Philippines part II. Negros, Bohol and Mt Kitanglad

Negros

12th Dec

Ok, so the team was not quite complete. I completely forgot that we awoke very early to catch our flight to Negros, and Jim Holmes was waiting for us in the lobby. I tried to think of a joke involving two Englishmen, two Belgians and an American, but couldn’t. We flew to Dumaguete City at the southern tip of the isle of Negros and went straight to the twin lakes of Balinsasayo. The main targets here were the suite of species endemic to the Visayas, those large islands in the centre of the Philippine archipelago. Unfortunately, they have suffered from extensive deforestation, and there are only a few spots left on each island where any of the special birds can be find.

Arriving at the lakes, new species started to flow immediately, as Maroon-naped and Magnificent Sunbirds were feeding outside the restaurant area.

Magnificent Sunbird (1)

Magnificent Sunbird 

Maroon-naped Sunbird (24)

Maroon-naped Sunbird

Unfortunately, recent troubles with bandits had resulted in the watchtower being burnt down. Our chances of Visayan Hornbill were now much reduced, but we headed off along a trail into the forest. We soon found ourselves a frenetic feeding flock, comprised mostly of Visayan Bulbuls commuting back and forth to a fruiting tree. Others in attendance included our first Elegant Tits, Sulphur-billed Nuthatches, Visayan Fantail, Yellow-throated Warbler, “Visayan” Balicassio and Green-backed Talorbird. There was also a brief Flame-templed Babbler, but I just couldn’t get on to it. This was incredibly frustrating. I’d heard stories of how difficult birding in the Philippines was, and how easy it was to miss birds in feeding flocks, but I just assumed I was good enough to catch up with everything. I was wrong. Everyone else managed tickable views of it, but everytime I raised my binoculars all I saw was the same things as before. Every trip has its major dips, I just wasn’t counting on having one so soon. Still, worse things have befallen me in life, so I soldiered on!

We then took a small boat out onto the lake to try for a few new species. We heard White-winged Cuckooshrike but they remained hidden, but we did manage views of Visayan Hornbill. Not sure if these birds are released or not, but we ticked them nonetheless. The great swiftlet debate started today as well, as we struggled to identify many of the swiftlets that buzzed us over the next few weeks. These were finally identified as Glossy, but the rest of the day proved pretty frustrating as we heard a few species we just couldn’t see – most importantly Negros Scops Owl and Philippine Hawk Owl. Still, we had plenty of time to score them…

The following day we started early and started the long drive and climb up Mt Mantiquil. It’s one of the last surviving forest patches in southern Negros and harbours some really special birds. It took us over 2 hrs to get to the “base camp” where we had a welcome breakfast, followed by a long 2 hr slog up a steep and exposed path to get to the forest patch. A gale was blowing which threatened to blow us off the ridge, but we eventually reached the trees and started the search. We heard a call and a managed a quick flight view of our main target species, only to see it disappear rapidly into the distance. Cursing my luck with endemic babblers, we continued the search and eventually managed to pin down a pr of White-winged Cuckooshrikes. Things were slowly starting to drop into place, and we then finally jammed into a feeding flock. Lots of Mountain White-eyes, a Little Pied Flycatcher and a Turquoise Flycatcher, when suddenly there they were; at least four Negros Striped Babblers up in the canopy amid the flock. With the targets in the bag, we decided to move down the mountain. The wind had dropped off completely by now, and the swifts and hirundines were out in force. Hundreds of the newly split Ameline Swiftlets were hawking over the lower slopes, along with several Pygmy Swiftlets. Several House Swifts and Striated Swallows were nice, but they couldn’t compete with the stunning (if rather distant) Purple Needletails hawking over the valley like small fighter planes. Much rarer in a local context was the juvenile Asian House Martin we found over the small settlement, exactly where our local guide said it would be! Apparently present for a while, this is a bit of local mega and a Philippine tick for Bram. Always a good sign when the guide gets a tick!

Turquoise Flycatcher (4)Island Verditer-flycatcher (Negros & panay race, nominate panayensis)

Philippine Serpent Eagle (2)

Philippine Serpent Eagle

Olive-backed Sunbird (1)

Olive-backed Sunbird

Ameline Swiftlet (36) Ameline Swiftlet (32)

Ameline Swiftlets

Leaving the mountain behind, we drove to our local guides house where he has a reforestation program, and several resident owls. After a frustrating few attempts, when we could hear but not see them, we finally managed to coax a Negros Scops Owl into a tree right above us, giving great views.

Negros Scops Owl (6)

Negros Scops Owl

Back at the hotel Chris and I soon got to grips with local customs. A “lady” that Chris said hi to very briefly in the lobby just stood up and followed us upstairs. Chris seemed blissfully ignorant, but when she tried to come in my room Chris looked hilariously shocked. I politely turned her away and Chris scuttled off down the corridor, a mixture of embarrassment and wonder. We learnt later that she had been thrown out of the hotel completely, but only after they realised that we weren’t interested.

Bohol

The following day saw another early start as we were on our way to the island of Bohol. Due to a very inconvenient cancelling of the ferry route, we were forced to fly to Cebu City and then get the ferry from Cebu to Bohol. Landing at Cebu airport, it was sobering to see a line-up of C130 “Hercules” aircraft on the apron. They were here to help with the relief effort from Typhoon Yolanda.

Eventually finding the harbour, we managed to negotiate the complicated quays and found the right area to wait for our ride to Bohol. The Oceanjet fast ferry was true to its name and two hours after leaving the harbour, we arrived in Bohol. Driving through the island, we saw the after effects of the recent earthquake. Many of the houses were undamaged, but many were not. Some were in the process of being torn down for safety reasons. The old, Spanish built churches had been badly hit and had nearly all collapsed.

After checking into the hotel, we drove the short distance to the Rajah Sikatuna protected area stopping along the way to look for and score the stunning Silvery Kingfisher. This cracking tiny bundle of black and silver occurs in the southern half of the Philippines. The birds on Bohol are of the northern race and are sometimes split as Northern Silvery Kingfisher from the, wait for it, Southern Silvery Kingfisher on Mindanao. Arriving at Rajah Sikatuna, we stayed around the central clearing near the “visitor centre”, and waited for dusk. Quickly onto the list was the incredible Colugo. This bonkers arboreal mammal spends its life clinging sloth-like to trees, but then has incredible bursts of activity as it launches itself into the air and glides to the next tree. Unfortunately, being nocturnal it’s quite difficult to photograph it mid-flight. No doubt this is an adaptation to avoid predation from the Philippine Eagle. Sadly, this is an adaptation that may soon be completely superfluous, and already is across much of its range as the eagle continues to decline.

Our main targets here were the nightbirds, and after some effort we managed good but brief views of Everett’s Scops Owl and more prolonged views of Philippine Hawk Owl. Sadly we couldn’t get views of the Philippine Frogmouth that was calling close to us.

Northern Silvery Kingfisher (9)Northern Silvery Kingfisher (25)

Northern Silvery Kingfisher

Philippine Colugo (36)

Philippine Colugo

Purple-throated Sunbird (47)

Purple-throated Sunbird

Dec 15th, and a long hard day dawned. Another stupid o clock start for a pre-dawn entry into the forest along the Oriole Trail. Our main two targets were Azure-breasted Pitta and Visayan Broadbill, both of which steadfastly refused to appear, despite a concentrated effort with the tape. We did manage to dig out a few other specialities, including Yellow-breasted Tailorbird, Streaked Ground Babbler and Black-crowned Babbler among others. Some Samar Hornbills were continually vocal but only gave flight views. We decided to try another trail, this one near the swimming pool. James and Mark actually got brief views of a pitta while I was cunningly distracted by a beetle, and despite waiting there and using the tape for a long while we couldn’t find it again. We did find a Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher, and then finally after what seemed an epoch of blasting its call out, a Visayan Broadbill appeared next to the trail and gave great views. A female, it was soon joined by an adult male and a presumed younger male. Further night birding failed to produce the frogmouth or any owls.

Visayan Wattled Broadbill (49)

Visayan Wattled Broadbill (56)

Visayan Broadbills

We had all the following morning back in Rajah Sikatuna, and we needed it! I was getting pretty sick of the sound of Azure-breasted Pitta by now, as Bram was trying to lure one in every few meters along the trail. Again, we managed to dig out several things, and new birds today included Philippine Drongo Cuckoo, Amethyst Brown Dove, Philippine Trogon and Philippine Leaf Warbler. Just as the chips were landing for the finally time, we rounded the final corner of the trail to start the slog back to the start when I saw something odd fly into a tree ahead of us. Ducking and twisting to get a view through the branches, I saw the immortal azure breast blaze of a pitta staring back at me. PITTA! I hissed to the guys around me, and then thankfully it put on an incredible show for us over the next 30 minutes, perching up in full view and foraging on the ground as we jostled for the best photographic spots. No doubt this will be one of the birds of the trip, and we’re only on day 6!

Azure-breasted Pitta (243)

Azure-breasted Pitta (or Steere’s Pitta)

Philippine Drongo Cuckoo (2)

Philippine Drongo Cuckoo

Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to Mark and Chris who were both staying on Bohol for an extra day before heading home to Belgium. Tim, James and I were off on the next part of the trip, and were heading to Mindanao via the ferry back to Cebu, and overnight stay in Cebu and then a flight to Cagyan de Oro on Mindanao. I’ve got to mention the movie that was showing on the ferry back to Cebu. I’ve never seen a Bollywood film before, and I have to say, I loved it. It was called “Three Idiots” (I think!). Unfortunately, the film lasted 2hrs 44 mins, and the journey was only 2hrs. So that’s me looking for this film on Youtube to try and catch up with what happened. Did he get the girl? Who is the mysterious benefactor? Is anyone still reading…??

Mindanao

Mt Kitanglad

Dec 17th. Another early start (getting to be a running theme this) saw us get to the airport for our flight to Mindanao. Our flight landed early and we were soon heading off (via a pretty mad minivan ride – although that’s par for the course in the Philippines!) towards our next base on Mt Kitanglad. This is a famous birding location that still retains decent pockets of forest, although agricultural encroachment is evident everywhere. We swapped our minivan for a Toyota Hilux and drove up to the village below the mountain, then we swapped that for shanks’s pony and a couple of horses. With our gear strapped to the horses, we walked up to the lodge which sits on the edge of the decent habitat. Thankfully this legendarily muddy track was dry after a lack of rain. This would change! The lodge was a pleasant affair, and instead of setting up tents we decided to crash in the loft space.

After lunch we made our first trek a short way up the trail and looked out over the forest. Initial highlights included the enigmatic Cinnamon Ibon, Mountain Leaf Warbler, Olive-capped and Buzzing Flowerpeckers and Rufous-headed Tailorbird. Flocks of Eye-browed Thrushes streamed over and past us, as did a single Olive-backed Pipit. Heading back to the lodge, we were frustrated by a Bukidnon Woodcock that flew around calling but refused to come into view. However, the nightbirding around the lodge was superb, and we managed great views of our three main targets; the Giant Scops Owl, Philippine Frogmouth and Philippine Nightjar. The Giant Scops was especially pleasing as it didn’t take us long to score. Bram had warned us it could take all night waiting for it to call and come in, but this time it started calling just after dusk and proceeded to give great views.

The Philippine Frogmouth was just silly tame!

Giant Scops Owl (6) Giant Scops Owl (2)

Giant Scops Owl

Philippine Frogmouth (42) Philippine Frogmouth (35) Philippine Frogmouth (16)

Philippine Frogmouth

Dec 18th. The first of many cockerel crows woke me at 0430, and this was the first and only time I woke up cold in the Philippines. The sleeping bag I was provided with was clearly designed for the average Filipino man, and so just about came up to my nipples. Still, this was no time for trying to cozy down, there were birds to score. Our 0500 breakfast was rudely interrupted by further views of the Philippine Nightjar and our first views of the Bukidnon Woodcock. This is actually a pretty widespread species in the Philippines, but most people see it roding around the lodge here on Kitanglad.

Bukidnon Woodcock

Bukidnon Woodcock, honestly!

Today we had a different target however. Today was eagle day. We walked up the trail to the eagle viewpoint, and Carlito (our local guide here) erected a tarpaulin over a bamboo frame to form a makeshift shelter. And task was to stay here until we saw the eagle. And so we sat there. We reminisced about the birds we’d seen on the trail that morning (Montane Racket-tail, Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis and Fire-breasted Flowerpecker among others) and looked forward to getting views of one of my most wanted birds in the world. The Philippine Eagle used to be widespread over the entire island chain, but is now restricted to the more extensive and remote areas of forest left on Luzon and Mindanao (and presumably Samar and Leyte too). Mt Kitanglad is the most famous place to see it, although a new site near Davao had just been discovered a little too late for us to alter our plans. Which was unfortunate as that pair were on a nest. The eagle used to have the wonderful moniker of “Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle”, but the powers that be have decided to drop that rather descriptive mouthful in favour of simplicity. I guess it’s also in favour of fact, as they tend to eat Colugos rather than macaques. Name notwithstanding, it’s an awesome beast of a bird, and I wanted to see one. Badly. And that’s exactly how we eventually did see it. Well, actually we saw two of them. An immature circled around a distant ridge being mobbed by Peregrines, and an adult was found sitting in a tree on the slopes opposite us. Our other young guide, Danny, picked it up. Did it fly in unseen, or had it been sat out of view all this time? To be honest, I was just grateful to see two of these incredible birds

Philippine Eagle (2) Philippine Eagle (15)

Philippine Eagle, adult

Philippine Eagle imm (12) Philippine Eagle imm (16) Philippine Eagle imm (18) Philippine Eagle imm (27)

Philippine Eagle, immature with two Peregrines

There were also a couple of other raptors soaring around, and we managed to identify Philippine Serpent Eagle, Pinsker’s Hawk Eagle and Steer’s Honey Buzzard. Not a bad haul, but it may have got better when I found a couple of distant swifts At first I thought they were needletails by the way they were acting, just cruising around with rapid switchbacks on apparently long wings. Then they came a bit nearer and it was evident that they were actually swiftlets. But which one? Myself Tim and James watched them for a little while and all three of us where struck by their appearance. We looked at each other with questioning faces. Were they Whitehead’s Swiftlets?  I took a couple of rubbish pictures, so see for yourself and make up your own mind. Comments very welcome!

Barred Honey Buzzard (3) Barred Honey Buzzard (2)

Philippine Honey Buzzard (split from Sulawesi Honey Buzzard)

Philippine Serpent Eagler (8)

Philippine Serpent Eagle

Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (6) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (4) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (3) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (2) Swiftlet sp, Mt Kitanglad (5)

Swiftlet sp, possibly Whitehead’s Swiftlet? 

Our final day on Kitanglad started well. The Blue-capped Wood Kingfisher that had been calling next to the lodge finally came in and showed reasonably well. We then moved on up the trail to the higher elevation forest beyond the eagle viewpoint. The birding was difficult and slow, but eventually a few McGregor’s Cuckooshrikes appeared, as did a flock of crazy frilly-headed Apo Mynas. Eventually we found the main target, a nice male Apo Sunbird. Only found at high altitude on a few of Mindanao’s mountains, it’s a very restricted range species. As are many of the Philippine’s endemics! Even better from my point of view were the pairs of Mugimaki and Little Pied Flycatchers that we saw.

Apo Mynah (2) Apo Mynah (1)

Apo Myna

Turquoise Flycatcher (7)

Island Verditer-flycatcher (Mindanao race, nigriloris)

Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis (2)

Stripe-breasted Rhabdornis

Whiskered Treeswift (3)

Whiskered Treeswift

Tawny Grassbird (4)

Tawny Grassbird

Yellow-bellied Whistler

Yellow-bellied Whistler

Olive-capped Flowerpecker (2)

Olive-capped Flowerpecker

Mindanao Hornbill Mindanao Hornbill (1)

Mindanao Hornbill

Midanao Drongo (1)

Mindanao Drongo

McGregor's Cuckooshrike (12) McGregor's Cuckooshrike (3)

McGregor’s Cuckooshrike

Flame-breasted Flowerpecker (4)

Flame-breasted Flowerpecker

Eye-browed Thrush (2)

Eye-browed Thrush

Colasisi (3)

Colasisi

Buff-spotted Flameback (3)

Buff-spotted Flameback

Blue-crowned Wood Kingfisher (2)

Blue-crowned Wood Kingfisher

Philippine Falconet (13)

Philippine Falconet

Harlequin, Aberdeen!

Ahaa! I’ve finally been inspired to write a short blog post, but i will keep it short!

After a few relatively accessible Harlequins in my time, the one currently in Aberdeen finally cracked my resolve. A 1st winter drake, the smart plumage is just starting to appear. If you squint a bit. And have a decent imagination. Both of which i have, so i loved it. It led us a merry dance to start with, having flown upstream the day before and out of sight, there was no sign of it for the first 3 hours of searching and spirits were starting to flag. Then, some wonderful person relocated it just upstream of where we’d been searching. Cue the wacky races round to the Tescos next to the A90 road bridge, and a brisk walk down the Don from there. We picked the Harle flying upstream towards us, and immediately I thought this was it, it’s going to keep going up the river and disappear into a glass case in Balmoral. Thankfully it obviously read my mind and decided to pitch down on the river right next to us, giving excellent views for the next hour or so as it fed in the rapids. Great day out with Dave Aitkin, Gary Woodburn and Harry Murphy, cheers lads.

Some images from the day.

Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (1) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (2) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (3) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (10) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (6) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (5) Harlequin Duck, Aberdeen, 06 Jan 2015 (4)

Madeira, May-June 2014

Another foreign trip, another set of boring bird photos. The main reason for us birders to visit Madeira is to see the two endemic landbirds and the set of nine breeding seabirds, including a couple that breed only here. The Desertas Petrel is currently thought of as a race of Fea’s Petrel (which also breeds on the Cape Verde islands), but this race breeds only on the island of Bugio in the Desertas chain south-east of Madeira. The main target however, is Zino’s Petrel. This endangered species breeds only on a small number of inaccessible ledges high in the mountains of central Madeira. Thought to number no more than 80 pairs, its not only one of the rarest birds in the Western Palearctic, its one of the rarest birds in the World. Its been possible for many years to take a guided walk up to the breeding ledges and her them arrive in the dead of night. As atmospheric as this is, its not ideal for studying the actual birds! For this, we had to wait until Hadoram Shirihai and Madeira Wind Birds sussed out an area of ocean where Zino’s could be regularly found during the breeding season. And so now many birders have joined organised pelagics into the waters around Madeira in search of this, one of the most enigmatic birds in the Western Palearctic. Here are some images from my trips in late May.

Bulwer's Petrel (61) Bulwer's Petrel (147)Bulwer’s Petrels. At times coming incredibly close, these were true masters of the troughs.

Cory's Shearwater (31) Cory's Shearwater (63)Cory’s Shearwater

European Storm Petrel (47)European Storm Petrel

Madeiran Storm Petrel (127)

Madeiran Storm Petrel (171)

Madeiran Storm Petrel (32) Madeiran Storm Petrel (130)Madeiran Storm Petrel. These are the summer breeders, note how fresh the plumage is, even in these rubbish pictures.  Note also the large extent of white wrapping around the vent area, especially when compared to:

Leach's Storm Petrel (200)this Leach’s Petrel. You can see that the white on this Leach’s doesn’t encircle the legs, unlike on the Madeiran. 

Leach's Storm Petrel (259)Leach's Storm Petrel (178) Leach's Storm Petrel (150)

Leach’s Petrel still. A big surprise to see this species around Madeira in May, but a great opportunity to compare it to Madeiran Petrel. And also…

Wilson's Storm Petrel (74) Wilson's Storm Petrel (55)

this Wilson’s Storm Petrel! Complete with yellow feet.

However, none of these could really compare to the two stars of the show. Firstly, the incomparable White-faced Storm Petrel. Once one of these showed up at the chum slick, it would hang around for a few hours giving incredible views as it pogoed and boinged its way around, and straight into my top five all time best birds.

White-faced Storm Petrel (332)
White-faced Storm Petrel (138) White-faced Storm Petrel (135) screensaver White-faced Storm Petrel (92) White-faced Storm Petrel (76) White-faced Storm Petrel (75) White-faced Storm Petrel (54)

White-faced Storm Petrel

and so finally we arrive at the main event. On the third day of chumming, we were starting to feel that time was running thin. Hugo and Catarina of Madeira Wind Birds didn’t seem worried, and so it proved. After a short time at the slick, a pterodroma hove into view and did a couple of close fly pasts before heading off quickly to the east. A hasty field identification was confirmed when we looked at the photos, it was a Zino’s!

Zino's Petrel 1 (27) Zino's Petrel 1 (37) Zino's Petrel 1 (39)Unfortunately my best shots of it were partly obscured by the back of the boat, but you can still see the rather slight bill (when compared to Desertas anyway) and the decent extent of white in the underwing coverts.

We were all humming with excitement after this, but more as to come. What we assumed was the same bird returning came in low from the south a few minutes later and circled the boat several times, investigating the slick. More photos, and the realisation that this was a second bird! See what you think…

Zino's Petrel 2 (3) Zino's Petrel 2 (17) Zino's Petrel 2 (18) Zino's Petrel 2 (19) Zino's Petrel 2 (20)So there we are. A hugely successful trip.

Oh yeah, we also saw lots of Madeiran Firecrests and several Trocaz Pigeons. Here’s a couple of pigs:

Trocaz Pigeon (21)  

 

Philippines 2012-13, part 1.

11th Dec 2013.

Luzon – Arrival and La Mesa Eco Parc

Hopefully I’m finally getting around to updating the blog with highlights from my winter trip to the Philippines, so I’ll do it in a rough chronological order. But don’t worry, it won’t be a detailed day by day account of my 7 week trip!

Arriving in Manila on Dec 10th, I was whisked through the streets alongside the iconic jeepneys that seemingly make up 90% of Manila’s traffic. Jeepneys are a crazy form of transport, a sort of cut & shut with a jeep and a minibus made over by a drunk Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. The garish paintings adorning the sides are occasionally stunning, but the prevalence of stickers/licenses on the windscreen almost obliterate the drivers view. Not that they spend much time looking out the front window!  Culture shock is too strong a phrase for this, but the cultural differences to other places I’ve been was strong and immediately apparent. A strange mix of Asian and American, the city was crowded, and it was a relief to get to the hotel and crash out after the long direct flight from Heathrow with Philippine Airlines.

The following morning I met with Bram Demeulemeester from www.birdguidingphilippines.com, our guide for the next 5 weeks. We chatted for a few hours as we waited for Mark Van Biers and Chris Steeman to roll up, but then the three of us were ready for our first proper birding while we waited for Tim Sykes to arrive. With Bram occupied with collecting Tim from the airport, we hired a taxi and went to La Mesa Eco Park for the afternoon. A great patch of woodland on the edge of Manila, a quick look at google earth reveals why it’s surprisingly good for Luzon’s birds – it’s the end of an extension of woodland that runs all the way along the Sierra Madres. A few miles to the north are Whiskered Pitta and Luzon Bleeding Heart, but our target was much harder to find elsewhere than these. I don’t know when Ashy Thrush was first discovered here, but it suddenly put one of the hardest Luzon endemics firmly on the map. The few birds that are here have been incredibly well photographed by the Philippines army of bird photographers, but I was happy with my efforts. We found the small trail that Bram had given us directions to, and after a few minutes wait we were treated by a family party of Ashy Thrushes messing around within a few feet of us.

Ashy Thrush (16) Ashy Thrush (18) Ashy Thrush (27)

Ashy Thrushes, adult above, bottom two are 1st yrs

I’d just latched on to my first Arctic Warbler of the trip when a whistle from Mark and a loud burst of chattering from the forest had me running the few yards back down the trail to where he was now watching the stunning Spotted Wood Kingfisher. Two of the major trip targets were in the bag on the first afternoon!

It was perched at eye level about 3 metres of the trail and just sat there, unmoved by the three gawking idiots enthralled by its every blink, head turn and even occasional bob. The photos don’t really do it justice, but it’s one of, if not the best kingfisher I’ve seen so far. Maybe I just like scaly looking birds.

Spotted Wood Kingfisher (127)
Spotted Wood Kingfisher (81) Spotted Wood Kingfisher (41)

Spotted Wood Kingfisher

Chris ... photographing Spotted Wood Kingfisher (3)

Chris ... photographing Spotted Wood Kingfisher (1)

Chris Steeman photographs the kingfisher using traditional methods

Mark Van Biers photographing Spotted Wood Kingfisher (2)

 

Mark Van Biers photographs the kingfisher using his phone!

A group of Plain Bush Hens were protestating loudly from the long grass above the amphitheatre, but we couldn’t coax them out. The walk back to the taxi produced a few more lifers, but all were common Philippine endemics such as Philippine Pied Fantail, White-eared Brown Dove and Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker. It may be apparent that most of the endemics carry the epithet “Philippine” to their name, so hopefully you’ll get used to reading it quicker than I got used to writing it. Back at the hotel, Tim had arrived fresh from a seemingly birdless time in Thailand and Borneo, and the team was complete. We could start the tour for real in the morning.

Part 2 to follow.

Champion’s of the Flyway – the Eilat bird race Apr 1st, 2014

Taking part in this race has been one of the highlights of my year so far, and in a year that saw me whizzing around the Philippines on the back of a motorbike, thats saying something. I was part of the Birding Frontiers team, and a full breakdown of the day can be read here http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/04/06/race-day-the-birding-frontiers-story/#comments . Basically, we didn’t win. We didn’t even come second. In fact, even third place eluded us, but I’m not bitter. It was a superb day and we did ourselves ok with our total of 151. Next year we’ll have a better plan. Next year, things will be different…

Roger Riddington& Adam Hutt scoping Pallas's Gull

 

Roger Riddington scoping a Pallas’s Gull in the dark, while Adam Hutt cleans the headlights so we can see the gulls!

The Pallas’s Gull in question. Probably only possible with the Swaro 95!

Birding Frontiers team

The Birding Frontiers team (Adam Hutt, Roger Riddington, me)

Dan Alon & Jonathan Meyrev

Dan Alon & Jonathan Meyrav, the co-organisers of the entire event.

The Palestine Sunbirders - overall winners

The Palestine Sunbirders, the overall winners. 

The Batumi Raptor Count crew

The Batumi Raptor Crew receiving the cheque for $30,000 to fund raptor conservation in Georgia.

Israel, March 2014 (photos from Sunbird tour)

There’s no great secret as to why I love going back to Israel. The birding is first rate, so check out the following selection from my recent Sunbird tour to Israel. We started off in the Negev, taking in Nizzana, Ovda, Sde Bokur and Mitzpe Ramon, then moved down to Eilat for five nights followed by a night near the Dead Sea and two nights in the Hula Valley. Epic migration and some great local specialities. The photos are in no particular order.

Yellow-vented Bulbul (8) Yellow-vented Bulbul. Very common all over Israel.

Common Cranes (53) Common Cranes (39)

Common Cranes. Approx 250 fly over us near Nizzana.

Collared Flycatcher (18)

Collared Flycatcher, male. Our first decent migrant.

Arabian Babbler (5)

Arabian Babbler feeding juvenile

Steppe Buzzards (92)

A small number of the thousands of Steppe Buzzards that flew over us in the Eilat mountains one morning.

Steppe Eagle (38)

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Buzzard (40)

Steppe Buzzard 

Spur-winged Plover (10)

Spur-winged Plover

White Stork (16)

White Stork 

Wryneck (22)

Wryneck

Yellow Wagtail (hybrid feldegg x lutea) (14)

Yellow Wagtail. I presume this is a hybrid feldegg x lutea, given the rather “taivana” like appearance.

Tristram's Starling (138) Tristram's Starling (99)

Tristram’s Starlings

Spanish Sparrows (9) Spanish Sparrow (11)

Spanish Sparrows

Slender-billed Gull (36) Slender-billed Gull (26)

Slender-billed Gulls

Semi-collared Flycatcher (1)

Semi-collared Flycatcher

Ruff (7)

Ruff

Pied Bush Chat (94) Pied Bush Chat (81) Pied Bush Chat (74) Pied Bush Chat (61)

Pied Bush Chat. This was approximately the 12th record for the Western Palearctic, and we were lucky enough to get great views of this mega as it hunted from the irrigation pipes at Neot Semadar.

Pallas's Gull (1)

Pallas’s Gull

Palestine Sunbird (42)

Palestine Sunbird

Oriental Skylark (7)

Oriental Skylark in Ovda Valley. A scarce winter visitor to Israel, this is the first I’ve seen but was followed by three more at Yotvata!

Bimaculated Lark (28)

Bimaculated Lark

Ehrenburg's Redstart (8)

“Ehrenburgs” Redstart (Caucasian race of Common Redstart)

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear (1)

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear

Bluethroat (68)

Bluethroat

Red-necked Phalarope (13)

Red-necked Phalarope

Mourning Wheatear (11)

Mourning Wheatear (14)

Mourning Wheatear

Little Egret (20)Little Egret

 

Lesser Spotted Eagle & Steppe Buzzards (5)

Lesser Spotted Eagles (1)

Lesser Spotted Eagles

Hume's Owl (8)

Hume’s Owl. A pair performed admirably for us, with this bird perching close enough for happy snaps in the torchlight. Nit really visible is the large rodent it as carrying in its bill.

Fan-tailed Raven (63)

Fan-tailed Raven

Hooded Wheatear (1)

Hooded Wheatear

Black Stork (12) Black Stork (4) Black Stork & Steppe Buzzards (8)

Black Storks

Black Kites (11) Black Kites (2)

Black Kites

Pied Kingfisher (13)

Pied Kingfisher

White Pelicans (24) White Pelican (3)

White Pelicans

Vinous-breasted Starling (21) Vinous-breasted Starling (16)

Vinous-breasted Starling

Greater Flamingo (17)

Greater Flamingos

Glossy Ibis (17)

Glossy Ibis

Hoopoe Lark (9)

Hoopoe Lark

European Bee-eater (5)

European Bee-eaters

 

Raptor spectacular at Batumi, Georgia. Aug-Sep 2013

Batumi 28 Aug – 12 Sep 2013

Got back from a simply fantastic 2 ½ weeks in Georgia where I was volunteering at the Batumi raptor camp. Loads of information on the BRC can be found at http://www.batumiraptorcount.org/, so I’ll just give a brief account of my time there.

27/28 Aug – I flew out with Pegasus airlines from London Stansted via Istanbul to Batumi. This seemed the preferable option for me rather than getting a slightly cheaper flight to Istanbul then the bus to Batumi (which takes about 24 hrs!) or flying to Tbilisi and then getting the sleeper train to Batumi. The flights cost £214 return, so not bad value really (although my flight from Stansted was at 00:30hrs, so a bit of a red eye!) and I saved on time and hassle when I was in Georgia. I arrived in Batumi around midday on 28th and got a taxi to the village of Sakhalvasho where the BRC is based, and where I was to be living for the next 15 or so days. I dumped my bags, grabbed the scope and camera and made the short walk up to Station 1 for the afternoon. And what an afternoon! Quickly meeting the other volunteer counters, it was immediately apparent that today was a good day, as there were raptors all over the place. Streams of incoming Honey Buzzards passed overhead and to the east and west of us, and when I asked Simon (the co-ordinator) what I could do, he replied just enjoy it! So I did, and I’m grateful for that. I think to be thrown straight in to counting would have been a bit overwhelming, so I just watched the other guys, got a feel for what the counting was all about and simply marvelled at the spectacle unfolding over my head. All of the preliminary counts from Batumi can be found on their website at http://www.batumiraptorcount.org/projects/raptor-count/latest-count or on the excellent Dutch site, Trektellen at  http://www.trektellen.nl/default.asp?land=8&site=0&taal=2&tellingen=1&showfav=&sorteren=&addfav=1048, so please treat the figures given here with caution as they are unchecked and may represent double counting occasionally. However, they do give a fairly good idea of the numbers of raptors I was seeing on a daily basis. This first afternoon was spectacular, but more was to come.

Honey Buzzard – 22,579

Black Kite – 497
Marsh Harrier – 164
Montagu’s Harrier – 306
Mon/Pal – 344
Booted Eagle – 102
Short-toed Eagle – 8, 
Roller – 19
Bee-eater – 1000’s
Kettle of raptors glupsing (2) Kettle of raptors (88) Kettle of raptors (73) Incoming raptors Honey Buzzards (14) Honey Buzzards (20)

Its very difficult to capture the spectacle of thousands of Honey Buzzards streaming past the viewpoint, but hopefully you get the idea!

29 Aug – Went to Station 2 today, and realised just how unfit I am. The drive around to Station 2 takes about 30 mins, followed by a 20 min climb up a fairly steep path. Arriving at the Station, I managed to contain my impending nausea and fainting and settled down to work. Station 2 is situated about 5km due east of Station 1 and provides a beautiful setting from which to observe raptors. On the edge of the national park, you are more isolated here, and there were no other birders which added to the special feeling of remoteness. Green Warblers called regularly, and other migrants were sometimes seen flying south to accompany the multitudes of Bee-eaters that were constantly circling up alongside the Station before migrating south over the hills. I should mention that Honey Buzzards are the focus of attention at the moment, and for these few weeks, only Station 1 counts Honeys as the risk of double counting is so high. So all Station 2 had to do with regards the Honey Buzzard stream was pick out the other species and make sure that Station 1 was aware of all the raptor streams. We also counted those odd birds that Station 1 missed due to distance, cloud or other factors. All this was achieved through radio contact. Whatever station I’m at on a particular day, I’ll put the other stations counts in brackets, just so you can appreciate the number of birds heading through the area.

Honey Buzzard – 1652 (12,866)
Black Kite – 108 (136)
Marsh Harrier – 44 (84)
Montagu’s Harrier – 69 (129)
Pallid Harrier – 1
Mon/Pal – 120 (306)
Booted Eagle – 15
Short-toed Eagle – 2
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1 (1)

European Bee-eater (25) European Bee-eater (1) European Bee-eater

Bee-eaters

30 Aug – Station 2 again. The surprise highlight being 3 flyby Dalmatian Pelicans that buzzed Station 1, so were a bit distant for us. However, it was a great way to finally get this species on the ol’ life list.

Honey Buzzard – 1181 (20,168)

Black Kite – 99 (66)
Egyptian Vulture – 1
Marsh Harrier – 24 (18)
Montagu’s Harrier – 18 (38)
Pallid Harrier – 4 (4)
Mon/Pal – 35 (59)
Booted Eagle – 6 (119)
Short-toed Eagle – 3 (12)
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
Dalmatian Pelican – 3
Black Stork – 2
White Stork – 8
(Roller 27)

Dalmatian Pelicans (5)Three Dalmatian Pelicans buzzing Station 1. Shame I was on Station 2!

Thought I’d show you what the view from Station 2 is like. Pretty special.

View from Station 2 (7) View from Station 2 (3) View from Station 2 (2) View from Station 2 (1)Looking back towards Station 1, which is on the flat topped hill a quarter in from the left.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

This Lesser Spotted Woodpecker showed really well in the small bare tree in front of Station 2.

31 Aug – Had a day off from counting today, so decided to go to the nearby Chorokhi Delta with Mattius, Albert and Simon. It was easy to get the marshrutka (local minibus) to Batumi and then another to the delta as the locals were very friendly and pointed us in the right direction. We actually saw a Dalmatian Pelican flying roughly alongside the bus on the way to the delta, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it once we got off the bus! The Chorokhi Delta is a fairly large area, certainly big enough for a whole days exploration on foot. A mixture of scrub, large bushes, open short grass, ephemeral marshes, tidal river, gravel shoals and tidal mud, as well as the Black Sea, it proved to be a magnet for migrants. Highlights in no particular order were:

Little Crake – 1 immature

Corncrake
Broad-billed Sandpiper – 5
Marsh Sandpiper
Short-toed Larks – 20+
Ortolan – 5+
Citrine Wagtail – 20
Yelkouan Shearwater – 20
Red-necked Phalarope – 3
Peregrine
Short-toed Eagle
Purple Swamphen (of the grey-headed race)
Temminck’s Stint
Red-backed Shrike – lots
Isabelline Wheatear – 2
Purple Heron – 100+

Temminck's Stint and Citrine Wagtail (13)

Temminck’s Stint and Citrine Wagtail

Red-backed Shrike (81)

Red-backed Shrike

Purple Herons

Purple Herons

Purple and Grey Herons (10)

Mixed flock of Purple and Grey Herons

Choroki Delta (2)

Chorokhi Delta

White-winged Black Tern juv

White-winged Tern, juvenile

Unfortunately we also witnessed a lot of hunting, as we expected, as it was the weekend. We found a freshly dead Marsh Harrier, and it was sobering to realise that we had been watching that very bird flying around earlier in the day. We also saw one hunter taking a shot at a Wood Sandpiper that was walking on the mud! Not sure how that proves the guys manhood, shooting a small wading bird that is basically a sitting target, but then hunting is ingrained in Georgian culture, as in many countries.

01 Sep – Station 1. Day totally written off due to heavy rain. Did actually manage to get up to the station at lunch time where we ate lunch, got piss wet through and came back down again. Result. Last night was the most spectacular electrical storm I’ve ever witnessed. With no curtains at our windows, the whole room was almost constantly lit by lightning for an hour or so. At times there was more light than dark, and sleep was impossible in the bright white light. Spent most of the day reading and sleeping, but did manage to see a couple of nice samamisicus Redstarts in the garden.

Ehrenburg's Redstart

Common Redstart of the Caucasian race, samamisicus, aka “Ehrenburg’s” Redstart

02 Sep – Station 2. The days big highlight was an adult female Crested Honey Buzzard, found by Albert and Romain. It was basically on its own, and circled up in front of the station before heading past us and to the north. I managed some terrible shots of it.

Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 1 (89) Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 1 (63)

Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female

Crested Honey Buzzard – 1 ad female
Honey Buzzard – 1492 (67,163)
Black Kite – 255 (179)
Marsh Harrier – 80 (124)
Montagu’s Harrier – 46 (90)
Pallid Harrier – 7 (6)
Mon/Pal – 60 (131)
Booted Eagle – 23 (238)
Short-toed Eagle – 1 (5)
Steppe Eagle – 1 (2)
Steppe Buzzard – 17
Egyptian Vulture – 1 (1)
(Osprey 6)
(Eastern Imperial Eagle 1)
White Stork – 55 (65)
Black Stork – 1 (4)
Yellow Wagtail – 100’s
Golden Oriole – 4
Bee-eater – 1000’s
Roller 2 (250)
Ortolan – 100’s
Tawny Pipit – 2
Alpine Swift – 1
Turtle Dove – 447 (1625)
Crossbill – 1
Hobby (61)

Hobby

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle

03 Sep – Station 1

Honey Buzzard – 42,464 (273), Black Kite – 736 (1168), Marsh Harrier – 88 (92), Montagu’s Harrier – 218 (153), Pallid Harrier – 10 (3), Mon/Pal – 216 (214), Booted Eagle – 16 (16), White Stork – 80, Golden Oriole – 4, Ruff – 12, Turtle Dove – 20+, Ortolan – 20

04 Sep – Station 1. A good Honey Buzzard passage today.
Honey Buzzard – 49,412 (3932)
Black Kite – 1351 (1664)
Marsh Harrier – 28 (48)
Montagu’s Harrier – 11 (42)
Pallid Harrier – 2 (4)
Mon/Pal – 63 (56)
Booted Eagle – 64
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
White Stork – 17
Black Stork – 3
Honey Buzzard (301) Honey Buzzard (107) Honey Buzzard (74) Honey Buzzard (69) Honey Buzzard (23) Honey Buzzard (4) Honey Buzzard (3) Honey Buzzard (2) Honey Buzzard (1)

The amazingly variable Honey Buzzard

05 Sep – Station 1. A very rainy day, spent all morning in bed and the afternoon was windy, cold and heavy showers. Consequently, very few raptors were moving.

Honey Buzzard – 159 (68)
Black Kite – 7 (19)
Marsh Harrier – 5
Montagu’s Harrier – 3
Mon/Pal – 12

06 Sep – Went to Mtirala National Park for the morning with Jan and a group of eco tourists, where we managed to see a grand total of 9 species in 4 hours including a very brief flyover Krüper’s Nuthatch! Autumn woodland birding is not the greatest idea! Did manage to see the Caucasian Salamander though, which is a good amphibian tick. After this ornithological failure, we decided to try the Batumi harbour area, which proved to be a good move. Highlights for me were Savi’s Warbler, c20 Red-backed Shrikes, c20 Whinchats and Barred, Marsh & “Caspian” Reed Warblers.

Caspian Reed Warbler

“Caspian” Reed Warbler. I think.

Batumi harbour (1)

The Batumi harbour area, great for migrants.

Ortolan

Ortolan

Northern Wheatear (5)

pale Northern Wheatear 

Red-backed Shrike (69) Red-backed Shrike (25) Red-backed Shrike (1) Red-backed Shrike (63)

Red-backed Shrikes. One of the commonest migrants, they were seemingly everywhere.

07 Sep – Station 2. Woke up with a slightly dodgy gut, which was worrying considering that thus far I was one of the few that had avoided getting ill. It wasn’t too bad though, so I went along to Station 2 as planned. By lunchtime my guts were in turmoil and I was fighting back the nausea. I wont go into too much detail, suffice to say that the possibility of cholera crossed my mind. Luckily, it wasn’t, although for a few hours in the late afternoon it was all I could do to act as scribe for the other counters. The task of looking up and counting raptors was beyond me. I did manage to get the energy to look at a female Crested Honey Buzzard that flew over us though!

Crested Honey Buzzard – 1 ad female
Honey Buzzard – 43 (27,149)
Black Kite – 1467 (310)
Marsh Harrier – 101 (54)
Montagu’s Harrier – 65 (39)
Pallid Harrier – 6 (6)
Mon/Pal – 134 (111)
Booted Eagle – ? (77)
Short-toed Eagle – 2
Lesser Spotted Eagle – 1
Crested Honey Buzzard Ad fem 2 (12)
Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female (on right)
Crested Honey Buzzard Ad fem 2 (38) Crested Honey Buzzard ad fem 2 (39)
Crested Honey Buzzard, adult female
Booted Eagle (59)
Booted Eagle
Black Kite showing lineatus features (1) Black Kite (3)
Black Kites
Short-toed Eagle (19)

Short-toed Eagle

08-09 Sep – Went up to Station 1 for the morning of the 8th, but I had the next three days off, so went on a little sojourn into the Georgian Lesser Caucasus. I was basically sight-seeing, but one of those sights happened to be an awesome Caspian Snowcock. Also went up onto the Javakheti plateaux, where there were loads of raptors feeding and moving. A Steppe Eagle was probably the highlight, but close views of hunting Montagu’s Harrier were nice too. The scenery was excellent, as I think you’ll agree.

Lesser Caucasus (8) Lesser Caucasus (10) Lesser Caucasus (12)

The Lesser Caucasus

Black Kites over Lesser Caucasus (15)

Black Kites circling over Lesser Caucasus

Caspian Snowcock (5)

Caspian Snowcock

Long-legged and Steppe Buzzard (6)

Long-legged and Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard (13)

Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Eagle (28)

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Buzzard (35)

Steppe Buzzard

10 Sep – Another day off, so went to Batumi harbour with Dieter, via a site near Batumi for Krüper’s Nuthatch. The nuthatches eventually showed well, as did a brief Thrush Nightingale here. It was evident that migrants were on the move, so we went to the harbour area again. We saw nothing new of note (just c30 Whinchat, 15 R-b Shrikes, Barred Wblr etc.), so decided to move on to the Chorokhi Delta. Lots of Yellow-legged Gulls, Little Terns and migrants. The best of which were Little Crake, two Cattle Egret, 2+ Gull-billed Tern, 3 Caspian Tern, 4 Broad-billed Sandpipers and c15 Citrine Wagtails.

Garganey and Broad-billed Sandpipers (9)

Garganey, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Ringed Plovers

Fisherman at Choroki Delta (6)

Fisherman

Citrine Wagtail (30)

Citrine Wagtail

Choroki Delta (3) Choroki Delta (1)

Chorokhi Delta beach

Little Terns with White-winged Black Tern (1)

Little Terns

11 Sep – Station 1.

Honey Buzzard – 2475 (9830)
Black Kite – 4199 (7453)
Marsh Harrier – 260 (345)
Montagu’s Harrier – 68 (79)
Pallid Harrier – 2 (22)
Mon/Pal – 205 (184)
Booted Eagle – ?
Short-toed Eagle – 3 (8)
Egyptian Vulture – 3 (4)
Black Stork – 12 (16)
Tawny Pipit – c20

12 Sep – Station 1

Honey Buzzard – 2562 (4471)
Black Kite – 2047 (2279)
Marsh Harrier – 195 (193)
Montagu’s Harrier – 39 (45)
Pallid Harrier – 9 (13)
Mon/Pal – 81 (87)
Lesser Spotted/Steppe Eagle – 5
Booted Eagle – 120 (???)
Egyptian Vulture – 1
Short-toed Eagle – 2
13 Sep – Spent my last morning at Station 1, when again good numbers of Honey Buzzards and Black Kites were migrating, but then I had to drag myself away to catch my return flight at 1345 from Batumi.  It had been an amazing experience, with a truly awesome birding experience on show most days.  The company had been incredible, and I made some great friends who I’ll hopefully see again at some point.  Here are some parting shots of the social side of the Batumi Raptor Count experience.

Counters at Station 2 (3)

Station 2 crew. 

Station 1 in the rain (3)

Huddled out of the rain on Station 1.

Social nights (9)

Social nights (16) Social nights (6) Social nights (12) Social nights (4) Social nights (3) Romain sleeping Me, with Finnstick Florien asleep Goshawk on hand (1) Clement watching raptors (2)

Aki Aki, Filip and Finnstick (2)