Friday, 27 January 2012

The Gambia December 2011

December saw Lee and I heading off with 9 other British and Irish ringers to the Kartong Bird Observatory in The Gambia for an 11 day ringing expedition. The objectives being to learn more about migrant Western Palearctic birds on their wintering grounds and to increase the limited knowledge of West African birds.

Located on the coast, near the border with Senegal the habitat surrounding the observatory is a mixture of sand dunes, beach, mangroves, coastal scrub with pockets of remnant forest. The observatory itself overlooks a former sand mine, which during the rainy season fills with water. These pools contain extensive reed and rush beds which provide refuge, roosting and breeding sites for a huge variety and number of birds, along with the occasional crocodiles!

Ours days involved mist netting in the mornings in one of these varied habitats, followed by setting new nets or more mist netting in the afternoon. After dark we would head out dazzling, using lamps to catch waders and nightjar.

Two evenings we headed for the beach, setting up nets to catch waders and seabirds, the first of which was particularly successful catching a number of sandwich terns including one that was ringed as a chick earlier in the year off Northumberland!

Setting tern decoys on the beach
Other activities including flick netting amongst the cattle for oxpeckers and whoosh netting for vultures.

In total we caught over 1200 birds of 121 species, and most importantly 250 Western Palearctic passerines, including birds we regularly encounter at home such as reed warblers, chiffchaffs and whitethroats and others that are more often seen on the continent such as the beautiful melodious and subalpine warbler. Other highlights for me included ringing my first nightingale and two of 19 woodchat shrikes!

As well as this we caught birds doing unusual moults, or what we think are unusual! With comparatively little ringing done here we are learning so much that seems odd but could be the norm! On this trip we caught a juvenile chiffchaff that was undergoing active moult (it was growing and replacing some of its flight feathers) and one which had obviously just finished growing its last three flight feathers. Now juvenile chiffchaff’s that breed in Britain undergo a partial moult (they moult body feathers but not flight feathers) before migrating south to the Mediterranean, North and West coast of Africa. They keep these old flight feathers all through the winter and during the breeding season back in Europe, before finally replacing them after breeding. So what were these chiffchaff’s doing? Recent work on the Iberian Chiffchaff (recently described as a separate species) indicates that some juvenile birds of this species moult some of the outer flight feathers during their post juvenile moult. However, this is usually finished by the end of September before they migrate south and one of our birds was still in active moult!! It must be remembered that little is known about the moult strategy of this species and just highlights how important the work of the Kartong Bird Observatory is!

Another interesting Western Palearctic species caught was an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (North African race reiseria), which turns out is a new species for The Gambia.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler - North African race reiseria

Of course we also caught a lot of African birds, which ranged in colour, size, shape and ferociousness! Once again we were at the cutting edge of knowledge for these species, every bird providing new information on moult, breeding…even identification!

Weaver's presented a particularly difficult ID challenge, since they were in non-breeding plumage and needed wing and head measurements to identify them and with large flocks forming by the end of the trip, we needed all hands of deck to get them out of the nets! 

Extracting over 100 weavers from the nets!

I particularly enjoyed learning about the long-tailed nightjar of which we caught 70 and the kingfishers. We caught 7 species of kingfisher ranging from the giant kingfisher to the African pygmy kingfisher, although my favourites were the pied kingfisher and malachite kingfisher with its rather funky hair do!

Pied, Giant and Pygmy Kingfisher

One of my favourites, the Malachite Kingfisher

All in all it was a fantastic trip and a huge thank you needs to go to Colin Cross and his wife Binta, our helpers Manuel, Moses, Dembo and Abdoulie, Hanni and the guys at Lemonfish for feeding us and putting up with having ringing equipment everywhere and constantly changing meal times! To Jez for organising the trip and for all the team members who helped make it such a wonderful trip!

Another account of the trip from one of the other team members, Sam Bayley can be found at his Blog and includes a rather interesting encounter with 23 leeches!

Information on Iberian Chiffchaff moult can be found here

Below are just a very small selection of a few other birds caught...

Lanner Falcon

Common Wattle-eye (female)

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Long-tailed Nightjar


Little Bittern

Melodious Warbler

Squacco Heron

Grey-headed Bush Shrike

Grey Kestrel


Pied Kingfisher

Giant Kingfisher

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Maldives October 2011

After a wonderful week in Sri Lanka we flew on to the tropical archipelago of The Maldives, a double chain of 26 atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On arrival in the capital Malé we joined our guide Chas Anderson and boarded the live aboard boat Ari Queen, our home for the next 7 days.

The Ari Queen

An ocean-lovers paradise of white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters, we spent our morning’s snorkelling amongst the colourful corals and beautiful fish of the reefs. Fish of all shapes and sizes, flashed in a brilliant array of colours among the purples, reds, pinks and blues of the coral. Occasionally we would encounter an octopus hiding amongst the crevices or a turtle gliding silently over the coral and sandy bottoms.

Just one of our anchor sites
After breakfast we would head out of the atolls for a days whale watching in the deeper waters. In a world of bright, endless blue skies and a vast vibrant blue ocean we were treated to the delights of tropical whales and dolphins….

Vast pods of spinner and pantropical spotted dolphins surrounded the boat, leaping clear of the water and in the case of the spinners, spinning three, four, five even six times before landing with a tremendous splash. On a couple of occasions we encountered these dolphins with seabirds and yellowfin tuna, with the tuna breaching almost as much as the dolphins!

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
Spinner Dolphin

On two occasions we encountered groups of Fraser’s dolphin, a species thought extinct until 1971! A beautiful dolphin, often flushed pink on the belly due to the warm waters, they travel in very distinct, tightly packed groups making the surface of the ocean boil.

Fraser's Dolphin

We encountered five separate pods of short-finned pilot whales, with one extremely memorable occasion where two whales surfacing leisurely alongside the boat, so close you could see the whole length of the whales under the water.

Other species we encountered included striped dolphins, bottlenose and indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins and a couple of pods of Risso’s dolphins, including heavily scarred adults and almost smooth, velvety grey juveniles.

After a day’s surfing around the ocean watching these stunning creatures, we would head in to anchor next to an island, and head in for another snorkel before dark.

Our final day was the icing of top our whale wedding cake, the morning started with a snorkel with one of the most magnificent fish I have ever seen, a manta ray. Appearing out of the blue haze, parting schools of silvery fish, the ray glided towards us, turned and disappeared, once more a mystery of the deep blue. As we headed out after breakfast we were treated to numerous sightings of dwarf sperm whale (they look like upside down surf boards!). So far the beaked whales had proved elusive, but later that day as we steamed along, we heard the sound of a whale exhale right next to the boat. Dashing to the side we saw a mother and calf Longman’s beaked whale surface right alongside! Amazing! So little is known about beaked whales in general due to their shy nature, and deep water habitat and Longman’s is one of the rarest and least known, it really was a special sight.

Our trip was run by Chas and Sue Anderson, who run regular trips to The Maldives and Sri Lanka, and are THE authority on whales and dolphins in these areas, not only providing superb information but collecting data and conducting invaluable research.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Sri Lanka September - October 2011

I know it has been almost 4 months (blimey where has the time gone!!) but I thought I would start the Wild Barley blog with a tale of our honeymoon… starting with Sri Lanka with the Maldives hot on its heels (although you will have to wait for the next post for that…)

Well, after what can only be described as the most amazing and magical wedding day (I know I know such a clichĂ©! But it’s true!!!), a 10 hour flight and a very short hello to Dubai, we arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka for a week’s wildlife watching honeymoon.

Overwhelmed by variety and tropical nature of the birds, monkeys and bats seen at Villa Talamanga, our first stop just outside Colombo we headed north the next morning with our guide Hetti to Anuradhapura Garden Village which would be our base for the next few nights as we headed into the Wilpattu National Park.

Roosting Open-billed Storks and Egrets

Willpattu National Park is the largest in Sir Lanka covering 425 square miles from the coast inland. It was only opened in March 2010, having been closed due to war (thankfully now over). The Park is a mix of fairly thick dry zone jungle, interspersed with flood plain and lakes where a huge variety of wildlife tends to concentrate. This gave the impression of driving for hours with a wall of tangled trees and vines, with the flicker of movement from the occasional muntjac and a splash of colour from a wild Peafowl or Junglefowl (yep we saw a chicken!), suddenly opening out into the bright green expanses of one of these flood plains and lakes. Here hundreds upon thousands of waders, storks and ducks would be collected, feeding in and around the edge of the water. Others including cormorants would be perched on top of dead trees, preening or drying out their feathers. The surrounding trees were alive with smaller birds, from parrots and finches, to bee-eaters. Occasionally a large bird of prey would leisurely swoop by, sending the birds up into every tightening flocks that swirled in black masses.

Of course it was not just the birds that sought out these oasis, at the end of the first day we broke out of the thick matt of trees into one such open expanse, to see a leopard relaxing in the shade watching the world seemingly without a care…. Though looks can be deceiving, at one point he turned to stare intently at the jungle behind. Quietly he/she/it stood, and slowly prowled into the undergrowth, staring intently at something we could not see….. A couple of minutes later he reappeared, flopping down once again in the shade, whatever caught his attention having either disappeared or proving to much to both with on a hot afternoon….

Leopard relaxing in the shade in Wilpattu National Park

With the colour fading from the sky it was time for us to leave, racing back along the sandy roads hidden within the trees we once again burst out into another flood plain… to see an Asian Elephant casually flicking water over itself! Leaving the elephant to finish it’s evening shower, we raced on, dusk spreading around us, only to come round another corner into an open area of scrub to see a Sloth Bear meandering across the road ahead. Slamming the brakes on, we came to a juddering halt, the bear froze, looking back over its shoulder at what had interrupted its evening stroll…. Then took off, loping into the trees and disappearing from view….

Asian Elephant taking a bath

Sloth Bear taking an evening stroll

Sri Lanka was the compromise, ‘there’s so few birds in The Maldive’s though…..’ ‘Well, why don’t we stop somewhere on the way…’ It turned out to be a special, breathtakingly beautiful place that I would return to in a heart beat, not only for the rainforests and mountains in the south of the island, but it’s one of the best places to see Blue Whales…next time eh? J

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Intro to the Wild Barley Blog

Welcome to the Wild Barley Blog

Barley - the early days!
A wildlife blog named after my puppy Barley!

I will be updating the blog with details of my wildlife adventures from bird ringing to whale watching.

The first couple of posts will talk about some of my recent travels as they are well worth a mention!! 

First though a little information about Barley....

Barley is a fox red labrador, she is now 18 months old but we have had her since she was 8 weeks :) Barley love walks (of course!), swimming and we often take her wildlife watching... in the year and half we have had her she has been bird watching and even spent an hour 'watching' three otter cubs with me in Thetford!

Out with Barley and Lee, my husband