Is the Great Bear Rain Forest on your birding wish-list?

Andrew Macdonald

Andrew MacDonald (Naturalist, British Columbia, Canada) explains why it should be!

British Columbia (BC) is Canada’s westernmost province and is home to the Great Bear Rainforest, which was described by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as “the planet’s last large expanse of coastal temperate rain forest.”

Stretching for more than 250 miles along the coast of BC, the 21-million-acre wilderness is sometimes called the Amazon of the North. The vast, sodden land encompasses 1,000-year-old cedars, waterfalls spouting off the sides of moss-covered mountains, granite-dark waters, and glacier-cut fjords. It is the most biologically diverse region in Canada, with an abundance of wildlife. Including coastal grey wolves, grizzly bears, Sitka deer, whales, salmon, sea otters and its most famous resident, the rare, cream-coloured Kermode bear (also known as the Sprit Bear).

Spirit bear
Spirit bear

The tremendous diversity of the area means there are large numbers of both resident and migratory birds. Around 520 species of birds have been recorded in BC and some can only be found here. But it’s not just the variety and numbers of birds that makes it so special for wildlife and bird lovers. It’s the unique possibility of seeing birds and mammals together. The sighting of gulls can signal the arrival of a pod of whales – humpbacks and orcas can be regularly spotted, with Fin Whales increasing in numbers on outer shores. Hearing the Sandhill Cranes while watching the elusive Sea Wolf hunting in the early morning mist is an unforgettable experience. Finding Harlequin Ducks on a rock as the humpbacks perform their acrobatic breeches and spy hops is mesmerising.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

If I had to choose my three favourite Great Bear Rainforest birds, these would be the Steller’s Jay, the Varied Thrush and the Harlequin Duck. The gregarious, omnivorous Steller’s Jay is the provincial bird of BC. It’s an excellent imitator of other birds and animals, and even mechanical sounds such as those made by phones, sprinklers, and squeaky doors. With a subtly beautiful plumage of sooty black and rich blue shades the Steller’s Jay easily blends into its shaded forest surroundings.

Stellers Jay
The Steller’s Jay is the provincial bird of BC

The extremely shy but very handsome Varied Thrush is similar in size and shape to a robin but with a slighter build and a bolder pattern. It winters along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia and has a haunting call consisting of a single, vibrating and nasally tone drawn out over a few seconds. It repeats the note several times in different pitches, with a few seconds rest in between.

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Small flocks of Harlequin ducks can be seen on the rocky coastline, where they choose fast-flowing mountain streams for breeding. They are small ducks with small bills and the males have a striking plumage, with chestnut flanks and distinctive white patches on the head and body. Females are dusky brown with two or three whitish patches on their face. For a sea duck, Harlequins are pretty vocal with a mouselike squeak which varies in frequency and intensity.

In the Great Bear Rain Forest, it’s very likely you’ll see all three birds. They provide a splash of colour in a world dominated by blues and greens.  Their calls are quintessentially West coast and there is nowhere else in the world where all three can be heard together. Their calls mean there could also be wolves, grizzlies, Spirit Bears or humpbacks close by.

Other notable birds include the Bald Eagle – the largest bird in BC, with a wingspan of up to 2.5metres. This white-headed bird of prey mates for life and has an amazing mating ritual. They lock talons in mid-air, then spin at breakneck speed, before hitting the water together. The salmon run often attracts large numbers of Bald Eagles, where they are versatile and agile hunters.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

Black Turnstones winter along the rocky shores, with a high, shrill rattling call. The sight and sound of a large flock wheeling over the crashing waves can never be forgotten.

Whilst there are so many birds to add to a tick-list, the truly unique experience is to watch birds and mammals together. There is no better place on Earth!

The “invisible bird watcher” — Bence Mate

At the age of 14, Bence Mate won the title ‘Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year’, but it was not just his photographic talent that impressed the judges, it was his passion for wildlife and conservation. Mark Carwardine, a BBC zoologist and one of the judges, presented Bence with his award. He recalls “Bence was and still is an outstanding naturalist, due to spending every available moment in the field photographing the behaviour of his beloved birds. Even as a teenager his stated ambition was to earn money from his photography so he could set up his own hides, to encourage more people to appreciate birds and wildlife.”

22 years later, Bence Mate has more than achieved his teenage ambition. He’s designed and built 24 very different hides around his farmhouse in Hungary. He pioneered the use of one-way glass to allow bird watchers and photographers to get close to the shyest of birds without disturbing them. Described by Mark (now a regular visitor) as “some of the most imaginative and inspiring bird hides I have ever seen”.

Theatre hide in spring – photo by Bence Mate

The hides include a 12 metre high Tower Hide which is home to numerous nest boxes and perches, which says Bence “encouraged numerous prospective tenants. A pair of kestrels chose a nest box right under the window of the hide. They actively defended their territory, even against Common Buzzards, three times their size.”

“The success of the first Tower Hide led to the building of a second one close to a site favoured by a Red-footed Falcon colony. We mounted four nest boxes on the hide and four more close by. Red-footed falcons are  known to occupy nest boxes but we were very surprised when the first pair returned from Africa and immediately occupied one of the boxes.”

Roller Hides in Hungary – Photo by Bence Mate

Key species which can be seen from the hides in winter include otters, white-tailed eagles, common buzzards, bitterns, great white egrets, grey herons, water rail, kingfishers, marsh harriers, spoonbills, great cormorants, caspian gulls and black-headed gulls. Later in the year they are joined by goshawks, sparrowhawks, little egrets, squacco herons, European bee-eaters hoopoe, European rollers (from early turtle doves, little owls, black woodpeckers and Mediterranean gulls.

The hides and plentiful supply of nest boxes have also attracted one of the most colourful birds in Europe – the Roller. A few decades ago it was rare to see breeding pairs in Hungary . The roller mainly nests in tree cavities but due to extensive logging such holes became scarce. However, a nationwide nest-box project supported by Bence proved very successful and now the population is thriving. Says Bence “rollers regularly occupy nest boxes around the hides, where their behaviour can be observed at very close quarters. I can state with confidence that their spectacular colour is only matched by their meanness! I’ve seen them fearlessly attack Turtle Doves, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Common Kestrels and even Buzzards, during the mating season.”

Why you need to visit the Forest of Dean

When thinking of birding destinations in the UK, the Forest of Dean might not be the first place that comes to mind. Tom Mabbett, Naturetrek tour leader, describes why it should be high up on all bird watchers’ travel lists.

“The ancient Forest of Dean is the largest expanse of forest in the UK, after the New Forest. In medieval times it was a royal hunting forest, before becoming a source of timber for the navy’s Tudor warships. Today the forest is home to a wide variety of birds and wildlife.

There is a huge choice of different habitats to watch birds in the forest – both native and migratory. There’s always the opportunity to see something special like the great grey shrike, which is rare in the UK. It is the largest of the European shrikes. Small numbers come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here. One particular bird returns to a certain glade every year and has been described as the forest’s ‘star of winter’.

Winter is a brilliant time to spot a variety of finches, like the chaffinch, redpoll and siskin. The forest is possibly the best place in the UK to find the secretive hawfinch, enjoying the sumptuous food on offer.

Nomadic crossbills can be seen throughout the year. Goshawks start displaying in January to March as they set up their territories, and can be seen all year round.

Nightjars arrive in Spring, then leave in August to winter in Africa. They are nocturnal birds and can be seen hawking for food at dusk and dawn. Watching nightjars at dusk is a very special experience. Lesser spotted woodpeckers still breed in the forest, but can be difficult to spot unless you’re familiar with their territories.

The forest is not just about birds. In the late 1990s wild boar were spotted (likely escapees). The initial group (known as a sounder) has now become at least 1000. Despite their numbers, wild boar are not easy to spot unless you know the best times and places to find them. It’s best to go out after dark in winter, with a powerful torch to pick up their eye shine.

Another highly successful reintroduction is the pine marten.  16 were released in 2018 and have bred successfully. It is hoped they will have an impact on the grey squirrel population. If this is effective, there is a possibility of red squirrels being introduced one day.

I recommend that anyone with a passion for birds and wildlife visits the Forest of Dean to enjoy all that this wild and beautiful forest has to offer.”

Tom Mabbett is Operations Manager and Tour Leader at Naturetrek.

Naturetrek offers a wide range of natural history and wildlife holidays in the UK (over 100 tours in fact!). From the Scilly Isles to the Outer Hebrides and everywhere in-between. Whether you are looking for a day trip, a weekend break, a week-long tour or a cruise there is a holiday for you. All small group tours led by expert naturalists.

Clicka clicka cheep cheep – capturing creative bird shots

Wildlife photographers are known for the lengths they will go to, to get their shot. Award-winning photographer and broadcaster Paul Goldstein is no exception. “A true wildlife photographer accepts the hardship and welcomes it”, says Paul “but it should never be about an image at any price, the welfare of the bird or animal is paramount.”

Paul shares some of his secrets about photographing birds and how his unique approach helps turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.

“Whatever you’re photographing, the background is key. It can make all the difference between invoking an emotional response to an image and a photo being dismissed as merely ‘nice’.”

A really good example of this approach was seen in lockdown, when instead of capturing the exotic wildlife of the world, Paul turned his attention to an extraordinary study of an urban swan family in London.

“Lockdown forced us all to relook at the world with wiser eyes and look for wonders on our own doorstep. I watched a swan family living in a pond next to a busy main road. My dream shot was to capture the swans in the reflection of a red London bus. It almost came off but I wasn’t quite happy with the result [Paul is own fiercest critic!]. I then changed my approach and waited for a swan to remain still for long enough, to use a slow shutter speed. I wanted to blur the moving red bus in the background whilst keeping the swan fully in focus. Sounds easy? It definitely wasn’t! I had to wade into the pond with my tripod and wait for the right moment.

Reggie the cob swan by Paul Goldstein (ISO 100, f5.6, 1/20sec, 300mm)

Sometimes luck plays a part and Reggie the cob swan framed himself beautifully between two bollards. And a red bus obligingly went past.”

Further afield in the Pantanal, Brazil, Paul took a similarly unusual approach when capturing a night time shot of a hyacinth macaw. “There was a beautiful full moon, but otherwise no light. Creatively there wasn’t a lot of interest, until I spotted a hyacinth macaw in a palm tree, with a very clear outline. It was then a matter of quickly lining up the two (whilst being devoured by mosquitoes). I didn’t have a tripod, but a friend kindly lent his shoulder so I could use a slow shutter speed and keep the camera steady.”

Hyacinth macaw by Paul Goldstein
Hyacinth macaw by Paul Goldstein (ISO 6400, f9, 1/50 sec)
World penguin day by Paul Goldstein

“In South Georgia, I wanted to create drama with the waves and reflections, whilst still focussing attention on the penguin. Getting the background right was key to this shot.”

Murmurations by Paul Goldstein

“Sometimes, a grab shot is all you need. If the birds are performing magnificently as they did recently in Snettisham, just grab your camera or your phone and capture the magic of the moment.”

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Ringing the changes

Interview with Jeremy Gates – a Surrey bird ringer

Many members of RSPB Guildford will have met Jeremy Gates, as every year he rings the juvenile kestrels nesting in the garden of the Grundy family. But how did Jeremy become a dedicated bird ringer and why does he do it?

Jeremy with kestrel chick

… I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.

In Jeremy’s own words: ‘I think I was born a bird-watcher. Even before I could walk I was watching and reacting to birds. When my father took me fishing, I only wanted to watch the birds. All birds fascinated me and I spent my younger years cycling around Guildford, looking for birds.

Joining the Junior branch of the RSPB (which was then called the Young Ornithologists Club), meant for the first time I had like-minded people to bird watch with. The organised trips meant I could visit places like Farlington Marshes and Pagham. I was absolutely hooked.

My ambition, even as a young child was to become a bird ringer. I wanted to see birds up close, to hold them and to understand more about their lives. Becoming a ringer involves registering with a trainer who takes you under their wing. While I was trying to find a local trainer (not easy), I worked and qualified as a tree surgeon. In my spare time I became a twitcher, travelling all over the country to see rare birds, such as the Golden Winged Warbler (seen in Kent in 1989).

Then in 1993, through the Surrey Bird Club I found someone willing to train me. Steve Abbott had been the Club’s Chairman and was a very experienced ringer. Under his guidance I learnt how to net and ring birds. I will never forget holding my first bird – a Great Tit. I felt both humbled and excited.

Now I ring around 1,000 birds a year and am one of about 2,500 ringers in the UK. It’s a mixture of general and targeted ringing. The general ringing involves the use of a net to catch a selection of birds. The targeted ringing is often seasonal, so for example I might look for warblers in summer and siskins in the winter.

Being a tree surgeon really helps when climbing to bird of prey nests in trees. It means I can easily climb a tree, put the rings on quickly and  then leave the birds in peace. So long as you are very calm and quiet, the birds don’t panic. Their welfare is always paramount.

I think the Firecrest is the most stunningly beautiful bird I’ve ever ringed. Top of my ringing wish-list is an Osprey, but as they’re mainly found in Scotland and a special licence is needed to approach their nest, this may remain just a fantasy.

For now, I’m doing what I always dreamt of as a child. Bird ringing is not just a hobby, it’s my passion.’

Birds to spot this Autumn

Tony Cummins, RSPB Guildford Walks Leader and Coordinator

The days are getting shorter, leaves are falling and mornings are chilly. Autumn is here! Birds are sensing a change in the weather and are becoming more active. Summer migrants are leaving and other birds are starting to arrive. So what should we be looking out for this Autumn and where are the best spots for bird watching?

Tony Cummins, our RSPB Guildford Walks Coordinator, explains which birds are arriving, leaving and just passing through.

“Many birds are migrants, but it’s not always obvious. Some migrants are just passing through and refuelling for a few weeks, others are here for the winter and some are internal migrants.

The passage migrants are travelling south from Northern Europe, where they go to breed during the short Northern summer. This includes many waders, who may stop off here on their migration route.  It can be an opportunity to spot some of the less common waders like the Curlew Sandpiper (which likes saltmarshes with muddy pools and shallow coastal lagoons) and the Little Stint (a tiny, wading bird). There is a plentiful food supply in the UK and birds will ‘refuel’ for a few weeks before moving on.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen

Then there are the winter migrants who spend their winter in the UK, like Redshanks (who may have travelled from Iceland), Curlews (the largest European wading bird), Godwits (Black-tailed and Bar-tailed) and Plovers. It’s also worth looking out for the juvenile waders, who often migrate later than their parents.

Birds migrating from the UK include swallows, sand martins and house martins who will start leaving any time soon. Swifts and cuckoos have already left.

So where are the best places to see these avian comings and goings? Pulborough RSPB is good for spotting small passage birds like Whinchats and Spotted flycatchers, which are both summer visitors and passage migrants. Also, there is a gradual build-up of water fowl. Wintering ducks include:

  • Shovelers – in winter, breeding birds move south, and are replaced by an influx of continental birds from further north
  • Wigeon – many birds visit the UK in winter from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia, with large numbers of wintering birds at a few UK sites
  • Teal – in winter, birds congregate in low-lying wetlands in the south and west of the UK, many are continental birds from around the Baltic and Siberia
  • Pintails – can be seen all year round, wintering birds arrive from September with numbers peaking in December
  • Brent geese  – nest on the boggy Arctic tundra, by mid September they leave their breeding grounds and arrive on our shores in early October, where they will stay until April

Photos courtesy Steve Simnett

Coastal areas can be very good in Autumn and we have birdwatching trips to Titchfield Haven, Farlington Marshes and West Wittering. If you’re keen to see starling murmurations, there are 5million starlings in the UK in Autumn, and many can be seen at Farlington Marshes. Avocets can often be spotted at Titchfield Haven.

Closer to home, you’ll notice garden birds are sensing a change in the weather and their behaviour changes too. Tits start to form feeding flocks, often led by Long Tailed Tits who are particularly adept at spotting food sources. Winter thrushes will start to arrive. Many blackbirds are internal migrants, and after they’ve finished moulting often look for a new location to settle in.

Also, if you’re very lucky you may spot a rare Wryneck. As its name suggests, it has a very flexible neck. It’s a species of woodpecker and passes through the UK in Spring and Autumn.”

To see our full programme of Autumn birdwatching walks, CLICK HERE.

Spotting the Western Sandpiper in Snettisham

A lone Western Sandpiper, amidst a mass of Dunlin was discovered at Snettisham RSPB on 22nd July. Although it is the world’s commonest calidrid, previously there were only ten accepted records of the Western Sandpiper visiting Britain. This was Norfolk’s second ever sighting, the previous one was in 2011.

Talking to the person who first spotted the bird he said “a small group of Dunlins and Sanderling landed in front of me, in silhouette and amongst them was something that I knew was special, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what. I managed to manoeuvre to get a slightly better angle, but was thwarted by vegetation that obscured the mystery bird. Before long, the tide pushed the flock off and despite much effort I failed to relocate the intriguing calidrid.” After eliminating a number of possible species, he realised he had something special and thought he knew what it might be. Returning early the following morning, as the tide fell and the Dunlin spread out to feed, the mystery bird was spotted again. It was a summer-plumaged Western Sandpiper. The orange on the head and back were subdued but clearly visible.

Jim Scott, the RSPB Snettisham site manager confirmed the identity of the ‘mystery bird’. As the news circulated, keen birder watchers started to arrive at Snettisham. I spoke to one person who had driven through the night from Cumbria in the hope of seeing this rare visitor.

Snettisham is a tricky place to get the timing right, as the ideal times are just before or just after high tide, as the birds either finish up their foraging, or just get started. At high tide, most of the waders are roosting and asleep, hunkered down with their bills tucked in. At low tide, the shorebirds are spread out into the far distance across the vast mudflats of the invertebrate-rich mudflats of The Wash, so that even with a scope the majority of the birds are too far away.

Because the tide had largely gone out by the time most people arrived, the Western Sandpiper was not seen by many birders until the evening tide on 23rd July. The sandpiper was most easy to locate at high tide and on the falling tide. At low water it disappeared and presumably fed somewhere further out. With patience, the bird was possible to find and there was an almost palpable excitement amongst the bird watchers, waiting for it to appear. I was lucky enough to see it through various people’s scopes, as I know I could never have spotted it myself amongst the thousands of Dunlin, Knot and Sanderling.

This was my first visit (as a ‘newbie’ birdwatcher) to Snettisham and even now I cannot believe how privileged I was to see this top of the rarity range of North American shorebirds visiting Britain.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen