Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Bee Orchids...

2020 has been exceptional for many reasons, Covid-19 has disrupted lives around the planet, in the UK we have experienced the warmest, driest May on record and (now that we can travel locally) I've seen more Bee Orchids, Ophrys apifera, than ever before.

The conditions this spring seem to have been ideal for many orchid species - ironic considering we haven't been able to travel to see them for the first time ever! However, now that lockdown has eased slightly, my son and I have returned to doing his preferred walk in Seaton and it was on one of these walks a couple of weeks ago that I noticed a large colony of Bee Orchids in pristine condition. The Ophrys family are probably my favourite of the British orchids, they are very distinct, attractive plants and the Bee is certainly one of the most exotic looking.

One of around 30 flower spikes


I went back again to make a short video with Nigel.




Broad-leaved Everlasting Pea
also adding a splash of colour.

Stinking Iris - I usually find them when they're
past their best so nice to see it in flower.

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Starlings...

Starlings are a great group of birds. Generally either loved (for their cheeky character, quirky manners and colourful plumage  or ignored (pests, noisy, too common), I'm certainly in the former group. An adult European Starling in breeding plumage is one of our most attractive birds IMO.

In recent days we've seen an influx of scarce Rosy Starlings from Eastern Europe and Asia, they've been popping up in flocks of regular starlings up and down the country. Yesterday a pair were found in Seaton, Devon about 12 miles away from here. When I heard the news I turned and looked out of the window to see a small group of half-a-dozen starlings foraging in the field behind our house. My heart jumped as a pale bird moved randomly among them - bloody hell! Could it be a Rosy Starling here too?  I frantically ran for my camera and bins and after a few tense seconds realised that it was in fact a leucistic European Starling! An individual that was completely snow white (but with a dark iris, so not albino). My short-lived disappointment (at it not being a Rosy) was soon replaced with awe as this stunning little bird weaved in and out of the tussocks and crept ever closer. Later in the day it appeared on the wires outside the house and I was able to get decent images of it.


Fast forward to Sunday (today). After hearing the news that the Rosy Starlings were 'showing well' at Seaton again this morning, I had to go and see them. They are stunning birds and being so close to home, it would have been amiss not to pay a visit. Nigel couldn't resist going for this one either and joined me there.

On arrival a few birders were wandering around, scanning the rooftops and it was apparent the birds were not showing. An older couple told me they had been there 45 minutes and not seen it. As I said 'that's a shame' I glanced up at a chimney pot and said, there it is! 

Rosy Starling...punk hair!

Rosy Starling, male singing its heart out!


This could grace my chimney any day.

The female never materialised but the male made up for it in showiness, what a fantastic bird and my best views for sure.

 


 A stroll along the under cliff afterwards produced in excess of 20 spikes of Bee Orchid, the perfect way to round-off a great morning.

Bee Orchid - a personal favourite.


Fingers crossed that lockdown will cease (or at least be relaxed) soon so that we can travel further and get more active.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Coming to a screen near you soon....

The programmes we filmed last year in Central America are coming to our screens in the next couple of months - perfect viewing whilst on lockdown!  Already available on National Geographic Wild, the two-part presenterless version 'Wild Central America' aired in the UK on Sunday 8th March and can be seen again on NatGeoWild (Sky CH 166) on 27th April at 9am and 10 am

Nigel and cameraman Mike Hutchinson 

The hosted versions (Wild Costa Rica, Wild Guatemala, Wild Panama and Wild Honduras) are due to be shown over the coming weeks and months and will feature on other channels (Eden, Animal Planet). A short teaser for 'Wild Costa Rica with Nigel Marven' can be see on Nigel's Twitter feed https://twitter.com/Nigelmarven/status/1250497219444248577

Stay safe!

Friday, 28 February 2020

Panama City...

Our trip to Panama was coming to an end and we planned to spend the last few days filming  in and around Panama City itself. Panama City is a striking place, it has a stunning skyline that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and a Metropolitan Park just 2 km from the city core that is home to many wild animals.

Panama City from a drone perspective

The park was our first port of call. It's home to 284 species of trees, 254 species of birds, 45 mammal, 36 reptile and 14 amphibian species. A one hour steady climb uphill along a good path brought us to a view point with fantastic views of the city. Joining us were a nice male Summer Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker, a Double-toothed Kite (sitting at head height just feet away) and a family of Geoffroy's Tamarin.



View from the top

Filming the view for the show

Our main reason for coming here was to see a very special bird though. Rosy Thrush-Tanager is nearly always difficult to see and Metropolitan Park is one of the best places to catch up with them if you're lucky.  We were fortunate to see a pair but the male was much more elusive.

Rosy Thrush-Tanager, female

Rosy Thrush Tanager, female

Rosy Thrush-Tanager, female

Rosy Thrush-Tanager, female

He sat further back and only gave brief but stunning views.


Rosy Thrush-Tanager, male

Rosy Thrush-Tanager is in its own monotypic genus with no particularly close relatives. Surprisingly perhaps its nearest species on a molecular level, are the Calcariidea (buntings including the more familiar Lapland Bunting and Snow Bunting). The pair also share the song, when one finishes its phrase the other takes over and it's really challenging to tell where one ends and the other begins. For me they are one of the highlights of the trip.

Back in the city there are dozens of kettling Turkey Vultures using the thermals from the skyscrapers to their advantage. A 10 minute drive later and we are overlooking Panama Bay, one of the most important migrating wader spots in Central America. Thousands of birds can be seen here at certain times of the year and as the tide comes in we get good views of Marbled Godwit, Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Sandwich (Cabot's) Tern and a beautiful Tri-coloured Heron.

Nature on your doorstep if you live in the city.


Laughing Gull, Panama Bay...is that a suitcase?


Marbled Godwits

Hudsonian Whimbrel

Semi-P, Short-billed Dowitchers and Marbled Godwits

This was the one and only place we saw horrendous rubbish problems, more to do with the tides washing into this bay rather than people specifically dumping here. They appear to be fighting a loosing battle but could certainly do with more help cleaning it up as it's very much out of control...

Mike filming from the litter strewn beach

That was it!  Filming over we spent the last few hours relaxing and packing at the hotel before heading to the airport for an evening flight back to London via Madrid. 

I've been incredibly lucky this last year and gained invaluable filming experience. 

Wild Costa Rica, Wild Guatemala and Wild Panama will be out on a variety of channels later this year. Hopefully I'll be filming again soon.


Sunday, 23 February 2020

INDIGO are Go!

During the filming trip to Guatemala with Nigel last September, I was lucky enough to meet some incredibly talented, knowledgeable and thoroughly nice naturalists. Rowland Griffin was one such person and he and his equally charming UK business partner Adela Mei, run Indigo Expeditions.

Adela and Rowland on top of
La Danta at El Mirador

Adela Mei - Co-founder of Indigo Expeditions

Both Rowland and Adela are passionate about wildlife and wildlife conservation - particularly reptiles and amphibians. Rowland is an expert herpetologist who spends much of his time working in the field in Guatemala while Adela fronts the UK office running their social media and trip logistics.  They operate regular volunteer conservation based expeditions and nature tours, which anyone can participate in. All are based in Guatemala, a country they have both taken to their hearts.


Indigo's Projects

Indigo's primary interest is the conservation of biodiversity, particularly the reptile & amphibian groups of Guatemala. The scope of their work currently includes two main projects:

The Lost Frogs of Alta Verapaz - Working with Community Cloud Forest Conservation, Indigo Expeditions promotes the conservation of amphibian biodiversity in the highlands of Guatemala, a hotspot of amphibian endemism. The flagship species Plectrohyla teuchestes is endemic to the Xucaneb mountains of Alta Verapaz. Listed as Critically Endangered, its survival is threatened by habitat loss and disease. #indigofrogs

Estación Biológica el Banco - Working with Asociación Fundaselva de Guatemala, Indigo Expeditions has initiated an exciting sea turtle conservation project on the Pacific Coast. Collaborating with the community of El Banco at the tortugario or turtle sanctuary, research includes monitoring populations of olive ridley sea turtles, as well as green sea turtles and leatherback sea turtles in this area of the Pacific coast of Guatemala. #elbanco

Speaking to Rowland a few days ago he had some great news about their turtle project:
"In 2020 there have been approximately 6000 Olive Ridley turtles released by Tortugario el Banco, which is a record year!"

"We provide training with a focus on ethical
and respectful survey and monitoring protocols".


So how did Indigo get started?
"I started working in Guatemala in 2013 under the name Project Chicchan, then as Adela became more and more involved we decided to rebrand to Indigo Expeditions in 2015. For me Guatemala is such an incredibly diverse country. Not just in terms of wildlife but also landscapes and culture. Because of its small size you can go from desert to cloud forest in just a few hours, it's breathtaking! But most of all it's the hearts of the people, their friendliness and warmth, even to complete strangers. Oh, and they have the best avocados in the world!"
Rowland Griffin 

Reptiles and amphibians may be Rowland's passion but he's also a good all-round wildlife guy and is more than happy to point out birds and mammals seen on his expeditions too. When asked about his favourite reptile, I can tell it's a struggle for him to name just one...
"I never tire of finding reptiles and amphibians in the wild and picking my favourites would be very tricky. I once said that my favourite snake was the one I had just found. But I really love encountering yellow-blotched palm pitvipers (often called Rax K'aj, which translates as green lightening). They are such calm and wonderful beings to sit with and watch, I find that exhilarating you know. Being able to sit within a few meters of a wild animal and just watch it go about it's business without disturbing it."

Rowland with a 'Rax K'aj'

Rowland (left) with Guatemalan herper
Andres Novales holding a Green Iguana
From left to right:
Andres Novales, Rowland Griffin and Nigel Marven


Keep your eye's peeled for the release of Wild Guatemala with Nigel Marven this year, where you can see Rowland in action.

I can't recommend Indigo enough. Whether it's for your first trip to Guatemala or a repeat visit you should really check out their range of volunteer conservation activities and trips - you will get no better introduction (or warmer welcome) to this wonderful country.

You can follow Indigo on Twitter (@exploreindigo) and both Facebook and Instagram (@explorewithindigo) or contact Adela to book your next adventurous holiday to Guatemala on info@explorewithindigo.com.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Panama Canal...

The Canopy Tower would be our base to explore the Panama Canal and surrounding area, a richly diverse region on the edge of Soberania National Park.  The Canal itself is an amazing construction and we were privileged to have special access to the canal-side at Miraflores Locks, an area not open to the public.

Unfortunately this was the one place I wasn't allowed to film with the drone. The risk from terrorism to this vital artery connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, is so real that nobody is allowed to fly in the Canal Zone. Perfectly understandable as the canal is the 'World's Greatest Shortcut', saving an 6,500 km journey around Cape Horn. It's also extremely important to the Panamanian economy bringing in millions of dollars each year in transit fees.

The locks at Miraflores
Miraflores Locks are just one of six locks on the Canal and they are constantly busy, usually with a queue of ships waiting their turn to transit.

Our visit had been timed to coincide with a large
cruise ship transit...and there it is!

Tight fit!

Mike capturing all the action


There's very little room for error when going through the lock. This ship had about 3 ft of space on either side to spare!  The small rack-and-pinion locomotive engines on either side of the ship known as mules, help guide the massive boat through the lock to the canal beyond.

A 'mule' towing the cruise ship through the lock.

The Canal is also home to plenty of animals. Because the Panama Canal is so important to the economy, it's watershed is a protected area, which is great for the many species that reply on it.
Overhead Royal Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls catch my attention while closer to the water there are magnificent reptiles too.

American Crocodiles are relatively common along the length of the canal and are the most widespread species of croc in the Americas ranging from southern Florida and Mexico south as far as Venezuela and Peru. They are big too, growing up to nearly 14 ft they can be very dangerous animals.


A large Central American Croc, Crocodylas acutus rests
on the side of the Canal
Gray-breasted Martins are by far the most common species of Progne in Panama (and much of Central and South America). They are hefty birds, not unlike Purple Martin...just not as pretty.

Gray-breasted Martins - the 'default' hirundine in Panama.

Laughing Gull, second winter - adults have all white-tipped primaries

Magnificent Frigatebird, immature female.

Two-fingered Sloth is larger than its three-fingered cousin and although they vary a little bit in colour, they are normally this lovely chocolate brown, including their eyes. Because they spend their life hanging in the trees their fur grows in the opposite direction to other mammals - from the belly down, so that rain sheds easily off their coat.

Hoffman's Two-fingered Sloth

On the way back to the dock we passed this enormous floating crane called 'Titan'. It is famous in it's own right (it has a page in Wikipedia), having been built in Germany during the Second World War to manoeuvre U-boats. From Germany it travelled to Long Beach Naval Shipyard in California before coming to serve on the Panama Canal in 1996.


Titan aka 'Herman the German'

We got back to the Tower at sunset, grabbed a quick bite to eat and set out again. That night we were filming with a group of bat researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and we were in for a treat. First up was this amazing Trichops cirrhosus or Fring-lipped Bat. They have appeared a few times on documentaries as they specialise in catching frogs! Theses amazing bats pick out their prey by their call - they can even discriminate between poisonous and non-poisonous species.  Remarkably this is only the second one ever caught here by the team, one of 70 species found within the canal basin.

Trachops cirrhosus
Next, a Common Moustached Bat, Pteronotus parnellii ... These are insectivorous eating mostly beetles.

Common Moustached Bat, Pteronotus parnellii

Not to be left out a Jamaican Fruit Bat, Artebius jamaicensis is released by Amanda, one of the researchers, and immediately returns to settle on her head! They are found throughout the neotropics and into South America and have a fondness for figs.


Jamaican Fruit Bat, Artebius jamaicensis

The following day we would be leaving the Canopy Tower to film wildlife in and around Panama City. 




Saturday, 15 February 2020

Panama - return to Canopy Tower...

We were getting towards the end of our filming trip in Panama and returned once more to the Canopy Tower for a few more days before heading into Panama City itself. There were still some great birds to be seen, my favourite being this shy Crimson-crested Woodpecker.

Crimson-crested Woodpecker

A large, rather stunning woodpecker

Crimson-crested Woodpecker
They are very weary birds and this one never came very close. They are found from Panama south to Paraguay - sadly their numbers are declining.



Blue Cotinga - a magnificent bird!

Blue Cotinga

Blue Dachnis, female


Purple-crowned Fairy.
They have a very distinctive bill, even from a distance.

Plain-colored Tanager

Palm Tanager

Palm Tanager

Tennessee Warbler

The moth light was worth staying up for too. The sheer number and variety of species was simply staggering. Some species looked similar to families found here in the UK while others are like nothing I've ever seen before. This is just a small selection of the  species on the sheet...a nice way to end our stay here.