Annual trip summary - 2016

Ref:
Date:
Location:
Photographer:
Well, that year went rather quickly! It seems like just a few days ago I was putting together my '2015 trip summary' yet, when I read it now, those trips seem like years ago. But, here we are again at the start of 2017 with another full trip schedule in front of us. As I noted last year, this was my retirement plan, so every year that I can sit down to reflect on the trips that my wife Tris and I have completed over the past twelve months the better.

Our two main trips in 2015 were both to South America - Ecuador / Galapagos at the beginning of the year and then a few months later to the Southern Pantanal in Brazil. Whilst we enjoyed those trips immensely, we missed Africa, so for 2016 we reversed the tables and arranged two safaris at contrasting times of the year and to different countries. And, for this year 2017 as I’m writing this, we’re returning again to East Africa and also back down to South America at the end of the year for a special three-week photography tour through the Amazon rainforest. Obviously, we’re very excited about those trips and others on our current schedule, but for now I’d like to reflect on what we did in 2016.

We started the year with a short winter break in the Cairngorms region of the Scottish Highlands in early February. We made the long drive up from Dorset on Saturday 6th arriving late afternoon in Boat of Garten near Aviemore where we’d rented a cottage for the week. This was a great location very close to the Abernethy Forest and Loch Garten - a good area for crested tits, and also just down the road from Carrbridge, which was our meeting point later in the week with local wildlife photographer Mark Hamblin. There were various Scottish speciality species we wanted to see, but top of the list were mountain hares, which we dearly wanted to photograph in the snow. But, there was no snow when we arrived, so the first couple of days when we were on our own we concentrated mainly on the crested tits at Loch Garten. We then met up with Mark on the Wednesday when we photographed red squirrels in a lovely quiet woodland clearing in the morning and red grouse in beautiful sunshine on the local moor in the afternoon. The following morning we drove out to the Corrieyairack Forest and the upper partially snow-covered slopes to photograph red deer, and in the afternoon down to the Insh Marshes for more crested tits. Snow was forecast for overnight, so the plan for our final day was to photograph squirrels again in the morning and then to drive up the well-known Findhorn Valley and onto the lower slopes in search of mountain hares. The day couldn’t have worked out better as we not only had the promised snow, but also clear blue skies and warm sunshine. It was a great start to the year and as we drove south on Saturday morning it was a really good feeling to have achieved what we wanted from the trip, which of course is easier said than done when you take into account the notorious and unpredictable Scottish weather at this time. A varied set of photos from this trip can be found here within my British Isles ‘selections’ gallery.

Mountain Hare hunkered down in the snow - Findhorn Valley, Highlands, Scotland
Mountain Hare hunkered down in the snow - Findhorn Valley, Highlands, Scotland
 

Just two weeks after getting back from Scotland we were on a plane for an overnight flight to Nairobi for the first of the year’s African adventures. We arrived early in the morning on Tuesday 1st March for an interconnecting flight down to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania from where we boarded a light aircraft for an internal flight to the Msembe airstrip within Ruaha National Park. This was a ‘green season’ safari, where we were making a return visit to Mwagusi Safari Camp. We’ve been to this particular camp twice before and are returning again in 2017, but each of these visits will have been in the dry ‘yellow season’. We wanted to experience the area at a different time of year with the landscape lush and green, and at a time when there’s a great variety of bird life. We certainly didn’t expect to see a leopard or even lions, but were fortunate to encounter both during the week. There were also elephant, zebra, giraffe etc, but in most cases difficult to photograph out in the open because of thick vegetation. But, I liked that, because although you have to work much harder for your shots, you can be rewarded with some nice images of wildlife in its habitat. The birds were even more challenging, as both distance and positioning is very much governed by being in a vehicle and although it was privately hired with our own guide and driver, there’s only so much they can do to get you in the right spot. In saying that though it’s amazing how close you can get sometimes in a vehicle and just how confiding certain species can be. Yet, on the other hand, there are many species that you would love to get closer to, but can’t. Without doubt it was another fantastically enjoyable trip, albeit one that felt different and more relaxed than when you’re out on a game drive in the dry season when there’s a constant sense of anticipation in the air. We stayed seven nights returning back in the UK on Wednesday 9th March. My travel section write-up on Ruaha and the associated photo gallery were updated accordingly.

Elephant enjoying the lush fresh grass - Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Elephant enjoying the lush fresh grass - Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
 

The remainder of March and the whole of April was spent at home prior to three almost back-to-back trips to Europe, each split by a short break in the UK.

The first of the European trips was a week in Romania at the Ultima Frontiera private nature reserve on the Danube Delta close to the Ukraine border. We met with a small photography group at Heathrow before flying to Bucharest where we stayed overnight. We were then picked up the following morning by minibus for the three hour drive to Tulcea on the Danube from where we continued by boat for almost another couple of hours to Periprava. Ultima Frontiera is a unique and interesting wildlife photography site and, despite some pretty grotty weather for about half the time we were there, it was really good. Whilst the highlight species were golden jackals and white-tailed eagles, there were many others such as both Dalmatian and white pelicans, various grebes, terns, gulls etc. The trip was organised by Wildlife Worldwide and led by nature photographer Nick Garbutt in the company of macro specialist Alex Hyde. My travel section write-up for this trip can be found here. We returned to the UK on Saturday 7th May and immediately put our names down for the next trip, albeit that plan has now been temporarily shelved due to logistical issues and prohibitive costs in arranging an associated extension in order to spend more time on the waterways and lakes.

White-tailed Eagle - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta, Romania
White-tailed Eagle - Ultima Frontiera, Danube Delta, Romania
 

Following a short break in Dartmoor at the end of May, we were back on another plane on Tuesday 7th June for a weeks stay in northwest Mallorca. This was going to be a relaxing holiday come bird photography trip and although we really should have been there a few weeks earlier for the best of the ‘birding’ we had a really good time. We had our own villa up in the Ternelles Valley and a hire car, so we were both self-sufficient and self-regulated, which simply meant that we could make all our own arrangements. We thoroughly enjoy this type of holiday and would not hesitate to return. An extended report together with notes of the species seen and photographed can be found here.

Next up was a six-day trip at the end of June to southeast Scotland and northeast England where we were able to combine two organised excursions, first to Bass Rock and then to the Farne Islands a couple of days later, with a stop-off at Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire on the way back home. All these destinations are somewhat weather dependent, particularly Bass Rock where you require a permit and can only land in good conditions. You have to take your chances when you book, because if the sea is rough the trip is aborted. You sail from Dunbar Harbour, which is a full days drive from the south coast, so it made sense that we were not going just for that trip. We had a few drops of rain on the early boat ride out to Farne, and a reasonably heavy shower during the afternoon we were at Bempton Cliffs, but apart from that the weather was really good. In fact it was so sunny and warm on the top of Bass Rock that you could have sunbathed! This trip was a real seabirds extravaganza resulting in a large number of really good photos. Please see my '2016 - Q2 diary' for further information.

Northern Gannets - Bass Rock, Firth of Fourth, East Lothian, Scotland
Northern Gannets - Bass Rock, Firth of Fourth, East Lothian, Scotland
 

Our third and final European trip of the year was a return visit to France and the little gite we stayed in last September, which is situated in the Marais Poitevin marshlands region. We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St.Malo on Friday 8th July and had a leisurely drive down to Fontenay-le-Comte the following morning. We stayed for a full two weeks this time, returning home Saturday 23rd on the day crossing. Whilst I don’t have a travel section write-up for this location, I have compiled a small photo set that includes a bit more information by way of an extended introduction.

We then spent the whole of August and September at home.

But, then we had the trip we’d been eagerly anticipating from the time it was booked some 18 months previous. This was our first ever trip to Zambia, staying ten nights in total at the two Shenton safari photography camps of Kaingo and Mwamba in South Luangwa. On return I compiled a reasonably comprehensive introduction to the area as a prelude to my travel section write-up, which can be found here, so I’ll keep this summary record brief as I did with the original journal entry. Without doubt it was the best safari we’ve been on to date and one we will want to repeat as soon as it’s practical to do so.

Lions mating - South Luangwa, Zambia
Lions mating - South Luangwa, Zambia
 

And then, as we do most years, we had two weeks on Bird Island in the Seychelles. The only difference to our normal arrangements is that this year we went a couple of weeks later than usual because of the Zambia trip. We took the afternoon flight from Heathrow to Dubai on Sunday 13th November, connecting from there with another Emirates flight down to Seychelles where we landed early Monday morning. We then had a couple of hour wait before our internal flight across to Bird Island, arriving with time to unpack, shower and change before lunch. I’m still in two minds about going this bit later in the year, but on the other hand we did see a few vagrant species that we’ve never seen there before. My '2016 Q4 diary' entry provides further information under ‘overseas trips’ as well as below that in a separate news item entitled ‘Rare herons in Seychelles’. We left the island on Monday 28th following much the same arrangements as we did coming out except that due to a winter flight schedule change we ended up having to spend best part of five hours in Dubai airport before our flight back to London! The only consolation was that it was the middle of the night and we were able to find an empty row of extended seat-beds in a quiet section of the Emirates lounge where we were able to grab a couple of hours sleep. I hope one day that direct flights will resume as I don’t like having to route through the Middle East. When we first visited back in 1997, BA flew direct with a short stop in Nairobi en-route. However, for whatever reason they stopped as they did with the direct flight to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. Air Seychelles then started a direct flight from Heathrow via Zurich or Milan, but again that was stopped in favour of flying from Paris. We now have no option other than Emirates, Ethiad or Qatar, all requiring an interconnecting flight.

Excluding the short break in Dartmoor, but including the Bass Rock, Farne trip it was around 78 nights away during the year, visiting eight different locations in eight countries. And, the joys of travelling with sixteen international flights, six internal light-aircraft flights, two ferry crossings, two 2hr river boat transfers and six long car drives.