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!




A drake Harlequin Duck shoots the rapids of the Laxá in Northeast Iceland (Mike Watson)

Picture a landscape of a rushing torrent, lined with marigolds, cascading through lush green marshes and heathland dotted with lovely wildflowers. Dark volcano cones loom and snow-covered mountains stretch into the distance under a suffocating blanket of leaden skies. This is Iceland, the domain of the Harlequin Duck. Just as attractive as the landscape, which it inhabits, this hardy little duck could well be the prettiest of all, depending on your favourite colour. Blue maybe? Finished with striking ivory white spots and stripes, as well as deep chestnut flanks and head markings drake Harlequins are masterpieces of natural design. My friend Gary (Rocket) Jenkins’s photos from the Laxá (‘Salmon River’) published in Birding World were the best that many of us had seen at the time and later, in 2013, I travelled to northeast Iceland myself and saw how the birds fitted into the landscape. Since then I’ve had an image in my mind’s eye that I wanted to capture and earlier this month I returned with a Wild Images group to try to do just that. We had hoped for some interesting light at the time of our visit to the Lake Myvatn area. After a stormy couple of days the weather was due to clear and maybe there might even be a little sunshine. That’s it! Mixed cloud and sunshine is just what we wanted.

I don’t use automatic exposure settings and in fast changing light conditions like this it is hard work to keep up, constantly metering from the vegetation on the banks of the river. However, it is absolutely necessary to get close to the correctly exposing the dark blue plumage of the ducks against the foaming river (automatic settings never get it quite right unless the subject is massive in the frame). Once you’ve set a shutter speed sufficient to freeze the action, all you need to do is to concentrate on focusing on the birds, which is another challenge, as they disappear momentarily behind standing waves in the white-water of the river or paddle frantically, opening their wings and half flying through the rapids. With plenty of time to spend close to the water’s edge (don’t fall in by the way!) we enjoyed a steady stream of birds coming and going and some superb action in the water. I think we got pretty close to what we wanted. This appeared to be a great time to catch the drakes. When the females have settled down to nest but the drakes have not yet disappeared downstream towards the coast. A week later and they were all but gone.





A Snowy Owl 'in the middle of nowhere' was probably our most exciting find.

SPRING BIRD MIGRATION CONTINUES WELL INTO JUNE IN ICELAND and it is probably the best month for rarities there. High Arctic breeding birds still on their way north occur alongside overshoots and long-stayers. I managed a total of 84 species during my stay in Iceland earlier this month, on back-to-back Wild Images and Birdquest tours including a good number of rare migrants and actually equalled the Birdquest Iceland life list total prior to 2017! I might even make it into treble figures one day at this rate. However, it is worth remembering that the top Icelandic listers are over 300, with totals consisting mostly of vagrants! Just off the flight from Manchester (on which, by chance, I was sitting in the next row to Reykjavik birder Edward Rickson) virtually the first bird I saw was the super-smart drake White-winged Scoter at Sandgerdi. A WP lifer for me and a great welcome back to Iceland! It has been hanging around the Reykjanes Peninsula for the last few years but there is a lot of foreshore along which to search for it and it can go missing for days. Having been around so long now, the local birders hardly keep tabs on it.

The long-staying Reykjanes Peninsula North American White-winged Scoter at Sandgerdi

Very soon afterwards I caught up with Iceland's first Black-winged Stilt just south of Sandgerdi, which had been around for a couple of weeks and had understandably caused quite a stir when it first arrived. Next stop North America? Although technically it was already standing on the North American plate here. It paced around a shallow pool surrounded by eiders and Arctic Terns. Sandgerdi is a true WP rarity hotspot and in the space of a few weeks this year this area also hosted Bonaparte's, Sabines and Little Gulls, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-crowned Night Heron and Bufflehead!

Iceland's first Black-winged Stilt, Sandgerdi.

Other notable sightings on my travels included King Eider (two adult drakes), American Wigeon, Mandarin (certain Belgian-ringed escapes at Húsavík but another on Flatey of uncertain origin), Black Tern, a couple of Little Gulls, Common Crane, Long-tailed Skua (four, including one on territory hundreds of km from the single known breeding area), a pair of Bramblings and best of all, a magnificent Snowy Owl, also away from any known breeding areas 'in the middle of nowhere'. We looked for the owl again about a week later and despite some hours spent searching were unable to refind it. However, with so much wilderness it is easy to find your own birds in Iceland and were it not for the eye-watering cost of food and accommodation more birders would surely explore this fabulous country. Finally thanks to my birding friends in Iceland: Gaukur Hjartason, Yann Kolbeinsson and Edward Rickson without whose help I would certainly have seen a lot fewer birds!

Common Crane, Aðaldal.

Mandarin, Flatey.

Belgian-ringed Mandarin, Húsavík.

Long-tailed Skua, also 'in the middle of nowhere'

Brambling, the female of Iceland's only breeding pair.