Cape Town Hermanus – Whales and Penguins please

So, our first proper holiday with baby Benjamin. A week in Cape Town and Hermanus with the main aim of seeing some southern right whales (after our failure to do so in Western Australia) and also African Penguins.  It’s the beginning of spring in August in the Western Cape, not peak season for most tourists, but it is a great time to see whales and penguins. The spring weather meant quite a lot of sunshine, not too hot, but with a big temperature drop as the sun went down, and the odd spot of rain.

On our first day in Cape Town we got the help of a local guide, Merryl O’Brien, to help us get a feel for the place. It’s not something we normally would do, but we had Benjamin and we had a lot of questions to ask of a local that we couldn’t seem to find out before we arrived. Merryl took us out of town and down the Cape to Cape Point. On the way down, we saw Cape fur seals in Hout Bay and, before getting Simon’s Town, we spotted a few people by the side of the road looking out to False Bay right by Glencairn railway station. We guessed they had seen some whales and stopped to see if we were correct. Sure enough, we saw a couple of juvenile humpbacks right up close to shore, probably only 50m away from the road itself. We were expecting

some shore-based whale sightings in Hermanus, but not here, so this was a real bonus.

The weather was foul, when we reached Cape Point, so deferred the trip up the funicular railway and the views over the bay that it offered (had the weather been nice) and carried on to the Point itself for the obligatory photo-op by the Cape of Good Hope sign. We were again surprised to see ostriches here, right by the shore, having thought that they lived in more arid climates! We spent the afternoon visiting a couple of vineyards in the Constantia Valley wine region, one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere with some vineyards dating back to the 1680s. First we had lunch at Groot Constantia (the olive, tomato and ricotta ravioli in the Jonkershuis restaurant was incredible) then with a wine tasting at Constantia Glen and their Flagship Tasting, with a mix of reds and whites.

On our next trip out to Simon’s Town, we gain stopped to see the humpbacks at Glencairn, before driving down to Boulder’s Beach to see the penguin colony. The penguins here are African penguins (also known as jackass penguins due to the donkey-like bray that they frequently and loudly emit). After paying a small entrance fee (35 Rand) you walk out onto the boardwalks and are immediately greeted by penguins dotted around the walkways, in the overgrowth and, as you reach the end of the walkway, all over the beach itself. Back in Simon’s Town (home to the South African navy, so you’ll be surrounded by people in uniform) we did a whale-watching trip with Simon’s Town Boat Company. It didn’t take long until we came to some humpbacks again very close to shore, but not the same ones we saw up near Glencairn, and some more fur seals, both in the water and sunning themselves on the rocks.

So, on to Hermanus, where the plan was to see southern right whales every day, either from land or shore. They’re called right whales as they were the “right” whales to hunt. They are big, so you get good returns for your time and money, and they often move slowly and close to the surface, meaning they were easy to catch.  This also means that they should be relatively easy whales to find if you only want to see and take pictures of them.

We booked an apartment near a place called Gearing’s Point in Hermanus which is one of the many whale watching points that are dotted along the Walker Bay coast, all of which can be reached on the Fernkloof cliff path. We stopped off at Betty’s Bay to see the penguins at Stoney Point nature reserve. If anything, the penguins are even better to see here. I can’t explain exactly why, but maybe you’re just a little closer them and sometimes you’re almost eye-to-eye with them.

As we arrived at the car park, right on Gearing’s Point, there were quite a few people gathered around the walls, with cameras or binoculars out. There were whales about and I jumped out of the car to get a look, being rewarded by seeing a southern right breaching probably only 70 metres or so from me. Unfortunately we had to go and check into our apartment so the viewings were cut short. In the afternoon, we did a land-based tour along the coast to some of the best whale-watching spots with local whale watcher, expert and photographer, David de Beer. We spotted quite a few southern rights as we explored these points along Walker Bay a then took a drive up to a view point on top of the hills for a spectacular view over Hermanus and Walker Bay as the sun began to set.

We spent the rest of the week doing various boat trips from Hermanus New Harbour (Hermanus Whale Cruises and Southern Right Charters), but our planned cage-diving with sharks trip was cancelled due to choppy seas. Instead we did a Big Marine 5 tour with the same company, https://www.whalewatchsa.com/Dyer Island Cruises, where we spotted another humpback, penguins, loads of fur seals, albatross and Heather even saw a sunfish, but no sharks (apart from one shadow underwater of a bronze whaler shark.  Apart from that first day, we didn’t really see any other whales from the shore, but on our walks along the cliff path we saw plenty of birds, including a cape sugarbird and some fiscal shrikes. We also saw what we think was a cape mongoose, along with lots of the dassies (or rock hyrax) that are common around the Cape.

All in all, our mission was accomplished, we saw the southern rights (sometimes with some nice breaching and often very close) and we saw hundreds of penguins. Everything else was a bonus, including the great food and local wines and beers (Old Harbour I’m looking at you), with the spectacular setting of Bientang’s Cave Restaurant, right at the foot of the cliffs in Hermanus, with the waves crashing against the rocks next to you being a particular favourite.

So, what’s next?

Inverness and the Moray Firth

So, a flying visit…literally.

An Easyjet flight up to Inverness on a Friday night, 2 nights in Nairn and a flight back to Gatwick on Sunday evening, all with a 4 month-old baby? Sounds crazy, but we had heard about the Scottish Dolphin Centre a while back, where you can potentially see bottle-nosed dophins from the shore and decided we had to go.

The Scottish Dolphin Centre is run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) charity, through which Heather has adopted one of the dolphins, Spirit. It sits on the mouth of the River Spey in a former salmon fishing station. We started the day with a tour of the ice house where, as the name implies, was used to store ice for preserving the salmon back in the day. The ice house is now used for exhibitions and “dry dives”, where videos of underwater wildlife is shown. After a nice lunch in the centre, we went on a guided wildlife walk (2.15pm, April 1st to October 31st) with Adam, one of the guides.

The walk, started with some time looking for dolphins from the centre, but alas with no luck, so we headed along the river spotting huge number so gulls and other seabirds. Soon after something spooked them and sure enough 2 osprey appeared from up river. We trekked along the river looking for otters, but again nothing this time. After the tour, Heather and I went further down the river and crossed the old railway bridge, now converted to be part of the national cycle network and as we crossed, another osprey came over head.

After the Dolphin centre, we drove to a few other places along the firth where there is supposed to be good chances of seeing more wildlife, Portgordon for seals, Burghead (dolphins from the Burghead Visitor Centre – a former coastguard lookout) and Hopeman East Beach (dolphins again), but had no more luck. That was the enough for day one, so head back to our apartment in Nairn for dinner and good nights sleep.

Sunday morning, we drove down to the Clansman’s Harbour for a boat trip on Loch Ness with Jacobite cruises. We just did a short trip from the harbour to Urquhart Castle and back, but it was enough to get a good feel for the Loch and to hear all the stories about the fabled monster. We had some time to kill following the cruise so we drove a few miles down the road to the Loch Ness Centre for an immersive exhibition about the monster and all the attempts down the years to prove whether or not it really exists. Let’s just say, it is unlikely!

Our last activity for the weekend was a wildlife cruise with Dolphin Spirit from Inverness Marina. Dolphin Spirit offer two tours, one on the Dolphin Spirit which is more sedate and another on Dolphin Mischief, a RIB, for the more adventurous. With our little one, we were on the Dolphin Spirit this time around, but otherwise we would probable have taken the RIB. It was a nice trip, no dolphins again, but we saw some grey seals, some cormorants and a common tern.

It was a great weekend, with beautiful coastlines and countryside, lovely people, nice food and some nice wildlife spotting, but no dolphins this time round. However, it was enough to make us want to go back, for a week at least next time!

Wildlife on your doorstep – Fox cubs in the garden

If you had seen my last post, you will have seen why we haven’t been travelling much recently, however the last week has shown us that you don’t need to go very far to see interesting wildlife and more than that, you don’t even have to leave your property.

We live in Wallington, South London and although it’s not the centre of the metropolis, it’s not exactly rural either. My wife had bought me a trail camera, or camera trap for my birthday in January and I was waiting for a chance to use it. A few weeks ago, whilst looking for something in the garden shed, i heard a few mewing noises, seemingly coming from underneath or at the back of the shed. This, along with the freshly dug hole under the side of the shed led me to believe that a vixen had made her den there. So, this was an excellent opportunity to set up the trail camera and see if I could discover if my hunch was correct. I set up the camera about a month ago and waited. I checked it a few times and all i had was a few images of the vixen, but when I checked again on Sunday, was rewarded with these images of mother and at least 4 cubs making their first playful steps out and about the world.

I’m not sure what the white thing is that mother and cubs had in their mouths, but it looks like it made a great first toy.

I’ve put the camera back up, hanging from the washing-line pole and see what else i can capture in the coming weeks.

The elusive lynx, 4th time lucky!

Watching wildlife does not often result in instant gratification. It requires patience and, even when surrounded by natural beauty, can lead to long days of disappointment. However, when you do find what you’ve been looking for, that frustration is forgotten and you feel like you have earned that moment of wonder.

We have been trying to see lynx for a few years. We had previously spent seven days in the Carpathians Mountains in Romania and five in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus looking for Eurasian Lynx and made a trip to Donana National Park in southern Spain looking for their smaller Iberian cousins, all without success. So to start 2019 we headed back to Spain and to the Sierra de Andujar Natural Park in Andulusia, home to largest population of this rare and endangered creature in the Iberian peninsula.  To make sure that we had the best possible chance of success, we booked a five day tour with Iberian Lynx Land, a local nature and eco-tour company.

After driving to the Natural Park from Seville and checking into our hotel, La Caracola Hotel Rural (included in the tour price), we met up with Jose Luis, who was to be our guide. Straight away took us in his 4×4 up in to the Sierra Morena mountains to begin our adventure. We soon saw a car stopped by the side of the road and we decided to check on what had caught their eye and were happy that we did, as there was a cute Little Owl perched on a boulder in a field. We headed off again, passing dozens of people lining the road that wound around the range, with their scopes, long lenses and binoculars who were also hoping to see the “gato” as the locals seem to refer to the lynx.  Jose Luis said we’d be joining them later on, but first we were off to the hydro-electric dam for lunch and to see what else we could see. As we sat and had lunch by the river, Jose Luis set up his scope and spotted saw some ibex on the cliffs on the opposite bank. We then checked out a tunnel next to the dam and, with the use of a torch, saw a barbastrelle bat and some greater mouse eared bats. After lunch, it was back to the road-side watch points and we joined the crowds in their hope of spotting a lynx.   We spent the rest of the afternoon sat by the road, looking down across the valley with our binoculars, looking for movement or shapes in the shadows and listening out for the cat calling out or magpies in distress. After many hours, the sun slowly sank behind the far hills and called time on day one.

Early the next morning, Jose Luis picked us up again and we drove out to a different dam. It was cold, minus two, as we walked on to a bridge over the river. Almost straight away Jose Luis spotted an otter down stream, so we headed that way for a closer look. We watched as this otter ate his fish breakfast on a rock and then saw a couple more as they swam across the mist-laden water. We stayed for a while longer, but then is was time to try to find our little big cat back at the roadside watch points. We spent another eight hours on the roadside and we saw Spanish Imperial Eagles, a Black Vulture, a number of Griffin Vultures, Red Deer and Fallow Deer, but alas, again no lynx. It was beginning to feel like another of those trips where we would end up being frustrated, even though we had seen some lovely animals.

Day three would surely be different, especially as we would not be going back to the public watch points, but have access to a private estate which was part of a habitat enhancement project and frequented by a number of lynx. The project attempts to make the land more habitable for rabbits, which make up 70% of the Lynx’s diet, and therefore improving the environment for the Lynx. We drove round the estate slowly and soon heard some magpies calling in distress off to our left. We parked up and kept a watch in our mobile “hide”. After a few minutes, a lynx jumped down on to the road, not from our left but from the right hand bank of the road and strolled slowly across in front of us. I managed to take a couple of snaps before she disappeared in to the overgrowth. Finally, we had seen a lynx and so close too. Yes, the moment only lasted a matter of seconds, but we felt lucky to see this beautiful creature.

We spent the rest of the day on the estate with no more luck and, to be honest, in spite of our many hours both back on the estate and on the roadside we did not manage to see another cat. Was it worth it? Yes of course! These are truly incredible animals and to finally see one was very special.

 

 

 

 

Seeing the deer rut at Knepp

Those of you who follow the blog (not many I grant you), may have noticed that we go to the Knepp re-wilding project quite often. It’s just an hour’s drive from home and has a lot to see. However, this was our first time in the deer rut season.

Knepp is divided in to 3 “blocks”, the northern block, the middle block (where the owners of Knepp, the Burrells, country house is) and the southern block. All of our previous visits have been to the Southern block as that is where the camp site is and where most of the other “safaris” take place. We had previously walked through the middle block, but this was our first proper visit there.

We arrived for 8.30am on a very cold and frosty Saturday morning and was greeted by the site of a stag in the mist as soon as we drove through the gates and on to the estate. This was a sure sign of a great morning ahead.

Darren started off by giving us a presentation on the project at Knepp, about all of the different species on the site and how they all contribute to bringing the site back to a relatively natural and sustainable state. As well as all of the fantastic mammals on site, Knepp is home to a large (and growing) population of purple emperor butterflies, scarcely seen turtle doves and tuneful nightingales. However, it was deer rut season and we were there for the deer!

Darren told us about the three species of deer that call Knepp home, these are (in size order, smallest first) roe deer, fallow deer and red deer, the largest land mammal in the UK. I have to say I learned quite a lot in this introduction to deer. For example, did you know that fallow deer have twice been hunted to extinction in Great Britain and twice been reintroduced by foreign invaders? First by the Romans and then by the Norman conquerors who brought them over to form deer parks. Or that a deer’s antlers, even the really big ones, grow annually in the space of only 2 or 3 months.  Also, did you know that many terms used in common English today find their roots in the life-cycle of deer? For example “prick” comes from a buck in their second (or prickets) with unbranched antlers who generally behave like a nuisance or “pricks” in the rutting season.

Anyway, once the presentation was over, we piled into the ex-Austrian army transport that the guys at Knepp use for their safaris. We set off into the cold and soon found a herd of red deer, a large stag and his “harem” of hinds. The stag was in his element, grunting, roaring and sniffing the air. However, after just a few minutes a huge stag with antlers which seemed to be 6-foot across appeared. He looked like he had come straight out of an advert for scotch whisky. Our previously confident stag, knew he was no match for the newcomer and slowly sloped off, looking back ruefully every few steps. Although two males will fight over the right to mate, it is a last resort, they would rather not risk injury or death if they can help it.

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The victorious stag

Next we headed out to find the fallow deer. The mating rituals of the fallow deer differ from the red deer in that they lek. “What’s a lek?” I hear you say. A lek is where the males congregate in mating area, each claiming their own piece of territory (which they return to every year), scraping the soil and urinating in the area making it as attractive to the does as possible. The does will then come over the most desirable male to mate. We saw a number of males, each in their own lek groaning and calling out. We stopped there for a while, getting out of the truck and consuming the provided tea and sausage baps, which were very welcome on such a cold morning.

The safari finished with a drive round some of the other interesting feature in the middle block, the ruins of the old Knepp Castle, the old iron mill pond (now home to a number of water fowl) and the new Knepp castle, home to the Burrells).

It was great to see these mating behaviours for the first time and we’re looking forward to going back to Knepp again sometime next year.

Looking for wolves and lynx in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus, and getting stuck in the mud.

“I’m stuck” Heather said as I came to a stop in the mud behind her. As I stood there, I felt myself sinking deeper into the “dry” riverbed. The cloying mud was now up to the top of my wellies and I tried to lift one foot. No. And then the other, not a chance.

I was stuck too.

We had arrived in the Naliboki Forest earlier that morning after an hour and a half drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We were greeted on arrival by Irina and her husband Vadim, who was to be our guide over the next 3 and a half days. Vadim and Irina run the Naust Eco Station, deep in the forest.

We were in Belarus to see the diverse range of mammals that exist in the Naliboki Forest, a huge, complex habitat that is home to wolves, lynx, bison, elk, deer, wild boar, beavers and a whole range of other creatures. Vadim is a professor of zoology at the University of Minsk who has switched to conducting full-time research in the field, much of which is funded by organising these eco-tourism trips. There were only three of us for most of this long-weekend, with another hardy-soul joining us for the last day and a half, although Vadim does have groups of up to 16, especially on the longer trips, which can be a week or two long.

Vadim is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, always with a story to tell or an opinion to offer on where the world is going wrong, but it’s clear that he has a passion for the forest and the research he is conducting that will help to understand the forest, it’s animal inhabitants and hopefully help to preserve them both.

The forest is also home to a number of people (including Vadim and Irina themselves), with a smattering of villages and homesteads dotted around. Although these numbers of dwindling with many houses in villages only occupied at weekends and houses deep within the forest are lived in by people in their 80s whose children have long since been attracted by life in the city. These homes will be abandoned when their occupiers pass away and they will be left to gradually fade and be consumed by the forest.

Although these trips are for paying visitors, you are just there for the ride. It is clear that Vadim would be out there driving and hiking through the forest daily, checking his 50 or so camera traps and collecting data for his books and papers whether you were there or not.

Each of the days was fairly typical in format, but visiting different parts of the forest, with different sites and environments to see and, of course with any sort of wildlife watching adventure, with random chance playing its part on what creatures you may see.

Each morning started early (pre-dawn) with a home-cooked breakfast, always with something hot, such as the traditional and delicious syrniki (a kind of thick pancake made with cottage cheese), supplemented by cereal, fruit and coffee or tea.  This would then be followed by a drive in one of Vadim’s 4×4 cars to one of the open field areas within the forest, with the morning being one of the best times to possibly spot wolves, lynx, bison, elk or deer. This was followed by one of two daily hikes, typically 8km in the morning and 4-5km in the afternoon, into different parts of the forest to check on Vadim’s camera traps, checking what it has been snapped and replacing batteries. These walks traversed through different landscapes, from dense forest treks, to river beds, alongside reed-trimmed canals or across open fields. All of these walks are pretty tough and Vadim, a natural woodsman, sets a spritely pace, with the thick foliage, deep mud or uneven ground all contributing to slow and difficult progress.

The day would then finish once darkness has set in, by searching out at a likely wolf spot and with with Vadim re-creating his best wold-howl and listening to see if they would respond.

Lunch was often prepared by Vadim himself over a wood-fire out in the woods, offering the chance to fuel up and have a rest before the next trek, and dinner would be prepared by Irina in the evenings, these included traditional Belarusian beans and pulses, sausages, salads and fried potatoes. Beer and a local spirit was also always on the table!

Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves or lynx on this trip. They are both elusive creatures, but we did see signs of them, including scat, tracks, bones of prey and “wolf cub toys” and we saw incredible images of them on the camera traps. However, we were lucky to see bison, elk, red deer, roe deer, a wild boar, capercaillie, a great grey owl, a spotted eagle, a peregrine falcon and a grass snake in 3 and a half days.

My wellie, stuck in the Naliboki mud
My wellie, stuck in the mud…

And the mud? After a couple of minutes of “no-show” Vadim came back to see where we were, to be confronted by Heather and myself almost up to our knees in mud. First he took many photos of our predicament and then helped us, bootless, out onto the river bank. Our boots were then literally dug out by hand. It was embarrassing enough to be stuck in the mud, but not as much it happened to me again on the way back 20 minutes later!