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.

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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

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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!

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Crab Plover, with Curlew Sandpiper

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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

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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

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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

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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)

Scaly-Ground-Roller-(5) Scaly-Ground-Roller-(4) Scaly-Ground-Roller-(1)

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

Paradise-Flycatcher-2

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

 

 

Foula 2012

After 5 previous visits, I’m planning on 2012 being the granddaddy of them all and will hopefully be spending nearly a month on the isle. Due to the complete lack of T-Mobile or Orange coverage on Foula, I’ll unfortunately not be able to post this until I get home in mid-October. Hopefully by then you’ll know what to expect in this posting, and what rares we managed to find on here this autumn. Or perhaps there will be absolutely nothing and this blog will chart my steady decline into madness and despondency!

The journey north was uneventful, and even the Northlink crossing was calm after the gale force winds of the previous few days. Due to work commitments, I was unable to travel up with my mate Nick Crouch who was to be on Foula for my first week, so instead it was with trepidation that I looked forward to our first meeting on Foula. Was there going to be any news? What had I missed so far? Luckily, the best bird of the last few days was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper that had toured the east and south of the isle, and I managed to catch up with this down on the South Ness. I think this constituted my 4th Buff-breast on Foula, and this must be one of the most regular spots for them in Britain.

Buff-breast, by Nick Crouch

We tried for a Barred Warbler that was hanging around Ham and had been seen early morning, but failed. In previous years, Barreds have tended to linger for several days and been fairly easy to see, so I was quite casual about not seeing this one at first. A mistake. There was no sign of it later that day or the next. It’s now getting quite late into September so I’m guessing I could have missed my chance at Barred Wblr this year.

An acro at Braidfit gave us the run-around for several hours, and we’re still none the wiser about it. Sitting having lunch looking into the garden, we had very brief views of an interesting, quite sandy acro/hippo perch up on the rosa ragosa and then go to ground almost immediately. With views lasting no more than 2 seconds, the jury was out on a specific ID, but we were sufficiently interested to keep vigil. Two hours later and we had managed about a second of further viewing time as it skulked nervously in the bottom of the rosa. Eventually it gave the briefest of views of its front end only and we were able to see that it was a Reed/Marsh Wblr, so there was disappointment and a slight amount of disbelief that our initial views appeared so sandy. We thought it most likely a Marsh, a view also shared by Geoff Atherton who had (unbeknown to us) seen it briefly that morning, but as life was progressing rapidly we decided to leave it and see what else the isle could throw at us. This was soon answered with a big fat nothing.

One of the highlights of a poor week was the Lapland and Snow Buntings that were knocking around in small numbers. They can appear anywhere, but the areas around Ristie and Stremness in the north and the airstrip/Daal and South Ness in the south are particularly favoured. Compared to last year, numbers of Laps were very low, but last year was a record year that saw an early influx from Canada and a peak count of over 120 on Foula. We did well to get over 20 a day in the same week this year. Still, they’re cracking birds not to be sniffed at, and Snow Buntings are always good value.

Lapland Bunting

Snow Bunting

Tomorrow is the end of Week 1, and sees the departure of Nick and the arrival of Garry Taylor, Gav Thomas, Dan Brown and Bill Aspin for a fortnight on here.

This shows that preparations for the fortnight are well underway!

The 21st saw the departure of Nick and the arrival of Team Foula. I felt really bad for Nick, because as he was leaving the birds were starting to arrive. A Common Rosefinch was found in Ham just before he left, and then as I was waving to the plane as it departed the isle, the Barred Warbler was refound at Ham! Ce la vie. Still, with fresh legs and eyes on the isle, it was time to knock a few rares into the back off the net, and the next few days were simply amazing. In the meantime, we managed to get better views of the presumed Marsh Warbler which had now moved to Niggards, and it did prove to be a Marsh, but one of the most stubbornly skulking birds I’ve ever come across. A situation remedied when it had Mr Taylor’s boot up its arse the following day…

The NW wind of the preceding week died to an imperceptible Force 0-1 on the 22nd, and the view across to Shetland was stunning. These seem to be perfect conditions for arrivals of rares on to Foula, as proved by last year’s Pechora and Arctic Warbler in very similar circumstances. This year we would go even better…

A skulky acro in the Hametoun burn area was found by Kev Shepherd, and after a few organised flushes we were all happy it was a Blyth’s Reed. The uniformity of colour on the upperparts with no rufous rump combined with a weak whirring flight make them actually fairly distinctive and eminently doable in flight, without recourse to emarginations. This individual was quite a brown one, but still showed the richer wing panel so distinctive of Blyth’s. For a nice comparison, the Marsh Warbler a few 100m up the road decided to show better than ever. A picture may appear here sometime soon: http://yorkslister.blogspot.co.uk/

Meanwhile, the Ham yard was hotting up and hosted a showy Bluethroat, a Barred Warbler and at least 5 Yellow-browed Warblers. In fact, there had clearly been a massive arrival of Yellow-broweds, as we ended the day on a total of 24 which is no doubt a gross under-estimate considering we can never bird the cliffs on here very well. At least 7 in Ham were complimented by 6 together in the Punds garden. Our day total of 24 was by far the best of the day anywhere in Britain, and is one of the highest single site counts for anywhere in Britain. I’m guessing that only Fair Isle has beaten it for a site of comparative size?  The walk back to Ristie was enlivened by a brief Wryneck at Harrier, which I think is a Foula tick for me. Pretty rare in the autumn, Wrynecks. What would tomorrow bring?

Red-spotted Bluethroat. WIth a white throat.

Yellow-browed Warbler. With an off-white brow.

The 23rd will go down as one of my most exciting days ever. Leaving Ristie I walked the 200m to Trolli Geo and sat down to see what turned up in the fresh SE wind. My answer came immediately with 2 Pied and a single stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher down on the rocks. Caching insects in the surf zone, it even caught a huge sea slater at one point, which is probably not a normal food item it finds in the forests of Finland!

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Walking south, Dan “Golden Balls” Brown was slightly ahead and went over to the ruins of Gossameadow. Almost immediately, he called over the radio “I’ve got a Catharus thrush!” Cue instant sprint mode from me and a rather impressive vault over the fence. Almost immediately Dan followed his first message with “it’s a Swainson’s” and I saw it fly onto the fence surrounding the field. Slight panic then set in, but it stayed long enough for me to get decent views and for Dan to rattle off some record shots. It then bombed off over the moor and out of sight. Garry managed to relocate it in the burn, before it flew back towards the ruins at Gossameadow. No sign there, and the by now sizeable crowd (for Foula standards!) of 8 were starting to wonder where it had gone. Thankfully, we relocated it at the entrance to Loch, and it made its way to the ruined croft there and showed well for the rest of the day. My 6th individual of Yank passerine on Foula of 4 species in 5 visits. Not a bad statistic, but one of these days I would like to find one on here!

Swainson’s Thrush. Yankee cracker!

Not even halfway down the isle yet, we carried on to Ham and took in a few Yellow-brows, then carried on to Hametoun. Kev had seen the Blyth’s Reed again in the burn and Dan and I were getting ready to flush it to get pictures when Andrew Grieve radioed that he’d got an interesting hippolais at Braidfit. The three of us made our way over to be greeted by a smiling Andrew, who had clearly come to an exciting conclusion. We spread out to refind it, and Dan was the first to get views and come to an independent identification. It then appeared in front of me and Kev, and it was obviously a Sykes’s. The overall colouration, long tail and long slightly drooping bill were very obvious and immediately ruled out Booted. It was pleasing and satisfying that all 4 of us came to the same conclusion independently, and just goes to show how distinctive Sykes’s can be in the field.

Sykes’s Warbler. Note the really plain tertials.

It helped that it performed brilliantly too, with no view too intimate for this little porn star.

Probably a male!

Unfortunately I spent more time actually watching it than photographing it, so it was very pleasing to get another chance to pap it the following day when Donna relocated it in Ham. It showed amazingly well on the rocks by the harbour and was completely unperturbed by the throng of cameras pointing at it.

Sykes’s Warbler. Small, grey and stunning!

Meanwhile, the saga of the Lesser Whitethroats was developing nicely. Of 3 present on the isle, 2 showed features of halimodendri, with noticeably sandy mantles. A third bird in the Ham irises was very different in that it was greyish above and looked just like curruca. Thinking about it, I’m not sure that I’ve seen curruca on Foula before, as most birds seem to look most like halimodendri. Time will tell what they really are…

Unfortunately, this day, good as it was, was slightly marred by Fair Isle scoring Magnolia Warbler. To score a Swainson’s Thrush, a Sykes’s Warbler and a Blyth’s Reed and to be the 2nd best Shetland island that day was a bitter pill to swallow. Foula is crying out for a true mega (last year’s dead Sibe Blue Robin notwithstanding) and we really felt like Fair Isle had stolen our bird. You can just never rule out Fair Isle for really spoiling your day!

The 24th was a great day for one of the team. The brisk SE-ESE wind encouraged a visit to Da Sneck o Da Smaalie, a cleft in the cliff that looks monstrous for rares in the right weather conditions – namely strong easterly quarter winds that force birds to shelter over the cliffs. I took the easier route along the east cliffs, through Ham and then along the Daal to the Sneck, seeing not a great deal. Dan went over Da Kame and found a Blyth’s Pipit! It flew up the steep bank over him and promptly disappeared over the other side, never to be seen again. If it was most other people I wouldn’t believe it, but Dan has previous form with the species, having driven over one on a Welsh mountain a few years ago! Admittedly this time his observation wasn’t mechanically assisted, but with loads of foreign experience under his belt too, we all know that we’ve missed a mega here.

Still, I managed to score a Yellow-browed, 8 Goldcrests, 2 Blackcaps, 2 Pied Flys and a Redstart down the Sneck, so that was quite nice too.

Meanwhile, the Blyth’s Reed continued its residency in the Hametoun burn and Garry and Bill managed to dig out a rather nice Olive-backed Pipit in Harrier. It was pretty smart to finally see this on the walk home in the roadside ditch where it showed well.

The 25th had a brisk F6 NE wind dropping to an F3, and it was rares-ville again. Working the main iris bed in Ham, myself, Dan, Gav and Bill flushed a 2nd Blyth’s Reed. It showed slightly better than the Hametoun bird (which was still present and as elusive as ever) and provided a great education in the flight identification of acrocephalus.

Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Easy in flight.

The Sykes’s was also still present, and putting on a good show in Ham.

Dan and I managed to finally get some half decent in-flight pics of the ever-elusive Hametoun Blyth’s Reed. Maybe not quite as distinctive as the Ham bird due to it being a browner bird overall, it still showed the whirring weak flight and uniform upperparts of a Blyth’s, plus the wing panel was obvious in brief perched views on the fence. Hopefully in the bag…

Another Blyth’s Reed in flight. Still easy!

Hametoun produced the goods the next day too, when Dan, Bill and I flushed a new Olive-backed Pipit in the canary grass between Punds and Niggards. It felt like a different bird to the Harrier one immediately, and photos proved it was different, having a stronger malar and thicker, bolder breast streaks.

The teams haul at the end of Week 1 was: Swainson’s Thrush, Sykes’s Warbler, Blyth’s Pipit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler (2), Olive-backed Pipit (2), Richard’s Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Wryneck, Barred Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Common Rosefinch and a peak day count of 24 Yellow-browed Warblers. Only Fair Isle beat us this week. Admittedly, they beat us in style, but I’d still rather have been here to be honest.

Well, the winds gone into the west over the last few days, and the birding has slowed considerably. After two days stuck in Ristie due to the poor weather and lack of birding motivation, I ventured out for half a day today. Still nothing new in, but the Blyth’s Reed and Richard’s Pipit are apparently still in Hametoun. There seems to be plenty of tackle turning up on Shetland Mainland, although Fair Isle seems to be suffering like us. Isolated islands are fantastic in good conditions, but there is little scope for discovering birds that have been hiding away for several days like there is on Mainland, purely due to its size and variety of habitat. Mustn’t grumble though, considering our first week! It did give us time to indulge in some very important, nay, seminal work on the various attributes of the ladies in Zoo’s “100 Best Boobs in Britain”. The obvious error in counting (most of the 100 ladies were sporting the traditional two breasts…), didn’t detract from the pleasure gained from critically assessing the pros and cons of each of the 100 contenders.

Employing a scoring system more complex than Rugby League, we ended up with a final top three featuring:

Jess Kingham (don’t know anything about her apart from that she has a fantastic chest. And appears to smile a lot. So probably likes her job a lot), Sabine (there are now two stunning products of evolution featuring the name of an obscure German naturalist, only one of which is likely to be seen by me in north easterlies at Huttoft bank) and Kelly Brook (the perennial favourite, she’s still holding firm at the top of the charts. Just don’t mention the Big Breakfast…). Our overall winner was the delectable Kelly Brook. I’m sure she’ll be pleased!

Sea watching from Foula is generally like pulling teeth, just with less reward from the tooth fairy at the end of it. But in south westerly’s it’s one of the more attractive options after you’ve spent the last two hours trying to unsuccessfully download the 14mb email attachment of pics of your best mates new baby. Secreting myself in the rocks below Ristie, I counted Fulmars passing at c2120/hr, and a Foula tick in the shapely form of a Sooty Shearwater was mingled in with a raft of maalies not far offshore. A blue Fulmar also moved around the isle.  Some nice Purple Sandpipers accompanied me in my lonely vigil, and a Grey Seal rippled maggot-like into the sea when I appeared over the rocks and disturbed its slumber.

After our success with the inflight identification of unstreaked acros, you’d think nothing would be too much for this team. However, today proved very frustrating as we’ve mostly been looking at Snipe. You can tell it’s gone a bit quiet! Dan and I flushed about 40 Snipe from the Hametoun marsh area, one of which was strikingly grey. In fact, it was almost silvery! It did three passes with the small flock it was with before disappearing over the ridge and not being seen again We were pretty fired by the colour of this, as we’d checked and double checked it against adjacent Snipe on three occasions. Even better, both Gav and Ken independently saw this flock and the grey bird with them and were also struck by its appearance. Four observers, potential first for Scotland, no photos. Shit. We’d been so busy looking at the bird we hadn’t even raised our cameras. A schoolboy error, and probably one we’ll always regret, as there was no chance of accurately assessing the underwing without photos.

The walk home was enlivened by a rather smart Little Bunting at Harrier that steadfastly refused to be flushed. Our first new decent bird in a few days has given rise to renewed hopes for tomorrow, especially as the wind has dropped right off and it’s gone pretty clear again. Excellent Foula conditions…

Little Bunting & Big Chicken

What a difference a day makes. An early morning new Garden Warbler and a Pied Wagtail calling on the roof at Ristie encouraged an early departure to explore the isle for whatever delights awaited. This enthusiasm was rewarded with a 2nd Garden Warbler and a passage of Greylags. Top banana. We did go back down to Hametoun to look for the grey snipe. While walking through the marsh, I flushed a snipe that didn’t warrant a second look, so I didn’t. Dan took some practice shots of it to get ready for when the grey one got up (it never did!), and then the shit hit the fan. Reviewing the shots on the back of the camera, Dan saw that this bird showed extensive barring and no white bases to the underwing coverts – a definite Wilson’s feature. We checked the image again, and then looked at it some more, and it still looked good. With heavy rain now set in, we retired to the shelter of a shed and considered the options. None of us had really seen it in the field. I’d dismissed it within a second as it wasn’t the obvious grey bird of yesterday, so all we had was a single image that showed the underwing and one against the sky that showed the upperwing which we couldn’t do anything with on the back of the camera. Mindful of the enormity of the claim, we thought the best option was to try and alert the Shetland birders about the possibility of it being Wilson’s, so we managed to get a copy of the picture Facebooked to Micky Maher who managed to send it to Roger Riddington. Complicated or what! When we got home with no further birds under the belt, we put the picture on the laptop for the first time and started to critically analyse it.

Hopefully the pic will be on Punkbirder soon enough

My personal feeling is that this is a faeroensis, albeit a very extreme one. There was nothing about the size and jizz in the field that warranted a second look, and I would have expected Wilson’s to look a tad smaller (but views were ultra-brief, so not really worth an opinion) and there does seem to be a slight belly bulge typical of a subtly larger snipe. Also, the rather rich colour to the fore-flanks and what can be seen of the upperparts are typical faeroensis. Speaking to Martin Garner, he has also had several “100% definite galinago” showing barring on the underwing like this bird, so I’m hopeful he’ll be able to dig out shots of these for reference. This bird should have ramifications for the ID of Wilson’s in a vagrant context, and it’s not something I’m convinced has been addressed properly. If only 1 in 500 faeroensis show this underwing pattern, they will still be more common than delicata here and they may not show up in museum or photo collections. Conversely, Ash Fisher seems to like this bird as showing good Wilson’s features, and he knows more about these than most (me certainly), so I guess the only thing to do is to watch this space. If it was a Wilson’s, can I tick it? The irony of all this is that there may well have been a pukka Wilson’s on the isle, but that grey bird was never seen again…

Oct 4th. The weather is shite. Decided to read my book and stay in bed, then have a full English breakfast about 11am. This was followed by a team drinking session that lasted from about 2pm-1am. Not done that since I was a student, so feeling quietly pleased that there weren’t any nasty side-effects. Preached a little from the Bible (seriously, if you want a laugh, read Leviticus. Did you know that, as a Bible following Christian, you’re not allowed to eat (or even touch!) pork. Or rabbit. Or Red and Black Kites, eagles, vultures, ravens, Osprey, gulls, storks or Hoopoe – these are all specifically mentioned in the Bible, amazingly enough. Not sure what the poor Hoopoe ever did to offend God!?!), debated birds a lot and refrained from actually looking at birds a lot.

Team Foula was disbanded on Oct 5th, as Garry, Gav, Dan and Bill all left the isle to explore pastures new. Garry, Bill & Gav to do some birding on Shetland for a couple of days before heading home, while Dan was going to spend a few hours on Bressay before heading back to Glasgow. I suspect the Bressay list will have increased by at least one by the end of the day; such is the power of golden balls.

Team Foula relaxing. L-R: Garry Taylor, Me, Dan Brown, Gav Thomas, Bill Aspin.

Bill & Garry in repose

Gav and a Blackbird

Dan Dolittle and some chickens

The highlight of today for me was the small flock of islandica Common Redpolls at Leraback. A rostrata from Greenland had joined them on the 3rd, a pretty clear cut example of one. Today though, the flock had dwindled slightly and there was no sign of the obvious rostrata. The photos below show a selection of individuals of islandica, and the last two show a rather heavy thickset bird that could be a small pale rostrata, but I guess is more likely a large islandica.

I’m joined for my final week in Ristie by Mark Wilkinson, Kris Gibb and Ken Shaw, all decorated veterans of past Foula campaigns. Day 1 of week 4 has not started well, as I’m stuck in writing this and editing photos due to a howling NW gale and heavy showers that, looking out of the window, may only get worse. Hopefully the weather will abate a little after lunch; I’d like to get down the east cliffs to see if there is anything sheltering down them and to try and get decent images of the four borealis type Eiders that are present. Kris, being of much hardier Scottish stock than a weedy Midlander like me has ventured out.  No news from him yet… Mark is laid up in bed with a mystery bug. Hopefully it’s not related to the reappearance of Foula Mouse in Ristie. Rather like foxes and magpies, it seems that taking one out only encourages another to take its place. Foula Mouse should not be confused with Finger Mouse, the star of 80’s children’s TV. Foula Mouse differs in that it would likely object to having a finger stuck up its bum.

After an afternoon spent sheltering down various geos from the wind there is little to report. Eiders have declined noticeably, and there was no sign of any of the borealis types. The only migrant I saw down the cliffs was a fiery crested Goldcrest. Intriguingly, Andrew has seen a chat-like thing down at Punds very briefly and from the back end only. All he can say on the very poor view was that it was Bluethroat-like but not a Bluethroat. Perhaps it had a small red throat instead…

Oct 7th has arrived, and so have the westerly’s. A trek down to Punds revealed nothing more than a Blackcap and no sign of the hoped for Luscinia/Catharus, but a Sedge Warbler on the way down at Ham was new for the trip and gave hope for new arrivals today. Turned out that was the only new arrival! Finally went to the cemetery to see the Whinchat that’s been knocking about for several days and got some nice pics of it. The light was lovely and it took to perching on picturesque lichen covered headstones, so it’s a shame there wasn’t a better photographer than me on hand to pap it.

The final couple of days were very slow, and the wind has set into the west. The highlights were getting better views of the borealis type Eiders down near South Ness, along with a juv Glaucous Gull there and a female Gadwall on Mill Loch. Two Foula ticks!

Bottom right bird is a drake borealis, with orange bill and prominent sails. Bottom left drake is a probable borealis, with orange bill but slightly smaller sails. The slightly delayed moult out of eclipse may be a borealis feature?

Drake borealis. The orange bill is prominent here, and note the concave angle of the black feathering extending down the culman, forming a larger lobe/process/top bill bit.

Drake borealis on right, possible immature drake on right. Note the bill colour and the hint of sails developing on the immature.

Interesting orange-billed bird. No sails though.

Same as above. Note the good angle of the black culman feathering and the intensity of the bill colour.

Classic borealis at the back, partial one at the front.

Glaucous Gull

With the forecast predicting near gale force south easterlies on Friday, we decided to bail early and make a run south. I would have liked to have stayed on given the forecast obviously, but seeing as we need to be off on the Friday evening ferry to Aberdeen and the plane may not fly if the winds materialise, it makes sense to go. Don’t want to miss going to St Agnes next week…

Mystery skua

While bobbing around the North Sea, we do occasionally come across some interesting birds. Mostly these are just common birds in an unusual setting (like the flock of Grey Herons that flew past us the other day), but sometimes a bird makes you stop and think. On this occasion, I’d be very interested to hear what you make of this mystery bird, photographed a few days ago in the middle of the North Sea.

I’ll post the solution in a few days…

Morocco, June 3rd-10th 2012

After a large absence from blogland, I thought it was about time I updated this thing with some images from my recent trips. So first up is the most recent, a pretty successful trip to Morocco with Janne and Hanna Aalto. I’m not going to post a full trip report as Janne will be doing that shortly on his website, so keep an eye on http://www.caligata.com/ to see when the report goes up in the next few weeks or so.

A few weeks ago Janne asked me if i wanted to go on a “raid” to Morocco with them to look for a few target Western Paleartic species. After two previous trips to the country in Jan 2002 and March 2007, i had seen most things but still needed a few specialities, so it was easy decision to make the necessary arrangements to go. The added incentive that one of the targets was one of the most sought after of Western Palearctic species made the decision even easier. And what was that target….?

Andalusian Hemipode (aka the rather dully named Common Buttonquail). This species hangs on in the coastal strip south of El Jadidia, as described in the recent excellent article in Dutch Birding. Please don’t ask me exactly where this bird was, as i’ve been asked not to disclose it, so I wont. As you can see from the photo, it was actually in a maize field, hence we could see it along the large rides in the crop. What i will say is that although it calls regularly throughout the morning, it is incredibly quiet and difficult to hear. You have to be within 50 meters of the bird at the most, probably no more than 30 meters. It sounds like a distant cow mooing, with a hint of Bittern thrown in too, and is easily confused with distant cattle! When we heard the first one calling, i was genuinely confused as to whether it was the bird calling very close or a cow mooing from the nearby hillside. Anyway, what a bird, what a tick!

Other highlights were, in no particular order:

African Dunn’s Lark. One showed very well along the track to Cafe Yasmina near Merzouga. Look around the 9km mark before midday.

African Desert Warbler

Booiinngg!

Booooiiiiiiiiinnnnnngggggg!!!!

And this slideshow shows many of the other highlights of the week, including many Atlas Flycatchers, 8+ Eleonora’s Falcons, 2 Pharoah Eagle Owls, Tristram’s Warbler, Temminck’s Horned Lark, Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Bar-tailed Lark, White-headed Ducks, Black-crowned Tchagra and several Thick-billed Larks, plus many others. Enjoy! A full breakdown of species and the trip can be found at http://www.caligata.com/tripreports/en/marokko-3-9-6-2012-sisamaaretkeilya-talla-kertaa

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Langford Lowfields

Its the end of March and there are Ospreys and Garganey turning up all over the place. Ospreys especially seem to move through very quickly in spring, and i’ve never actually managed to luck in on finding one at this season. So as i’ve been roped in to doing a self-found year list again this year, I thought I’d go to my local RSPB reserve at Langford Lowfields in search of both Osprey and Garganey. For those that don’t know, Langford is situated adjacent to the Trent a few short miles north of Newark. In my last role at RSPB i was Restoration Advisor on the Nature After Minerals project and I used Langford as a case study on best practice in restoring quarries to nature conservation (see  http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/l/langfordlowfields/index.aspx and http://www.afterminerals.com/docs/langford%20lowfields.pdf for more info on the reserve, its history and its restoration). Its not currently open to the public as its actually still a working quarry, but as I used to work with the team there its a priviledge for me to be able to access the site. Everytime I visit there seems to be more of a transformation to a supreme wetland reserve, and its pretty mouth watering to look into the future here and think of extensive reedbeds, marsh and open water attracting all of the expected species. I wrote about it in Birds magazine recently too, so there’s no excuse not to be excited about it!

The birding Gods were against me today though, and my several hours on site failed to produce the hoped for Osprey or Garganey. However, the first bird i did see was this Peregine.

Some interesting barring on the rear flanks on this bird, wish I’d have seen it better in the field. Instead it was just a shape that I snapped away at and hoped for the best.

After this, there were at least three Little Ringed Plovers knocking around giving a taste of spring, and at least three Green Sandpipers were leftover from the winter.

Not the World’s greatest shot of LRP, but its my first of the year.

Around the edge of the site, the rough grassland is a haven for several Skylarks, and it was great to hear several males in territorial disputes.

This un-cropped Mute Swan did an incredibly close fly by at one point, and gave me probably my best flight shot of this species.

Away from the wetland, the hedgerows have a decent population of farmland birds, and a screen overlooks a feeding station where you can get great views of Tree Sparrows, Reed untings and Yellowhammers etc. This part of the reserve is accessible to the public, and you can also look over part of the wetland from here. A super site that will go from strength to strength, and will without doubt be the best site in Notts in a very short time.

Reed Bunting

Yellow Bunting