The deepest of greens, the brightest of blues and richest of browns, birds come in a stunning variety of sizes and colours. They chirp, twitter, chirrup and cheap, squawk, croak and whistle. If there was a prize for the species with the widest ranges of noises, surely they’d win hands down! Or beaks up! I was so excited when John’s daughter Natasha pitched up at the house and we bundled into the car on this cloudy grey day to visit the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust site in Arundel, West Sussex. The Trust has spent many years protecting the wetland landscapes and conserving the thousands of species who rely on it or live in it. Like the Whirligig Beetle who looks like a shiny black opal that gyrates around the surface of the water looking for aquatic insects to feed on. If you think the word Whirligig is amusing, there are lots of funny named creatures in the wetlands. See if you can spot the Taiga Bean Goose in the photos, a speckled brown bird with striped wings and an orange patch on her beak.
Surges of adrenalin coursed through my veins every time I saw the flicker of a wing or heard the splash of water but I knew to keep my distance from the vibrant wildlife given my appearance as a sleek black predator. If only the birds and mice knew that I’m a sophisticated feline who jointly runs a photography business and has an active interest in the caring for all things nature. As I hopped over the gaps in the wooden slats of the walkway and headed towards the thatched hide, a pair of Brent Geese floated regally by on the water, their reflections perfectly captured in the shallows beneath. I peeked through the thick pallid winter reeds to spy on a lapwing cruising towards the bank with his fabulous feathered crown standing proudly at the back of his black head. Suddenly John whispered to me to look up and there a Canada Goose hurtled towards me from the skies above. I ducked my head down and ran away as she landed on the water with an enormous splash, quickly regaining her composure before gliding off with relative grace.
The handsome Kingfisher is one of my favourite birds, smartly dressed in blue and orange and contrasting with the pair of Shoveler Ducks with their shovel-like bills that were drifting elegantly by. A Curlew paddled across the sandy wet terrain looking for worms and seeds to eat whilst a pair of Mallards with their characteristic blue stripe on their sides headed towards the long dry grass in search of a cosy corner to spend the night. The trees and bushes provided camouflage for many perching birds like the Blue Tits who weigh a tiny 10g and somehow don’t get blown away by the winds. The slightly larger Great Tit was staring at the freckled Dunnock who had spotted a bug crawling along the branch below and I felt like there was going to be a rumble! Meanwhile a Chaffinch puffed its pale pink-beige chest out in envy at the Long-tailed Tit who had found a yummy piece of suet just seconds before. The red, yellow and brown Goldfinch kept his beady eyes on the log mound decorated with 3 giant Stag Beetle replicas. I sat by the log mound for a rest and started chatting to a delightful little bank vole who told me she scampers to the back of the kitchens every night for crumbs and morsels of food which set me thinking about supper. Natasha has incredible stamina and could have gone around the Centre one more time but John and I voted for home via an eating establishment after a wonderful day out.
I heard a rumour on the cat grapevine about some 8 week old clouded leopard cubs going on display to the public for the first time in an animal park that has a proven track record in conservation. And by conservation I mean active involvement in ensuring that wild animals live free in healthy habitats and stay protected from all forms of hunting and poaching. I was particularly excited about these cubs because the clouded leopard with its rapidly declining numbers is shrouded in mystery. Native to the Himalayan foothills through mainland Southeast Asia and into China, this charismatic spotted cat is among the most secretive and least understood cat species in the world. So I was curious to meet them and hoping to get a few tips on ideal napping locations and effective food acquisition techniques. So John and I took a trip to visit these clouded leopard cubs and their mum far from home in her wooded enclosure.
I surveyed her compound searching high and low for this elusive creature and wondered whether she would be happy to see a kindred spirit, albeit a smaller domesticated one. But her reputation for blending into the background was spot-on and in her natural environment the cloud-like smudges on her coat provide the ultimate camouflage in the dappled light of the forest. I remembered that she is arboreal meaning that she is adapted to living in the trees so I scanned the boughs of the foliage in her pen and there I saw a pair of eyes watching me inquisitively through a gap in the twigs. They belonged to a plump joyful clouded-leopard cub that climbed upside down along the branch it was on and descended head first like a squirrel to the ground. Another precious bundle of fluff came creeping along behind, a little more shy I thought, closely followed by the broad paws of mum looking out for her offspring. It was charming to watch the two youngsters wrestling with each other, leaping clumsily over each other and practising their vocalisations which sounded like squeaky growls and snorts. It reminded me of the innocence of my childhood before I was wise to the ways of the world and I hoped that these two would grow up strong and happy and able to contribute to the survival of this extraordinary species.
The health of clouded leopards in captivity has historically been poor due to inadequate housing, exposure to zoo visitors and proximity to resident large predators. But clouded leopard research and conservation projects have led to a better understanding of their needs and decent zoos now provide more spacious enclosures with multiple nest boxes at a variety of heights to reduce stress. While the clouded leopard cubs cavorted around, their mum showed me how she sleeps on thick branches on her belly with her paws dangling over the sides in what she calls the ‘downward dog’ position. The trick is to keep your body straight which allows for balance and ensures you don’t fall off. She also recommended food based enrichment activities which she said were fun and helped her young develop their hunting skills. So I vowed to be more cooperative next time John got my biscuit ball out or put some of my dinner on the puzzle feeder. It was soon time to depart and the zoo was keen to limit the amount of time these guys spend around humans so I wished her all the luck in the world. Perhaps these little fledglings will one day form part of a reintroduction into the wild where they can live without threat from wildlife traffickers and the exotic animal trade.
Its nose is much longer and stronger than mine although mine is better at picking up scent, its ears are much bigger and flappier than mine although mine can swivel, and its tail is much lengthier and bristlier than mine although mine can puff up when I’m startled. You’d be hard pushed to find any similarities between my furry feline form and the gracious grey bulk of an elephant, but my fascination with these gentle giants from the elephantidae family go back a long way. It could be the delicate balance of strength and gentility that intrigues me, or the emotional intelligence and supportive social activities of the herd that is so beguiling. To satisfy my elephant infatuation, I watch nature documentaries on the television with John and I follow the stories of the Asian elephants rescued by the animal welfare charity Wildlife SOS in India.
Most recently the story of Rhea, a 53 year old circus elephant kept chained to one concrete spot unless she was performing unnatural tricks for her ignorant audience. Rhea lived with 2 other elephants called Mia and Sita for decades and would have formed strong emotional bonds with these elephants while they were trapped together in those miserable conditions. Mia and Sita were rescued in November last year by Wildlife SOS and taken to their Elephant Care and Conservation Centre in Mathura near New Delhi but due to legal complications, Rhea was left behind. Alone for 5 months without her best friends she must have doubted she would ever see them again but Wildlife SOS worked tirelessly and never forgot the promise they made to her to return and secure her freedom. Finally in April the elephant ambulance made the 350km trip back to Tamil Nadu to rescue Rhea and reunite her with her companions. I remember watching the video of that magical moment when she saw her ‘sisters’ again, their heads came slowly together and their trunks intertwined, eyes twinkling with delight. The 3 elephants in these pictures are Mia, Sita and Rhea and they enjoy spending every moment of their days together as they recover from their years of sorrow and pain, deprived of food and water and beaten into submission. Now they have shade and sand, food and veterinary care, and their own private paddling pool.
Most of the elephants at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Centre are taken for long walks every day by their keepers where they can be free to explore their surroundings and experience soft earth under their feet often for the first time in years. Unfortunately most of the elephants have painful foot conditions that require daily treatment because of the abnormal lives they endured before. Rhea would have spent years on her feet never being allowed to lay down which might be why I love to look at the picture of her laying by her sand pile with her 2 friends Mia and Sita beside her, able to relax and take a snooze for the first time in decades. She snores by the way!
Looking after the elephants is hard work – preparing 25 kg of fruit and 100 kg of fodder per elephant per day takes an awful lot of chopping, bundling and carting around. The keepers also hoist bunches of fodder up to the rafters to mimic the trees and the elephants love to stretch their trunks high to grab the juiciest bits. Phoolkali puts the huge reeds of grass into her mouth with her trunk and strips the leaves off which she chews happily while she discards the tough stem. She also enjoys sugar cane treats along with her walking buddy Asha who also loves peanuts. Talking of peanuts, 6 year old Peanut (seen here with her devoted keeper) is the youngest elephant to be rescued by Wildlife SOS also from a circus, although many of the elephants were liberated from desperate lives as begging elephants or tourist attractions, being ridden by holidaymakers who clearly had no idea of the monstrous treatment an elephant receives in order to become compliant. Now these magnificent and forgiving animals have a chance to be who they are, to get wet every day and flick sand on their backs and bellies, to chomp on thirst-quenching fruit and snuggle with their friends.
These chimpanzees are residents at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, a zoo and safari park owned by the Zoological Society of London, a charity dedicated to the conservation of wildlife across the planet. At the beginning of the 20th century there was estimated to be a global population of one to two million chimps. Sadly there are now fewer than 300,000 living in the wild which is why these chaps are living out the rest of their days in captivity. Although they will never know the wild where they belong, they are expertly cared for by the staff at the zoo and they play a vital role in educating people about the plight of these little rascals. The diminishing number of monkeys in the wild is due mainly to habitat loss, human/wildlife conflict and the wildlife trade. There are some bizarre humans out there who think that keeping a wild animal in their conservatory or a cage in the back yard is a good idea. So if these primates go extinct in the wild, the animals in this zoo could end up keeping the species alive.
If this bunch of groovy reprobates were to re-populate their species, there might be an extra dollop of crazy in their DNA! At one point, they were all sitting around quietly hugging and grooming each other when one of the youngsters got bored and darted across the enclosure on all fours like a bucking bronco! He reminded me of how a cat looks when it does that silly galloping see-saw run at another cat before shooting off in another direction. So this monkey stops to make sure that someone is looking before he continues to entertain his audience by rolling around on the floor and doing cartwheels.
I was captivated by this little fella whose expressions and behaviour reminded me my little niece and nephew when they come over with my auntie to look after me when John is at work. It is well documented that chimps and humans share as much as 98% of their DNA which makes chimp DNA closer to a human’s than to a gorilla’s. The young chimp caught me staring at him and scurried towards his climbing frame so I decided to join in the fun and I ran along the edge of the enclosure in the same direction. He scrambled to the top of the frame as though he wanted to be higher than me so I scampered back the other way and hid behind John’s camera bag. The monkey started flicking his head from side to side, ducking it down as though looking for me and making funny exaggerated movements with his lips without making a sound. I reappeared from behind the bag and the other monkeys started laughing and the little one got all embarrassed and hurried back to the group to hide behind his mum. Then we saw the keeper arrive with a box of fruit and leaves and we knew it was snack time. Unfortunately there was nothing for me in the box but I had a sneaking suspicion that John had a few of my special protein biscuits hidden somewhere and I was determined to get my cheeky chops on them!
Hidden at the back of a garden centre in Horsham is a beautifully kept lawn bordered by fragrant honeysuckle, purple violets and pretty pink rhododendrons. As you walk around the garden, you can view a collection of wonderful birds, each with a story to tell. John and I visited Huxley’s a couple of years ago but we decided to return last weekend to see Huxley himself and support the efforts made by the staff and volunteers who care for the residents. The humans dedicate their time building trust with the birds, training and flying them, cleaning the aviaries, weeding the paths and carrying out lots more not so glamorous work required to keep the centre functioning and ensure the welfare of the birds.
In an aviary at the top of the garden is a 42 year old eagle owl called Huxley who presides over the staff and the rest of the birds with dignity. As I ambled towards him, he fixed me with his piercing gaze and sounded that uniquely soulful hoot that said he recognised me straight away. We exchanged a look of mutual understanding – two animals, wild at heart, living in a world where we relied on kind humans for our care. I wondered how Huxley had ended up in an aviary and felt grateful that he was prepared to be on display to show people how handsome he is and help educate them about the ways of owls. The birds at Huxley’s have arrived from various places. Some were injured in the wild and many of these are taken to another location away from public viewing where they are treated and rehabilitated for release back into their natural habitat. Some birds cannot be returned to the wild such as the falcons that have been illegally bred as hybrids (unnatural crosses with different species of falcons) and are not allowed to be released as they might contaminate the natural breeding stock.
Huxley – 42yrs old
Igor (another eagle owl) was found tied down in his owner’s garden being buffeted about in a rainstorm. He was obtained as a 4 month old by someone with no understanding of his needs and kept in a shed before being tethered in a garden for years with a poor diet and no opportunity to exercise. In poor physical condition and lacking the skills required to survive in the wild, Huxley’s took him in and began his journey back to health and happiness. The staff said that owl feathers are not waterproof so poor Igor must have been very cold that night he was rescued in the rain and it took 2 or 3 years for Igor to regain his trust of humans. So I was chuffed to bits when he appeared with one of the keepers sitting calmly on his arm while everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at his soft feathers and fluffy belly.
Huxley’s practice the principles of falconry with the captive birds in their care and are careful to ensure that each bird only does what it is comfortable and willing to do. This gives the birds the chance to engage in some of their natural behaviours and the opportunity for people to watch and learn. Some of the more confident birds were brought out one by one to give us a great demonstration of their flying and swooping skills. A lovely barn owl showed me how to catch the lure (an imitation of a prey animal used to entice the bird) and one of the hawks showed me a clever way to make sure no one pinches your food. It’s called mantling – a special posture that involves using the wings to shield their prey from other birds. I don’t have wings and there are no predators at home trying to steal my food, nevertheless it pays to be ready for any eventuality! As John and I said goodbye, a busy worker bee buzzed past me on his way to collect pollen from the geraniums and the kookaburra laughed haughtily as I asked John to pick me up and put me in my basket. I was one tired pussy cat.
Red squirrel numbers have been dwindling for many years in this country since the introduction of the grey squirrels that are more adaptable and carry more body fat so they can survive longer winters. That must be why I have a little round tummy, it’s in my genes! Anyway, the greys were introduced from North America in 1876 apparently and they carry a virus which has also contributed to the red squirrels’ decline. There are a few projects underway in the UK to support the growth of the red squirrel population and you can find out more about this on the Red Squirrel Survival Trust website. How cute is that? They’ve got a website! They’ve even got royalty supporting them. And I’m not talking about Alan Titchmarsh! Although some might say he is a gardening supremo and he certainly does his bit to support British wildlife.
The reds in these pictures live at the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey and were so adorable that I had to write about them. As I went through the double gates after John, they must have all been hiding because the enclosure was lacking in squirrels, apparently they don’t like the wet and the cold. I saw a few chaffinches in the branches of the leafy green oak trees and some little Muntjac deer rummaging around in the undergrowth. Suddenly my feline hearing picked up the scraping of tiny feet and one by one, red squirrels started to appear on the grass. Several of them climbed up to the fence to get a good look at me, their little pink noses twitching with curiosity as they fixed me with their beady black eyes. They seemed to use their tufty ears to express how they were feeling, just like I do, and they dedicated a large amount of their time burying the food that the keeper was giving them. I watched them scurry along to a well-chosen spot, look around, then pretend to bury their nuts before scurrying off to another patch of ground to bury their grub for real. This clever little strategy is a good way to put the competition off the scent and stop the others stealing their supplies. Let’s hope they remember where the nuts are buried!
Not many animals can grow themselves a pair of earmuffs every winter to keep their ears warm. But the attractive ear tufts of the red squirrel are only required during the winter months and are molted in time for summer, ready to sprout again the following year. I have tufty bits on my ears but they don’t shed and spread according to the season. Still, I’m not jealous! Anyway, if I want warm ears, John puts a woolly beanie on my head, which never goes down well because it messes up my coiffure! The super-friendly red squirrels roam free in the walk-through enclosure and there were also some young ones called kittens can you believe. I watched them hurtle across the trees and climb up John’s leg and one of them sat on his backpack and nibbled a toggle in case it was a nut. They didn’t have to wait long for food when the keeper came with a bag of sunflower seeds, pine-nuts, apples and carrots. It’s a myth that red squirrels eat acorns because in fact the acorn is difficult for the squirrel to digest. Sadly they are very few in numbers thanks to the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America. Not the poor old grey squirrel’s fault of course, but they carry a virus that is lethal to reds and have a tendency to gobble up the food before it matures enough for the reds to eat.
The British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield (Surrey) was the location of my tour of Britain’s nature and it was a fabulous opportunity to see a great collection of species native to the country including buzzards, eagle owls, adders, badgers, Muntjac deer and the endangered water vole. The dinky little stoats and weasels were only around 7-10cm long and as cute as buttons but apparently they are voracious little carnivores and you wouldn’t want to stick your paw out to one of them. Stoats, weasels, polecats, mink and pine martens are members of the ‘mustelid’ family and have all faced persecution by being hunted for their fur. But they are feisty little critters and a few escapees are starting to re-populate numbers in the wild. Unlike the meek and mild hedgehog who are becoming increasingly rare in the UK’s gardens and hedgerows. I was lucky enough to watch Turbo, a zippy little spikey thing with the tiniest of noses scuttle around in the grass with her keeper, showing us all how delightful hedgehogs are. John and I were so moved by their plight for survival that we are now making a few adaptations to the garden to make it a hedgehog friendly place.
As John and I continued our strolls around this wonderfully natural place, I stopped suddenly, sensing the close proximity of a family relative. I expected to see fearsome felines as I stalked my way to the Scottish wildcat enclosures, creeping slowly round the corner on my haunches, keeping my head low to the ground as my eyes darted left to right. But instead of terrifying, the 3 quiet striped tabby cats with bushy ringed tails in front of me were really quite pretty and surprisingly small. My posture changed to that of a confident moggy with a swagger in his step and a flick in his sleek black tail. But my cockiness was soon replaced by a healthy respect when I found out that although they have pink noses and white whiskers and are the same size as me, their species dates back to pre-history and they are completely untamable. Domestic cats like me are descended from the African wildcat and have developed a certain understanding with our human companions, but the Scottish wildcat is truly wild and walked this land for millions of years before mankind arrived or domestic cats even existed. Even sadder then to find out that they are on the brink of extinction thanks to hunting and habitat destruction. Once found across the British mainland, they are now confined to the Scottish Highlands and number as a few as 300. The cats at the Centre represent pure stock and have been identified as suitable for a captive breeding programme aimed at reintroduction to the wild. In the meantime, they are being well cared for at the Centre and I noticed that all the animals lived in paddocks and pens that reflect their natural habitats, the drinking water in every enclosure was clean, and it was clear that the focus of the Centre was the animals. So good luck my little furry friends and I hope you prosper!