of  older, traditional beliefs and rituals. Tourism is central to the economy, along with fishing and agriculture.


We stayed at the Mandina Lodges, an exemplary eco-tourism project that sits on the shores of a mangrove-lined tributary of the Gambia River and in the middle of the Makasutu Cultural Forest. Canoe trips along the Mandina Bolon enabled us to get very close to herons, egrets, waders and kingfishers. The forest held a fantastic variety of birds, including several species of both bee-eaters and rollers. All of our local guides were superb; as well as paddling the canoes, they took us on many walks through the forest and surrounding agricultural areas.

White-throated Bee-eaters

African Darter

In March, I was lucky enough to return to Mandina with a group that included John Barnett, an old friend with whom I had lost touch for over twenty years! We broke the Naturetrek record for this tour, seeing a total of 194 bird species during the week. Mammals are less in evidence but it is possible to get very close to the troop of Guinea Baboons that frequent the forest. 

Big thanks to Lamin Jarju and Alagie Bojang, who worked with me on both tours.

Guinea Baboon

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

From The Gambia to Iceland, via Tanzania and Jamaica

It has been an amazing year so far, during which I have visited The Gambia, Tanzania, Iceland, Jamaica and Romania.  I am currently working more or less full-time as a naturalist and tour leader for Naturetrek, the UK's biggest wildlife holiday company. I have been fortunate to witness some iconic wildlife amidst breath-taking scenery. I have travelled with some lovely people and greatly enjoyed their company.

One of the best aspects of leading for Naturetrek is the opportunity to work alongside outstanding local guides and drivers, whose knowledge and enthusiasm  is inspiring - many thanks to all of them for making my job so much easier and for giving me a real taste of local life!

The only downside to all this travelling is that time at home has been very limited. I don't see enough of my family and this blog has also been badly neglected. So before I head off to the Scottish Highlands next week, I am going to add a post about each country that I have visited so far this year; I hope it makes for an interesting read!

Spotted Hyena - Tanzania

Joklusarlon Iceberg Lagoon - Iceland

Sunbathing Guinea Baboon - The Gambia

Greencastle Estate - Jamaica