Puffin at Hermaness, Unst

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Sunday, 26 April 2020

Recent Highlights

Somehow I'm just about obeying the rules, though the recent arrival of Poms is putting me ever so slightly on edge. However, close to where I live there are many great sites, including Noar Hill that is only a 25-minute bike ride away and home to the scarce Duke of Burgundy butterfly.

The Badgers are also keeping me entertained most evenings, and several long walks recently have produced some yet to flower Sword-leaved Helleborines. On the 21st my first two Swifts of the year flew over the house, and Red Kites are seen daily from the living room window.

Badger



Duke of Burgundy

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Lockdown Tales - The Gambia (January 2013)

This is the third account from one of my top birding periods during my earlier years of travelling (well, only seven years ago). Although these have already been blogged, they were done so with limited details, so it makes sense while we're still in lockdown to go back through them.

This post recounts my time spent in The Gambia in western Africa. The Gambia is considered to be a good starting point for those wishing to start exploring further into Africa, although for me this was now my third trip into this staggering continent. With more travelling experience enveloped into me from previous recent trips to South Africa and Ethiopia, I felt more inclined to go by myself. I used the excellent services of Mark Thompson who back then managed Hidden Gambia - sadly in 2016 this company was shut down permanently. Before I travelled out there, I was contacted by Mark with a change of plan to the route I was taking, and a change in accommodation. Even back then I was fully understanding (!), and nothing was to get in my way from laying eyes on several specialities of the area, and I was soon on my way.

Despite travelling independently, I was rarely on my own as the guides would take good care of you, and for the part of the trip that took me up and downriver, I was alongside a couple of birders and our designated guide.

This post relates to the first few days of travelling upriver, and this was where many of my targets were encountered.

5th January 2013

This morning after wandering around the habitat at my accommodation finding a Western Olivaceous Warbler, a couple and myself boarded the Lady Hippo and cruised slowly upriver to our base for one night, Tendaba Camp. For the first few hours the river was very wide, therefore ensuring we failed to locate any notable land birds. There were however plenty of terns following the boat, the highlight belonging to a few Lesser Crested Terns that were mixed in with the numerous Caspian and African Royal Terns. Upon arriving at Tendaba Camp, we were soon to realise how basic the camp was. Not only that, this was one of the poorest regions in Africa I had been to. This was soon brushed aside though as we boarded a long motorised vessel that was to navigate us around the vast swamps on the opposite side of the river.

Upon entering, there were plenty of the rather dull-looking Mangrove Sunbirds, but things were soon brightened up by the presence of some Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters that were busy patrolling the reedy areas. A Blue-breasted Kingfisher within the tangled mangroves also flitted through, again adding a splash of colour to the rather dull habitat we were in - mangroves are certainly my least favourite habitat - not only do they provide little in the way of bird life, they are generally damp and sweaty places to be. However, they do provide some excellent species and this was the main reason why we were traversing the many channels.

For one of the species that was on our hit list, we hardly had to work hard at all, but just pray that our quarry was in the same place as it is everyday. Luck was firmly on our side and soon we were enjoying point blank views of a stunning White-backed Night Heron. This was a major target for the entire trip, and I certainly wasn't expecting views like this. Despite our short stay, we obviously annoyed the bird a tad as it walked away through the branches and eventually out of sight. Our next target was to prove very tricky indeed, but with the extremely sharp-eyed locals, we needn't worry. In the shadows along the shallow margins, our main target was lurking - an African Finfoot. This species is a very sought-after species for foreigners visiting Africa, so it was with great relief that I had seen this grebe-like creature, and somewhat increasing my fondness of mangroves - though all taken back when in the disgusting mangroves in northern Guyana in 2017.

We enjoyed the Finfoot for a short time before calling it a day as the mosquitoes were coming out in full force, and it seemed like a reasonable time to call it a day after succeeding in finding our main targets of this area. A surprisingly comfy night was had back among the degraded huts we were sleeping in.

Caspian Tern

Nile Crocodile

African Darter

Pink-backed Pelican

Long-tailed Glossy Starling

African Finfoot

White-backed Night Heron

Grotty mangroves


6th January 2013

Before catching the boat to go further north, we walked out of Tendaba to an area of nearby marshes, scattered dry fields and a small woodland. There was plenty to see, and for myself, the highlight for sure was a Grasshopper Buzzard. A small party of Senegal Eremomelas and White-billed Buffalo Weavers  were good to get, whilst a superb African Hobby flying over was very unexpected.

We boarded the Lady Hippo and sailed upriver for a short time, arriving at Farafenni a couple of hours later where we got in the minibus and made slow progress as the roads were guarded up ahead. Soon though we were on our way and aiming to get to Kaur Wetlands as soon as possible as the most important bird of the trip was hopefully there for me. Once on site, I was surprised how expansive the area was, and more worryingly how little decent habitat for wading birds there were. Plenty of Black Herons were entertaining to watch demonstrating their 'umbrella' fishing habits. Five Knob-billed Ducks among plenty of other wildfowl, and six Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks made up the rest of the highlights. Lunch was yelled at me though I did my best to ignore it as I was searching in awe for an Egyptian Plover. The guide looked at me in a strange way as to why I declined lunch, but once he mentioned the Plovers were further up the road at another site, not only did I tuck into lunch, but also enquired as to why we weren't at the other site instead of wasting time here. In no time, we were driving off to what appeared to be a small lake with very dusty margins. As undesirable as this site looked, a quick scan on the opposite side revealed my target, three immaculate Egyptian Plovers. They were exquisite, but I wanted to get closer, and as the lake wasn't that big I soon got within close proximity where I was able to obtain a series of decent photos. A major relief to connect with this gorgeous bird; almost as nice but not quite were two nearby Pygmy Sunbirds and then Painted Snipe.

From now on everything was basically an anti-climax, even with some more excellent birds being found on our last upstream boat cruise. We entered the smaller upstream channel, firstly passing several islands where we encountered a few Western Chimpanzees that were annoyingly not wild, but instead rehabilitated. As the channel became smaller many more birds were being found. Swamp Flycatchers were very conspicuous as they fed low down on the overhangs, and every tree seemed to have a Broad-billed Roller on it. A pair of Red-necked Falcons also showed well and there were lots of Palm-nut Vultures scattered around. Other delights included a Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and two Western Banded Snake Eagles.

Up around the far east of The Gambia over the coming days produced some excellent birds that included the following: Adamawa Turtle Dove, Red-throated Bee-eaters, Little Green Bee-eaters, Bruce's Green Pigeons and a Verreaux's Eagle Owl.


Egyptian Plover

Verreaux's Eagle Owl

Adamawa Turtle Dove

Egyptian Plover site



Saturday, 18 April 2020

Lockdown Tales - Bale Mountains NP, Ethiopia (November 2012)

This is the second account on one of my favourite periods of birding when abroad. During this lockdown phase I shall be recounting a few more specific days during my trips. It'll mainly be on the earlier trips as I hadn't gone into much detail, and somehow I can still remember many specifics on particular days.

After my South Africa trip in 2011, it was fair to say I was captivated by the continent somewhat, therefore, soon after returning home I was planning my next African country to visit. Ethiopia was soon brought to my attention, not only for the endemism that this country has to offer, but the various landscapes that would provide an exciting array of species. Having had limited experience in organising trips, I plucked for a tour company, with Naturetrek looking the most likely candidate - a low cost trip and a reliable company being the biggest lures!

It turned out to be a brilliant trip, certainly helped by the wonderful company of the Herts Bird Club - one of the members I still talk to regularly today; another who joined me on my trip last year to Papua New Guinea.

14th November 2012

After a successful first four or five days covering the sites to the north, and south of Addis Abbaba, we were now venturing SE to commence our two night stay in Dinsho. Our journey that day was somewhat eventful as a bus had somehow collided with a herd of cows, and the results were plenty of scattered cow parts; many Vultures and species of Crows; a broken down bus in the middle of the field, and plenty of locals just hanging around. Trying not to gag from the horrendous smell, we obtained excellent views of many birds before leaving the chaos behind us. There was little else to see along the way bar some exquisite Lanner Falcons and plenty of Black-headed Lapwings.

At the top of our first major ascent into the mountains, a brief stop produced superb views of our first endemic of the range, this being an Abyssinian Catbird. A Blue Rock Thrush and a couple of female-type Pallid Harriers also flew through. As we reached some kind of plateau the views were brilliant, though other than some Blue-winged Geese there wasn't a great deal to see. This was until we reached a canyon, and after negotiating the steep rocky banks we eventually stumbled across a pair of splendid Cape Eagle Owls. Interest soon turned to the sky however, as a White-headed Vulture flew through quickly..

A little more driving was had until we checked into Dinsho Lodge. We quickly dropped our things off and headed out straight away, much to my delight. The surrounding forest was brilliant and we notched up plenty of exciting endemics, and not just the birds. Mountain Nyalas were soon found foraging on the forested slopes, though they were typically shy and I failed to get any photos of them before they vanished. Still, we soon found many targets that included a lovely group of White-backed Black Tits, Ethiopian Boubou, more Abyssinian Catbirds and eventually our main target, an Abyssinian Long-eared Owl. Back in the car park I could just make out, along with others, maybe the belly and an eye of an African Wood Owl - hardly satisfactory views but Chris and myself had obtained excellent nocturnal views of a pair in South Africa the year before.

Before the day ended we searched an area of moorland-type habitat and found a few more endemics, the best being an Abyssinian Longclaw, a pair of Rouget's Rails, and a showy Ethiopian Cisticola.

It had been an excellent day, but there was one major target that was niggling away at me. Thankfully, over dinner a Rockjumper guide came over and chatted to our group with regards to their group finding multiple Spot-breasted Lapwings up on the plateau. This calmed me down a lot and I was able to enjoy the evening, very much looking forward to the next day.

Cape Eagle Owl

Abyssinian Catbird

Bus and many dead cows

Abyssinian Long-eared Owl

White-backed Black Tit





15th November 2012

We were up early and left the lodge, hitting the lower slopes when it was getting light. Our first stop produced fine views of some Cinnamon Bracken Warblers - a species the books don't give much justice to. Further along the single track up towards the top plateau finally revealed a couple of Chestnut-naped Francolins that were doing their best to keep their distance from the vehicle. The weather looking up towards the plateau wasn't exactly ideal, with low cloud covering the slopes and light rain falling, but this didn't stop the onslaught of birds though as endemic after endemic kept coming into view: Ethiopian Cisticolas, Black-winged Lovebirds and Rouget's Rails were especially conspicuous; a Cape Eagle Owl was also flushed. When we reached the plateau though is when the action properly kicked off. As we came to a stop at the first pool I could already see my top target, a sublime Spot-breasted Lapwing. Although looking through the rather unclear minibus windows, this gorgeous bird showed brilliantly alongside a couple of Moorland Francolins and a couple of Blue-winged Geese. A major relief to lay eyes on this gorgeous Wader!

Progressing across the misty plateau we came across many Ethiopian Siskins that were flushed up from the main track, and by pure chance there were a pair of Wattled Cranes striding along in front of us. Most groups struggle with this species, but thankfully this meant we didn't have to wander around for however long to search for them, though having now seen them in South Africa and Namibia meant I wouldn't have been too disheartened if we had dipped. Although the mist was playing havoc, every clear spell produced a movement of Eagles, and even during the dull spells we could see many Eagles perched on any exposed rock. Most were Tawny Eagles, though every now and then we found some Golden and Lesser Spotted Eagles and even some Steppe Eagles. If only it was clear we would've been treated to a spectacular passage of south-bound Eagles.

As good as the birds were, a visit to the top of the Bale Mountains can only be successful when one sets eyes on an Ethiopian Wolf. We soon scored with up to five individuals, including one that gracefully strolled right past the vehicle - even through the murky windows I was able to get a reasonable shot. Also, it was great to see the main prey item of the Wolf, the bizarre Giant Mole Rat.

One member of our group was suffering heavily from altitude sickness, in such a way he sadly missed most of the action on the plateau. To relieve him slightly we descended to the south of the range in order to increase the oxygen levels, but also to an area of trees that were to hold our next batch of targets. A male Black Sparrowhawk flew through as we searched high and low for the local race of Brown Parisoma, or as we called it, the Bale Parisoma. We found a pair but they were certainly as dull as the original. Other than plenty of Abyssinian White-eyes, there wasn't a great deal else to find.

With an improvement in the sickness department, we once again ascended to the plateau just in time for the clouds to clear a little. This initiated a decent passage of Eagles. Irritatingly, the altitude sickness once again kicked in on the same guy, and as much as I would have liked to have stayed up top, we had to descend back towards the lodge. Still, it had been a superb day cleaning up on many target birds. That evening, half the group (me included) bid farewell to the others as we were to start out southern extension, going as far south as Yabello.

Black-winged Lovebird

Blue-winged Goose

Chestnut-naped Francolin



Ethiopian Wolf

Ethiopian Cisticola

Ethiopian Siskin

Ethiopian Wolf

Rouget's Rail

Spot-breasted Lapwing

Steppe Eagle




  

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Lockdown Tales - Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa (November 2011)

Whilst watching the juvenile White-tailed Eagle at Amberley Wildbrooks on 11th December 2010, Chris Glanfield quietly announced he was looking for people to join him on a trip to South Africa. Being extremely un-savvy on all things foreign birding, I foolishly expressed instant interest. Months later, the two of us were on our way to what was to be my first foreign birding trip outside of Europe.

After a very successful tour of the Western Cape and the Tanqua Karoo, we flew north to Jo'burg and were soon to hit the Drakensberg Mountains - this was without doubt my best few days of this excellent trip, and hence why I've recounted the memories here.

15 November - It was a gruelling long drive from Jo'burg down to the base of the Sani Pass, and we were fairly exhausted by the end of the day. However, we were set for a few days of solid birding over the next two days with our local guide (sadly the name I can't remember).

On the morning of the 16th November 2011, a quick walk around the grounds of the Sani Lodge revealed a superb Red-throated Wryneck singing atop a tree. We started the descent covering a range of good-looking habitats. Our first stop revealed several species that we'd been unlucky with in the Western Cape, the highlights being a male Cape Rock Thrush and a Red-chested Cuckoo - the latter's song to me is the most distinctive on the continent. Other notables on the now steep ascent was a calling Red-winged Francolin, that somehow we managed to flush as we scrambled up the steep mountainside - its red wings proving to be very distinctive. Despite several good stops, one that particularly springs to mind was one that produced a beautiful Gurney's Sugarbird, a Buff-streaked Chat, a Barratt's Warbler, Ground Woodpeckers and our first Horus Swifts.

As we were starting to clear the treeline, a notable find of a White-throated Seedeater was the guide's first record for the area. Now well and truly above the treeline with just rocky grassy slopes on either side, the Lesotho border-crossing was looming just ahead, and birds started to get ticked off thick and fast. The endemic Drakensberg Siskin were found in small flocks, and many Sentinel Rock Thrushes were also encountered.

After clearing the border-crossing with ease, we were now in the small country of Lesotho. I had certainly never envisaged that my first ten countries would involve Lesotho, but I'm glad it did as the birds were sensational. I had one big target for this area, and with half the name containing 'Drakensberg', it was without doubt that this would be our only chance of finding it. Thankfully, it only required two more turns in the road before we found our target, the brilliant Drakensberg Rockjumper. We found a few pairs along this mountain road as they conspicuously bounced around the boulder-striven hillsides. To claim our other targets though meant trapesing over the grasslands rising above us. Despite the strain on our lungs, our two targets were found with ease - Mountain & African Rock Pipits were typically rather dull, but the former I seem to remember was quite a striking bird.

We scoped some distant cliffs where a couple of Cape Vultures were circling, and we lucked in with a pair of Lammergeiers, with one even taking to the air and showing reasonably well - a class bird! Watching the shepherds walking the terrain was also quite a remarkable sighting, no doubt spending many days/weeks up here at a time. As we had seen all that we had come for, we retreated the mountain much quicker than we had ascended. With few stops, we reached the lower villages where our next target was wanting to be found. With our guide's help, we quickly found a group of Southern Bald Ibises, and a 'Tree' Snake of some kind also astounded us on the rapidness of its climbing capabilities.

Our last port of call was Pevensey Road. Among the throng of different Cisticolas that were all very confusing, we found some lovely Grey-crowned Cranes, South African Cliff Swallows and a fantastic pair of Banded Martins.

Lower Sani Pass - 
Cape Grassbird here

Gurney's Sugarbird

Malachite Sunbird

Drakensberg Rockjumper

Sentinel Rock Thrush

Drakensberg Siskin
Looking back down the Sani Pass eastwards

The next day was even more productive with a series of critically-endangered birds found in various areas. As we drove to our first sight of Marutswa Forest, we spotlighted all of the electricity poles hoping for the eyeshine of a Cape Eagle Owl, though we failed on this rather successfully. However, standing in the correct position at a clearing within Marutswa Forest, with light slowly gracing the surroundings, sounds of the extremely rare Cape Parrot echoed around the immediate vicinity. After a tense wait, a distant dead tree revealed an individual Cape Parrot perched high up. Staying in situ for around a minute, we obtained reasonable scope views, and then watched the bird fly down the valley and out of sight....a major relief. We then walked the trails of the adjacent forest hearing a couple more Parrots, but more importantly the song of the Orange Ground-Thrush. The forest was thick, and at times, impenetrable. Approaching from above, we found a way down to an unlikely viewing area of a large tree with its canopy somewhat in view. With the song still emanating from this canopy, it took plenty of neck-wrenching to finally observe the bird as it sang away, ignoring our desperate viewing attempts.

It had been a brilliant first few hours of the day, but for me at least, the best was still to come. Probably my main target before leaving home was to see a Blue Swallow. These charismatic birds spend the 'African winter' months within the heart of Africa. During the summer months they move south and a few pairs are still to be found in South Africa, though Swaziland remains their breeding epicentre. Anyway, our location was Highover, maybe three hours to the west of Durban. As we reached the top of the ridge, we hit a fogbank and prospects were looking grim. Extensive searching of the fields revealed a Common Quail and a striking Broad-tailed Warbler. However, a passing Hirundine flock aroused our interest straight away as a female Blue Swallow was among them. All birders however desire the male with its ludicrously long tail streamers, and with our patience, we found a male Blue Swallow flying around in the distant mist. It was a brilliant moment and along with the previous day's Rockjumper, a firm favourite for the trip.

As we returned to our dropped off vehicle to continue our journey up to Wakkerstroom and soon to be without our guide, he diverted to a valley in order to view a pair of Wattled Cranes - a grand finale.

Wattled Cranes

Common Quail

Broad-tailed Warbler






Friday, 3 April 2020

Pokhara - Nepal (March 2020)

What had been one of most favourite, and varied trips to date was slowly coming to an end. Pokhara was my last of many destinations within Nepal, and it ended in style. I stayed at Tiger Mountain Resort, yet another first rate premises. Despite the number of activities I could've got involved in (neither really got be enthused), I instead remained on the premises and enjoyed the avian life, that was for once, coming to find me and not the other way around. A full afternoon and a full morning provided many highlights within the grounds before I had to make my way back down to the bustling city and to the airport.

Friday 6th & Saturday 7th March

Badri (the owner of Nature Safaris - our Nepalese ground agents) had efficiently put me on an earlier flight to Pokhara, immediately after I had landed from Suklaphanta. This gave me a couple more hours at the Tiger Mountain Resort, that is situated on top of a hill on the outskirts of Pokhara. The views from the premises overlook the superb Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, meaning this is a very productive site for birds-of-prey.

From here on in, there wasn't a great deal else to write about, other than the fact the birdlife was particularly good. On the morning of the 7th, I walked the road up the hill from outside the premises and found some great birds among the many cultivations. A male Grey-winged Blackbird was a particular highlight, whilst Hume's Leaf Warblers were absolutely everywhere.

Within my last hour of leaving the premises for the airport, I found an extremely elusive Snowy-browed Flycatcher, but a Little Pied Flycatcher showed much better. Sadly, my camera was packed when a White-rumped Vulture flew within metres of me - but wow, what a bird!

I departed Pokhara in the afternoon, landing in Kathmandu a short while later. That evening I met Badri and had pre-dinner snacks and a drink with, and then had dinner with my trekking guide. The next morning, Anil, who had driven goodness knows how long over the past ten days, drove me to the airport to round off an amazing trip.

Due to thick fog, my flight was delayed for three hours, and this meant I missed my connection in Dubai. Emirates were of course brilliant and arranged an in-terminal hotel room, and it was so good I could've stayed there for a few days. I eventually arrived home the following morning back to the chaos, that is/was coronavirus.

Highlights for the afternoon (6th) and morning 7th):

Black Stork - 1
Egyptian Vulture - 5
White-rumped Vulture - 10
Cinereous Vulture - 2
Himalayan Vulture - 50
Crested Serpent Eagle - 3
Himalayan Buzzard - 2
Steppe Eagle - 20
Oriental Turtle Dove - 4
Barred Cuckoo-dove - 1
Blossom-headed Parakeet - 5
Asian Barred Owlet - 1
Alpine Swift - 2
Great Barbet - 15
Blue-throated Barbet - 1
Red-billed Blue-magpie - 2
Grey Treepie - 2
Maroon Oriole - 2
Large Cuckooshrike - 2
Yellow-bellied Fantail - 1
Himalayan Black-lored Tit - 4
Himalayan Bulbul - 5
ASHY BULBUL - 4
Buff-barred Warbler - 20
Whistler's Warbler - 1
Puff-throated Babbler - 2
Blue-winged Minla - 5
Whiskered Yuhina - 1
STRIPE-THROATED YUHINA - 1
Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch - 2
Grey-winged Blackbird - 1
Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher - 1
Snowy-browed Flycatcher - 1
Little Pied Flycatcher - 1
Rufous-bellied Niltava - 1
Orange-bellied Leafbird - 3
Crimson Sunbird - 2
Dark-breasted Rosefinch - 1
Common Rosefinch - 1
Olive-backed Pipit - 50

So once again, that is it for another trip. It's hard to tell when my next trip will be. Brazil in June will surely have to wait for another year, and Madagascar in October could also be problematic in current circumstances, so Sussex at weekends it shall be for the foreseeable future. Stay safe everyone!!

Himalayan Black-lored Tit

Oriental Turtle Dove

Black Stork

Approaching Kathmandu



View from Tiger Mountain

departing Pokhara