Thursday 21 August 2014

Loch Doon for Ayrshire Ospreys—and butterflies and dragonflies

We took he opportunity last week to drive 20 minutes from home to see the Ospreys at Loch Doon just in time to see the second of the two chicks still in the nest. It was fed by the parents while we enjoyed bacon and egg rolls sitting outside the Roundhouse Cafe on the shores of the loch and looking at the nest through the telescope. The chick was vigorously exercising its wings at the edge of the nest and later reports indicated that it too left the nest that day. A few days ago parents and young were still around the nest site. Females are said to leave for West Africa first, leaving the male to feed the young after they leave the nest; the males and the young then start their migration south.

The Roundhouse Cafe has a telescope for visitors to use. The nesting platform is on the other side of the loch and I was very pleased to have my 40x eyepiece on the Televid. I did not have digiscoping kit with me and the photograph is blown up from a shot taken with the equivalent of a 1000 mm lens on a full-frame 35 mm camera using a Nikon P510.

Readers outwith the UK might think it a little strange to go to see a bird that is so common in many countries. Those within the UK will recognise the Osprey as an icon of virtual extinction and recovery (from zero in 1950 to about 250 breeding pairs at present) while those in Ayrshire are celebrating the first successful breeding in the old county.

Walks in the Loch Doon area are usually productive in terms of wildlife, especially in the spring as the migrant birds arrive. On this August day, Scotch Argus butterflies were on the hillsides and the Golden-ringed Dragonfly over shallow streams that run into the River Doon after it emerges from Ness Glen.

Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops)   Photo: AJP
Hillside habitat of the Scotch Argus   Photo: AJP
Golden-ringed Dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii)   Photo AJP
View from above the road leading to Loch Doon. Bogton Loch in the distance
with Craigengillan House on the left. A good spot for cuckoos and crossbills
Photo: AJP
Loch Doon

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Alfred at Bristol Zoo: What Sort of Gorilla Was He?

When writing the previous post, I must confess to a degree of confusion as to the identity of Alfred, the famous gorilla at Bristol Zoo from 1930 until his death in 1948.

Alfred (from Schomberg's British Zoos)
This is what the fully referenced Wikipedia entry has to say (with my bold):

Alfred was initially found by an Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History, New York and Columbia University in 1928 in what was then Belgian Congo. The expedition members were told that a pair of gorillas had been shot for ‘raiding’ a farmer’s field for food, afterwards a baby was discovered and suckled by a local woman. The baby gorilla was later sold to a Greek merchant and taken to the town of Mbalmayo in modern day Cameroon, where the expedition encountered him playing in the streets. He was described by the Expedition as ‘the liveliest specimen of his kind we had ever seen’.

In 1830 [1930] Alfred was sold to an Italian who, after bringing him to Europe, sold him on to an animal dealer. Bristol Zoo, already successful in rearing chimpanzees, acquired Alfred for £350. Alfred spent a few months housed in Rotterdam in 1930 before continuing to Bristol Zoo. Alfred was reputedly named for Alfred Mosley, a benefactor of the zoo. Although during his life he was thought to be a Mountain Gorilla, it is more likely that he was a Western Lowland Gorilla.

His stuffed skin appears to be that of a Western Lowland Gorilla but I can see how people got confused. This is what Geoffrey Schomberg (1927-1997) wrote in British Zoos (1957):

Bristol Zoo will always be associated with the name of Alfred, the most famous gorilla that ever lived in captivity. When he was only a few months old, his parents were shot raiding while raiding a plantation in the Kivu Mountains of equatorial Africa. He was suckled by a native woman, and passed through the hands of a Greek merchant, an Italian who brought him to Europe, and a Dutch animal dealer, from whom he was purchased by the Zoo on 30 September 1930. He was then two years old and weighed two stone.

If Schomberg’s account was correct, then Alfred would have been a Mountain Gorilla from the Kivu Mountains, well outside the range of the Western Lowland Gorilla. However, contemporary newspaper reports describe a different location for ‘Kivu’. This is the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 11 September 1930 (before the date given by Schomberg of Alfred’s purchase):

“Have you seen Alfred.” That is what the people of Bristol are saying to one another…They [gorillas] are very rare and very shy, and are confined to a small area in the Cameroons and the Kivu district on the West Coast of Africa.

Was there a misunderstanding somewhere along the line of his origin, and ‘Kivu’ perhaps assumed to be the mountains of Kivu province in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Kinshasa)? Was ‘Kivu’ a garbled version of a different location as Alfred was passed along the line?

The Wikipedia entry has Alfred Mosley as the zoo’s benefactor after whom the gorilla was named, whereas Hannah Paddon in Sam Alberti’s The Afterlives of Animals spells it Sir Alfred Moseley. I have been unable to find much information on the human Alfred, other than that he may have made his money in South Africa (the gorilla cost the equivalent of about £20,000 in today’s money) and he may have led missions to the USA to examine their industrial and employment methods in the early 1900s.

Has anybody any more information on Alfred’s identity, the gorilla that is?

Wikipedia entry for Alfred
Paddon H. 2011. Biological objects and "mascotism". The life and times of Alfred the gorilla. In Alberti SJMM, The Afterlives of Animals. University of Virginia Press
Schomberg G. 1957. British Zoos. London: Wingate

Monday 18 August 2014

A Visit to Gorillas in the Congo

One of my earliest memories is of the first non-domestic animal I saw—a gorilla, ’Alfred’ at Bristol Zoo in summer 1946. The snapshot in my brain has the zoo entrance to the left and Alfred’s cage in front of me. My great (grand in genealogical terminology) uncle and aunt and my grandparents are to my left and my parent are to my right. Alfred is dragging a piece of sacking from left to right.

Alfred was an animal celebrity and a source of great pride in Bristol where he lived from 1930 until he died in 1948.

Another gorilla but this time a dead one also made a strong impression on a little boy.‘George’ (I cannot remember his ever been called this in the 1950s) was in the natural history museum at Wollaton Hall. Mounted impressively, upright, hanging on a tree, with his teeth bared and reproductive organs in full view (small remember in the gorilla) he towered above the visitors and this small boy can remember being more than a little scared every time I was taken to see him (probably two or three times a year). George is still there but Wollaton Hall as a natural history museum is a shadow of its former self and confirms my belief that museum display professionals must learn to leave things alone. This gorilla, I read now, was bought by Nottingham Corporation from the 1878 Paris Exposition held to mark the recovery of France from the Franco-Prussian War.

The next time I saw Alfred he was stuffed and on display in the Bristol’s museum, still the cause of great civic pride as recounted by Hannah Paddon in Sam Alberti’s The Afterlives of Animals. That was in 1957. Bristol Zoo went on to have other gorillas in the 1950s and I took photographs of the new accommodation when I went to my last visit to Bristol Zoo in 1963.

Bristol Zoo Gorilla House, 1963

As I wrote in my post of 16 June, the privilege of being able to visit groups of Western Lowland Gorillas and observe the other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians in the Congo Basin is an experience of a lifetime. In the middle of May we were with a group of ten clients of Naturetrek in the camps in the Republic of Congo run by Wilderness Safaris, Ngaga and Lango, 340 miles from Brazzaville, both in or adjacent to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

At Ngaga we divided into parties of two or four and visited two groups of gorillas, each headed by a silverback, ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Neptune’. These gorillas were habituated by Dr Magda Bermejo and her colleagues. Because of the effects of outbreaks of ebola on the population, the IUCN classification of the Western Lowland Gorilla is 'critically endangered’.

Filming was difficult through the thick vegetation. The camera was often at arms length and liable to shake. However, the footage below also shows the dense Marantaceae foliage, a major source of food for the gorillas, the environment in which they live and the sweat bees they have to put up with. What the video does not show is a female gorilla moving behind us and coming closer to see what we were about. She had a good look from a few yards away and then moved on to join the rest of the group as they climbed into the tops of the trees.

I shall never forget the sight of Neptune climbing the tree with consummate ease—and even striking the pose of the long-dead George. But the large tooth display was the result of a languid yawn as he paused before climbing even higher.

There is no greater privilege in the world than seeing a group of lowland gorillas in the wild in the Congo—sixty-eight years after seeing that unfortunate but great ambassador for gorillas, Alfred.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Garden Butterflies in Ayrshire

Ayrshire sometimes delivers wildlife spectaculars; this week we had one in the garden. Sometimes, in good summers in North Britain we get a good display of butterflies. Yesterday, there were about twenty feeding on the buddleia (Buddleja davidii): Peacocks, Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells. We rarely see Red Admirals and never before in such numbers as this year. I used my Nikon P510 superzoom bridge camera to get a few shots with the zoom fully extended (1000 mm in 35 mm full-frame terms). Early in the year Small Tortoiseshells were on the buddleia in the front garden (Buddleja alternifolia). The latter is a magnet for the Painted Lady but so far this year this species has not put in an appearance.


Red Admiral
Small Tortoiseshell

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Keeping Reptiles and Amphibians: Enthusing Young Zoologists

Keeping reptiles and amphibians, small mammals and birds in captivity was the accepted way of finding out about animals and many professional biologists who have made major contributions to their fields were enthused during their schooldays by the animals in their aquaria, vivaria, cages and aviaries.

Since the 1950s, knowledge of how to keep and breed small animals has advanced by leaps and bounds. From statements in books of the time that reptiles do not breed in captivity, breeding is now routine to the extent that captive-bred reptiles rather than birds abound in pet shops in Britain. Much, if not most, of that increase in knowledge came from amateur keepers, not from those working in zoos.

The general public is now far more sympathetic to reptiles and amphibians than they were since they have the opportunity to see and handle specimens at school and in zoos or specialist collections, or at home. The health and welfare of captive specimens has increased alongside an increase in veterinary participation (unheard of in the 1950s and 60s). Captive animals have increasingly become ambassadors for conservation, as well as temporary repositories for endangered species. That is all on the plus side.

On the minus side, the fancier mentality has taken hold, joining aviculture and fish-keeping in undermining the good reasons for keeping animals in captivity. The many colour forms of species forged by natural selection, are a sad travesty of the real thing being produced by a psychological state (plus a desire for profit) that I neither understand nor condone.

I have started another blog to cover the history of keeping small vertebrates in relation to the advances that have been made in the past century. In other words, some of the many things that interest me and have kept me interested as a sideline to my professional research interests for the past fifty-six years. At that site, you can download the only books we had available in Britain then and see just how limited our knowledge was as on how to keep and breed reptiles and amphibians, in particular.

The new site which will run in parallel with this one is at: