Author Archives: Jim

The nitter-natter of tiny feet

This week, editor extraordinaire Julie brings us a stirring tale of lice and labour ..


When was my first time?

Well it wasn’t when I was a child.

My first experience with nits was exactly a year ago. At eight and a half months pregnant  my toddler daughter came home on her last day at nursery with ‘the letter‘.

We’ve timed that well, I thought, after a quick scan of her scalp. She’ll spend the summer home with me and her soon-to-arrive sibling completely nit-free.

Two weeks later I had another squint at her head as I washed her hair. What the hey?! Forcing myself to take a closer look I discovered an impressive infestation.

Nits in action

That night while my daughter played happily in the bath I slathered conditioner on her hair. Nit-comb and tissue paper in hand I was ready to start the eradication process.

One comprehensive round of clearing later I knew I was supposed to wait five days before checking for newly hatched lice. But, with nothing but time on my hands, it became an irresistible daily urge to take a peek every bath-time. Did that speck just move? Is that one? Is it a different colour to the ones I removed before?

I thought I’d  just ask my mum to check me. Seconds later she was presenting me with exhibits on a white tissue to examine and confirm. No! NO! Surely not me too? Days from my due date I had to concede that, yes, my cuddly little bed-invading toddler had passed on her infestation.

Action stations. I would not have a baby while there were things on my head having babies of their own!

A head louse, yesterday.

My mum was a godsend and as the first days after my due date passed I was just relieved. I’ll be able to get rid of the little bleeders before the babe arrives, I thought.

By day ten after my due date I was too hot, tired and emotional to do anything except eat ice lollies, keep my feet elevated and hope that something was going to happen today.

Due date +12: my daughter’s head was looking more louse-free by the day. And I was now so adept at the conditioner/comb combo that, despite my long locks, I could do a pretty good job on my own, then ask my mum to check through my workmanship.

So there I was, sitting on my bed watching Timothy Olyphant being Justified combing through my softly slathered tresses when I thought, “hmm, was that a twinge?” I quickly finished combing, jumped back in the shower to rinse off and realised if it’s making me groan out loud it’s not a twinge, it’s a contraction. And after two weeks wait they came fast.

At 4.30pm I was on the bed with Timothy, by 6.20pm I was on a hospital bed meeting baby.

Olyphant: expressed 'sympathy' for Julie's plight.

She was born with a beautiful dark head of hair which, like lice, is subtly changing colour with age, but thankfully within which the little blighters have yet to be found. But now she’s at nursery too I know it’s only a matter of time until I reach for those combs again.


This blog was inspired by the brilliant NIT HEADS blog, by Richard Jones and Justine Crow. Richard and Justine are currently writing The Little Book of Nits – indispensable advice for any parent. Coming soon …


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.



Learn more lots more about parrots in this Helm guide:

Snapping scavengers

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


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 …


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

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.

A bird carrying nest material? Wrong.

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


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.


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.

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 …


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

A Passion for Puffins

This week, a guest blog from Mike Harris and Sarah Wanless, from the Puffin colony on the Isle of May, Scotland …


It is early morning and we are peering out of a weathered wooden hide at some 400m2 of grassy slope – part of the largest Puffin colony in the North Sea, on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve in the entrance to the Firth of Forth, southeast Scotland. Some of the Puffins disturbed by our arrival at the hide are starting to land, while others that dived down into their burrows peer out before confidently re-emerging. They should be used to us, since this is the 40th year that we have been watching them.

View from the hide (Liz Mackley).

The colony is a busy place today, even though by early May most pairs will probably be incubating their single egg, deep within their burrow. However, some birds are still squabbling over the ownership of burrows. Usually this involves little more than threats but there is the occasional scrap, with the protagonists tumbling down the slope, beaks locked, wings flailing. Other birds are tugging away at clumps of dead grass and taking bundles down burrows to line the nest chambers. Periodically, a rabbit hops through the area looking slightly intimidated by all the Puffin activity. During the winter it probably lived in a Puffin burrow but has been evicted  now that the owner has returned, its soft nose being no match for a Puffin’s beak!

Puffin and rabbit (Eleanor Watt).

As well as simply enjoying watching the goings-on in the Puffin colony, our visit to the hide on this and many other mornings has a more scientific purpose. We are trying to read all the colour-ring combinations of the birds that are present, and this is best done early in the season before the vegetation has grown. At the end of the 2010 season, 158 colour-ringed Puffins were known to be alive, and so far this season we have recorded 75% of these at least once. There is still plenty of time to tick off more birds but already it is clear that that survival rate over the 2010–11 winter has been good, since the resighting rate is approaching the normal 80–85%. Actual survival is always a little higher than the resighting rate, since we never see all the birds alive.

The Puffin that we would love to see, but sadly probably won’t, is ‘yellow-blue left, yellow-BTO ring right’, a male ringed as a breeding adult in 1974, when he would have been at least five years old. He last bred in burrow number 100 in 2005 and was present in the colony in 2006 and 2008, when he would have been at least 39 years old. Currently the longevity record for the Puffin is held by a bird that died in the Lofoten Islands in Norway when aged 41 years.

Colour-ringed Puffin on the Isle of May (Liz Mackley).

On the Isle of May the Puffin is among the earliest of the seabirds to breed, with the first egg often laid in the first few days of April. The incubation period lasts 40–42 days, so we are now looking forward to one of the highlights of summer at a seabird colony, seeing the first Puffin carrying fish ashore.

Puffin carrying sandeels (Akinori Takahashi).


Mike and Sarah are the authors of our forthcoming book The Puffin – coming soon!


The tale of the elusive robin

This week, a guest blog from ace wildlife photographer Ramesh Anantharaman, introducing the amazing and beautiful region of Sikkim, and an encounter with a very special bird indeed …


Sikkim is a nature lover’s paradise and, with more than 550 species, a birdwatcher’s dream. Set in the eastern Himalayas, this primarily Buddhist Indian state extends from the foothills to some of the highest reaches of the Himalayas, with habitats varying from moist deciduous forests to alpine meadows, snow-clad peaks and high-altitude deserts. As in other parts of the Himalayas, the climate is highly variable. It can rain or be nice and sunny at any time, with extremely cold winters. This makes it testing for the photographer, as the lighting and weather conditions are similarly unpredictable. But many a time the birds do oblige.

Sikkim - foothills and high mountaintops.

This winter was not great for me as a bird photographer. I had not made any major birding trips. I had reached a kind of desperation and my right index finger was itching to work on the shutter of my camera. Then the opportunity for a week-long trip to Sikkim came by! We covered just a few places around the south and west of Sikkim, mainly ranging in the altitudes of 1400m to 3000m. The forests here are mainly of moss-laden oak and sal trees, and the bird diversity is stunning.

Pygmy Blue Flycatcher

Pygmy Wren-babbler

One day on our trip, we had already seen and taken nice photos of Pygmy Wren Babbler, and were visiting the edge of a lake in western Sikkim, hoping to photograph Black-tailed Crake. My dear friend and guide Chewang Bonpo and I were scuttling around the edge of the lake, trying to find a good spot with the best light, and where we could wait in relative comfort, perhaps for a long time – the Black-tailed Crake is a very shy bird. We came across a large oak tree root, which had a depression behind it. This seemed to be a good place to stay put and start the waiting game for the crake. The sun was right behind us, and everything was painted beautifully by the light, with the large root acting as perfect cover. We succeeded in spotting the crake, but it would not come out of its hideout of reeds and bamboo clumps.

Then, suddenly to my right, a small dark shape hopped out of the dense reeds towards us. Chewang suddenly grew restless, and I could see tension on his face. Whispering, he urged me to at least get a record shot of the bird. All he said was that it was something rare. I took a few shots. The bird kept staring at us, but was continuously hopping around the reeds. We sat extremely still and quiet; my hand began to ache, as my 500mm lens felt like a ton now, because of the tension in the air. All of a sudden the bird popped out onto a broken bamboo twig. This was any bird-photographers dream. Green background, perfect light, a natural perch, and a wild bird sitting in the open! I focus-locked and the let the shutters go like a bullet.

The elusive robin.

Satisfied, I stopped and looked at poor Chewang, who was trembling with excitement. He told me that what we had just seen was a Blue-fronted Robin Cinclidium frontale, that this was the first time he had had a good view of the bird, and that this was probably the first time the bird had been photographed in the open, wild and free.  He told me that people have spent months on its trail just to get a distant half-glimpse of this shy, shy fellow. Only then did the whole scene started to sink in, and I was left breathless and astonished at what nature can throw at us. We had to come out of our spot behind the root for a bit of fresh air. The excitement had been too much for us.

We’d forgotten all about the Black-tailed Crake …


So there we go. The inside story of the finest photograph ever taken of this species, the most elusive in Asia. You can see more of Ramesh’s stunning photography here.

Brown-throated Treecreeper

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.

Flower focus

I have just returned from a great 10-day trip to the hills of Andalusia in Spain. The birding was, frankly, a bit of a wash-out, partly because I was busy walking over tough terrain, partly because it was bit too early for migrants (a soaring Black Stork provided a sensational exception), and partly because it did rain rather a lot. So attention turned from the skies to the ground, with a spot of orchid-hunting on the shrubby hillsides.

I must admit I’ve never really been interested (at all) in flowers, but I was inspired by the enthusiasm of our guide, Dave from Walk Andalucia. It was a bit early in the year, and the ground had been stripped bare by severe rain over the winter, but after a day of searching we found this little beauty, right next to the car park.

Its a Sawfly Orchid, one of the bee orchids, flowers that are among nature’s craftiest tricksters. Each species depends on a single species of insect (in this case, a sawfly) to spread its pollen about. The flowers look a bit like a female sawfly, and they release chemicals called pheremones into the air; these mimic the pheremones released by the insects to attract a mate. To a male sawfly, the combination is irresistible. Seduced by the flowers sexy looks and great scent, he swoops in to ‘mate’, but ends up with nothing more than a dusting of pollen for his trouble, and flies away. Should he be fooled again the pollen will be transferred to another orchid, at which point seeds can develop.

Close to the Sawfly Orchid was another species, the Early Purple Orchis mascula.

Later, we found this:

The last of our orchid discoveries. A glance at Marjorie Blamey’s excellent Wild Flowers of the Mediterranean reveals that these bee orchids are really, really hard to tell apart. But I think this is the Dull Bee Orchid, Ophrys fusca. If any orchid experts out there want to put me right, by all means drop me a line …

So, orchids – jewels of the undergrowth. I’ll be looking hard in spring for some English varieties. But just to show we did enjoy some fauna to go with out floral finds, here’s a sumptuous Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina.

Learn more about Europe’s orchids in this A&C Black title:

A hungry mouth to feed …

This week, a guest blog by ace wildlife photographer Martin Goodey – an amazing encounter on his patch on the Isles of Scilly …

‘Come the summer months of July and August, I like to spend an evening or two fishing for Mackerel from the shore. My favourite spot for this is on the east side of St Mary’s at Deep Point. No two visits are ever the same; one day you can fish for hours without a bite, another time you can catch a dozen in a quarter of an hour. Either way there always seems to be something to enjoy, be it a distant pod of dolphins or a curious Fulmar passing so close you feel you could reach out and touch it.

These encounters are, by and large, unpredictable and fleeting. The exposed, salty rocks are not a place to take an expensive camera, and images are captured only in the memory. One day in August last year I had finished fishing and was clambering back up when I heard the familiar peeping call of a Rock Pipit. It was perched on a rock and was close enough that even without my bins I could see it had a beakfull of juicy insects. I expected it to disappear amongst the boulders to find its waiting brood, but instead it bravely stood its ground, waiting for me to pass.

I reached the cliff top and sat down to watch where he or she might go. To my surprise the pipit flew about 50 yards to my left where it was greeted not by hungry offspring of its own but by a monster!

In a wide granite cleft warmed by the late afternoon sun sat a huge, fat Cuckoo.

Over the next twenty minutes or so I watched as both foster parents worked tirelessly to bring in a range of insects. Of course while I was enjoying every minute of this I couldn’t help ruing not having my camera to hand. Finally I cracked and decided “what the hell lets nip home and get it. If its gone when I get back then so be it.”

It took me about ten minutes to make the return trip and to my delight the Cuckoo was still there! I took a few record shots from some 50 yards away, and watched as the pipits came and went with food. I was sure they must have been aware of me but seemed unconcerned. With this in mind I started to cautiously close the gap between us.

Once I was happy I was close enough without causing any disturbance I settled down and was able to take a series of quite intimate photos.

It wasn’t long before the sun dipped below the trees and I lost the light. I packed up and slipped away, leaving the well-fed Cuckoo with its doting ‘parents’. I saw them together several times over the following days but never at such close quarters.

Sadly the Cuckoo has suffered a significant decline across its range, and the numbers returning to Scilly are much reduced. I fear I may yet live to witness a year without that familiar harbinger of spring. But oh, I do hope not.’

Martin is one of the contributing photographers for our forthcoming Helm Family Guide Cuckoos of the World. To see more of his work, click here.

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