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Review: Our 2015 Wildlife Highlights!

Our in-office staff have put together a selection of their best Naturetrek wildlife highlights from 2015, including cruising in Spitsbergen, a safari in Zambia and birding in Mongolia.

Naturetrek's General Manager Andy Tucker with an Emerald Toucanet (Ferney Salgado)

Andy with an Emerald Toucanet (Ferney Salgado)

Andy Tucker, General Manager, on recce in Colombia
My travel highlight of 2015 was undoubtedly the two weeks I spent in Colombia in November. Colombia has been ‘off limits’ for the majority of my 20 years in the travel industry but I’ve long desired a return visit there to gauge the birding potential and the country did not disappoint.  Having birded extensively in neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador over the years, I enjoyed catching up with some ‘old friends’ such as Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia, Glistening-green Tanager, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Beautiful Jay and Purplish-mantled Tanager. However, it was really the Colombian endemics that stole the show!

Buffy Helmetcrest (Christian Cederroth)

Buffy Helmetcrest (Christian Cederroth)

These included: Multicoloured Tanager, to the west of Cali at the famous birding site of ‘km18’, and Gold-ringed Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer and Munchique Woodwren at Montezuma. The high slopes of Nevado del Ruiz yielded the stunning Buffy Helmetcrest, while, for me, the highlight of the trip was the El Dorado Lodge in the Santa Marta mountains, with perhaps Santa Marta Mountain Tanager, Santa Marta Screech Owl and Santa Marta Parakeet being the highlights along with the wonderful views down to the Caribbean from the lodge! The arid Guajira peninsula nearby was also fascinating to bird, with specialities Chesnut Piculet (cute), White-whiskered Spinetail (beautiful), and Tocuyo Sparrow (skulking!) sticking in the mind.

Look out for two new ‘bargain birding’ trips shortly! Call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for more information.

 

Robin Smith, enjoying local Mongolian hospitality

Robin enjoying local Mongolian hospitality

Robin Smith, Tailormade Manager, on recce in Mongolia
My journey started in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar, where introductory birding revealed exotic species such as Yellow-breasted Bunting, Long-tailed Rosefinch and White-crowned Penduline Tit - a great start to the journey! Leaving the city far behind, I was soon journeying across the vast and seemingly endless steppe, where the promise of shimmering lakes, beautiful deserts and remote mountains – all with their exciting associated wildlife – lay tantalisingly ahead. Birding highlights from the trip including Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Henderson’s Ground Jay, White-naped Crane, Saker Falcon and Asian Dowitcher, to name but a few! After a full day in the field I would retire to a comfortable tourist ger (the local name for a yurt) camp for a hearty dinner and a good night’s sleep.
As well as stopping for a host of wonderful birds, I was also treated to encounters with various mammals such as Siberian Ibex, Siberian Jerboa and the highly endangered Przewalski’s Horse, which were conveniently tracked down close to an active Amur Falcon nesting colony! Every day was different and seemed to reveal a new wildlife highlight, as well as always delivering some of the most stunning scenery imaginable. I also had various opportunities to meet local nomadic families along the way, where I was brave (or stupid!) enough to try fermented mare’s milk – a local delicacy! In short, Mongolia was one of the most exciting countries I’ve ever visited and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone keen to experience a unique set wildlife as well as the wonderful nomadic culture and, of course, the breath-taking Mongolian landscape! 

The 17-day 'Mongolia - Birding in the Steppes of Genghis Khan' tour costs from £4,095 pp including all meals, all flights (London) and expert guiding. Departs 6 June 2016. Call Robin Smith on 01962 733051 or email robin@naturetrek.co.uk for more information.

 

Sara Frost, Spitsbergen

Sara tour leading in Spitsbergen

Sara Frost, Website & Media Manager, tour leading in Spitsbergen
Sailing through the silent, glassy waters of Spitsbergen was like entering another world. As the sea ice gently bumped against the side of the ship, we stood rooted to the deck watching 3 adult male Polar Bears devour a freshly-caught Bearded Seal. Not believing our luck, we stood in silent awe watching the bears eat, sleep and interact with each other for 6 hours. Ivory Gulls danced around the carcass excitedly, hopping in to get their share once the bears were asleep. As I looked around our group of 100 passengers joining me out on deck, I saw wide grins frozen to every single face. What a start to our trip! Throughout the week, away from the sea ice, we sailed in zodiacs and enjoyed the Arctic birdlife – King Eiders, Red-necked Phalaropes and Pomarine Skuas to name a few. For me, the most memorable zodiac cruise encountered an Arctic Fox feasting upon 3 Brunnich’s Guillemots at the base of their huge 120,000–strong colony. I was over the moon to see Blue, Humpback, Fin and Beluga Whales as we sailed through the icy fjords and over a huge continental shelf – the latter providing perfect habitat for cetacean watching, and we lost track of the number of whale blows that we saw, both near and far. This is truly the trip of a lifetime, with heart-stopping wildlife encounters and non-stop dramatic scenery of awe-inspiring glaciers and deep fjords: without a doubt my highlight of 2015!
 
The 11-day Spitsbergen Wildlife Cruise costs from £4,995 pp (two sharing) including all meals on the cruise, all flights (London) and expert guiding. Departs 7 July 2016 and 27 June 2017. Call Paul Stanbury on 01962 733051 or email paul@naturetrek.co.uk for more information.

 

Kerrie Porteous

Kerrie birding in Zambia

Kerrie Porteous, Operations Manager, on recce in Zambia
In March I travelled to Zambia to experience the wildlife of the South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks during the country’s quiet “emerald season”. Starting off in the South Luangwa, I firstly stayed at one of the few bush camps that remains open at this time of year, and was treated to exciting bush walks through the long grass (with our scout firmly in place!!) and boat journeys up and down the Luangwa River to enjoy the birds and mammals along the river banks. We didn’t see another person during our entire stay, though we did enjoy plenty of hippos, crocs, elephants, kingfishers and bee-eaters. Back in the main park, game drives were a delight. I was worried about how much wildlife we might (or might not) see at this time of year, as the animals don’t congregate around watering holes as they must during the dry season, but I needn’t have done. Finding ten lionesses on our first nocturnal game drive and then four Wild Dogs the following morning was a real highlight, as was enjoying not one, but three Leopard sightings during our short stay. The real joy, however, was seeing how happy, healthy and well fed all the wildlife was looking at this time of year, with the birds in their breeding plumage, all backed by gorgeously green and wonderfully quiet surroundings. My overall impression? Well, for anyone looking for something a little different for their next safari, I really can’t recommend Zambia’s green season strongly enough!

To talk to Kerrie about her experience in Zambia, and to arrange a similar ‘green season’ safari, please call her on 01962 733051 or email kerrie@naturetrek.co.uk.

 

Mount McKinley, Denali National Park

Mount McKinley, Denali National Park

Paul Stanbury, Operations Manager, on recce in Alaska
My travelling highlight of 2015 was undoubtedly the two weeks I spent in May exploring the USA’s 49th State, Alaska. Home to more Caribou than people, Alaska is a spectacular wilderness of pristine forests, mountains and tundra, edged by some of the most productive seas on the planet. It was through these coastal waters that my trip began with a week on the small 11-berth motor vessel, the MV Discovery, plying the maze of waterways and fjords of Prince William Sound. Highlights included more Sea Otters than I've seen in the previous 20 years of exploring the coastlines of the northern Pacific, plus Tufted and Horned Puffins, White-billed Diver, Harlequin Duck, Orca, Humpback Whale, thousands of migrating waders, and seaduck. In complete contrast, I then headed north into Denali National Park and was treated to a drive through this spectacular wilderness all the way to mile marker 92, the end of the road (and then out again!). The weather could not have been better, without a cloud in the sky the views were spectacular and dominated throughout by 'Denali' itself (Mount McKinley), the highest mountain in North America. In mid-May the park was just starting to awaken after its long and harsh winter, but even this early in the season there was still lots of wildlife to see including Dall Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Hoary Marmot, Golden Eagle, Willow Ptarmigan, Boreal Chickadee and the most sought-after of Denali's inhabitants, a Grizzly Bear! My trip to Alaska only touched the surface of this vast state and I can't wait to return one day to explore more, perhaps heading further north to the shores of Arctic Ocean, or out to Katmai National Park in search of more Grizzly Bears.

For further information on Naturetrek's new range of Alaska tours please call Paul on 01962 733051 or e-mail paul@naturetrek.co.uk.

 

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Tom Mabbett) 

Tom Mabbett, Operations Assistant, tour leading in Extremadura, Spain
It was a beautiful day as we drove to Monfragüe National Park on our annual beginner’s birdwatching tour to Extremadura. We had a full day to work our way through this spectacular park and each stop provided some special sightings. Griffon Vultures soared past us at head height while Black Storks sat on their nests and Blue Rock Thrushes perched nearby. We enjoyed Alpine Swifts screaming past us in tight flocks while a purring Turtle Dove was enjoyed over lunch. Black Kites were ever present and we enjoyed Crested Tit, Subalpine Warbler and Black-eared Wheatear with the rare treat of watching an Egyptian Vulture sitting tight on the nest. At our final stop we all had one species in mind. The magnificent Spanish Imperial Eagle! The nest is viewable from the road here and before long both adult birds were sitting proudly guarding their nest and taking a hit from the local Jays. We studied the birds and enjoyed the privilege of being able to watch these rare raptors at such close quarters. With everyone already buzzing with excitement, an adult bird took to skies and gave us all a wonderful flypast showing all the key identification features before stooping to the side of the river below us! We watched on as the bird stood in the water and used its huge bill to delicately take a drink. Extremadura is a wonderfully bird-rich region and a must for the experienced birder, and indeed those wishing to get to grips with a great range of European species!

To join Tom on our 7-day 'Extremadura in Spring - a Beginner Birdwatching Tour' please contact him on 01962 733051 or email tom@naturetrek.co.uk. The next tour departs on the 28th April 2016 and costs £1,395 including all food and wine.


 

Leucistic Hedgehog (Matin Batt)

Leucistic Hedgehog (Matin Batt)

Dave Shute, Operations Assistant, tour leading in Alderney
Our inaugural tours to Alderney in September provided many interesting sightings across the wildlife spectrum. We cruised amongst impressive Gannet colonies and enjoyed the autumn bird migration which included sightings of Rose-coloured Starling, Whinchat and Hen Harrier. The local islanders’ moth traps produced several unusual species such as Rosy Underwing, Convolvulous Hawkmoth, Four-spotted Footman and Beautiful Gothic. Meanwhile, our coastal walks revealed a huge 3cm-long Great Green Bush-cricket, immense colonies of Ivy Bees in the sandy cliffs and the delicate blooms of Autumn Squill and Sheep’s-bit. Butterflies included Wall Brown and Painted Lady as well as the larval webs of Glanville Fritillary and after dark we enjoyed the experience of bat-detecting. The outstanding highlight for me, however, was joining local hedgehog expert Suzy Weir on a night-time monitoring expedition which provided close views of a number of animals and especially two of the remarkable leucistic ‘blonde’ hedgehogs which are almost unique to the island. A dominant gene and a lack of natural predators has allowed this beautiful creature to thrive and we were privileged to enjoy such a close encounter.

Our next 5-day 'Alderney - Wildlife & History in Style' departs on the 22nd April 2016 and costs £695 (bed and breakfast only). For more information, please contact Dave Shute on 01962 733051 or email davidshute@naturetrek.co.uk 

 

Puma (Dani Free)

Puma (Dani Free)

Dan Free, Operations Manager, tour leading in Chile
'Distant scope views if we’re lucky' – that was what we were expecting and I can’t remember the number of times that I said this both before the tour and during our first few days in Chile. Whilst the big cats of Africa, the Tigers of India and to an extent, the Jaguars of the Brazilian Pantanal, have become habituated to the presence of tourist vehicles, Puma tourism is still very much in its infancy and this would be an altogether tougher challenge. On our third morning in Torres del Paine we were out walking – along the line of a fence where Pumas have been observed hunting stranded Guanacos – when the radio suddenly crackled into life and our guide, Enrique, announced in a hushed excitable tone that our tracker, José, had found a Puma about a mile ahead and that we were to make our way to the site as quickly as possible. Snaking our way through the valley, we rounded a hillock and José came into view, perched on top of a rocky outcrop and seemingly staring out over the valley beyond. Though still excited, our hearts sank a little as the prospect of a close encounter ebbed away … but we were wrong, very wrong, and as we got closer, José gestured to a spot about 50 yards behind him. There, at the bottom of a small cliff face was a stunning adult female Puma. Despite the close proximity of the cat, it was actually remarkably well camouflaged and it took a while to get everyone onto it, at which point the cameras in the group suddenly went in to overdrive! Within a few minutes the Puma got up and walked straight down the slope towards us. Huddled together, some standing, some kneeling and with some even lying flat on the floor, we watched as she edged ever closer to our position, not knowing quite what her intentions were. A flick of the tail, a prick of the ears and a focused stare at the far side of the hill betrayed the fact that she was hunting, but as she passed us by, no more than 5 metres away from the nearest member of the group, we all held our breath in anticipation of what might happen. Being that person lying on the floor, no more than 5 metres away, I’m pleased to say that she barely gave us a moment’s consideration and continued on her way, seemingly oblivious to our presence. Nevertheless, it was still one of the most exciting wildlife experiences I’ve ever had and we were all grinning from ear to ear by the end of it. Whilst it is a long way to travel, the scenery and wildlife of Torres del Paine National Park is incredible, with fantastic photographic opportunities and if you’re looking for your next big cat adventure, then look no further!

Our next 11-day ' Chile - Just Pumas!' departs on the 25th February 2016 and costs £3995, including flights and all food. For more information, please contact Dan Free on 01962 733051 or email dan@naturetrek.co.uk