Lesser Florican - August 2023

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Saturday 27 April 2024

Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, South Africa - 21st April 2024

As I had most of Sunday in Jo'burg, I managed to find a local bird guide called Wian van Zyl to take me out for the day. I handed over a list of birds which were new to me (only five or six species) and I let Wian sort the rest. 

Wian picked me up at the airport hotel at 5.30am (breakfast helpfully served from 4am) and off we went heading west to the Guateng region. Wian was excellent company throughout and we had a superb day, this despite the majority of my target species not appearing.

A Black/Great Sparrowhawk flew over us at some traffic lights and close to the entrance of Ezemvelo, we found a Black-shouldered Kite, Southern Fiscal, Cape Grassbird, Levaillant's Cisticola and Ostrich. We entered the reserve and a start/stop drive in this predator-free reserve was mostly quiet, but I was more than happy observing some excellent antelopes. Most interesting to me were Black Wildebeest, Blesbok, Plains Zebra and a Common Duiker, plus a Black-backed Jackal was also seen. 

Noteworthy birds were some stunning Red-throated Wryneck; Buffy Pipit was new, plus Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Spotted Thick-knee, Brubru, Black-chested Prinia and Cape Longclaw as we progressed the dusty track. At the accommodation block, things spiced up a bit with one of my targets coming into some playback, this being a Striped Pipit. The pipit showed brilliantly for 10-minutes. A Mocking Cliff Chat, Chinspot Batis, Violet-backed Starling, Banded Martin, Bar-throated Apalis and Southern Black Flycatcher were also here, adding to the joys of encountering these excellent species after such a long gap. A drive further out into the reserve added some larks and pipits to the day, with Eastern Clapper (new) and Spike-heeled Larks, and, Nicholson's Pipit, plus Cloud Cisticola and a Pearl-breasted Swallow flew through.

One species that has eluded me during my trips to Africa is African Cuckoo-hawk, so with searing temperatures, we headed to Wilge River Valley which is apparently a good spot. However, on this occasion, thousands of locusts stole the show, with any nearby cuckoo-hawks no doubt gauging themselves on this recent hatch. Little was seen here but by the early afternoon I was battered and was quite happy just sitting by the river and eating lunch... what's happened to me!! Anyway, birds seen here comprised Hamerkop, Brubru, Southern Black Tit, Grosbeak Weaver and lots of quelea and sparrows. 

Wian dropped me off mid-afternoon and I caught my flight back to the UK, arriving early doors on Monday morning and was back into the office at 10am... probably a mistake as all week I've had a horrendous fever.

Striped Pipit

Red-throated Wryneck


Ezemvelo NR

Lunch stop

Friday 26 April 2024

Saint Helena Island - April 2024

In March, I had a quite incredible invitation through work to spend a week on one of the remotest islands in the world, this being Saint Helena. The invite was through the tourist board and I joined 25 others in what would be a remarkable push for tourism for the island, this despite its many access challenges. 

On Thursday 18th April, I took a direct flight to Jo'Burg where I had a free day on the Friday, to only explore locally, but this did produce Red-headed Finch (a South African tick), Greater Striped Swallow, Speckled Mousebird, Little Swift, Cape Robin Chat, Cape Wagtail, Hadeda Ibis, Karoo Thrush and a few other commoner species around the hotel, all of which were nice to reacquaint myself with, not having seen most of these since 2014.

The Saturday morning we took a flight to Saint Helena, stopping for half-hour at Walvis Bay in Namibia to re-fuel, but not a single bird was seen here! It was then a further three hours to the island and as we descended out of the clouds, the volcanic rock emerged and we soon landed on the short runway. White Terns and Masked Boobies were apparent on the approach.

On our drive to Jamestown I saw three Saint Helena Plovers (aka Wirebird, named for their long legs) which meant I'd seen pretty much every native bird before the trip had even started. After checking in at the superb Mantis Hotel, I walked down to the waterfront and seawatched for a while, finding Band-rumped Storm-petrels, a mystery and very distant Pterodroma petrel, Brown and Masked Boobies, Red-billed Tropicbirds, breeding White Terns above my head, but best of all, an unexpected Ascension Frigatebird was spotted circling high up and remained on view for a good ten minutes. Many non-natives were also seen, mostly Java Sparrow, Common Waxbill, Yellow Canary and Common Myna. Over the week I saw perhaps 40 plovers, most around the Golf Course.

Saint Helena Plover

The week comprised taking in the various 'tourist sites', but this did include Napoleon's museum/house which was beyond incredible. I'm far from a history buff, but this was a true eye-opener. Several hikes and many swims were also had, the latter allowing some excellent views of the endemic fish life: Saint Helena Butterfly fish being the most impressive. 

However, the best was saved until last when we managed to scrounge a boat and go snorkeling with the gentle giant, this being a superb Whale Shark! A majestic Devil Ray was also about! The shark was simply brilliant, this being a life-long ambition and it didn't disappoint as it casually cruised by back and forth for ten minutes and approached within yards!

Final descent towards Saint Helena

Jacob's Ladder - the record for going up 
is 5mins 5secs... my attempt was 6mins 19secs

Off Jamestown. The sailing ship on the left was
departing for the Caribbean midway through the week 

View of Jamestown

Millennium Forest

Napoleon's tomb

The shadow of a Whale Shark just about visible

easier from below

Friday 16 February 2024

Recent Highlights

It's been, once again, a hectic start to the year with the usual January (pointless) panic to scrounge a decent number of species on the year list before the enthusiasm dwindles, plus work has been more busy than ever, although recent trips to Colombia and Iceland have been most welcome to keep me sane. 

On Jan 1st, along with Tim Squire, I recorded 117 species seen/heard, but since then it's been limited birding. The Northern Waterthrush in Essex was a brilliant UK tick and one that I didn't go for in 2011, so a superb grip back. 

In January, I co-led (alongside a local) the Santa Marta Endemics tour where we found most of the endemics, although today I've learnt a new species of antpitta has been discovered... doh! I then had a few days back home before leading an Iceland tour, which actually turned out to be more enjoyable than Colombia! 

Anyway, a few pics to showcase the year so far.

Santa Marta Antpitta

Orinoco Saltator

Rusty-breasted Antpitta

Santa Marta Screech Owl

Vermillion Cardinal

Santa Marta Woodstar

Humpback Whales

Barrow's Goldeneye - my only new bird in Iceland


Sunday 31 December 2023

Olive-backed Pipit on Shetland - 2nd October 2023

During our break on Shetland back in early October, the dream was to always find something good, whether that be an absolute mega, or, a species rarely encountered in southern England. For this year on Shetland, it turned out to be the latter, but just so happened to be one of my favourite eastern vagrants.

It was a very windy day (no surprises), so Emily and I set about trying to locate an Otter. I thought Toft would be a good bet and after some searching, we located one swimming out along the distant shoreline. With this success, we then wanted to head to Esha Ness on the west coast, so diverting through central Mainland seemed the most sensible route. A quick look at one excellent garden near Sullom Voe found a young male Crossbill; thinking Crossbill could be a theme, a large conifer plantation at Voxter was too tempting not to stop at. No Crossbills (or anything for that matter) were found, so instead we diverted our attention to a small, walled garden, packed with Sycamores. 

We cautiously entered the garden, with me going through every likely mega that could be here and set about scanning the appealing understorey, only for Emily to casually say a pipit flew up from the ground in the centre of the garden. I had my suspicions on the most likely pipit it could have been, and despite being perched mid-canopy, I failed to find it initially. Ems stated it was most likely a Meadow Pipit, but when I eventually locked onto it, it was clearly a Tree/Olive-backed Pipit. The pumping tail was a good sign, as was the obvious and short white supercilium, but due to the angle, I couldn't make out any dark lateral crown sides. The ear spot, although present, wasn't conspicuous, so it was a relief the pipit flew back down to the ground and started rummaging amongst the leaf-litter... at this point, there was little doubt, as now the dark lateral crown sides, the black-white ear spot and lack of streaking on the mantle meant this could only be an Olive-backed Pipit. I fired off many photos and then enjoyed watching its elusive nature. The pipit then flew off around the garden, calling as it went, only to return soon after.

I found some signal and sent some pics off to Dave to make sure I wasn't losing the plot, and with thumbs up, the news went straight out. It was at this time we left the site and continued on our merry way to the west coast. 

Massive kudos to Emily for picking the bird up in the first place, something she does every time with me!

Olive-backed Pipit at Voxter

The walled garden at Voxter

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Christmas in Sussex

On Christmas Eve, I drove down to Dad's and stopped off at Rackham Woods, walked the lower track and scanned the brooks where seven adult Bewick's Swans were roosting and a White-tailed Eagle also flew over.

On Christmas Day, a short dog walk on Seaford Head and the Cuckmere produced a sublime first-winter Caspian Gull in the small gull flock, but the weather was fairly dreadful so I didn't look too hard for anything else. 

On Boxing Day, the same route, now armed with a telescope, produced the Long-tailed Duck on the scrape and a Green Sandpiper, two Avocets and a Spotted Redshank were on the west side. Afterwards, I went and saw the obliging Waxwings at Hailsham and on my way back to Alton I stopped off in Crawley and saw the 20 Waxwings there too, where it was also good to see Paul Marten.

Waxwings at Hailsham

Sunday 26 November 2023

Isles of Scilly - 22nd November 2023

Thinking the autumn was over, a Cape May Warbler surfacing during the off season on Scilly meant a slightly logistical twitch could be on the cards. The bird seemed settled on Bryher, so Jake, Ian and I arranged flights five days in advance and headed down on Wednesdsay morning to Lands End airport. 

A Black Redstart was a good start to the day and while waiting in the departure lounge, news filtered through that the warbler was still present... game on! The flight was on time and we landed a mere twenty minutes later on St Marys. Rob Lambert kindly drove us down to the quay and we were soon on our way to Bryher with a few others. 

Docking on Bryher, a few minute's walk up the beach to view a pittosporum, the Cape May Warbler gave itself up. Although it was always elusive here, when the bird flew down the beach and fed in the tamarisks, it showed incredibly and we enjoyed the warbler for a couple of hours.

A short walk around the island failed to find little else, but worse news of all was a tweet stating that flights from Lands End were currently on hold due to low cloud! We departed Bryher after more Cape May views (a Willow Warbler was also close by) and made our way up to the airport. It soon transpired that our flight had been cancelled and we would have to stay the night on Marys... the airport did a sterling job of finding us a self-catering apartment in Hugh Town. Thankfully, by the morning, despite the strong wind, flights were on time and it was a relief to depart Marys, where we then had to drive five hours back home. 

After the booby dip back in August, it was good to be back on winning form on twitching Scilly.

Cape May Warbler on Bryher

Sunday 19 November 2023

Veery, Orca & a Deaths Head Hawk Moth - Shetland 30 September 2023

Since my first visit to Shetland in 2012, I have desperately been trying to intercept a pod of Orca from the various headlands around the archipelago. I've had numerous near-misses and it felt as if my dream of encountering my first Orca (of any 'type') on Shetland wasn't going to come. 

This year, Emily and I spent 8 days here from 30 September, grabbing the train from Farnham and arriving into Aberdeen a mere nine-hours later, via Kings Cross. The journey was smooth, stress-free and importantly, on time. During our train journey, a Veery had been found on mainland Shetland and a pod of Orca had also passed the same site whilst the rare thrush was being watched... what a duo and perfect timing for our arrival the following day.

Anyway, after a sleepless overnight ferry journey (even with a cabin) we arrived, collected our vehicle and drove straight to the Veery, which showed straight away, but in damp conditions so any photos were poor. Situated along the Lunna peninsular and after securing some lovely views of the trans-Atlantic vagrant, we set out to check the various bays heading back south towards Lerwick. Whilst at South Nesting Bay, I was searching for White-billed Divers when quite astonishingly, a pod of Orca had been sighted off Ocraquoy, just to the south of Lerwick. With seatbelts securely fastened, I went into full rally mode and sped towards south Mainland. Being a Saturday, observers were out in force and updates were coming through on regular occasions.

Drifting around a corner, Em spilt coffee over her lap which added to the chaos, before we arrived at a decent viewpoint to the south of Cunningsburgh, making record time it seemed. Several others had arrived and rather nonchalantly, they explained the Orca were on view... WHAT!! Several panicked scans failed to find anything, until we realised we were looking too far out... they were in the bay below us!

Fairly soon, a huge sigh of relief marked the sighting of my (and our) first Orca and over the next 30-minutes, we were treated to an incredible and unforgettable performance. I knew bull Orca were big, but the size of the dorsal fin of each bull was crazy and beyond all expectations! There were eight individuals involved (the 27s pod) and they casually moved south until out of sight. After a quick celebration, we drove down to Leebittern and waited for the pod to come through. 

Well, they came through perilously close to shore, apparently grabbing a seal in the process, before continuing on their way towards Mousa Sound where despite running after them, slowly disappeared, but what a start to our time on Shetland!

Afterwards, and for a calm down, we went to Hoswick to secure a Yellow-browed Warbler for the trip list; twitched the Citrine Wagtail and Bluethroat in Lerwick, and whilst shopping for the week in Tescos, got news of a Deaths Head Hawk Moth just around the corner. I was desperate to ditch the shopping, but that was refused, so it was a tense wait to see this huge moth. 

We then drove to Walls and found our accommodation, a discrete cottage with sheep and chickens as neighbours and a friendly Hedgehog. It had probably been my best six hour period on Shetland!!



Citrine Wagtail

Deaths Head Hawk Moth

our cottage