Saturday, 19 November 2016

Sri Lanka 2016

With not enough hours in the day I'm struggling to keep up to date with all my wildlife endeavours, hence why for this blog post you will have to cast your mind back to the slightly warmer months of July and August. 

My summer holiday was satisfyingly frantic, visiting the East Coast of America with my family, but also spending two weeks in Sri Lanka. My school runs an annual award scheme in which students from year 12 can compete to win a holiday of their choice funded by the school. The trip has to be "broadly educational" but there is an enormous amount of leeway, with groups pitching trekking expeditions, far-flung cultural trips but also more modest sight-seeing holidays. My friend Avishka, and I, were lucky enough to win this award along with two other groups, allowing us to take a 2 week trip to Sri Lanka practically free! The main objectives for the trip were to explore the countries huge array of wildlife, much of which is endemic to the island, but also to experience the local culture and cuisine. We began our adventure on the west coast of Sri Lanka, in the capital of Colombo.   

Common Grass Yellow 

The culture shock of arriving in Sri Lanka was definitely an experience. The contrast between the overcrowded market streets lining the city and the areas of tranquility that could be found dotted amongst the chaos was astounding. Butterflies and birds were in every patch of greenery, and the sound of parakeets echoed over the city every morning. Monkeys perched on rooftops and brick walls waiting for their chance to steal fruit from the market stalls below. This combination of chaotic streets, the safe sanctuary of buddhist temples and areas of total wilderness created a very memorable, and unique, atmosphere.  

Red-vented Bulbul Pycnotus cafer

On the way from Colombo to the south coast we encountered a huge colony of bats hanging high up in the trees, in broad daylight. They themselves were just as huge as the colony, easily on par with the size of the UK's larger birds of prey species. Kingfishers were another surprisingly abundant species, having seen many different species throughout our trip. 

White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis

As Avishka has relatives in Sri Lanka we were fortunate enough to stay in accommodation which we wouldn't have been able to afford without their recommendations. In the small town of Balapitiya on the southwest coastline we stayed in a beautiful villa with a private beach...the views were incredible, especially in the evening when the sun set over the sea. Hermit crabs, other crab species, and even hedgehogs could be found on the beach and in the surrounding dunes. Whilst staying at Balapitiya we also helped out at local primary schools, one of which our school funded the rebuilding of following the boxing day tsunami in 2004. 

After our stay at Balapitiya we moved along the coast to Galle, a lovely walled city with lots of shops and cafes. But even in this urban settlement wildlife seemed to appear around every corner. This (oriental garden) lizard was happily bathing in a patch of sand no more than two metres from our table whilst we were having lunch. I very much appreciated it's confidence as it allowed me to capture some up-close shots. The second image illustrates it's abilities to blend into the surroundings perfectly. 

Both Avishka and I agreed that the highlight of our trip was visiting Yala National Park on the south coast, where we managed to see Ceylon Spotted Deer, Asian Elephant and even Sri Lankan Leopard! This was a huge privilege as the Leopards of Yala are often very elusive and shy. Even our safari guide was over-the-moon to see one despite touring the national park every day!

We watched this individual for about 20 minutes, quietly following it (from a distance of course) along the track. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better a Spotted Deer appeared out of nowhere, and we managed to watch this beautiful leopard stalk the deer. Unfortunately we didn't see the kill as the leopard chased the deer into the bracken shortly after. The third image was taken just before the hunt began...

There was wildlife everywhere. The only problem was trying to spot it!

Juv. White-bellied Sea Eagle? 

Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fusciollis

(Purple-Rumped?) Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica

(Purple-Rumped?) Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica

Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius

Yellow-wattled Lapwing Vanellus malabaricus

Other bird species we saw included: Painted Stork (Mycteria leucocephala), Black-headed Ibis (Therskiornis melanocephalus), Cattle Egret (Bibulous ibis), several species of Parakeet (Psittacula), Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis), Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), House Crow (Corvus splendens), Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) and Spotted Dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis). Huge thank you to AFON (A Focus on Nature) for providing me with the 'Birds of Sri lanka' field guide, it was an enormous help!

Great Thick-knee Esacus recurvirostris

Ceylon spotted deer Axis axis ceylonensis

Overall it was a fantastic trip that I will never forget, with the highlight definitely being the extremely lucky sighting of the Sri Lankan Leopard. Once I got back from Sri Lanka it was only a couple of days before I was off again...this time to America!


We stayed in Boston on the East coast of America for three days, before moving south to Philadelphia and Washington. Whilst staying in Boston we went on a 4-hour boat trip into massachusetts bay in search of predominately humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Not only did we see around 5 humpback whales we also saw a finback and a what looked to be a shark just below the surface of the water. 

During our trip to America we saw a huge variety of other species, but as this was a family sight-seeing holiday I didn't always have time to grab my camera! It was very enjoyable never-the-less. 

American Goldfinch

My family have already started planning our next summer holiday - it will definitely take a lot to beat these two trips!

Friday, 22 July 2016

Springwatch adventure!

We are now in full summer swing with temperatures reaching record highs, but I'd like to take you back to spring, slightly less sunny, but just as enjoyable predominantly due to my involvement in the BBC 2's popular series Springwatch! 

Having received a message from Ruth Peacey a few weeks before the opening show it was a slightly mad rush to get prepared, especially with school work, but this just added to the excitement of it all. After a phone call with Ruth and a Springwatch researcher, we decided the main areas of focus were to be my wildlife garden (including the camera bird boxes I have set up over the years), the projects I'm involved with at school, and my nature-inspired music. The days went by quickly and before I knew it we - my parents and I - were off, heading to the RSPB Minsmere reserve on the east coast! 

Arriving at the BBC compound on Wednesday morning I spotted Jack Perks, a friend of mine, who had appeared on Springwatch the night before. He directed us in the right direction, and it wasn't long before we bumped into Ruth and the rest of the Springwatch Team. After a few introductions we headed out onto the reserve to do some filming and, of course, enjoy the stunning views and magnificent array of wildlife. 

The Sand Martin nests rigged with cameras

Our filming began in a hide overlooking the scrape, where Avocets, Lapwings and other waterfowl nest, but we moved on shorty after, having been told to 'shhhh' by an obviously keen birder. Having been banished from the hide we made our way to the Sand Martin nests, adjacent to a small pond and areas of woodland/shrubbery. I think this was fate, as what came next was, in my opinion, much better than anything we could have seen from the hide... 

Whilst shuffling closer to some rabbits, trying not to make any sudden movements, in order to get a (what would have been average) photo, I spotted a sizeable snake slither into the bracken, just centimetres in front of my left foot. It moved so fast that I had no time to get a photo, and with Ruth fixing the video camera back at the compound, I had no choice by to rely on my dad for help re-finding this unidentified reptile. To no avail I headed back to the meet Ruth, knowing full well that the likelihood of re-finding this individual was very, very low. But luck was on our side. Returning to the same spot 20 or so minutes later we found not one, but two, Adders (Vipera berus) basking in the sun. Having never seen an adder before living in a county where they are thought to be locally extinct, the thrill of finding two - one being melanistic - was unbelievable. And Ruth managed to get the whole thing on camera! This footage was later compiled into a short sequence to use in the live show if there was enough time (or if conversation ran dry!) 

We were back at the compound just in time for lunch - a wonderful buffet with quite a choice of cakes for dessert! Over the break we chatted with Stephen Moss and Rob Lambert who both made me feel very welcome, putting my nerves at ease. Chris Howard, the producer of Unsprung, ran over the running order of the show with me, and explained the logistics of the day. Not too long after, the second guest arrived! Best known for her song 'Proud' which was used for the 2012 Olympics, it was of course Heather Small! We almost immediately headed out onto the reserve for more filming as Heather arrived a little late, but with plenty of time before the show it was no problem. Heather and I were followed by the camera crew and sound recordist Gary Moore whilst I pointed out any species of interest - we heard Cetti's Warbler and Chiff Chaff, saw a Cinnabar moth and a Small Heath butterfly and watched a darter dragonfly lay eggs.

Mating damselflies 

The infamous art challenge was up next and I chose to paint foxgloves with watercolour. We only had 10 minutes so I went for expression over accuracy, flicking paint to create more movement. The judging was made by Chris Packham himself, well-known for his unique taste and harsh scrutiny. However, despite this, I managed to come joint first place! I was amazed! 

Heather and I busy going out #drawtobewild art challenge!

After a similarly delicious evening meal we headed up to location for the 6:00 run through, where Chris got an idea of the order of the show and the topics he would be discussing. The way he retained all the information for the real show at 6:30 was incredible! To view the show you can purchase the episode on BBC iPlayer, but here are a few screenshots from my interview. 

Following the show we - my parents, Ruth and I - retired to the tower hide, enjoying views of two kingfishers preening, a marsh harrier and the sound of distant bitterns. Not only did my mum think warblers were called 'swarblers' but my dad's phone kept vibrating, impersonating a booming bittern surprisingly well, making us jump every time!

My parents birding from the hide, using Ruth's lovely Swarovski bins!

Heather Small, Ruth Peacey, Lizzie Guntrip and Lindsey Chapman. 

On the way back to the compound we spotted two muntjac deer foraging in the woodland. We concluded the day by watching the 8:00 live show, joined by Tony Hall - the director-general of the BBC! Overall it was an incredible day, one I will never forget, and one I hope to experience again some time in the future. Thank you Springwatch!