Picathartes, Ghana by Alan Peters

The Bird designed by a Committee

I wonder if as a child you ever owned one of those books in which the pages were in two sections, so that by turning the sections independently you could create fantastic creatures, for example an animal with a lion’s head and a zebra’s body! I went on a short birding trip with Naturetrek to the West African country of Ghana, known in the past as the Gold Coast. With a country bird list of around 750 species it has many fabulous birds but one species is straight out of that old children’s book.

The Yellow-headed Picathartes looks as if it has been put together by a committee and its habits and behaviour are just as strange as its appearance; there are only two species in the family worldwide and both are scarce with limited distribution.

The day I saw this almost mythical creature had everything: it was hot, demanding, exciting, rewarding and still lives in my memory.

Four days of intensive, mainly forest, birding enduring high temperatures and humidity were very tiring but also rewarding with many hoped for target species seen well. Walking a wide forest trail on the afternoon of day four we were all surprised to round a bend and come across a large Spitting Cobra in the middle of the path. It reared up briefly and extended its hood before dropping down and quickly disappearing into the undergrowth. No one’s brain in our group was quick enough to log ‘big snake’ and at the same time send a message to their fingers to operate their camera so there were sadly no images to keep.

On our fifth day, breakfast was at 4.30am, after which we left our lodge to drive to Aboabo on the eastern border of Kakum National Park. We walked slowly along forest tracks for almost five hours, picking up plenty of good birds like Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher (looks as good as it sounds), Kemp’s Longbill, Black-throated Coucal and the menacing Black Sparrowhawk.

There were many spectacular butterflies, including the commonly seen and evocatively named commodore and pathfinder species. Less welcome were the African stingless bees which seemed to find our eyes, ears, nose and hair of particular interest.

After a quick stop for lunch we had an hour’s drive to the village of Bonkro which was at the end of a narrow and deeply rutted track. The bus door opened to the usual crowd of excited boys all wanting plastic water bottles; and also to ferocious heat. It was now 13.30 and the temperature was around 35 degrees centigrade. The village was a collection of red mud houses with corrugated iron roofs opening onto a flat dusty square. Our guide told us to make sure that we had enough water in our backpacks as we had a steep climb up through the forest to the rocky cave area that the Picathartes favoured.

Two men from the village led the way, swinging their machetes with consummate ease to open the path, their biceps rippling under their ragged t-shirts.

We initially made good progress on fairly level ground then the gradient steepened up through thick forest until it was quite demanding as we scrambled upwards using roots to pull ourselves on the last section. A large dark scorpion had taken up residence under the final handhold just before we reached level ground and whispers of ‘Watch out!’ were passed back along the group. Finally we were in position about 25 metres from a large rocky outcrop with a flat platform of rock in front of it. It took us some minutes to get our breath and recover normal respiration.

The guide instructed us to be very quiet, and watch the flat rocky area. It was 15.00 … we waited until 17.15, then an urgent whisper ‘To the right’ – a Picathartes had materialised out of nowhere. Although we had prepared and studied the field guide the bird in life was amazing: large, slender, a bright yellow head with a round black patch, long tail and clean white underparts completed its bizarre description. In total, four appeared and after our guide had made sure that we had all seen them, we left quietly and started our decent in the rapidly fading light.

That evening as we enjoyed our well-earned meal, one of our group – a retired Norwegian diplomat – got to his feet to say that he felt that it had been a wonderful day and that everyone had enjoyed a remarkable ‘lifer’ seeing the Picathartes. It was also Norway’s National Day (17th May) and he could think of no better way to celebrate than to buy everyone a beer!

We toasted Norway and the amazing Picathartes, the bird that looks like it’s been designed by a committee.

 

For further information about our 9-day ‘Ghana – Picathartes’ holiday please Ghana’s Picathartes.

Monarch Butterflies, Mexico by Liz Duncan

We set out from our hotel, which was half way down a Mexican canyon, to climb the 7,000 feet up to the Rosario reserve where wintering Monarch butterflies congregate en masse every winter. The reserves are at 11,000 feet, so it was two hours of continual UP. Firstly in our van, then sitting on the back of a truck, then onto a horse, and finally a short walk on foot. The day was perfect: sunny and warm, even at that altitude. It meant that the Monarchs would be flying!

Butterfly people are generally an amiable bunch, being somewhat less driven than birders. So we were in good spirits, the variables of weather and timing were positive, and we were determined to get there, one way or another. We ranged in age and fitness, so there was a bit of slightly nervous banter, especially concerning the horseback riding. At 11,000 feet altitude can be an issue, and we had no time to acclimatise, so even those who would rather have walked were taking the advice to ride up the steep track. It also offers the local community an opportunity to take visitors up. Several of the group had never been on a horse, but what distinguishes people on a Naturetrek holiday is that they really want to see the wildlife and they will do what it takes.

We saw the first Monarchs as we drove through the villages on the way up, just one or two, a flash or orange and black, beside the gaudy displays of purple and white bougainvillaea. They are big butterflies, bigger than any British butterfly, and strong, pulsing fliers. And then, as we bumped up the track on the truck, there were more, already more numerous than any other butterflies we have seen anywhere. We know that there is something special ahead, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles anywhere … but we can’t help thinking about those horses!

Our guide is smart. He knows not to give us time for second thoughts, so we are hustled straight to where the horses await, allocated our nags according to weight and height, and with a quick slap to the hindquarters, we shoot up the steep, stony track, each horse following the one in front. Thankfully, they seem to want the experience to be over as quickly as possible too. Clinging on, we enter the pine forest. The butterflies are now around us and beside us, fluttering effortlessly, apparently aimlessly. It had felt like a gallop up, but technically, it was much nearer a slow trot, and with aching buttocks after half an hour we dismount with varying degrees of indignity and relief. Momentary discomfort was rewarded by clouds of Monarchs everywhere, and once our eyes acclimatised to the bright sunlight and shade, we could see that the trees were dripping resting Monarchs, in long strands like orange and black garlands. On the ground they rested, puddling, drinking at damp spots, or along a trickle of water.

We gradually settled in to the experience, trying to capture the phenomenon that is millions of butterflies, silently flying, resting, drinking, nectaring and also dying all round us and at our feet, in the air, on the trees and on the ground, everywhere. A quiet descends on the group. Around us are the local villagers who stay and protect the Monarchs, sitting unnoticed among the pine trees. It is like being surrounded by tiny shards of stained glass, flickering as the sunlight catches the orange and black. We looked up at the sky and it is punctuated by the fluttering of a million wings. Mostly they do not notice or react to us, just occasionally landing on a backpack or shirt sleeve.

We watch for a couple of hours, trying as ever to capture the experience with our cameras, but there is a calming of the excitement that we brought here, a quieting of our voices, just amazement at a spectacle that has no equivalent in the natural world. In a world full of diminishing wildlife, to see such profusion, so many of one species, and to learn the astonishing life cycle of these amazing creatures, is a rare privilege. As adults we lose the wonder that children bring to experience the natural world. Visit the Monarchs and you can reclaim it.

 

For further information about our 11-day ‘Mexico’s Monarchs, Humpbacks & Endemic Birds’ holiday please Mexico’s Monarchs.

Humpback Whales, Mexico by Liz Duncan

Humpback Whales, Mexico

Transferring from land to sea always feels awkward and unnatural. Of course, it depends what species you are. We smile at wildlife documentaries where penguins dive effortlessly into the sea but flail their way back onto the beach. Have you ever watched people trying to get into a boat from the beach? It always involves at best wet feet and an ungainly lurch, and at worst, a slip and fall flat on one’s bottom.

I am getting on a boat at San Blas on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and take my seat on the hard metal bench. We are changing environments, from ours as land-living mammals, to the ocean where Humpback Whales reign supreme. It’s a glorious sunny morning in February, and a million miles from cold, dark England. That in itself would be enough to lift the spirits, but for some of us on this trip, seeing these animals is a lifetime’s ambition, and getting on this boat is the culmination of a long journey to fulfil that goal. Most of us are not in the first flush of youth either, but what distinguishes Naturetrek groups is that people do not see the barriers to fulfilling ambitions, just the goal at the end and they will do whatever is required, regardless of age or fitness. Helping us all achieve this today is Karel, our local guide and boat captain, Daniel.

It takes only 10 minutes of sailing out into the bay before Daniel spots a whale, two whales in fact, a mother and calf. We jump to our feet, people lurch around grabbing cameras and Daniel reminds us to respond slowly and quietly, for our own sakes and so as not to disturb the animals. We clutch our binoculars, searching for a glimpse of a fin or tail but, at the moment, the whales are gently swimming and only a dark gleaming back and dorsal fin is momentarily visible. We have to get our eye in. I wonder how the whales might view this noisy human rabble, competing to get the best shot? But behind me is Mary who has waited a long time in her life to see this sight, and she is quietly standing, just watching, holding onto the rail, soaking up every moment of this unique experience which only gets better and better.

The mother and calf swim majestically on, apparently unworried by our boat which keeps a careful distance. The pair are inseparable: sometimes side by side, sometimes the mother is below her calf. She gives birth in this sheltered warm bay, and while she nurses her calf, she does not feed, waiting till they start the long journey north to the feeding grounds in Alaska.

Now we settle down to watch, finding our sea legs, steadying cameras, and are rewarded by a longer breach and our first view of a magnificent tail fluke. These enormous creatures have such presence, such elegance and power in the water. It is hard to comprehend their size: 16 metres long, up to 40 tons in weight. Imagine the amount of muscle power necessary to launch an animal of such size out of the water.

There are a couple of other boats following the whales now. Daniel is careful to leave the 100 metres that is required for licensed boats. But one boat accelerates between us and the whales. Daniel tells us to watch – the mother Humpback may react to the disturbance. He knows his whales: just a couple of minutes later, having dived deep, she bursts out of the water, straight upwards, fins wide, like a huge torpedo, and lands backwards with an enormous splash. It’s hard to keep quiet, impossible not to gasp out loud. She goes down, and then comes up again, but this time accompanied by the calf who doesn’t quite manage to get to vertical and who collapses back into the water. But we have our one shot on camera: a mother and calf Humpback Whale, side by side, breaching. A most treasured souvenir of an unforgettable moment.

Daniel has an underwater microphone and we can actually hear the song of a distant whale. Only the males sing; the sound travels long distances. It is such an iconic sound, used to relax a thousand meditation sessions for stressed humans.

But there were other great experiences that morning too, which under other circumstances would be great wildlife moments in their own right: sailing round small islands covered in Blue-footed Boobies (such an unfair name for wonderfully individual birds with feet that Jimmy Shoo would do well to emulate) and brown pelicans; and the air full of frigate birds like menacing drones.

We return to San Blas to pore over our photographs, the breaching Humpback remains my screensaver, taking me back to that wonderful morning. But I also remember that only a few decades ago, the call of the Humpback was endangered by whale hunting, and this is in fact a conservation success story with the numbers of whales now recovered to several thousand. That fact only adds to the positive experience of briefly sharing an ocean with such magnificent creatures.

 

For further information about our 11-day ‘Mexico’s Monarchs, Humpbacks & Endemic Birds’ holiday, which next departs February 2016, Humpback Whales Mexico.