Sri Lanka 2017 Part 3 – Lunugamvehera & Sinharaja

We certainly made the right decision on the morning of the 18th July. The previous day we had been touring Block 1 of Yala National Park, seeing very little. Yala is the worst nightmare of anyone who likes to watch wildlife in peace and in near-solitude, as no less than 125 Jeeps were crammed into this tiny section of the park that day.

However, the following morning we decided to go that extra bit further to Lunugamvehera National Park, which is attached to Yala however significantly less popular. I have no idea why that is, because as soon as we entered the park were we racing towards our first Leopard sighting of the day.

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We had brilliant views of this Leopard, much better than I’ve ever had before. In most other places where Leopards are found, there are other big cats inhabiting the area which drive the leopards into cover for a lot of the day and they become very shy. In Africa, it is lions and in India, there are Tigers. However, in Sri Lanka, there are no predators larger than Leopards and therefore they’re far more relaxed. We were able to watch this Leopard for a long time as it rested within a thin thicket, before getting up and moving slowly into the shade of a tree where it would probably spend the first few hours of the Sri Lankan day-time heat.

Lunugamvehera is not a huge park, and therefore we made a few circuits during the day. There are always new things to see on every circuit, such as Lesser Adjutants and a Stripe-necked Mongoose on the dry river bed, a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers above a beautiful secluded river, and on the open plains an Indian Roller perched on a bare tree for all to see.

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Stripe-necked Mongoose

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Lesser Adjutant

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Stork-billed Kingfisher

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Indian Roller

The second circuit was a little more exciting than the others, however. We were driving through the arid woodland when the guides noticed huge tracks on the side of the road that could only belong to one animal: a Sloth Bear! We increased our speed slightly as we drove in the direction the rather fresh tracks were heading, and after a bit of driving back-and-forth we heard from the other vehicle that they had just seen the Sloth Bear heading our way. We waited on the road and sure enough, we managed to spot a bear slowly ambling through the small trees towards the road in front of us. As it reached the road it increased its speed suddenly and lolloped across the track: a wonderful sight.

The rest of the day in the park continued as one would expect it to in the searing heat of the Sri Lankan arid zone. There was not too much happening mammal-wise, although as the sun and the temperatures began to sink, that all changed.

The Jeep drivers and the local guides all know each other really well, and therefore an efficient network is maintained that allows drivers to know about sightings in the vicinity. This came into play very nicely as our Jeep driver became aware of a Leopard that had just been seen near the reservoir in the centre of the park.

It’s a huge reservoir, with an impressive dam that is featured on Sri Lankan currency (the 5000 rupee note). It is surrounded by a forest of skeletons, the remains of the forest that had stood in the area before the construction of the dam. The washed-out trees still stand sturdy like statues, creating a unique landscape, dotted with large ponds left behind by the receding water of the dry season. These ponds are full of a plethora of water birds, such as the Painted Storks struggling with fish far too large and the Indian Pond Herons chasing each other around the muddy edges.

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The bird-filled ponds

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Indian Pond Heron

It was just after we pulled up beside one of these ponds that we spotted the Leopard strolling nonchalantly towards rim of the pond basin – scattering the storks, herons, plovers and ibises – where it lay down. It just seemed completely oblivious to the vehicle, and everything else around it. As the setting sun cast an awe-inspiring glow over the Leopard’s beautiful coat and the bizarre landscape, it really was a memorable moment.

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Unfortunately, we soon had to get going to avoid being fined for a late exit. However, even as we were rushing back to the gates, our experience in Lunugamvehera was not over. All of a sudden, one of the guides knocked three times on the side of the vehicle, meaning ‘stop’. As we halted and began to reverse, none other than our third Leopard of the day came into view. It was drinking from a watering-hole no more than 15-20 metres from the road! An amazing end to a brilliant day in Sri Lanka.

The following morning, as we were leaving our hotel at Yala, I realised that we only had a limited amount of time left in Sri Lanka. However, I think we had saved the best until last. We were leaving Yala for the Sinharaja Rainforest: a serious birder’s dream and a leech-hater’s worst nightmare!

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We were lucky to have two full days within the rainforest. My ambition for the trip as a whole was to manage to see as many of the endemics as possible, and we were already doing well. I had 13 left to see, and all of them could be found in the Sinharaja Rainforest and the surrounding area. It would be very tricky to see them all; however I would try my best.

Entering the Sinharaja Rainforest with a guide is compulsory, and the tour leaders made sure that we had a guide that would be able to show us as much of our target wildlife as possible. It turned out that the leaders had made a very good choice; within only about 45 minutes we had already seen a number of the target birds, including Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Myna and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo. This was because it’s a long drive up from the ticket counter to the reserve entrance, only about 1km however incredibly bumpy due to the floods the month before. We were travelling in a Toyota Pickup, meaning that our local guide was able to stand up in the back and spot all the birds that we would otherwise have missed!

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Sri Lanka Myna

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Sri Lanka Crested Drongo

By the time we arrived at the entrance it was around 8am and too late for the morning activity; however I only had 9 more endemics to see. Although due to the rainforest canopy keeping out a lot of the hot sun, birds are active to some extent throughout most of the day. Many species form bird waves that travel through the forest feeding on anything in their path. These we were actively seeking out, as they almost always have a few goodies among them!

It wasn’t long before we came across our first bird wave of the morning. The bird waves are usually dominated by Orange-billed Babblers, and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes were also a key part of them (another new endemic!). We were also able to add Red-faced Malkoha to our list! Unfortunately, birds in the bird wave are always quite mobile; the rainforest is thick with vegetation, meaning that these birds were incredibly hard to take photos of!

After the bird wave passed through, it was almost as if it was becoming night-time! We heard two and possibly even three Spot-bellied Eagle-owls began to call to each other. It was quite a surreal experience! Meanwhile, our guide was down among spiny vines in a large, deep ditch trying to locate another bird of the night, which is known to roost here in roughly the same place every day. These were Sri Lankan Frogmouths, a near endemic, and it was great to be able to see them at such close quarters. The males and the females are very sexually dimorphic, which the males being the more drab and dull of the two. This is because he is in charge of incubating the eggs.

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Sri Lanka Frogmouths, Male (L), Female (R)

The next bird wave came through slowly afterwards, with more Red-faced Malkohas and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes in the mix. And after being shown a particularly co-operative Spot-winged Thrush, I only had 6 more species to get!

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Spot-winged Thrush

Finally, we noticed that the 3rd and final bird wave was coming through. And it carried a surprise! I noticed a small, brown bird fly up on round wings onto a branch where it was half-hidden. ‘Owl’, I exclaimed! Despite all my efforts, I was unable to get anyone else onto it other than the guides. Thank goodness I had a few ‘record shots’ as proof! While the bird was actually in view, I didn’t have any time to think about what it could be. However, on looking back at my photos, I saw that it could be nothing other than a Chestnut-backed Owlet, an endemic! This species is actually diurnal like the other owlets, which would explain why it was out in the daytime. It still wasn’t something I was expecting at all!

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We moved on through the rainforest, seeing plenty of interesting invertebrates. We came across so many butterflies, including the Sri Lanka Birdwing, and I also spotted an incredibly long-legged tiger beetle. On arrival back home, it was kindly identified by Fabian Boetzl as a Sri Lankan endemic, Calochroa discrepans

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Eventually, we arrived at where I would hopefully see my number one target for the whole trip. The Serendib Scops Owl was first described as new to science in 2004 from this very rainforest, and it still remains the best place in the world to see it. However, it’s not easy to get to! First, we had to descend a steep and slippery slope to get down into a very large ditch, and then we had to wade through treacherous mud and dodge very thorny vines for quite a while. It certainly all paid off however, as we were treated to excellent views of not one but two of these brilliant owls roosting in the giant ferns. I think this was the highlight of my entire Sri Lankan holiday, being able to look right into the eyes of a ‘mythical’ bird.

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Serendib Scops Owl

The next day was very similar; however we were focused on the two species we had left to see: the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl. Being perhaps the hardest of all the endemics to see, I knew it was going to be a challenge. There were a few known places where the former could be seen, and I was eager to try some out. The first is just beside the path not too far from the entrance, and it appeared we were in luck when we heard one calling. The call is not loud and not distinctive either, and the bird was clearly moving. We crept along as silently and as quickly as we could in order to catch up to the bird, which was clearly moving unseen along the dark forest floor in front of us and to our left.

Eventually, we spotted a movement. We had caught up with the bird quicker than we anticipated. It was feeding just behind a patch of plants in front of us, right next to the path. I eased forward as slowly as I could manage, in order to get a good view of it. I have never seen a bird so camouflaged! The scales that give it its name really allow it to blend into the forest floor. Despite being only 10 metres away, if I took my eyes off it, it would take some finding to re-locate it! Not only were we able to watch it feeding so well but it also hopped up a log and flew into a tree, where it perched in the open quite high up. For an almost completely ground-dwelling species, this really was a special encounter!

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Scaly Thrush

The time of this sighting was only around mid-morning, so we were off to a good start. However, despite marvelling at a superb array of rainforest wildlife, the Sri Lanka Spurfowl eluded us for the whole day. As we headed back down the bumpy track to our lodge, I thought that we would have seen 33 out of the 34 endemics, which I wasn’t too displeased about.

Originally, I had planned to have a lie in on our final morning before heading back to the airport hotel. However, I’m glad I changed my mind at 6am! I knew I couldn’t miss the pre-breakfast bird walk, just in case something exciting was seen. You never know! And it turned out that I made the right decision…

We walked along the road from our lodge, seeing many common birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers. It’s not a large or dense village, with very few houses, and soon we were walking along a cobbled road through thick forest towards some outlying buildings. Unlike the Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Spurfowls are very territorial and have a very loud call, which starts low but builds to a climax as the pair are duetting. Suddenly, we heard it rise up from the depths of the forest, I couldn’t quite believe it at first! They sounded quite far off but they were getting closer, toward an area of open ground beside a stream. We kept our eyes on that area of open ground and sure enough, two spurfowls  walked into view! They were quite distant, however they completed our set of endemics for the trip, which I was elated about. A super end to a super trip!

 

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One of the Rarest Cats in the World: The Iberian Lynx

On Boxing Day, I was lucky enough to be heading out to Sierra de Andújar in Southern Spain to look for the extremely rare Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus), of which there are only a few hundred left in only a handful of sites.

Sierra de Andújar is a natural park, which can’t be called a national park as most of it is privately owned by deer and boar hunters. However, there is a road running through it and across the sides of sandy, shrubby mountains that gives the Lynx watcher an excellent view of the surrounding area. I have nicknamed the road the ‘Lynx road’.

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The view from the Lynx Road (there’s a Lynx there somewhere!)

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Our excellent guide, Pau Lucio, on the Lynx Road

We had an excellent guide: the Tour Manager of Birdwatching Spain, Pau Lucio. As well as having great knowledge about the Lynx and other wildlife, he also knew the best spots to find each species.

As well as a few distant views of the Lynx, we had one amazing sighting. We had just returned from a trip to explore one of the dams in the park and we stopped at Pau’s favourite spot along the Lynx road to see if anything would show up. We noticed that there were a lot of people (50 or so) hurrying around the corner with their telescopes. Pau asked them in Spanish if they had seen anything and they said that a Lynx was coming around the mountain corner about 70m from the road, which was closer than one had come to me before. We stood waiting for the Lynx to appear for quite a long time. I spotted it first when it came around the corner, but typically, as soon as I took my eye off it to show the other people where it was, I lost it. They have such good camouflage! I only saw it again once it had walked 50m further away from us and reached a firebreak.

But then it started to walk along the firebreak towards a stretch of the Lynx road, so a few of the Lynx watchers and I went to that stretch of road hoping that it was going to cross there. Inevitably we couldn’t see the Lynx when we got there, but it definitely hadn’t crossed the road. Suddenly I heard some noise from a group behind us and I turned to see them frantically gesturing for me to come. It must be the Lynx. It was, and it wasn’t even walking away from us! It was actually walking towards us and looked set to cross the road in front of us! It was on relatively open ground so I got a few nice photos of it walking towards the road, but no good ones of it crossing the road. This was because it bounded across, which surprised us as it was so calm before. Pau said that the moment it touches the road, it knows it must run. Good Lynx. The biggest reason for the Lynx’s decline is road accidents.

Walking...

Walking…

A quick look back

A quick look back

It caught me by surprise!

It caught me by surprise!

At the end of the trip, we watched a slideshow compiled by some of the guests of the villa in which we were staying, who visited the area two years ago. I learnt quite a lot, even though it was in French. One of the points that was very powerful was that in thousands of years no cat has gone extinct but there is a real danger of the Iberian Lynx being the first. However, the population is increasing. When at its lowest point there were only around 100 individuals, compared to today’s 300. Hopefully the Iberian Lynx population continues to increase.

Blackfish

I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit the lovely country of Canada over the summer holidays. We visited both Toronto and Vancouver during our stay, but most of it was spent at Knight Inlet lodge just north of Vancouver. This lodge is excellent for Grizzly Bear viewing, especially in autumn when they are actively fishing for salmon. However, definitely one of the highlights of the trip was the day we went whale watching in Johnstone Strait with a special focus on Orcas.

It was a long boat ride to the spot where the Orcas were last seen, but it was worth it when we got there. It took a while to actually locate the Orcas though, they are surprisingly hard to spot. Every breaking wave looked like an Orca to me! Even when we did finally catch sight of them they were easy to lose track of as they can hold their breath for as long as 12 minutes! They also move quickly; the synonym ‘Killer Whale’ is a misnomer as they are actually members of the dolphin family rather than the much slower moving whales. To give you an indication of size, the largest male we saw had a dorsal fin that measured around 6 feet! That’s more than 1.8 metres!

Our guide, Paul, seemed to have predicted where the Orcas would be and had no hesitation when zooming at full speed towards the spot where they were. However, he was actually heading towards a position relayed to him from an Orca watch team, which watch an area of the strait for quite a lot of the year. You must be patient for that job! There is also a team which act as a sort of ‘Orca police’, which go around in a speedboat making sure everyone is sticking to the rule that you can’t be within 100 metres of an Orca unless it comes to you.

Once we were into the groove of Orca watching, they seemed to be everywhere. They kept on surfacing around the boat and it seemed like there were hundreds of them! There turned out to be only thirty or so, but due to their ability to hold their breath so long they kept on appearing at completely different positions from when they were last seen.

You may be wondering why the title of the post is ‘Blackfish’. Well, coincidentally the lodge had a talk on Orcas the following evening and I learnt a lot. I found out that there was a movie called Blackfish made about a particular Orca that was held captive at SeaWorld for a long time called Tilikum. He was caught near Iceland in 1983 measuring 13 feet, but he now measures 22 feet and is the largest Orca in captivity. He was taken away from his home and family at only 2 years old and was kept in a tiny holding tank where all an Orca could do is float and swim in small circles. He was eventually transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a rundown park in British Columbia where his pool was only 100 by 50 feet and was just 35 feet deep. He relentlessly performed every hour, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and when the park closed he was crammed into a tiny round module with 2 other female Orcas until the next morning.

The rundown park closed after Tilikum and the two other female Orcas dragged a trainer down to the bottom of the pool and tossed her around until she drowned. Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld for a captive breeding programme. For 21 years Tilikum lived in SeaWorld, in a tank that contained only 0.0001 percent of the amount of water that he would travel through in only a day in the wild. This was clearly stressful for the Orca, and he started chewing on the edges of the tank, which wore down his teeth substantially. He also had a collapsed dorsal fin, which is very common in captivity but rare in the wild. He even killed 2 more people! After the last death he was put in isolation in such a small tank that he couldn’t swim. He would float aimlessly for hours at a time. In the wild, even when an Orca is sleeping it never stops moving!

We watched the Orcas for around 2 and a half hours and I never got bored. If the Orcas weren’t showing (which was rare), we still had Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals and even a group of male Steller’s Sealions to entertain us! Birds were amazing too, the highlight being a lone Cassin’s Auklet among hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes combing the water’s surface.

Orcas

Orcas

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes

Steller's Sealions

Steller’s Sealions

 

What my grandkids might not be able to see – Foxes

Some people might think that the Fox is an unusual choice as something my grandchildren might not be able to see. They are so common they can even be found in cities, right? But they’re wrong. Foxes can be found in today’s cities, but what about the cities in half a century? The only reason Foxes hang on in cities is because there are spaces  for them to shelter and there is lots of food to be found on the street. But cities will develop – that’s inevitable. Cities will become neater, leaving no shelter. Cities will become cleaner, leaving no food. That’s another habitat lost.

I am incredibly lucky to have foxes breeding in my quiet village. This year for the first time I have seen cubs, three of them, run past my living room window while I’m watching Countryfile, so young and full of life. But as all cubs do, they’ll grow older and have to fend for themselves away from their parents’ territory. But dispersing is like an assault course – they have to cross road after road before they reach unoccupied suitable habitat.

Even though there will be much less suitable habitat in the future and fewer Foxes will survive to adulthood, there is still some hope left. Our Fox family has chosen an excellent place to live as there’s lots of food on offer. A house down the road feeds them chicken and we often see a Fox trot past the window, looking content and with a huge chicken breast in its mouth. However, I wouldn’t advise feeding Foxes, especially if you have limited time. If you start feeding them they will come to depend on you, but sooner or later you’ll be absent for a long period of time or even move house, leaving no food for the Foxes. A way you can help though, is by being careful when driving in the evening. Our Foxes come out at anytime after 8pm, sometimes earlier. Drive slower, always watch the road and if it is dark then put your headlights on as soon as the sun sets.

Camera Traps in the Bush…

Over Christmas I was lucky enough to go to South Africa for nearly three weeks, mainly staying at a suburban house in Pretoria but making trips to Kruger National Park and Pitse Lodge for 6 and 4 days respectively.

One of the highlights of my stay at Pitse Lodge in Welgevonden Game Reserve was being able to set camera traps for three nights. Our first night was by far the most successful, and I was able to see three animals I never dreamed of seeing on a camera trap! We set up two camera traps that night; one by a crossroads in a vlei which we hoped would be successful because we didn’t think animals like walking through the soggy ground and they could be coming from all three directions. Our second location was by the Lodge’s driveway, which is apparently very fruitful. It turned out that all three of those special animals were photographed at the first site: Porcupine, Brown Hyaena (with a possible baby antelope in its mouth) and an Aardvark! We would never have seen these animals on a game drive as they all walked past between three and four in the morning.

Here are the photos:

Brown Hyaena with young antelope (?)

Brown Hyaena with young antelope (?)

Aardvark

Aardvark

Porcupine

Porcupine

The rest of the times we put the cameras out we didn’t get much, but we did get a very large and delightful herd of Zebra coming through:

Zebra

Zebra

With calf

With foal

It was a very worthwhile experience!

Frozen Whales!

If there was one thing that I didn’t expect to see in great numbers on our voyage around the Svalbard Archipelago were Whales. However, we saw 4 species, 4 Humpback Whales, 1 Minke Whale, 11 Fin Whales (the second largest creature ever) and an outstanding 5 Blue Whales (THE largest creature ever)!!! This post explains the story of how we managed to see the Blue Whales:

Blue Whale 1, 24th July

We were having a party at the bar that night to celebrate Super Bear and the Fin Whales that were seen during dinnertime. Just as the party was dying down because it was nearly midnight, all of the staff and guides suddenly vanished, we thought they had turned into pumpkins! But just on the STROKE of midnight there was an announcement on the speaker, stating a Blue Whale had been spotted! We weren’t as confident as we should have been though, because during dinner there was an announcement beholding the presence of a Blue Whale, which just turned out to be another Fin Whale. When we got up to the bridge it was a real Blue Whale, and no one could hold in their amazement (and their warmth, we were still in our party clothes!). This sighting was the most southerly one of the whole trip, which turned out to be amazing because we were already out of the Blue Whale’s known distribution!

Blue Whale 2, 26th July

In contrast to the very late night sighting of the last Blue Whale, our next Whale’s announcement was our wakeup call! The Blue Whale was spotted just before 7:30, though loads of people turned up to see it. This sighting was even further north than our last one, just above 80 degrees, which made it more special. The reason we spot these whales when they spend most of their time underwater is because you can easily hear them breathing! You can differentiate a Blue Whale from all the other whales by its mottling on its side, the tiny dorsal fin and its HUGE size!

Blue Whale 3, 4 and 5, 26th July (again!)

Further north still, these Blue Whales were spotted as we were zodiac cruising the SEA ICE, way above 80 degrees and the furthest north we reached on the whole voyage! Our last Blue Whale sighting was also the only one to be seen from the zodiacs, as the first one was spotted by Will the geologist as we were loading them. Once the boats were loaded (with people), we headed off in the direction the Whale was last seen. Soon enough we counted three Blue Whales, and were able to say that we had been in a boat on a Blue Whale’s footprint, seen a Blue Whale above 80 degrees north and been in the water with three in 30 minutes!

Blue Whale, Sea Ice and a Fulmar

Blue Whale, Sea Ice and a Fulmar

Blue Whale

Blue Whale

In Search of the Polar Bear

For our summer holiday we decided to go on a circumnavigation of Svalbard, mostly for Polar Bears. Fortunately for us we were in luck, we saw 13!
Our first Bear came on day one, certainly a nice start to the voyage! The Polar Bear was on an island, feeding on Arctic Tern and Arctic Skua eggs. It was constantly being mobbed by the defensive parents and it was very nervous. That meant that when we went out on zodiacs to get a closer look, it moved to the other side of the (small) island. We saw a few family parties of Common Eiders next to the island too as they choose to nest with the Arctic Terns for their protective nature.
Day two brought our second Polar Bear, spotted by someone in our zodiac on a cruise around a glaciated bay. We saw it before we had even entered the bay, which meant that we didn’t have much time for the rest of the excursion! It was a very dirty specimen, easy to see when it walked in front of a patch of snow or ice, though it wasn’t in bad condition.
On day three we came across no less than three bears on a single slope, showing absolutely no interest in each other! They were also a mile inland which is unusual in its own right!
Day five heralded the best Bear sighting of the whole trip, at somewhere where we would never have dreamed of seeing a Polar Bear! We were cruising a bird cliff, full of nesting Brunnich’s Guillemots (Thick-Billed Murres), Black Guillemots and Kittiwakes, when someone spotted a Polar Bear halfway up! Glaucous Gulls were continuously mobbing the Bear, even drawing blood! The Polar Bear got his revenge however, and swiped at one of the gulls and killed it! All of the staff said they had never seen this kind of behaviour in their life and that I probably would never see it again!
Day six had the same number of Polar Bears as day three, but a little bit different. We were zodiac cruising Duck Island, a nature reserve known for its breeding wildfowl, when we found a collared female Polar Bear with a cub! It was obvious that it was a female guarding the cub and not a male eating the cub (they often do) because it is not possible to put a collar on a male as a male’s neck is thicker than its head! However, we did find a male Polar Bear on the island opposite the one the mother and cub were on, just patrolling the stretch of coast.
I would say that would be target achieved!

Super Bear!

Super Bear!