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Our personal wildlife highlights of 2017

 

Sara watching Melon-headed Whales from the bow

Sara watching Melon-headed Whales from the bow

1. Website Manager & Tour Leader, Sara Frost – Bali

It’s difficult to choose only one fantastic wildlife highlight from tour leading in 2017 – a year that included such memorable events as snorkelling over vibrant coral reefs in the Maldives, sailing alongside a mother Fin Whale and her calf in the Azores and photographing White-tailed Eagles on the cliffs of Mingulay, on our St. Kilda & Outer Hebrides holiday. But I’d have to settle on our cruise from Bali to Komodo in Indonesia, which I joined this year in September. Sailing across the mirror-calm sea, with a group of 300 Melon-headed Whales lazily swimming alongside our boat was unforgettable! We eagerly leaned over the side of the bow,
Sara and a Komodo Dragon

Sara and a Komodo Dragon

looking into their eyes each time they gently rolled on their sides to inquisitively watch us. I was also delighted to encounter an abundance of acrobatic dolphins (Spinner, Spotted, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Fraser’s) and views of Blue and Sperm Whales. Our time on land was just as rewarding, with face-to-face views of one of the main target species of this holiday: the formidable Komodo Dragon. Many could be seen lounging underneath the huts of the local villagers, all of whom tolerate their country’s largest land predator (and the world’s largest lizard), living alongside them with respect. The absolute highlight, however, was on one memorable morning when the group was fortunate enough to swim with seven reef Manta Rays, all of whom were gracefully
Manta Ray, Sara Frost

Manta Ray, Sara Frost

gliding through the currents with apparent ease, feeding on the abundant plankton. It was a true privilege to be (literally!) immersed in their world, and they took no notice of us, trustingly swimming alongside us within touching distance. A truly unforgettable experience!

If you would like a chance to swim with Manta Rays and see Komodo Dragons, our next 13-day Indonesia – Bali to Komodo holiday, which includes a 9-day cruise, departs Monday 10th September 2018.

 

 

 


Tom at Iguazu Falls on his trip to Brazil

Tom at Iguazu Falls on his trip to Brazil

2. Tom Mabbett, Operations Manager & Tour Leader – Jaguar in the Pantanal, Brazil!

There have been many stand-out wildlife moments once again this year. Lynx and Wolf in Poland and the spectacular Great Grey Owl in Sweden were very special indeed but it didn’t take me too long to decide on my top wildlife experience for 2017 – seeing my first Jaguar in Brazil’s Pantanal. I headed out to Brazil this October to explore the southern Amazon, wonderful Pantanal wetland and breathtaking Iguazú Falls, and my highlight came while drifting along the Piquiri River … in the form of one amazing cat! It had already been quite a journey along the wildlife-rich Transpantaneira road with close

Jaguar, Tom Mabbett

Jaguar, Tom Mabbett

views of a wonderful Giant Anteater, hundreds of Capybara and Yacaré Caiman, Swamp Deer and countless egrets, storks and herons. It is difficult not to be stopping every few metres here! We boarded our motor boat at Porto Joffre and set off with one species now occupying all our thoughts. Jaguar. We searched the various rivers and tributaries and before long received news of a recent sighting! Full of anticipation we headed to the area, but on arrival there was no sign. We shut off the engine and floated downriver, eyes fixed on the bank, peering into the vegetation. Then, some movement, and in an instant I was looking at my first Jaguar! Initially partly hidden as it walked along the river bank, it soon came into full view as it moved to the water’s edge. A beautiful cat, its sheer bulk and power was instantly obvious as it ambled along the bank, mouth slightly agape. As we watched and took in all the features of this amazing cat, it just went about its business as if we weren’t there – swimming across the channel just a few metres from us and searching for Caiman in amongst the vegetation! It was a breathtaking experience. As it disappeared over the river bank it was ‘high fives’ all round! My first Jaguar encounter and a moment I will never forget.

If you would like the chance to see Jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal we are offering 12 departures (between June and November) of our popular Brazil – Just Jaguars! holiday in 2018, as well as a dedicated Photography Tour in July.


Georgie with a Grey Whale, Andrew Griffin

Georgie with a Grey Whale, Andrew Griffin

3. Tailormade Holidays Manager, Georgie Head – Baja California & the Sea of Cortez

2017 for me will always be the year of the cetacean. Beginning the year having only seen Pilot Whales in the Canary Islands, I was keen to ensure that this would be the year I’d improve my ‘whale list’. So when I was offered the opportunity to join a small group of Naturetrek clients on a whale-watching cruise in Baja California and the Sea of Cortez earlier this year, I jumped at the chance! During the holiday there were almost too many once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters to choose from, including watching Humpback Whales spy-hopping and breaching only a few metres from the bow, to snorkelling with playful Sea Lion pups in La Paz, as well as snorkelling alongside the world’s largest fish. However, for me the real highlight of the holiday, and what will stay with me forever, is spending time with the Grey Whales of the San Ignacio Lagoon. Having seen plenty of photographs of the incredible encounters that our clients have had with these magnificent creatures over the years, I thought I knew exactly what lay in wait for me. However, nothing could have prepared me for the magical experience that I was about to enjoy in this small corner of the Pacific Ocean. What struck me more than anything was the pure trust of the female Grey Whales as they brought their calves to the surface to enjoy a scratch and a splash with those on board the small motorised pangas. There was no ‘chasing’ of the whales, as the panga drivers stopped the boats quite a distance from the whales, allowing the inquisitive calves to draw in ever closer at their own discretion. Thankfully, due to firm regulations set out by the Mexican government, the number of visitors to the lagoon is strictly limited, allowing for almost private encounters with these gentle giants. I will forever feel privileged to have spent time with these truly mesmerising and beautiful creatures.

If you would like to see the Grey Whales of San Ignacio Lagoon and the other special wildlife of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, we still have places on our March Baja California & Sea of Cortez cruise. Please call Paul Stanbury on 01962 733051 or email paul@naturetrek.co.uk for further details.

 

Kerrie birdwatching on an evening river cruise

Kerrie birdwatching on an evening river cruise in The Gambia

4. Operations Manager Kerrie Porteous – The Gambia

After spending the first half of 2017 eating cake and swanning around the English countryside with my newborn baby, I eased myself back into the serious business of tour leading by joining our 8-day ‘The Gambia in Style’ holiday, based at the beautiful Mandina Lodges in the Gambia’s Makasutu Forest, earlier this month. The lodges are set on a quiet creek off the River Gambia, and on our first morning we joined our local guides just as it was getting light, beginning our explorations by taking to the water using traditional canoes. We drifted with the tide as the sun began to warm us, and the mangroves started to come to life. Within minutes I was watching Giant, Pied and Woodland Kingfishers fishing along the river, a Beautiful Sunbird preening in the early morning sun, noisy Senegal Parrots chattering in the trees, a White-backed Night-heron on its nest amongst the Mangrove roots, and elegant African Darters biding their time at the water’s edge. Further down the creek, we passed a huge troop of noisy Guinea Baboons at their roosting site before we stopped for a leg stretch and a walk through the forests and fields at Buffulotto. With a kaleidoscope of colourful birds every which way, and our trip list quickly racking up, it was hard to tear ourselves away to return to the lodge for brunch!

If you would like to spend a relaxed week based at the Mandina Lodges in The Gambia, our next 8-day The Gambia in Style holiday departs Tuesday 20th March 2018.

 

David whale-watching

David whale-watching

5. Operations Manager David Phillips – Whale watching in Iceland

Located on the north coast of Iceland The small fishing town of Husavik promotes itself as the ‘Whale-Watching Capital of Europe’ and it was once voted one of the 10 best places in the world to see whales. Over the past decade I have visited Husavik many times, mostly during the winter months when I hope to see the Northern Lights. This year, however, I led Naturetrek’s ‘Iceland in Spring’ tour in early June, the season when several species of whale arrive in the broad, sheltered Skálfandi Bay. Boarding one of the beautifully restored wooden fishing boats in the harbour we were kitted out with all-in-one suits which were very necessary to keep out the elements. Heading out into the bay we first passed close to the island of Lundey with its breeding population of Atlantic Puffins (like our own Lundy, Lundey means ‘Puffin Island’ in Icelandic). Fulmars circled the boat, skimming low over the water and squadrons of fast-flapping Puffins and Black Guillemots flew to and from the island. Heading to deeper water in search of whales, it was only a matter of minutes before the call went up: ‘Blow at one o’clock!’ and, as we scanned the horizon and caught sight of a second blow, the captain changed direction towards the whales. Soon we could see that it was a pair of Humpbacks and, as we approached, the whales surfaced with a great exhalation before their great, grey arching backs broke the surface of the water. Moments later a second pair of whales was sighted, closely followed by a third. Soon it became difficult to keep track of how many there were, but I estimated at least a dozen. Witnessing such immense creatures was a great thrill, particularly when they raised their tail flukes to dive, which brought ‘Oohs!’ and ‘Ahhs!’ from us all. After enjoying the company of the whales for several hours it was time to return to port and the crew brought out hot chocolate and cinnamon buns which were very welcome indeed. Back on dry land we had a chance to explore the excellent Whale Museum before returning to our base at the birdwatcher’s paradise, Lake Myvatn.


Our next 9-day Iceland in Spring holiday departs Friday 1st June 2018.



Weather Earthstar (Geastrum corillinum)

Weather Earthstar (Geastrum corillinum)

6. Operations Assistant Dave Shute – Fascinating Fungi, UK

To the newcomer, the world of fungi and mushrooms seems bewildering with over 5,000 species in the UK alone (and those are just the ones visible to the naked eye). Most people may recognise a few of the edible ones such as Chanterelles, Ceps and Field Mushrooms or the fairy tale classic, Fly Agaric – the red toadstool with white spots. A couple of years ago I decided to join a few forays with the local county recording group and was soon amazed by their expertise and willingness to share their knowledge. It opened my eyes to the fascinating diversity of shapes, colours, smells and even

Barometer Earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus)

Barometer Earthstar (Astraeus hygrometricus)

tastes (!) whilst also extending the season of nature discovery. Admittedly, there is a large number of LBJ’s (little brown jobs) whose identity is best left to the mycologist’s laboratory for examination of the minute spores with high-powered microscopes and chemical agents. Equally, however, there are groups that can be identified ‘in the field’ with confidence and it is these that got me hooked! This year I have, with the help of others, been searching for a bizarre group of fungi called earthstars. These species start like a small round onion just below the soil surface and emerge when ready to fruit. The outer layer then splits open into a number of rays which curve back to expose a soft, round puffball-like spore sac. There is a small opening at the top of the
Pepperpot Earthstar (Myriostoma coliforme)

Pepperpot Earthstar (Myriostoma coliforme)

sac through which the spores are then ejected when raindrops fall onto the sac. Earthstars are most commonly found in dry areas often below conifers amongst the layers of fallen pine needles. There are 19 species in the UK, several of which have the added kudos of great rarity. Illustrated here are three of the rarest, and definitely my year’s highlights.

 

 

 

  

 

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Sword-billed Hummingbird

7. Operations Manager Paul Stanbury – Sword-billed Hummingbirds in Ecuador

It was in no small part thanks to the great Sir David Attenborough himself that I found myself this October high in the cloudforests of Ecuador! Ever since being spellbound by his landmark ‘Life on Earth’ series as a young boy, I had longed to see the spectacular Sword-billed Hummingbird. This well-named jewel of the Andes has the longest bill in relation to body size of any bird in the world … indeed to balance when perched, and not topple forward, it needs to hold its bill and head up at an angle of 45 degrees! And so, 38 years after ‘Life on Earth’ was first broadcast, I took up my spot next to a bank of busy hummingbird feeders high in the misty forests of the Yannacocha Reserve. The feeders were alive with such wonderfully named hummers as Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlets and Shining Sunbeams, whilst the occasional Great Sapphirewing zipped to and fro, scattering the smaller species as it went. Behind the hummingbirds, three stunning Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers hopped into view, before being flushed a few seconds later by a pair of chicken-sized Andean Guan. But for the majority of the time my eyes remained fixed on the hummingbird feeders, not wanting to risk missing the main goal of the visit. And then suddenly there it was! As with most hummers, the Swordbill arrived so quickly that I didn’t see it come in … literally in the blink of an eye it was there, hanging motionless in the air, surrounded by a blur of wings and with that ridiculous bill held aloft. The bird was in view for no more than 5 seconds, nipping in for a few quick sips of sugar water before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. But what an amazing-looking creature; there can be few other species in the world on which the pressures of natural selection have had such an extreme outcome. It may have only been on view for 5 seconds but during that short time a lifelong ambition had been fulfilled! In the end, I had my best views of Sword-billed Hummingbirds later in the holiday at Guango Lodge high in the eastern cordillera of the Andes. Here they regularly come to the feeders and can be watched at close range with a cup of Ecuadorian hot chocolate in hand. Although this extraordinary bird was the undoubted highlight for me, it was only one of nearly 300 species I saw during a mere seven nights in the country, 51 of which were hummingbirds! Flocks of dazzling tanagers, displaying Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks and ‘Maria’ the confiding Giant Antpitta of Angel Paz fame – plus a few mammals including Mountain Tapir and Olinguito – all helped to make this such an unforgettable trip. The scenery of the high Andes was stunning and all the people we met along the way, including our amazing guide, Jorge, could not have been more helpful and friendly. Ecuador is one of the most bird-rich countries on Earth and, fortunately, also home to the prehistoric looking Hoatzin, another of those iconic birds that featured in ‘Life on Earth’ so many years ago and helped to spark my interest in wildlife at such an early age. One day I have to return!

Enjoy the same spectacles as Paul enjoyed on our popular 9-day Ecuador – Cock of the Rock holiday.


Andy and his family in Cape Town

Andy and his family in Cape Town

8. General Manager, Andy Tucker – ‘A Lion’s Roar’, South Africa

It’s been a busy year for the business this year – one in which I haven’t managed to get out to lead any tours. My wildlife highlight therefore belongs to a family holiday I took with my wife and children to South Africa. Making my first visit since leading a memorable Naturetrek tour back in 2003 (a tour which combined wildlife with 3 matches involving England in the cricket World Cup that winter), our holiday linked up St Lucia Wetland Park (where we enjoyed the resident hippos and crocs as a gentle welcome to South Africa) and the crashing surf of Cape Vidal, a 6-night safari, and four nights down in beautiful Cape Town. On one of our afternoon game-drives from Zebra Hills Safari Lodge, deep within the 23,000ha Manyoni Private Game Reserve, our guide tracked down two male Lions which we watched yawning and stretching over sundowners and biltong. As a full moon rose over the distant mountains, bathing us in its eerie glow, the Lions became mobile. Our guide felt that the dominant male might roar, so when the Lion pulled up and stood motionless for a moment, with his brother some 200 metres behind, our guide explained that he would position our safari jeep within feet of the Lion and we sat poised, holding our breath. The Lion perked his head up, listening intently to the nocturnal sounds of the African savannah. After several deep and audible lungfuls of air, his gut-wrenching roar bellowed through the night sky with echoes reverberating around us. The intensity of the sound that comes from a large male Lion just feet away is something to behold. Shivers were running down our spines and the look on the face of my 14-year old daughter (who was in the corner of the jeep closest to the Lion) made the holiday worthwhile on its own!

For help in constructing a self-drive tour to South Africa along the same lines as Andy’s holiday, please email Georgie Head in our tailormade department.