The bear facts – watching grizzlies in Yellowstone

Grizzly bears are amongst Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic residents. With our wildlife watching in the UK and beyond currently limited by Covid-19, this post looks back on two grizzly encounters in September 2018.

The power and the glory

Americans have a complicated relationship with bears. On the one hand bears are the big, bad bogie beasts of the woods, creatures to be feared, shunned and if possible shot, stuffed and displayed somewhere prominent. On the other hand, the locals are in love with the power and the glory of these fearless beings, in awe of the magnificent apex predators with which they share the continent.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to see bears. Many – like the Platypus Man and Mrs P – are desperate to witness their undeniable majesty at close quarters. Bears are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species living in the Park.

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the public’s desire to get up close and personal with both grizzly and black bears was fulfilled by allowing park visitors to feed them. While this satisfied the primeval urge for an ursine selfie, it did neither party much good. Bears that are fed quickly become dependent on man, and cease to be truly wild. They are also more likely to become aggressive towards humans if they expect to be fed but aren’t.

Above all, bears that are fed lose all caution in the presence of humans, which could easily become – quite literally – a fatal error for one side or the other. Equally, humans who see bears as reliant on their handouts fail to appreciate their true magnificence.

And to make matters worse, in the early days of the Park, waste food and other rubbish from the Park’s hotels was thrown into open garbage dumps. Naturally the bears were attracted to forage at these, and pretty soon watching them do so became a major visitor attraction in the Park. To avoid disappointment the dumps were topped up with tasty goodies, and an armed ranger was posted close to them to sort out any animal that became unacceptably arsey.

In all these ways the National Park was complicit in turning bears into performing animals in an open-air circus. For more on the history of bear feeding in Yellowstone, and some sickening photos, follow this link to the Yellowstone Insider website.

America as a society is built on the philosophy of giving the customer what he or she wants, so it was a brave decision by the National Park authorities exactly fifty years ago – in 1970 – to end the feeding of bears. In addition, more appropriate means of rubbish disposal were introduced, including the now-familiar bear-proof trash can.

With these changes, bears and humans in the Park could at last enter into a more equal relationship with one another. Seeing bears in Yellowstone is more challenging these days than it previously was, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that any bear successfully spotted is living out a natural and dignified life.

Bears remain dangerous, and the Park authorities are happy to remind visitors of this at every opportunity. It’s not, of course, good for business to have your customers mauled by the wildlife, and with this in mind the National Park has a rule that at least 100 yards (91 metres) must separate humans and bears at all times. As well as protecting the tourists, this also protects bears from unnecessary disturbance. Park rangers – bless ‘em all, I say – get very edgy if they see the 100 yards rule being broken, as we are soon to discover.

We’re way too close, but are we bothered?

It’s early morning. We’re driving though a forested area of the Park, pine trees huddled close to the road. We round a bend and see a number of cars stopped at the roadside with hazard lights flashing, and groups of people peering excitedly into the undergrowth. This can only mean one thing: wildlife, and probably something special.

I pull up, and Mrs P asks a guy what’s going on. Grizzlies, he replies breathlessly, grinning like a maniac. We’re out of the car in a flash, so quick that I forget to turn off the engine, something I don’t discover until we go to drive away more than half an hour later.

The road is built on a slight rise, and we go slip-sliding down the slope to join a couple of dozen other watchers spread out amongst the trees. Everyone’s trying to stay safe, crouching low and peering from behind reassuringly sturdy tree trunks to get a decent view.

A little way ahead is a small clearing littered with fallen trees. Rooting around in the grass, digging energetically, is a huge momma bear. Close by is a “teenage” cub, almost as big as her, and back to the right hidden at the edge of the tree-line, is its more nervous sibling.

Momma must know we’re here. Bears don’t have great eyesight but make up for this deficiency with an excellent sense of smell. All these frantic, sweaty bear-watchers must whiff a bit, affronting her super-sensitive nose. But even though we’re well inside the 100 yards exclusion zone, she’s not a bit bothered. She’s focussed completely on digging up her breakfast, although whether this is roots or grubs we can’t be sure .

The first cub also knows we’re here and is plainly a bit anxious, but hunger gets the better of him and he too digs like crazy. Only the second cub remains wary, watching from the safety of the trees, going hungry while momma and brother tuck in ravenously.

This is the best, closest view we’ve ever had of grizzly bears, and Mrs P’s camera is in overdrive, the shutter a blur as she takes shot after shot. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s not going to miss it.

Suddenly there’s a commotion behind us. A ranger has arrived, glowing with self-importance. He does a quick calculation. “The bear is 41 yards from the road, and you’re all even closer to it than that. Therefore, you are all too close. GET BACK at once.”

He’s right of course. I reckon we are maybe 30 yards away from momma, and a number of folk are a bit closer than us. She’s not in the least bit worried, but rules are rules. After a brief pause the assembled bear-watchers start doing what they’ve been ordered to do…but very, very slowly and with as much bad grace as they can muster

By the time we get back to the road there’s a full-scale bear jam in progress, cars parked every which way, people milling around, desperately hoping the ranger will bugger off and annoy someone else instead. He doesn’t, and worse still, reinforcements have arrived, some of them armed with rifles “just in case.”

Another ranger is busily putting cones out on the road, making it abundantly clear that nobody is allowed to park in this vicinity for the foreseeable future. But we’re not bothered – we enjoyed half an hour of uninterrupted bear watching before the ranger rained on our parade, so we return to the car with a spring in our step. You can’t plan for an encounter like this, and it’s been brilliant.

You can enjoy the action highlights by following the link below to my short YouTube video (2 minutes).

A park ranger’s mission

Another day, another bear. Once again, as we’re driving along and minding our own business, we see cars parked where they shouldn’t be. It’s an obvious clue that something interesting is occurring in the neighbourhood.

I pull off the road where it’s safe, and we make our way down towards a parking lot a few hundred yards away where there’s a throng of people pointing cameras and scopes into an area of fallen logs and dead trees. Someone tells us that a female grizzly bear has been seen in this area over the last two or three days, and judging by all the activity she’s back again.

As we get closer we see that the people are all standing behind a line of traffic cones at the entrance to the parking lot which is, in effect, closed for business.

It’s a park ranger’s mission in life to ensure that no tourist ever gets closer than 100 yards to a bear, and they attack the task with gusto. When some brave soul tries to edge beyond the cones, a stern lady ranger warns him darkly about the dangers of crossing the line. He stays put, probably recognising that this young madam is a lot fiercer than any bear he’s likely to see today.

The rangers are out in force, and while madam is keeping the crowds under control, one of her colleagues is trying to locate the bear with his telescope. This place is a tree graveyard, charred trunks standing as silent witnesses to a forest fire that ripped through here a few years ago. 

Finally, the ranger confirms that he has the grizzly in his sights and tells everyone which tree she’s hiding behind. She’s some distance away, and we never get a really clear view of her. However, we can see she’s in good condition. She has a large hump on her back which, in grizzlies, is the tell-tale sign of a well-fed animal.

Everyone is captivated as she works her way between the burnt and fallen trunks. She’s snuffling around carefully, presumably searching for food, and soon disappears into a gully which totally hides her from view. The show’s over, and the viewers walk happily back to their cars, pick-up trucks and RVs, content that they’ve seen one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

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This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, in my 2018 blog describing a 24 days-long return road trip from Denver to Yellowstone National Park in 2018. During our adventure, which also took in – amongst other things – Glacier National Park, Utah’s Antelope State Park and an excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, we saw lots of wonderful wildlife, including our first ever view of wolves. To read about our road trip, follow this link.

To learn a little more about grizzly bear conservation in the Lower 48, click here.

Missing the Birdfair, missing the birds

Last weekend should have been one of the highlights of our year, three whole days at the British Birdwatching Fair. Affectionately known as Birdfair, it’s an annual celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond. I blogged about it last year; you can read my post here. Birdfair is an important milestone in our calendar, marking the passing of another summer, and Mrs P and I were devastated – but not surprised – that Covid-19 played havoc with it in 2020.

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Instead, Birdfair went virtual, with a range of lectures, workshops and other stuff presented online. “Entry” was free, but we were pleased to make a significant donation to support this year’s BirdLife International conservation project, which is to protect Borneo’s spectacular Helmeted Hornbill from the ravages of the illegal wildlife trade.

The virtual Birdfair was a good try, but inevitably lacked some of the magic that happens when thousands of people passionate about wildlife and conservation are physically gathered together. And that vague sense of disappointment just about sums up our 2020 birding year, which – courtesy of Covid-19 – has been a bit short on excitement.

Middleton Hall

Inevitably, therefore, our thoughts have turned to happier, pre-Covid days. The RSPB’s Middleton Lakes reserve lies on the Staffordshire / Warwickshire border, just up the road from historic Middleton Hall, an impressive Grade II listed building dating – in part – from the medieval period.

The reserve is managed as a refuge for wintering wildfowl, breeding wetland birds and passage migrants. Formerly a flourishing hub of the gravel extraction industry, the site covers 160 hectares (395 acres). It was acquired by the RSPB in 2007, and the conservation charity has been working hard ever since to return the ravaged landscape to nature.

When we visited in May 2019 it was the common woodland birds that were most evident, attracted by strategically distributed piles of seeds, nuts and other goodies. Some of the adults were wearing their breeding finery, but others looked bedraggled, worn down by the rigours of parenthood.

Meanwhile scruffy juveniles were doing their best to blend into the background, and yet simultaneously demanding to be fed again and again. Typical fledgling behaviour, of course, and rather endearing unless you happen to be the poor, harassed parent of said fledgling!

At one point a sneaky Grey Squirrel, unobserved by the birds, slipped in and stole food that was intended just for them. He looked in peak condition, and not at all ashamed of his blatant thievery.

As well as the “usual suspects” we encountered a few surprises as we wandered the reserve. In particular we were delighted to hear a cuckoo – so rare these days – and to glimpse a Small Copper butterfly, which is a colourful species we rarely come across. They, and all the more familiar birds and animals we spotted, made the day memorable.

Small Copper

Reserves like Middleton Lakes raise the spirits, demonstrating that if it’s given a chance nature will fight back and reclaim land that has been wrecked by man. When the Covid-19 madness is finally done with we’ll certainly return to see what else it has to offer.

Simple pleasures

We’d got big plans for 2020. No overseas visits – we wanted to spend a full year in the UK recovering from our 2019 New Zealand adventure – but plenty of travel here at home: a week in Norfolk, a few days in Liverpool, a fortnight in Cornwall, a long weekend at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland, and a Scottish odyssey centred around a two-weeks stay in the Orkney Islands. But Covid-19 has blown our plans out of the water: we’re going nowhere in 2020.

Instead, 2020 has become a year of simple pleasures. For more than three months we barely left the house, other than to buy food, so there was plenty of time to read. As a means of escape I’m working my way through the Jeeves novels and short stories by controversial novelist PG Wodehouse. Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse is claimed by some to be the funniest writer of all time in the English language. That’s overstating his abilities, I reckon, but he’s definitely brought me some welcome comic relief in recent weeks.

Written over a period of 60 years between 1915 and 1975, the Jeeves stories comprise a series of tales about upper class buffoon Bertie Wooster, a supremely stupid representative of the English idle rich who’s always getting into scrapes, and Jeeves, his smart, suave and sophisticated personal manservant, who invariably comes to his rescue. The early 20th century class system portrayed by Wodehouse is achingly absurd – grotesque, even – and one is left wondering how Britain ever achieved its prominent position on the international stage when ineffectual prats like Wooster ruled the roost.

My lockdown reading!

The Jeeves stories allow us to glance over our shoulders at a (thankfully) long-lost world, one in which rich White Englishmen did what they liked and everyone else did what they were told. However the books are wittily written, and as long as we remember the historical context and laugh at the appalling aristocracy rather than with them, it’s just harmless, escapist nonsense. And god knows, in the year of Covid-19, we all need opportunities to escape.

Speaking of escapism, we’ve also been using lockdown constructively to binge our way through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. We missed out on it first time around, but if ever there was an opportunity to find out what all the fuss is about it’s now, when we’ve got loads of time on our hands and not a lot to do with it.

Small Tortoiseshells have been common this year

And what a treat it’s been, an epic fantasy, a seething cauldron of death and deceit, dwarves and dragons, debauchery and depravity. Blood and guts litter the landscape in nearly every episode, while power-mad tyrants battle for ultimate control and leave mayhem in their wake. To be honest, it seems not unlike a normal day in the politics of your average western democracy.

For an old cynic like me it’s always been tempting to assume that something as popular as Game of Thrones must be cheap and nasty, just populist rubbish that combines mass appeal with minimal merit. It isn’t. Quite the reverse, in fact. The production values are superb, the characterisation vivid, the narrative complex and compelling. There are few positive aspects of Covid-19, but for us one of them has been creating the space and motivation to finally watch a TV show that just about everyone else on the planet has already seen. Love those dragons!

With opportunities to go out and about strictly limited, initially by government edict and then by our own caution, we’ve spent more time than ever before in our little garden. Thanks to my bad back and knackered knees I don’t look after the garden as well as I should, and it therefore has a slightly wild and unkempt appearance, like my Covid-19 hairstyle. But despite this – or perhaps because of it – the birds and the bees and the butterflies have visited regularly throughout the summer.

2020 has provided an abundance of bumblebees

One day I even spotted a bat, clinging to a pondside plant in broad daylight. It was during a hot spell and I assume he’d gone to the pond to take on water. He took off before Mrs P could grab her camera, circled two or three times around the garden before flying away. A rare treat, something we’d probably have missed in a “normal” year when we’re away from home for much of the time.

Less rare, but still a treat, is a visit from Milky Bar. Regular readers of this blog will know all about Milky Bar, a local cat who claims our garden as his own. Although he occasionally exerts himself by hunting insects, he is probably the most idle cat in existence and spends most of his time with us sleeping, waking just occasionally to chase patches of shade as the sun tracks westwards across the sky. Milky Bar is a great character, and his visits throughout lockdown always lifted our spirits.

Milky Bar: the most idle cat in existence

It would be banal to say that 2020 has been a year like no other, but clearly what’s happened in recent months was unimaginable as 2019 drew to a close. Mrs P and I have got off lightly. The virus has – so far, at least – passed us by, and as we’re retired and financially secure we’ve been spared the worries about the future that have afflicted so many working people. Instead we’ve spent our days here at home, comfortable and content.

It could have been so much worse and we’ll be forever grateful for our good fortune, and for life’s simple pleasures.

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Postscript: for all you CAT-LOVERS out there, here are links to other posts featuring Milky Bar:

Hen Harrier Day – community action to combat the persecution of raptors

The Hen Harrier is probably the most persecuted bird in the UK. To draw attention to its plight and encourage its conservation, campaigners at the charitable organisation Hen Harrier Action have declared a date in early August to be Hen Harrier Day. The timing is significant: on 12 August each year – the so-called Glorious 12th – the grouse shooting season begins, and it is this so-called “sport” that’s been at the heart of the Hen Harrier’s dreadful decline.

IMAGE CREDIT: Isle of Man Government / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Hen Harriers are ground-nesting birds of upland moors. In winter they relocate further south to coastal areas, heathland and farmland. Males are blue-grey with a white rump, pale underside and black wing tips. Females are brown above and streaky below, with a white rump and a banded tail. The bird is almost identical to the Northern Harrier that’s found widely over the US and Canada – scientists are divided over whether they are essentially the same species, or just very close cousins.

To attract a mate the male Hen Harrier puts on a breath-taking display of aerial gymnastics, soaring, twisting, spiralling and plummeting above heather-clad moorland to catch the attention of the local ladies. It’s called sky-dancing, and is mesmerising to watch.

Later, after mating, the male will seek to strengthen the pair-bond and show off his spectacular agility by passing prey to his mate in mid-air, enabling the much less conspicuous female to return to the nest without attracting the attention of predators. The RSPB have posted a brilliant video on YouTube which perfectly captures both behaviours. It’s nearly five minutes long, but definitely worth a look:

From an international perspective, the Hen Harrier is not endangered: it’s spread very widely across northern Eurasia, and Birdlife International categorises it as a species of “Least Concern.” However, the picture is very different in the UK, where its classification is “Red.” Here, the species is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.

The root cause of the Hen Harrier’s problems in the UK is its feeding preferences. Although its diet consists primarily of small mammals, it also takes some birds. It is this, and particularly its appetite for Red Grouse, that has brought it into conflict with gamekeepers.

The role of the gamekeeper is to serve his employers by ensuring that grouse shooters have sufficient quarry available to satisfy their vile blood-lust. Grouse moors are big business: a day spent blasting Red Grouse out of the sky can cost upwards of £1,500 (around $US 2,000), and fewer birds means reduced income for the moors’ owners. For this reason the pressure’s on gamekeepers – implicitly, if not explicitly – to eliminate any natural predators of the quarry species.

Lobbyists for the shooting industry protest their innocence: “it ain’t us guv’nor,” they plead, “we’d never hurt those cute harriers. We love the UK’s conservation laws. Honest!” But evidence to the contrary is overwhelming:

A 2019 government-commissioned study has shown that 72% of satellite-tagged hen harriers are likely to have been illegally killed on or next to grouse moors. Hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or near a grouse moor than in any other habitat.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

The case for the prosecution is clear, and although the shooting lobby comes up with a wealth of arguments in its defence these arguments are – to quote the immortal words of the great Douglas Adams – a load of dingo’s kidneys. The Hen Harrier Day website provides more details of the disinformation spread by those seeking to defend the status quo: you can read them by clicking here and turning to the section headed “six myths about driven grouse shooting.”

It’s reckoned that the UK as a whole has habitat to support 2,600 pairs of Hen Harriers, but in the last national survey (2016) there were only 545 territorial pairs. These are mostly in Scotland, where Mrs P and I have enjoyed watching them on numerous occasions swooping over the moors of the Orkney Islands. The views have invariably been at a distance, making successful photography an almost impossible challenge, but it always feels like a privilege simply to watch this rare and spectacular bird going about its business.

20193320190706

IMAGE CREDIT: “20193320190706” by richardrichard is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientists calculate that England alone has the potential to support over 300 pairs of breeding Hen Harriers. However in 2019 there were only 12 successful nests, and the fact that this is a record high for recent years reflects the seriousness of the situation. These dire numbers were the context in which annual Hen Harrier Days began in 2014:

Hen Harrier Days are community days of action, an opportunity for all of us to press for an end to wildlife crime and the wider abuse of our uplands…[They] are fun events for all the family and take many forms: in the countryside, in town, online, celebrity speakers, gigs, walks, picnics and more. Hen Harrier Days are normally organised locally by local people.

SOURCE: Hen Harrier Day website, retrieved 7 August 2020

Sadly, although unsurprisingly, this year Covid-19 rendered impossible the type of event that had previously taken place. So in 2020 Hen Harrier Day moved online, hosted by popular broadcaster and campaigning naturalist Chris Packham, and up-and-coming young presenter Megan McCubbin. It worked well; key species information and hard-hitting conservation messages being mixed in with a variety of relevant music, art and literature, and the promotion of some fund-raising initiatives that will support Hen Harriers.

To be honest, some of it was difficult to take, particularly when Mark Thomas, head of the RSPB’s Investigations Team, spoke about the persecution of raptors – including Hen Harriers – in the Peak District. It was shocking and heart-breaking to hear details of the carnage taking place there, and as we live just a few miles from the Peak District National Park it feels personal.

Having heard from Mark Thomas and others on the day, it would be easy to give up in despair, to conclude that this is a battle conservationists cannot win. But Mark’s not giving up, and neither should we.

Hen Harrier Day helps raise the profile of the bird, draws attention to the criminal activity perpetrated by those who see the harrier as an obstacle to driven grouse shooting, and builds momentum in the political arena. As the experts pointed out on the day, we can all do something to help the cause, even if it’s just giving a bit of cash to practising conservationists who are working hard on the ground to combat raptor persecution.

Speaking of which, one of the initiatives linked to Hen Harrier Day 2020 has been an art auction run in conjunction with Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. Derbyshire is our county, and as Mark Thomas has pointed out its Peak District moors are a hotbed of raptor persecution. The Peak District should be home to several pairs of Hen Harriers, but sadly Mrs P and I have never seen one here on our “home turf.”

We are life members of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, and Mrs P decided to do her bit by getting creative to support the auction. Using her favourite papercraft technique – iris folding – she designed an image of two Hen Harriers sky-dancing, and sent it off for auction. You can see her creation below:

At the time of writing the bid for Mrs P’s iris-fold picture stands at £60 (around $US 80). In all, total bids for the 73 lots stand at over £3,000 (around US$ 4,000). Isn’t it great to see so many people – both the artists who produced the images for sale, and the bidders who are prepared to stump up some cash for them – getting involved to support the conservation of a bird that needs all the help it can muster?

The battle to save the UK’s population of Hen Harriers is far from lost. Well done to Hen Harrier Action for leading the campaign to protect them, for spreading the message, and for inspiring me to hope that – one day – I may see a Hen Harrier here in Derbyshire.

Isle of Man highlights – (4) The Manx National Glens

Environmentalists are big fans of national parks, areas of land protected by governments for their beautiful countryside, rich wildlife and cultural heritage. All civilised countries have them, wearing them like badges of honour to demonstrate their commitment to conservation.

The word “park” conjures up the idea of great size, implying huge tracts of land stretching as far as the eye can see. But the Isle of Man is tiny, less than a quarter of the area of the Lake District, England’s foremost national park. A Manx national park is out of the question, but not to be outdone the island’s government has opted for National Glens instead.

A glen is a narrow valley, the word being derived from the Gaelic language, and there’s no doubt the glens are amongst the Isle of Man’s best natural features. They are heavily wooded, featuring rushing streams, tumbling waterfalls, fizzing cascades, deep rock pools and lush vegetation. Scattered here and there along them are the remains of watermills, echoes of a bygone age.

I don’t think you’d describe the National Glens as spectacular – the scale is wrong, too small – but definitely attractive and serene. They’re a perfect getaway from the hurly-burly of 21st century living.

The Manx government has designated no fewer than 18 mountain and coastal National Glens. These are preserved and maintained in a semi-natural state by its Forestry, Amenity and Lands Division, and are freely accessible to locals and tourists alike.

Pocket-sized though they are, the National Glens are a real asset to a little island in the middle of the Irish Sea. These compact and picturesque gems give the Isle of Man an unexpected but distinctive charm. Small really is beautiful.

In my book, few things in the natural world beat the sight and sound of running water amid the myriad greens of a secluded, verdant valley. Take a look at my YouTube video for a sense of the peaceful atmosphere in Silverdale Glen, Glen Maye, Ballaglass Glen and Glen Dhoon:

Isle of Man highlights – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

Isle of Man highlights – (2) Wallabies gone walkabout!

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.

Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:

“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”

Paige Havlin, quoted in Lucy Quaggin: Living In The Wild On The Isle Of Man, Huffington Post (Australian edition) 07/03/2017.

A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)

Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.

I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.

The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!

The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.

Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?

Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.

Joey!

The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.

During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.

Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.

As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.

The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.

At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?

I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.

And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

* * *

Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Introducing the Isle of Man

With opportunities to travel drastically curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdown there’s both plenty of time and good reason to look back on happier, more innocent days. Exactly two years ago we were exploring the Isle of Man, enjoying its rugged coastline, rural landscapes, scenic glens and varied wildlife. It’s a great place to visit, but if you live outside the British Isles you most likely know very little about it. Having said that, even most Brits are a bit baffled!

The Isle of Man – or Mann, to give it its other name – lies in the Irish Sea, between Great Britain and Ireland. At 572 km² it’s less than three quarters the size of New York City, and has a population of around 82,000. Although its inhabitants are British citizens, the Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom. The Brits are responsible for its defence, but it has its own governing administration and doesn’t have representation in the British parliament. It never formally joined the European Union, meaning that it was spared the turmoil of the Brexit debate.

The Laxey Wheel, the world’s largest waterwheel

Mann is a “crown dependency,” meaning that it technically belongs to the reigning British monarch. This arrangement dates from 1764, when King George III purchased feudal rights to the island from the Lord of Mann. He also bought the title, which passed to his descendants. As a result Queen Elizabeth is the Lord of Mann, even though she’s not a Lord in the way most people would understand the word. First Lady of Mann might be a more accurate description.

Confused? Me too! In my view the best description of Mann is “international oddball.” The Isle of Man is five-star anomaly.

10 more things you (maybe) didn’t know about the Isle of Man

#1 The island was first settled by the Celts, and although the Vikings, Scots and English followed later, their Manx Gaelic language predominated until the 19th century when English began to take over. The last native Manx speaker died in 1974, but efforts are underway to revive the language. In a 2015 survey, 1,800 people claimed some knowledge it.

#2 The Isle of Man parliament – the Tynwald – was established by Viking settlers in 979 AD. It claims to be the world’s oldest continuously operating parliament.

The Laxey Wheel, 22 metres in diameter

#3. In 1854 the largest waterwheel in the world was built on Mann. At 22 metres in diameter, the Laxey Wheel was constructed to pump water from the lead mines situated around 350 metres below ground.

#4 The Tynwald struck a blow for gender equality in 1881 when it became the first national parliament to give women the vote, albeit only women who were quite wealthy. New Zealand followed in 1893, and Finland in 1906. To its eternal shame, the UK did not approve (limited) female suffrage until 1918.

The volunteer-run narrow gauge railway is popular with tourists

#5 With its low rate of taxes the Isle of Man has long been regarded as a tax haven, where the idle rich can hide their wealth from the acquisitive eyes of their own governments. In recent years its administration has tried to shake off this reputation by signing tax information exchange deals with a number of countries. However the offshore financial sector remains the most important part of the island’s economy, while tourism also makes a significant contribution.

#6 The island is world famous for its population of cats with no tails. In fact, there are two varieties of Manx cat; the ‘rumpy’ has no tail at all, whilst the ‘stumpy’ has a very small tail.

Traditional house, with Manx cat in the foreground (looks like a “rumpy!”)

#7 Every summer the island’s roads play host to one of the world’s most dangerous and exciting motorcycle races. Between 1907 and 2019 the TT Races have resulted in 151 fatalities during races and official practices.

#8  According to local superstition the word “rat” is unlucky and should never be uttered on the Isle of Man. When necessary, locals refer to “longtails”. 

The Snaefell Mountain Railway takes tourists to the 620m high summit

#9 Mann’s highest mountain is Snaefell. Tourists are saved the discomfort of trekking to its 620m high summit by the narrow gauge Snaefell Mountain Railway. On reaching the end of the line you can see England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. But as this is only possible on clear days, most visitors to the island don’t manage it (including us!) 

#10 Despite being over 15,000 km from Australia, the Isle of Man has a healthy, self-sustaining population of wild wallabies! I’ll tell you more about them, and some of my other Manx highlights, in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

When the cloud clears, the bleak peak of Snaefell dominates views of the island

A Red Kite comes calling

One of the inevitable consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we’ve spent pretty much every moment of the last three months at home. Planned visits to Cornwall (2 weeks), Norfolk (10 days) and Liverpool (5 days) have all been abandoned, while day trips we would have done to places closer to Platypus Towers have also been impossible. Our horizons have been severely limited by the crisis.

However, it’s not all bad news. Spending more time chez nous has enabled us to better appreciate the wildlife that visits our garden.

We live deep in a suburban housing estate, and our private outdoor space isn’t big – just 90 square metres. Nevertheless, ten species of butterfly have passed through in recent weeks, and despite the best efforts of visiting cats Milky Bar and Malteser to have them for dinner, various birds have also dropped in, tempted by a well-stocked birdtable. A few months ago I wrote in this blog that birds don’t come here anymore, so the return of our feathered friends has been very welcome.

But the very best garden wildlife encounter has been courtesy of a Red Kite, swooping so low over us that it almost seemed we could reach up and touch it. It didn’t stay long, probably no more than 30 seconds, so no chance for photos or video, but the encounter is etched indelibly into the memory. We have been in this house since the mid-1980s, and if anyone had suggested then that one day we’d experience a fly-past by a Red Kite we’d have assumed they were completely out to lunch.

Amongst our collection of books about birding we have a field guide published in the year we moved into this house. It describes the Red Kite as uncommon, with fewer than 45 breeding pairs in the country. The distribution map shows the species confined to the mountains of mid-Wales, around 150 miles (240 km) from Platypus Towers.

But fortune has looked kindly upon the Red Kite over the last 30 years, thanks primarily to a spectacularly successful reintroduction programme.

Red Kites were once found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, both in traditional countryside haunts and in urban settings. They were so common that William Shakespeare described London as a “city of kites and crows.” Kites were welcome visitors to towns, where they scavenged waste discarded by the inhabitants, and this avian garbage disposal service was so highly valued that the birds found themselves protected by an English Royal Charter in the 15th century!

But times changed, and these impressive raptors were transformed from heroes into villains, being seen as a threat to food supplies and to game shooting interests. Intense persecution followed, and around 150 to 200 years ago Red Kites became extinct in England and Scotland, clinging on only in remote, mountainous areas of mid-Wales. Remarkably, genetic fingerprinting tells us that the entire relict Welsh population were descendants of a single female, an indication of how close the bird came to extinction in Wales too.

Numbers of Red Kites stabilised in Wales, but although the bird was given legal protection and some nests were protected from egg collectors it seemed unlikely that the growth in numbers would ever be sufficient to allow successful recolonisation beyond its borders. Further intervention was required if England and Scotland were to re-establish their own populations, and eventually the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) stepped up to the plate.

Their ambitious reintroduction programme began in 1989, with birds taken from Sweden – and later, Spain – released at sites in southern England (Buckinghamshire) and northern Scotland (the Black Isle). Other release sites came on stream later in the project, which lasted more than two decades, creating extra hubs from which the rest of the country could be recolonised.

By any standard, the Red Kite reintroduction programme has been a spectacular success. Under the heading “a triumph for conservation,” the RSPB website reports that there are now around 46,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The birds still face threats, in particular “illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables,” but the Red Kite’s situation has improved out of all recognition since the reintroduction programme began.

Although we were lucky to get good views of a Red Kite flying over Platypus Towers a few weeks ago, I imagine it will be some time before they become a regular sight here: recolonisation is a gradual process. However there are places in the UK where sightings are pretty much guaranteed, particularly in Wales, which is home to around 50% of the entire UK breeding population.

Indeed, Red Kites have become a tourist attraction in Wales, with one enterprising farmer turning them into a major business opportunity. Gigrin Farm’s website says:

We are a 200 acre family-run working farm, now famous for our Red Kite Feeding Centre. Hundreds of Red Kites feed here every day. It is a truly breathtaking spectacle which we hope you will come along and witness for yourself.

SOURCE: Gigrin Farm website, retrieved 12/06/2020

They do not exaggerate. I’m pleased to report that Gigrin Farm offers spectacular, close-up views of an extraordinary number of Red Kites, as well as a glimpse of the rare white-morph Red Kite and sundry other birds including buzzards, ravens and rooks. The photographs illustrating this post were taken by Mrs P when we spent an afternoon at Gigrin in November 2018.

Although the farm is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds continue to be fed. When regulations allow I would happily recommend anyone with a passion for Red Kites to visit Gigrin Farm…you won’t be disappointed! Meanwhile, click on the link below to see the YouTube video I made during our visit.

My video of feeding time at the Gigrin Farm Red Kite Centre