Costa Rica Part 3: And Then it Rained

As we pulled into the driveway of La Selva Biological Station, the heavens opened as if on cue. The rain didn’t bother to build with a crescendo. It started abruptly and remained full on fortissimo. We retreated to the shelter of the dining area and set up base on the veranda. We didn’t want to get soaked through just yet and besides, there would be plenty of opportunity for that.

La Selva Biological Station is a large protected area situated in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. Owned by the Organisation for Tropical Studies, La Selva is renowned for the large quantities of research that is conducted on site each year. We had arrived in mid-January, supposedly at the beginning of the dry season. However, according to the guides, the weather had been unseasonably wet and cool over the last couple of days and the worst was yet to come. We weren’t complaining though. It felt authentic. We were in the rainforest after all!

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We sat back on the veranda, Café and binoculars in hand. There were plenty of fruiting trees planted in the courtyard and oh boy were they a magnet for wildlife! One of the most regular visitors was a group of Passerini’s Tanagers. Male Passerini’s have smart and sleek black plumage but when they’re feeling saucy they flash their exquisite ruby red rumps to the ladies. They sure do set the heart racing. Crested Guans and their even more regal looking cousins Great Curassows marched around, feeding on the fallen fruits. In front of the veranda there was lots of flowering Heliconias which proved irresistible to the White-collared Manakins, the males of which are plump and dapper and equally irresistible to watch! About every ten minutes a Long-billed Hermit hummingbird would briskly appear and frantically feed from a Heliconica right next to where we were sitting. Within seconds it would zip away, vanishing into the dense forest. We were witnessing a behaviour known as trap-lining. Trap-line feeders such as hermits follow established routes through the forest to visit seasonal flowers and have been known to loop around these circuits to the second!  A troop of 6 soggy Howler Monkeys appeared. They were sopping wet and although they surely must be used to the rain, it was difficult not to anthropomorphise and feel a little sorry for them. Howlers have rather expressive faces and some of them looked pretty hopeless, faces drooping and dripping.

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Male White-collared Manakin
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A soggy howler monkey feeding on catkins

Suddenly the rain eased off as if the thunderclouds had exhausted themselves. We seized the opportunity to head to our cabin, situated about 1km away and reached via a forest trail. We dumped our bags in the cabin and quickly headed back out, unaware of the incredible bird we were about to behold. We were watching a pair of green ibis on a muddy track when quite unexpectedly, Ben spluttered out a series of uncharacteristic expletives. Next to the ibis was a truly strange and amazing bird – a Sunbittern! We edged closer down the track so that we could make out the birds beautiful mottled grey and ochre plumage, which makes the bird so cryptic and notoriously difficult to spot. The Sunbittern flew into a low-hanging branch and we crouched a few metres away. The bird has a really strange character, a squat body and thin, snake-like neck. It even sounds reptilian – uttering a raspy, hiss like call. Perhaps this is aposematic and a technique to deter predators? It’s fair to say that all three of us were chuffed about seeing the Sunbittern and the envy of many of our course mates and lecturers!

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Super sunbittern

Every night we donned our raincoats, wellies and head-torches and ventured into the forest spotlighting. Over the course of three nights we encountered a whole range of awesome nocturnal creatures. This included the ‘classic’ rainforest frog: the Red-eyed Tree Frog. With their striking green bodies, blue and yellow striped flanks, orange legs and bold red eyes they are just as funky in real life as all the cartoon drawings make them out to be! We also had our first close encounters with snakes. My favourite was what I believe to be Imantodes cenchoa, known commonly as the fiddle-string snake! This snake was as slender as a bootlace but with a blunt and chunky head. Pale yellow-brown in colour with bold black spots down its length, the snake was really conspicuous as it lay curled up on a wet leaf. Possibly my personal highlight from the night walks was coming across a pair of Io moths (Automeris postalbida), which had been attracted to a light. At first glance these large moths are just a drab and boring brown and nothing much to look at. But open their wings and, oh my, they’re quite a sight to behold! Each cream-coloured hindwing is adorned with two large black central eyespots and bordered by a flash of bright orange. These big eyespots most likely play a role in predator deterrence and some scientists suggest that predators mistake them for the eyes of hawks.

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Io and I

It was not just during the night that we searched high and low for amphibains. There were two species, in particular, we were very keen to see. These were both poison-dart frogs and although we heard them ‘peep-peeping’ regularly, their small size and habit of hiding amongst leaf litter made them very difficult to locate! The first species was the Green and Black Poison-dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus). This name might make you conjure up images of a dark chocolate frog, but I doubt anyone would want to eat this highly toxic species! The second species was the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio). Again, sounds tasty, but this tiny beast, not much bigger than my thumbnail, contains enough poison to make you very ill! Both these species loose their toxicity in captivity. This probably means that they accumulate their toxins from certain ants and other critters that they feed on.

Each morning we awoke to the deep and guttural chorus of Howler Monkeys resonating through the forest. This sound is powerful and spine-tingling and overpowered any quieter calls of forest birds. Great Green Macaws win the award for the most pre-historic sounding call. The males utter a creaking and rasping ‘raaaak’, which carries a great distance. Yet it is the Montezuma Oropendola call that really delights me. Displaying males produce a luscious call that bubbles up and then rapidly falls like a cascading waterfall. It gives me goosebumps.

Perhaps the best place for birdwatching was from the large iron bridge that spanned the Río Puerto Viejo. From here we were treated to unobstructed views of the trees overhanging the river and on one occasion we witnessed a mega feeding flock passing through. This included a whole array of species busily feeding, including a Squirrel Cuckoo, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Masked Tityra as well as woodpeckers, warblers and woodcreepers. One can walk for hours in the forest without seeing a single bird, so to witness this feeding bonanza was a real treat!

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Another awesome bird from La Selva, a Pale-billed Woodpecker!

I started this piece by talking about the rain and although I’ve tried my best to avoid it for the majority of the blog, I feel obliged to finish with it too. The rain really did define our stay at La Selva. I truly have never experienced so much heavy and persistent rain in my life, and never felt so sodden. Raincoats and ponchos were little match against the furious rain and wearing wellies was like wearing buckets on your feet. On our second day, La Selva experienced an astonishing 103mm in 24 hours. To put that into perspective Cornwall receives about 120mm of rain in December and that is the wettest month! On our last day, the flood arrived. Rain that had fallen at higher elevations made its way into the mighty river which swelled greatly overnight. The next morning the path we usually walked to the cafeteria was closed and the road was underwater. I never thought I would have to get on a boat just to have my breakfast!

There’s nothing quite like being immersed in the forest, with the canopy towering high above and the rain cascading down off the leaves. The forest is an incredible place to be. Coming from a country that is so devoid of trees and missing much of its biodiversity, it’s strange to feel so insignificant compared to the natural surroundings.

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Costa Rica Part 2: Cool Vibes on a Hot Coast

The change of scene from our rustic log cabin in the misty and ethereal cloud forest to the ‘Cool Vibes’ hostel in the bustling coastal town of Dominical was like entering a whole new world. We would have one day in Dominical to ‘relax’ before our field course began, but with green iguanas roaming the streets and tropical birds galore it would’ve taken a lot of persuasion to do yoga or embrace the hippie feels…

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Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

The evening of our arrival in Dominical we were excited to see what creatures we could find after dark. The ‘nightlife’ in the valley we had travelled from was few and far between, presumably because of the low temperatures, but on this warm tropical coastline the night-time activity – both human and animal – was much more abundant. We strolled down to the beach, heading away from the bright lights of the bars and restaurants, scanning all around us. We had to watch where we were treading as the sand was littered with dozens of hermit crabs scuttling up the beach. These land-dwelling hermit crabs, which I think are the Pacific Hermit Crab (Coenobita compressus) were scavenging for detritus that was littering the beach.

Pacific Hermit Crab
Pacific Hermit Crab (Coenobita compressus)

Just along the beach we came across a small lagoon. Around the edges numerous large pairs of eyes glared back at us, glowing brightly in our torchlight. Looking at them through our binoculars and judging by the size we thought that they were caiman… for a moment at least! We noticed one of them beside us. It was a huge and bulging frog with devilish red eyes. This beast was the aptly named Savage’s Bullfrog (Leptodactylus savagei). At first glance it may seem harmless enough but beware – this frog has a dark side! If disturbed this frog may exude large amounts of noxious foam and apparently this frog will eat pretty much anything that will fit in its mouth. Considering they’re about the size of a dinner plate this includes snakes, birds and even small mammals! There must be plenty of prey around as these frogs were a familiar sight for the rest of our trip.

The temperature barely dropped at all overnight and by the time we set off for a pre-breakfast walk the sun was blazing. We knew it would only get hotter as the day progressed so we made the most of the relative morning low. The tide was far out and the wet golden sand and sea spray glimmered in the light. Dozens of brown pelicans flew in formation low over the breakers, clinging close to the surface of the sea and flapping one-after-another in sequence. Our bird list soared that morning as almost every bird we saw was new to us. Common Tody-Flycatchers, Royal Terns, Orange Chinned Parakeets and much more!

Brown Pelicans and Dominical Beach at Sunrise

By midday, all we could do was take measures to cool off. We joined the array of sun-seekers and locals on the beach and spent a good hour body-surfing the waves. We weren’t the only ones in these waters though. Rather unexpectedly a large mobular ray leapt out of the water, spreading its large wing-like pectoral fins before crashing back down into the waves!

By early afternoon the sky had clouded over, providing a little relief from the sun. We strolled along the Río Barú. Ben tried to scale a coconut tree but was shown up by a local old man who climbed the tree with skill and ease. For Ben’s efforts we were rewarded with a couple of ripe coconuts. These were super fresh and sweet compared to those you buy in the UK.

Despite all the people the wildlife sure didn’t disappoint us. I was delighted to see black-mandibled toucans which were just as funky as I thought they would be. One peered down at us from a tree, staring curiously, before continuing to feed on the fruits.

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Funky Toucan

As our walk was drawing to a close we paused by the mouth of the river to take in the glorious sunset which set the sky ablaze with a burning array of warm reds and oranges. High in a prominent tree on the opposite bank of the river, James spotted a small falcon sitting proudly overlooking the vista. It was a bat falcon. It may have been small, but it sure was mighty. A ringed kingfisher, larger in size and certainly more chunky than the bat falcon, flew past. The falcon raced after it like a spitfire and kingfisher made a swift retreat. The bat falcon had other quarries in its sights. It tried its luck racing after some dragonflies and even the swifts and swallows that were gathering over the river. Again the falcon had no luck but its determination and agility was incredible. As soon as bats started to emerge the bat falcon set off – chasing after them with speed and stamina that was a thrill to witness, filling us with adrenaline!

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Watching the Bat Falcon at sunset!
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Page from my field notebook from our day in Dominical.

Arriving back at the beach it was now dark, but we needed another swim in the sea to cool off. In the distance an electric storm flashed and sparked, illuminating the sky with rapid flashes of light. As we splashed around in the shallows the aerial light show was accompanied by bioluminescent glows glimmering green in the water. A magical ending to our pre-field course trip.

Costa Rica Part 1: Immersed in the Cloud Forest

As the bus travelled along the Cerro de la Muerte and traversed the roaring Talamanca Mountain range the urban sprawl of San José and Costa Rica’s Central Valley grew ever distant behind us. The landscape of houses, shops and smallholdings quickly transformed into a rich landscape of epiphyte-laden trees and rocky outcrops of the Cloud Forest. We got off the bus at an altitude of nearly 3000m, tantalised by our first glimpses from the bus the window.

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Ben (with his rather questionable bag arrangement) beginning the walk down into Quetzal Valley

The 4km walk down into the valley where Ben, James and myself would be staying for the next few days was rather overwhelming. The road dropped down steeply, curving and winding into the depths of the valley. On occasion there would be a parting in the trees, revealing the gorgeous views of rolling hills and endless swathes of trees. We watched as vapor rose quickly from the forest and formed thick, soft clouds that hugged the hilltops. Being able to stand and look out over such an immense forested landscape is a privilege that is impossible to experience in British highlands. ‘This may be one of the most incredible views I have ever seen,’ I observed at the time.  A few hours later we arrived our log cabin nestled deep within the valley, known as Savegre River Valley or ‘Valle del Quetzal’ by locals and tourists alike – after a rather spectacular bird we would be hoping to see during the trip.. but more on that later!

Views down into the valley

The avifauna of the Talamanca Mountain range is incredibly unique. The high elevation and isolation from other mountainous areas has led to a high level of endemism – species found only in CR and Western Panama but nowhere else. This includes some marvelous species such as the regal-looking long-tailed silky-flycatcher (a real corker, honestly), the smart but striking flame-throated warbler and the uber-luminous golden-browed chlorophonia. Naturally, hummingbirds abounded here. One particularly rainy and brisk afternoon we retreated to a small café where the owner has a number of feeders in his garden. We delighted in watching an array of small stunners such as the exquisite fiery-throated hummingbird, the glossy-green lesser violetear and the teeny scintillant hummingbird whizz between the feeders. Whilst we were enjoying the hummingbird extravaganza, the owner of the café picked fresh mint from the garden and soon emerged from the kitchen with a big jug of steaming mint tea. He proceeded to fill up the feeders with this sweet and delicious offering, before pouring us all a mug! Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon, I must say.

 

 

White-throated Mountain Gem Female

Our days in the valley started early. On the 31st of December we awoke at 5:15, just before sunrise, enticed by the possibility that we might see a more-than-gorgeous bird which draws hundreds of tourists to the valley each year. This bird is, of course, the one and only Resplendent Quetzal, a member of the diverse and colorful trogon family. We hiked down the road a couple of kilometers to an area where Quetzals had been seen on previous days. We knew we had reached the ‘spot’ when we saw a sizable group of birdwatchers poised intently with cameras and binoculars. It only took us a moment to spot the bird, a male. Its dazzling green plumage caught the morning light as it sat 100 meters or so away in a tree. Within a moment the bird took flight, giving us a quick view of its 4 long tail feathers elegantly streaming behind it.

Among other things, the Quetzals are drawn to the Savegre River Valley due to the high density of avocado trees that grow in the valley, which form a large part of its diet. We walked along the road to a fruiting tree, in the hope that quetzals would be drawn to its offerings. Soon enough another male appeared. This time the bird was much closer giving us a view of the metallic green head and wings, which contrasts with the bright crimson belly. Words cannot really describe the bird’s full glory and beauty, but suffice to say everyone was stunned into a collective silence.

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The rest of our precious days in the valley were filled with long walks through the cloud forest, breathing in the fresh mountain air and taking in the diversity of plants. Unfortunately, between us, we had a rather limited knowledge of the regions botany but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the huge variety of plants that are supported by the moisture and nutrients that are literally pulled out of the clouds. Hundreds of bromeliads, mosses and lichens cling to the trees, covering almost every available surface. Huge vines draped down from the canopy that towered above us. If there is anywhere that I have ever felt immersed in nature, it was here.

Ben looking rather poignant in the forest.

It was a shame that we had to leave the valley so soon, but none-the-less we were looking forward to our time relaxing on the warm and hippie pacific coast…

A Week on Ynys Enlli

 

Ben Porter, a good friend of mine and fellow Zoology student at the University of Exeter just so happens to live on a remote island off of the coast of the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. Having lived on the Bardsey Island since the age of twelve Ben is well settled into the island life and can be rather modest about where he lives. Yet deep down Ben knows just how blessed he is to call Bardsey his home. He was eager to show me the Island’s charms and I was equally as eager to experience them, being a bit of an island-addict myself. Therefore I was ecstatic when the Porters invited me to stay in their humble farmhouse, which is nestled at the base of Bardsey mountain.

With my last minute travel booked, I took the long and winding train journey up from London to North Wales. The next day we were blessed with calm and sunny weather, seemingly perfect for the boat trip across Bardsey sound.  Despite the calm seas, boat crossings were still restricted by large spring tides. By 4pm I was finally able to hop onto the bright-yellow Benlli III. As the boat edged away from the mainland I caught my first tantalising views of the island as it gradually emerged behind the tip of the Lleyn peninsula…


The Mountain

A thin mist shrouded the top of Mynydd Enlli as we approached in the boat, concealing the peak in a dramatic atmosphere that gave the island an imposing first impression. Being just 1.5 miles long and less than ½ a mile across at its widest point, the island certainly punches above its weight landscape wise. The Islands’ mountain – Mynydd Enlli –  rises to a height of 167m. It’s no Ben Nevis, but it certainly seems high when looking up from the sea!

It’s only a short climb up and each day I was rewarded with glorious panoramic views of the Irish Sea, the Lleyn Peninsula and Bardseys’ characteristic square lighthouse which stands proudly on the southern tip of the Island. Mynydd Enlli was awash with vibrancy. During the day the lower slopes burst into a swaying sunny-yellow as the flowering hawksbeards opened their petals to the sunshine. Amongst the hawksbeards, a patch of harebells added a subtle hint of delicate purple. Climbing higher the peaks and outcrops were carpeted in a glorious mix of warm western gorse splattered Jackson Pollock-style throughout the ling and bell heather. Underfoot the ground was matted with a mix of lichens and mosses. Bardsey’s resident chough had been hard at work ripping the soft material away from the rocks to feed on whatever morsels might lay beneath. It was delightful to watch the chough on a daily basis – their cheery cheeoww call and elegant aerial acrobatics are so uplifting. On sunny days graylings, meadow browns and gatekeepers emerged in force, flopping and flitting around the slopes. Kestrels hovered on the breeze and peregrines patrolled the cliffs.

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The harebells were very enjoyable to photograph as they swayed in the breeze. The colours were fantastic!

Grey Seals

The sun was shedding its final rays of light as Ben rowed us into Yr Honllwn one calm evening. As we gazed over the sea back toward the island the water rippled warm pinks and oranges and the lighthouse stood proudly silhouetted against the sky. As we drifted into the bay dozens of grey seals were dozing in the water, heads bobbing on the surface. They appeared to smile contentedly at the tranquillity of evening. Gradually the seals awoke, curious as to the strange visitors floating towards them. The seals swam quietly towards us, slipping underwater and then emerging to get a closer inspection.  Some of the bull seals started grunting and blowing ungrateful bubbles towards us – this is our bay, keep out – so we took this as a message to leave them be. The sun had now exhausted its last rays and we returned to shore.

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Cafn, where the boats land, Yr Honllwn and Bardsey Lighthouse at sunset
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A grey seal heading towards the rowing boat

The following morning we traversed the steep east side of the island seeking more grey seal encounters. We followed a narrow path that gradually worked its way down to the rocks and sea. Eventually, we reached a small cavern where there was a human-sized hole between the rocks. This was the entrance to Seal Cave. The cave was small and gloomy inside, aside from a narrow beam of light which illuminated a pool of seawater into an inviting aquamarine-blue. The sea gently lapped at the cave walls and we sat on a platform of rock, watching and listening intently. Occasionally we could hear the echoed splashes of seals elsewhere in the cave.  Some even sounded as if they were underneath the rocks on which we sat.  Before long we noticed graceful shadows appear out of the darkness. The seals were incredibly elegant underwater, perfectly streamlined. They were mesmerising to observe as their figures emerged from the depths, swimming effortlessly around the pool. Seal cave truly was a wonderful place, somewhere I hope I will never forget.

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A grey seal comes closer to inspect Mark’s GoPro.

 

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One of my favourite shots from seal cave. Although the water wasn’t crystal clear that day, it was still stunning for photography.

Creatures of the Night

I’m not usually much of a night owl, but night-time on Bardsey is arguably the most spectacular time to be awake. There’s so much to marvel over.  On a clear night, the sky seems vast and endless and the stars are so much more vivid than they are at home. I stare, open-mouthed. Starstruck.

Come midnight, the island comes alive with a cacophony of activity. During the summer Bardsey is a temporary home to around 16,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters and their fluffy chicks. Each day the chicks wait patiently in their burrows for the adults to return under the cover of darkness and deliver a fishy meal. Walking along the paths it’s difficult not to stumble over these birds, so ill-adapted for life on land.  One evening we set up mist nets to catch Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. Although fairly common, storm petrels live rather mysterious lives, and relatively little is known about their breeding ecology.  We lure them to the nets by playing their strange purring, clicking call out to sea. If it is not their charming face, delicate legs and white rump that make them so alluring, then it’s their sweet, musky scent. Given the opportunity, I would never turn down a stormie-sniff.  Storm petrels have an incredible sense of smell and can recognise their partners by scent alone. They may even choose their partners depending on their perfume. Furthermore, the storm petrels acute sense of smell enables them to detect oils and fats floating on the ocean surface. This may indicate a valuable source of food.

That evening we catch a steady stream of storm petrels and shearwaters. One of the Manx shearwaters we catch is over 30 years old, first ringed in the 1980’s: although that doesn’t beat the Bardsey record over 50 years old! The storm petrels have trouble gaining lift again due to the onshore winds and they climb up our shoulders to use as launch-pads. They flutter – wings trembling like moths – before finally disappearing into the night.

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The Bardsey Gang

 

Into the Spanish Mountains

I recently spent a week on the south-eastern coast of Spain as my friend Ted and his family kindly invited me on holiday with them. Although much of the time was spent relaxing by the sea, we did make a couple of trips into the nearby mountains. Here are a couple of accounts of our days bird-watching in some beautiful locations.

Ronda

We gradually made our way along the road as it wound its way higher through the mountains. The landscape of holiday resorts and new-build apartments vanished behind us as the landscape transformed into an expansive of steep rocky valleys, cork forests and high peaks. The road cut its way through vertiginous mountain passes and eventually the road stopped climbing and the mountains opened up, giving way to an expansive vista of plains. Out of the barren, scrubby landscape rose the El Tajo Canyon, upon which sits the ancient city of Ronda.

As we entered the city these views vanished behind church walls, restaurants and gift shops. However, we walked north through the town, on a pilgrimage to the Citys’ most impressive feature Puente Nuevo –  New Bridge. Peering over the side of the bridge the landscape once again opened up. The views instantly filled me with a rush of awe and adrenaline. The precipitous landscape below was both unexpected and incredible. Puente Nuevo is one of three bridges that cuts across the El Tajo Canyon, which was carved out by the Guadalevín River that flows 120 metres below. Steep cliffs rise up from the edge of the river, and these create perfect nesting habitat for birds. In a similar way to coastal cliffs, these precipices are rather inaccessible to the hungry mouths of predatory mammals, making them a relatively safe haven for eggs and chicks.

 

It was interesting to see red-billed chough nesting on the cliff-face, just meters away from me. I’m so used to seeing choughs braving the cold and windswept Cornish coastline, but here they were enduring the searing heat miles away from the sea.   Hundreds of common and alpine swifts, joyful and energetic, whizzed and screeched passed us. Fast and agile, swifts truly are masters of the air. I will never cease to be amazed by the fact that swifts may remain on the wing without touching terra-firma for over nine months outside of the breeding season. Occasionally I notice swifts launch themselves from the cliff edge. I ponder – do they enjoy resting their wings while they nest, or do they revel in every moment spent in the sky?

 

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Red-billed Chough perched near one of the viewpoints. 

 

There were plenty of kestrels nesting on the cliffs, too. The cliffs make a great vantage point from where kestrels can hunt for small mammals and passerines in the surrounding plains.  It wasn’t the common kestrel we had come to see though. Lesser kestrels, the common kestrels smaller sister species, also nest here. We checked each kestrel carefully as they soared effortlessly below us. The lesser kestrel can be distinguished from the common kestrel by its plain rusty upperparts and a blue-grey panel on the upper-side of the wings. Lesser kestrels have a different hunting strategy to common kestrels, feeding mainly on large insects. After a lot of searching we finally glimpsed a lesser kestrel, way down in the canyon, a great conclusion to the day’s birdwatching.

Caceres

Time for another pilgrimage into the mountains. Up at the viewpoint, we were treated to panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Huge feathered figures stood hunched on the rocks – like statues overlooking the valley. The sun was breaking through the thin hazy clouds and the air was warming up rapidly. The birds heaved themselves off of the rocks, climbing up with a few heavy flaps and circling towards us. These were griffon vultures, truly hefty birds with a 2.5-meter wingspan. Griffon vultures are gregarious birds preferring to congregate in groups, relying on each other to find carrion on which to feed. Over a dozen birds soared almost effortlessly over our heads. It’s impossible not to feel insignificant when such magnificent birds, the flying carpets of Europe, are glaring down from just meters above. There were booted eagles here too, which were dwarfed by the vultures. Who knew eagles could look cute?

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Just look at that wingspan!
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A booted eagle – it was dwarfed by the vultures!

We took a short walk into the hills. Griffon vultures continued to soar over the peaks and in the distance an Egyptian vulture joined them. Up close Egyptian vultures look somewhat comical, though in a rather sinister fashion – with a spiky white hair-do but a pointy and bare-yellow face.  I feel blessed to see so many magnificent birds. Although there are fairly large populations of griffon and Egyptian vultures in Spain, as well as booted eagles, all are under threat from issues such as habitat loss and persecution.  I hope that they can thrive in the future and still put on such spectacles in years to come.

Scotland Field Course – Highlights of the Highlands

I have recently returned from a trip to the highlands of Scotland. This was part of the Scotland Field Course, run for second-year students at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus. The trip is run Safari style and aims to immerse and educate students about Scottish wildlife from the mountains and forests of the Cairngorm’s National Park right up through the endless flow country into the far North West. The trip was jam-packed with views of iconic and charismatic species and some unforgettable experiences. I thought I’d share a few of those experiences with you.

 A Windswept Isle

Torrential drizzle soaked us as we followed otter tracks that pitter-pattered across the soft golden sand-dunes of Handa Island. The Scottish weather was being true to its word and the short crossing over the Sound of Handa had left us feeling a little brass-monkeys. We sought shelter in the small visitor centre and stared out into the weather-beaten expanse. Handa Island is situated off of the far North West coast and a breath-taking vista of craggy mountains stretched out beyond the grey, foamy sea. The wildlife here is built to cope with conditions that would leave any Southerner feeling noticeably shaken. A group of female eider ducks congregated in the bay, their superbly thick layer of downy feathers keeping them warm. A smart red-throated diversleek and streamlined ducked effortlessly into the depths after its prey. As we walked around Handa we encountered barrel-chested, heavy-set, formidable birds with a forcible personality. Great Skuas are in charge of Handa Island, using their brute force to bully other birds into forsaking their latest meal. Bonxies are also skilful hunters, capable of tackling birds much larger than themselves.  Their classy cousins – Arctic Skuas – have slender wings, tapered tails and sleek black sheen. But don’t let that fool you. They too are experienced pirates, using their aerial prowess to chase their unlucky victims until they drop their food. Luckily the Skuas didn’t bother us as we sat overlooking the seabird cliffs, taking in the raucous collection of kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots nesting on the mighty stacks.

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Great Skua – also known as Bonxie – on its territory
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Arctic Skua showing off its sleek outline and pointed tail streamer.
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island
The sheer cliff faces of Handa Island

Lutra lutra

Minibuses act as handy portable hides. We edged slowly around an expansive loch, eyes peeled for a certain shy mammal that makes its living hunting in the dark and chilly waters at dusk. For the first hour or so there was no sign, although we had good views of eiders, red-breasted mergansers and a great northern diver. McGowan’s group caught a faint glimpse of an otter, but by the time we arrived at the spot the beast had vanished. We waited, we watched, we waited. Slowly but surely daylight edged towards twilight. Just as the incessant annoyance of midges was becoming unbearable and all hope of seeing one was beginning to dwindle, we suddenly heard a blunder of muffled excitement through the radio. McGowan’s group had driven out of sight, far around the other side of the Loch. Surely they hadn’t seen another otter, not now?  We braced ourselves and buckled up. We weren’t missing another opportunity. As we wound our way closer around the Loch, more excitement buzzed out of the radio. After what seemed like an eternity, we pulled up at the vantage point where McGowan was pointing frantically. We hopped out of the van quickly and stealthily, binoculars clasped firmly in our hands. Below were three dark and shadowy shapes swimming smoothly through the shallows of the Loch. A mother otter and her two cubs were journeying along the Loch edge, purposefully but playfully –  ducking, bobbing and diving. The air was still and silent, aside from the faint calls of cuckoos toing and froing. Time seemed to stand still as we watched the otters before they eventually faded off into the distance.

Haliaeetus albicilla

On our way back down from Durness, we wound our way along the North coast and then headed back inland toward the Cairngorm National Park. On the way, we made an impromptu stop at a remote and beautiful coastal loch to look for eagles. We climbed up to a rocky outcrop with some seriously stunning panoramic views of mountains, moorland, forest, loch and sea. Our eyes were on the skies and patiently, we waited. Suddenly the cry went up. ‘Eagle… WHITE-TAILED EAGLE!’  Swooping across the ocean was the unmistakable beast. Huge barn-door wings and bold, bright tail. It was gone as soon as it arrived. A mythical beast? Eagerly we waited. Again it came. Distant, but certainly a sight to behold. The UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of over 2 metres, the white-tailed eagle is unmistakable. Also known as the Scottish sea eagle, these huge birds were tragically persecuted to extinction in the 20th Century. Recently re-introduced, there are now around 40 pairs breeding in Scotland. What a privilege to see!

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Watching for eagles

Tursiops truncatus

The Moray Firth is renowned as a place where bottlenose dolphins put on a superb wildlife spectacle. Usually being a more tropical species, Scotland is at the Northern limit of the bottlenoses’ range. Seeing them would, therefore, be a real treat. A large congregation had gathered with hope and anticipation, undeterred by the brisk buffeting wind and the dark clouds looming overhead. Excitement built as a pair of dolphins were spotted far out in the mouth of the Firth, zig-zagging their way back and forth. Soon a larger pod began working their way into the Firth, surfacing at regular intervals. Suddenly a gasp came from a group of spectators and people started rushing to the edge of the shore. A mother and calf had surfaced extremely close, no more than 20 metres away. Every time they surfaced was truly breath-taking, you could make our the fine shapes and details of their perfectly streamlined bodies and even their contented-looking smiles. The calf stuck close by its mother’s side as they used the rushing tide to catch fish that were getting pulled in by the flowing tide. We all watched in awe as the rain pelted down on us, hoping that we could watch them all day.

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Occasionally the dolphins would show off their tail flukes.
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The cheeky little face of a bottlenose calf

The week was filled with plenty more amazing wildlife. I’m sure everyone will have their personal favourites including the mountain hares, black grouse, puffins, ospreys, ring ouzels, red squirrels…or the endless banter produced by our lecturers, of course! It was by far the best week of University so far… roll on the Costa Rica field course!

The Sounds of Skomer

Morning

Soft light pours into the murky darkness of my bedroom as I open the door on my first morning on Skomer Island. The air is crisp and cool and the sky a bright, monotonous white. Standing bleary eyed in the doorway, I look across the island out towards the sea. At first I hear an eerie silence, the sort you don’t seem to get on the mainland. The dawn chorus is different here to at home. There’s no noisy chattering of sparrows or electric clicks of starlings. There’s no great-tits chanting or blue-tit’s chirping and it’s unusual to hear the luscious song of a robin. Here, the sound of the mornings are more subtle. The cry of gulls is carried through the clear air and blends into the background. The first bird to greet me as I stepped outside was a pied wagtail, busily flitting around the farm. Their friendly tail-bob and chirping ‘chi-litt’ became a regular morning greeting.

Day

Spring was slowly but surely underway. The wind was still bitingly cold at times, but the warmth of the sunshine was gradually building up strength. Drifting on the wind, the true heralds of spring had arrived –  swooping, streaming and glossy wings glinting as they passed. The hurried chattering of swallows is an uplifting sound, one which welcomes the summer months to come. Over in North Valley, bluebells carpeted the ground in a subtle pastel blue. Rising high above on their fluttering wings, skylarks announced themselves gloriously with an impressive and seemingly endless recital of trembles, scratches and trills, before tumbling and falling back into silence.  Regularly passing overhead, oystercatchers liked to make themselves known – uttering a loud peeping ‘kleep-kleep-kleep’, which rather suits their gregarious character.

 

As you approach the cliffs the soundscape transforms into something wilder, more urgent. The Wick is an impressive cacophony –  a true spectacle to behold. The calming sound of the expansive sea is overpowered by the tremendous disharmony rising from the cliff face. The cliff appeared to be groaning and screeching, for is covered in guillemots and razorbills. They jostle for space in in densely packed conditions, chatting to their neighbours and mates. Edging too close to the colony, a raven is an unwelcome visitor. Kittiwakes pour off the cliff in frustration, starting an exaggerated uproar of ‘Kitti-waaake, Kitti-waake!’ The raven appears unperturbed, passing by with nothing more than a ‘crunk’.

Night

As darkness cloaks the island at night, an eerie sound begins to crescendo. Walking through the dark as the noise intensifies is a truly surreal experience. The island comes alive with manx shearwaters uttering haunting coos and shrieks. Occasionally there’d be a heavy rush of air and then a soft thud, as birds came to back to earth to enter their subterranean world of burrows. The experience is overwhelming, especially when you remember Skomer is home to over 500,000 of these precious seabirds – half the world’s population.

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Back at the farm, under the warmth of my duvet I listened to the muted cries of the shearwaters and the howling wind just outside my door. For early settlers of Skomer these were ghostly, frightening sounds. But these are the sounds that make Skomer so special and make me long to spend more time on this wild island.