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)

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.

Snettisham RSPB, after the tidal surge.

I’m staying with the family Eele in Norfolk for a few days, which has happened to coincide with the worst tidal surge in recorded history. So this morning I went with RSPB warden Paul Eele down to Snettisham RSPB to view the damage done by the tidal surge. The pictures speak for themselves.

IMG_2298For anyone that knows the site, you’ll see that the pits are full of water, way above their usual levels. The first hide (Rotary Hide) seems to have survived ok, but the second one (Shore Hide) got hit badly.

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The screening to Shore Hide has been lifted out of the ground

IMG_2306The inside of Shore Hide is full of tideline debris

IMG_2305The bottom front panels have been pushed off by the pressure of water inside the hide

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The waterline is halfway up the hide windows!

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The roost bank has gone. Its been replaced by a huge hole and a shingle delta!

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Sanctuary Hide has been picked up, turned 180 degrees and set back down in almost the same spot! We have no idea how that happened, but now the door is facing the pit and the windows are facing the sky!

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RSPB may be branching out into other areas of wildlife, but this new astronomy hide will take some getting used too!

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Paul Eele surveying the site where the Roost Hide used to be. It has completely gone!

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All that was left in situ were these two benches! 

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The Roost Hide (well, part of it at least) was discovered about half way up the pit, almost completely submerged. We assume that the rest of the hide has sunk!

At least the habitat should bounce back fairly quickly at Snettisham, although the Red Hempnettle may have been lost. Whether the hides get replaced is another matter, so a visit to Snettisham will be a different experience from now on. Obviously the damaged hides are closed off to the public.

 

 

Foula and Shetland, Sep-Oct 2013

Foula Sep-Oct 2013. The final frontier?

Not quite, but you can see it from here! This is proving to be a strange year, as most of the usual crew have dropped out for one reason or another. One is trying to mop up all the work left behind by those of us out birding this autumn while another is working on Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Asia. Never mind, it might leave more chance of self-finding something monstrous myself, but it does mean that the isle will be much harder to cover, especially considering that Kevin Shepherd is also taking a year off from Foula. We’ll see how we get on, but it’s going to be very quiet on here. At least Ken Shaw will be with us for the first 6 days, so we should be able to cover the main spots every day or every other day.

I travelled up to Shetland with Bill Aspin, and we arrived in a wet and windy Lerwick on Sept 18th. One of the first birds we saw was a grotty eclipse drake Ring-necked Duck we twitched on Loch of Clickimin, but at least our Shetland account was opened with a decent scarce. We were staying over on the west side, in Walls. Don’t ask why, but the Voe House bod in Walls was a nice place to stay, and the west mainland has bags of potential to find your own stuff. I was due to give a talk to the Shetland Bird Club in Lerwick that evening on my travels in Georgia and Armenia, which despite some file numbering issues, went well. I’ve always thought of myself as a birder with a camera rather than a photographer, so I was slightly nervous about displaying my efforts to an audience that contained some excellent photographers, and I’ve never done a talk on quite such a big screen before, but all went well.

Paul's talk to SBC

Trying to get to grips with technology. It took me most of the talk to realise i could use the mouse as a pointer!

The following day we did a spot of birding with Rory Tallack in west Mainland, and Rory showed us a couple of superb looking places where we found a brace of Yellow-browed Warblers. However, things might be different when we got off Foula in a fortnights time…  The afternoon turned into a bit of a twitch, after Brydon Thomason went and found a Baltimore Oriole on Unst! Bill and I were shopping in Tesco in preparation for Foula when the text came through. We considered leaving the full trolley abandoned in the aisle, but it wasn’t a tick for either of us so we finished the shop, drove the food over to Walls to drop off at the Foula ferry and then high-tailed it north to Unst. Just after getting on the ferry to Yell, we got a text from Rory saying there was no further sign, but we decided to continue anyway. Arriving at Halligarth, it was evident that it had most likely gone, but just as we were contemplating where to start the search, Paul Harvey screeched up, shouted something and then drove off at high speed. There were two options here. Either he had just relocated the oriole somewhere, or there was a tsunami bearing down on us. Either option entailed a rapid retreat from Halligarth, so we jumped in the car a la Dukes of Hazard, and sped off after the silver dot that was PVH. And rapidly lost him. I dithered, turned around and went to the post office which is where I thought it would be. Bizarrely, so did most other people (or were they following me?) and we started to search the hedge behind the post office. I looked around and said, “Where’s Roger?”, as I knew he had left Halligarth before me. In a slightly reminiscent scene from “Life of Brian”, someone looked up and pointed into the distance and said “there’s Roger’s car”, so we all jumped back in the cars and the wacky races recommenced as we put our little 1.2 litre Ford Ka through its full range of revs, gears and braking capacity in the short 500m dash to the garden Paul and Roger were looking in. As I slowed to park up Paul said “it’s here!” and was clearly watching it as I went past him. In the seconds (or more likely several light years) that then elapsed between stopping the car, getting out and getting next to Paul, the bird flew behind the house and wasn’t seen again except for Rory having a brief view of it flying over him going west. We searched high and low, and we also looked in some gardens, but it was clear that a dip was on the cards. Only about half a dozen people connected, so if you want to see a picture of this beast, check out http://www.nature-shetland.co.uk/naturelatest/pics13/_MG_0390a.jpg.  We did see a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers, lots of flyover Snow Buntings and the injured resident Common Crane, but this was a dip on a grand scale. Still, I was chuffed for Brydon that others had eventually seen it and even obtained a gripping photo. There’s nothing worse than finding a good bird only for it to disappear before others can share it with you.

Paul French Rory Talloch Tresta Shetland 19th Sept 2013

Birding in Tresta garden with Rory

Fri 20th – We arrived on Foula today and were met by Ken Shaw at the airstrip. The winds are said to be SW-W for the foreseeable future, so we were not expecting anything of any real interest in our first day. However, a foray around Ham produced a lovely Little Bunting that had been around for a little while (along with a second bird we didn’t see), a Yellow-browed Warbler and a new Bluethroat. The Bluethroat just appeared on the Ham yard wall after we had been sat watching the yard for a while, then proceeded to feed along the stream. Always good value, Bluethroats. It was great to meet up with Geoff and Donna Atherton again, and Bill went all Disney on me by feeding the garden birds.

Little Bunting, Ham (15)

Little Bunting

Bluethroat, Ham (20) Bluethroat, Ham (28)Bluethroat

Blackbird (3) Bill with Blackbird (6)

Bill and a Blackbird

Geoff and Donna then showed me pics of a strange acro that had been present in the Ham yard since Sept 6th. It showed a strange combination of rather pallid upperparts but with apparent rusty tones to the rump, long supercillium extending well beyond the eye, dark centred tertials with contrasting pale fringes long primary projection and grey legs. They felt it was likely a Reed Warbler, and so did I based on the photos and the early arrival date. There has been no sign of the two Pectoral Sandpipers down on South Ness today, but there was a large count of Snow Buntings. We logged over 300, mainly along the coast between Ristie and Ham.

Snow Buntings (39) Snow Bunting (7)

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting (dead) (7)

Dead Snow Bunting

Saturday 21st – what a day! There doesn’t seem to be many migrants arriving, and it also seems as if many of the Snow Buntings have left so I’m glad we got a decent count yesterday. However, I clapped eyes on the acro in the Ham yard today for the first time, and it’s a Blyth’s Reed! The only slightly odd feature is the apparent long primary projection, but the overall colour tones are spot on for Blyth’s as is the rather weak and delicate structure. The photos show it all really. This is a very early autumn record of Blyth’s in Britain, and Geoff’s notes show that he first saw it on the 4th.  Foula is always pushing the boundaries!

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (73) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (76) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (47) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (48) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (82) emarginations Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (22) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (26) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (46) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (19)

Blyth’s Reed Warbler, including my annual flight shot

Also in the garden are an eastern Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow-browed Warbler and Little Bunting.

Lesser Whitethroat 1 (18) Lesser Whitethroat 1 (40)

blythi Lesser Whitethroat?

After the Ham Yard, we headed down to the South Ness to try and catch up with the two Pec Sands. Geoff & Donna had relocated them this morning, so we headed down and soon found them in their usual spot around the windmills. Luckily they have had more sense than a needletail and have thus far avoided the turbines. They also showed rather nicely.

Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (36) Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (25) Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (54)

Pectoral Sandpipers

Barred Warbler, Manse (1)

Barred Warbler

Sunday 22nd – still westerly, or perhaps north westerly today, so decided to catch up on some work before going out. Then it started to rain so haven’t yet left the house and its now 15:17hrs. Still, I need a day off occasionally and I’ve been birding pretty much constantly since late August. Time for another cuppa before going out at least… I could actually update those interested on the new developments at Ristie. There is a new kitchen, the annex has been completely refurbished and the wardrobes have been taken away. There’s a lot more space here now, although the kitchen will always be small. The new cooker is a massive improvement, but most importantly we can now turn on the bathroom light without shorting out the entire house!

Ristie cottage (1) Ristie cottage (3)

New Ristie!

Monday 23rd – the day dawned shitty and stayed shitty for the duration. However, with the wind swinging round to the east, I knew that staying in Ristie and beginning the massive task of deleting and editing photos was a risky business. Ken also stayed in until about 3pm, then decided to have a look around the cliffs near Ristie. Despite the constant drizzle, Bill had ventured out this morning like the stalwart he is, and when the radio crackled into life about 3:30pm, I feared the worst. However, it was Geoff who had kindly driven north to collect Ken and myself as they had refound the Citrine Wagtail they had had very brief views of on the 20th and Bill had seen fly over him calling on the 21st. We then went to the coast just north of the harbour and soon saw the bird in question distantly feeding around the rock pools. Distant views were alarming as we couldn’t see an ear covert surround on a clearly grey and white wagtail, plus the supercillium looked strikingly long and square ended. I took some poor photos which seemed to confirm this, and I started to get quite excited by the possibility of it being an “Eastern” Yellow Wagtail. It was very mobile and skittish, and called on a couple of occasions when it was flushed – a classic short buzzy flava call, with lots of z’s in it. I felt it was a touch short for a Citrine call, which further cemented the idea of Eastern Yellow Wagtail in my mind.

Citrine Wagtail, Ham (15)

eastern flava?

I finally managed to get decent views of it as dusk was settling over us, and it was immediately apparent that I’d made a mistake. It was a Citrine Wagtail. The ear covert surround was thin, but it was complete. When the bird hunched up, the surround disappeared completely and the ear coverts merged into the mantle, giving a false impression of Yellow Wagtail. The ear covert surround made all the other pieces slot into place, as the pale centred ear coverts and black bill were all Citrine features. The final confirmation for me came when it took flight of its own accord and flew a long way inland, presumably on its regular path to its roost site, giving a longer flight call with the classic Citrine buzz to it. Certainly a lesson to spend more time actually looking at a bird rather than relying on crappy pictures.

Citrine Wagtail, Ham (47)

Citrine Wagtail, same as above

As a footnote, we’ve just learnt that the Baltimore Oriole has been relocated on Unst, back at Halligarth. If it stays another 11 days I’ll be happy! The forecast for the foreseeable future also looks very tasty, with easterly quarter winds interspersed with the odd bit of west. Exciting times, and the rares have already started to drop into Shetland and Orkney. What will tomorrow bring? If it’s dry with decent visibility, we should score…

Tuesday 24th – We didn’t score. A Red-breasted Flycatcher was new in, and the Citrine Wagtail and Blyth’s Reed are still present. The Ham yard was the place to be today, with a Red-breasted Flycatcher, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 3 Common Rosefinch and 2 Yellow-browed Warblers all in there at once. In fact, it took me a few minutes to sift through the scarce to find a Blackcap! But no hoped for rarity. A Turtle Dove at the school was my first in Britain this year, a sad reflection on their freefall to extinction in this country.

Common Rosefinch (11)

Common Rosefinch flock

Yellow-browed Warbler (7) Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler

Blackcap (5)

Blackcap

Turtle Dove (2)

Turtle Dove

We also found a Great Spotted Woodpecker right at the southern tip of the isle, at South Ness. It flew in from the sea or rocks, and then spent a while clinging to the metal antennae tower and some fence posts before heading off again. Amazing to see such a bird in this setting!

Great Spotted Woodpecker, South Ness (25) Great Spotted Woodpecker, South Ness (21)

Great Spotted Woodpecker at South Ness. The local Rock Pipit was not happy!

Paul French Ken Shaw Foula Graveyard 24th Sept 2013

Ken Shaw and me checking out the cemetery

Wednesday 25th – On a clear day you can see Fair Isle from here. The small lump of rock poking over the south eastern horizon is a long way from here, but the effects can be felt. They had a superb day today, with multiple rare arrivals. We waved goodbye to Ken who left the isle and managed to discover nothing new at all. Three Yellow-brows in the south could be new, but could also be the birds from Ham venturing further afield. The Red-breasted Flycatcher has disappeared as has the Citrine Wagtail, but the stalwart Blyth’s Reed Warbler continues to show well. The Turtle Dove was picked up moribund and looks set to die overnight tonight. It brings home the perils of migration and what these birds go through. Anyway, the forecast is excellent for Shetland in general, but as we find it difficult to know what conditions will produce what for Foula, the jury is still out on what the next few days will bring. Undoubtedly Fair Isle will score again, but will we get a taste of the action…???

Rock Pipit (2)

Rock Pipit

Thursday 26th – …not today we won’t! An increase in Yellow-browed Warblers to 13 couldn’t disguise our inability to find something better. There seems to have been a clear out of migrants, with no sign of the Blyth’s Reed all day and only one Rosefinch seen. Even Meadow Pipits were in short supply as we battled our way through a pretty quiet day. The weather was excellent, with almost still conditions and perfect visibility – all of the detail in the cliffs on Shetland stood out and we could see the whole west coast of Fair Isle – but nothing drifted in. In fact, “bird of the day” was a Minke Whale that we spied due east of Ham. It’s due to turn a touch more southerly tomorrow, so perhaps a change in the weather will do us good? If not, I’ll have to endeavour to get the perfect Rock Pipit photo! Our order from the shop turned up in typically eclectic style. Ordering over the phone from a small store has its limitations. We asked for some cereal bars and two rice crispie bar things turned up. Asking for broccoli resulted in a white cabbage appearing, and there was no sign of the hoped for bottle of Southern Comfort. Bread costs £1.72 a loaf, but at least they do box everything up and put it on the boat for us.

Yellow-browed Warbler (16) Yellow-browed Warbler (17)

Yellow-browed Warblers

Yellow-browed Warbler (22.1)

Yellow-browed Warbler on the cliffs with Rock Pipit

Friday 27th – I had a slow start today and worked my way down the east cliffs to Ham. The theory being that the cliffs had not been done in several days, so there could have been anything down there. Bird of the walk was a rather pale and small looking Wren that was most likely a nominate race European bird, but it was at the bottom of a large geo and disappeared into the boulder beach.  If I’m reduced to stringing Wrens, you can imagine how quiet things are. Arriving at Ham, one of the Yellow-browed Warblers was still flitting spritely around the yard, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared in the sycamores. It then flew onto one of the wooden yoals slowly rotting in the grass. Yoals are a traditional Shetland small fishing boat, and this one provided the ‘pecker with plenty of hammering opportunities, but absolutely no food. It looked ill, with its eyes on the edge of closing and at one point it even fell off the boat. It was completely unconcerned by my presence a few meters away, which is always a bad sign. Some of these migratory species, such as Turtle Dove and Great Spotted Woodpecker really don’t do well on Shetland. Donna had some pre-prepared fat and nut balls for feeding the sparrows in winter, so took one down to it. Whether it finds it and starts feeding from it is one matter, and it may have even gone too far already

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (9) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (16) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (38) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (58) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (56)

Great Spotted Woodpecker attacking a boat

On a lighter note, a stunning moulting drake Long-tailed Duck was in the harbour.  I managed to crawl along the pier to get near enough to get some pleasing shots, and it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to a Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck (140)

Long-tailed Duck, moulting adult drake

I got back to Ristie just after dark, shortly followed by an excited Bill who had just found a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll in Ham. The photos (well, video), are conclusive, so tomorrow’s task is to relocate it. The last one I saw on here was 2009, so I hope we can find it.

Saturday 28th – The day dawned to the tune of rain beating against the skylight, and a heavy drizzle continued well into the late morning. Low cloud gave way to mist, and visibility was reduced to 200m at the most. I left Ristie after lunch and caught up with Bill at the school. We then did Ham together and walked down to Hametoun. It was, for the most part, pretty birdless. We did have 13 Yellow-browed Warblers between us, but they are by far the commonest autumn warbler on here now, so don’t really count as a scarcity anymore. Still, they are stunning to watch, and we had a small flock of four at Biggins.

Walking back via Ham again, a new Rosefinch showed well and the pecker is looking distinctly perkier after it has clearly found the nuts and fat left out for it by Geoff & Donna. After enjoying the antics of the woodpecker chasing off Blackbirds and watching the ferry get hoisted into its mooring out of the water, I decided to upload a few photos to Facebook using the only accessible Wi-Fi on the island – at the school. Two photos in, I heard a redpoll fly over me. A deep, throaty redpoll! I couldn’t see it in the thick mist and failing light, but radioed Bill who thankfully was nearly at the school, and he immediately picked up two redpolls sat on a fence line near the old school house. One was a Common, but the other was huge and white, dwarfing its cousin! They quickly flew off low down the road towards the Ham bridge, but we relocated them both roosting in the angelica. It was as if they were using the flower heads as umbrellifers! We managed to get close to the completely unconcerned birds, and the trusty 7D managed to perform, even in extreme low light. My last Hornemann’s Redpoll was in 2009, so it was excellent to catch up with this one. Interestingly, it appeared in Ham at the same time last night, so it’s anyone’s guess where it’s spending the day feeding, but I would imagine it’s out in the peat banks somewhere.

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (1) Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (29) Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (27)

Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll

Walking back to Ristie in the dark, a near disaster struck when, without warning, there was a clatter on the road and I looked down to see the afore mentioned 7D lying face up on the tarmac! It had somehow detached itself from the lens and dropped to the floor. I hurriedly picked it up and fixed it back onto the 100-400 lens, and hoped for the best. Testing it out back in Ristie, it seems there is no obvious damage and everything seems to be working ok. No idea why it fell off, but I’ll be keeping a periodic eye on it in future.

Tomorrow should see the start of the forecast strong south easterlies. While these are the much hoped for perfect winds for Shetland (and Fair Isle), they don’t seem to produce the really good stuff on Foula. We’re just too sheltered by Shetland, but I’m sure something will get through. Hopefully the birding will improve, and I’ll be happy with an increase in diversity. Plus a Siberian Flycatcher obviously…!!!

Sunday 29th – Early morning rain and strong SSW winds were not exactly what we had in mind, but the rain soon stopped and we headed out into a gale. This gradually swung round to the south east through the morning and actually dropped off to a nice light breeze. Walking south through Harrier and Ham, it was evident that the much anticipated arrival of migrants just hadn’t happened. There was nothing new at all. The regular Jack Snipe was still in Harrier and just one Yellow-browed Warbler remained at Burns. Ham was hard work, but at least the Great Spotted Woodpecker seems to have perked up no end on its new diet of fat and peanuts kindly provided by the Athertons. Maybe it will make it south after all?

As we made it to Hametoun, I had a fantastic close experience with a young male Merlin. It just sat there as I crept closer, taking pictures. It would stare at me for a few seconds, decide that I wasn’t a threat and go back to preening or studying the landscape for prey. When I was a kid, Merlins were always my favourite bird, and they have lost none of their appeal as I’ve got older and seen many more of them.

Merlin (169) Merlin (236) Merlin (253)

Merlin

The canary grass was as devoid of birds as ever, but as we rounded the houses at Biggins a couple of Brambling were creeping around in the grass and I saw a small bunting feeding unobtrusively near them. A Little Bunting! It proved very skittish and unapproachable, but we still managed a few record shots.

Little Bunting, Biggins (34)

Little Bunting

South Ness was quite productive, in a Foula sense. Descending right to the end of the ness, as far south as you can go and remain on Foula, I came across a group of waders. The final tally was 13 Purple Sandpipers, plus a Sanderling and two Knot. Believe it or not, but Knot was a Foula tick for me! Ahh, Foula listing. Is it possible for a birder to go somewhere and not keep a list? I reckon I’m the 6th or 7th highest Foula lister, but rapidly approaching the top 5 echelons. I need to do a spring trip for the likes of Rustic Bunting, Icterine Warbler and Puffin! I also need to get a life!

Knot (16)

Knot

Monday 30th – The last day in September was also the very first day I have made it to the Post Office before it closes at 11am. And that was only after a concerted march from Ristie to Ham, bypassing Harrier. Luckily, Bill was on the case in Harrier, so I brought my postcards with an uneasy feel that I was handing Bill a Bluetail on a plate. As it turned out, neither of us found a Bluetail. Ham was devoid of new migrants, but given the strong SE winds, I thought it was prudent to spend some time around the sheltered Ham valley before working my way north along the east cliffs and checking the sheltered geos along the way. This excellent plan was interrupted when Bill radioed with news of Long-eared Owl and Stonechat at the Manse! I grabbed a lift with Geoff & Donna, and we arrived to see Bill standing within mere meters of the owl in the Manse garden. Which promptly flushed when I did my worst creeping up to a bird ever. Sorry Bill! Luckily it didn’t go far, and we all enjoyed superb views of it over the next 30 mins or so as it sheltered in the lee side of peat cuttings. Hopefully it avoided the attentions of the local Bonxies until nightfall and it could beat a retreat to somewhere more sensible. The Stonechat also showed well, and steadfastly refused to be turned into anything rare.

Long-eared Owl (1) Long-eared Owl (4) Long-eared Owl (44) Long-eared Owl (113) Long-eared Owl (83)

Long-eared Owl

Paul French Geoff Atherton LEO Teachers Garden Foula 30th Sept 2013

Geoff and I photographing the owl

Working our way south, we approached Biggins hoping to relocate the Little Bunting. Firstly, a Robin appeared under a derelict trailer and while I was watching that I heard Bill say “Short-toed Lark!” I moved my bins a fraction to have a lovely Short-toed Lark fill my view. That’ll teach me for staring at Robins! The lark showed really well over the next hour or so, and remained faithful to a discrete area around the house.

Short-toed Lark (123) Short-toed Lark (19)Short-toed Lark

And that was about it for the day really. A few other new species for the trip list came in, but nothing of note. Oh yeah, I did manage to make it back to the north cliffs to stare into a sheltered geo for a few minutes at dusk. A Robin greeted me. It felt so rare as it hopped around on the boulder beach that I couldn’t resist taking a few record shots at ISO stupidly high at 1855hrs. Good practice for when the big one does arrive down there…

Tuesday 1st Oct – The wind is increasing in strength, so after a foray around the northern geos where we had a Great Spotted Woodpecker in off the sea and Bill saw a few migrants in Soberlie Geo, we marched south through Harrier, bypassed Ham and went straight to Biggins. Bear in mind that a march on here involves lots of birding and a hunched hike into a near gale head wind!

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Trolli Geo (7)

Great Spotted Woodpecker in Trolli geo

So it was that we arrived at Biggins around midday and soon relocated both the Short-toed Lark and Little Bunting, although neither were very co-operative today. We decided to have lunch sitting down the first major geo up from South Ness, and immediately found a Red-breasted Flycatcher. We settled down to watch this for a while and managed a few atmospheric shots of it. Interestingly, it shows a distinct peachy throat at some angles. This may suggest a slightly older (2nd cal yr?) male, but then the distinct buffy tertial and covert tips suggest a 1st yr. What does it mean? No idea.

Red-breasted Flycatcher (2) Red-breasted Flycatcher (5)Red-breasted Flycatcher (11)

Red-breasted Flycatcher (9)

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Bill Paul French South Ness Foula 30th Sept 2013

Bill and me at South Ness

Paul French South Ness Foula 1st Oct 2013

Me at South Ness, with Da Noup in the background. Think I’m actually watching the Red-breasted Flycatcher at this point

After enjoying this, we headed slowly north again, checking all the crofts in Hametoun for the umpteenth time without seeing anything out of the ordinary, and spent some time with Geoff & Donna enjoying a cuppa, a chocolate digestive and a tale or two of life on Foula.

We decided to walk back north along the east cliffs, checking the sheltered geos and rocks along the way. This proved a good move at the back of Stremness when we found a Grey Wagtail. Ok, so not a rarity or anything, but another Foula tick for me and much appreciated it was too. Also a Foula tick was a Razorbill that was off Ruscar, but I’ll gloss over that one!

The last hour or so of light was spent in Trolli (aka Cave) Geo, and we had a great time. Nothing scarce, but a Carrion Crow came in been harassed by two Hoodies, four Siskin landed next to us, a Jack Snipe came in off the sea over our heads and a scattering of more usual stuff.

Great Skua (2) Great Skua (15) Great Skua (12)

Great Skua

Wednesday 2nd – A day of gale force SSE winds meant there was only one thing for it. Da Nort Bank of Foula is basically undoable in a birding context. The cliffs are over 200m high and they are straight down. And I mean straight down! Looking along Da Nort Bank gives an almost prehistoric tingle down your spine, and it’s easy to imagine pterodactyls soaring along the cliffs rather than the multitudes of Fulmars that are there nowadays. There are a couple of small areas near the cliff top where you can look over into a gully, but you’re only looking at less than 1% of the cliff area. So the way to do it is to concentrate on the smaller cliffs near to Ristie (and by small I mean about 50m high!). It’s possible to look over the edge in a few places between Ristie and Soberlie Geo (the name we have given to the geo immediately to the east of Soberlie), and in strong SE winds these usually hold a few migrants. Today was no exception, although there was nothing rare or scarce to be found. Lots of Bramblings, Chaffinches, Redwings and Song Thrushes vied for space with a few Robins, Dunnocks and the odd Redstart and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Two Yellow-browed Warblers were the best on offer, although a Goldcrest was new for the trip. A third Yellow-browed Warbler was in the garden at Ristie.

Song Thrush on cliff

Song Thrush

Paul French Da Logat Foula 2nd Oct 2013 (1)

Doing an impression of a Jawa

Paul French Da Logat Foula 2nd Oct 2013

Cliff-top birding

Da Logat (nee Shit) Foula 2nd Oct 2013 Blackcap, Trolli Geo (2)

Blackcap on boulder beach

Bill Aspin on Soberlie Geo (2)

Selkie Geo, with Bill looking over the edge at the end of the fence

Bill Aspin at Da Shit (4) Bill Aspin at Da Shit (5) Bill Aspin in habitatBill Aspin at Da Shit (2) Bill Aspin at Da Shit (1)

Geo birding, with Bill Aspin

Thursday 3rd – another day of strong SSE winds made birding very difficult, and we restricted ourselves to the northern geos again. The afternoon turned into a very unpleasant mix of strong winds and driving rain, so we bottled it and stayed in Ristie. I realised I needed to make a start on labelling and sorting all the pictures from my latest Georgia trip, so spent a very dull afternoon doing that. And I’m still nowhere near finishing.

Birds in the geos were basically the same as yesterday with 3 less Yellow-browed Warblers, but a new Redstart was compensation.

Tomorrow should be our last day, but the weather seems to be conspiring against us. Visibility is apparently forecast to be poor, so the plane might not make it in. Which is sort of fine by us. We have spare food, and enough enthusiasm left for a few more days. Plus the wind should be veering SW, which is not a great direction but any change in the weather should drop a few birds on us. It’s been SSE for too long now, you get the feeling that it’s just run out of birds. Of course, I say this from the position of having no idea what is currently gracing Shetland. We’ve not made it to the school for internet access for two days now, there could be anything kicking off on Shetland and we’d be none the wiser. Here’s hoping that all turns out well on every level…

Friday 4th – Another dawn of low cloud and rain. After packing and dropping our bags at the top of the track, I went back to Ristie for a brief respite from the rain while Bill got a lift south. With little prospect of the plane going, I was quite relaxed. Suddenly the weather cleared, Soberlie hill lost its crown of cloud and I hurried out of the door. The far north was devoid of birds, and working Harrier produced a new Reed Bunting and Chiffchaff. Arriving at Ham, I met Geoff who’d been south and had a prob Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the Hametoun burn. Grabbing a lift south with him, we worked the burn together and also got distant views of the Great Grey Shrike he’d found earlier at Braidfit. There was however, no sign of the warbler or of the probable Olive-backed Pipit that Bill saw disappearing behind Biggins.

Great Grey Shrike, Braidfit

Great Grey Shrike. Honest.

Our search was cut short by the arrival of the plane. We decided that given the weather uncertainties and the possibility of the afternoon flight being cancelled, we’d be wise to get on this plane and leave the isle a few hours early. It turned out to be a good move! On arrival at Tingwall airstrip back on Mainland, we learnt that Fair Isle had been cut off for a week with no flights in or out. But more importantly, in the taxi on the way into Lerwick to collect our hire car for the next two days, the text came through about the Thick-billed Warbler down at Geosetter.

The usual antics at a twitch ensued. Luckily for me, I got a decent flight view of it within a few minutes of arrival, as we then stood there until duck with no further sightings. It was skulking in an oat crop and refusing to budge despite the gentle encouragement of myself and others walking around the edge of the field trying to flush it out. No luck. At one point there was a charge up the burn as someone was sure it had flown up there, but to no avail. It wasn’t until we were strolling back to the road with a lightly resigned air about the proceedings when it came out of the oat crop and perched on the fence for a few seconds right infront of Paul Harvey, then dived into the willows. It was rapidly flushed through the willows and popped out at the road end, giving slightly more prolonged views to those in the right place at the right time. Except for poor ol’ Pierre-Andre Crochet! Not many top listers have the self-control to not tick a potentially once in a life-time bird on brief views. We went back the next morning as Bill wanted further views. Would it be rude of me to mention that I saw the 2003 Fair Isle bird, so wasn’t that bothered by this? It probably would be, so I’ll keep that quiet.

Thick-billed Wblr twitch

Let me know if you can see yourself in the pic. I can see me, Bill, Dennis Coutts, Paul Harvey and Pierre-Andre Crochet. No idea who took this pic, and apologies for stealing it. If you message me I’ll credit you or take it down.

Saturday 5th – Back at Geosetter for just after dawn, we joined the growing crowd and settled in for what I fully expected to be a fruitless wait. Despondency was high, until a large bland warbler flew from the willows into the crop again. Unbelievably it was still here! It did its usual disappearing trick in the oat crop, and I did the unthinkable. I left the twitch to go and see the Lesser Yellowlegs at Clevigarth. I maybe the only birder to have ever left a Thick-billed Warbler to see a Lesser Yellowlegs, but I do remember some people at the 2003 Fair Isle bird leaving to look for a Red-throated Pipit, so I don’t feel too bad.

Pierre-Andre Crochet and Eric Didner, Geosetter

Pierre-Andre Crochet & Eric Didner, waiting for the Thickie.

Lesser Yellowlegs, Loch of Clevigarth (3)

Lesser Yellowlegs

But today was all about trying to find something ourselves, so I thought I’d show Bill the underwatched isle of Bressay. Then our plans were thwarted when an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was found in Hoswick! We spun the car around and arrived on the scene to be greeted by a resting EOW in the scope. It showed well for us, but then the crowd from the Thick-billed started to arrive, so we beat a hasty retreat.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (7)

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Onwards to Bressay, and after being stung for £17:50 on the ferry (FFS!!!), we went straight to Gorie. I rarely approach any spot expecting to find something good, but Gorie is something special. Unfortunately, we went and found one of the only autumn Reed Warblers in the whole of Shetland this year. In fact, there have been far more Blyth’s Reeds than Reeds, so we felt a tad hard done by. Still, good to go back there. We birded the rest of the island as best we could in the limited time available and ended up finding 9 Yellow-browed Warblers and a Great Grey Shrike. I like Bressay, it’s underwatched, it has some great gardens and it has the huge cliff of Noss to attract birds into it. It’s just a shame about that massive ferry fare.

Great Grey Shrike, Bressay (5)

Great Grey Shrike

And so onto the evening’s entertainment. The Shetland Bird Club put on a fantastic evening of illustrated talks from some of the best rarity finders from the last 6 decades. Great to hear stories from Dennis Coutts and Iain Robinson that I’d not heard before, and with free beer too! Some proper gripping yarns from the Skerries in the 70’s and tall tales of Bobby Tulloch were much appreciated.

Sunday 6th – Did a spot of birding in the North Mavine today, starting at Sullum Plantation and working south. Another good day for Yellow-brows, and a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Voe completed our week. We had a truly great time over the last two weeks or so. There was no mega on Foula this year, but we had an excellent roll call of birds that would have been truly excellent at any other British location. Seeing Geoff & Donna again was great, and many thanks to Helen for giving us the run of her house for two days.

Some more random pics:

Willow Warbler (151) Willow Warbler (114) Willow Warbler (94) Willow Warbler (62)

Willow Warbler

Starling (1)

Starling

Redwing (1)

Redwing

Peat cuttings (7) Peat cuttings (11)

Peat cutting – fresh cut bank and drying peat

Paul French Da Swaa Foula 1st Oct 2013

Me climbing out of Da Swaa

Lesser Whitethroat 3 (6)

blythi or halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat?

Lesser Whitethroat 2 (4)

probable blythi Lesser Whitethroat

Grey Seals

Grey Seals

Common Seals (2)

Common Seals

Bill with friend Bill Aspin, South Ness, Foula (13)

Bill Aspin

Shetland. I’ll see you again next year…

Finland, Finland, Finland!!!

I did a short trip to Finland in early June, mainly to try and catch up with a few key species I was missing, but also to just immerse myself in the forests and scenery of this amazing country. I travelled out there with Tim Sykes, and we met up with Janne and Hanna Aalto who guided us for the week. For a full trip report, please read Janne’s report at http://www.caligata.com/tripreports/en/ita-suomi and it really wouldn’t have been possible without Janne’s help. So a big thankyou to Janne and Hanna, and also to all of Janne’s friends (Jari ”Jassi” Kiljunen, Kalle Larsson, Antti Peuna and Miika “Potu” Suojarinne among others) who provided us with up to date information and great company, without which we would have failed to find several of the key species. Hope you enjoy the photos.

Blyth's Reed Warbler (6)Blyth’s Reed Warbler

Eagle Owl (5)

Eagle Owl

Pygmy Owl (125)

Pygmy Owl (25)

Pygmy Owl

Hanna preparing for Ural Owl (2)

Hanna repairing the riot helmet in preparation for the Ural Owls

Ural Owl (42) Ural Owl (58)

Ural Owl

Janne and Hanna at Ural Owl box (1)

Ural Owl chicks and Janne Aalto (2)

Janne with Ural Owl chicks. Note the full protective gear needed to ring Ural Owl chicks!

Ural Owl chicks (1)

Ural Owl chicks

Black Woodpecker (8)

Black Woodpecker

Black Grouse (15)

Black Grouse (52)

Black Grouse, male in tree and female on track

Siberian Jay (71) Siberian Jay (104)Siberian Jay

Booted Warbler (20)Booted Warbler

Great Grey Owl (58) Great Grey Owl (78) Great Grey Owl (73) Great Grey Owl (34) Great Grey Owl (28) Great Grey Owl (13)Great Grey Owls and chicks. Probably the best owl I’ve seen so far, and a true privilege to spend time with them so near the nest. They were completely unconcerned, and the male brought several prey items in our time there.

Woodcock (19)

Woodcock

Tengmalm's Owl (16)

Tengmalm’s Owl, looking remarkably relaxed

Hawk Owl (48) Hawk Owl (10)

Hawk Owl and its nesting area. The owl is sitting in the tallest tree.

Scenery (46) Scenery (45) Scenery (40)

The beautiful Teretti bog in Patvinsuo National Park Baltic Gull (3) Baltic Gull (4)

Baltic Gull. Note the change in the depth of grey depending on the angle. This is the same bird in both shots.

Wolverine hide antics (3)

Inside the Wolverine hide with me and Janne. Tim just visible making tea. Note the handy bog roll!

Wolverine (81) Wolverine (100) Wolverine (49) Wolverine (55) Wolverine (94) Wolverine (116)

Wolverine. A mega mammal, and well worth the long wait in the hide.

Scenery (32) Scenery (26) Scenery (14) Scenery (5)

Valtavaara area, near Kuusamo.

Greenish Warbler (3) Greenish Warbler (13)

Greenish Warbler

Red-flanked Bluetail (53) Red-flanked Bluetail (77) Red-flanked Bluetail (98)

Red-flanked Bluetail, adult male.

Tim, Janne and me (3)

Tim, Janne and me at Valtaara. No idea why I’m doing an Alan Partridge!

Siberian Tit (13) Siberian Tit (54)

Siberian Tit

Three-toed Woodpecker (12)

Three-toed Woodpecker

Capercaillie (3) Capercaillie (146) Capercaillie (8) Capercaillie (26) Capercaillie (35) Capercaillie (102) Capercaillie (138)

Capercaillie. This particular male had gone rogue, and gave incredibly close views.

Love this! No Capercaillies were harmed in the making of this video. However, Janne did lose a leg…

 

Armenia, May 2013

Isn’t social media great? I was sat in a bar in Great Yarmouth in February musing on Facebook about how I was thinking of going into Armenia after my Sunbird tour to Georgia had finished. A few minutes later and Dermot Breen replied suggesting I join him and four Northern Irish guys on their trip. The timing was perfect, as they were doing Kazbegi while we were in Chachuna, then heading south to Armenia via Tbilisi just as I would be in Tbilisi anyway. A plan was made! We met in a café in Tbilisi and I was introduced to Wilton Farrelly, Garry Armstrong, Ian Graham, David Steel and Dermot.

Heading south in a tiny people carrier with our bags balancing around us, I did feel bad that I was making life even more cramped for everyone, but I needn’t have worried. After about 90 mins we arrived at the Armenian border. No visa is needed now, and it was a simple matter to walk through immigration on the Georgian side, then over the bridge that forms the border and through into Armenia. Our ground agent, Zhanna, was waiting for us with our interpreter Harutyun (known as Harry), our “fixer”, Artur, and our driver, whose name I could never remember. The bus was great, with loads of room and we all spread out enjoying this newfound freedom. The local birder and guide, Vasil, that birders have used in the past is no longer doing any guiding as he’s now too busy with work. However, Zhanna and he are friends and Artur used to be his driver, so we would at least be taken to the right sites for all the key species.

Driving in Armenia was very similar to driving in Georgia. By this point I’d given up looking ahead as it just scared me, so concentrated on looking at the scenery and trying to keep a tally of how many Bee-eaters and Rollers we saw as we sped past. Driving vaguely south, we basically skirted the edge of Azerbaijan. Despite being famous in the west only for hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been decidedly sticky since the end of the Soviet years. There is far too much history to go into here, but to cut a long story short, there is still the possibility of snipers taking pot shots at you if you wander too near to the border. Still, the views were great, and we scored our first Lesser Spotted Eagles and a nice Black Stork.

Lesser Spotted Eagle (55)

Pair of Lesser Spotted Eagles displaying near Dilijan.

Our first overnight was near Dilijan in the north east of the country in an area of outstanding beauty, although to be fair, most of the Caucasus could be described as areas of outstanding beauty. The extensive deciduous woodland that covered the hillsides held a lot of promise, and our lodgings in an old Soviet era holiday camp were rustic but perfectly fine. In fact, the place used to be used by Soviet artists and composers as a retreat. Doing some background reading, it’s evident that the Caucasus were often used by Russians as a holiday retreat.

Waking up to the sound of Green Warblers singing was a treat, and they proved to be very common at this spot. I managed to miss the only potential lifer for me here (Middle Spotted Woodpecker), but I suppose I could be content with Red-breasted Flycatchers, Hawfinches, samamisicus Redstarts, Common Rosefinches, Lesser Spotted Eagles and many other commoner woodland species. Surprisingly, we missed Semi-collared Flycatcher, which is supposed to breed here. I can only think that they hadn’t arrived yet. We also started getting used to the outstanding food that was prepared for us on a regular basis. Our evening meal yesterday and breakfast today were served in the home of a local women, and it was excellent. In fact, it’s worth saying now that all of our food was excellent, and Artur (or more precisely Artur’s wife!) had the knack of producing fantastic picnics that would be presented to us whenever needed. There was even beer!

Green Warbler (19)

Green Warbler (honest!), singing from high exposed perches.

Moving south from Dilijan, we soon arrived at Lake Sevan. This is the second largest alpine lake in the World, so I’m told. From an ornithological viewpoint it’s interesting as (one of?) the main nesting area for the Armenian Gull. This highly range restricted species breeds here and at a few other sites in the Caucasus, wintering around the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. In the marshes along the lake we managed to find a few interesting things, but the highlight for me was the caspia race of Reed Bunting. Its bulbous bill being the obvious difference to our Reed Bunting.

Armenian Gull (36)

Armenian Gulls. One of the major World colonies of this species that is mainly restricted as a breeder to high altitude lakes in the Lesser Caucasus.

Frog at Lake Sevan (11) Frog at Lake Sevan (8)

Frog species at Lake Sevan

Reed Bunting of the caspia race. Note the bill.

At our lunch spot overlooking one of the gull colonies, we found a little group of Terek Sandpipers and I rapidly doubled my total of WP Terek sightings! We then had some bad news when we heard that the road south had been blocked by a rock fall and would not be cleared that day. We had no choice but to double back and divert through Yerevan. This added a couple of hours to our day and meant that we wouldn’t be visiting the best site for Crimson-winged Finch or the marshes at the southern end of Lake Sevan which sounded very interesting as they are a regular stop off for migrating Demoiselle Cranes. Such is life.

Terek Sandpiper (12)

Armenian Gull and Terek Sandpipers

Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (52) Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (20) Terek Sandpiper & Little Stint (16)Terek Sandpipers and Little Stints

Driving through Yerevan and then south towards Yeghegnadzor, we were told that the biblical Mt Ararat was away to the west, but low cloud prevented us from seeing the summit. We did realise how small Armenia is though, as we had seemingly only just left the Azerbaijan border to the east, we were now within sight of the Turkish border to the west followed quickly by the Nakhchivan border to the south. Nakhchivan is actually an isolated enclave of Azerbaijan bordered to the east by Armenia, Turkey to the west and Iran to the south. Borders are very complicated in the Caucasus! Here again we were warned not to go near the actual border, and fortifications along the ridgeline spoke of an unfriendly welcome. We did pass within site of the Armash fish ponds, and from what we could see it looked like a huge wetland area. More on this later…

Driving to Yeghegnadzor, a roadside Finsch’s Wheatear was my first lifer in Armenia. We stayed the night in Yeghegnadzor where Nightingales sang outside our homestay and a flock of Common Rosefinches in the town centre numbered about 50! The following day we started to hit the specialities properly. A small arid valley south of Yeghegnadzor came good with Western and Eastern Rock Nuthatches, two White-throated Robins, Rock Sparrow, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Black-headed Bunting and Levant Sparrowhawk.

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The view from our homestay in Yeghegnadzor

Eastern Rock Nuthatch (70)

Eastern Rock Nuthatch. Even at distance, the expansive black eye-stripe behind the eye is obvious

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The gorge

Rock Sparrow (4) Rock Sparrow (6)

Rock Sparrow

Pushing ever south, we drove over a high plateaux area before descending into a huge gorge at Goris. The arid vegetation in the bottom of the gorge held Ménétries’s Warbler, while the deciduous woodlands that began near the top of the gorge spoke of cooler climates and more familiar species. Indeed, the woodland cloaked mountains were one of the scenic highlights of the trip for me. They simply extended as far as you could see. Armenia certainly has environmental issues, with extensive mining and whole reservoirs created to store poisonous waste (check out the colour of Artsvanik Reservoir on google maps), but there is still plenty of habitat left and the countryside is teeming with birds.

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High altitude bushes along the pass

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Ménétries’s Warbler sang from these bushes near Goris.

Travelling south, we passed through a couple of towns whose architecture gave away their Soviet history very quickly. Amazing to think that the USSR once stretched all the way down to the Iranian border here at Meghri. Now, the towns have been left with the legacy of possibly the worst architects in the history of humanity in both structural integrity and appearance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1988_Spitak_earthquake .

Arriving in Meghri, we soon found out that the site for Persian Wheatear was so close to the Iranian border that we would need an escort there. Luckily (!), the owner of the hotel we were staying in was the man for the job, and as the sun dropped worryingly low in the sky we headed off to see, what was for me, probably the main target of the trip. Having been strongly advised not to raise our binoculars or cameras in the direction of Iran, we were taken up a dirt track to an old quarry. Within minutes our first Persian Wheatear was showing well, and we eventually had a pair here.

At Megrhi. l-r Dermot Breen, Me, Wilton Farrelly, Ian Graham, Garry Armstrong, Davey Steele

Persian victory! Posing at the Persian Wheatear site near Meghri, with Iran in the background. From L-R, Dermot Breen, me, Wilton Farrelly, Ian Graham, Garry Armstrong and Davey Steele. 

Feeling elated at this victory, we retired happy. The next day dawned and we were greeted by a 4×4 Lada (yes, they do exist!) and a more traditional looking 4×4 that would be our vehicles for the day. They were the only way we could attempt to climb up to the Caspian Snowcock site. Caspian Snowcock has a rather large but fragmented distribution, occurring from Turkey through into Iran, but is at a low density everywhere. It’s also very shy and wary of man. Not surprising for a fat game bird that could feed a family of six! Our site for it was above a village that seemed to be deserted except for the trousers hung out to dry outside one house. The cars coped easily with the mud track and we were soon at the recommended spot. No Snowcock. Couldn’t even hear one calling. We hiked up over a low ridge and luckily I picked out the familiar outline of a Snowcock sat on a boulder high up on another ridgeline. Silhouetted views, it then fly off over the ridge and out of sight. Bugger. Four of us decided to climb the ridge and look for it, but we spent the next couple of hours looking with no luck. And still no sound of them at all. We had to make do with some Alpine Choughs, Alpine Accentors and lots of Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush activity. Plus the views were outstanding, so not a total loss. And yes, I did tick the Snowcock on those views 😉 Still, the lunch stop was worth a few pics.

Lada 4x4

Lada 4×4. Told you they existed!

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (8)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Water Pipit (8) Water Pipit (32)

Water Pipit

The Caspian Snowcock. Just don’t blink…

Looking for Caspian Snowcock

Searching for Caspian Snowcock

Looking for Caspian Snowcock 1 Me, Harry, Davey & Dermot

Sort of a victory! Relaxing after a tiring climb. It was a hell of a steep slope behind us. L-R is me, Harutyun Galstyan (Harry), Davey Steele and Dermot Breen. Harry was our interpreter, and did a great job for us.

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Stunning flowers, just coming into bloom. This must be an amazing site for botanists in the summer.

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Looking around from the Snowcock site. Not bad really.

Picnic site Picnic Picnic site fridge

Picnic site, complete with fully stocked fridge! You don’t get that kind of service in Britain.

We decided to go back to the quarry site for some more wheatear action, and walked further up the valley this time. We found at least three Persian Wheatears here, which leads me to think there are at least two pairs. I also strongly suspect there are more of them spread out along the Iranian border as this habitat appeared fairly extensive, so the incentive is there to go and find your own site. While watching the Persians, I suddenly noticed that they were feeding a newly fledged chick just below us. This chick was just out of the nest and the parents were clearly not happy, so we retreated at this point. Also in the valley were more Eastern Rock Nuthatches, loads of Eastern Orphean Warblers, a few Upcher’s Warblers, Chukars, lots of Black-headed Buntings and Black-eared Wheatears, plus the ubiquitous Red-backed, Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes that were seemingly everywhere and at every altitude. The others dug out a Sombre Tit while I held back to study the Persian Wheatears. There were also many Bee-eaters migrating over along with several Honey Buzzards. A small reed fringed pond on the border here held a few Little Bitterns, and I suspect would host the odd Western Palearctic mega as it seems to be the only open water for miles in this arid valley. Not sure what though!

Persian Wheatear (142) Persian Wheatear (31) Persian Wheatear (71)

Persian (Red-tailed) Wheatear. A recent split from Kurdish (Red-tailed) Wheatear, but I guess opinion may be divided. Still, looks good to me. 

Persian Wheatear chick (1)

Persian Wheatear chick, just out of the nest. The red tail is already poking through.

Blk-headed Bunt & Isabelline Wheatear (4)

Black-headed Bunting and Isabelline Wheatear

Black-headed Bunting (42) Black-headed Bunting (46)

Black-headed Buntings. “This stream aint big enough for the both of us…”

Upcher's Warbler (4)

Upcher’s Warbler. Honest.

The following morning came, as it always tends to do, and we embarked on the long journey north back to Yeghegnadzor for the night. Passing back over the high plateaux again, we stopped and scanned at a few ploughed fields. This proved a good move, as one such field near Sisian held masses of birds. Mostly Northern Wheatears, Whinchats, Water Pipits, Linnets, Twites, Shorelarks and Skylark. One particular field held two Bimaculated Larks, and these showed rather well. Also here, flying in and out of the mist and rain were a migrating flock of White-winged Black Terns and a flock of Wood Sandpipers.

Bimaculated Lark (19)

Bimaculated Lark

We also visited an intriguing stone circle at Karahunj, and turns out this may be 7500 yrs old http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zorats_Karer .

Standing stones

After another night in Yeghegnadzor, we drove to the fabled Armash fish ponds. Sometimes described as one of the best wetlands in the Western Palearctic, we were not to be disappointed. We only walked around about 25% of the site and it took us all day. There were simply birds everywhere! White-winged Black Terns numbered about 5000 in the small area of the ponds that we were able to check, plus tens of thousands of Sand Martins and Common Swifts, and loads of things like Pygmy Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Ferruginous Duck, Collared Pratincole, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Whiskered Tern, Montagu’s Harrier, Caspian Reed, Paddyfield, Great Reed, Moustached and Savi’s Warblers, more Bearded Tits than you could shake a sticky reed at and a nice selection of waders that included a pair of very brief White-tailed Plovers. These flew past quite distantly and unfortunately we couldn’t relocate them. A drake White-headed Duck was also a nice find, and we were accompanied by a rather vocal Ménétries’s Warbler while watching it. There was also a nice displaying Lesser Short-toed Lark that I failed to study in enough detail. Seems that Asian Short-toed Lark gets very near to the Caucasus, be good to know for sure just how close.

Common Swifts buzzing Dermot

White-winged Black Tern (286) White-winged Black Tern (203) White-winged Black Tern (199) White-winged Black Tern (186) White-winged Black Tern (185) White-winged Black Tern (161) White-winged Black Tern (36) White-winged Black Tern (35) White-winged Black Tern (42)

White-winged Black Terns. Certainly the largest concentration I’ve ever seen, and one of the best birding sights I’ve seen. A visual feast that was simply breathtaking at times. 

Whiskered Tern

Whiskered Tern. A few were mixed in with the White-winged Blacks. 

Sand Martins (5)

Sand Martins. Only the flies were more numerous!

Paddyfield Warbler (2)

Paddyfield Warbler. Nice supercillium just poking through the reeds.

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Part of Armash fish ponds with the southern slopes of Mt Ararat in the distance.

Caspian Reed Warbler (14) Caspian Reed Warbler (11)

“Caspian” Reed Warbler

Bearded Tit (66) Bearded Tit (35)

Bearded Tit

Moustached Warbler

After this wonderful bird fest and a decent night in Yerevan, we headed up to Mt Aragat, the highest mountain in Armenia. The scenery was impressive, and as we gained height we scored many flocks of migrating Honey Buzzards, plus a frustratingly brief flock of Crane species. Again, the sheer number of species such as Red-backed Shrike and Bee-eater was staggering, the countryside was just alive with farmland birds. Up above the treeline, we managed to find our main target species fairly easily when a pair of Radde’s Accentors showed up. After a brief touristy interlude at the impressive Amberd church and castle, we explored a bit more. With several White-throated Robins, lots of Shorelarks and Twite, displaying Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, Rock Buntings, perched Lesser Spotted Eagles and Steppe Buzzards, this site would certainly repay further visits. We failed to find any Crimson-winged Finches in the mist and poor visibility at high altitude, and there are supposed to be Caspian Snowcocks up there as well.

Bee-eater (9)

Migrating European Bee-eaters

Honey Buzzard (40) Honey Buzzard (90) Honey Buzzard (1) Honey Buzzard (149) Honey Buzzard (157)Honey Buzzards. The numbers that go through Spain and the Bosphorous are nothing compared to those that go through the Caucasus.

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This stream must be man made as it flows dead straight along the hillside. We couldn’t see where it originated, but to see a stream running for so far along a hill rather than down it was, quite frankly, weird! 

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Mt Aragat habitat

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Red-backed Shrikes were very common up here

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These burrows have been uncovered after the snow melted. I think they are from the Snow Vole, and I had brief views of a largish vole dashing from one burrow to another.

IMG_1792 Rock Bunting (3)

Rock Bunting

Radde's Accentor (18)

Radde’s Accentor

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (32)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush displaying

Shorelark (18)

pencillata Shorelark and brevirostris Twite

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (19)

Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush

Steppe Buzzard (15)

Steppe Buzzard

White-throated Robin (9)

White-throated Robin

After another night in Yerevan, we spent our last day in the Vedi area. The main target here is Mongolian Trumpeter Finch, but we failed to see it. In fact, I think the last person to see it here was Janne Aalto back in 2006 (http://www.caligata.com/tripreports/en/georgia-ja-armenia-14-27-7-2006), with no (?) sightings since then. Be good to be corrected on that… Anyway, we birded this area all day and thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, a decent passage of Honey Buzzards passed over us for much of the day, as did other raptors including Lammergeier, Black Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard and Golden Eagle to name just a few. Passerines in the wadi were impressive, and we had great views of displaying Finsch’s Wheatear, Rufous Bush Robin, Black-headed Buntings, Grey-necked Bunting and Upcher’s Warbler. An Eastern Rock Nuthatch also put on a decent show for us. On the drive back to Yerevan there seemed to have been a decent arrival of Rose-coloured Starlings, with every village stuffed with them. We saw many hundreds on the drive back, mostly in mobile flocks around the orchards and apricot groves.

Vedi gorge (4)

Vedi gorge area

Ortolan (32)

Ortolan Bunting

Long-legged Buzzard (11)

Long-legged Buzzard

IMG_1828 Eastern Rock Nuthatch (40) Eastern Rock Nuthatch (8)

Eastern Rock Nuthatch nest and adult with food. For some reason, instead of taking the caterpillar into the nest, it decided to bash it death and try and incorporate it into the mud fabric of the nest! And now you know why Eastern Rock Nuthatches have failed to take over the World… 

Finsch's Wheatear (37)

Finsch’s Wheatear

Cuckoo (5)

Cuckoo

Rufous Bush Robin

All in all, Armenia was a fantastic country with much to offer. The birding was excellent, the people were very friendly and the scenery was stunning. Looking forward to a return visit already…

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The twin peaks of Mt Ararat, the spiritual mountain of Armenia and the dominant skyline feature of Yerevan and south-eastern Armenia, even though it is now within modern Turkey.

Georgia, April 2013

This was to be my second tour to Georgia, guiding for Sunbird, and I was thoroughly looking forward to seeing the mountains, woodlands and steppes of this stunning country again. As we taxied along the runway towards our arrival gate in Tbilisi airport, three Montagu’s Harriers flew past my window and provided a grand promise of things to come. This year we landed late morning, so departed for the heights of the Greater Caucasus and the Kazbegi area straightaway. This late departure from Tbilisi was rewarded with several Levant Sparrowhawks migrating over the main highway outside the airport. Our lunch stop in the beech woods provided a fine adult male Redstart of the highly distinctive Caucasian race “samamisicus”, but we were impatient to get into the mountains proper.

Woodlands-(3)

Woodland glade. The lower slopes of the Caucasus are cloaked in wonderfully verdant forest.

Samamisicus-Redstart-ad-male-(30)In the beech woodlands on the lower slopes of the Caucasus, the stunning Common Redstart of the race samamisicus (also known as Ehrenburg’s Redstart) is fairly common. Note the massive white wing patch. The 1st sum males are not quite as distinctive…

Samamisicus-Redstart-1st-sum-male-(2)Is this a 1st sum male Ehrenburg’s Redstart? A glimmer of white on the tertials is just visible. Birds such as this are likely to be overlooked out of range.

Journeying towards the high pass along the Georgian Military Highway, we came across this line of parked lorries. Apparently the road beyond here going over the pass towards Kazbegi was in such a state that they were not letting the lorries through during daylight to avoid the main car traffic. 

Georgian-Military-Highway

Parked lorries waiting for dark

Going over the high pass, a superb Lammegeier buzzed us within a few meters at our first stop at the head of the Kazbegi valley, although being stared at by a vulture is perhaps as disconcerting as it is awe inspiring!

Lammegier-(68) Lammegier-(63) Lammegier-(36) Lammegier-(25) Lammegier-(1)Lammegeier is one of my favourites in Georgia, and they just seem to always perform really well. Even in silhouette they are just such a distinctive bird, and their sheer size always takes my breath away. 

We were well and truly within the realm of the alpine specialities, and it was pleasing to see that much snow remained at higher altitudes. Our trip is carefully timed to take advantage of a receding snowline, but one that is still low enough to push alpine birds lower into the valleys. We were not to be disappointed. As we drove through the valley towards the village of Stepantsminda, our first Güldenstӓdt’s Redstarts gave themselves up in the roadside buckthorn bushes.

Guldenstadt's-Redstart-(1)

Güldenstӓdt’s Redstart. I still haven’t managed to take a decent picture of this species, they just seem to know whenever I raise a camera at them.

The low cloud and drizzle gave way to glorious sunshine on our second day, and we were treated to sunny and dry weather for the remainder of the tour. This resulted in exceptional views of the snow-capped peaks, including the huge bulk of the glaciated Mt Kazbek towering over the village.

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Mt Kazbek with the village of Stepantsminda in the foreground

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Looking down the valley from just above Stepantsminda

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Mt Kazbek. The Georgian name translates as “Ice Mountain” I think, which is rather appropriate. 

Mountain-views-(5) Mountain-views-(4)

Our exploration of this area over the next three days produced all of the hoped for specialities. Perhaps the hardest and least predictable of these is the Caucasian Great Rosefinch. This was our first target and we were stunned to find no less than 31 of these big and beautiful finches feeding in the buckthorn.

Great-Rosefinch-(138) Great-Rosefinch-(54)Caucasian Great Rosefinch. Given the splitting of the Asian Rosefinches, I suspect that its only a matter of time before this highly range restricted form is split as well.

Buckthorn-and-ponds-(1)

Caucasian Great Rosefinch territory, plus this is also a good spot for Caucasian Chiffchaff

Further sightings of birds flying over the valley and of a pair in the meadows above the village pushed the day total to an incredible 41! Considering we could only find two the following day and none the day after, it can be seen just how crucial timing is for this trip. Indeed, one of the Güldenstӓdt’s Redstarts we were watching just took off and climbed almost vertically, interspersing its rapid ascent with some impressive acrobatics.

Guldenstadt's-Redstart-(21)Take off! A Güldenstӓdt’s Redstart takes flight at the mere mention of me photographing it.

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It climbed higher, showing off its massive white wingbar and illustrating the alternative (but very dull!) name of White-winged Redstart. 

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It disappeared into the blue and it’s tempting to think that we were watching it depart its winter grounds for the breeding grounds much higher up. Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse both performed as expected, although both initially did their best to hide from us! The snowcocks eventually showed well as two pairs interacted in territorial disputes, and four male grouse indulged in some lekking behaviour, their tails held bolt upright as the strutted over the high snowfields.

Caucasian-Snowcock-(15)

A pr of Caucasian Snowcocks. Honest! 

Even a Snowcock struggles to get a grip on an ice field!

Caucasian-Snowcock-&-Caucasian-Black-Grouse-(1)

A Caucasian double act. Snowcock to the left and Black Grouse to the right. Scope views were better than this!

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The group enjoying views of Caucasian Snowcock and Caucasian Black Grouse.

Georgi-Dachshavilli

Giorgi Darchiashvili, our Georgian guide. 

Other highlights were many and varied, but included close views of two Wallcreepers, a couple of confiding Caucasian Chiffchaffs, Red-fronted Serins, Ring Ouzels, Water Pipits, ochruros Black Redstarts,  brevirostris Twite and Alpine and Red-billed Choughs. The sunny weather slowed migration down, but we were still treated to fine views of Green Warbler, Red-throated Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher and a big surprise in Isabelline Wheatear.

Wallcreeper-(764) Wallcreeper-(755) Wallcreeper-(703) Wallcreeper-(663) Wallcreeper-(656) Wallcreeper-(642) Wallcreeper-(399) Wallcreeper-(252)

Wallcreeper. Always one of the highlights, and this time was no exception as we found two pairs in close proximity. One of them gave exceptional views down to a few meters, but the strong light made for tricky photography.

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Treecreeper. Not as good as a Wallcreeper.

Shore-Lark-penicilata-(8)

Shore Lark of the Turkish/Caucasian race penicilata. In the book it says that the black of the ear coverts should meet with the black of the breast. Guess this one hadn’t read the book.

Ring-Ouzel-(86)

Ring Ouzel of the Caucasian race amicorum. The white fringes to the flight feathers are really prominent. 

Red-billed-Chough-(5)

Red-billed Chough

Alpine-Chough-(64)

Alpine Chough

Caucasian-Chiffchaff-(94)

Caucasian Chiffchaff.

Green-Warbler-(61)

Green Warbler

Lesser-Grey-Shrike-(8)

Lesser Grey Shrike. A roadside migrant.

Lesser-Whitethroat-(34)Lesser Whitethroat

Our journey south over the pass again was interrupted by three showy Snowfinches, while a steady stream of raptors over us included Pallid, Montagu’s and Marsh Harriers, Steppe, Eastern Imperial and Golden Eagles, Osprey, Honey Buzzards and many Steppe Buzzards.

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White-winged Snowfinch

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Watching the Snowfinch at the roadside

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Eastern Imperial Eagle, 2nd cal yr.

Continuing south for an overnight stop in Tbilisi and then onwards to the steppe area of Chachuna, we stopped several times to enjoy close views of Calandra Lark, armenica Siberian Stonechats, many Rollers, Bee-eaters, Woodchat, Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes, Spanish Sparrows and Black-headed and Ortolan Buntings. The fields and scrubland between Tbilisi and Dedoplis Tskaro are just amazing for European farmland birds. It should be compulsory for western European Environment ministers to go to the Caucasus and see just how many birds we are missing in the west. Fields with larks, Corn Buntings everywhere and regular raptors quartering the wide margins. Arriving at Chachuna, it was quickly apparent that our timing was excellent and many of the regions breeding birds were in action. Every scan of the area produced something new. Rock Nuthatch at the nest, Black Vulture gliding slowly right over us, Eastern Black-eared, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears (the latter with punk-haired chicks!), a pair of Stone Curlews down to a few feet, Levant Sparrowhawk, Black Francolin, Ménétries’s and Eastern Orphean Warblers, Rufous Bush Robin and Lesser Short-toed Lark all showing well and Nightingales singing seemingly everywhere. Combined with more Rollers, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Black-headed and Corn Buntings than you could point your bins at, we were saddened to have to drag ourselves away.

Tawny-Pipit-(15)

Tawny Pipit

Stone-Curlew-(40)

Stone Curlew

Snake-at-Chachuna-(9)

Unknown snake, it had a beautiful reddish colouration

Roller-(59)

Roller-(27)

Roller

Menetries's-Wblr-(5)

Menetries Warbler

Levant-Sparrowhawk-(5)

Levant Sparrowhawk

Mantis-(2)

A mantis of some kind

Levantine-Viper-(8)

Levantine Viper

Isabelline-Wheatear-(19)

Isabelline Wheatears

Crested-Lark-(28)

Crested Lark and fly

Calandra-Lark-(2)

Calandra Lark

Black-headed-Bunting-(99)

Black-headed Bunting

Black-Vulture-(57)

Black Vulture

Black-Francolin-(7)

Black Francolin. These are vocal but elusive, so we were pleased to get views of one bird that eventually showed quite well. 

Armenicus-Siberian-Stonechat-(114) Armenicus-Siberian-Stonechat-(88)

Siberian Stonechat of the race armenica. A local breeder and fairly common. 

White-winged-Black-Terns-(39)White-winged Terns. This flock dropped into a small reservoir for a few minutes before continuing their migration. 

Chachuna-(21) Chachuna-(9) Chachuna-(7)The habitat around Chachuna

Our final night in Tbilisi was spent enjoying some fine Georgian food and wine at a traditional restaurant before the group parted for their return flights home. I then had another night in Tbilisi before I met with Dermot Breen and the Northern Irish lads for a trip into Armenia. That will be pt 2 of this blog update, hopefully before Hades freezes over!

Black Bush Robin

True to form, I have just found this video i took of one of this springs Israeli Black Bush Robins back in March. This was the Neot Smadar bird. Thought I’d post it as a fond farewell to my HTC which died soon after! Still, not bad for phone-scoped.

Obviously, there were some cracking shots of this knoocking around, but i just really like the tail waving as it disappears behind the rise.

Madagascar, Reunion and Mauritius. Nov-Dec 2012

Two destinations that appear on many peoples holiday wish list are Mauritius and Madagascar. Not everyone has heard of Reunion, but deserves to change soon. It’s been a few weeks since getting back and I just want to get this done and on the blog, so it will be a bit brief unfortunately. I’ll try and cover the important bits, but if there’s anything you want more detail on just post here and I’ll get back to you.

Tim Sykes, Adam Batty and I flew out to Madagascar via Nairobi on Kenya Airways on Nov 2nd. Landing in Antananarivo (known by everyone as Tana), we managed to somehow bypass immigration and then catch our flight to the sub-tropical island of Reunion about 300 miles to the east of Madagascar. The main targets were the endemic forest species comprising Reunion Cuckooshrike, Reunion Olive White-eye, Reunion Grey White-eye, Reunion Bulbul and the Reunion Stonechat. Also on the radar were the near endemic Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher and the recently split Reunion Harrier, along with the endemic breeder Barau’s Petrel. We knew we had little chance of the other endemic seabird, Reunion Black Petrel, and so it proved to be. We stupidly did very little research for our Mascarene adventure, and relied heavily on the limited text in the front of the Guide to Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands. We had decided to stay in St Denis to be nearest to the forest species, and accessing the forest here was relatively straightforward. We basically just drove uphill towards the high elevation forest (maybe along the D43 road – but can’t honestly remember!) until we saw a sign for “La Roche Ecrite”. This is a popular hiking route and there is a decent car park at the roads end, with a footpath heading off up the mountain. The two White-eyes and the Stonechat are all very common and easy to find. In fact, the chats seemed to spend a fair amount of time showing down to a couple of feet on the track, while the White-eyes are almost constant companions. The bulbul is less common, but still easy to find. The Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher is endemic to Reunion and Mauritius, but is very hard to find on Mauritius so try and nail it here if you can. Luckily, it is fairly common here, and we saw several along the trail.

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Reunion Stonechat, male

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Reunion Stonechat. female

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Reunion Olive White-eye

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Reunion Grey White-eye

Reunion-Bulbul

Reunion Bulbul

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Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher

The Reunion Cuckooshrike is the real prize along here, and it is not easy to find. In fact, it is one of the rarest birds in the World according to Birdlife International with a population numbering approximately 75 individuals (http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5929). We finally managed to find a pair engaged in nest building after several hours hiking, and just as we were on the point of giving up. It was that classic situation when you meet some locals who tell you that “yess, zis little oiseux, he is very common ere”. Then you listen to their description of it, and realise that they haven’t got a clue and are describing one (or both!) of the White-eyes! After politely waving them goodbye down the trail, you turn around, and bam!!  A Reunion Cuckooshrike is showing well beside the trail! We watched them for about 30 mins as they fed around a small area and were then amazed when the female went and sat on a nearly completed nest. By this point we had been joined by a small team of researchers who were monitoring the Cuckooshrikes, and they were ecstatic as this pair was unknown to them. Once we realised they were nesting, we beat a retreat, but with some big smiles on our faces.

Reunion-Cuckooshrike-male-1

Reunion Cuckooshrike, male

Reunion-Cuckooshrike-female

Reunion Cuckooshrike, female

Moving down the coast, our next target was the seabirds. To cut a long story short, we failed to secure a boat charter to take us out to the bird rich waters that were visible on the horizon. We should really have done better with this, but I suspect costs could be prohibitive to small groups on a budget. Apparently the best port to try and secure a charter is St Gilles. From there, just sail south along the coastline a few miles out, and we suspect that you will have seabird heaven on the end of your lens. We had to be content with seawatching from St Pierre and further along the coast at St Joseph. Barau’s Petrels were very common, and make sure you wait until the evening as they come stupidly close inshore, climb up and then head inland to their nest sites high in the volcanic cliffs of the islands interior. Driving along the motorway at dusk and seeing pterodromas flying over the road was an amazing experience! Also present offshore were many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Common Noddies, but flocks of more distant smaller shearwaters had to remain frustratingly unidentified as Audobon’s/Mascarene.

Barau's-Petrel

Barau’s Petrel overhead

We then spent an enjoyable day taking in the scenery of the interior and of the lava flows in the south east, and the avian highlights were the many White-tailed Tropicbirds that nest in the islands interior and the Reunion Harrier. If our observations are anything to go by, the harrier is surprisingly distinct. In the absence of other raptors, it seems to have evolved into a generalist hunter, and its shape now approaches that of a buteo. The wings are shorter than Malagasy Harrier, as is the tail. I don’t know the two species well enough to comment on plumage differences, but the structural differences are quite striking.

Reunion-Harrier-male

Reunion Harrier, male

Reunion-Harrier-female

Reunion Harrier, female

White-tailed-Tropicbird-4 White-tailed-Tropicbird-1

White-tailed Tropicbird

After all this excitement, it was time to leave for pastures new. We flew to the neighbouring and more famous island of Mauritius, and were shocked on arriving to see a countryside denuded of any decent vegetation cover. Mile after mile of cash crops and a rather flat landscape was a sorry sight after the forest covered mountains of Reunion, and worse was to come. We were keen to charter a boat to go to Round Island off the north coast of Mauritius, so drove from the airport straight to Grand Baie in the north- west. Round Island is a seabird colony and noted as the only breeding site for the Round Island race of Trindade Petrel, sometimes treated as a full species, and there were also a few other decent seabirds on offer. However, the bloke on the beach that we finally found and organised a charter with turned out to be a complete fraud. Luckily we didn’t give him any money, but we did travel the length of the island and back the following day from where we were staying to Grand Baie to meet a boat that never turned up. Speaking to another fisherman, we finally learnt that “our” bloke didn’t even own a boat, and the cost he had quoted was a vast under-estimate. Trying to salvage something from the day, we did a bit of sightseeing around the north of the isle where a distant booby sp was the highlight, then called in at Rivulet Terre Rouge Bird Sanctuary in Port Louis. This turned out to be a very fortuitous move, as among the Curlew Sandpipers was a stunning Crab Plover!

Crab-Plover

Crab Plover, with Curlew Sandpiper

Crab--Plover-1

Crab Plover, with Bar-tailed Godwit

The following day dawned and we decided to give up on seabirds. With only one full day left and almost no endemic land birds under the belt and with only one full day left on the isle, we bowled up to the Black River Gorges NP in the south-west of the isle. We managed to locate a couple of Pink Pigeons and Mauritius Bulbuls along the main trail not far from the visitor centre. I also saw a very distant raptor which basically had to be a Mauritius Kestrel, but it was so distant I lost it against the far cliff face before I really got anything on it and before Tim and Adam could get on it. Feeling confident we’d see another, I said that I wouldn’t be counting it. What a foolish gesture that was! We had some gen that one of the good areas for endemics was the Maccabee Ridge, so we walked to that. For the record, I would not recommend walking to the Maccabee Ridge from the main visitor centre! It’s a hell of a long walk, uphill all the way. The only relief in the heat was the occasional bird that appeared before us, but finding the endemics was proving very tricky. We did manage to luck in with a Mauritius Cuckooshrike giving great views, and also managed to pick out two Mauritius Fodys.

Mauritius-Cuckooshrike-1 Mauritius-Cuckooshrike

Mauritius Cuckooshrike

Mauritius-Fody

Mauritius Fody

Mauritius-Bulbul

Mauritius Bulbul

Mauritius-Grey-White-eye

Mauritius Grey White-eye. Currently lumped by IOC with the Reunion Grey White-eye, for mysterious reasons.

The incessant sun, heat and hard climbing took its toll on me over the course of the day, and feeling pretty down and knackered, we drove back towards our digs in La Gaulette and I took the early bath and bed option.  This turned out to be somewhat of a mistake when Tim and Adam went around the back of Black Gorges to the Petrin entrance and found a Mauritius Kestrel dust-bathing along a track!

Our flight the next day was in the afternoon, so we had a few hours in the morning to try and score the Echo Parakeet, the Mauritius Olive White-eye and the Mauritius Kestrel for me. We decided to walk the Maccabee Ridge again, but this time we walked in from the Petrin entrance. A much better and more sedate option than the mountain climbing the day before! Some strange calls drew our attention to a parakeet that landed above the trail. A quick check, and the grey bill of the female Echo was in our sights; despite conservation efforts, still one of the World’s rarest parrots.

Echo-Parakeet

Echo Parakeet

Despite much searching, there was no sign of the Olive White-eye (apparently this is the hardest of the endemics to find now), but another Cuckooshrike was nice. And yes, I somehow managed to fail to find Mauritius Kestrel. Quite interesting in its own way, I think this is the first bird that I’ve dipped that I think I will never get to see. Mauritius is an ecological disaster area, the countryside is far from scenic and the World is a huge place with loads to see. Mauritius also left a slightly sour taste to be honest.  Tourists could be forgiven for thinking there are no birds on Mauritius at all, as the only bird that appears in publicity anywhere is the Dodo. From signs to tourist trinkets available in seemingly all shops, the Dodo is everywhere. The same cannot be said for the wildlife that is still managing to hang on. It’s as if the Mauritians are prouder of a lost heritage than the one they still have. There is very little publicity for the Black Gorges NP, and plantations seem to encroach on the last remnants of native vegetation. There are efforts to redress the losses, and the team at Black Gorges and the  Gerald Durrell gang have had success with greatly increasing the population of Mauritius Kestrels. However, going back to Mauritius is pretty low on my list of things to do. Reunion on the other hand, was a great place with a good vibe to it. Beaches were in short supply, but the forest was pretty extensive, even if introduced rats are threatening the Reunion Cuckooshrike.

So, leaving Mauritius wasn’t difficult. And besides, we were on our way to Madagascar…

Landing in Tana, we were met by Bakoly Voahangy Razanamiarantsoa  (known as Bakoly, thankfully!) of Great Island Adventure Safaris who was our ground agent for the next 3 weeks. After a night in Tana, we were off to Anjozorobe forest for our first major target – Slender-billed Flufftail. As far as I know, this is the only accessible site in the World for this critically endangered endemic as it seems to be plummeting to extinction http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2817. A venture into the marsh failed to find the hoped for mega rail, but we did get close views of a Madagascar Cuckoo Hawk. This bird seems to be getting rapidly rarer, and increasingly hard to find. Most people seem to see it at Berenty, but we were not going there so were very happy to have scored it so quickly. In fact, we would not be seeing another in the next five weeks! The extreme similarity of the Cuckoo-Hawk to the very common and widespread Madagascar Buzzard doesn’t help in finding it either.

Madagascar-Cuckoo-Hawk-1 Madagascar-Cuckoo-Hawk-2

Madagascar Cuckoo hawk

Madagascar-Swamp-Warbler

Madagascar swamp warbler

We also scored a few other endemics in the forest there, but there was nothing that we wouldn’t be seeing later. We were surprised by our first nest of Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher within a couple of feet of the trail, but birds nesting next to trails would become something of a feature of the trip.

After overnighting in Tana, we drove all day to reach Ankarafantsika NP at sunset, only stopping for about 30 mins at the Betsiboka River. The river produced about 15 Madagascar Pratincoles hawking over the impressive rock formations. We only had two nights and one full day at Ankarafantsika, so had to make the most of it. This was a shame in one way, as it was a superb site. It’s one of the last remnants of western deciduous forest in Madagascar, and as such has a highly specialised avifauna. We spent much of the morning failing to find Schlegel’s Asity, but some other feathered delights awaited us. We had great views of White-breasted Mesite, then decided to go back to the National Park visitor centre and the area of forest just behind it to try for the very rare and highly localised (two descriptive terms that could apply equally well to much of Madagascar’s impoverished birds and other wildlife)  Van Dam’s Vanga. Not sure who Van Dam was or why he came to have a Vanga named after him, but I’m guessing it wasn’t our old friend Jean Claude. After a relatively brief search, our luck turned and Van Dam’s Vanga showed pretty well.

White-breasted-Mesite-2 White-breasted-Mesite-1

White-breasted Mesite

Van-Dam's-Vanga

Van Dams Vanga

This vanga is pretty similar in appearance to two other vanga species – Lefresnaye’s and Pollen’s Vangas – but is separated from them by habitat (the other two are arid thorn forest and rainforest specialists respectively) as well as some subtle plumage differences. We also scored some cracking Couas. These are large relatives of cuckoos, but are endemic to Madagascar. Probably my favourite was Red-capped Coua, and we managed to get good views of one here. We then went back to the forest patch that allegedly held the incomparable Schlegel’s Asity, and after much searching and a herculean effort by our guide, Jocky, we finally found a pair high up in one of the tallest trees in the forest.

Schlegel's-Asity

Schlegel’s Asity

Red-capped-Coua-4

Red-capped Coua

Madagascar-Magpie-Robin-2

Madagascar Magpie Robin. Note the white belly of this race.

We then had an excellent little jaunt on a punt into the Lake Ravelobe. We managed decent views of Madagascar Fish Eagle, Humblot’s Heron and Madagascar Pond Heron, but it was the crocs surfacing a few meters from the boat that I kept an eye on most of the time!

Madagascar-Fish-Eagle

Madagascar Fish Eagle

Humblot's-Heron

Humblot’s Heron

Crocodile

Nile Crocodile

Other wildlife was obvious at Ankarafantsika, and we saw several lemurs on a short night walk including the fantastic little Grey Mouse Lemur and the boingy Milne-Edward’s Sportive Lemur.

Milne-Edward's-Sportive-Lem

Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur

Western-Avahi

Eastern Avahi (aka Eastern Wooly Lemur)

On Nov 13th we left Ankarafantsika and started the long drive north to Bemanevika. The journey was long, tiring and long. We had been told that the road would get progressively worse as we got nearer Bemanevika, but the track we ended up late in the afternoon could hardly be described as a road! The dirt track was truly horrendous, and our progress slowed so much that there was no way we would reach our destination before dark. Given the state of the road, our driver didn’t want to risk damaging the 4×4 by driving in the dark, so we stopped at the last major village before Bemanevika and set up our tents on the village football pitch. I can’t remember the name of the village, but the folk there were incredibly friendly and curious about us. As we set up our tents we were surrounded by all the kids and most of the grown-ups from the village. After Adam attempted to show his silky football skills with some of the kids and I showed some of them a distant Zebu through my scope, we managed to get our tents sorted and then head into the village were one of the families had kindly let Bakoly prepare our dinner for us. I should probably preface this with saying we had carried our dinner with us all the way from Ankarafantsika in the feathery form of a real life “chicken in a basket”. Christened Deirdre (be me privately anyway!), she gave a few disconcerted clucks when things fell on her during the journey, but by and large she got through the journey pretty well. Anyway, she tasted pretty good once de-feathered, de-boned and cooked slowly for 3 hours!

The following day saw us finally arrive at Bemanevika camp. Bemanevika is a small village, near to which is the last remaining site for the critically endangered Madagascar Pochard. The crater lakes at Bemanevika are not all equally used either. One of them is now a marsh, with no open water at all. Most of the Pochards use just the one small lake of about 20 hectares in extent. This species was once found at several sites in the northern half of Madagascar, but mainly on Lake Aloatra. This, the largest lake in Madagascar, has been subject to many years of eutrophication, drainage and has suffered the introduction of alien species of fish. This has all resulted in the extinction of the Aloatra Grebe that was only found on this lake, and was thought to have resulted in the extinction of the Madagascar Pochard. Some further information can be found here http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/sitefactsheet.php?id=6567 .  Who knows what else has been lost from this site?

Happily the Madagascar Pochard was rediscovered in 2006 at Bemenavika, but life remains incredibly tough for them. Restricted to just one or two tiny crater lakes, the entire population of about 20-30 individuals is at risk of extinction at any one point. There is now a successful captive breeding population instigated by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Gerald Durrell conservation trust, but productivity in the wild is dangerously low. In fact, I’m amazed that any birds survived at Bemenavika in the interim between being lost from Aloatra and being discovered there. The main reason for this seems to be to do with the characteristics of the lake. Being a crater lake, it is very steep sided and quite deep. The adults can dive for food found on the lakes bottom, but the chicks cannot dive deep enough to reach the bottom. Consequently, most chicks starve to death. It’s a simple problem that has devastating consequences, and it’s not easily solved. Later in our trip we actually met the WWT researcher on a break in Masoala NP, and it was good to chat about this with him. I suggested some form of constructed artificial shelves that could be sunk into the lake that would then be colonised by vegetation and eventually provide accessible food for chicks. He assured me that plans like that were in the pipeline, so hopefully there will be some good news on that in the future. In the meantime, here are some pictures.

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Bemanevika. All of the World’s wild Madagascar Pochards were on this lake when the picture was taken. Plus a lot of Mellor’s Ducks and Madagascar Little Grebes.

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The marsh at Bemanevika, adjacent to the main lake. A good spot for Madagascar Harrier, but note the encroaching deforestation.

Madagascar-Pochard-(4) Madagascar-Pochard-(1) Madagascar-Pochard-(3)

Madagascar Pochards

Madagascar-Little-Grebe

Madagascar Little Grebes

White-throated-Rail

White-throated Rail. This bird was remarkably confiding around the campsite.

Bemanevika is also famous amongst birders as the only place you are likely to see the incredibly rare and elusive Madagascar Red Owl. They are undertaking studies of the owls here, and one individual is fitted with a radio tag, so they are able to find this bird on demand. This of course, is a very helpful scenario for lazy birders like me! Following the guides through the dense forest and down the near vertical slopes of the other crater lake, we were eventually greeted by the sight of the Red Owl roosting above a vine tangle, just a few meters above our heads. We also saw our first of several forest species, such as Madagascar Starlings, Blue Couas and the like, and the marsh that takes up one of the three craters held a female Madagascar Harrier.

Red-Owl

Red Owl

The next day consisted mainly of a 10 hr drive south, back along the terrible track and then onto the terrible semi-tarmac semi-potholed road south. Staying in a quiet village hotel overnight, we then had another 9 hr drive south to Tana the next day. I can safely say that that is the longest  “twitch” I’ve ever done – 19 hrs driving for a duck! Still, it was certainly worth it, and I would recommend more birders make the pilgrimage to Bemanevika for two reasons. Firstly, you’ll get some amazing birds on your list and have a great time. If you spend some decent time up there, you may even make some crazy discoveries. There hasn’t been a Madagascar Serpent Eagle seen for a while here now, not since the radio tagged bird died. They are probably still in the general area though. Do bear in mind that the Red Owl we saw is the only one that is radio tagged, and we were told that its battery is probably going to run out at some point over the 2012/13 winter. We may have been the last tourists to see this particular bird, but the researchers there do hope and intend to catch another owl to tag. No guarantees though. Secondly, the more birders that go, then the more publicity and money can be put into promoting, protecting and researching the site and its birds. I can’t say I’ve ever been a proper eco-tourist before, but I did feel as though our presence there was a good thing on many levels.

Back in Tana, we met up with friends Owain Gabb and Robin Cox in the Tana Plaza hotel, and got ready for our first jaunt into the eastern rainforests. We arrived at Andasibe Special Reserve late morning on Nov 17th and checked into the Mikalo hotel, which was superb. We then spent the remainder of the day in Andasibe (also known by its French colonial name of Perinet). This produced brief (very brief!) views of Madagascar Crested Ibis flying up and away from the trail, cracking views of a roosting Collared Nightjar and our first Nuthatch Vanga but despite much searching we only heard Rufous-headed Ground Roller. Bird of the day for me was the Madagascar (Long-eared) Owl that our guide pointed out between Andasibe and Mantadia NP. Also in that area was an elusive Madagascar Rail – our only one of the trip.

Collared-Nightjar

Collared Nightjar

Madagascar-Long-eared-Owl-(

Madagascar Long-eared Owl

The nightlife around the hotel would prove to be very interesting, although I could have done without the two giant wolf spiders in my room. I just tucked my mosquito net under the mattress and drank a lot of beer! Some of the moths, mantis and other bugs were a major source of entertainment in the three evenings we were there.

The next two days were spent Andasibe special reserve and Mantadia NP, and we managed to notch up most of the hoped for species. We scored all four of the endemic Ground Rollers (Rufous-headed, Short-legged, Scaly and Pitta-like), Red-breasted and Red-fronted Couas, Forest Rock Thrush, Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher and many more. We also saw the incredible howling Indri and the stunning Diademed Sifaka. The call of the Indri is one of the most evocative sounds of the natural world that I’ve ever heard.

Rufous-headed-Ground-Roller

Rufous-headed Ground Roller. Very skulking!

Madagascar-Pygmy-Kingfisher

Madagascar Pygmy Kingfisher

Ward's-Flycatcher

Ward’s Flycatcher. Actually now known to be another species of Vanga, and not a flycatcher at all!

Indri-(38)

Indri

Diedemed-Sifaka-(12)

Diademed Sifaka

After a great time at these sites, it was time to leave and drive back to Tana. We went via a reptile farm where Sykes got bitten in the face by a huge snake. Could have been horrendous, turned out to be quite funny thankfully.

The birding sites are a heck of a long way apart in Madagascar, and after overnighting in Tana, it was a further all day drive to get to Ranomafana NP. Like Mantadia NP and Andasibe special reserve, Ranomafana NP is part of the “Rainforests of the Atsinanana”,  a World Heritage Site. These forests once spread along the entire eastern mountain chain of Madagascar and are one of the World’s great biodiversity hotspots, but are disappearing at an alarming rate. Already highly fragmented, the future of these forests hangs in the balance as the National Parks have their edges eroded away by “slash and burn” agricultural encroachment, illegal logging and other nefarious uses. For more info read http://www1.american.edu/ted/MADAGAS.HTM.  With an increasing population that is one of the poorest in the World, any solutions to the forests rapid disappearance are unlikely to work in my view. Basically, if you want to see Madagascar’s wonderful and unique wildlife, go now. It may well be gone within your lifetime.

Ranomafana NP is a truly beautiful place, with steep sided forested hills and a boulder strewn raging river flowing through the middle of it. We spent the next two days in the park and scored some more of the critical endemics. Unfortunately, the outstanding memory is of spending an inordinate amount of time trying to find Brown Mesite. The usual pair was flushed by the group preceding us, and we simply couldn’t find them or any others again. This meant that we did not put in enough time in trying to find other things, and we ended up missing Brown Emutail as well. We did have a cracking morning looking for Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity, eventually finding a pair nest building. The male is without doubt one of the best birds I’ve ever seen, a true flying jewel. Just a shame my crap photo doesn’t do it justice. Other great birds here over the two days included truly stunning views of Madagascar Sparrowhawk feeding unconcerned just a few meters from us, a Madagascar Yellowbrow skulking within a few feet, Henst’s Goshawk, Pollen’s Vanga, Grey Emutail, Forest Fody and our only male Velvet Asity of the trip.

Yellow-bellied-Sunbird-Asit

Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity.  At one point, this little jewel was thought to be extinct, and Ranomafana remains the only accessible site for it.

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Madagascar Sparrowhawk. Another species that is becoming increasingly hard to find.

Pitta-like-Ground-Roller-(5 Pitta-like-Ground-Roller-(4 Pitta-like-Ground-Roller-(1Pitta-like Ground Roller

Red-fronted-Coua

Red-fronted Coua

Blue-Vanga-(3)

The incomparable Blue Vanga, about to nail a huge cricket

Forest-Fody

Forest Fody

Henst's-Goshawk

Henst’s Goshawk

Mammal wise, we did extremely well. The group of Red-fronted Brown Lemurs showed well on several occasions, but when they started barking in alarm , we knew there was something afoot. Creeping along the trail below them, I looked over the into the small gully below us and saw the unmistakable form of a Fosa slinking along the gully bottom. Looking over its shoulder at us, Madagascar’s largest predator fixed us with huge eyes , then carried on and disappeared into the forest with cat-like grace. The occasional cries and whoops from the lemurs throughout the day let us know that it was still around, but we never saw it again. We did manage to see a troop of three Black & White Ruffed Lemurs which was a nice bonus. I was starting to get into lemurs by now, and really enjoyed seeing these Black & Whites. Having seen Fosa (which almost no one sees at Ranomafana) and Black & White Ruffed Lemur (which is tricky and erratic throughout its fragmented range), we thought we were on a roll and decided to give the Golden Bamboo Lemur one last try. We failed. The one lemur that babies can find while dribbling along the main trail, we just couldn’t find. I was philosophical about it at the time, but now I’m pretty gutted we missed it. We did get cracking views of Brown Mouse Lemur coming to the roadside trees to eat a banana mush.

Black-and-White-Ruffed-Lemu

Black & White Ruffed Lemur

On Nov 24th we started the long drive to Isalo NP early in the morning, finally catching up with the recently described Cryptic Warbler singing along the roadside at Ranomafana. The long drive was broken up by a lunch stop at Anja, an isolated patch of rocky forest that contains a troop of habituated Ring-tailed Lemurs. Unfortunately, it also contains hordes of cooing tourists, so be prepared for annoying French grannies getting in the way of that perfect lemur photo, every ******* time!!! Still, the lemurs were nice, although I have to admit to being slightly disappointed that King Julian didn’t make an appearance.

Ring-tailed-Lemur-(7)

Ring tailed lemur

Madagascar-Hoopoe

Madagascar Hoopoe

We then drove across a massive open plain, with occasional large rocky outcrops. The outstanding highlight was a male Madagascar Harrier, hunting low over the grass. The structural differences between this and the Reunion Harrier were very striking, with this bird being much more like a typical harrier in structure and jizz. Finally arriving at Isalo, we nailed the Benson’s Rock Thrush that nest on the visitor centre. This used to be a species in its own right, but is now lumped within Forest Rock Thrush due to there being no genetic differences between them. Personally I think that’s a load of tosh. There is a vast distance between the two populations, and no chance of any mixing now. Benson’s is restricted to the rocky outcrops of the Isalo massif, and Forest is a rainforest specialist. Closely related, for sure, and almost identical in appearance, but not the same species. If you go by the principle of “Identifiable Forms” like I do, then you’ll appreciate seeing this, no matter what the scientists tell us about is genetic make-up.

Benson's-Rock-Thrush-(1)

Benson’s Rock Thrush

We also scored Madagascar Partridge at this site, and I discovered that Madagascar Cisticola responds very well to pishing. Just in case you struggle to find this, one of the commonest species on the island!

Madagascar-Cisticola

Madagascar Cisticola

We spent the night near to Isalo NP, and decided to do some birding in the grasslands behind the hotel at Ranohira. It didn’t take long to find one our hoped for species when a pair of Marsh Owls performed very well for us, quartering the grasslands. The next morning saw us heading for Ifaty and the iconic and world famous spiny forest there. First however, we were in for a treat on the journey. The Zombitse-Vohibasia NP is a remnant patch of deciduous woodland, and is one of the few places in the world for the for the Appert’s Tetraka. This small Madagascar warbler has now been found at a further two locations, but Zombitse is on the main road between the rainforest sites in the east and the spiny forest sites in the south west, so will always be the most accessible site for it for most people. http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=7262 . It wasn’t just the tetraka that was a highlight in our short stay here, and we were treated to stunning views of White-browed Owl and both Giant & Coquerel’s Couas. Lemurs comprised the famous Verraux’s Sifaka with the obligatory baby in attendance and both Hubbard’s & Red-tailed Sportive Lemurs.

Appert's-Tetraka

Appert’s Tetraka

White-browed-Owl

White-browed owl

Verraux's-Sifaka-(1)

Verraux’s Sifaka

Hubbard's-Sportive-Lemur-(3

Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur

Arriving at Ifaty after a long drive along the coast going north from Tulear, and after a quick look at the wetland just north of Tulear, we checked into our picture postcard beach front “Nautilus” hotel. We were starting to feel just a little pampered on this trip, and the standard of all the hotels had been excellent and well above what we are used to. The pool and bar overlooking the ocean did just give this one the edge, and with a family of Madagascar Nightjars hawking around the grounds we were very happy bunnies indeed. On Nov 26th we got up early and headed into the incomparable spiny forest, on the edge of Ifaty. With incredible elephant-like baobabs, euphorbias, the frankly weird octopus trees and the masses of smaller thorn bushes, the spiny forest is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It makes the acacia and wait-a-bit thorn scrub in east Africa look positively welcoming!

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Spiny forest

The birds were actually hard to find, except for one of our most wanted birds – the Long-tailed Ground Roller. This was singing from a low branch at the entrance to the forest.

Long-tailed-Ground-Roller

Long-tailed Ground Roller

We did manage to see another one inside the forest too. The other highlights of the spiny forest were:

Subdesert-Mesite

Subdesert Mesite. The obligatory aboreal photo of this normally terrestrial bird. This was very difficult to find, and we would have no doubt failed without the help of our guide (Mousa) and his son.

Thamnornis

Thamnornis

Banded-Kestrel

Banded Kestrel

Archbold's-Newtonia

Archbold’s Newtonia

Madagascar-Plover

Madagascar Plover

Subdesert-Brush-Warbler

Subdesert Brush Warbler

Sickle-billed-Vanga

Sickle-billed Vanga. The largest of the vangas, this impressive, and frankly weird, bird is fairly widespread in the west of Madagascar. We saw them at Ifaty and Ankarafantsika.

Lefresnaye's-Vanga-(male)

Lefresnaye’s Vanga

Madagascar-Bee-eater

Madagascar Bee-eater

The following day again started early, and we drove to the La Table area of thorn scrub just inland of Tulear. For anyone expecting La Table to be a mountain, as it is described in the literature, prepare for a big disappointment. It’s very low more of a small flat-topped hill than anything else. Anyway, we were there to look for two highly range restricted species, the Verraux’s Coua and the Red-shouldered Vanga. Both species are restricted to the coastal thorn scrub in south-west Madagascar. The vanga was only described in 1997, but had first been seen 50 years early. It’s apparently not as rare as some of the sources imply http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9808 , but it’s still a cracking bird to see, and is famously the last new species that Phoebe Snetsinger saw before her untimely death on the roads of Madagascar not far from here.

Red-shouldered-Vanga-(2)

Red-shouldered Vanga, male

Red-shouldered-Vanga-(1)

Red-shouldered Vanga, female on nest

After a couple of hours, it was time to get back to Tulear and catch our charter boat to Nosy Ve. The 2.5 hr journey to Nosy Ve was one of the worst boat journeys I’ve ever done, and I work offshore! The head-on swell combined with our impressive speed resulted in us being airborne for much of the trip, with the result that I was certainly pretty bruised by the time we got there. Still, some Lesser Crested Terns had provided a bit of entertainment on the way. Landing on Nosy Ve, we walked around the whole island, which didn’t take long. The reason for going there was to see the nesting Red-tailed Tropicbirds on their only Madagascan nesting grounds. The population has steadily declined in recent years, but we did find a few adults nesting under the bushes, and a few more flying around the island. Also present were some nice White-faced Plovers.  This really was a another picture postcard destination, with white sandy beaches, wide open sea views and a sense of wild isolation, as Nosy Ve is a few miles off the mainland. With time knocking on, we got back on the boat and headed for the mainland fishing village of Anakao. This village is only realistically accessible by boat, as to get there overland involves a stupidly long 4×4 journey. It’s famous in birding circles as the only accessible place to see the Littoral Rock Thrush. We were staying overnight in the Safari Veso hotel, which I can thoroughly recommend http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g736871-d735899-Reviews-Hotel_Safari_Vezo-Anakao_Toliara_Province.html , not least because the thrush nests in the euphorbias within the hotel grounds! It’s a great place just to kick back, relax and enjoy the ambience of this stunning place, seemingly at the end of the world.

Red-tailed-Tropicbird-(2) Red-tailed-Tropicbird-(1)

Red-tailed tropicbird

White-fronted-Plover-(1)

White-faced plover

Littoral-Rock-Thrush

Littoral Rock Thrush

Lesser-Crested-Terns

Lesser Crested Terns

Our final two days with Bakoly started with us getting back to Tulear early the next day (Nov 28th). We found our final coua species (Green-capped)  just outside Tulear, and that provided a fitting climax to our listing ambitions in this south west corner of Madagascar, even if we had dipped on Madagascar Sandgrouse and Green-capped Coua was probably the dullest of all the couas! Catching the (delayed) flight back to Tana that evening, we spent another night in Tana before saying goodbye to Bakoly and to Owain and Robin at the airport. Owain and Robin were heading back to Britain, and myself, Tim and Adam were flying up to Maroantsetra to begin a fortnight in the north east of Madagascar.

I had organised all of the north-east part of the trip through Olivier Fournajoux, the owner of Chez Arol eco-lodge. http://arollodge.free.fr/home.htm . We were going to be staying at Chez Arol, right on the edge of Masoala NP for 7 nights. After an initial night in Maroantsetra staying at the Coco Beach hotel, the Chez Arol motor boat picked us up from the river pier at the back of the hotel. We then sped out into the expanse of Antongil Bay and the 90 minute journey to the lodge.

The lodge is located between a small village and the primary rainforest of Masoala NP, and as such is nearer to the forest than the other lodges that are often used by groups. The lodge consisted of a large dining area and several individual chalets for guests. We had the largest chalet to ourselves for the 7 nights, and after meeting two guests on our first night we had the entire lodge to ourselves for 6 nights.

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Rainforest comes down to the shore in many parts of Masoala

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Our chalet at Chez Arol

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Dining area and pineapple bushes at Chez Arol

Our guide for our entire time in Masoala NP was Joseph Raveloson, and as well as being the best guide we had in our entire time in Madagascar, he also became a good friend to us. You can find him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/ravelosonjoseph.joseph?fref=ts  and I can definitely recommend him.

Joseph-Raveloson

Joseph Raveloson

Our main target in Masoala NP was the Helmet Vanga. It’s one of those iconic World birds that feature on many peoples “must see” list and we were not to be disappointed. They are only found in the north-east of Madagascar, but are not necessarily rare where they occur. We didn’t see them every day by any means, but we did find a pair in one area that seemed to be fairly regular, and on top of that we saw the pair of Bernier’s Vangas that Joseph had found previously. Our 6 days there were magical, and we even finally managed to see a pair of Brown Mesites after several hours of intensive searching. One of the highlights was finding Scaly Ground Rollers with a recently fledged chick, and a stupidly confiding Short-legged Ground Roller. Several Madagascar Pratincoles were nesting on rocks along the shore, and we found several Brookesia chameleons (the World’s smallest lizards), leaf-tailed geckos and even a couple of snakes. Unexpected bonuses included two Collared Nightjars (including one bird hunting in a clearing – it just sat on a perch constantly moving its head looking for prey, then finally did a flycatcher-like sally before returning to the same perch), a sunbathing Red-breasted Coua, regular (if highly camera shy) Blue Couas, Cuckoo-Rollers displaying around the lodge, Rainforest Scops Owl hunting a few feet from us as we ate in the evening and more wonderful wildlife than you could shake a stick at.

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Helmet Vanga

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Helmet Vanga up close

Bernier's-Vanga-(1)

Bernier’s Vanga, male

Bernier's-Vanga-(3) Bernier's-Vanga-(2)

Bernier’s Vanga, female

Scaly-Ground-Roller-(6)

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Scaly ground roller, the last picture showing a recently fledged chick

Short-legged-Gr-Roller-(2)

Short-legged ground roller

Blue-Coua

Blue Coua

Broad-billed-Roller

Broad-billed Roller

Cuckoo-Roller

Cuckoo-Roller

Frances's-Sparrowhawk-(3)

Frances’s Sparrowhawk, male

Frances's-Sparrowhawk-(2)

Frances’s Sparrowhawk. Six fingers is unusual for such a small accipiter.

Hook-billed-Vanga

Hook-billed Vanga

Madagascar-Kingfisher

Madagascar Kingfisher

Magpie-Robin-Masoala

Madagascar Magpie Robin, the black-bellied race.

Madagascar-White-eye

Madagascar White-eye. Very common!

Nuthatch-Vanga

Nuthatch Vanga

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Madagascar Paradise Flycatcher

Rainforest-Scops-Owl-(1)

Rainforest Scops Owl

Rufous-Vanga-1

Rufous Vanga

Spectacled-Tetraka-Mas-(6) Spectacled-Tetraka-Mas-(4)

Spectacled Tetraka. This is the northern race of Spectacled, and was previously thought to be the enigmatic Dusky Tetraka. That species is now thought to be either highly localised in some unknown location, or maybe even non-exisistent.

Velver-Asity

Velvet Asity

White-throated-Oxylabes

White-throated Oxylabes

Red-ruffed-Lemur-(1)

Red-ruffed Lemur

White-fronted-Br-Lemur-(3)

White-fronted Brown Lemur

Eastern-Avahi

Eastern Avahi (aka Eastern Wooly Lemur)

Brown-Mouse-Lemur-(3)

Brown Mouse Lemur

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Looking upstream from the beach

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A palm. This had the longest “above ground” roots of any plant i have seen. The main trunk is quite short, but the roots start about 6 meters up in the air!

We whiled away some of the afternoons by going snorkelling and just chilling in the bar. Truly a hard life! The weather was sometimes against us, with monsoon quality rain at times. Being there in early December, we knew we were there at the start of the rainy season, even though it’s often said that Masoala is so wet that it doesn’t really have a discernible rainy season. We really felt like we got to know the area pretty well, and I’m certainly glad that we spent so much time there.

I feel like I have to explain something about Masoala that may come as something of a surprise. Madagascar in general is not the easiest place in the world for the independent traveller. In fact, with a poor road network, massive distances between sites and the difficulty in hiring transport, it is downright difficult to get around on your own. If I had to get to Ifaty or Bemanevika on my own, I’m not entirely sure how I would do it. Masoala on the other hand, is easy. If you’re prepared for the cost of an internal flight (the road to Masoala is among the worst in the World, and will take several days to travel along – it even featured recently in the BBC program “World’s Most Dangerous Roads”), Masoala is probably the easiest of the National Parks to get to. Simply get a taxi from Maroantsetra airport to one of the hotels in the town. If you have organised accommodation in one of the lodges at Masoala, they will pick you up from the hotel and ferry you across the bay to the lodge. It’s dead easy! I guess you could even just turn up in Maroantsetra and book accommodation on Masoala there and then, as all the lodges have well sign posted offices in Masoala. For the Chez Arol office, just cross the bridge over the river and turn left.

After our time in Masoala, we got back to Maroantsetra and after an overnight stop at Coco Beach hotel, we headed off upstream in a metal pirogue towards the Makira forest. We had retained Joseph as our guide, and even the same cook. We did feel slightly strange about heading off with guides, porters and a cook, as it’s not really what we are used to. Having someone carry all the equipment was a novelty, but I got used to it pretty quick! We spent the 1st night in a new camp that is being set up for eco-tourism, and got the approval of the local village elders. The forest here is now community owned, and they hope to be able to preserve it as it is for the benefit of both the wildlife and the community, but obviously they need tourism for this to be a viable option. We only spent a few short hours in the forest in the company of a local guide as well as Joseph, but we managed to get good views of Helmet Vanga and Madagascar Wood Rail, plus a pair of both Short-legged and Scaly Ground Rollers. We also managed to nail our only specifically identified bat in Madagascar, as a Peter’s Sheath-tailed Bat was roosting in the shelter above my tent. Leaving this site, we cracked on towards Makira. It wasn’t much further upstream, but after stopping at another village to get permits and then a 2 hr hike to get to the research station, it was midday or after by the time we arrived. And what a place it is!

After dumping our gear at the station, we set off in pursuit of the research team who were studying the resident family group of Silky Sifakas.  After a few false starts in the dense forest and incredibly steep terrain, we finally found them, and were treated to point blank views of this very rare and localised lemur. This particular group have become habituated after years of study by the research team, and two of them also carry radio collars to enable them to be found every day. Despite nearly blinding myself on a wayward twig, the views were incredible, and they even had a mischievous baby in tow. We spent the remainder of the day and half the next day exploring the forest around the camp. Helmet Vanga was seemingly pretty common, and we found two pairs of Bernier’s Vanga – one of which were nesting in a palm in full view of the station. We couldn’t have wished for anything more really. I suspect that given proper exploration by birders, there would be some nice surprises in store in this forest, but as it’s a large tract with virtually no access, it will probably hold on to its secrets until it is felled. Go there, and help make a case for its continued survival. Beware though, it is a voyage to get there, and the climb up the wooded slope to get to the research station is incredibly tiring and not for the faint (or weak!) hearted. At times it’s almost vertical, and there is much holding onto trees and branches to climb up. Of course, the porters made it look easy, and were literally running up certain sections! We were even lucky enough to bump into the Sifakas on the way back down, and were treated to more of their antics at close range. For anyone interested in going to Makira, I can thoroughly recommend it and would certainly recommend that you contact Olivier Fournajoux and ask him to organise it. He is trying to set up an eco-tourism initiative here, and that deserves support.

Helmet-Vanga-(13) Helmet-Vanga-(17)

Helmet Vanga, the second photo shows a recently fledged chick.

Bernier's-Vanga-(4) Bernier's-Vanga-(7) Bernier's-Vanga-(6)

Bernier’s Vangas, including a female sat on nest in a palm.

Silky-Sifaka-(1) Silky-Sifaka

Silky Sifaka

The afternoon was taken up with the journey downstream to Maroantsetra, followed by another night in the Coco Beach hotel after we had waved goodbye to Joseph and the rest of the crew. The next day was our last in Maroantsetra, and we decided to do something a little different. Again, with Olivier’s help we organised a pirogue to take us to a “nearby” forest that apparently has Aye-Aye. Not ones to miss a good opportunity, we were soon heading off into the unknown again, and reached the Farankaraina forest well after dark. We failed to find Aye-Aye, but did see some Greater Dwarf Lemur. The highlights were two Madagascar Crested Ibis that we spotlighted roosting up in the trees; our best views of this species, which had proved incredibly elusive at every site we went to. The 6 hours spent squatting in a pirogue as we were punted and paddled along was certainly a different way to travel, and not one I would want to do on a daily basis like many people do over there.

From then we flew back to Tana, had a day to relax and do a spot of shopping, then catch our flights back to London on the 13th. A truly great trip, with lots of memories. If there is anything I haven’t covered that you want information on, just comment here or send me an email.

More Foula pics

Just some more random pics from Foula to entertain, enthrall and possibly bore.

Bill papping the Sykes’s Warbler, which is just visible on the grass.

Chickencrake.

The impressive North Bank. This is approx 200m high, and is just the beginning of Da Kame, the bottom half of which is just visible at the far end of the bank.

Da Sneck o Da Smaalie. Great for migrants and killing sheep.

Fulmar

The Gaada Stack, which is even more impressive in real life.

Goldcrest. I reckon that the Regulus must be one of the best genera going, but then i am a bit geeky.

See, mega little things

Jacko. I don’t think i ever knew that they had that saw-tooth trailing edge

Pied Flycatcher. One of the many 1st winters that show prominent tips to the median coverts,  this one also showing a decent sized primary patch. Not big enough though…

Same bird as above

Garry, Dan and Andrew Grieve building a dam and creating the Ristie Loch. Unfortunately, no birds were seen on the Loch before the lads left.

The Ristie Loch from above, prime wader habitat

Ristie Loch from just above Muckle Grind. Looks amazing for rares.

The only bird on the Loch in 2 weeks was this juv Long-tailed Duck.

Willow Warbler

Ham. One of the two best areas for migrants