Martin Garner wrote in his Birding Frontiers Challenge Series Winter 'It's like having the Arctic Wilderness arrive on your doorstep'. That's exactly how I feel about Snow Buntings. I've been lucky to see them on their breeding grounds in both Iceland and Svalbard this summer and here they are back again in East Lancashire for the winter. A couple of Snow Buntings had been seen on Pendle on Friday and I couldn't resist a (now only occasional) hike up the hill today. After some searching of their favourite haunts on the hill I heard one call over the big end, this was followed by a second a few moments later. Not long afterwards I was delighted to stumble on a small flock of eight birds feeding grass seeds along one of the paths above the Downham slope. They were typically very shy and difficult to approach, feeding on the icy cold north slope, which does not see the sun by this time in winter. Northerly winds recently have probably aided their return to Pendle after an almost blank winter last year with only a couple of birds and I found quite a few droppings here and there suggesting they have been around for a while already. As explained in Martin Garner's book, the Pendle birds identified to race so far have been nivalis and are therefore continental European breeding birds but, wherever they are from, Snow Buntings are very uncommon away from the coast making the small numbers we get on Pendle very special. Also on Pendle today were golden plover (8), plenty of Red Grouse calling now and a woodcock in the car headlights standing in the middle of the road below the big end before first light.
THE SLAVONIAN GREBE CONTINUES AT ALSTON RESERVOIRS. Still on the 'more accessible' no. 1 reservoir, I managed to catch up with it again today, this time in bright sunshine. The sunshine deepens the blue colour of the water and for the same reason that early morning shadows are blue, the shorter wavelength blue part of the spectrum is not absorbed by the water and is reflected. There are a couple of things to remember when photographing birds on water. First of all shooting in RAW allows you to change the white balance and these images were processed at 7500K (i.e. warmer than the 'cloudy' setting). This reduces the intensity of the blue light reflected by the surface of the water. Believe it or not the water was actually much bluer than this at a daylight (i.e. sunshine) white balance setting. I often think that deep blue backgrounds distract from bird subjects. The second thing is that waves create constantly changing patterns so high burst mode is worthwhile to catch either a nice distribution of wave shadows in the background as well as any (desirable?) splashes of water. The three shots below are consecutive frames at 14fps showing how much can happen in such a fraction of a second! As usual it's all a question of personal taste, there is not right and wrong, this is just my preference. Back to the grebe itself, you can see that it has now moulted its cheek feathers and looks much smarter!
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.
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.