Tuesday, 25 September 2018


It must be over 5 years since I last visited the zoo. I can't find any old blogs. So a visit was long overdue. It's a fantastic place and Mary got 2 free tickets through her NHS work. I just checked prices and it's normally the best part of £20 each so big thanks Mary and the NHS for sponsoring our trip there. After the rigours of Dumfries Half it seemed like a good idea to go on Monday as the sun was out which would be better for photos. We would have the chance to un-stiffen trashed legs on the inclines of the zoo's steep slopes. And yes that is a real butterfly that landed on the sign. They actually have certain enclosures with just plants in them as an area designated for local wildlife. And there were a few butterflies about the place today, but mainly crows and magpies making friends with their overseas cousins.

The first photos I took were the hoverfly exhibit. OK really just the flowers outside the toilets while I was waiting on Mary powdering her nose. One of the first enclosures you come to is actually the Meerkats. It's a very plain but attractive set up with logs and dusty gravel presumably to imitate the setting where D Attenborough would lie while being surrounded by these charming creatures. I dont recall the zoo having Meerkats before - or maybe those adverts and wildlife programmes have just familiarised us so much with them they have become inadvertent celebrities. 

We seemed to have timed it just right as a squad of meerkats came out and did their thing. I would have thought after a lifetime of never actually seeing any predators in Edinburgh they may well have relaxed their continual security checks, however they were still doing that sitting-up-checking-stuff-out-thing. They had more markings on their backs than I was previously aware of and looked really quite attractive. 

I was trying to figure out what makes a good zoo animal and I think it breaks down into about 4 categories. Appearance, appeal, activity and interraction. (Actually one more category might be whether you are likely to see the animal, call it availability). There are a number of apparently empty enclosures. Was there really a hedgehog there but just buried under the leaves? Low scores for animals you can't see!)

The meerkats are not particularly impressive in size or vibrant colours so score modestly on appearance. However they have a great appeal and cuteness. Hence their marketing careers. Interaction score was reasonable: they will come over and look into the camera so closely you can't pull back in time. But they do well in activity - never still for very long and often cavorting with each other in a way that could be mild aggression or just friendly wrestling. Then they would suddenly explode into a chase around their logs and then do the sitting on back legs trade mark meerkat stuff. The dwarf mongoose could learn a lot from this and maybe earn an upgrade from their wire mesh jail halfway up the hill.

don't say simples

white faced Saki

There was a walkthrough area with these guys (above) in it. I remembered last time there were lemurs you could do a walkthrough with and it is a great feeling not having cage bars or glass between yourself and the animals. It certainly makes you pay attention! These things, (monkeys of some sort) were pretending to be indifferent to us but kept an eye on us never the less. 

The ring tailed lemurs (below) have been in the same enclosure for a long time and it doesn't make for decent photos. Shame as they are very photogenic.

There a few aquariums within the zoo. I have kept fish before and know if you don't take good care of them and clean their tanks, they can quickly deteriorate and can easily look a bit dirty and grubby. The ones here are pristine and all the fish are super-healthy looking. In fact all of the animals looked superbly well and in good condition. 

There are some people who don't like the idea of animals in captivity. It is easy to confuse animals for humans and assume that being confined is a bad thing. I didn't see anything in the zoo that struck me as cruel. Some of the larger species don't live the way they would outside: the larger birds are not free to fly any distance and the big cats are limited by their cage size. So yes it is not perfect, and as public opinion changes, zoos keep fewer of the larger species. Edinburgh no longer has Mercedes the polar bear or any elephants. But I am not perturbed by the animals they do have, and the conditions in which they keep them. Although I wouldn't be disappointed if they let some of the big cats go (preferably on Princes St during the festival). I just find them boring. They have unpleasant habits, don't interact, aren't active, aren't cute and only score high on appearance. That said we went quickly past the massive and impressive new enclosure of the Sumatran tiger only to see it was indoors and facing away from the viewing platform. An unedifying tiger's arse. Like the back end of a panto horse. Not much spectacle there.

Not like the Rainbow Lorikeets...

If you've got limited time go straight to the lorikeets, do not pass go. They may be signposted as Brilliant Birds which is right next door. I think the lorikeets are new for 2018 and when I saw them advertised I thought I must get along and see them. For £1 you can buy a small cup of nectar which would seem to be the crack cocaine of the bird world. In the ensuing activity I forgot to actually taste the nectar, but I imagine it is just fruit juice and sugary water. There was a girl selling the cups and I could sense an almost reluctance on her part to proceed. She wasn't reluctant, what was it? She wanted to control things and have them proceed just so. There is about as much chance of this as herding cats so I can see why there was a vague sense of a woman fighting a losing battle. 

We were shown how to hold the cups and to hold them at the feet of the birds. However nobody has explained the rules to these brightly coloured crack addicts and as soon as they see the cups they will happily sit on your head, your shoulders and hands as long as they can dunk their red beaks into their drug of choice. The alpha junkie was Geoffrey. He knew the score. He was straight off his branch and onto my hand with a mad gleam in his beady scarlet eye. He bobbed for nectar, raising and shaking his head between beak-fuls shaking nectar from his beak onto my hand and sleeve. I sat him back on his branch but he held on with one claw in such a friendly way you could not help but be smitten by these ludicrous creations. They didn't look real, more like designed by a child with a fistful of felt pens. And completely unafraid now that they know what is in the small cups. I tried to share the substance-abuse round and one of the other inmates preferred to lick up Geoffrey's splashes off the back of my hand and even where it landed on my jacket. They have brown "tongues" with patches on the top that are a bit white and almost like pan scourers that soak up the nectar. It is just totally delightful to have nectar licked from your hand by these charming psychedelic bandits and I nearly didn't bother going anywhere else in the zoo - just bedding down with these dudes and spending all my loose change on cups of nectar. They scored nearly top marks in all categories; even activity - when they were not clambering up and down your arm they would huddle in attractive rows and sit looking in the right direction for photos. 

Top tip: buy one cup at a time. I bought 2 - one for me, one for Mary. Mistake! We both had our hands full instantly and it was almost impossible to take pics of the other covered in lorikeets. We were so immersed we almost missed the fabulous photo opportunities. I saw Mary had her camera looped on her right wrist and no way to get it out holding her cup up to a line of rainbow coloured loons.

It was so much fun I almost forgot to ask any intelligent questions of the girl selling cups o' crack. Since she called Geoffrey by his name I asked was she able to recognise the birds by appearance: more by their coloured bands they wear. Although I'm sure they have different characters. Geoffrey was NOT shy. They are from Australia (natch!) and the ones with grey chests are elderly (and not juvs as I had assumed.) 

Mary being held ransom!

So it starts with a lick then there is a gentle peck and bite. It is not in the least sore and wouldn't break the skin but the zoo are keen to discourage this behaviour and you can imagine the law suits just waiting to happen if it spiralled out of control. So we are told to hold fingers away which was shame as I was just scooping the last of the juice out the cup and holding it up to the birds to nibble. Not allowed! Meanwhile my hand was being cleaned carefully with mostly licks and only occasionally a little nibble. There is video. Below is a still from the video. You can tell I was smitten!

It was going to be hard for many of the other creatures to compete with the Lorikeets and I thought we might have to return to the beautiful birds if everything else seemed a bit tame. However there was much that was amusing and interesting. 

can't remember what this was describing
but I imagine it covers many of the inmates



Now this was the dwarf mongoose. Not a million miles away from a meerkat but quite different as well. About the size of a meerkat there were (at least) 3 of these happily romping about their cage. They seemed to have been made from 1 part rat, 1 part weasel, 1 part otter and a bit of lemur or small primate around the face. Presumably the soul of a serial killer if they take on snakes in the same manner as their full sized cousins. Much as I wanted to like them, the impregnable wire cage spoke volumes. Whereas the meerkats seemed to be free to come and go - if they wanted to pop over to the cafe, or visit their pals. Actually I've just been reading up and meerkats are mammals of the mongoose family (Herpestidae.) And they only live in South West Africa.

We passed another empty enclosure and this RA was sampling the buddleia. I was taking pics and I noticed 2 blokes come over and stare into the animal free area wondering what the hell I was taking photos of. Just near the photo below I heard a confused woman studying all the signs that point to the different animals, and she turned to her partner and said Wha'll-it-be? (No really!)


warty pig

The Gelada Baboons scored highly on the activity chart. Family units with the younger ones continually exploring and behaving like young children do. There was a large viewing window into their field and it was well attended (on the human side) as they provided plenty spectacle. They looked to be behaving in very human-like ways. Unfortunately they also exhibited an awareness of their audience and I don't think it was coincidence that at times every one of them had their backs turned towards the viewing window.

a compelling game of chess or plan of escape?

snowy owl

Ever since the demise of the Bearded Dragon at Butterfly and Insect World I had thought there were none locally. However in the Wee Beasties area (indoor displays) there are lots of good things. Several fall into the low scoring where-the-fck-in-the-tank-is-it category, but sometimes that makes the eventual appearance more special. The Bearded Dragon was very obliging if not very active, posing for photos on top of his favourite log perch. About his only activity was closing then opening his eyes. But isn't he (or she) splendid!

There were more fish and marine creatures in tanks in the Wee Beasties building. Again they all looked in very good health. The lighting is artificial in the tanks and generally low in the surrounding area so taking photos is not quite but nearly a shot in the dark. I took a mixture of flash and non flash shots and the flash ones actually gave more of a convincing result. I then further adjusted them in post.

some of the aquatic creatures had an almost fluorescent glow

Also - and I have never seen one in captivity, or anywhere other than on TV, they had a Mudskipper. One of those little fish with front flippers that act as legs. It was a bit camera shy and too well camouflaged to get a photo.

Blue Poison Arrow Frog
Pleased to catch a glimpse of these in otherwise "empty" tank.

Penguins. It is not a mistake or just a random choice to have a Penguin on the Zoo's branding. The penguins have always been popular. The King Penguins were involved in a captive breeding programme here in 1919, the first in the world. And there is a Penguin Parade, allegedly started accidentally in 1951 when a keeper left the gate to their enclosure open and they followed him single file round the zoo. This proved such a hit it is repeated regularly. The penguins are not bribed so if they choose not to bother it doesn't go ahead.

Their new (it's been there for a good while) enclosure is the largest outdoor penguin pool in Europe and the below-waterline windows give great views of the birds flying underwater. It is probably the place we spent the most time taking pics and watching, both above and below the water. I was pleased to see the windows are kept clean and the water vaguely fresh! 

I thought the birds might be a bit dim as they never tire of chasing sticks and leaves on the windows. Mary thought they were probably being playful rather than stupid. And they do seem to have lively personalities. They go about looking fairly happy and unperturbed. Maybe they have heard about how harsh it is in Antarctica. Every now and then one will shoot round the pool so fast it can propel itself out the water. For no other reason than having a bit of a whoop. We were there when they were fed and they were calm about it - no feeding frenzy or squabbling. Then after dinner lots went in swimming and seemed pretty lively. I can understand why they have become favourites and I took more photos of them than even of the Lorikeets. I think they get nearly top marks on every category: they are good looking, cute, charming, they are often active, and when not, will pose for photos and close-ups happily. They don't mind a bit of interaction and are, when flying at top speed, spectacular and graceful, even though torpedo shaped.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

I like this despite the focus

Gentoo Penguins

their artificial beach is great

and diving platform


King Penguins

viewing windows

After ages we were both feeling a bit tired - those missing hours from Saturday night still taking a toll. We decided to head for the bus stop. However on the way to the exit there were still things catching our attention. Such as this Grey Crowned Crane (I think) who shared his home with a couple of Pudu, (small deer.)

Mary keeping out of harm's reach!

The Pelicans were spectacular. They were not bothered about proximity and sat fearlessly as I moved right next to them. Although the chicks in the wild might be predated, the adult birds have few predators and so are suitably relaxed. They were just so otherworldly as well as being huge. There was no canopy over their enclosure and I think the only thing stopping them flying off was there was no nearby take off and landing strip. I imagine they would need to take quite a run at it! They looked happy enough.

What a day out! I took something like 700+ photos. And we only saw maybe half of the residents. There were some closures or absences - the Scottish Wildcat had had enough of visitors and was being given a time out with trees being put in front of it's enclosure to discourage viewers. And the Painted Hunting Dogs were off on a stag do. Also just the things you come across, some are doing the right thing as you go past, others are reading a magazine indoors and tired of visitors. Every time I go there are different animals that catch my attention. So, like the botanics or the butterfly farm, always worth a visit to see something else. I will be encouraging Mary to get more free tickets if she can, although I suspect I may actually have to pay for it next time. Worth waiting for a sunny day if you are hoping to get some photos. I can't think of anywhere with a more spectacular crowd of willing models. Top day out!