Monday, 21 May 2018

The trip to Tory - part two

The next morning we were all up and out by 7am for more Corncrake photography and to check for migrants. On Tory, the most obvious place to check is the famous 'Magic Bush'. It has previously hosted such mega rarities as Paddyfield Warbler and Collared Flycatcher. However, this morning it was a lot more modest with just Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. A Corncrake sang from the nettles clumps in the adjacent paddock (we called him Peadair!). 

The famous 'Magic Bush'
We stopped for breakfast at 9.30am and then met up at the pier for 10.30am where Rob had organised a boat trip to look for White-billed Diver.

Our vessel for the day - The Laura Dean

The boat took us east along the southern edge of Tory and rounded the cliffs at the easterly end which is called Tormor. We had great views of the many Puffins on sea as well as Razorbills, Guillemots (including some ‘bridled’ birds) and Kittiwakes. After that we headed out into the sound between the Donegal mainland and Tory Island itself to look for White-billed Divers. Despite the numerous pairs of eyes on board, we struggled to see anything. We had Ger Murray with a scope on the island guiding us via mobile phone to a diver that was 600 metres or so in front of us but we couldn’t find it. I guess between the pitching boat in a heavy swell and the bird itself diving, we missed it. By 2pm we were all getting a little despondent and some were getting a little queasy when Polina livened up proceedings by chucking bits of her baguette off the back of the boat. This brought in a good few hungry gulls including one 3 cy (?) Iceland Gull and then several very brutish Great Skuas. We all ended up chucking our lunches away just to keep the show going – I even sacrificed a bag of Tayto Snax!

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Scrambling for some baguette

Great Skua joins the melee

Great Skua
We returned to Tory Island at 5pm and spent the remaining hours between then and dinner with the Corncrakes where I managed to get a few more decent shots – I think it was the same bird from the previous day (which at this stage I had christened Liam). He was craking loudly from a small clump of nettles in the corner of a little paddock just off the main street of west town. After a lengthy wait he broke cover from his nettle bed, paused briefly on the stone wall before slipping over the other side and out of site. He seemed to have a circuit and I figured that if you waited in the one spot for long enough, he’d eventually pass your way.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
That night we had dinner in the hotel which was relatively quiet at first but, a combination of a stag do, a bunch of first Holy Communions and a reception for the Donegal Rose (who happens to be from Tory Island) meant the place was jammed by 11pm.

A thorn amongst the Roses!

Good and all as the atmos’ in the hotel bar was, I knew that one more beer might be the tipping point, so we baled out at around 11.30pm and headed back to the B&B. I slept soundly until 7am although Nick was once again awakened at 5am by the Corncrake at the rear of the B&B – can’t say I’d be too upset with that type of alarm call. (we incidentally decided that this particular Crake was called Padraig).

Sunday, 20 May 2018

The trip to Tory - part one

I had often thought about a trip to Tory Island to see and photograph Corncrake but had never gotten around to it. Each year would pass and I'd leave it too late to organise a trip. However, this time I had Robert Vaughan working on me and he did a very effective job at talking me into going - and how glad I am that he did!
Tory Island is about ten miles off the north Donegal coast. Its about about three miles long and half and mile wide. Approximately one hundred people still live there and as its a Gaeltacht region, Irish is the main language spoken. Its one of the few remaining places in Ireland where its still possible to see Corncrakes. I had never seen one in Ireland (in fact last summer in Latvia was the the first time I ever saw one although I had heard them on a number of occassions in Sligo, Donegal and Latvia). We visited from the 4th to 7th May coinciding our time there with the initial arrival of Corncrakes and relatively low cover thereby improving our chances of seeing them.
On the morning of the 4th May, Nick picked Polina and I up at 4am. P snoozed in the back while Nick and I caught up on the latest birding gossip. We fortified ourselves with a hearty ‘full English’ at Stansted Airport before boarding our flight to Ireland.
We arrived to a dull and windy Knock, picked up our rental car and drove north towards Magheraroarty, Co. Donegal with plenty of time for the 4pm ferry to Tory Island. We stopped for provisions in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo – stocking up with Tayto Cheese and Onion (what else!!).
We were welcomed to the pier at Magheraroarty by the sounds of flight displaying Rock Pipits, several Swallows moving through as they headed north and two almost summer plumaged Great Northern Divers snorkelling in the harbour.

Great Northern Diver, Magheraroarty, Co. Donegal

The crossing to Tory was pretty bumpy to say the least! Nick picked up a single Sandwich Tern but otherwise apart from a couple of Manxies, Kittiwakes and Gannets, it was uneventful bird-wise.
At Tory harbour, two male Eiders slept on the rocks as the ferry pulled in. We gathered our luggage together and trudged through West Town to our B&B.

Polina trudges through downtown 'West Town'
As we passed a small derelict cottage by the road, a Corncrake started ‘craking’ from the other side of the stone wall. 

I stopped to listen and suddenly realised he was sitting only fifteen feet away on the stone wall of the cottage. Fortunately, I had my camera with 100-400mm lens on my shoulder so I managed a few shots before he slipped down the wall and into the nettles. Talk about being lucky! Even though it wasn’t with my 500mm prime, a couple of the shots were pretty good. I could have turned around and gone home happy at that stage if I wanted.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal - 4th May 2018
We dropped our stuff at the B&B and Polina and I headed back to the same spot to try for more Corncrake shots while Nick birded the west of the island. 

Waiting for Mr. Crex!

Polina also waiting for Mr. Crex
We didn’t have any further luck with the Corncrake and at 7pm we called time and convened to the local pub for refreshment.
We were joined by Rob Vaughan and his partner Sara and also Irish birders Brian McCloskey and Ger Murray. Despite the long day we stayed in the pub until nearly midnight (it was only getting going at that stage!) and enjoyed some great craic and birding gossip over a few creamy pints.

A cheeky pint of the black stuff!

A little later - L-R: Brian McCloskey, Ger Murray, Sara Sirtoli, Rob Vaughan, Polina Kasapova and Graham Clarke

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Western Sahara - the final part

Sad to report that the next morning was no better, despite near perfect weather conditions the Nightjars remained out of sight. Two birds sang briefly before the sun rose, we returned dejectedly to Aousserd for breakfast. Around the house that morning we had a singing White-crowned Black Wheatear, a Woodchat Shrike, several House Martins and four Black Kites. As there was a military base and UN base nearby we thought better than to wave our large lenses about - so no photos.
So having dipped on Sudan Golden Sparrow and Golden Nightjar, it was really important for morale to see African Desert Warbler and find Royal Tern. I think if we left Western Sahara without seeing those birds too it would put a real damper on what had been otherwise an excellent week.
We checked a site for African Desert Warbler that the Dutch guys had given us and failed to see or hear anything - I was really starting to despair at that stage. We drove back along the road and checked the same site we had been to a few days earlier (where we had also drawn a blank) and thankfully this time we had a singing male...phew! It kept its distance but still gave great views as it sang from the top of the small desert bushes.

The ultimate record shot - African Desert Warbler
A little further along the road we had a couple of Long-legged Buzzards feeding on a deceased Desert Hare.

Long-legged Buzzard (cirtensis) - Western Sahara
Birds in this region are a sub-species called cirtensis. Slightly smaller than the nominate race, pale-headed with a pale rump band and a rufous tail.
We stopped for one final check around the water tower at Tachaktant, the winds had switched around from north to south and there appeared to be far less migrants present. Although there was a female Bluethroat, two LRPs, two Spanish Wagtails and this very dark Sardinian Warbler.

Dark looking Sardianian Warbler - Tachaktant
I also came across this Chameleon walking out in the open - even more bizzare looking when they aren't clinging to a branch.

Chameleon spp.
And also a pair of Thick-billed Larks dropped in for a drink.

Thick-billed Lark, Tachkatant, Western Sahara
We enjoyed a final lunch before heading back to Dahkla.

So, we still had one last bird to try for............Royal Tern. Once again we had directions from the Dutch guys, it was now or never! And this time our luck was in - just one bird resting on the sand below the cliffs at the 20km marker on the road out of Dahkla - but you only need one bird right?

His Royal Highness!
And while we were at it there was this dark Western Reef Heron too!

Dark morph Wester Reef Heron
And the only 'quack' of the trip - Pintail.

Drake Pintail and three 'lady' Pintails
And that was it - back to the hotel and farewell to Nico and his crew. Which by the way I would like to heartily recommend and endorse Dahkla Rovers. Nico and Martina were excellent, we were well taken care of in all respects.
We totted up our list over some local beer that evening and voted Sand Cat as 'Bird of the trip'!

The local poison - Casablanca
A Stone Curlew at the airport the following morning brought our trip list to 101 - quality over quantity maybe. A pity to miss Golden Nightjar and Sudan Golden Sparrow but we compensated a little with some unexpected bonuses such as Scops Owl and snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat on the final day with Royal Tern and African Desert Warbler. For me I will never forget the morning I spent at Mijk Farm sitting beneath an Acacia tree as Bluethroats, Olivaceous Warblers, Subalpine Warblers, Wrynecks, Bee-eaters and Woodchats buzzed about me - that's what birding is about for me and it will go down as one of my most memorable birding moments ever!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Western Sahara - part five

5am came around pretty quickly and soon we found ourselves back at the Oued Jenna wadi standing silently in the darkness listening and hoping for Golden Nightjar. However there was neither sight nor sound. When the sun came up we decided to use the cool of the morning to bird the wadi - which turned out to be a good strategy. The place was heaving with migrants - mainly Western Olivaceous Warblers, Western Subalpine Warblers and Western Orphean Warblers.

Western Olivaceous Warbler
We had a good candidate for Moltoni's Warbler but the call was not quite right. We bumped into our Dutch buddies and birded with them until around 11am.

Our by now regular birding companions from Holland
Highlight of the morning was a fine Pharoah Eagle Owl - wish I had been a bit quicker with the camera though!
We returned to our digs in Aousserd and took brunch. The heat, the travelling, the long days and early starts were taking their toll on us all and we elected to skip the midday heat and enjoy a siesta. That was a good idea but we followed that up with another few hours back at Oued Jenna searching for Sudan Golden Sparrows and by evening time I was really shattered.....and we were 'sparrow-less'.

Oued Jenna wadi
Fortunately Nico had packed some emergency chocolate cake - while we waited for it to get dark we polished off the cake, drank a few gallons of water, rested a little and got ready for the Golden Nightjars to perform.

X marks the spot - or in this case a red rag marks the Golden Nightjar spot on the Aousserd road - thanks to whomever left this

All set for Nightjarring - my wife said I looked like a Minion!
And while we waited we had two Melodious Warblers feeding in Acacia trees beside where we had parked.

Melodious Warbler
We had two Golden Nightjars singing - one either side of the road, but we didn't see any unfortunately. There are proably a few more in the Oued Jenna wadi if you were to walk further into it after dark.

A lonely figure under the blue moon

We knocked it on the head at around 10pm and would give it one last go the next morning - alarms set for 6am..........and fingers crossed for Golden Nightjar!

Monday, 9 April 2018

Western Sahara- part four

All good things come to an end and eventually we had to leave Mijk Farm and continue on towards Aousserd. Any traces of greenery disappeared and we were soon out in the desert good and proper!

We stopped briefly to check out these very elegant Cream-coloured Coursers.

Cream-coloured Courser
Next up was a site for African Dunn's Lark. Locating the birds was relatively straight-forward but taking photos was tricky. Apart from the strong light, the heat was now really building up - even kneeling on the sand was burning my knees.

African Dunn's Lark
Although perfectly adapted to life in the desert even they sought out whatever shade they could find, often stopping under a tussock of grass to escape the searing heat.
The heat didn't seem to bother these guys though!

Unable to stick the heat any longer, we piled back into our 4x4, turned the AC up full and continued along the Aousserd road towards a set of gps coordinates we had for African Desert Warbler.
Unfortunately we failed to see or hear any of the small Sylvias and the heat was really packing a punch by now. We trudged around for over an hour before throwing in the towel.

Nick and camel (camel on the left!)
En route to Aousserd we stopped off for a quick punt around the Oued Jenna wadi, thankfully it had cooled down a little and while we didn't see any Sudan Golden Sparrows we did have two Cricket Warblers and a small party of Fulvous Babblers.

Cricket Warbler, Oued Jenna, Western Sahara

Fulvous Babbler - Oued Jenna, Western Sahara
We pitched in at our house in Aousserd, ate dinner and then went spot-lighting for Sand Cat and other night-time goodies.

Home for the next three days - Aousserd, Western Sahara
Dinner time!

Spotlighting on the Aousserd Road

Nico and Nick check their shots
Our luck was really in when we came across this stunning Sand Cat watching us from about 80 yards in off the road. A truly beautiful creature.

Sand Cat by Nick Watmough (even my iphone photo from the back of Nick's camera shows how beautiful they are)
And in close second place was this impressive Sand Viper - photo taken with a long lens - from far back.....very far back !!!

Sand Viper

 At least this Gecko was a little less terrifying!

Gecko spp.

We got home around midnight and crashed. Alarms set for a 5am rendevous at Oued Jenna with Golden Nightjars.