2017 was a year of spectacular wildlife experiences, creating inspiration and reflection to underscore how fortunate I am to travel the world in a “job” that I love. I’m delighted to highlight some of my favorite memories with you, in these stories and photos.
I spent much of the first quarter of the year on my favourite continent, Africa! Safaris in East Africa feature some of the most magnificent wildlife highlights imaginable, and 2017 was no exception. Birding around the Rift Valley lakes produced spectacular sightings, including: black herons using their wings like an umbrella to stalk fish in the shade; African fish eagles picking-off fish in front of our boat at Naivasha; and a sea of pink flamingos dominating Bogoria. At Baringo, we ogled beautiful hueglin’s courser, white-faced scops-owl and bristle-crowned starlings. Green wood-hoopoe, common scimitarbill, klass’s cuckoo, and martial eagle were among the treasures at Nakuru, along with both black and white rhinos, and many other animals.
Where else but Samburu, are sundowners accompanied by elephants crossing a nearby river, to join herds of reticulated giraffes, grevy’s zebra and beisa oryx! We watched a sleek leopard stalking impala in the mid-day heat. During our stay on the Laikipia plateau we witnessed first-hand the turmoil between pastoral herdsman and landowners, drawing blood over access to grazing and water. Fortunately, we avoided serious conflict, and were able to track down 9 adults and 2 pups of a rapidly-declining species, african wild dogs. I’m deeply saddened that “tuskers,” elephants sporting the largest, longest tusks, have fallen victim to their own ivory assets, and are now a rare sight. Kenya, in particular in Tsavo and Amboseli, still hold a few, and I was glad to see gregg, a 45-50 year old with ivory stretching to the ground!
Neighbouring Tanzania provided a heart-stopping moment when a lioness and her cubs walked right by us at a view point in Tarangire. We happened to be outside our vehicle, which caused almost as much fear as thrill! We learned that she was leading them to a carcass she had just brought down.
One of the wonders of the world is the Ngorongoro Crater, where we descend 2000 feet to ogle a plethora of wild animals co-existing in the vast area. Black rhinos graze not far from hippos wallowing in deep pools; predators like hyeanas, golden wolf and black-backed jackals prowl for food; prides of lions draw huge crowds of birders, photographers, and safari guests. One male stopped us in our tracks as he was marking his territory at one of the only bathroom stops!
The Serengeti embodies the quintessential African safari landscape, with vast rolling grasslands dotted with acacia trees broken up with kopjies (outcroppings), scrub thickets and riverine woodlands. We caught the Great Wildebeest Migration in full swing, noting many females dropping their calves along the way. Stately kori bustards stalked the short grass open plains with white tails raised, seemingly oblivious to kettles of vultures circling overhead to hone in on a carcass. Big cats were never far away, and we often saw at least three species a day – any combination of cheetah, leopard, lion, wild cat, and serval. It was most exciting to watch a chase unfold as three cheetahs stalked a thomson’s gazelle. Both animals leaped at top speed, in a literal race for survival that was incredible to behold!
I was raised in Morocco, and have been returning on a regular basis for more than 20 years. My trips there with birders and friends are uniquely special, and I savor every experience in this exotic, complex country. My good friend Martin Perrow once again co-led our last adventure, birding the edge of the Sahara. We found crimson-winged finch, seebohm’s wheatear and Alpine Accentor at the snow-capped peaks of Oukaimeden; traversed a dizzying zig-zag road through the Atlas mountains, and scanned the sandy coastal steppe for internationally-endangered northern bald ibis. A magical camel ride through the desert allowed us to kiss the rising sun, and cruise down sand dunes berber skiing style! We took full advantage of trips to souks to haggle with local vendors, and tours of medinas, palaces, kasbahs, ruins, and a hamam! Latifa’s wonderful cooking lessons are memorialized in the tantalizing recipes and warm friendship she freely shared with everyone!
North America is the place to be in springtime, where migrants sweep through the states, bound for their breeding grounds, and birders are eager to explore and discover a range of colorful, sometimes-fleeting species. Fellow Wildside tour leader Chris Brown joined me in Southern Florida where a number of sub-tropical specialities, exotics, and potential Caribbean vagrants attract birders in droves. This year we successfully ticked rarities Bahama Mockingbird, Western Spindalis and Thick-billed Vireo! Our multi-day adventure at the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles off of Key West, showcased expansive breeding colonies of noddies, boobies, terns, and frigatebirds. The seabirds swirl, dive, and call all day long in an impressive display of avian activity. The island’s sole freshwater fountain attracts an array of colorful migrants who drop in exhausted after long journeys. Tanagers, grosbeaks, buntings, dickcissels, thrushes, and warblers stand side by side to quench their thirst – sometimes 6-8 species at once!
Wildside Nature Tours has proudly supported the Biggest Week in American Birding for many years. Timed for mid May during the peak of spring migration, this annual festival draws thousands of visitors to northern Ohio, all clamoring for up-close experiences and eye-popping photos of numerous colorful passerines. We take this opportunity for our leaders to convene from many corners of the globe, and guide birders of all experience levels along the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk and nearby hotspots. Chris Brown and I teamed-up to lead a trip through the region and into Michigan, where we enjoyed great views of our main target, the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. Thanks to careful management of the species’ preferred jack pine habitat, and parasitizing cowbirds, their numbers have rebounded from a low of 400 in 1970 to 4000 today.
As summer heated up my hometown Philadelphia, I flew to the UK to begin one of my favourite tours, exploring the rugged, beautiful landscapes of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. Though weather was a bit wet and dreary during our 2 weeks, we didn’t miss any birding, visiting vibrant colonies of puffins and gannets, and watching capercaillie foraging amongst highland heather. We enjoyed a fascinating outing of mothing, along with castles, abbeys, lochs and a wee dram of whiskey! It was then on to seeing family in England and a visit to Wales where I enjoyed hundreds of Red Kites descending into the countryside for an afternoon feeding session.
In September, the American Birding Expo came to the Philadelphia region (Valley Forge), providing great chance to catch-up with old friends, and meet new ones as many folks stopped to chat at our Wildside Nature Tours booth. We were excited to launch a new partnership with Zeiss Birding, and applauded the unveiling of Zeiss Birding’s latest t-shirt, a gorgeous rendition of the Northern Bald Ibis, drawn by Catherine Hamilton, our wonderful artist workshop leader. Zeiss donated t-shirt proceeds to Birdlife International in support of this critically endangered species (fewer than 600) that is found in Morocco. I was honored to provide species photos to Catherine, for her to study and sketch. During the Expo, Wildside raised more than $20,000 to donate to Birds Caribbean, to help conservationists in Puerto Rico (home of Wildside Nature Tours guide Gabriel Lugo) deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Interestingly, a Zombie Convention was going on next door at the same time as the Birding Expo. The sight of blood, gore, and other creative ways to die-by-zombie sparked some laughs during down time!
By late fall I was back in Africa for their early summer. This time exploring Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. Huge herds of elephants dominated at Mana Pools and Hwange in Zimbabwe, along with lions, cheetahs and buffalo. I enjoyed specialties such as Lilian’s Lovebird, Racket-tailed Roller, Arnott’s Chat and colonies of stunning Southern Carmine Bee-eaters. We got out just before the “passive coup” that ended Mugabe’s long-running reign in Zimbabwe. Following a brief pass through Zambia, along with a boat ride on the Zambezi, it was onto Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Extraordinary encounters with leopards, endangered wild dogs (fewer than 7000), and herds of Red Lechwe, a wetland-loving antelope, were major highlights. We enjoyed a leisurely mokoro ride on the tranquil waters of the delta, featuring a variety of egrets, herons, jacanas, and stately Wattled Cranes. A Pel’s Fishing Owl roosting above our tent was a big treat!
I managed to join Debbie a few times throughout the year, as she chased birds for a Big Year within a limited 3-state region centered on Philadelphia. I was glad to contribute one of the rarities to her list, finding a White-winged Tern (a Eurasian species) at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge during the Big Sit in October. Debbie finished with 353 species, an extraordinary number for the region, especially while dedicated to busy, full-time work. My friend Yve Morrell completed a Big Year on a much bigger scale, chasing birds all around the American Birding Association region (US and Canada). The number of flights and rental cars was dizzying, but I happily joined the fray for a day in December when she came to Philadelphia for a wild goose chase. Literally! We dipped on her target, but she continued on to New England (having already tried there once) to finally tick Barnacle Goose, #809. She finished the year with a remarkable total of 817 – an astonishing feat. While on the subject of Big Years, I whole-heartedly recommend Noah Stryker’s (and not just because he leads several WNT tours) excellent book, Birding Without Borders, about his 2015 Big Year where he recorded more than half the world’s birds – a record-breaking 6042 species – birding non-stop around the globe with only local guides and a carry-on daypack!
Frigid temps at the end of the year haven’t phased the plethora of Snowy Owls that have taken up winter residence along the Jersey and Delaware coasts. I’ve enjoyed seeing these beautiful owls, and believe they are good omen for the future. Thanks to everyone who joined me on a trip this past year, and to all whose paths I’ve crossed along the way. Wishing you all a safe, healthy, Happy New Year, and good birding too!
all photos © adrian binns