Meerkat capers and avocet woes

Wandering around Twycross Zoo with Jenny brought back all my feelings of ambiguity about zoos in general. One wants to see animals acting naturally despite the unnatural surroundings: some of them appear to be entirely content in their restricted environments, whereas others plainly weren’t.

Alert meerkats at Twycross Zoo

Although large animal species get star billing, it is often the smaller ones that are the most active and entertaining. The meerkats were busily active all the time that we watched them, and the oriental small-clawed otters were thoroughly absorbed in finding and nibbling the pieces of raw fish left around their enclosure.

Oriental small-clawed otters

Avocets – with just a small metal dish to skim!

Meanwhile there were other animals – and particularly some of the birds – that seemed to be in completely inappropriate surroundings. Having seen avocets wading around Teesmouth in summer, skimming the water with their curiously upturned bills, and again in winter on the Exe estuary, I was appalled to see a small flock at the zoo with just a single metal dish to skim! This made no sense from either an educational or a conservation perspective. And the less said about the small cages the owls were in, the better.

I can see the argument for zoos having a key conservation role when species are endangered – and, as they are commerical ventures, they do not depend on government hand-outs. But the Amur leopard, in an apparently large and well-designed enclosure, was repetitively pacing a small stretch: as it’s a critically-endangered subspecies, intensive conservation effort is clearly needed, but I did wonder how much space would be required for it to be relatively healthy and content.

My suspicion is that small animals are much easier to cater for within zoo environments, as are those that climb, like the gibbons, for which cages can easily be enriched with ropes, bridges and swings. But the large, glamour species seem to be the most difficult to cater for – and Twycross seems to struggle with adequate provision for their birds.

Two of the most enjoyable zoos that I’ve been to are ones that focus on the wildlife native to their area. One of these was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson, closer to home is Wildwood Trust in Kent, which keeps species that have been native to Britain in the last ten thousand years. Both of these have obvious educational value, enhancing one’s understanding of the local area, and presenting far fewer problems in terms of providing a fitting environment for the animals.

Catching a barn owl…

Being stared at by a barn owl is a strange experience: you just know you are guilty.

I don’t normally do a midweek blog article, but I wanted to share some of the wildlife images that I took last weekend – and I think you’ll agree that they’re better than some of the rather patchy ones I’ve posted before!

When I returned to Durham, I read on the local bird forum that there’s a pair of barn owls which are readily visible at Coatham Stob, a woodland west of Stockton. I went to look on the Saturday evening and, sure enough, about an hour before sunset, this pale white form drifted effortlessly and silently into view, visited the nest box briefly, and ghosted out with surprisingly slow, heavy wingbeats, onto its regular circuit. Twenty minutes later it came back with prey: a shrew, according to a photograph by local birding expert, Ian Forrest.

Barn owl landing with prey: a vole, probably.

A week later I went back, armed with my own camera. I thought that the owl was big enough to be photographed, and that I could also get close enough. I had also discovered an extra function on my camera: burst mode, in which a series of still photos are taken continuously while I hold the shutter down. Thus, I managed to catch the owl just as it was landing on its perch. There’s a large slice of luck in this: I doubt whether I could repeat the trick in a dozen attempts!


Earlier in the day I’d visited Greenabella Marsh, which now has more than 20 avocets: these, for me, are ‘wow’ birds, like goosanders. Later on, before venturing to Coatham Stob, I was wandering around the back of a lake and chanced upon a great-crested grebe nest – another ‘wow’ bird. For me there’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the solidity of heavy industry and and the fragile beauty of wildlife.

I’ve uploaded the best 9 pictures from the day to the flickr photo gallery site. If you’d like to see them, click here.

Meanwhile… an update on the Great White Egret from Loïc Marion of CNRS in Rennes. Since leaving Gloucestershire it went back to Cardiff for a few days, and was seen yesterday at the Catcott reserve in Somerset. Any more updates I’ll add to the egret story here.

Wildlife and industry

Healing on the Streets

Typical scene for Healing on the Streets: this is from the Vineyard Church in Taunton. Stockton in March, though, was grey and drizzly!

I’ve just been on a training course for Healing on the Streets, run by Stockton Parish Church.  I’d been familiar with it before as it has been running for two or three years back in Cheltenham, and although I did not join it then I was really excited to hear that it is starting up here in the north-east.

The guy doing the training was Mark Marx, who started the movement at the Causeway Coast Vineyard church in Coleraine in 2005. He himself has been a street evangelist for twenty years, but has found this form of ministry to be incredibly powerful and effective. He has personally seen people healed of cancers, those paralysed in wheelchairs able to walk, and blind eyes to see.

I get really excited about ministries like this, where the Kingdom of God visibly breaks onto the high street. However I am aware that not everyone who reads this blog feels the same way, so I thought I’d highlight the “Five distinctive marks” of Healing on the Streets, adapted from the training manual.

  1. The presence of the Holy Spirit – we carry the Holy Spirit wherever we go, and we are totally dependant upon him as we minister.
  2. Peace – we create the place of ministry so that it is a haven of peace in the middle of a bustling environment.
  3. Gentleness – “The streets are full of broken, hurting people. We minister with gentleness and sensitivity” (direct quote from the manual)
  4. Love – we’re empowered by God’s love, not our strength. Whether people are healed or not, we minister and communicate the depth of God’s love.
  5. Compassion – our motivation is for “the lost, hurting and broken… expressed through our words and action”

Avocets on Greenabella Marsh

Prior to the start of the course, I went on a quick birding trip to Greenabella Marsh, near where the seals lounge around at Greatham Creek. I’d heard that the avocets had returned to the area for the summer. I had seen these charismatic waders before as a kid, on a family holiday trip to the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere, so was eager to see them again. I was not disappointed: eight were skimming the water for food, with the smokestacks of Teesside in the background. And if that wasn’t enough, a short-eared owl appeared and flew low over the ground across the marsh.