More to See, More to Zoo

Last week I visited Jacksonville Zoo, which boasts “more to see, more to zoo”. And it certainly delivered, with a broad range of exhibits including some very special ones that I’d never seen before. A particularly unique exhibit was Wild Florida, a collection of species native to the state. I discovered just how big alligators are (which only confirmed my decision not to go anywhere near a river during my time here) and caught a glimpse of a manatee as it glided underwater. Manatees are the state marine mammal of Florida but threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and the devastating red tide have now made them endangered.

In response to these threats, Jacksonville Zoo is in the process of making the first manatee critical care centre in northeast Florida. This will allow more injured animals to be rescued and cared for, and minimise travel distance to other centres such as the ones in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. To make the experience as natural as possible for the manatees, they have a very large tank, which can only be viewed from one side. They are only seen occasionally when they swim close to the tank’s edge, giving them much needed privacy.

Elsewhere on the site was the Emerald Forest Aviary, where I met my new favourite bird: the roseate spoonbill. Native to Florida, this extraordinary wading bird is candy floss pink in colour and sports a magnificent bill that it waves from side to side underwater to sift through the mud. There was a group of them in the aviary, perched on branches overhanging a deep, dark pond. I positioned myself to put this dark pond behind a particular bird who had stood beside some very photogenic foliage. After just a little editorial tweaking, I was pleased with the dramatic result.


Although I always love seeing the star animals of the zoo, some of my best moments from the day were the wild individuals that had snuck in uninvited. As usual, I fell in love with some new lizards, including one that posed for me with an over-the-shoulder glance.


However, the most incredible moment came just before I left. I was wandering past the lions and admiring the wildflowers that were attracting all sorts of butterflies and dragonflies. Then, I saw something larger than an invertebrate zooming around and was thrilled to discover it was a hummingbird!


I fumbled to get my camera ready, and for a while took lots of blurry pictures of flowers. Eventually, I got used to the hummingbird’s pattern of flying and managed to capture the animal in frame. I stood watching it for ages, as usual receiving looks from passers-by wondering what I was so interested in. For me though, it was an amazing sight and one of those perfect surprises.






On the Hunt

After watching Chris and Michaela hunt for great grey shrikes on Winterwatch, I realised what stunning birds they were and that I’d quite like to find one for myself. I asked Cain if he knew of any recent sightings and of course, he did. There was one of these beautiful shrikes in a patch of rural Newcastle that had remained in the area all winter. So, early on Friday morning, Zahrah and I set off to try and track the bird down.

As we made our way east towards Newcastle, the combination of pouring rain and sleet filled me with dread. As usual, the weather forecast had gone awry, and I hoped the grisly sleet would clear up by the time we arrived. Luckily it did, and once parked and heading down the track with eyes peeled, we stayed dry. We were looking for a patch of stark white at the tops of the bare trees. Every so often we would stop and peer across the field, binoculars meticulously scanning each tree. Unfortunately, great grey shrikes are not vocal birds, so there was no telltale call we could listen out for. This would be a case of sharp eyes.

We came across a group of bullfinches – a handsome male and two females – as they foraged in the bushes. I have a soft spot for these vibrantly coloured birds, so stopped to take photos, trying to manoeuvre myself to sneak a clear glimpse of the male through a break in the tangle of twigs. This was only partially successful.

Bullfinch pair

As we trudged up the track, the only sound to be heard was the mud as it sucked on our boots. I found it a challenge to survey the trees for signs of movement while keeping an eye on where my feet were landing. After no sign of the shrike, we decided to try the other stretch of track that hugged the same field. At the crossroads we encountered a vast flooded patch of grass. At first glance it seemed empty, but a look through the binoculars revealed a large gathering of lapwing and golden plover huddled together. Further up the track, a hubbub of activity surrounded the bird feeders hanging from a tree. Great tits, blue tits, robins, a ground-foraging blackbird and a special sighting: a willow tit. I’d never seen one so close – a bird that I find indistinguishable from the marsh tit. According to the BTO, the most reliable way of telling these two species apart is by listening to them, as the birds’ most common calls are quite distinctive from each other. While marsh tits make a sneeze-like “pitchu” call, willow tits have a nasal “chay chay” sound.

Willow tit
Great tit

We had come to the joint decision that our shrike would sadly not be making an appearance today. The needle was well hidden in the haystack, and we made our way back to the car. A little way further out was another reserve that we decided to visit. By this time, unexpected sunlight was filtering through the dissolving clouds, and gleamed on the pond, illuminating a flock of wigeon. They chatted to each other but were otherwise motionless. High up in the trees was a buzz of excitement, and yet more beautiful bullfinches! These ones were silhouetted against the sky, so their smart plumage was diluted in the sun. Accompanying them were great tits, siskin and a few goldfinches. A magpie was perched in the topmost branches, feathers ruffling as the wind caught him.


Before long it was golden hour, where the sun began to vanish behind the pond. The trees took on a shimmering glow, every hue heightened. A group of blue tits fluttered around, barely perching for a moment before swooping in another direction. I thought I saw the fluffy brush of a red squirrel’s tail disappearing between two boughs, but after waiting stock-still for it to emerge, I thought perhaps it was just a trick of the golden light.

Golden hour

Species seen

Blackbird (Turdus merula) Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) Buzzard (Buteo buteo) Carrion crow (Corvus corone) Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) Great tit (Parus major) Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) Magpie (Pica pica) Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) Reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) Robin (Erithacus rubecula) Siskin (Carduelis spinus) Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) Wigeon (Anas penelope) Willow tit (Parus montanus) Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Sun in the Woods

After discovering Eskrigg and how fantastic a reserve it is, I really wanted to take Zahrah as she’d never seen a red squirrel before. After my success last time, I was sure we’d have some luck. I also wanted to give the Manager, Jim Rae, a copy of the film I made on the reserve for my assignment.

We arrived at lunchtime, so headed straight for the Eskrigg Centre to set up tripods and tuck into our Sainsbury’s meal deals. The feeders were busy as usual. I kept an eye out for reds, but in the meantime we watched siskins, a nuthatch, a woodpecker and plenty of chaffinches snatching a quick snack before zooming back into the trees. It looked like the visiting female mandarin had moved on – it was a shame not to see a male, but still exciting to be able to tick off a new species.


On my last visit, prime squirrel time was about 3pm, so after finishing up lunch and having our fill of the birds on the pond, we headed to the squirrel hide, joining a group of fellow photographers and twitchers. Coal tits swept across the clearing while robins hopped about on the ground. A lone male blackbird darted about with the species’ usual uncoordinated urgency, clutching a feast of flies and worms in his beak for a lucky brood.


An hour and a half passed with no fluffy red visitors. I was a little embarrassed, having shown Zahrah my photos from last time and taken her with me today with perhaps blasé confidence that we’d be overrun with squirrels again today.

The heat of the day was fading and under the cover of the trees it was getting cool quickly. The group of photographers shouldered their cameras and left, and soon we began to consider abandoning ship and coming back next week. Zahrah suggested we stay half an hour longer, and in the next ten minutes my eye caught on a bright orange tuft twitching behind a nearby tree. As I hurried to focus I breathed an enormous but hushed sigh of relief.


The squirrel approached slowly, sniffing the ground but pausing every so often to stand on its hind legs to look at us. I tried with all my might to catch these meerkat moments, but these animals are unbelievably nippy.

Soon, the squirrel was out in the open, collecting the hazelnuts that Jim had cracked and I’d sprinkled about. Pauses to eat were the best times to snatch some photos, when the animal’s only movement was a twitch of the tail. The way it clutched the nut in almost human hands and strategically nibbled was enough to make the coldest heart melt. As our cameras clicked I couldn’t help but gasp and squeal with excitement. Despite my interruptions the squirrel carried on feasting, scooping up all the nuts I’d left one by one.


Before long, a second squirrel joined the first, skirting down a tree to find any nuts that the first had left, a third soon joining them. One of these individuals had somehow lost an ear tuft, looking adorably wonky as it paused to nibble, tail curled over its back in the iconic position.

My memory card was filling up fast – I couldn’t help but keep snapping as the squirrels explored and foraged. For me it was a combination of their distinct personalities, lovable curiosity and cute outfits that had me obsessed. They ventured close, peering up at us with beady eyes and tiny parted lips.


I forgot to notice the growing chill but the slowly setting sun was beginning to make photography a challenge, especially when the squirrels’ rapid movement made a slow shutter speed impossible. We were about to finally pack up and leave when three more arrived, this time of the darker variety. So we stayed a little longer and kept taking photos. I had a sudden thought – if photography was still dominated by medium format film, I would have spent my entire student loan. The habit of only pressing the shutter for the perfect moment was admirable, but I don’t think everyone’s had the opportunity to photograph red squirrels.

When we eventually did get home, I uploaded the shots and assessed the damage. Six hundred and sixty photos, not bad at all.