Jan 22

My garden has never been more popular. It’s a hotbed of activity at the moment… well, the little part garden with the bird feeder is. Though perhaps hotbed is the wrong word, since it’s absolutely freezing!

When the temperature dropped a week or so ago the birds started visiting my garden in huge numbers, in a fever of feeding. The snow has made natural sources of food more difficult to find and they expend so much energy just trying to keep warm in these freezing conditions that they need to feed often.

Photo of robin perched on tree branch in snow

Robin in snow

Fatty food is best in the cold, so putting out things like fat balls, good quality nuts and seed, or even grated cheese is a real help. I use sunflower hearts in a seed feeder and they love it. In the last week I’ve had great tits, blue tits, goldfinches and robins, the occasional blackbird pecking around on the floor and even a nuthatch.

Here at the RSPB we’ve had stacks of calls from people telling us about the fieldfares in their gardens too. Not usually known for visiting gardens, fieldfares are being driven into them in their desperate search for food in these harsh conditions.

Photo of redwings and fieldfare perched on snow covered tree feeding on berries

Redwings and fieldfare feeding on berries

So, all of this garden activity could mean an exciting year for the RSPB’s 34th annual Big Garden Birdwatch, taking place in the UK on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 January. It’s the world’s biggest wildlife survey and everyone can join in by spending just one hour at any time over the weekend noting the highest number of each bird species seen in their garden or local park at any one time, then submitting the results to the RSPB. Schoolchildren and teachers will be doing the same in their school grounds as part of Big Schools’ Birdwatch between now and Friday 1 February.

Given the extra birds using my garden due to the cold at the moment I’m expecting to have plenty to report.

Photo of blue tits on a bird feeder

Blue tits on bird feeder

You can find out more about taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, enter your results online and help with identifying the garden birds you see at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Wendy Johnson, RSPB

Jan 22

For years, mackerel has been considered to be an ethical choice of fish for consumers, yet recent overfishing has led to this species no longer being a sustainable choice, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

Atlantic mackerel image

Mackerel has been downgraded to ‘amber’ on the MCS Good Fish Guide

Green to amber

In light of the drastic decline in stocks of cod and other much-loved food fish in recent years, mackerel has been promoted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc as an ethical, and healthy, alternative for consumers.

However, mackerel is distinctly absent from the most recent list of fish deemed by MCS to be from well-managed, sustainable stocks or farms, and is therefore no longer considered to be the best option for consumers. In its latest update to the Good Fish Guide, MCS has downgraded mackerel to the amber category, meaning that the society recommends that consumers only eat mackerel occasionally. International arguments over quotas have been cited as the reason for this species no longer being viewed as a sustainable choice.

At the moment, the stock biomass according to the scientific data is above the levels that are recommended. However, the number of fish being removed is above the target and too high,” said Bernadette Clarke, Fisheries Officer at MCS. “The stock is good for now but it is currently declining. It is now rated as a fish to eat only occasionally – it is not rated as one to avoid.”

Atlantic mackerel image

Atlantic mackerel

Placing the blame

Once found mainly in the northeast Atlantic, mackerel stocks have since been on the move, following their prey of squid and crustaceans westwards towards Iceland and the Faroe Isles. As a result of this shift, it has been reported that Icelandic and Faroese fisheries have increased the amount of mackerel that they catch, leading to overexploitation of the stock.

The total catch is now far in excess of what has been scientifically recommended and previously agreed upon by all participating countries,” said Clarke. “Negotiations to introduce new catch allowances have so far failed to reach agreement.”

Yet in a statement issued last year, Icelandic ambassador to the UK Benedikt Jonsson insisted that his country had worked for years to reach an agreement on mackerel fishing.

We have repeatedly offered proposals that sustain the mackerel population and ensure a fair outcome for all countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, certain countries have responded with attacks on Iceland and threats of sanctions, while simultaneously demanding a vastly oversized portion of the mackerel catch. The facts are clear: Icelandic fishing is generally recognised as sustainable and responsible.”

Atlantic herring image

Atlantic herring has been suggested as an alternative to mackerel

Celebrity endorsement

Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has promoted mackerel as an alternative fish in the past, has now said that he would be dropping his call for mackerel to be more widely eaten, with the exception of locally caught fish in support of fishermen. Fearnley-Whittingstall is angered by the fact that mackerel stocks have been allowed to become depleted, and urges countries involved in current disputes to reach an accord as soon as possible.

When we started the mac bap campaign two years ago, mackerel was certified as sustainable and part of a well managed fishery,” he said. “Unfortunately, things have changed, and politics and greed are getting in the way of common sense. If the countries involved could agree sensible catch limits this could still be a certified sustainable fishery.”

Moving forward

MCS has recommended that consumers should seek alternatives to mackerel, including herring and sardines, or ensure that any mackerel purchased is caught locally using traditional methods, therefore being as sustainable as possible.

However, such recommendations have not been well received by Scottish fishermen for whom mackerel is a critical stock, with £164 million of the popular fish landed in 2011.

The stock is actually still well above the precautionary level, even if Iceland and the Faroes continue to do this,” says Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.

So far, political representatives have been involved in 12 rounds of talks in an attempt to come to a mutual agreement on mackerel quotas, and the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes that this is the only way forward. It is clear that action needs to be taken for mackerel stocks to recover.

We hope that these so-called mackerel wars can be laid to rest as soon as possible, so we can all go back to eating mackerel again with a clear conscience,” said Fearnley-Whittingstall.


Read more on these stories at BBC News – Dispute means mackerel is no longer catch of the day and The Telegraph – Mackerel no longer an ‘ethical’ choice because of overfishing.

Learn more about the work of the Marine Conservation Society.

Find out more about the Atlantic mackerel on ARKive.


Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

Jan 19
Photo of a Sinai baton blue

Sinai baton blue (Pseudophilotes sinaicus)

Species: Sinai baton blue (Pseudophilotes sinaicus)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The Sinai baton blue is thought to be the smallest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan of just six to nine millimetres.

The Sinai baton blue is restricted to one tiny, mountainous, arid area in southern Sinai, Egypt, where its entire world population occupies a mere seven square kilometres. Both the adults and caterpillars feed almost exclusively on Sinai thyme (Thymus decussatus). The caterpillars of this species are sometimes tended by ants, in return secreting sugary droplets which the ants consume. The Sinai baton blue caterpillars pupate in the soil beneath their host plant over winter, emerging as adults between May and mid-June.

The Sinai baton blue is under threat from climate change, which may further reduce its already limited habitat. It is also vulnerable to human disturbance and the collection of its host plant for medicinal purposes. Fortunately, this tiny butterfly occurs entirely within the St Katherine Protectorate, where efforts are underway to protect both the butterfly and its host plant. Action is also being taken to increase public awareness of the Sinai baton blue, which is considered to be a flagship species for the area.

Find out more about the conservation of the Sinai baton blue at the Sinai Baton Blue Butterfly Conservation Project.

See more images of the Sinai baton blue on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Jan 16

Here in the ARKive office we can’t wait for the next installment of the new BBC series ‘Africa’, which kicked off earlier this month and is currently airing in the UK. Presented by Wildscreen patron Sir David Attenborough, the first chapter focused on the Kalahari desert in Africa’s southwest corner.

Having been inspired by this incredible first episode, we thought we would feature Botswana in ARKive Geographic this month, a land-locked nation with nearly 85% of its area falling within the Kalahari. Of course, Botswana also boasts the stunning Okavango Delta which supplies water to this region year-round, meaning that Botswana is teeming with a wonderful array of wildlife!

Creative Canine

African wild dog photo

The African wild dog, also known as the painted hunting dog, may appeal to many artists, as it illustrates nature’s sense of creativity. Their coats resemble an abstract painting from an art gallery, and no two dogs have the same pattern. These dogs hunt in packs, and are capable of taking down a wildebeest weighing up to 250 kg.  Another unique fact is that females can have litters of up to 10 pups, the largest litter size of any dog species. The African wild dog is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with potentially viable populations currently found in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Wattled Wader

Wattled crane photo

One of six crane species in Africa, the wattled crane is not only the largest but also the rarest,  with the largest populations occurring in Botswana and Zambia. Appropriately named for the wattles that hang below their chin, a crane’s wattle signals aggression when elongated, and feeling threatened when it is retracted. These non-migrating birds are rather quiet unless they need to use their resounding bugle call!

Kalahari Kitten

Black-footed cat photo

The black-footed cat may look cuddly, but it is actually quite a formidable hunter. Despite being the smallest wild cat species in Africa, this nocturnal stalker is able to consume prey up to twice its own weight. This rare species is found in savannah habitats in the Kalahari and Karoo deserts, and is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily due to poisoning and traps set out for other animals.

Bleeding Beauty

Bleedwood tree photo

The beautiful bleedwood tree is a tropical deciduous tree found in southern Africa, including the arid bushveld regions of Botswana. Its sweetly-scented, orange-yellow flowers bloom in spring and autumn. Its large leaves are up to 40 centimeters long, and its trunk varies in color from light brown to copper. The dark red, sticky sap from which the tree gets its name is used as a dye and has medicinal properties.

Sabred Sandman

Gemsbok photo

The gemsbok is a striking animal, with black and white facial markings and long saber-like horns. These heavy-bodied antelopes can be found in the semi-arid and arid grasslands, bushlands, sandy plains and dunes of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Incredibly, gemsbok can go much of the year without drinking any water, and as depicted by the photo, males establish territories and mating rights to females by fighting with their horns.

Do you have a Kalahari wildlife experience you would like to share with us? Find us on Twitter and Facebook!

Maggie Graham, ARKive Program Assistant, Wildscreen USA

Jan 14

Although the term ‘The Big Five’ is commonly used today by African Safari Tour operators for marketing purposes, it actually has a much darker origin. The phrase was first coined by hunters, who considered these five large African mammals to be the most difficult to hunt, due to their ferocity and the danger involved in tracking and killing them. Today however, ‘The Big Five’ are among the most popular and well studied of all African animals.

African elephant

As the largest terrestrial mammal in the world, the African elephant is also one of the most charismatic. This emotive creature has a highly complex social structure that is perhaps what makes the elephant such a favourite among us. Each closely related family group of females and calves is led by an old ‘matriarch’ female, and male elephants leave the group at puberty, forming less tight-knit alliances with other males. Interestingly, there seems to be some scientific truth behind the expression ‘elephants never forget’. Studies have revealed that the dominant female is able to build a ‘social memory’, enabling her to recognise ‘friends’. Despite their seemingly gentle nature, elephants can be extremely aggressive and dangerous when threatened.

African elephant photo

African elephants fighting

Black rhinoceros

The Critically Endangered black rhinoceros is distinguished from the African white rhinoceros by its characteristic pointed, prehensile upper lip. It is known for its inquisitive yet aggressive nature towards humans and other animals. Twice as heavy as an African buffalo, the black rhinoceros should not be mistaken as a slow animal. It is surprisingly fast on its feet, reaching speeds of up to 31 miles per hour, and is able to make sharp turns whilst running full pelt. In spite of all this, new camera technology has revealed a softer side to the black rhinoceros, which appears to show that they meet at night in order to ‘socialise’.

Photo of male black rhinoceros charging

Male black rhinoceros charging

African buffalo

The iconic African or Cape buffalo has a menacing appearance, with its brownish black coat and magnificently curved horns that can be used defensively to great effect. Alongside the hippopotamus, the African buffalo is considered to be Africa’s most dangerous animal, known to attack and even kill humans and other animals without provocation. Given their vegetarian status, this inclination highlights their extremely aggressive nature. Female bonds are strong within a buffalo herd, and if one is attacked by a predator, it will be staunchly defended by the rest of the herd. Having seen a lioness held hostage up a tree for hours by a herd of buffalo, I can vouch for the loyalty of herds!

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour


Lions are the most social of all cats, living in groups of related females who often reproduce at the same time and suckle each others cubs. In many cultures the lion has become known as the ‘King of the Beasts’ due to its ferocious temperament and regal presence. Also one of the largest of the ‘big cats’, the muscular lion has powerful jaws and is able to hunt animals that are many times its own size. Male lions compete for access to females, and will commonly kill any cubs already present after taking over a pride. This behaviour is exhibited to increase the reproductive potential of the male in a short period of time.

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

African lions attacking a hippopotamus


The graceful leopard is both majestic and elusive, its spots providing extremely effective camouflage in African habitats. Being skilled climbers, leopards will often drag their kill up into the trees to prevent it from being poached by scavengers. Leopards are powerful predators, with formidable jaws that dispatch and dismember prey with ease. They are equally able to hunt at night, with their long, sensitive whiskers enabling them to ‘feel’ their way in the darkness.

African leopard hunting

African leopard hunting

Africa’s ‘Little Five’

Whilst we talk about Africa’s most well known and ferocious animals, we mustn’t forget those smaller, but no less important. Did you know that for each of ‘the Big Five’ African animals, there is a ‘Little Five’ equivalent? These somewhat smaller, but equally impressive creatures include:

  • The rhinoceros beetle. The male has an impressive backward-curved horn on its head, hence its common name.
  • The rufous elephant shrew. These bouncing critters have kangaroo-like hind legs, allowing them to hop bipedally when moving fast.
  • The leopard tortoise. Named after its gold and black mottled shell, the leopard tortoise can live up to 50 years in captivity!
  • The buffalo weaver. These striking birds are most easily identified by their bright red rump and white head.
  • The ant lion. A winged larval insect, which digs conical shaped sand traps to catch small ants to feed on.
Rufous elephant shrew photo

Rufous elephant shrew

Watch out for our next Africa themed blog, which will explore the fascinating lesser-known African species the continent has to offer.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author


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