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Serval, Malawi

Serval, Malawi

At Easter 1990, I was fortunate to accompany a school exchange with Kamuzu Academy. After rediscovering and scanning some of my slides, now seems a good time to reflect on our visit. Between 29 March and 14 April, we visited Kamuzu Academy itself, Chipata Mountain, Nyika Plateau, Nkhotakota (on Lake Malawi) and Kasungu. The gap between the wealthy few in Malawi and the many poor is very wide indeed, but here we concern ourselves with the wildlife we recorded.

Nyika Plateau is an outstanding area of montane grassland which at the time still had a healthy population of Leopard (we saw four). Some of the more spectacular birds included White-headed Vulture, Martial Eagle, and Wattled Crane. At Chipata Mountain we noted Ayres’ Eagle, Southern Ground Hornbill and White-necked Raven amongst others. At Kamuzu itself a wide variety of birds included Black Crake, Striped Cuckoo, Fiery-necked Nightjar and numerous passerines.

Flap-necked Chameleon, Malawi

Flap-necked Chameleon, Malawi

Elsewhere highlights included Saddle-billed Stork at Kasungu (where we also saw the Serval above), numerous African Fish Eagles around lake Malawi, and White-fronted Plovers. The experiences provided by wildlife in Africa, from the small to the very large, are outstanding. Cats in particular are compelling partly because they can be so elusive: who could forget their first Leopard?

Leopardess with cub, Malawi

Leopardess with cub, Malawi

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Notebook entry (AHJH)

Notebook entry (AHJH)

On 1 April 1986, after trekking for four days, I reached Nepal’s upper Langtang valley. It was a place of immense natural beauty, sparsely populated by friendly, hospitable people. The small boy who ran home singing after I gave him a box of matches seemed to represent a culture incomparably richer than the conspicuous consumption I have encountered subsequently in the USA and elsewhere.

And there were birds: Ibisbills in the glaciated river valley, and Himalayan Monal in the rhododendron forests, to name but two large, striking examples. You may wonder why I troubled to make notes on such a distinctive bird as Ibisbill, but remember that this was nearly 30 years ago, before digital cameras and easy electronic communication. Probably it was my way of honouring the moment.

It was therefore with great sorrow that I heard about the earthquake in Nepal this April, and even greater sorrow that I later learned of the destruction of Langtang village. The Disasters Emergency Committee has been raising funds to help the Nepalese people, and will doubtless be grateful for any further support we can offer. Britain and Nepal have been partners since a treaty signed in 1815; my guess is that we are still in their debt.

This drawing by a skilled artist of an Ibisbill wintering in the Indian foothills of the Himalaya does it more justice:

Ibisbill (John Wright)

Ibisbill (John Wright)

John Cotton remembered in Melbourne Museum

John Cotton remembered in Melbourne Museum

John Cotton (1801 – 1849) was a British poet, ornithological writer and artist, who became an early pastoral settler in what is now Victoria, Australia. In 1835 he published a book on British song birds, then in 1843 migrated with his family (comprising his wife Susanna and nine children) to the Port Phillip District of New South Wales in Australia. Following his arrival in Melbourne he leased from the government two properties on the Goulburn River where he farmed sheep. In 1847 Susanna gave birth to their tenth child.

From 1844 Cotton was preparing sketches, based on his own observations, for a book to be named Birds of Port Phillip, as well as accumulating a collection of bird skins. In our information-saturated age it is easy to underestimate how much more difficult this undertaking would have been then. However, circumstances were against him; John Gould’s monumental illustrated handbook The Birds of Australia, issued in seven volumes from 1840 to 1848, dominated the potential market, and there was little interest in, or appreciation of, his paintings. He died in 1849, three days before his 48th birthday, and his artwork remained unpublished, scattered among his descendants and largely lost to the world, for the next 120 years.

In 1974, Allan McEvey published John Cotton’s Birds which included a selection of Cotton’s drawings, and now Cotton is commemorated by a an exhibition of some of his work in a case in Melbourne Museum. As a pioneer of local ornithological recording, and a talented artist, he deserves more attention.

There are many things which I can’t show you, so you will have to imagine the hundreds of Short-tailed Shearwaters gathering offshore in the evening, and the scent of the dry eucalyptus forests, and the manic calls of the Kookaburra or the unexpected song of a Skylark over the Vietnam Veterans Museum.

Here is another small selection of wildlife which I can show you:

Black Wallaby, Phillip Island

Black Wallaby, Phillip Island

Australian Pelican, San Remo

Australian Pelican, San Remo

Pacific Gull, Flinders

Pacific Gull, Flinders

Yellow Admiral, Phillip Island

Yellow Admiral, Phillip Island

A flying visit to see family in Melbourne (during the southern summer) has also created the opportunity to look for wildlife around the Mornington Peninsula and Phillip Island. Here are a few of the highlights to date:

Short-beaked Echidna, Cape Schanck

Short-beaked Echidna, Cape Schanck

Hooded Plover, Cape Schanck

Hooded Plover, Cape Schanck

Superb Fairy-wren, Sorrento

Superb Fairy-wren, Sorrento

Australian Painted Lady, Melbourne

Australian Painted Lady, Melbourne