Thursday, 27 November 2014

Peer review

I received today an email from a colleague in Africa with whom I worked for the first time recently. He is radiantly talented and, beyond this, kind; and part of his message read:

Nick you are the best guide i had ever my life i wish you long life !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am humbled and deeply touched and wish the same for him.

Primary feather of a white-cheeked turaco from Bishangari

My Cley

In the dirty-linen light of a down day a mistle thrush sings and, just at the point where autumn surrenders to winter, spring is promised in this songster's syrinx. Two dabchicks flank a mallard on the river, the three of them half-hidden by a muddle of branches over winter water. They were here, these grebes, for the start of my last blog as they are here for the start of this.

Yesterday was another dull day, on which the sky grew too heavy and dropped on us its rain. All day. I was at Cley, as so many times before, but this time I was reporting for Mustard on the construction of the Simon Aspinall Education Centre and the management of Pope's Marsh, between Salthouse and Cley, which was purchased by NWT last year.

A visit to Cley is a going home for me, to the place where one long-ago winter I learned to love wildlife. They were there yesterday the throaty brents, picking through winter barley on the hill; they were there the cackling pinks, grey in the grey light of the un-sky; they were there the teal's peep and the wigeon's whinny. And thanks to the unrelenting work of Adam and his team on the marsh, to the generosity of the many who donated to the appeal, to the vision and daring of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and to the dream of a Norwich doctor and his friends in a North Norfolk pub in 1926, we can hope they will be there for years to come.

In 1926, however, Sydney Long realised another great idea that had long been simmering in his mind. This was that Norfolk should form a county trust – the first of its kind in the country – to acquire and manage nature reserves of its own. He began by buying in his own name the 400 acres of Cley Marshes, which lay to the east of Blakeney harbour, and were thus complementary to the National Trust’s Blakeney Point reserve. A week later, at a luncheon at the George Hotel at Cley, he put to a party of his friends the idea of a county naturalists trust. In a summary of his reasons, he was prophetic:

‘When one considers the changes in the face of the county that are being made or contemplated by Forestry Commissioners, Drainage Boards, speculative builders and the like, one is anxious to preserve for future generations areas of marsh, heath, woods and undrained fenland (of which there still remain a few acres in the county) with their natural wealth of flora and fauna. At the present time most of Broadland is in the hands of owners who can be relied upon not to interfere with the natural beauties of the district, but who can say what will happen in a hundred or even in ten years’ time?’

Eric Fowler
in Nature in Norfolk - a Heritage in Trust

Monday, 24 November 2014


Yesterday my mother asked me about wildlife-watching in eastern Canada. I referred her to a trip run by the company for which I lead tours, Naturetrek.

Inspired, perhaps, by my snow leopard tour, which is admittedly quite tough, or by who knows what preconception about my life, she replied, 'I don't want to start pooing in holes and things, though.'

It's a wonder I'm normal

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Preliminary skirmishes

In the soul-big sky of North Norfolk yesterday there were larks. On the mind-wide waves there were many scoters. On the heart-great beach were my oldest friends. And I knew, in the sole song of a lark in the dunes, that it was time again to write.

In 2012 I wrote a blog, which many of you were kind enough to read from start to finish. Since then the itch of another idea has been at me. Early this year I scratched at this itch and set in train an adventure for 2015, and a blog to record it. Being by nature a perfectionist and a lover of neatness, I planned to take up my blog again at the start of next year, when the journeys it describes will begin. But yesterday in the lark's song, and in many memories among dunes and pines, came my cue. So here again is a marsh tit, sharing his small thoughts with the world.

I will tell you of my plans for 2015 very soon. I am excited and daunted. For now let us wander yesterday on Holkham beach. Let us stand with the wind sand-whipping the ankles of our boots and gaze through telescopes at the sea. On the waves is a fidgeting raft of common scoter, mostly chalk-cheeked females with here and there a glossy black male, a neat yellow splotch on his bill. Among the common scoters are a dozen velvets, and some of you may remember that this was the 995th bird species I saw while chasing my 1,000th at the icy end of 2012. Here too is but one drake surf scoter, only the second I have seen in Norfolk, and it is - ostensibly - to see him that we have come, though to me a wild walk with wild friends holds a greater force.

2014 has been for me a year of scoters and of waterfowl. Early in the year, from Titchwell beach, I showed a duck-loving friend his first common and velvet scoters. In July it was my privilege to travel to Kamchatka and Chukotka, there to see a spoon-billed sandpiper on its nest; many whales, brown bears and walruses too; and innumerable arctic waterfowl, including Steller's, king and Pacific eiders, black and Stejneger's scoters and - everywhere - dapper flocks of drake harlequins.

A drake harlequin's flank feather, Kamchatka, July 2014

A marsh tit in Kamchatka (by Kenny Ross)
In September I visited British Columbia where, as we sailed through the fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest in search of wolves, humpbacks, orcas, American martens, grizzly bears and black bears (including the rare white form of the black bear, termed the spirit bear), we were often met by flotillas of surf scoters.

A marsh tit catching a chum salmon in
Canada (photos by Ze Carrapichano).
The salmon swam away unhurt.
In Ethiopia in October and November, there were no scoters, naturally. Instead there were blue-winged geese, there were yellow-billed ducks and African pygmy-geese, there were numberless spur-winged geese and Egyptian geese, and, ever so briefly from a speeding bus, there was an African black duck.

Geladas adopt a marsh tit in the Simien Mountains,
Ethiopia, October 2014
(photo by Hilary Lamont)
Last week, I showed another new friend - met under a peregrine's nest on a cathedral spire - his first common scoter drake. And yesterday I returned to Holkham, with my oldest birding friends, and watched - what else? - scoter, and by them in the surf an immaculate Slavonian grebe.

#surfscoterselfie by @GDH56

Peregines - two! - sliced over the waves, wanting the life of a blackbird, chasing him up the beach until, by some migrant miracle, he reached the edge of the pines to defy their talons. Over the mist-heavy marsh inland of the dunes there were harriers, looping in lazy circles in suit of their prey. On a post a common buzzard, in the gloomy distance a rough-leg, and far to the south a kite. What wonder that these birds, so recently absent, are with us in Norfolk again. A third peregrine - a male hatched in 2013 - relentlessly shuffled and reshuffled the pack of teal on the marsh. The kite dreamed by on drooping wings and white-fronts tugged at summer's sugars in the grass.

For there is joy in wildlife. And wonder. And in 2015 I shall travel to watch it, and think on it, and write. I should be honoured if you would follow me.

#lovethemotherland by @GDH56

Monday, 31 December 2012

The last post

Jaques (Act IV scene i):
[…] but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humourous sadness.

William Shakespeare
As You Like It

So it ends, this year, and with it my list. My blog perhaps too, though I’m not yet sure. We have seen together 1,240 vertebrate species; an unremarkable achievement, yet each bird, each mouse, each tree, each smile has itself been remarkable. For this is life, this puff of feathers where a sparrowhawk has slain, this fading footmark where a tiger trod, this winter light in an alder’s bough, this full glass with firm friends, this lone soul.

I don’t know what is to become of this blog. I kept my word, I watched, I wrote, I felt, but a marsh tit is a fickle thing, fleet, flighty, flown. I have other quests ahead, some of which perhaps may find their way here. For now I am deeply, humbly grateful for this quest past. I am grateful for the indri's wail in the far forests of Madagascar; I am grateful for the loud, bright parrots and the sweat of Amazon Peru; I am grateful for the stench of fox at the top of a Norfolk marsh; I am grateful for the kind white smiles which have met me the world over; I am grateful to you, for reading, for sharing, for meaning much. I am grateful for me too, and this, this is new.

Whatever is to become of this blog, wherever this marsh tit flies, I wish you joy of 2013. I wish you wide horizons and warm, welcoming homes. I wish you wild wings and roadside weeds. I wish you words not understood in faraway languages and looks entirely understood without language. I wish the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. I wish you wildlife and a wild life.

To be healed by skies and fens and flowers and the knowledge of these things, how wonderful.

Ronald Blythe
A Year at Bottengoms Farm


Friday, 28 December 2012

Dates for your diary

When returning from time away - six weeks in Madagascar, six months in India, six years in Bolivia – I need to nest. I need to put away thoughts of travel and curl up by my fire, eat my own food and visit my friends, sit at my desk and write for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and lose myself in the wild marshes of my Norfolk. Then, as always, there comes a moment when worry over my next trip bites and I spend a night tossing and turning, telling myself I’m not ready, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that it will all be a disaster.

The next day I get up and apply myself. I read and re-read past reports, I send off emails to Naturetrek asking questions that have crept into my mind, and I immerse myself in books. Between this day – the day of connecting with my next trip – and my departure I will spend hundreds of hours reading on the subject, until I know the field guides cover to cover and am ready. Ready or not, time soon comes knocking and I must leave for another country, another continent, another culture and another fauna.

For weeks now I have been desultorily flicking through the excellent field guide to the birds of South East Asia, greeting the many birds I know from my travels in Asia and attempting to familiarise myself with those which I will see for the first time on my scouting trip to Burma and, shortly thereafter, Naturetrek’s first ever Burma tour in March. Today, curled by my fire, I began in earnest the process of re-learning every plate until the name of each bird rolls effortlessly off my tongue, until I know which type of forest each inhabits and until I can instantly identify even the brownest, dullest, plainest and, as my long-ago friend Sam would have said, scrottiest little bird in Burma.

March, I hear you say, March is months away. True, March is months away but there’s a hitch. I have rather a lot to achieve before March. And a frightening amount to take on thereafter. I mentioned the things I’ll be doing in 2013 in an earlier post; however, since then I’ve taken on two new tours and many of you have been kind enough to ask for an update. Here then (with apologies for the dullness of the information) is where a marsh tit will be in the next year.

17th to 28th January I shall be in York, Glasgow, Edinburgh, WWT Martin Mere, WWT Welney, Hatfield, Exeter, WWT Slimbridge and Winchester giving talks for Naturetrek's Winter Roadshow. My first talk each evening will be on Andean and Amazonian wildlife in Ecuador and Peru and my second will be on Gondwana: from Madagascar, through Sri Lanka, to India and into the Himalayas. Travelling with Paul Stanbury and David Tattersfield will no doubt once again be a delight and I look forward to seeing many of you during the roadshow.

7th to 20th February I shall be in Assam, leading our incomparable Brahmaputra Cruise with my witty, erudite friend Sujan Chatterjee. This tour is full so you'll just have to go on it in 2014.

21st February to 6th March I'll be in Ladakh leading our extraordinary Snow Leopard Quest. This tour is definitely running but spaces may still be available.

That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain – that is enough.

Peter Matthiessen
The Snow Leopard

17th March to 29th March I will be leading Naturetrek's first ever tour to Burma. Thereafter I'll be leading an extension to the bird-blessed forests of Mount Victoria. This tour is confirmed but spaces may still be available. Book now!

On 7th April I'll be leading a workshop on bumblebee ecology and identification at the Hawk and Owl Trust's Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve.

On 4th May I'll be leading the dawn chorus walk at Sculthorpe Moor.

11th to 20th May I'll be in Romania, leading a tour of the Danube Delta and Carpathian Mountains. This tour is full.

In a recent addition to my schedule, 27th May to 5th June I will be leading our West Greenland cruise (with a quick shimmy to Iceland) in search, principally, of bowhead whales and king eiders.

7th to 17th July I will be in the Arctic, leading our annual Spitsbergen Wildlife Cruise with the brilliant Lee Morgan. This tour is full.

In another addition to previously published dates, from 3rd to 12th October I have agreed to join Naturetrek's second Festival of Wildlife, this time to my old stomping ground along the Napo River in Ecuador. I will also most likely be on one or both of the extensions: to the east and west slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. Places are available on this tour.

2nd to 14th February 2014 I'll be leading our Burma tour again.

No rest for the wicked.

There are other things in the pipeline too but this is what's been signed and sealed for now. Apologies, again, for being so dull but several of you did ask, so I blame you.

Monday, 24 December 2012


In someone's dream, once, two winter-plumaged puffins flew to the pond outside my house. This year among many birds I have not seen - tree pipit, pied flycatcher, willow tit and lesser spotted woodpecker - I have not seen a puffin.

Today has been another strange day - wild weather outside and wild weather in - but today came a still small voice and the knowledge that beyond this list are new adventures and challenges, new dragons to hunt down and windmills at which to tilt. New birds to see too. And old.

Even a puffin perhaps.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide what's good.
You decide alone,
But no-one is alone.

Honour their mistakes.
Everybody makes,
One another's terrible mistakes.
Witches can be right.
Giants can be good.
You decide what's right.
You decide what's good.
Just remember:
Someone is on your side.

Stephen Sondheim
Into the Woods