A New Year’s Eve at Sea!

I have lots more blogs coming about Liberia AND the wedding, of course, but I had to start writing again somehow, so here we are. 

Thanks to the generosity of some Washington birders, my 2017 ended in truly spectacular fashion. While searching for the local birding ‘gen’ online, I stumbled across post for a ‘Vashon Island CBC’, with a volunteer needed to help record sightings. I’d seen Vashon Island on a map of the area, and so I knew it wasn’t too far away. I sent off a hopeful email, and I waited. In a great stroke of luck, someone else was coming from my direction and agreed to take me from the ferry terminal at Point Defiance.

After doing some reading, I learned that CBC stood for ‘Christmas Bird Count’, and that it was an institution of American birding since 1900. One of the longest-running citizen science bird counts in the world, the 1900 count involved 27 observers in 25 places, yet 2012/13 saw some 71,531 people take part in 2369 locations, which is quite incredible. The data has been used for several important Audobon research papers into the state of American birdlife, and it represents an invaluable longitudinal study with little parallel. Though largely a US event, collaborations have occurred across the Americas which has seen birders in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico take part. My (very) minor contribution to this mighty project was to be the Vashon Island/Maury Islands Marine Park CBC, found in Puget Sound, Washington.

I met a fellow birder called Roger by a hulking Chevy pickup in the darkness at the ferry terminal, and we across the sound before the sun had risen. A short drive along rural Vashon Island roads saw us arrive at the harbour, and we soon met up with Ed, a local bird guide and master birder, and Jeanne. He had his son in tow, and we ventured down to the jetty to meet the crew and our vessel for the day. I had been a little concerned about what our craft might be like, having had some exciting experiences out at sea when working for AK Wildlife Cruises, and I keenly appreciate quite how miserable a long day in churning seas can be, especially in a little boat! I needn’t have worried, as the MV Vashona was a magnificent-looking wooden cruiser from the 1980s, of ample size for many more people than we were to have aboard. It had a spacious cabin, with heating and a proper galley, with plenty more space below for storage. We would, of course, spend most of our time on deck in the cold, but I was feeling a lot more confident after seeing the boat!


The habour on Vashon Island, complete with similarly-fancy boats!


As we exited the harbour, I had one of those rare Kodak moments that will live with me for as long as I live. As the sun rose over the Cascade mountains to the east, I could see rural homes dotted around the shore in between great stands of fir trees that surrounded us. The golden water was fringed with these great pillars of brown and green, and only the occasionally seabird disturbed the surface of the sea. The layers of trees stretched as far as the eye could see, and as the sun finally broke free over the mountains, each tree was cast in a glorious light that drew out the subtle undulations, ridges and furrows of the unseen ground below. An urgent ‘squawk’! overhead drew my attention upwards, and barely 10 metres above the boat were a pair of Bald Eagles, tussling and swooping in the morning light. Ahhh, nature! How magnificent you can be!


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was cold on deck, and my hands grew numb pretty quickly. I discovered that I couldn’t write effectively in my new gloves, and so I stuck at my task for an hour or so until I could take no more. Being British and all, I couldn’t show weakness with this kind of thing, and so I rejected the many offers of hand warmers that came my way. Culture, eh? In hindsight, I really should have taken the hand warmers… Tallying the species was a superb lesson in American species and birding in general, however. I quickly appreciated quite how good Ed and Jeanne were. I was sat in the centre of the bow, a little way back, whilst they both stood on the edge on either side of the bow, calling out sightings incredibly quickly. Roger and Ed’s son also chipped in with sightings, but it was absolutely the Ed and Jeanne show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such competent, skilled birders before, and I’ve been around a few in the UK. Admittedly, this was their home turf, but still- if you are in the area, look them up for a tour.

Naturally, they did the majority of the spotting, and they were unerringly accurate, rarely needing to confer on an ID. My vantage point, coupled with the kindness of the birds to stay near, allowed me to build a reference to species mentally over time, and by the end, I was contributing my own sightings with confidence. I realised that I could definitely improve my birding skills, mind.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The birding itself was simply fantastic. We saw literally hundreds of Surf Scoter, which was one of my dream seabirds, and we saw both Black and White-Winged Scoter too, adding 3 lifers in one family. We had Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, 3 cormorant species, Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot, Loons, Grebes… The list itself has to be seen to be believed, especially when it comes to numbers! They suggested that sightings were down on previous years, which is quite incredible given the vast quantities we encountered. I added around 15 lifers, and the weather stayed throughout the trip. It was bitterly cold crossing the sound in the wind, mind, and I’m pretty sure my hands have only just defrosted from those few minutes. Thank you so much to all involved- one of the best birding experiences of my life, and I didn’t pay a penny.


The most disappointing record shot of a California Quail


The kindly Roger and I then proceeded back over Puget Sound on the ferry with a plan to twitch a Gyrfalcon that had been frequenting the nearby McChord Airforce base. The Gyrfalcon is a monstrous bird, being the largest falcon, and is known as the queen of the skies. Unsurprisingly, it is number 1 on my raptor hitlist. What followed was absolutely the dodgiest birding I’ve ever done, never wanting to stray too close to the fence in case security arrived, which had been reported earlier in the week. The fact that Roger’s telescope, when mounted on the back of his pickup, looked just like a technical mounted with a machine gun, was absolutely not lost on me. The Gyrfalcon didn’t play ball, not showing on the pylons next to the runway, nor in the tall trees beyond. I did discover a group of California Quail in the tiniest patch of scrubland near the airport, which Roger said was unusual for that part of Washington. Result! The very kindly Roger dropped me off nearby, and I owe him a tremendous vote of thanks for looking after me all day. American hospitality is simply superb, no matter what the media will tell you.



In true Billy fashion, however, Roger later sent a rather meek email stating that he’d had one last look at McChord after he’d dropped me off, and had connected with the Gyrfalcon.

Welcome to my life.

Regardless, it was easily the best New Years Eve I’ve ever had, surrounded in nature by beautiful wildlife and great people. What a day!


Perhentian Island Reptile List UPDATED

Following the results of the 2016 expedition, I can at this stage add at least one species to the Perhentian Island list. The following list remains a work in progress. 

  • Lesser Malacca Toad
  • Common Asian Toad
  • Banded Bullfrog
  • Smooth Frog
  • Common Tree Frog
  • Common Green Frog
  • Icthyopsis sp.
  • Armoured Pricklenape
  • Green Crested Lizard
  • Common Flying Dragon (Draco Volans)
  • Marbled Bent-Toed Gecko
  • Four Clawed Gecko
  • Tokay Gecko
  • Perhentian Islands Rock Gecko (Endemic- Grismer)
  • Spotted House Gecko
  • Smith’s Green-Eyed Gecko
  • Common House Gecko
  • Flat-Tailed House Gecko
  • Common Smooth-Scaled Gecko
  • Kuhl’s Flying Gecko
  • Smooth-Backed Gliding Gecko
  • Olive Tree Skink
  • Many-Lined Sun Skink
  • Long-Tailed Sun Skink
  • Short-Limbed Supple Skink
  • Perhentian Islands Forest Skink (Endemic- Grismer)
  • Clouded Monitor Lizard
  • Water Monitor Lizard
  • Brahminy Blindsnake
  • Reticulated Python
  • Oriental Whipsnake
  • Mangrove Snake (Venomous)
  • Golden Tree Snake
  • Painted Bronzeback
  • Blanford’s Bridle Snake
  • Red-Tailed Green Ratsnake
  • Common Wolf Snake
  • Banded Wolf Snake
  • Malayan Bridle Snake (New Addition- Identified by the 2016 Expedition)
  • Wagler’s Pit Viper (Venomous)
  • Banded Sea Krait (Venomous)











Perhentian Island Flooding

As parts of Terengganu flood for the second time in as many years, the islands where I’ve spent so much of my life recently have not been spared. During FxPedition Perhentian Islands we spent a lot of time staying in the middle of the village. We spent many nights eating out at the local restaurants, and we played football with kids and adults alike on the village beach football pitch (though the less said about my performances in goal, the better).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve stayed in the village twice now, and quite a lot has changed between times. This year there was a few new buildings by the jetty, and the beach football area had been enclosed off by fencing and concrete structures to hold back the tide. A concrete bridge of sorts was built to link a new motorcycle path to Long Beach to the village.  Importantly, the parts that needed updating, especially the sewage system, hadn’t been. The problems with the open sewer system and wider sewage disposal issues are not new, and I can find English-based papers citing the issues all the way back in 2001. Shockingly, a paper specifically mentions how yearly flooding is common on the islands due to overcrowding and lack of government investment that was promised in the 1990s (Ghani, Yassin and Ahmad, The Social Sciences, 2010). Conversely, a Malay language report suggests that this year’s flooding is unprecedented in scale.

We found out early yesterday that little, if anything, has changed. Some 30 homes were flooded, and aspects of public infrastructure were badly affected. If the images are anything to go by, it looks like the open sewer system has been badly damaged, and if that water has been flowing through the village then it represents a serious health hazard to local residents. These are genuinely devastating floods, and the economic losses will be significant. It it not just the locals that have been affected, as I understand that the island’s only health clinic and police station has also been affected. The response from government agencies has been good, with the Coastguard and Navy assisting to evacuate affected people to Kuala Besut, as far as I can tell, as well as assessing the damage to the village.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

They wouldn’t have to do that, though, if the government had properly invested in supporting the residents where it is actually needed it. Whilst flooding on this scale may be rare, papers show that it is not uncommon. Upgrading the sewage system (that has shown to impact drinking water quality and thus health) would be a sure start. I’m sure Malaysia has enough skilled Geographers to assess flood risk, and I can only help that studies are carried out to work out how to protect the village from the next event. The Perhentian Islands are an excellent financial resource for Malaysia- it is damn time that the government treated the residents with the respect they deserve. The islands may be a beautiful paradise for tourists in summer, but what about the poor residents during the monsoon season? Having lived with them, I can tell you that the islanders are tough and resourceful and will respond to these difficulties with courage- it just seems evident that more could be (and should be) done to help them.

Sadly, the islanders are not isolated in their plight, with some 23,000 evacuated across Terengganu state. My thoughts are with them and the islanders at this challenging time.


I am well aware that criticising the Malaysian government is risky, but if no-one ever says anything then nothing will change. The people of the islands deserve better. The first slideshow’s images originate from myself and Joshua Gray, the rest are taken from social media. The opinions expressed above are solely my own. 

Attenborough Under Fire

An article written by Martin Hughes-Games attacking the Planet Earth II series has provoked great controversy in wildlife and conservation circles. It has been billed as an attack on 90-year old Sir David Attenborough (a cardinal sin in the wildlife world), and his views have been derided by many. To many of us Attenborough is our god- the person whom inspired many of us to pursue education and careers in this field, and thus criticism of the great man genuinely hurts. It feels unpalatable, like when people (quite rightly) point out some of Churchill’s (voted our greatest Briton) awful mistakes. Whilst I disagree entirely with his claim that ‘I fear this series, and other’s like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife’, Hughes-Games does, unfortunately, have a point.


Hughes-Games (left), with fellow AutumnWatch presenters Michelle Strachan (central) and Chris Packham (right). 


Hughes-Games is wrong in places. He states that: ‘The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense’. He then uses figures from ZSL about nature’s ‘58%’ decline since 1970, stating that because this period runs parallel with Attenborough’s tenure as a living deity since Life on Earth began in 1979, then the programmes should have had an effect on it.


A young Attenborough during filming for Life on Earth (1979). 


The first rule of science is that correlation does not equal causation, and Hughes-Games ignores it here. That there has been a recorded 58% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide has squarely nothing to do with the BBC, with wildlife filmmaking and certainly nothing to do with Sir David Attenborough. That scientific evidence says absolutely nothing of the effectiveness of Attenborough’s programmes, as he tries to imply. Hughes-Games sweeping assertion that the NHU’s programmes haven’t inspired people to get involved in conservation is utterly erroneous.

Whilst it would be easy to sweep that aside anecdotally, I’ve carried out a very brief poll of ‘A Focus On Nature‘, an absolutely brilliant, 1800 strong community of young ecologists and conservationists trying to make their way in the conservation world.

‘Did David Attenborough, and the BBC Natural History Unit programmes help inspire you to pursue a conservation/wildlife/environment-based career?’


Breakdown of 52 individual Votes from ‘A Focus On Nature’ 


I had 52 responses in an hour, and it is evident that the results clearly show that Attenborough and wildlife documentaries have helped in some form to inspire a generation of environmentalists, naturalists and scientists to work in their respective fields. If I were to ask anyone on my Geography course, on on Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Conservation and Biology courses who their inspiration was, I doubt the word ‘Attenborough’ would be far from anyone’s lips.

Percentage Breakdown of ‘A Focus On Nature’ Votes


In this instance, then, Hughes-Games is evidently misguided.

Where he is right, however, is that it is time for a paradigm shift in wildlife filming, and the BBC Natural History Unit is not excepted from that. When Hughes-Games writes that ‘the fantasy should be balanced by reality’, he is absolutely on the money. Recent NHU documentary series have focused on either animal behaviour or locations-remember the amazing ‘Shark’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Patagonia’? There has been mention of human issues in these documentaries, and brief coverage, but not enough has been done to expose the size of problems on a global scale, or even within these locations. Like Hughes-Games said, the NHU should of course continue to make these jaw-dropping documentaries showcasing the beauty of the natural world, and covering the various developments in zoological and ecological science- there is no need for them to stop.


Attenbo rhino.jpg
Perhaps the most touching moment of the Africa series was Attenborough with the orphaned baby Rhino- but does anyone remember it for the poaching, or for the cuteness? 


There is room for a new type of programme, however, that demonstrates the scale of the issues facing the natural world. The NHU tried something similar a long time ago in 2000 with State of the Planet, long before the era of HD, 4K and drone videography we are in at the moment. We need documentaries to expose deforestation, reveal the cost of pollution and to look at poaching in all its grisly detail. Wildlife documentaries are traditionally things of beauty, but I’d argue that we now need documentaries to be ugly, to shock too. Perhaps this requires a different breed of videographers and directors to take this more confrontational approach, but we certainly now have the technology for it. Drones are fantastic tools for showcasing the scale of deforestation, for example.


Deforestation for Pulp & Paper in Riau
 A Greenpeace image showing just how effective Drones can be at capturing the scale of deforestation. 


Whilst these documentaries will be difficult, it has be done and with great success. Virunga, the tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern National Park as it struggles to fight against poachers, the SOCO oil corporation and the M23 rebel offensive is a fantastic, award-winning example. The earlier Blackfish and The Cove are perhaps the other two stand-out wildlife/nature documentaries in this genre, whilst the more recent Ivory Game is another fantastic watch. Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood has tried to illustrate the scale of global issues however, with impressive results.

There is an argument to suggest that perhaps the success of the Plant Earth series amongst others is due to the very same utopian ‘escapism’ that Hughes-Games so despises, but I don’t think that is good enough anymore. In the face of rapid deforestation with no quarter given for habitat and wildlife, coral reef bleaching on an unprecedented level and significant climatic change, it is time for our wildlife documentaries to take the gloves off, and show the real world to the public. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out.

That Hughes-Games has written this timely article is a good thing, as it has sparked a healthy, impassioned debate around wildlife filmmaking and it’s purpose. Ultimately, whilst poor Attenborough doesn’t really need to be in the article, would anyone have read it if he wasn’t?