Hotspots

How to recognise Otters and what to do and to avoid

What follows is based on over 350 encounters with Otters, most of which took place on the islands off the west coast of Scotland. The comments on behaviour therefore refer to this area. This first article considers how you can distinguish an Otter in the sea from a Seal and what you should do or avoid when watching Otters.

It is strange that Otters are one of Britain’s most popular wild animals, when in most of its range it is mostly active during darkness or twilight but undoubtedly this animal is hugely popular. However, you need to be very lucky to see one in most of the UK, but north-west of the border with Scotland, the situation is different.

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The race

Champions of the Flyway is an international bird race for conservation. All teams are competing to raise the greatest amount of conservation funding. Its primary purpose is to celebrate the extraordinary miracle of bird migration. The teams arrive in Eilat a few days prior to the race day.

There is one full day of touring the best sites in the Negev and the Arava Valley enabling all participants to get a good feel of the “playing field” and practical and logistical issues, led by Israel’s top birders. The following days, the teams explore the field on their own to plan their route for the race day.

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More than 100 million of birds on their journey to the south

Every fall, more than 100 million birds head to southern Europe and Africa. They journey not to evade the harsh winter but primarily in pursuit of accessible food. While sources of food abound in the spring, making the northern climes ideal for raising their young,

sub-zero temperatures, snow and shorter days in winter render their search for nourishment much more difficult. Migratory birds are therefore almost genetically predisposed to fly off to warmer climes.

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Eilat, in southern Israel, is one of the most exciting birding sites of the western Palearctic region. The only overland bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa acts as a bottle-neck hosting hundreds of millions of migratory birds. Moreover, the birds passing through Eilat, are preparing themselves for the strenuous task of crossing the foodless and hostile Saharan desert.

The first sight you will probably get here in spring is the steady stream of Raptors hovering over the beautiful desert mountains that surround the town of Eilat. Raptor counts conducted here in the spring documented up to 20,000 Steppe Eagles, 50,000 Levant's Sparrowhawks (almost all the world's population), 500,000 Steppe Buzzards and 850,000 Honey Buzzards.

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A Champions’ account

The Zeiss Arctic Redpolls was one of the three teams sponsored by Zeiss Sports Optics in the famous Champions of the Flyway bird race and conservation event, on 29th March in southern Israel. Our team of four enthusiast birders and ornithologists (team captain Roni Väisänen, Jarkko Santaharju, William Velmala and Vilppu Välimäki) from Finland,

at the northern end of the Eurasian–African flyway, hooked up for the second time in this year’s race. With silver medals in our pocket from last year, some pressure for winning was put on our shoulders by other contestants.

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By Aki Aintila

Imagine thousands of raptors literally swarming, continuously gliding, in one gigantic stream. The stream reaches from just overhead to many kilometers to the north, almost as far as your naked eye can see. When you raise your optics to your eyes, you see even more birds joining in.

Other birders surround you, all gazing at the masses of birds in pure awe. The soundscape is dominated by the almost-neurotic clicks of pocket clickers as volunteer counters keep track of the numbers as the birds pass by.

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Heligoland. A small, sparrow-like bird is sitting on a lantern. At this very moment, one of the few bird-watchers who are on the island this spring passes by on his way to lunch. At first he hardly pays any attention to the bird - it is just another sparrow, one of many he has seen that morning. But then - what is that he hears? A short, odd sounding call causes him to feel a surge of adrenalin. That was not a regular sparrow!

The bird takes off and the observer quickly grabs his binoculars, a Victory 10×42 T* FL. The bird lands on the edge of an old skip. Through the binoculars the colours come alive vividly, with outstanding brightness and maximum detail.

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Barn swallows - these astonishing birds can be found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. Like all swallows, barn swallows are particularly well suited to a life spent on the wing. They rest, eat and drink in flight and only set foot on solid ground at night. Their sleek, streamlined bodies offer very little wind resistance and their relatively long, narrow pinion feathers give them optimum lift through the air. Given how little time these birds spend on the ground, it is no wonder that their legs have become quite useless. These limbs are tiny, and can only be detected in flight through the use of top quality optics as they are well hidden in the plumage.

However, the long tail of this type of swallow is perfectly designed to enable it to carry out fast, agile manoeuvres and to capture its prey of choice - insects! The short, stubby beak gives little indication of its true skill: it is the perfect insect catcher, being exceptionally broad and able to open very wide indeed.

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Created in 1969, today the national park covers 50,720 ha and is the largest nature reserve in Western Europe. The diversity in biotopes is as varied as Doñana is large. Secluded beaches, huge flood plains, lagoons, wandering dunes, extensive forests of pine and spruce, and expansive heaths make it a safe place for migratory birds to rest and spend the winter. It is a unique breeding ground for endangered birds such as marbled ducks, white-headed ducks and rare mammals like the Iberian lynx.

People are only granted access to a very few areas in the national park. One of the finest experiences is to go on one of the rare four to seven-hour-long jeep tours of the park. These tours start from the El Acebuche visitor centre. From here you can start to explore the park's open countryside and small lagoons on short trails.

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