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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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A pr of Caucasian Snowcocks. Honest! 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Red-billed Chough

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Alpine Chough

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Caucasian Chiffchaff.

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Green Warbler

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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.

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Tawny Pipit

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Stone Curlew

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Unknown snake, it had a beautiful reddish colouration

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Roller

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Menetries Warbler

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Levant Sparrowhawk

Mantis-(2)

A mantis of some kind

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Levantine Viper

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Isabelline Wheatears

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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.

Israel, March 12-24 2013

Hi folks.

There are a couple of really good blogs out there at the moment with much better photos than me from Israel this spring, so please check out http://joshrjones.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://nubijar.blogspot.co.il/ for some great images of this springs birds from Josh and Yoav. But while you’re here, you might as read on… 😉

I was lucky enough to be leading the recent Sunbird tour to Israel, and went out a few days early to scout a few new sites. My time spent in the Nizzana area proved very fruitful, and then on the tour itself we managed to see some cracking birds. Hope you like the photos, some of which are more atmospheric than anything!

Pallid-Harrier-1
Pallid-Harrier-2A lovely male Pallid Harrier was the first bird I saw on my first morning in Israel. I didn’t see another in 2 weeks, but did manage to see 2 Hen Harriers. Go figure

Crowned-SandgrouseA flock of 9 Crowned Sandgrouse flew over Ezuz heading for Sinai. I also had a few hundred Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a couple of Spotted Sandgrouse here, just none when the group arrived! The classic case of “you should have been here yesterday!!”

White-storks-4 White-storks-3 White-storks-1 White-storks-2A distant cloud over Sinai turned into a large flock of White Storks, rising up out of the desert, before heading north low over me and providing a proper migration spectacle.

Macqueen's-Bustard-3

There’s a bustard in here somewhere..

Macqueen's-Bustard-2Ahah!

Macqueen's-Bustard

And eventually it showed quite well. This Macqueen’s Bustard is one of several in the area, and are probably the most well watched Macqueen’s in the World.

Short-toed-Eagle

A feature of the first few days were the numbers of Short-toed Eagles going north. I’ve never seen flocks of this species before, but there were almost enough in one view to be called a flock at one point.

Cattle-egret

Cattle Egret. Lets hope he doesn’t find any blood-sucking ticks down there!

Arabian-Babbler

Arabian Babblers are a great species to spend some time watching. They bounce around in family parties and provide great entertainment.

Brown-necked-Raven

I’ve never understood the difficulty in identifying Brown-necked Ravens. The brown neck is not always as obvious as it is here, but the thin wings and distinctly angled down head and bill in flight always draw attention. Plus they often seem to hold their bills slightly open, as if they’re regretting their decision to live in the desert and are panting in the heat! This one actually has a broken bill tip.

Pale-Rock-Sparrow-2 Pale-Rock-Sparrow-4

A major invasion of Pale Rock Sparrows was underway in southern Israel. We had about 3 singing males with no effort near Nizzana, then another 2 singing males in the hills NE of Jerusalem. They’re one of those birds that are just better in flight, with those white tail tips and their unusual bee-eater like flight call. I had flocks flying north over Ezuz, so guess that the invasion is still underway.

White-tailed-Plover

White-tailed Plover at km20 pools. This was the wader highlight of the trip for us, and showed better than this crappy shot suggests.

Sand-Partridge-2

Sand Partridge. Pretty common in the wadis around Eilat,

Steppe-Eagle

Interesting eagle. The pale chin and remnants of a pale underwing covert bar point to Steppe Eagle, but there seems to be a lack of/very faint bars on the primaries and I can’t see a dark trailing edge forming either, but this could be age related.

Scrub-Warbler-1Scrub Warbler. Small and spunky!

Little-Green-Bee-eaterLittle Green Bee-eater. I really like the isolated splash of colour that the bee-eater gives in this image.

Nubian-Nightjar-4Nubian Nightjar. The joint headline act of our nocturnal excursion to the southern Dead Sea area, with this nightjar performing admirably for us at Neot Hakikkar. This is the highly localised and Arava Valley endemic race of tamaricis, that if split as a new species will immediately become one of the World’s rarest and most threatened birds. My advice would be to go and see it soon! The Hume’s Owls also performed very well, and we saw a pair interacting that gave excellent scope views in the torchlight. Unfortunately my pictures just show a dark grainy blob that might also be a small, distant monkey, so I have elected to link to Yoav’s blog again http://nubijar.blogspot.co.il/search/label/Hume%27s%20Owl . Because of the strict restrictions in place for entering Israeli nature reserves at night (ie, you are not allowed, with fines and subsequently being ostracized from birding in place for those stupid enough to attempt to break the rules), the only way to see Hume’s Owl in Israel is as part of an organised tour with one of the lads from the Israel Ornithological Centre. The only time of year they do it is to coincide with the Eilat festival. So if you want to see these two Western Palearctic megas, then you simply have to go then. And if anyone says they can do it by wandering off into the desert with a torch, they can’t. And its illegal. Israel is not a country to start doing illegal stuff in!

Collared-Pratincole

Collared Pratincole, showed rather well!

Desert-Lark-2

Desert Lark

Common-Redstart-female

Common Redstart. This female is rather grey and is presumably of the race samamisicus.


Black-&-white-storksBlack Storks migrating past Mt Yorash. A tiny part of the 260 that flew past us in an hour, and with a White Stork tagging along.

Black-Stork-&-Steppe-Buzzards

Black Stork with 3 Steppe Buzzards.

Black-KitesBlack Kites

cropped-desert-wheatear-1.jpg

Desert Wheatear

BlackstartBlackstart. Its got a black start.

Mountain-Gazelle

Mountain Gazelle. A very range restricted species, with populations in and immediately around Israel.

Hula-Valley

The Hula Valley. Jungle Cat stalked just out of shot to the left!

Cranes Cranes-2 Cranes-and-Short-toed-Eagle

Common Cranes over the Hula Valley. A magical sight as they come into roost.

Griffon-VultureGriffon Vulture

Egyptian-Vulture-4 Egyptian-Vulture-3Egyptian Vulture. Really close flyby’s at Gamla.

White Storks piling back into the Hula Valley

For next years Sunbird trip, keep an eye on http://sunbirdtours.co.uk/

St Agnes, Isles of Scilly Oct 2012

Again, this is a catch up post from last year. After a hiatus of too many years, I got myself down to the Isles of Scilly last autumn. I’d always said that if I went back, I’d want to stay on St Agnes, so when Ken Shaw offered me a bed at his place I jumped at the chance. There was even space for my old Finnish friend Janne Aalto and his mate Oriel Clarabuch from Catalonia. A pretty international team! The weather forecast looked amazing in the preceeding few days, with a fast moving air stream coming straight to Scilly from the good ol’ USA. A Solitary Sandpiper on St Mary’s and a Blackpoll Warbler on Bryher were only a taste of things to come…

Except they weren’t. We dipped the Solitary and the Blackpoll (twice!), but had a great time on St Agnes over the week. Nothing absolutely outstanding, but I got a find tick in the pallid form a Booted Warbler, and we had some good birding.

Cove-Vean-from-Gugh

St Agnes, as viewed from Gugh.

Richard's-Pipit-(1)

Richard’s Pipit.

Coal-Tit-(4)

Coal Tit. Up to about 24 were on the island, and this was the outstounding ornithological event of the autumn on St Agnes. They were an Aggie tick for many birders who’d been going there years!

Car-&-lichen

Local transport links were an issue at times.

Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (4) Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (5) Booted Wblr, Cove Vean, St Agnes, 20 Oct 2012 (6)

Booted Warbler. The highlight of my autumn I think, as find ticks are hard to come by nowadays. Really good to compare this to the Sykes’s Warbler we had on Foula in September, and the differences should be obvious…

Booted-Warbler-twitchers-(1

Booted Warbler twitchers. A nice small group of Aggie birders.

Booted-Warbler-twitchers-(2

Then the masses from St Mary’s arrived!

Rose-coloured-Starling-(2)

Rose-coloured Starling. I’d been looking for this all morning after failing to be the one to find it. Then I sat down for some lunch in the cafe and it flew in right next to me!

Marsh-Wblr-(2)

Marsh Warbler. Always nice, and rounded off my acro autumn quite nicely.

Greenshank-(3)

Greenshank on Lower Moors, while dipping Solitary Sandpiper.

Common-Snipe-(grey-looking-

Two rather grey-looking Common Snipe. (Un)fortunately, they lifted their wings to reveal perfectly standard Common Snipe patterning.

It was great to be able to properly work St Agnes, and I’ll certainly be going back in 2013. Hopefully we can recreate the glory years of Aggie then…?

Georgia, April 2012 – the high Caucasus.

Yes, I know this is a tad late, but I’m doing preparation for my next trip to Georgia at the moment and I suddenly realised that I hadn’t done a blog post on last years trip! I’ll not write reams on it, suffice to say that it was a very successful trip that scored all of the endemics and more. Unfortunately, I seemed to fail to get decent pictures of most things, but I’ll upload a few of the less bad ones. Scenery 7 Scenery-2 Scenery-6 Scenery-3

Four images showing the entrance to the Kazbegi valley area, then going into the valley. Truly spectacular scenery. The final shot shows some of the Buckthorn that covers large areas of the valley bottom and lower slopes. The Buckthorn is great for migrants and Guldenstadt’s Redstart.

Guldenstadt's-Redstart-2 Guldenstadt's-Redstart-1

Guldenstadt’s Redstart. One of the most stunning birds in the Western Palearctic. On our first day we saw up to 15 of them in the roadside buckthorn, then followed that up with regular sightings thereafter. By visiting in late April, the snow should still be extensive at higher altitudes, forcing the redstarts lower, and so it proved for us. Many birders go in the summer when they are breeding at very high altitudes and demand a potentially gruelling hike to find just one or two.  Unfortunately for me, every time I tried to digiscope the close showy ones, they buggered off!

Caucasian Black Grouse. Two males sizing each other up. We had good views of several males and a couple of females just outside where we were staying. Lekking behaviour was also seen. Again, those that go later in the season can really struggle to connect with this iconic species as they disappear into the rapidly lengthening grasses and low shrubs.

Caucasian Snowcock. Currently the only true endemic to the Caucasus range, views are always a bit distant but perfectly acceptable through the scope. After a bit of a worrisome first afternoon when we heard and saw nothing, we then found 5-6 on the slopes behind our hotel.

Caucasian-Chiffchaff

Caucasian Chiffchaff. Call is surprisingly different from Common Chiffchaff.

Caucasian Great Rosfinch 1

Caucasian Great Rosefinch. A pr flew in and landed within 20 meters of us. Stunning views of what may prove to be another endemic of these mountains. At the moment, its considered to be part of the Eastern Great Rosefinch, but its isolated from that by several 1000km. Don’t think there is much chance of them meeting either…!!

Lammegier

Lammegier. An adult, and a species we saw multiple times every day. This must be the best location in the Western Palearctic for them, especially considering the views that you can get.

Wallcreeper-3 Wallcreeper-1 Wallcreeper-4 Wallcreeper-2

Wallcreeper. We found 5 birds in the valley, including one on the roadside from the van! Again, this is a fantastic place to see this charismatic species. The top bird was in a dry river bed and was nesting in a low cliff next to the track. The bottom image shows how good the camouflage of Wallcreeper is. They can be incredibly hard to find, and its only the constant wing flicking that makes them stand out.

Red-fronted-Serin

Red-fronted Serin. A very bad shot of what is a common bird up there.

Twite

Twite. The local race is a lot paler, with some interesting dark speckling on the chest. Still has a lovely pink rump though. Pretty common here too.

Black Redstart 2.1 Black Redstart 1

Black Redstarts. These are of the race ohruros, and are something of an intermediate between eastern and western populations. The amount of red on the belly of birds around Kazbegi is variable, although obviously trying to decide which are local breeders and which are migrants is impossible in a short visit. Note the white wing flash on the lower bird, which is absent on eastern birds and should be absent on ohruros too. Some birds here had much less red, and were pretty much identical to gibraltarensis, just without the white wing flash. An interesting species!

Gravestones around Kazbegi (1)

Local headstones carry an amazingly accurate image of the deceased. Its actually fascinating to see, and the artwork is amazing.

Yellow-Wagtail-thunbergi-3

Yellow-Wagtail-beema-or-fla

Migrants pass through in large numbers, depending on the weather. We were unlucky last year, but still managed to see a few Yellow Wagtails of three races (thunbergi and beema above – there were also several feldegg),  plus Red-breasted Flycatcher, a brief Semi-collared Flycatcher, Green Warbler and Red-throated Pipits.

Black-KiteRaptors were passing through in good numbers. As we first approached the Kazbegi area and went over the high pass, I looked up to see long lines of raptors moving through at high altitude. Steppe Buzzards, Montagu’s Harriers, Steppe Eagle, Black Kites, Booted Eagle, a Pallid Harrier and more all piled through. Truly amazing, and I failed to get any usable shots of it! Some of the Black Kites came lower and like the one above, showed features of lineatus (“Black-eared” Kite) of Central and East Asia. The white primary window could do with being bigger, but its part the way there. Intergrades??

Long-tailed-Tit

Heading back to Tbilisi, we stopped off to try and see some woodland birds in the huge and impressive beech woodlands that cover the foothills of the Caucasus. The only thing i managed to photograph was this Long-tailed Tit! Note the white head of this bird, which should be of the dark headed Turkish/Caucasian race.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe.

Menetries-Warbler-2 Menetries-Warbler

We then moved into the steppe-like area of Chachuna for a complete change in habitat. Lots of dry country species here, and our species count of raptors on our first day there was incredible. Eagles, harriers, buzzards, kites, falcons and more all moved north on a broad front. Once at Chachuna, we realised that Menetries Warbler was pretty common and with patience gave good views.

Eastern-Imperial-Eagle

Eastern Imperial Eagle. A pr were nesting close to where we stay.

Osprey

Osprey. Another migrant raptor heading low north after stopping to fish in the reservoir at Chachuna.

Lesser-Spotted-Eagle-and-Mo

Montagu’s Harrier attacking Lesser Spotted Eagle. These two species were breeding close to each other. Too close for comfort for the male Monty’s!

Georgia is a great place, the birding is excellent with some real Western Palearctic (and even a couple of Global) specialities, and the people are incredibly friendly. The Caucasus certainly deserve more attention on the birding scene, so I intend to spend a bit of time exploring over there over the coming few years. Just look at a map of the area and start to drool over what could be moving through on migration.

I’ll be leading a Sunbird tour out there in late April, and there are still a couple of places left. See http://www.sunbirdtours.co.uk/tours/georgia-high-caucasus/  for details.

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.

Reunion-Stonechat-male

Reunion Stonechat, male

Reunion-Stonechat-female

Reunion Stonechat. female

Reunion-Olive-White-eye

Reunion Olive White-eye

Reunion-Grey-White-eye

Reunion Grey White-eye

Reunion-Bulbul

Reunion Bulbul

Mascarene-Paradise-Flycatch

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

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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.

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Red-shouldered Vanga, male

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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

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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.