Slavonian Grebe, Alston Reservoirs

The long-staying Alston Slavonian Grebe has spent all of its time so far on no.2, quite distant and uninspiring but I was happy to see that it had moved to the 'accessible' no. 1 reservoir today, where was feeding close to the shore by the pumping tower. This is only the second Slavonian Grebe in East Lancs since I moved here 12 years ago, the previous one was even more approachable at Barrow Lower Lodge in 2008. Other birds at Alston today included a brief Peregrine that perched on the pylon behind the wetland, kicking a raven off it in the process, a Green Sandpiper was also on no. 1 and a late curlew was flying around calling. There were also more passerines on the move today including meadow pipits, pied wagtails and skylarks. An enjoyable morning.





Golden-crowned Sifakas at Tattersalli Camp, Daraina.

When researching a new destination there is always something special that catches my eye. In the case of Madagascar it was undoubtedly Golden-crowned Sifaka. It is the cover star of Nick Garbutt’s ‘Mammals of Madagascar’ and is regarded by some to be the most beautiful of all the lemurs. After watching them feeding quietly close by in the late afternoon in their dry deciduous forest home at Daraina in remote northeast Madagascar I can't disagree. They positively glowed in the last golden rays of sunshine coming through the bare tree canopy. A mother with baby clinging to her side carefully smelled the forest floor, selecting nuts to eat, only a couple of metres away from me while the rest of her family group of five foraged nearby. The rest of the day they could often be found higher in the canopy, eating leaves and resting but this late afternoon descent seemed to be part of their daily routine. Golden-crowned Sifaka is a small and delicate indrid lemur and its appeal is enhanced by the fact that it is critically endangered. Only discovered as recently as 1974 by Ian Tattersall, it was finally described in 1988 and more recent genetic studies have established it as a separate species from the Verreaux’s group of western Sifakas. In fact it may actually be more closely related to the Diademed group instead. It has an incredibly small range and occurs only in the vicinity of Daraina where it faces a number of threats, all of them associated with the activities of man. Forest clearance for agriculture and fuel as well as gold mining is the biggest threat but they have also been hunted periodically for bush meat, particularly during the economic chaos that ensued after the 2009 coup d’état. The recent influx of gold miners to the area has also damaged the forest itself, leaving deep pits everywhere, which undermine tree roots and ultimately kill them.

It is actually quite straightforward to see Golden-crowned Sifaka, they are common and easy to find in the forest patches around Daraina, although the road journey to get there, from whichever direction you approach, is something of an ordeal. In fact my friend Terry Chambers reminded me that it took longer to get from Antsirinana to Daraina by road than it did from Paris to Antananarivo! The road was not repaired after the last rainy season and is a nine hours bumpy ordeal each way from Antsirinana with not much to look at along the way in the rather degraded countryside. We didn’t see a single bird of any species for almost an hour after we set out from Antsirinana for instance. The Madagascar conservation NGO Fanamby has established an eco lodge at Daraina, Tattersalli Camp and although its wooden huts are very simple, it is clean and wonderfully located right on the edge of some really beautiful forest away from the gold digging areas. The sifaka (and also the merely endangered Crowned Lemur) can even be seen in the trees around the camp itself, including from the bathroom! The forest immediately adjacent to the camp had a couple of families of Golden-crowned Sifakas at the time of our visit and it also produced some interesting birds like spectacular Sickle-billed and Hook-billed Vangas. A large roost of Greater Vasa Parrots coming and going was another memorable sight (and sound). At night the forest comes to life and although we did not manage to find an Aye-aye this time, there were some signs of their feeding activity. Worryingly some dead Aye-ayes were found recently, by our guides, having been killed by locals who regard them as evil spirits and harbingers of death. We saw plenty of other lemurs, all of them unique to this area including Daraina Mouse Lemur, Daraina Sportive Lemur and the putative ‘Daraina’ Fork-marked Lemur.

I am hoping that this post will encourage you to make a wildlife pilgrimage to Daraina and maybe help persuade the local people that the lemurs and their forest home here are worth more alive than dead.  The long journey is well worthwhile and was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Madagascar. You can either join my next Wild Images tour to Madagascar or contact the NGO Fanamby directly.

'I believe I can fly! A Golden-crowned Sifaka takes to the air.

Crowned Lemur, from the bathroom!

'Daraina" Fork-marked Lemur is sure to be another separate species of lemur.

Late afternoon sun at Tattersalli Camp, Daraina.

Panning for gold at Daraina, a hard life attempting to find some fragments of poor quality precious metal.




A female Fosa approaches at Kirindy Forest Station. [CLICK PHOTOS FOR LIGHTBOX]

When I planned my recent Wild Images photo tour of Madagascar I asked myself, if I could only visit once, on a ‘Best of’ tour, which of its amazing animals would I want to include in my itinerary? Starting in the unique spiny forest of the southwest near Ifaty, itself an un-missable attraction, Long-tailed Ground Roller must be one of the most enigmatic birds of the ‘Eighth Continent’ and then there was Ring-tailed Lemur. Having seen this beautiful creature so many times on Johnny Morris’s ‘Animal Magic’ TV programme as a child no wildlife tour of Madagascar would be complete without it. We can see it easily at Isalo National Park, a few hours drive from Ifaty. Including these two locations would automatically pick up some other good lemurs like the outrageous Verreaux’s Sifaka as well as more birds and reptiles but where to next? The eastern rainforest for Indri, the largest extant lemur, as well as Diademed Sifaka (some say it is the most beautiful of all the lemurs) and Black-and-white Ruffed Lemur, another cracker, is another not-to-be-missed destination, particularly as it does not involve a flight with the notoriously changeable Air Madagascar. That still left some time to go both west and north and I wanted to do something different to simply following the main birding drag, which would have taken us to Mahajunga on another notoriously unreliable flight.

So what next? Fosa of course! I’d long admired Nick Garbutt’s amazing photos of Fosa, a unique carnivore, that shares traits with cats, dogs and mongeese and is the only predator in Madagascar capable of preying on adults of any of the lemurs. It is thought to have evolved from a single mammalian ancestor (along with the other Madagascan carnivore members of the family Eupleridae), which made the crossing of the Mozambique Channel on floating vegetation, long after Madagascar had split from Africa c.150 million years ago, at a time before mammals had evolved of course. [Such an event is thought to have produced all of the lemurs, tenrecs and Madagascar rodents, each family deriving from a single refugee. This might sound an unlikely way to have produced the present set of mammals in Madagascar but even one million years is a long time for a random event like this to happen! Remember that a primate has now managed to reach the moon (probably). Faced with a vast unexploited area of habitat the colonists radiated into an array of specialists, each finding their own niche.] The Fosa is a hunter of the other mammal groups, particularly lemurs. Imagine an animal so sleek and fast that it can hunt down an agile primate, which is capable of making 10 metre leaps between trees in its efforts to evade capture. It has flexible ankles, which allow it to jump from tree to tree and descend them headfirst, semi-retractable claws like a cat, a super long tail to aid balance during chases and a fearsome set of teeth. It is certainly the lemurs’ nemesis.

Although it is the most widely distributed of Madagascar’s carnivores, the Fosa is very thinly spread and usually very elusive. However, there is a reliable place to see it, Kirindy Forest, just north of Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast where they are more or less habituated. In fact, they are so at home around the Forest Research Station that it is a challenge to photograph them with natural-looking backgrounds away from the rubbish (‘fako’) dump, where they scavenge leftovers. I spent hours following them around and enjoyed a few superb encounters when they simply sat down in the forest and allowed me to do the same only a couple of metres away. We saw at least four different animals, two gnarly males, both with damaged left eyes but also a perfect young male and female. We even saw one at night hunting along one of the forest tracks. It almost bounded right up to us before realizing its mistake. While watching the tourists come and go I couldn't understand why they would all just take a few snaps at the rubbish dump and then go back to the restaurant, thinking ‘job’s a good un’? One of my mottos springs to mind ‘why go off and do something else badly?’ I had Nick’s superb photos and some other ideas in my mind’s eye and here are a few of my efforts.

The old alpha male Fosa of Kirindy Forest Research Station, showing his best side.

A young male Fosa yawns after a long afternoon nap under the chalets.

The same animal on the prowl in the nearby forest.

Eventually he sat down for a rest and allowed some very close approach.

The female Fosa again.

Fosas co-exist with the hordes of vahaza (white tourists) at Kirindy.

They make themselves completely at home at Kirindy Forest Research Station!




Purple Heron (juvenile), Leighton Moss [CLICK PHOTO FOR LIGHTBOX]

Another grand day out with Mark Varley was completely focused on getting some acceptable photos of the Purple Heron at Leighton Moss, however, we saw a lot of other good birds during our six and a half hours in the Grisedale Hide today. A Great Egret, a couple of Little Egrets and the now outnumbered(!) Grey Heron also made an appearance. Two Marsh Harriers (a very worn old female and a juvenile) were quartering the reedbed and an Osprey flew over heading southwest. A female Sparrowhawk and a Common Buzzard completed the raptor line up. Mark spotted an otter in the heron's favourite feeding pool but it soon made off, probably owing to the ultra noisy hide (one of the downsides of birding Leighton these days). Unfortunately the forecasted rain arrived earlier than expected and we headed back to the cafe to warm up (it's only 3 September!) and buy lots of pin badges (they've got an outstanding selection here these days). The RSPB staff in the reserve centre were really helpful today, I don't really recall that from previous visits. Great job!

While I was looking into previous records in Lancashire (11 to 2008, with all but two of them at Leighton) it was interesting to see that Leighton had a superb run in the 1970s with eight of its nine records between 1970-77. I think this is also the first juvenile for Lancashire as well as the first autumn record. My first visit to Leighton was 3 May 1975 and amazingly I now see that there was one the day after that stayed for 6 days! So here I am catching up with it more than 42 years later!