Thursday, 16 October 2014

Shrike, rattle and roll

There are some things which auger well for bird-watching. October and a low pressure over Scandinavia normally means a good fall of migrants onto the East coast. So it transpired, but that was on Tuesday and I couldn't get there till Thursday. Yellow-browed (y-b)warblers all over the place, Raddes and Pallas's warblers, olive-backed pipit, Isabelline shrike and the long staying Steppe grey shrike were all there. Two cloudy nights meant I left home at 5am with a reasonable hope of being able to connect with at least some of them. First stop was Wells' woods. My main target was the olive-backed pipit, which would be a lifer for me, but the back-up cast was y-b warblers and a possible Raddes although that was no show on Wednesday.
As ever this Autumn the weather was ridiculously warm if overcast. All the action was in an area called the dell, which is basically a large open area of ground surrounded by mixed conifers and deciduous trees, mainly silver birch. Right from the car-park there was loads moving. Flocks of long-tailed tits numbering into the few dozen, quite a few goldcrests mixed up with them and not insignificant numbers of chiffchaffs. Quite a few birders were on site as well, so many eyes made light work. By the east end of the dell there was a stand of silver birches which held a sizeable flock of small birds. Quite quickly I heard the distinctive call of a y-b warbler but it took a good 10 minutes to track it down. Everything was very mobile near the tops of the trees and the light was very dull with the cloud cover. Consensus was that there was at least two birds there, which showed briefly in the canopy. I also picked out 5 bramblings feeding in with them. Of the olive-backed pipit though, no sign. Talking to others on site it was apparently a swine to see as it was very un-pipit like in that it stayed in the trees rather than coming into the open.
By about 9.30 I decided to move off and try my luck elsewhere. I went only about 5 miles or so to Burnham Norton where a Steppe grey shrike had been holding court for some weeks. This is a very rare bird, itself being a sub-species of the southern grey shrike (Lanius meridionalis meridionalis). Initially it attracted crowds of a few hundred but now there were about 20 at any one time.
Many birds of this species are incredibly tame, perhaps coming from the Russian steppes they don't meet many people. This one was no exception and made more so by being baited in with mealworms!!
First of all it was perched on a bush about 50 yards away, nice views but distant.

After about 15 minutes it decided it was hungry and flew down to an area right in front of us, then back to a bush but slightly nearer.

Finally, it plucked up courage and spent about 15 minutes feeding on the ground on the mealworms and on flitting onto perches (both put there by photographers!). It gave great views just a shame the light was so flat it didn't bring out the colours of the bird.

By now my phone was alerting me to the fact that the other star bird of the area, an Isabelline shrike, had been refound at Warham Greens. So, I bade the SGS goodbye and moved about 20 minutes along the coast. There was a much bigger crowd here. I would guess 50 cars parked along the lane plus I saw other groups at other tracks down to the coast. There was a constant flow down and back, and those coming back had all seen the bird. It took about 10 minutes I guess to find around 50 people all looking at a bush. I could see a bird in it, which I was assured was the shrike. It only took 30 seconds for it to pop up and sit right out in the open. Same family but a very different looking bird, and this one not being fed mealworms.

This was a young bird, without any distinctive facial markings and showing the lovely scalloped pattern on the breast. It only stayed for about a few minutes then flew off along the coast. I was lucky on that one. It was refound again later but, as for the SGS, didn't stay much longer so I timed them both right.
So, what else did I manage to connect with. I had another go for the olive-backed pipit without any luck. Moving long the coast though I stopped near Holkham looking out over the freshmarsh. This is a well-known spot for rough-legged buzzards and there was a crown onto a bird in the field a long way out. The views weren't great but the jizz of the bird, the very light plumage including a very pale head and a hint of a pale-rump in flight were good enough for me.Finally I moved onto Holme where there were 2 Pallas's warblers feeding in sycamores in the car park. No chance of a photo as they were moving like lightning and rarely showed well but when they did you got glorious views of what is termed the 7-striped sprite. This is so-called because of distinctive pattern of stripes on its head.
Overall a very good day. One lifer, 4 more years ticks, taking me to 242 for the year against BOU and 245 against 400 club rules. Two and a bit more months to get another 10 birds to break my personal record.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Having a high old time

One of the first things they teach you in the Army, apparently, is never volunteer. Same applies normally in business, but when I learnt that my company was hosting a conference in Scotland my cogs started to turn. My year-list is empty of all the Scottish specialities so what if i could do a talk and combine it with a few days in Speyside!!! Plan hatched.
So, Sunday  29th Sep, the last day of the Ryder Cup, had me driving up to Speyside to stay for 3 days in Boat of Garten. I did actually pass Gleneagles on the way up, but fortunately whilst they were playing so no traffic problems. The drive was long, about 8 ½ hours, but by 4.30 I was parked up by Rothiemurchus estate. Boots on, ‘scope and bins out, coat on and straight into it.
This was the same track where we had good views of capercaillie and crested tits last year so I was hoping I could get the trip off to a good start. Sometimes luck smiles on you and within about 10 minutes I was onto a flock of crossbills feeding high up in the conifers. There were I guess about 20 or 30 in 2 or 3 groups, and over the next 90 minutes they were constantly present though mainly flying over. Mixed in with them were siskins and coal tits, ever presents in the speyside woods. About half a mile in I heard a loud crashing in the wood on my right. No people around. I stopped and ventured a short way in. Suddenly from about 20 yards away two large birds flapped off a tree about 10 feet in the air and crashed through the understorey. One kept going but one stopped briefly in another tree low down. Not great views but tick number 2 – capercaillie. They were within a few hundred yards of where we saw them last year, and I think where there is a spring lek so a reliable spot. As a slight caveat to this, I did go back twice more and saw nothing though.
Finally, walking back to the car a bit tired but pretty pleased I came across another small flock of birds. Mainly siskins and a few coal tits but then I saw another shape high up. I got my bins on it an saw the unmistakable shape of a crest! Got 3 of my targets within 90 minutes of getting to Scotland and on a day when I thought I would just be travelling. I watched the crestie for about 5 minutes but the light was going and I was a bit tired so back to the hotel.
Next day I was out fairly early. It was a superb morning, light cloud, chilly first thing but soon warmed up to a light jumper day. First stop was Loch Garten. The ospreys have long gone, but the car park is normally good for cresties and the woods hold more capers. No one else was around so I had the place to myself. By the hide is a large bird feeder, but this had a lovely red squirrel feeding on the nuts. It seemed totally unperturbed by me.

The woods around were quiet and no sign of capers. The car park though, or at least the woods by the side of the Loch, had a nice mixed flock of coal tits, treecreepers and 2 or 3 cresties. Mainly they were very mobile and stayed high but this one did come down for long enough for me to grab a half-decent photo.

Next I thought I ought to go high as the weather was so good, so I carried on up the road to Cairngorm. Things have changed here over the years. You used to be able to get the chair-lift up to the ptarmigan restaurant and then walk the tops. This was the best way to get ptarmigan and dotterel. About 10 years ago though they decided too many people were doing this and the mountain was being degraded. So, now, you can go to the restaurant but can't go outside. Still, I bought a ticket for the funicular railway and went on up. You can get ptarmigan from the trip up, but not today. There were a few red grouse around but nothing else. The only other option was to sign up for the guided walk, which lets you out for 90 minutes on a fixed route to the top. I signed up and we had a very pleasant stroll in warm sunshine with superb views but no birds - literally - were spotted. It does make it hard as the only way up now is from the car park, but more of that later.

My second day, with more fine weather, was a trip to the Findhorn Valley. This is one of the premier spots for eagles. The long valley holds a number of pairs and with the high concentration of prey species you are not exactly guaranteed golden eagles but it's a good shout. In the spring it is raptor central and you can, on a good day, pick of 6 or 7 species in one walk. Combine that with a day in late September where the temperatures were in the mid-teens and sunny giving good thermals then you start off in an optimistic frame of mind.
If you've not been, it is about 30 minutes from Aviemore with a lovely drive along the river valley. You get to the head of the valley and park up near some cottages then walk off between the mountains either side of you following the river. Immediately I saw ravens on the ridges near the car park and there were buzzards and kestrels in the air. This is also a good place for the red deer rut. There are good numbers on the hills. I was a bit early though and a few males were starting to bellow a bit but I think another week or so, or even a bit of cold weather, might have got them going. I was a bit surprised in some ways that I was the only person there all morning, at least as far as birders were concerned.
The walk is pretty much straight out and back, with one turn-off. I kept going straight for about 45 minutes. As I was almost at another small group of cottages, I presume for shooting or fishing parties, a large raptor flapped off a tree and over the ridge. It looked bloody big but it was gone. I felt in need of coffee though so I got my flask out and sat on a rock for a rest. Within a minute the bird came back over the ridge. Long, straight wings, very "fingered" at end, white tail feathers and enormous. No doubt about it, a juvenile goldie. I was desperately getting my camera out it was followed by one then two other birds. I had three in the air all at once. They gained height rapidly and moved off down the valley. I grabbed a couple of rubbish photos but the top one is a good id photo. Note the square wings with almost flat leading edge and the white tail, marking it out as a juvenile. You can just about make out the head with massive bill.
 This was clearly a second bird, probably an adult as it has no white in the tail. The wings are bent back in a dive so don't just just look for a straight edge!!

After the eagles I set off on one of our favourite drives, the drive across the moors to Farr. This is a small road, crossing open heather and moorland and is normally good for red grouse. What it does afford is the opportunity for using the car a a photo hide as the grouse are often close by the road which itself is slightly higher than you. Unfortunately it sounded like a shoot was in the neighborhood so I didn't get great chances  this time but a few did come close enough to test out my new 500mm lens.

 I do like this one, with it cocking it's head to one side in a very inquisitive way.

Apart from the grouse the only other birds of note were lots of mipits. I continued on to the coast after this towards Lossiemouth but whereas the nice weather helped with eagles it killed the sea. A few waders were around but nothing on the sea apart one lone eider, which was a year tick albeit a very late one.

For my last day I decided to head back to the mountains after black grouse adn ptarmigan. One my guided walk the guide said that going up towards BenMacdui from the car park could be a good bet so that was the plan. On the way I stopped at the Coire na Ciste car park which is good for black grouse in the lek. I had tried it twice already with no luck. This time it seemed someone smiled on me. I didn't see any black grouse in the heather but as I drove out one flopped up from the side of the road and stopped on the crash barrier for a few seconds!! A good omen??
I got to the Cairngorm car park about 8.30. The weather was still pretty good, but I was starting at 2000 ft and planning on going above 3000 so I got my full kit on but travelled light. No 'scope, no 500mm lens, just my bins and 100-400mm lens.
The path up is clearly marked and mostly good going. You just keep going up and up. On the lower slopes were lots of mipits and a few red grouse sitting around.

As I got higher and higher the birds thinned out. No sign of ptarmigan though, which is what I was after. Another walker knew the area and told me to keep walking up. Eventually, just as I was getting really knackered, I got to the plateau. This is a relatively flat area leading off towards the lower slopes of Ben Macdui. It looked really good ptarmigan country - boulders, heather, not much cover, but no birds in sight. The weather was starting to get a bit lively as well. The wind was getting up and cloud was moving in. I was sorely tempted to keep going as there was a snowy owl on the Ben, but that was another couple of hours and I wasn't kitted out for that. So, with rain/ low cloud setting in I turned round. Just as I got to the start of the path down though I heard a distinctive call. Then I saw a flock of about 30 or birds burst out Of the heather and fly away from me. They behaved in a very grouse-like manner but they were almost all white. Ptarmigan???

The calls carried on and I spotted a bird hopping onto a rock. Grouse-like in shape, but showing a lot of white and a very grey back. No doubt about it.

 Over the next 20 minutes or so I stalked around in the heather and the scree-slope. I saw two more flocks of birds fly off, probably a hundred or so ptarmigan in all, amazing numbers. I got close to a few of them. They weren’t particularly skittish just they were much better than I was moving around on steep slopes. Lovely birds, the relatively still valley echoing their calls as they flew around. A great end to my short trip with all of my targets in the bag, some superb weather and great walks in the hills and mountains.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Having a whale of a time

A bit late posting due to work getting in the way of fun, this is the last of the 5 blogs about our southern Africa holiday. This section focuses on our last 4 days, in south Africa itself, mainly around Hermanus.
Leaving Victoria Falls was interesting in itself. Our trip there coincided with a SADAC conference, which basically meant most of the presidents/ prime ministers of the southern african states were in town. Unfortunately when we got to Vic Falls airport they were leaving as well, and important people leave with ceremony. this meant they would arrive one at a time, thier private, very large jet, would pull up in front of our plane, a crowd of flunkies would arrive, dancers would perform and they would slowly depart!!! We as mere paying customers of course were left to wait. Eventually we were told to basically run to the plane when there was a gap and the Captain dashed us down the runway before the next one started to leave....
Anyway, we got to Hermanus after dark, but the route in looked interesting with lots of road-signs about whales, our main reason for going.
At first light we threw back the curtains to look out on Hermanus bay.

 In Winter, the bay is home to numerous southern right whales and their calves. The tourist blurb talks about seeing them from the beach but I assumed that was a bit like "oh you should have been here last week....". Actually, it's true. The weather was a bit rough, so the boats weren't going but that really didn't matter. For all the 3 days we were there we saw whales, and not at 2 miles distance across the bay. They were far out, they were almost on the beach, they were full-body breaching, there were calves and mothers, there were basically loads of them.

Best views were either from our window with a beer in hand on about 2 minutes walk where it seemed there was a favourite spot for them to lie in the surf. One looked like it was waving to all the tourists lined up on the rocks and the cliff path.

This one kept rolling over onto it's back, which i don't think I've seen before.

So what else was there to see? Very little by way of mammals, but there was some very sweet rock hyrax, locally called dassies, hanging about.

One of the birds you wouldn't expect to see is penguins, but there is a reasonably sized colony of African penguins all along the coast from Boulder's Beach to Simonstown

These are quite a tourist attraction, with walkways going in between the birds. It's quite strange really. Last year we were watching whales adn penguins in Antarctica, now seeing the same in Africa!

Being on the coast there were a number of aquatic or wading birds as well, most of which were new for the trip list.
African black oystercatchers are a speciality of the region, In fact, there are many endemics in this part of Africa, often called African xxxxxx to mark out their unique status.

 This little chap is a lesser sand plover. He/ she was quite tame searching in the rocks and seaweed for insects to eat.

 These handsome creatures are spotted thick-knees, related to our stone curlews. Rather bizarrely, or perhaps not as I have no idea of their normal behaviour, they were on somebodies lawn in front of their garage. They seemed very tame as well. I don't think this bit of coast is tourist central away from Hermanus itself.

Neat to the thick-knees was another type of bird altogether. This is a fiscal shrike. As well as blatantly trespassing, and in South Africa you do that at your peril, it was eating some sort of insect it had speared onto the barbed wire fence. You can just see the remains of it at the right of the picture below.

 Related by name, food source and somewhat by plumage is the fiscal flycatcher. This one was right outside out hotel. I have no idea why they are called fiscal, which normally relates to government revenue and taxes. Apparently the flycatcher is named because of it's resemblance to the shrike, but even Wikipedia can't help on the shrikes etymology.

The poster bird of the region is the blue crane. This was once critically endangered, and is still rare, but changes in farming practices have now meant they are recovering in numbers. We saw two large flocks, both in fields near the road driving inland from Hermanus.

I will cover off more of this later, but as well as the wildlife, many people visit the southern Cape for the flowers. This is called fynboss, and is characterized by many different species of proteas. Although not in the peak season, there were a lot still in flower and with that came specialised nectar feeders.

With the long tail is another endemic, the cape sugarbird. They were relatively numerous where the flowers were including in the middle of Hermanus in parks and gardens. They used their long bill to probe the flowers for nectar but you mainly notice the enormous long tail streaming out behind them when they fly. 

Feeding on the same types of plants but in an different way is the amethyst sunbird. This has vivid metallic plumage and also feeds on nectar. Rather than balancing and feeding, like most sunbirds it behaves more like a hummingbird and hovers.

Finally, we have another endemic, the cape white eye. Clearly named after its distinctive eye-ring, this small bird also loves nectar, but gets it by probing into the flowers with its much smaller bill. In behaviour it is like a goldcrest, flitting fast between the blooms.

Finally, i'll leave you with some of the fynboss flowers we saw around the Cape. Stunning scenery and despite the negative publicity surrounding it, a great place to visit.