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

Sunday, 23 December 2012


A troubled week this, my mind as restless and relentless as the North Sea's waves, my body weakened by a cold that's seen three friends in bed. Yearning to get outdoors, today I covered my cold in a woolly hat and went to the restless waves in Holkham Bay. Red-breasted mergansers were here, two drakes and a duck, fidgeting from one patch of rough sea to another, and a red-throated diver, coming headlong to land in the breakers at my feet. In a patch of youthful saltmarsh - muddied sea purslane and the crisp rosettes of rock sea lavender - a big flock of linnets fed. I stalked them (still time for a twite, after all) but they were linnets. Linnets and here and there a skylark and a meadow pipit.

Outside the day was short and cold but at home was an email which melted a year of frost.

I know now that when the loving, honest moment comes it should be seized, and spoken, because it may never come again.

Gregory David Roberts

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ol' blue-eyes

It is widely acknowledged that, apart from some humans, blue-eyed black lemurs are the only primates to have, well, blue eyes. This fact was cast into doubt recently by my witty tour client Rhoda Allen (also responsible for the 'nongoose' epithet) who took a photo of a Verreaux's sifaka with blue eyes. As everyone knows, Verreaux's sifakas have yellow eyes, piercing yellow eyes, all the better for staring at you. Not this one.

Yesterday Naturetrek sent out the trip reports for my recent Madagascar tours. Today I received an email from Rhoda, tongue-in-cheekily expressing disappointment that Allen's blue-eyed sifaka had not made the report. I promised to make good the slight on my blog.

Ol' blue-eyes by Rhoda Allen

I've loved, laughed and cried.
I've had my fill, my share of losing.
But now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing,
To think I did all that,
And may I say not in a shy way.
No, no, not me,
I did it my way.

Paul Anka
My Way
performed by Frank Sinatra

Wednesday, 19 December 2012


This morning I work from six o'clock (have to be free to rush to Cley if there's a smew later). Despite the fret which covers the common my sparrow chirps at thirteen minutes to eight. Am I, I wonder, his human?

Tuesday, 18 December 2012



19:23 An email arrives from DTH: long-tailed duck, red-necked grebe, Slavonian grebe and great northern diver have all been seen today at Titchwell. Nothing for it: I shall have to go tomorrow when one high tide is in daylight and before the weather gets worse again.

19:45 I leave to drive along two local lanes where long-eared owls have recently been seen hunting. I am undeterred by the fact that I have driven along these lanes at night in winter hundreds of times without once seeing a long-eared owl. I see no owl. Bach’s Magnificat on Radio Three is a splendid consolation.


04:40 I get up. I have NWT work due before Christmas and if I’m to make high tide at Titchwell this morning I must get in a few hours’ work before I leave.

06:00 Work is going well, the blackbirds begin to chime and the female mallards start their raucous laughter.

07:30 A touch of inky light can be seen.

07:50 A dunnock sings, the first I’ve heard in months.

08:05 The jackdaws get up, strewing themselves across the sky in noisy sine-waves. A house sparrow chirps.

08:15 I leave for Titchwell.

09:00 I reach Titchwell. The first bird I hear is a greylag; the second is a waxwing and, looking up to the top of a youthful car-park oak, I see him, cheerful and perky-crested. I take this as a good sign for my morning.

09:05 I pass the island hide. The water has dropped, so I peer diligently at the newly-exposed mud in the hope of seeing a jack snipe or a water pipit. No such luck, though a spotted redshank flies off the marsh towards Thornham, calling sharply.

09:15 I reach the sea. It is raw: bleak, misty, grey and raw, in a manner dickensian. A lone birder struggles off the beach looking blue. He saw a Slavonian grebe on the sea much earlier and long-tailed ducks have been flying past.

09:16 I train my ‘scope on the large raft of goldeneye and two long-tailed ducks fly past. Long-tailed duck! At last! 999!

09:16 to 10.38 I scan the sea. I scan the sea some more. I scan the sea again. I chat to other birders. There are many goldeneye today, more than I remember ever seeing here. Among them are female eider and a few female common scoter. Occasionally a long-tailed drake drops in to visit.

All around them on the sea are winter-plumaged great-crested grebes, none of which I can morph into a red-necked or Slavonian, no matter how much I squint. Razorbills purr past, three red-throated divers drift through, and a female red-breasted merganser joins the duck flock. In the surf sanderling whirr to the west and with them are bar-tailed godwits and redshank.

I scan harder. The sun rises and the mist lifts. Despite their distance, we see the ducks superbly in the morning's gathering light.

10:38 I scan the duck flock once more and do a proverbial double take. One of them is a broad-backed, smudgy-grey-backed, round-headed, glossy-greeny-blacky-headed Aythya with a pin-prick golden eye. An advanced first-winter drake scaup. In January I saw a female lesser scaup, a hugely rarer bird in the UK, dozing under Peter Scott’s window at Slimbridge, but until now I have not seen a greater scaup this year.

He bobs on the sea in a flock of goldeneye, oblivious to my presence, oblivious to my list. I though shall never forget him.

New today


long-tailed duck
Clangula hyemalis
greater scaup
Aythya marila

2012 Totals
Mammals: 129
Birds: 1,000
Reptiles: 76
Amphibians: 23
Fish: 12