As of Sunday 31 January, the small flock of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS Emberiza jankowskii remains at Miyun Reservoir, faithful to a relatively small area of appropriate habitat. Their presence is providing a unique opportunity to study these little-known birds and the knowledge gained will undoubtedly add to our understanding of this endangered species and what it needs to survive. During my most recent visit, as well as examining diet and habits, I took the opportunity to record some video. Some of the plumages shown had never been photographed, or even described, before these birds arrived in Beijing.
In terms of sexing and ageing I believe there is an adult male and two females (unsure of age) in the first clip, and first-winter females in the second and third clips (the shape of the tail feathers is visible in some of the frames).
In the last 24 hours, the world lost one its brightest stars. Not just a brilliant birder, at the vanguard of our understanding of bird identification but, as has been demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion on social media, a wonderful husband to Sharon, father to his two daughters Abi and Emily, and life-inspiration to so many people.
My first contact with Martin Garner was in July 2012 when he invited me to be part of the Birding Frontiers team, a group of birders and ornithologists from around the world assembled to publish exciting and innovative posts about birding. My first thought was “wow.. why me?” I didn’t know Martin, had never even met him and I certainly wasn’t in the same league as a birder as most of the other names he had assembled. I soon realised that, to ask that question, I was misunderstanding Martin the man. His raison d’etre was to help others, support them, coach them, to ‘big them up’. There was no selfishness behind his offer.. he wasn’t thinking that I could give him something in return, it was simply an act of pure generosity and belief in me. I cannot overestimate how much that inspired me, not only in terms of my birding and the evolution of Birding Beijing, but in life. Martin’s mantra “Always Discovering” was a phrase with which I felt an immediate affinity as I began to explore the birding in and around China’s capital city.. and his encouragement drove me on.
When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was devastated. How cruel is life and how fragile our existence? Martin reacted to the news in a way that was, knowing his character, completely expected. He embraced it, used it to spur himself on and to inspire others. His most recent work – The Challenge Series – is at the cutting edge of bird identification and show just how much he offered to the birding community.
I was determined to meet Martin during one of my infrequent visits to the UK and, last January, I was back for a series of work-related meetings. I hopped on a train to Hartlepool and after a bracing walk to Flamborough, spent the day with Martin, Sharon and friends. Martin was everything I expected and more. We enjoyed an early morning seawatch, alongside the legendary Brett Richards, during which he explained to me how to tell argentatus and argenteus in flight at distance, something I had never read in the guide books. A tour around the area followed, with visits to the local RSPB offices, a hunt for a Rough-legged Buzzard, viewing a day-feeding Woodcock and close scrutiny the local Rock Pipits at South Landing. A cup of tea, biscuits and great conversation with Martin and Sharon that ranged from birding, China and a host of other subjects, was a fitting end to a wonderful day and I left Flamborough more inspired than ever. He was that kind of man.
Martin opened my, and many others’, eyes to the world of opportunities all around us and, everywhere we look, whether it’s in Beijing or Birmingham, we now see there is still so much to discover.
Martin’s encouragement has given me the drive and determination to make a difference. And if I can be half the man he was, I will be very happy.
Martin’s spirit lives on, running through everything I do. And I am sure I am only one of hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands to whom that applies.
Today is a sad day. The birding world has lost one of its brightest stars. However, instead of mourning the loss of one of the greatest people I have ever had the privilege to know, I am sure Martin would have preferred us to celebrate – celebrate his life and take on the mantle. To continue the journey and to continue discovering. That is the best way to pay tribute to Martin. A colossus of a man.
On Saturday 9 January I was leaving the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy after participating in the Oriental Bird Club’s council meeting when I received a message from Xing Chao, a young Beijing-based birder. Chao had visited Miyun Reservoir that day with friend Huang Mujiao, both of whom are members of the Swarovski-sponsored group of young birders called “北京飞羽” (Beijing Feathers). The message simply said “Jankowski’s?” and was accompanied by a photo.
My heart raced. Could there really be a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) in Beijing? The bird in the photo sure seemed to show a dark belly patch – diagnostic of JANKOWSKI’S – and the face pattern looked ok with a strongly dark malar stripe, dark lores and a prominent white supercilium…. But could that dark belly patch be due to missing feathers?
For context, JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING is a very rare bird indeed. After a serious and precipitous decline over much of its traditional range in NE China, Russia and N Korea, the known population is in the low 100s. Little is known about its winter range. Most literature suggests that they remain on the breeding grounds or, perhaps, move south a little if heavy snow prevents these ground feeders from finding food. Indeed, although few people are looking, there are several winter records from the breeding sites in Inner Mongolia. There is only one previous record of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing – two specimens collected from The Summer Palace in February and March 1941 (now in the Natural History Museum at Tring). Of course, in 1941, the population of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING was very likely considerably larger so I think it’s fair to say that Beijing birders had given up all hope of another JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING turning up in the capital.
As I sat in my car about to drive from Sandy to Norfolk, I contemplated the magnitude of a JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing. I replied to Xing Chao saying that I thought it probably was one but asking whether he had more photos. Thoughts then jumped to when I would be back in Beijing.. With my return flight from London planned on Monday, I would arrive in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon and could potentially visit the site on Wednesday. Would it still be there?
Xing Chao responded the following day with two more photos, also sent to Paul Holt.
These additional photos clearly showed two very pale and prominent wing-bars, a good feature of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING vs the main confusion species, MEADOW BUNTING. Gulp. Paul replied that he also thought it was a JANKOWSKI’S! I encouraged Xing Chao to put out the news on the Birding Beijing WeChat group and, rightly so, there followed plaudit after plaudit. Not only was there a JANKWOWSKI’S BUNTING in Beijing but it had been found by young Chinese birders – brilliant!
And so, fast forward 3 days and I had arrived back in Beijing and immediately arranged to visit the site on Wednesday in the company of the two finders and Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra.
After leaving central Beijing at 0600 we arrived on site around 0800. It was a beautiful, but cold, morning with the temperature around -15 degrees Celsius thankfully accompanied by almost no wind. The first hour or so produced several PALLAS’S BUNTINGS, 2 JAPANESE REED BUNTINGS, SIBERIAN ACCENTOR, COMMON CRANE, JAPANESE QUAIL, MONGOLIAN LARK, 2 LONG-EARED OWLS, ROUGH-LEGGED and UPLAND BUZZARDS, SAKER, MERLIN and HEN HARRIER but no JANKOWSKI’S.
We split into two groups to cover more ground and, shortly after that, I could see Ben waving frantically. He had just seen – very well – a male JANKOWSKI’S! Unfortunately, by the time I reached him, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, the bird had disappeared. After a vigil of an hour or so at this spot, we began to widen our search. Soon we happened upon a small flock of largish, long-tailed buntings. As they occasionally sat up in the bare branches of some nearby shrubs, we could see that at least two had dark belly markings, although not as substantial as seen on adult males. Another feature stood out on these birds – strikingly pale double wingbars. It slowly dawned on us that we were looking at not one JANKOWSKI’S but a small flock!
We spent the remainder of the day with these birds, observing them, listening to their distinctive calls (a single Meadow/Japanese Reed Bunting like “tsip” and a “chup” call most often uttered in flight) and trying to photograph as many as possible. Some of the birds were in interesting plumages that had not been photographed, or even described, before.
We counted at least 7 individuals in the group and were elated. What a privilege to see so many of these globally endangered birds together in one spot… and exhibiting such fascinating plumages. As the light began to fade we reluctantly tore ourselves away and began the drive back to Beijing. What a day!
Two days later, on Friday, Paul Holt visited the site with Gabriel David. They, too, enjoyed a very special day and, fantastically, counted 9 JANKOWSKI’S!
It’s interesting to speculate about the status of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING in under-watched Beijing. Is it here every winter and been overlooked? Or is this winter exceptional? I suspect the latter. Certainly the habitat around Miyun is much better for buntings this winter, caused by the prohibition of crops close to the water (driven by fears of pesticides seeping into Beijing’s drinking water supply). The area around the reservoir has been left to nature and the resulting growth of wild, seed-producing, plants has provided excellent feeding for buntings (as witnessed by the record-breaking flock of more than 5,500 LAPLAND BUNTINGS earlier in the winter). However, that said, the truth is we simply don’t know!
Huge kudos to Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao for the initial find. Although it’s only mid-January, this will almost certainly be the best discovery in Beijing of 2016.
During the evening of 6 December I received a message from a friend to say that a GREATER FLAMINGO (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) had been photographed on the Wenyu River in Beijing. The message was accompanied by a photo clearly showing a young (first-winter) bird. Wow! Although directions were vague and the Wenyu River long, I was out early the next morning with Wu Lan to check some likely sites. Despite the smog, within 30 minutes we had located it amongst a congregation of more than 300 Mallard. During our time with this extraordinary bird, it fed and rested in equal measure and appeared healthy. It was un-ringed, fully-winged and wary, showing no obvious signs of captivity.
The bird stayed in the area until at least 15 December during which time it was enjoyed by many Beijing-based birders and photographers.
Although this flamingo was the first record of GREATER FLAMINGO for Beijing, the Wenyu bird fitted neatly with a remarkable pattern of recent occurrences of flamingos in China.
Greater Flamingo doesn’t breed in the wild in China. The nearest known breeding grounds are in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The first record of Greater Flamingo in China was in the southern municipality of Macao as recently as 1994. Next came one in the northwest province of Xinjiang in 1997. Records were sporadic between 1997 and 2014, since when there has been a remarkable run of records. Tianjin-based Mo Xunqiang (莫训强, English name “Nemo”), one of China’s brightest young ornithologists, has brilliantly collated all of the records of flamingo in China. His excellent summary (PDF in English and Chinese), up to and including the Beijing record, can be downloaded here.
Below I list, by Province, the records of Greater Flamingo in China since 1 January 2014 (a remarkable 23 occurrences):
19 Nov 2015: 1 juvenile was seen by villager by a river about 30km from Shiqian, Guizhou (via Zhu Lei)
23 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in Yu County, Hebei Province, seen by villager Mr. Wei
4 Dec 2014: 1 juvenile in Yishui River, Baoding, seen by Miss Li.
26 Oct 2015: 3 juveniles at East Juyan Lake (note that a later report said there were 10 present!)
28 Oct 2015: 2 juveniles seen by a photographer named Yang Huiyuan, at Shajin Taohai Sumu, Dengkou county, Bayinnuoer.
10 Dec 2015: 3 juveniles seen by Mr. Mu Jinsheng, at Hekou reservoir, Shengli village, Wulantaogai town, Wushen County.
22 Apr 2014: 2 at Ganyuqingkou River Mouth, Lianyungang (Chen Ying &
David Melville via China Birdwatch 96: April 2014).
11 Nov 2014: 2 adults or near adults at Jianggang, Dongtai District (Mr.
Huang & Mr. Yu et al.).
25 Jul 2015: 2 adults were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang (Shanque), staying until at least 29 Nov.
26 Dec 2015: 7 individuals were seen at Linhongkou, Lianyungang of Jiangsu by a birder named Shanque. Among them are two smaller and shorter individuals, resembling Lesser Flamingos. More details needed to confirm.
8 Dec 2014: 2 at Nanjishan, Poyang Hu, Jiangxi around the 8 December 2014 (Hannu Jannes pers. comm.)
16 May 2015: 2 adults at Poyang Lake Reserve, Jiangxi on May 16. Reported by workers from Team No. 4 of the reserve.
12 Feb 2015: 4 juveniles was seen at Caotan Balu, Xi’an, Shaanxi.
27 Oct 2015: 3 adults were photographed at a wetland in Yulin, Shaanxi.
22 Nov 2014: 1 juvenile in the Yellow River Delta Nature Reserve, Dongyingon, Shandong, seen by workers at the site.
29 Apr 2015: 3 adults at the Haibin National Park, Rizhao, Shandong
29 Nov 2015: 2 adults at Rizhao of Shandong (per Shan Que).
19 Dec 2015: 7 seen at Taibai Lake, Jining, Shandong.
5 Jan 2014: 2 immatures at the Linbian River mouth, Pingtung (num. obs). The first record for Taiwan.
1 Dec 2014: 6 juveniles at Beidagang, Tianjin on the 1 December with five still there the following day (Wang Jianming et al).
30 Oct 2014: 3 were seen At Lake Manasarovar, Pulan, Ngari, Tibet
mid-Nov 2014: 3 at Heishantou Reservoir, Mori Kazakh Autonomous County, Xinjiang, seen by Wen Shichun, a worker at that site.
19 Nov 2014: 1 in a coastal wetland near Shangyu and Yuyao, Zhejiang Prov (Mr. Xu)
The Beijing bird was the 34th record of a Phoenicopterus sp in China and, given the recent run of records, it was perhaps not too much of a surprise that one should turn up in the capital. Of course it’s impossible to say for sure that the Beijing bird was wild and, in fact, at least one of the Chinese records definitely refers to an escapee – the record of an American (Caribbean) Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in Shaanxi in January 2011 (see the PDF). Although comprehensive information is hard to find, investigations so far suggest there are few captive flamingos in China and those collections of which we are aware (e.g. in Hong Kong) have clipped wings and are ringed.
Remarkably, on 30 December 2015, Colm Moore found a first winter Greater Flamingo at Shahe Reservoir. Given Shahe’s proximity to the Wenyu River (the Wenyu flows out from Shahe Reservoir), it is almost certainly the Wenyu bird relocating but, nevertheless, it’s a fantastic find and the latest in a remarkable run of flamingo records in China.
We can only speculate as to the reasons behind the recent surge in records of flamingo in China. Is there a captive collection somewhere in China that is allowing its young birds to fly freely? Or are there issues with traditional breeding sites in Kazakhstan or further afield that are causing these birds to wander widely? We’d welcome insights from anyone who can shed light on the causes of this phenomenon.
Whatever the provenance of these birds, the flamingos in China have not only provided the growing birding community with an opportunity to experience this charismatic species but many of the birds have also attracted the attention of the local media and raised awareness among the general public of migrant birds. That can only be a good thing!
Huge thanks to Mo Xunqiang (“Nemo”) for his great work in collating the China records of flamingo and for allowing me to draw on that information for this post. Thank you also to Colm Moore and Zhao Qi for allowing me to use the photo of the Shahe bird and to Zhu Lei, Lu Jianshu, Paul Holt, Richard Lewthwaite and everyone else who has provided information about flamingo records in China.
Title photo of the Greater Flamingo (大红鹳, Phoenicopterus roseus) at Shahe Reservoir on 30 December 2015 by Zhao Qi.
When a British friend recently asked me what it’s like to live in Beijing, my instinctive reaction was to say “I love it”. Professionally speaking it is one of the most exciting and interesting places on the planet. And, of course, the birding is epic.
Then, after thinking for a few seconds, I qualified that statement with a “But” and described Beijing as “schizophrenic”. On nice days, when the air is clear and the weather good, Beijing is stunningly beautiful, cradled by mountains that run from the southwest to the northeast, providing a spectacular backdrop to what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world. However, on bad days, the air pollution renders invisible the tops of even the nearest tower blocks and, after just a few minutes outside, your clothes can smell as if you’ve spent an hour or two in the smoking room at Beijing Capital International Airport.
For visitors, Beijing’s air pollution is usually a relatively minor inconvenience that can affect the views when visiting the Great Wall. It’s very unlikely to have a lasting impact. For residents, given the serious, albeit unquantified, risks it’s something we really should take seriously.
On waking, my first act is to check the air quality index on my iPhone. It dictates my mood. If the pollution is low and classified as “suitable for outdoor activities”, I rejoice and it puts a spring in my step for the whole day. Conversely, if the pollution level is high, I sigh and just want to snuggle under the duvet.. It’s THAT important to my quality of life.
Most ex-pats, and an increasing number of Chinese, invest in air purifiers for their apartments and wear masks to protect themselves when air quality is poor. For those of us who like outdoor activities, such as birding or hiking, Beijing’s air can be particularly frustrating.
Often, before I decide when to go birding, I take into account the likely pollution levels, bearing in mind key factors such as wind direction and speed in the preceding days. Residents know that a northerly or westerly wind generally clears the air, as the airflow originates from relatively pollution-free Mongolia and Siberia, whereas a southwesterly or southerly airflow brings up pollution from some of China’s most polluted towns and cities in neighbouring Hebei Province.
I am fortunate in the sense that, much of the time, I can arrange my work and birding according to the pollution levels and weather. If it’s smoggy at the weekend, I will work and then take a day off during the week to get my birding fix when the air is better. Most people are not that lucky. Even so, there are times – for example when friends are visiting – when I arrange to go birding on specific days, and take a gamble on the air quality.
If we are unlucky, we take a deep breath, don our masks and go birding in the smog. That’s exactly what Marie and I did yesterday and Marie’s photo of me birding along the Wenyu River is what prompted me to write this post.
Wearing a mask for several hours can be uncomfortable and of course, to eat and drink, one must remove it, at least temporarily. Perhaps the most obvious effect of the air pollution when birding is the reduced visibility. When the pollution is bad, even on a supposedly cloudless day, visibility can be reduced to a few hundred metres and, when visiting birding sites like Miyun Reservoir or Yeyahu – vast areas overlooking large areas of water – that can seriously impact the number of birds one is likely to see. On bad days, it’s best to visit sites where one doesn’t need to look too far into the distance – parks and the local river are ideal candidates.
People often ask me how the pollution affects birds. It’s a question I can only speculate about; as far as I know there have been no scientific studies examining the effects (if you know of any, please get in touch!). My sense is that the air pollution may impact the journeys of some migrants – particularly birds of prey? – that rely on sight and landmarks for navigation, causing them to delay their migration if the visibility is low. However, most of the health impacts of air pollution are related to long-term exposure and I suspect that most birds are not long-lived enough to be affected by these. I am sure water pollution – also chronic over much of China – is a much bigger threat.
In Marie’s photo, I think I cut a sorry figure on the banks of the (heavily polluted) Wenyu River, close to Beijing’s 5th ring road and airport. However, it’s a sign of just how good the birding is in Beijing that days like this are accepted and tolerated. When it’s good, there is nowhere I would rather be…
EDIT: BBC World Service interviewed Terry on 8 December about the smog in Beijing and how it affects residents and birds. You can hear the interview here.
As readers might have noticed, I take every opportunity to rave about the birding in Beijing. One of the reasons is because there is so much opportunity for discovery. The last few weeks have proved this again.
Until now, Beijing birders had presumed all the LONG-TAILED ROSEFINCHES (Uragus sibiricus, 长尾雀), occasionally seen in the capital in winter, are from the population breeding in NE China, Russia and Mongolia (the ussuriensis subspecies). We don’t see many, and it was only after Paul Holt and I recently visited Wuerqihan, northern Inner Mongolia, where Long-tailed Rosefinches are common, that sharp-eyed (and sharp-eared!) Paul Holt suspected that the birds I had photographed and sound-recorded at Lingshan in October 2014 and November 2015 were of a different subspecies.
To compare, here are a couple of photos of the northeastern ussuriensis subspecies, the only race previously presumed to occurr in Beijing, taken in the Dalian area of NE China, courtesy of Tom Beeke.
And here is a male from Wuerqihan, Inner Mongolia.
Compare the calls of one of the Lingshan birds with a bird of the ussuriensis race from Russia :
Lingshan bird (lepidus):
Ussuriensis from Russia (Albert Lastukhin):
After comparing photos and sound-recordings of ussuriensis with those from Beijing, it became clear that the Lingshan birds were NOT of the ssp ussuriensis. Instead, the Lingshan birds show the characteristics (dark eye-stripe and brown wings on the male, heavy and contrasting streaking on the female) of the ssp lepidus, the race from central China (according to HBW, this subspecies ranges from Eastern Tibet, east to south Shaanxi and southwest Shanxi).
Photos prove that Long-tailed Rosefinches of the lepidus subspecies have now occured at Lingshan in October/November 2014 and again in November 2015, including adult males. This suggests that Lingshan may be a regular wintering ground for the lepidus subspecies.
This was quite a shock.
We don’t *think* lepidus breeds in Beijing – they are active and noisy during the breeding season and there have been a few spring/summer visits by birders to Lingshan in the last 2 years, during which one would expect these birds to have been detected had they been present. So, for the moment at least, it looks as if these birds have moved northeast from their breeding grounds, an unexpected winter movement.
We know that at least some of the few winter records of Long-tailed Rosefinch from lowland Beijing are of the northern subspecies ussuriensis. So Beijing has now recorded two ssp of Long-tailed Rosefinch.
It’s another fascinating, and unexpected, discovery from Lingshan! What next?
Big thanks to Paul Holt for the initial discovery, to Paul Leader for comments and to Tom Beeke for permission to use his photos of Long-tailed Rosefinch from Liaoning Province.
This week I have fallen in love. With a country. A country blessed with magnificent wildlife, a wonderful climate and some of the friendliest and happiest people I have met. Its name is Uganda.
Situated on the East African Plateau, Uganda is often overlooked by tourists who flock to neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania to see the “Big 5” – African Elephant, Buffalo, Leopard, Lion and Rhinoceros. It’s a bit of a secret that Uganda offers not only the “Big 5” but “Big 5 Plus”. And the “Plus” is a big plus – MOUNTAIN GORILLA.
For the birders, there is another major attraction – the prehistoric-looking SHOEBILL, which can be seen in the swamps around Lake Victoria just a couple of hours from the airport at Entebbe.
Ever since I saw Sir David Attenborough’s unforgettable encounter with Mountain Gorillas during the BBC’s series “Life On Earth” (1979), I had dreamt of seeing the Mountain Gorilla. That dream has stayed with me for more than 30 years and when I was invited to attend the BirdLife Global Council meeting in Entebbe this November, I knew this was my chance. I didn’t have much notice, so I was worried that the strictly limited permits to see the Gorillas would be sold out.
I contacted “Gorilla Whisperer”, David Agenya, who reassured me it would be possible. “Leave it to me” he wrote. And, after sweating for 48 hours, he replied “Good news. Everything is arranged.”
Luckily, Marie was able to rearrange her work commitments to accompany me and so, on 11th November, we set off from Beijing to Entebbe, via Dubai. I daren’t raise my expectations.. but I was excited… and the feelings I experienced when I first saw that “Attenborough moment” came flooding back.
On our first full day in Uganda, we visited Mabamba Swamp on the edge of Lake Victoria to look for what must be one of the strangest looking birds in the world – the magnificent SHOEBILL. Despite being the size of a toddler, it has a small and thinly-spread population and, together with its habit of standing motionless and silent for hours deep in the swamp, it is often tough to find.
However, after struggling for several hours, we finally found one of these superb birds standing motionless – like a statue – in the swamp. As we paddled slowly towards it, this magnificent bird was unconcerned.. it didn’t even look at us but instead focused on a small patch of water, waiting…. We watched in awe. What a bird! After a few minutes it suddenly thrust its head into the water… Whatever it had targeted escaped and, after a few seconds shaking itself dry, the Shoebill began to walk slowly as if taxiing for takeoff and, sure enough, after throwing us a brief, penetrating stare it began to accelerate and, eventually, this huge beast took to the air to find a new hunting spot. A truly unforgettable encounter.
Mountain Gorillas – The Ultimate Wildlife Experience?
Elated, we began the long journey west to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park to begin the second leg of our Uganda experience. Taking in Queen Elizabeth National Park on the way, where we connected with African Elephant, Water Buck, Impala, Topi and Hippo, we arrived at the excellent Silverback Lodge after 13 hours on the road.
Penetrating The Impenetrable
The next morning will stay with me forever. At 0730, after a 5-minute drive from our lodge, we were at the entrance to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, ready to be briefed before beginning our trek. Gorilla trekking is, admirably, strictly controlled with a limited numbers of tourists being allowed into the park each day, and the time spent with the gorillas strictly limited to a maximum of one hour.
The visitors split into three groups of 8 and we were allocated a guide. David was the head guide and would be leading our group. After the CB radio crackled into life with messages from the trackers, who had headed out at first light to discover the whereabouts of each family, we set off. The trek can be anything from 1 hour to 6 hours each way, depending on the gorillas’ location. We were lucky. The family we were to visit were a little over 90 minutes away and, after a steady but not too taxing hike through the forest, we were on site.
A few hundred metres away from the gorillas we made a base where we left our bags with the porters and prepared ourselves as best we could for what we knew would be a special experience.
Before we had even put down our bags, the dominant male – the so-called “silverback” approached us, almost as if to check us out. He lumbered past, just a few metres away, as we stood in awe, before climbing a nearby tree to join 4 other members of the group. Wow.
David summoned us a little further into the forest where two female gorillas, with young babies (12 and 14 months old respectively) were relaxing on the ground. Words cannot describe how it felt to watch these majestic animals. The mothers were so caring and attentive to the young, cradling them, hugging them, grooming them.. as the playful young clumsily clambered up and down onto their mothers’ backs. It was such a privilege to watch this behaviour at close quarters. Everyone was speechless.
All too soon, our time was up and we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from these gentle creatures. But there was one more treat for us in store. The silverback climbed down from his lofty perch and slumped in front of us as we made our way back to the trail.. providing the group with stunning views. What an experience! We really couldn’t have asked for a more memorable encounter.
It’s now two days since our visit and, as we sit in our hotel lobby in Entebbe ahead of my work meeting, we are still on a high. A little boy’s dream has (finally) come true!
Edit: here is a short video of our encounter (handheld using my Canon EOS7D and a 100mm f2.8 lens).
I cannot recommend Uganda highly enough. A truly wonderful country – appropriately described by Churchill as “the pearl of Africa”. It was heartening to see the gorilla experience extremely well-managed, minimising the stress to the animals and generating funding to ensure the protection of their habitat. The Bwindi National Park authorities spend 18 months to habituate each family of gorillas before allowing tourists to visit and three quarters of the families are deliberately left completely wild. The fact that the gorillas are so relaxed in human company, breeding well and residing so close to the Park HQ says everything about the professionalism and dedication of the staff to put the welfare of the gorillas first. If you are interested in visiting and would like to contact our guide directly, his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.