Thursday, 2 November 2017

Coquet Island

While up in Northumberland in June visiting the Farnes, we also ventured south to visit Coquet Island. Although fairly small in size, this very special island still supports 44,000 nesting seabirds every year. It is perhaps most well known for its population of the UK rarest species of breeding tern: the roseate tern. 

The RSPB manage the island and have helped to safeguard the population here since the 1970s and in 2016 the number of roseate terns nesting on the island reached 104. 

The RSPB have created special nestboxes for the terns that have been tailored to their requirements and this has proved very successful. On our boat trip around the island, we saw several pairs resting on these nestboxes, but also quite a few on the rocks close to the water. 

The puffins were still spectacular here and the numbers of common and arctic tern were also very impressive. 

We also saw more grey seals here than we did on the Farnes and there were plenty of obliging eider on view in Amble Harbour as we headed out by boat to the island. 

On the journey back to Seahouses, we called in at the Long Nanny tern colony near Beadnell for one last tern on the trip. It didn't take long to find the little terns here which we could watch flying along the beautiful sandy beach on their way back to colony to feed their chicks. Watching the one site we were able to see little, sandwich, common and arctic tern. 

Fantastic Farne Islands

In June, I made a visit to the wonderful Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast. The Farnes are a collection of small rocky islands offshore from the small town of Seahouses, made famous for their staggering populations of nesting seabird and huge grey seal colony.

We went out with Billy Shiels boat trips on an all day Birdwatch, landing on Staple Island first of all. on the way out to the islands, we came across a large (30 strong) pod of very playful bottle-nosed dolphins. 

Touring Staple Island, the enormous numbers of guillemots and puffins in the water and lining almost every available nesting site was just staggering. Once landed, we could enjoy the sight of hundreds of puffins flying on to the island at speed and crash landing near to their burrow to avoid having their sand eel meals being seized by gulls. 

Fulmars and kitiwakes were also present in good numbers and we came across several eider nests hidden in the grassy tussocks. The landscape of Staple Island was more rugged and craggy with row upon row of guillemots and razorbills, along the ledges closest to the water. Higher up were the kittiwakes and shags and further back in the grassy areas were the puffins. 

Moving on to Inner Farne, which is the largest of the islands and was once a home for saints and monks, we first had to run the gauntlet of the protective arctic terns. It was wonderful to see these ocean wondering birds up close and see how they nest literally all over the island, even right next to the path you walk. The first 100 meters of the walk onto Inner Farne is where the highest concentration of tern nests are and where a hat is essential as protection from the terns defending their nests nearby. 

I enjoyed watching a few land on other visitors heads. This really made my head tern. 

Because one good tern deserves another it wasn't long before we found the colony of sandwich terns in the middle of Inner Farne. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017

In search of Dukes and Black Adders

Back in May, I met up with some good friends; Peter and Alison in Hampshire for a day out of wildlife watching in their new local patches. After failed trips the previous year, we were keen to watch some Duke of Burgundy butterflies on this trip. They are a local specialty on the chalk grasslands of the south Downs and also something of a bogey butterfly for me.

After poor weather scrapping attempts to see the species on previous trips, the weather conditions finally came together this time. With Peter and Alison knowing the chalk grassland reserves of the area in great detail, it was quite impressive that within a few minutes of arriving on site at Buster Hill we were watching our first beautiful male Duke of Burgundy. As the sun began to creep out further and we made our way along the scrubby edge of the reserve we found several others that were fairly active and clearly defending territories. I learnt from Peter that the ideal habitat for a male duke would encompass a variety of small niches; including a few prominent but very limited patches of scrub, some  short height grass, some longer tussocky grass, some bare ground and of course good flower diversity. Clearly maintaining the ideal conditions for the species requires very careful and constant management to create a messy yet planned mixture of grassland structure.

(Duke of Burgundy)

In the opener areas of grassland we also encountered a beautiful green hairstreak that proved very difficult to keep up with and photograph. 5 spot burnet and grizzled skippers were also ever present and we came across a few other interesting day flying moths and birds included lesser whitethroat and yellowhammer.

(Green hairstreak)

(Grizzled skipper)

(Wild Rock Rock)

Moving down to a gulley in the middle of the reserve, we found many more dukes including one of the highlights of the day; a mating pair.

(Mating Dukes)

After lunch we made the excellent decision to go in search of reptiles at a local heathland reserve just as the heavens opened and downpours started. As it begun raining very heavily, it looked as though it would be game over for any reptile watching. However we actually decided that the earlier heat of the day and current wet weather might actually produce some good results under the refugia on the site.

Our target was the site's black adders and as we begun our walk, I was fairly shocked when I spotted one of these almost mythical serpents just by my feet almost soon into the walk, but unfortunately it disappeared almost immediately before we could get a good look.

Luckily, we struck gold under one of the first refugia's we looked under, finding 3 adders including a stunning black (melanistic) individual. We could actually see the zig-zag pattern through the black pigment though.
(Black adder)

Later we moved to another sheet of corrugated iron and Peter, exclaimed " this one's a good en!" You have to be into reptiles to be able to such say nice things about sheets of unwanted corrugated iron lying around in the countryside. But he was right, this sheet of corrugated was the second best, I have ever lifted. On top of it we had 2 adders, while underneath was another adder, a grass snake and 2 slow worms. 6 reptiles of three species in one meter. Result!

(Male adder)

Monday, 1 May 2017

In search of Snow Leopards

The Snow Leopard; for many wildlife lovers and well-travelled naturalists, just glimpsing this charismatic big cat in its breath-taking mountain habitat, would be the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Below is a summary of my trip in search of the grey ghost in February this year which was very successful, producing sightings of 5 different snow leopards, including a remarkable sighting of two cubs with mother and father together. (All pictures are Copyright Ian Loyd - Reef and Rainforest Tours)

For most of us that attended this exciting group, I suspect that we never really let ourselves believe that we would actually see a snow leopard. Given how rare, secretive and perfectly camouflaged these big cats are even being in the right place at the right time of year with some of the best trackers does not guarantee success. Until fairly recently very few foreigners had ever seen one in the wild, and film crews had spent months trying and often failing to capture any footage of the almost mythical cats. Finding a rare and perfectly camouflaged grey cat often against a backdrop of fifty shades of grey in a vast mountain landscape can seem like an impossible task.

As we awoke on our first full day in the Ulley Valley, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, with the only sound in the thin mountain air being the cry of the local red-billed choughs, there was definitely a sense of anticipation and excitement. The fresh snowfall overnight had created the ideal tracking conditions for the day ahead and the experienced tracking team was already out looking. It was then towards the end of our breakfast, inside the warm and cosy homestay, that the news broke; a mother snow leopard and her two cubs had been found! I think we all expected to finish our breakfasts immediately and get up and go. Instead we were told we could relax and enjoy another cup of tea, as the cats were not far away and currently asleep under a rock, so there was no great hurry! When we arrived at the site, the mountainside in question was criss crossed with numerous tracks, so it was not clear which of the many rocks in the vicinity, the snow leopards were actually hidden under. Luckily different snow patterns on the rocks made them possible to differentiate and various prominent rocks were given names such as “Smiley Rock”, based on their appearance which both aided locating the cats and made for some interesting and descriptive conversations, while we waited. However we didn’t have to wait too long for the action, as the mother snow leopard soon emerged and walked out into the open to give everyone a superb, though distant view. She was then followed by both her cubs.

Minutes later, all of our jaws dropped simultaneously as a male then appeared on the scene, and 4 snow leopards were visible at once. This was an exceptionally rare sight. The consensus was that the normally solitary male, was only joining his family, because of another male that had moved in nearby and he was protecting his cubs. Seeing snow leopards at a distance like this, is a fairly typical sighting, but great detail could still be made out through the telescope and watching them move through their mountain landscape like this was very special.

This sighting was made even more memorable by the howling of a pack of Tibetan wolf in the distance and the huge lammergiers and golden eagles that soared past while we enjoyed the scene.
The Ulley Valley and its other interlocking valleys are thought to support a density of around 8 – 10 snow leopards, and due to the access road, much of the sightings can be made from the road or from short walks. However due to the vastness of the landscape here and lower number of trackers, sightings are generally less frequent than in Rumbak, our next destination.

The Rumbak valley, sits close to the entrance to the vast 4,400 square kilometre Hemis National Park, which is thought to be home to around 200 snow leopards. There is a particularly high concentration of prey here for them, especially during the winter months when herds of blue sheep (bharal) descend into the lower valleys, followed by the leopards, making them easier to find.

The previous days of the trip had already been fantastic, but better was still to come, as we heard that a snow leopard had been seen close to the Rumbak Village, very near to where we were staying. When we arrived at the site, it became clear why the leopard was staying in this area. It had made a blue sheep (bharal) kill and was resting nearby to digest and guard the kill.

This was very fortunate as it then stayed in the area for days to come, feeding from the kill from time to time and protecting it from packs of wolves, which enabled us to watch it over the course of several days.

On a few occasions it would leave the kill to chase away magpies that came too close.

On our last day with this snow leopard we thought we might even be treated to the ultimate sight of a hunt, as a group of blue sheep made their way below the sleeping leopard pictured in the top corner of the photograph below. However she clearly still had a very full belly and was not interested in another meal just yet.

Although the snow leopard sightings were of course the absolute highlight of this trip, they were not the only exciting experience, as the sensational Himalayan scenery and fascinating cultural insights were also highly memorable. By staying in the comfortable homestays (rather than camping) with heated rooms and home cooked food we also had the opportunity to interact with our friendly Ladakhi hosts.

Through this we learnt of their hardships in surviving in this hostile environment year round, but also how this brings all the villagers together to work as a community and share jobs and resources. There were also other wildlife delights too; with abundant blue sheep, Ladkah urial, Asiatic ibex, Royale’s pika, woolly hares and numerous birds of prey such as lammergiers, Himalayan griffon vultures, golden eagles, plus Himalayan snowcocks and ibisbills to name a few. We also found fresh tracks of Tibetan wolf and Eurasian lynx. Although sightings of snow leopards can never be guaranteed, this tour certainly offers an excellent chance whilst being as comfortable as possible. Simply spending time in this incredible part of the world will leave a lasting impression on you.

Ladakh urial

This is what a frozen waterfall looks like.

Sunday Market in Leh

Searching for snow leopards


Large-eared pika

Robin accentor

Himalayan griffon vulture

Ladakh urial

Golden eagle