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Review: our personal travel highlights for 2016


Members of our Operations Team have each chosen their personal travel highlights for 2016!

Wallcreeper

Wallcreeper

Andy Tucker, General Manager: tour leading in the French Pyrenees

Overseas trips to Sweden, France and Jordan stand out for me this year. Picking out one wildlife highlight is tough and it’s very difficult to look past the experience of seeing Grey Great Owls on our ‘Sweden in Spring’ tour in mid-May.
 
However, for my highlight of the year I’ll go back to June and Naturetrek’s 30th anniversary trip based at Gèdre in the French Pyrenees which I co-led with David Tattersfield, Jason Mitchell and Martin Beaton along with Gini Whitlock and Dave Shute from the Naturetrek office. Our week away was blessed with fantastic weather and a lovely, convivial group of wildlife enthusiasts. Halfway through the week we headed up to the imposing Cirque de Troumouse. One of the grandest of the Pyrenean cirques and indeed in all of Europe, Troumouse is an enormous natural amphitheatre with an average diameter of about 4 kilometres from cliff base to cliff base and surrounded by high peaks. Fantastic walking country! We’d already had great views of a group of Chamois and a fly-over Egyptian Vulture, and the group had split into subsets according to people’s appetite for walking. A group of us made our way out to the more difficult terrain at the back of the cirque to look (successfully) for Alpine Accentor. We were still some distance from the base of the cliffs and I set about scanning left to right, looking for movement which might indicate a small flock of Snow Finch. Looking intently through the big Swarovski set, on high magnification, I came across a large boulder with an interesting crack and hole, probably the best part of half a mile away.

Andy in the French Pyrenees

Andy in the French Pyrenees

Thinking to myself ‘that would make an ideal nest site for a Wallcreeper’, I couldn’t believe my eyes when a Wallcreeper flew into my field of view and landed on top of the boulder. Literally rubbing my eyes to ensure that I hadn’t been duped by heat haze or wishful thinking, I called the bird and within a short time period of frantic direction-giving, everybody in the party had enjoyed views of this wonderful denizen of the high European mountains. It’s one thing to see Wallcreepers on dams and church spires in the depths of winter when the birds come down from the high mountain cliffs, but another to find one in its summertime habitat, particularly for a group of such keen and appreciative people!
 
Our next 8-day The French Pyrenees holiday departs Wednesday 7th June and costs £1,495. Please call Andy Tucker on 01962 733051 or email andy@naturetrek.co.uk for more details.



Risso

Risso's Dolphin

Sara Frost, Website & Media Manager: tour leading in the Azores

It’s difficult to choose only one fantastic wildlife highlight from tour leading over 2016 – a year that included such memorable events as encountering a Tiger in the remote grasslands of Nepal, snorkelling over rich coral reefs in the Maldives and watching a Brown Bear eating berries in Northern Spain. But I’d have to settle on our ‘Whales & Dolphins of the Azores’ trip in August – no other cetacean-watching tour I have led compares with the back-to-back sightings of such varied species that we had off the small island of Pico in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Sara guiding in the Azores

Sara guiding in the Azores

Within 20 minutes of setting off from the harbour, a group of Risso’s Dolphins surrounded our boat – a family group with week-old calves swimming close to their mothers and escorted by two huge, heavily scarred white males. We also encountered Spotted, Striped, Bottlenose and Common Dolphins – all extremely energetic and providing much entertainment with their seemingly joyful acrobatics. To top this off we had superb up-close sightings of a Fin Whale and pods of Sperm Whales, including a Sperm Whale calf swimming right alongside our small boat and rolling onto its side to better inspect us, much to the delight of the Naturetrek guests on board who had eye-to-eye views with the curious baby. An experience that will live long in my memory!
 
Our next 6-day Whales & Dolphins of the Azores holiday departs Tuesday 22nd August and costs £1,695. Please call Dan Free on 01962 733051 or email dan@naturetrek.co.uk for more details.



Common Cranes

Common Cranes

Tom Mabbett, Operations Assistant: tour leading in Germany

There is something very special about seeing birds in huge numbers and my highlight of 2016 has to be leading our ‘The Birds of Brandenburg & Berlin’ holiday where tens of thousands of birds were seen! The star of the show here is the Common Crane. These fantastic birds breed across northern Europe, with Sweden, Finland and Russia being the main breeding countries, and stop en mass in Germany during their migration to and from wintering quarters further south. On two evenings during the holiday we watched in awe as thousands of Cranes flew low overhead to their roost site, with long lines of the birds stretching across the horizon and passing over us continually until dark. The sound of so many birds on the wing, and the sight of such huge numbers of Cranes filling the sky makes this such a special experience. Each week a local study group records numbers and the week beginning 4th October saw a count of 59,160 birds! It is certainly one of Europe’s must-see avian spectacles and this, coupled with sightings of Hen Harriers, Rough-legged Buzzards, White-tailed Eagles, Great Bustards and thousands of Bean and White-fronted Geese, makes for a wonderful short break and one I would thoroughly recommend. 

Our next 5-day The Birds of Brandenburg & Berlin holiday departs Monday 13th March and costs £995. Please call Tom Mabbett on 01962 733051 or email tom@naturetrek.co.uk for more details.


Giant River Otters (Robin Smith)

Giant River Otters, Robin Smith

Robin Smith, Tailormade Holidays Manager: tour leading in the Brazilian Pantanal

My highlight of 2016 is a wonderful sighting of Giant River Otters from our ‘Brazil – South America’s “Big Five”!’ holiday which I went on in June/July.
 
During an afternoon boat excursion in the Brazilian Pantanal, we came across a large family of Giant River Otters. We followed them from a respectful distance, watching as they moved up the river bank, catching fish as they went and devouring them straight away. One of the otters caught a huge fish and purposefully swam with it until it could haul it out on an exposed branch. As it began to eat the fish, some of the younger otters began begging for food (whilst others took the opportunity to relax and groom each other), and one particularly small youngster was pleading for a bite! The adult resisted for a good 10 to 15 minutes, until finally it had had its fill and gave up some of its prize.

Robin and his group in the Pantanal

Robin and his group in the Pantanal

The group was visibly emotional following this amazing encounter and it’s certainly a memory I will cherish for a very long time!
 
For details of our tailormade holidays to the Brazilian Pantanal please call Robin Smith on 01962 733051 or email robin@naturetrek.co.uk.
 
Our next 17-day ‘Brazil – South America’s “Big Five”!’ holiday departs Thursday 6th July and costs £6,495. For further information about our group tours to Brazil’s Pantanal please call Dan Free on 01962 733051 or email dan@naturetrek.co.uk



Wildlife watching by canoe (Alice Tribe)

Wildlife-watching by canoe (Alice Tribe)

Alice Tribe, Operations Assistant: tour leading in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

My wildlife highlight of 2016 was visiting the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Having grown up watching glorious wildlife documentaries, many of which featured the South American rainforests, this is an area of the world that fills me with wonder, and somewhere I had wished to visit for many, many years. As we flew towards Manaus and looked out of the plane windows, excitement levels began to rise as below was nothing except a vast expanse of green.

We spent seven nights aboard the Iracema riverboat, which was very comfortable

Alice enjoying local hospitality

Alice enjoying local hospitality

and the boat crew was very friendly. We explored many waterways in motorised canoes, which allowed us to get deep inside the várzea (flooded forest), and enjoy the sights and sounds of this exotic world. The birdlife was incredible, with far too many species to name here, but a few of my personal highlights included Wire-tailed Manakin, Spectacled Owl, Spangled Cotinga, Capped Heron, King Vulture, Hoatzin and Screaming Piha. Although we didn’t actually see any Screaming Pihas, this bird, to me, is the voice of the Amazon; I’d heard them countless times on TV programmes back home, so hearing them in the wild was both thrilling and somewhat familiar! We encountered many magnificent primates such as Brown Bearded Saki, Brown Capuchin, Squirrel Monkey, the rather endearing Night Monkey,
Pink River Dolphin (Derek Smith)

Pink River Dolphin (Derek Smith)

Golden-backed Uakari and Red Howler Monkey (which helped to create the most fantastic dawn chorus ever heard!). We also saw many Grey and Pink River Dolphins swimming in the waters near our canoes, and even had the chance to swim with the latter; what a privilege! Whether it be the variety of birds, the mammals, the lush forests, our friendly boat crew, or enjoying the superlative night skies, this whole trip will be something I’ll remember with great fondness for many years to come. I’m itching to explore more of this wondrous habitat now!

Our next 10-day ‘Amazon Wildlife Cruise’ holiday departs Thursday 15th June and costs £3,995. For further information please call Dan Free on 01962 733051 or email dan@naturetrek.co.uk



 

Grey Seal (Alison Steel)

Grey Seal (Alison Steel)

Alison Steel, Operations Assistant: tour leading in Northumberland, UK
 
My highlight of 2016 was co-leading our ‘Northumberland: Seabirds & Castles’ photography tour. Sometimes the most fascinating wildlife encounters happen when we are least expecting them. Our morning had been spend on Staple Island, one of the Farne Islands, capturing the antics and character of the many seabirds that come here to breed – from comical Puffins to raucous Kittiwakes, there is so much avian activity of interest. Before our afternoon visit to Inner Farne, we took a short boat tour of the islands to get a wider perspective of the environment. Having stepped off the boat onto Longstone Island to enjoy a bite of lunch, I had just settled down in a nice sunny spot on the side of the pier when, less than a metre away, a Grey Seal popped its head out of the water, like a periscope! There were several of these sinuous animals in the water, but one in particular kept reappearing. It would surface then float, basking in the sun with its eyes closed, until it slowly sank beneath the waves again. Swimming off, it then circled around to repeat this process a few minutes later. Up close it is possible to see their extremely long eyelashes and whiskers, as well as the intricate dappling on their skin. We had seen seals earlier in the day near the boat, but they had kept their distance. This one did not seem at all concerned at finding me so close to where it was surfacing and it gave me a fantastic chance to get relaxed, close-up views of these normally very wary creatures.
 
Our next 5-day wildlife photography holiday to Northumberland’s coast and the Farne Islands departs Monday 3rd July and costs £795. For further information please call Paul Stanbury on 01962 733051 or email paul@naturetrek.co.uk

 

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Dave Shute, Operations Assistant: tour leading in Alderney

On our April tour to Alderney a blocking northerly air flow gave classic conditions for a ‘fall’ of spring migrants waiting for a tail-wind to continue their journeys to their breeding grounds in Northern Europe. Our visit coincided with the newly opened Alderney Bird Observatory and the warden was keen to explain the work being carried out and treated us to three very instructive bird-ringing demonstrations during our stay. There is nothing like seeing birds ‘in the hand’, particularly when these included such striking species as Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher, neither of which I had seen ‘up close and personal’ before. On our daily walks we encountered many other migrants including Ring Ouzel, Yellow Wagtail, Wheatear, Whinchat, Black Redstart, numerous Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs, as well as 15 different Common Redstarts on one day. Not bad for an island just 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide!

Our next 5-day ‘Alderney – Wildlife & History in Style!’ holiday departs Friday 21st April and costs £725. For further information please call Dave Shute on 01962 733051 or email davidshute@naturetrek.co.uk

 

Gorilla

Gorilla

Georgie Head, Tailormade Holidays Assistant: on recce in Uganda

2016 has been an incredible year for me in terms of wildlife travel. I travelled to Nepal in March and had my first ever Tiger encounter, and recorded many ‘lifers’ including Siberian Rubythroat and Bengal Florican. In September I visited Spain’s Asturias Mountains in search of Wolves and Wildcats and, most recently, I headed out for a wildlife journey to Uganda. All of these trips were memorable in different ways, but my highlight for 2016 has to be Uganda …
 
Starting out in the Mabamba Swamps (as all wildlife tours to Uganda should!), I came across two enormous and stately Shoebills within 24 hours of arriving! Travelling on to Lake Mburo and then to the Mgahinga Gorilla Park, we were able to add a number of Albertine Rift endemics to our checklist before even reaching the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. My Mountain Gorilla trek here was beyond anything I could have imagined. Visiting the Oruzogo gorilla family, we came across two baby Mountain Gorillas – keen to show off under the watchful eye of their mother – and a colossal Silverback which completely ignored us as he rested nearby. Our primate encounters did not end here – we tracked Chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest, and also saw L’Hoest’s Monkeys, Golden Monkeys, Tantalus Monkeys, Grey-cheeked Mangabeys and Blue Monkeys. A fantastic boat trip along the Kazaringa Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park gave us views of huge numbers of waders and waterbirds, while another boat trip along the base of the mighty Murchison Falls produced stunning views of Red-throated Bee-eater, Rock Pratincole, African Spoonbill and Wahlberg’s Eagle.
 

Georgie in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Georgie in Queen Elizabeth National Park

With over half of Africa’s bird species to be found in a country no bigger than the UK, Uganda is a fantastic birding destination … not to mention the wealth of mammal highlights, from watching Lions mating in Queen Elizabeth National Park to African Elephants charging along the banks of the Nile at Murchison Falls. I cannot recommend Uganda highly enough!
 
Look out for the Uganda feature in our next Tailormade newsletter.
 
To find out more about our existing group departures to Uganda please call Georgie on 01962733051 or email georgie@naturetrek.co.uk


 

Great Grey Owl

Great Grey Owl

Dan Free, Operations Manager: tour leading in Belarus
 
Whilst my highlights of recent years have largely featured mammals – most notably Jaguars in Brazil and Pumas in Chile – my stand-out moment of 2016 was undoubtedly of the avian variety. Travelling on our ‘Belarus in Spring’ tour back in May, I was able to fulfil a lifelong ambition of seeing a Great Grey Owl in the wild, alongside a myriad of other fabulous species. With vast tracts of primeval forest and superb wetlands, Belarus offers some incredible birdwatching and a taste of how mainland Europe used to be, before it succumbed to modern society’s demands. Whilst the Azure Tits, lekking Great Snipe, Aquatic Warblers and plethora of raptors, woodpeckers and waders all provided a rush of adrenaline, it was the enormous disc-like face and piercing gold eyes of a female Great Grey Owl perched on a nest, not 50 yards away that stole the show for me!
 
Our next 8-day ‘Belarus in Spring’’ holiday departs Sunday 30th April and costs £1,600. For further information please call Dan Free on 01962 733051 or email dan@naturetrek.co.uk


King Penguins, St. Andrews Bay (Paul Stanbury)

King Penguins, St. Andrew's Bay (Paul Stanbury)

Paul Stanbury, Operations & Product Manager: tour leading in Antarctica
 
Although Naturetrek’s 30th anniversary cruise around ‘The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula’ was packed full of highlights, for me there was one wildlife spectacle that stood out from the rest. On a stunning, calm and sunny South Georgian morning, to a backdrop of jagged snow-capped mountains and wide glaciers, I found myself standing on a rocky ridge overlooking a ‘braying sea’ of King Penguins. Spread out before me, carpeting the beach and the flat alluvial plains of St Andrew’s Bay, were over half a million birds – South Georgia’s largest colony! Numerous birds waddled up to inspect my boots or pose beautifully in the crisp clear light for photos, whilst huge Northern Giant Petrels and marauding Sub-Antarctic Skuas soared overhead,
Guests on our 30th Anniversary cruise to Antarctica

Guests on our 30th anniversary cruise to Antarctica

and steaming piles of Southern Elephant Seals wallowed in muddy pools around the colony’s edge. The sight, sound – and, of course, smell – of so many penguins, backed by such stunning scenery, and lit by such perfect weather, is difficult to accurately describe in words. Fortunately, however, this breathtaking spectacle has been seared in my memory (as well as captured by several hundred photographs!) and will remain in my thoughts for many years to come.
 
To experience the amazing wildlife of South Georgia for yourself, join our next exclusive wildlife charter cruise to ‘The Falklands, South Georgia The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctic Peninsula’ due to depart on the 21st January 2019. Please call Paul Stanbury on 01962 733051 or email paul@naturetrek.co.uk for further information.