A sparkling spring day in the Glaslyn Valley

The world has been brought back to life from its long dormant months and rich watercolours of spring are being applied to the once monochrome pencil sketch of the winter valley. The land has burst from its lull and the flush of the new season is washing across the woodlands and fields. Under a clear blue sky the fresh colours are given greater vibrancy as they emerge from the once grey drawn hillsides and valley floor. The scene is wide and open for all to see with the mountains now standing proud, uncovered from their cloak of cloud and mist. The once clawing dampness has been lifted as the warmth is brought back to the land by an ever strengthening sun; but views are deceptive, away from shelter a growing northerly whips away the hope of a perfect day.

Tree by tree and branch by branch the leaves are bringing the wooded hillsides to life. This is not a sudden burst of colour but starts with a series of uneven brushstrokes, slowly picking out new vibrant shades, which gather pace and eventually smother the land in green. Beneath the gradually enclosing woodland canopy, the ground is growing up to meet the sky as the grasses gain strength and the ferns and brackens unfurl their stands. Over the growing richness of the carpeted floor other colours emerge with the bluebells joined by white wood-sorrel and the yellows of the primroses and celandines.

The early new life of the mammals has continued to thrive with the badger cubs making their first forays out from the safety of their set beneath the oak tree. In the old rabbit warren, the fox cubs are also emerging from their den and the riverside holt of the otter has welcomed new kits. In the warmer evenings there are the first stirrings at the back of the abandoned barn as the bats take to the wing to feed in the insect-filled air.

The last of the winter visitors have moved north for their chance to breed in longer hours of light. The whooper swans are making their way up the coasts until leaving land far behind and embarking on their strenuous journey across the wide open ocean to the land of ice and fire. The winter thrushes now turn to spring breeders in their other homes across the water in the Nordic lands and the opening year mass spectacle of starlings is over until the nights draw in again. The lowland visitors no longer bide their time and have returned to their upland breeding grounds with the curlew making its evocative calls over the moorlands and the hen harriers sky dancing in the air above.

Whilst the sights of the winter visitors fade into memory after another season’s close, the influx from the south marks the next season’s opening. The arriving waves of avian life join the residents in bringing new energy to the landscape. In amongst the greening woodland branches the willow warbler, chaff chaff and redstart are all claiming their territories after their long journeys north. They join the others, the great tit, mistle thrush, blackbird and blue tit, all calling out their claims. The first swallows skim low across the damp pastureland as the meadow pipits wander between the clumps of thick rush below. The wrens sing piercingly from their hidden stands and the chaffinches chirp in amongst the riverside undergrowth while the wagtails make their bouncing flight from fencepost to gatepost. The insect life is growing too with the bees moving between the great masses of yellow coconut-scented gorse blossom and the dragonflies busily hunt above the slow moving stream. High above the woods and damp meadowlands the buzzards are calling to one another and the heron floats lazily past, skimming over the treetops and dropping down to the water’s edge.

A first white brown-speckled egg of the year lies deep in the bowl of the large nest at the top of the fir tree across the pastureland and a pair of ospreys have once more started their long watch while they wait for the arrival of new chicks to the Glaslyn.

My first protection shift of the year was very unusual in that it was accompanied by bright, clear blue skies and a strong sun. Anyone who has read my blog posts before will know that I’m often ‘blessed’ with plentiful rain during most of my protection shifts, particularly at the early stages of the season. The weather wasn’t perfect, however, as the warmth of the day was reduced markedly by a strong northerly wind but in shelter, away from the wind, it was lovely.


The early part of the shift was fairly quiet. There was an intruding osprey as I arrived at 10am but little else happened for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. After spending that time out in the forward hide, I returned to the caravan (and its live TV screens) at around 2pm. I’m no expert in osprey body language but when I started watching the screens, I thought the female osprey, ‘Mrs G’, looked a bit uncomfortable and rather than lying in the nest cup was slightly crouching over it. Over the space of a few minutes she shuffled around quite a lot and kept looking towards her rear. She then stood up and the camera, controlled from the viewing site, zoomed in beneath her to reveal not one but two eggs. Not only was I fortunate with the weather today and I had an egg delivery too!

Despite the chilly wind, I ended my shift in my favourite spot, sat on the bridge, dangling my legs over the stream below, watching the water pass beneath – lovely.

Botswana – Okavango Delta: African Painted Dogs

Before I went on my recent trip to Botswana, there was one particular species I really wanted to see: African painted dog (or African hunting dog). Whilst I was really looking forward to seeing many new bird species and plenty of mammals I’ve never seen in the wild before, it was the dogs that I longed to get a sight of. I’ve had a bit of a thing about wolves for a long time now but I think it might be about dogs in general really. I’ve been to Sweden and twice to Spain to find wolves (and been successful in Spain) and the African equivalent has sparked my interest for a long time. Many people want to see the more iconic African animals but I was particularly interested in seeing these less well-known, rare and elusive canines. In my heart of hearts, I had little real hope of seeing them or if I did, I only expected a far off, fleeting glimpse; I was rewarded with something utterly unexpected and truly memorable.


There appears to be some confusion over whether grey wolves are present in Africa with a sub-species of golden jackal having relatively recently been identified as coming from the canis lupus (grey wolf) genetic line. Painted dogs are a canid but are not not part of the lupus line and are an entirely separate species to wolves. However, they appear to me to be typical dogs and have similar social hierarchies to wolves and hunt in similar ways. There are differences though, both in biology and social structure. Painted dogs look very different to wolves and have significantly different dentistry and, opposite to wolves, it is the young females that leave the packs to form new family groups when they get close to breeding age.

As the itinerary for the holiday stated, it would take “a degree of good fortune” to find one of the dog packs in the area I visited but the light of good fortune really did shine strongly on the trip – well at least in dog watching terms. What some may have seen as bad luck had the opposite effect when it came to watching the dogs; the Okavango has had the wettest rainy season since the 1960s and many areas were flooded and impassable while I was there. This did limit the areas that could be visited but also limited the areas that the dogs could be in. Unlike elsewhere in the world where cats hate water and dogs like it, in the Okavango the roles are reversed; the swimming lions of the Okavango are famous. In contrast , the dogs don’t like to get their feet wet and the heavy rains have had a significant effect on them, limiting one of the two local packs to a very small area, made even smaller by a nearby lion pride blocking their exit. I was fortunate that the second camp site I stayed at was right in the midst of the area in which the dog pack was concentrated.


After not seeing the dogs in the first area I stayed, Khwai, it was with amazement that I saw them within a short time after arriving in the second, Moremi. Driving around the area not long before sunset, the time we had to be back at camp (no night driving is allowed in the Moremi national park), one of the group spotted an ear in the grass. As we rounded the corner, we found a pack lounging in the long grass around the base of some small trees taking advantage of the last light of the day. They started to look like they were readying for a hunt as the light began to fail but we had to leave to ensure we were back in camp before dusk fell.

Our next sighting was the following morning when we came across part of the group. The two dogs appeared to be actively hunting and it was a relatively brief sighting as we couldn’t follow them off road. That evening as dark approached and we were returning to camp, we came across two dogs again and when we got the tents we found out that the dogs had been through the camp that day while we were away on a drive. Just before we sat down for our evening meal we could hear the dogs calling to each other and then again later in the evening as I got into bed. The following morning I woke to their calls in the dark and that evening we found the dogs twice in a large open area in the woodlands as we drove around close to camp.

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On the last evening we found the dogs in the same spot as the previous evening and spent a bit of time with them as they rested before they headed out for their nightly hunt. There seemed to be up to nine of them but it was difficult to be sure; when they fully lied down in the long grass they completely disappeared, even those only five metres from the truck. Not long after we arrived, two warthogs passed by with the smaller of the two being very wary while the larger one stood its ground. We weren’t sure that they could see the dogs but they seemed to know something was in the long grass; the dogs were relaxed and seemed indifferent to their presence. Eventually, they wandered off and left the dogs in peace but shortly afterwards a large breeding group of elephants passed through the area. They were obviously on a mission to get somewhere in a hurry as they were moving purposefully. Neither the dogs nor the elephants seemed to notice the others’ presence; if the elephants had known they were in the area, there could have been an interesting interaction – elephants don’t like predators. Again, as we returned to the camp we could hear the dogs calling to each other in the growing darkness and as I woke on my last morning in the Botswanan wilderness, I heard them for the final time.

However, we had one last magical glimpse of the dogs and it came not far into our journey to Maun Airport on the journey home. Bumping along the dirt tracks we suddenly came across three dogs busily sniffing around. They then set off as speed in the direction we were heading, so we kept up with them, despite the bumpiness of the track. They would stop every so often and sniff around an area and then set off purposefully again. Two of the dogs seemed quite oblivious to our presence but the third was much more wary and held back from us, splitting from the two in front. This enabled me to get the photo below. Despite bumping at speed along the track in the safari truck, I managed to get this shot without any camera shake. I love the light in the photo, how it picks out the dog’s eyes and the sand being kicked up as it runs along.

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Eventually, the three came back together and sniffed again around a final spot. At a junction of tracks, they finally parted company with us, heading towards the Khwai area where we had stayed earlier in the week and we went off in the direction of the airport.

Seeing painted dogs on six separate times over the course of the trip was exceptional and perhaps unprecedented. After only having fleeting and distant views of wolves, these sightings the painted dogs, so close and for so long, were a truly magical final gift that I will not forget in a very long time. The dogs, the species I really wanted to see, but had no great expectations of being able to, were truly the highlight of my trip.


Countryside coming to life

I did the second of four breeding bird surveys at Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere reserve this morning.  It was a chilly and slightly damp start but the weather wasn’t sufficiently poor to postpone the visit.

I’ve not been out in the Cheshire countryside much over the last two weeks and it has changed quite a lot with the plants starting to show their spring growth.

Our summer visitors are starting to arrive in good numbers and I recorded grasshopper warbler, willow warbler and swallow for the first time this year but there are still more to come.

Yet again, I didn’t record willow tit, which is disappointing but there are two more visits this spring to find them.

Botswana – Okavango Delta: My Trip

I’m struggling to stay awake writing this post, so I hope it doesn’t have the same effect on the reader! I’ve just got home from my first day back at work after my first visit to Africa; a nine night trip to the Okavango Delta in north -eastern Botswana. After seeing so much about the area on TV (including a Top Gear Special!), it really seemed the perfect place to start – and I wasn’t disappointed. The reason for my tiredness is that I woke around 2:00am (UK time) on Saturday morning, hearing hyena somewhere close by outside my tent, and didn’t go to bed until 11:00pm on Sunday, after going out for a few ‘quiet’ drinks.


My trip started with a mid-evening flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg, South Africa. I was excited enough about the trip but was made even more so by my first flight in a double-decker A380 superjumbo. Went I got to the departure gate and handed in my boarding card, I was concerned with the scanner flashed red and the British Airways gate staff started typing in the computer but I was pleasantly surprised to be given a free upgrade to Premium Economy. The trip seemed to be getting off to a great start! Inside the plane, I was welcomed with a bigger, comfy seat, a glass of sparkling wine and a three course meal. I’m not a good sleeper on planes but managed a bit of shuteye, helped by how quiet the place was. However, I did spend time looking out of the window into the pitch-blackness as we passed southwards over north Africa and beyond, a few settlements appearing every-so-often.

On reaching Johannesburg early on the Saturday morning, I was welcomed by warmth not felt in the UK for some time, having moved from northern hemisphere spring to southern hemisphere autumn. The journey through immigration was slow, despite the early hour but it killed some of the four hours I had to wait at the airport for the connecting flight. I also spent a bit of time looking out of the large window near to the Air Botswana check-in desk, trying to see some of my first African wildlife. The were good numbers of swallows and swifts flying around the outside of the terminal although I struggled to identify them as my Botswana bird book was at the bottom of my luggage.

Eventually, I took off on the second flight, a late morning plane to Maun (pronounced Ma-oon), the gateway town to the Okavango. The flight was a little less comfortable than the first, the 50-seater twin propeller plane certainly had less leg room and the air was a little warmer inside, but after the 11-hour first flight, the two-hours onboard the second seemed to go very quickly. Leaving the plane at Maun, I was immediately hit by the heat coming down from the strong sun and radiating back up from the concrete beneath my feet. In the early afternoon, the temperature must have been in the 30s and it was with a little relief that I got into the terminal, only to be met by a longish wait to get through immigration. Out on the other side, I met the other members of the group and our guide for the week, Kabo or KB for short. We loaded our bags into the trailer and then climbed into the opensided Landcruiser safari truck to start our journey into the Okavango.

We were soon out of the centre of Maun, and onto wide, straight roads with even wider verges dotted with small stalls and, behind, the small breeze-block houses and homesteads became steadily less frequent as we travelled out of the town. The tarmac abruptly ran out and KB switched from two- to four-wheel drive before heading onto the dirt tracks that would take us well away from the town. The wind rushing through the open-sided truck was welcome as it took the edge away from the afternoon heat and the canvas roof kept the strong sun off our heads.

The road certainly wasn’t smooth, more like a washboard, and we often had to slow to manoeuvre around dried up mud pot-holes that looked like they could have swallowed up whole cars when wet. However, after being sat on planes or in airports for the previous twenty-four hours, it was a relief to be out in the open air and moving ever nearer to our first destination. The hours passed quite quickly as we moved on and soon we started to see wildlife (after only seeing cows, goats and donkeys for the first part of the journey). There were plenty of birds, although they were difficult to identify at speed but soon we came across something more obvious and were stopped in our tracks as elephants crossed the road in front of us – we had definitely landed in Africa!
After a few more stops to watch groups of elephant, zebra and giraffe, we neared the first of our two bases for the week; the Khwai Development Trust reserve at the north-eastern edge of the Okavango. As we approached our campsite, we came across our first water-covered track (what was to become a common sight on this trip), which the truck waded through and was still dripping as we arrived at our new home.

In a small clearing were five tents placed under the trees and a large dining table under an awning in the centre, along with a fire surrounded by camping chairs, ready for us to rest in after our long journey. On the opposite side was the kitchen and the camp staff’s own tents. We were each shown to our own tents; large abodes with porch at the front , and inside were a camp bed, with nicely firm mattress, a small table, a small LED light and a line from with to hang clothes. The tent had two large ‘flyscreen’ windows on each side and one on the front, all of which could be blacked out by zipping up a cover, as could the front door. At the back of the tent was a door into the ensuite ‘bathroom’; the roofless room formed by the back of the tent and a three-sided screen included a toilet (a hole in the ground with what looked like an upside-down bin and toilet seat placed on top) and a bucket shower (a large frame holding a metal bucket holding water and a shower head beneath which could be turned on and off). While basic, but more than adequate for me, the bathroom provided some memorable moments; such as popping out for a nighttime visit and sitting looking up at the Milky Way, and finishing my first shower only to realise that I was being observed from an overlooking tree by several keenly observant monkeys (more of them later).

As darkness fell, we sat around the camp fire, sipping our G&Ts or glasses of wine, and then came our first evening meal of our stay. Throughout the trip, I was amazed at what meals the camp staff managed to prepare on an open fire out in the middle of the wilderness. Each evening we had a main course of meat and vegetables followed by a sweet; all very tasty and of very good quality.

As well as making great food, the camp staff were just generally lovely; welcoming us each time we returned to camp and always being around if we needed something. They also had artistic flair, arranging our towels differently each day and making different napkin patterns at each meal. When we returned for lunch on our last day we were amazed that find that they had unexpectedly done our clothes washing for us and it was hanging on washing lines and almost dry. Well, at least they did this for those who had left their dirty washing scattered around the tent rather than packing it away neatly – they only touched the obviously used clothes (sometimes it pays to be untidy!).

Waking on our first morning in the Okavango, we settled into what would become a familiar pattern for the next six days. At 5:30am there was a cheery ‘good morning’ from outside the tent and a delivery of hot water to the wash basin on the porch. We weren’t allowed out of our tents before our water delivery and if there was a delay it would be because there were animals in the campsite and it was better for us to stay inside the tents until they left. Breakfast was at 6:00am (cereals and toast) and we headed out at 6:30am, as the sun was rising, on the first drive of the day. We would return to the campsite after 11:00am, welcomed by the camp staff with hot towels and a drink and at noon was lunch (a hot main course). Then it was siesta time, during the hottest part of the day, until ‘afternoon tea’ at 3:30pm and we went out for our second drive at around 4:00pm. In the Khwai area, night drives are allowed (they aren’t allowed in the Moremi – the second location we stayed in), so on the second and third evenings we stayed out after darkness had fallen, having had a sundowner by the water each time, and then using a spotlight to search for wildlife wandering around in the darkness. After the evening meal at 7:00pm or 8:00pm, we all usually drifted off to our tents for a good night’s rest after long days out in the Okavango.


After three nights in the Khwai area, we moved on for four nights in the Moremi Game Reserve National Park further to the west. The trip occurred at the end of the rainy season in Botswana; in fact looking at the weather forecasts over the last few weeks, the season seemed to end overnight going from endless days of rain to days of constant clear skies. Over the course of the rainy season, the area has experienced rainfall not seen for several decades and the Delta had very high water levels even without all the usual water that flows in from the mountains of Angola which was still on its way. This meant that much less of the Delta was accessible to us than usual and many roads were under water, including the road to our second campsite, resulting in it being inaccessible. The camp staff therefore had to find another site and, due to closed roads, our transfer to the second site was much longer than it usually would be and took most of the day. However, we watched plenty of wildlife on the way and stopped for lunch at one of the national park gateways.

There was so much to see and so much happened that I can’t write about it all in one post, so this is the first of several. However, in this post I can point to some of the highlights of what was a great trip.

The whole experience was a feast for all the senses.

I went to bed each night and woke again each day accompanied by the sounds of nature; from the constant ticking of insects and pipping of frogs, to the calls of the mammals including lions roaring, hyenas laughing and hippos grumbling in the dark. Sometimes the calls were distant but at other times they came from within the campsite and not far from the front of the tent – certainly something to sharpen the senses! It was the cooing of turtle doves, however, that was immediately recognisable to me as the sound of wild Africa, after hearing them so often in wildlife documentaries. However, the calls of other birds were very much part of the constant cacophony we heard; from rhythmic booming of ground hornbills at dawn, to the nocturnal calls of owls and owlets, and the magpie-like chattering of the starlings.


The sense of touch was hit by the temperature changes; the mornings could be quite cool, especially if wearing shorts when out on the open-side safari truck. By mid-morning, however, the strong sun had turned up the heat and in the mid-afternoon it was too hot to do anything energetic (we couldn’t leave the camp for a walk anyway!). By the time evening came, the temperature was pleasant to sit out and dine in and by the time we went to our tents for the night, it was comfortably cool to sleep in and I never needed the heavy blanket on top of my duvet.


The sense of touch was also hit by riding around in the safari truck – not for those who like a nice, smooth ride – we were constantly going over bumps, down dips in the tracks and having to duck as branches thwacked past our heads; all part of the fun though and I think it might have counted as exercise!

The sense of smell was opened up by so many new aromas; from truck driving over the brush and sending up big wafts of wild sage, and the scents of the lush undergrowth in the woodlands, to smells of the muddy water we drove through and the stench of a newly dead impala and the content of its gut hitting us as we searched for its location and that of its leopard killer.


However, it was the sights that were the most extraordinary, from the colourful birds, large and small, the mammals, both prey and their stalkers, to the varied landscapes of lush green woodland, grassland dotted by stands of fossil-like dead trees and waterlands dissected by islands and roadbeds. There were differences between the landscapes in the two areas we stayed within. Whilst they are both part of the wider Okavango Delta and include a lot of the typical water and waterside landscapes, the level of tree cover was distinctly different in areas away from the water. At Khwai, which is more on the edge of the delta, much of the area is covered by open grassland with fewer trees, and of the trees that are there, many were dead, killed by elephants either taking off the bark or pushing them over. The tree cover in the area of Moremi we stayed in was much thicker with deep woodland cover with thick, almost unpenetrable understorey, with sporadic clearings. On the transfer between the two areas there was thick scrubland and further woodland with vast areas brightened by dense patches of yellow flowers.


On our last night we ate our final evening meal with a backdrop of huge clouds that has bubbled-up during the afternoon and giving us a display of huge electric lightning flashes and far off rolls of thunder (thankfully very little rain fell on us during the trip – only a light and short shower one morning).


Whilst an emotion rather than a sense, there was something approaching fear, well maybe that’s a bit strong but certainly some unease. Whilst this was my first safari, it seems to me that camping is a far better way to experience the wilderness of Africa; with only canvas around you and no fences, the wildlife is with you 24 hours a day and you can never be sure what is around the next corner and hiding behind a clump of grass. We had punctures on the safari truck twice in two days and it was slightly unnerving when for the first KB had to change the wheel in the dark having just left a leopard a few hundred metres behind and knowing that lions were in area.

Over the course of the trip we saw nearly 150 species of bird, 24 species of mammal and reptile, and countless insects. My further posts will look at the birdlife and mammals we saw on the trip and also particularly focus on the painted dogs sightings we had – something very special indeed.

Overall, the trip more than met expectations in most aspects, not failing in any, and far exceeding in some. This trip wasn’t a luxury safari lodge holiday, or even African glamping, it was quite basic camping in the wildness (albeit with a nice bed) but the little extra touches made by camp staff sometimes felt like luxuries.


The important thing to recognise about wildlife holidays is that they are unpredictable in many ways, and in Africa I suspect they are even more so. The Okavango Delta is not a zoo, safari park or fenced reserve; it is entirely wild and the wildlife is free to move in and out and the land is not managed so the natural changes in season and weather have effects uncontrolled by man. As such, the experiences can’t be guaranteed and patience is need; it’s best to start off by not expecting to see everything that could be there. Previous trips to the area may have seen more birds and different mammals, but the extreme high water levels, whilst hampering our movement quite significantly, did have a big positive impact for us, something that may have been special to this year only. It concentrated the terrestrial animals into a smaller area, giving us a possibly unprecedented number of sightings of painted dogs – six times in seven days! Knowing that these trips are so unpredictable, for me, brings more excitement and when they go just about perfectly, it’s an added bonus. Even the problems that come up often seem like bonuses to the trip, adding more interest, not detracting from the experience. The people met along the way also add to the experience, the fellow travellers, the happy staff at Maun Airport, the brilliant camp staff, and of course our skilled and knowledgeable guide, KB!


All I can finish with, for the moment, is to say that this may have been my first trip to Africa but it certainly won’t be my last. At the very least I want to go back to the Okavango in the dry season to see how the place changes when the water has gone.


The trip was booked through Naturetrek, with whom I’ve travelled a few times before. The trip was their ‘Botswana – Desert and Delta’ holiday, for which there are mammal or bird focussed variations. I didn’t realise this when I booked and unknowingly put myself on the bird version. As someone with a general interest in all wildlife, I would have been concerned if the trip was just birds but I need not have worried as the holiday covered both birds and mammals, and everyone seemed happy that it was so – after all, it would have been very odd to ignore the mammals when they were so spectacular.

The trip itself was operated by Letaka Safaris, a local Maun company and featured in the ‘Safari Brothers’ TV series on National Geographic (Nat Geo Wild), and for my first safari experience, I don’t think it could have been bettered. The organisation was very good, the service pretty exceptional given we were camping in the middle of the African wilderness and they delivered a brilliant safari experience.