Sunday, 19 January 2020

A two-tick start to 2020

I had rounded off 2019 by birding at the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Even in just shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops I had struggled with the heat and humidity.
A few days later, back in Norfolk and normal service was resumed - thermals, gloves, beanie, four-layers of clothing and a flask of hot coffee! Still, the birds were worth the cold!
On Saturday 4th January, I started my 2020 birding with a lifer. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail was still present on its favoured dung heap near Sedgefield. I popped up there around midday and when I arrived it was feeding in the puddles within ten to fifteen feet of where a small group of birders were stood.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail - Sedgefield, Norfolk - 4th January 2020
It took flight a couple of times before alightening near or on the dung heap. Its call is distinctive. I guess, for a mere mortal like me, if I didn't hear it call I might easily see this as an over-wintering Blue-headed Wagtail. But, the raspy call will tell you its much more than that. I had seen an Eastern Yellow Wagtail species in 2015 on Fair Isle. I don't know what became of that record. I think being a 1st winter bird, it was not assigned to any race of EYW and I hadn't ticked it.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail spp., Fair Isle, September 2015

The Sedgefield bird though is a male of the nominate race tschutschensis of Eastern Yellow Wagtail and is now very much on my life list!

The next day I drove over to Whipsnade Zoo in Dunstable for the by now famous Black-throated Thrush. When Black-throated Thrushes do turn up they are typically 1st winter birds and they certainly don't show as well as this fine male bird did. Plus, it was a lifer! So, neither the drive nor the zoo's entrance fee deterred me one bit.
The light was dreadful, but the bird was really obliging. Regularily feeding in full view in its favourite Cotoneaster tree or for a change of diet, pulling up earthworms in the adjacent pig pens.

Black-throated Thrush - Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable, Beds. 5th January 2020

 Its still the first week of January but I may already have seen my 2020 Bird of Year!

A taste of Asia

Ten days before Christmas myself and Polina left the damp, grey and cold of Norfolk and headed for a much anticipated (and much needed) break in South-east Asia. Taking in Bangkok, Phuket, a cruise on a sailing ship along the coast of Thailand and Malaysia with stops in Penang and Malacca before docking in Singapore just in time to see in 2020.
It wasn't a birding trip so most of what I saw was from the pool-side at our hotel in Phuket and around the hotel gardens. I managed the easy stuff......Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Chinese Pond Heron, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Spotted Dove, Olive-backed Sunbird, Tree Sparrow, Little Egret, Common Myna and Germain's Swiftlet. When the morning would heat up the soaring kettles of Asian Openbills were impressive.
At sea, it was disappointing birdwise, a few distant Tropicbirds and what I think were Bridled Terns in the straits of Malacca - but they were distant and the amount of plastic flotsam and jetsam floating on the ocean was depressing!
In Singapore I managed to fit in a day at the Botanic Gardens. I joined the Singapore Birders Facebook page and got useful advise from there about birding the Botanic Gardens. The best advise was to start early, before the crowds and before the heat. I took the MRT (Singapore underground) from our hotel at Clarke's Quay to the front gates of the Gardens, I arrived just as the sun was rising.
First bird was Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, followed by the ubiquitous Red Junglefowl and Common Myna.

Cocka-doddle-do. Red Junglefowl

Common Myna
I strolled around Eco Lake where I had Common Flameback and Oriental Magpie Robin.

Oriental Magpie Robin
A little further on I enjoyed White-breasted Waterhen and Pink-necked Green Pigeon. Then I came across the first of two wintering Arctic Warblers. Obviously as a UK based birder I was pleased to see one of these, I rather hoped for Eastern Crowned Warbler too but no joy there. Whilst I watched that (and while the local Mosquito's started to enjoy my sweet Irish blood), I had Common Kingfisher and Yellow Bittern.

Yellow Bitterm - Singapore Botanic Gardens - 31 December 2019

The Gardens are huge and I didn't want to spend all my time in the one place. I decided to try and walk to some of the other lakes and stop where ever I saw some nice habitat.
I found a quiet little shady glade where I chanced upon a very obliging Asian Brown Flycatcher. Again, as a UK based birder this is a species of interest to me.

Asian Brown Flycatcher - Singapore Botanic Gardens - 31 December 2019
At the Symphony Lake, I picked up a nice White-throated Kingfisher.

White-throated Kingfisher
I birded for one more hour adding Hill Myna, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-naped Oriole, Crimson Sunbird, Asian Palm Swift, Edible-nest Swiftlet and Asian Glossy Starling to my Singapore list! The heat and humidity put a stop to play at lunchtime but it was still a very nice way to round off the year's birding!

Saturday, 23 November 2019

A little drop left in the bottle!

The clocks may have gone back and we may be just five weeks away from Christmas but there's still a little trickle of Autumn left!
On Saturday, James Appleton had found a late Yellow-browed Warbler along the path to the old coast-watch buildings at Happisburgh. Hot on the heels of a notable arrival of Hume's Warblers that week, it must've got his pulse quickening! For me, it didn't seem right to let the autumn slip away without seeing a Yellow-browed Warbler, so we made Happisburgh the first stop on Sunday morning.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Happisburgh, Norfolk
Just before the coast watch Nick picked up this Woodcock as it came in off the sea and made its way hurriedly inland.

Incoming Woodcock!
We completed a full circuit of the village before making our customary pit-stop at the excellent Kingfisher Cafe in Walcott (I've yet to come across a better full English!) and then headed towards Cley to see the long-staying Isabelline Wheatear (an excellent find by Mark Golley).
At Cley, a small crowd was gathered on the south-facing slopes overlooking Arnold's Marsh. The Wheatear was on the nearby shingle bank but soon returned to wooden gates where it spent most of its time perched on or preening. It once or twice dropped down on the short turf and bounded around looking for food. It did look a little listless at the time, but one week on its still surviving so possibly those mealworms are keeping it going!

Isabelline Wheatear, Cley, Norfolk - November 2019
Time and light was running out. We would have loved to have taken in the Hume's Warbler at Holkham but opted instead for the Rough-legged Buzzard at Wells (perhaps we should have skipped the full English earlier). The Buzzard was distant, but perched in beautiful sunlight. My crappy shot doesn't do it any justice, a stunning looking raptor and a great bird to complete the autumn!

Rough-legged Buzzard, Wells, Norfolk

Autumn and Cape Clear - Part 2

By morning time the rain had cleared although the wind was brisk. Brian, myself and Nick squeezed in a little pre-breakfast birding, but it was fairly quiet.
I've stayed before at the Ard na Gaoithe B&B and one of the highlights (for me at least) are the hearty full Irish breakfasts. One of these will keep you going for the entire day!

The full Cape Clear!

By the time we'd finished breakfast and phoned KLM / Aer Lingus looking for updates on our missing luggage, Victor Cashera had found a yellow hippo in Michael Vincent's garden and Dick Coombes had found a Wryneck on the High Road to Lough Errul. So it seemed an obvious decision to head over to that side of the island. Unfortunately we didn't see the Wryneck and the hippo had disappearred into the field of gorse opposite Michael Vincent's. At this stage it's identification as Melodious or Icterine was unknown. Brian and I birded down through Olly gulley whilst Nick continued on towards the Wheatear field. None of us turned up anything of significance.
In the afternoon we birded the east side of the island, we had a little of note but did manage to connect with Firecrest at the Post Office which had been found a few days previously.

Firecrest, Post Office, Cape Clear Island, Cork

North Harbour Cape Clear as viewed from the A1

The day's weather (Saturday) was a big improvement on previous days and hopes were that if anything had reached the island during those few days of strong westerlies and heavy rain then today was the day it would be found.
After breakfast we meandered over towards the western side of the island intending to check Olly Gulley and the bogs for new arrivals. This time we managed to see the Wryneck along the High Road and had just arrived at Michael Vincent's hoping to see the Melodious / Icterine when news on the Irish Birders Whatsapp group came up............. 'REV in the priest's garden'. So, cue a mass exodus of birders from the area!
By the time we arrived it had relocated to the Youth Hostel garden and whilst the majority of birders present got to see it as it foraged through a small sycamore in the garden, I didn't see it at all. And then it just seemed to vanish! Most people then trooped off to Siopa Beag to watch the Ireland v. Samoa Rugby World Cup match but I preferred to stay and search for the REV. Fortunately Tom Shevlin picked it up again in the bracken covered slope at the back of the Priest's garden and both him and I enjoyed views down to about 10 feet!

Red-eyed Vireo, Cape Clear Island, Cork

Red-eyed Vireo, Cape Clear Island, Cork

Catching gnats - Red-eyed Vireo, Cork
I was more than happy with the views I got and decided to spend some time with the Melodious / Icterine in Michael Vincent's to see if I could get any shots that would assist with its identification.
Michael Vincent's garden is pretty overgrown, I remember twitching a Myrtle Warbler there in 2010 and it being full of cats but Michael Vincent himself passed on a few years ago and while there are now no cats, there is lots more cover. 
I eventually got a brief view of the bird as it paused on a low pine branch, sadly though a frond of grass obscured my shot and the bird's angle didn't quite give away the length of the primary projection. However, I could see these blueish / grey legs and a head shape, that for me away, reminded me of the many Icterine's I'd seen in Latvia.

Melodious / Icterine Warbler, Michael Vincent's garden, Cape Clear Island

I met with Nick and we both headed back via the High Road to the B&B. Passing near where the Wryneck had been earlier Nick spotted the bird perched atop a small gorse bush. It dropped down out of view behind a stone wall but soon popped out in the open feeding within 20 feet of the road. Affording me the best views of any Wryneck I've ever seen in Ireland.*

Wryneck - High Road, Cape Clear Island

Wryneck - High Road, Cape Clear Island

Cotter's Bar was buzzing that night. Stuart McKee had compiled a great wee video account of his times birding on Cape during the 80's, 90's and early 00's. I hope it appears on Youtube some day.

A captive audience enjoys 'Stuartie's' excellent documentary

A creamy pint of Murphy's to celebrate a great day of Cape birding - REV, Melodious and Wryneck (Seamus Feeney looking deep in thought beside me!)
On our final day Sunday we tried for better shots of the REV which by now had relocated to a circuit around Brid's garden. This was the best image I could manage.

Meanwhile, better views were had of the Melodious / Icterine Warbler. Despite the blue / grey legs and hint of a pale secondary panel, a short primary projection confirmed that it was a Melodious Warbler - like REV, only my second in Ireland so an equally good bird in that respect.
We caught the 4pm ferry off Cape and overnighted in Cork city. Nick took an early flight back to Heathrow whilst I still had a time to bird Galley Head before an evening flight back to Norwich via Amsterdam. A few Blackcaps were the best on Galley but it was excellent to bump into Galley Head residents Ciaran Cronin and Colin Barton.

Ciaran Cronin (and daughter), Colin Barton and myself

*Footnote here - I've only seen three Wrynecks in Ireland and they've all been on Cape Clear Island.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Autumn and Cape Clear Island - Part 1

It had been 7 long years since I last set foot on Cape Clear Island and in Nick’s case 23 long years. Last year’s futile effort to get there was put to the side and on Thursday 10th October 2019 we travelled from Norwich to Cork via Amsterdam arriving in Cork airport at 10am that morning. 

Aer Lingus flight from Amsterdam to Cork awaiting our arrival!

Sadly though, our luggage decided to spend the weekend in Amsterdam! That necessitated a stop-off in the town of Bandon en route to the Cape Clear ferry in Baltimore to buy socks, jocks, waterproofs and thermals – you don’t do Cape without rainwear!
Anyway – we made a detour to Toe Head, a place I hadn’t birded previously, but has a track record for American migrants (Common Yellowthroat and REV). We arrived just as a band of thick misty rain swept off the Atlantic, our new waterproofs were put to the test. By the time we reached the last garden the rain finally stopped and I managed to dig out a Lesser Whitethroat and on the road between Toe and Skibbereen we came across this rather tame (and presumably fresh-in) Turtle Dove.

Turtle Dove, Toe Head, Cork - October 2019
We reached Baltimore in plenty of time for the 5.30pm ferry to Cape and rendezvoused with my old mate Brian Lynch, whom I hadn’t seen since I left Cork in 2013.

Cape Clear Ferry

We were met at the pier on Cape by Mary Cadogan (Cape Clear’s bus driver and finder of Ireland’s first Veery). She dropped us up to our base for the next few days, the Ard na Gaoithe B&B on the Lighthouse Road. Thankfully Triona Leonard had a full fire going so we were able to dry our soggy boots!
We changed quickly before heading back down the road to Cotter’s bar. Despite the fact that they weren’t doing food that night, they took pity on us and rustled up some fish and chips! I think it’d be hard to find hospitality like that in many other places……and even harder to find such good pint of Murphy’s.

Bird warden Steve Wing calls the log in Cotter's Bar, Cape Clear Island

That night I awoke to the sound of the wind and rain lashing against my bedroom window. All that separated me in my cosy bedroom from the Atlantic and beyond was a mile or so of fields and bog. I peered out into the darkness and could make out the reassuring beam of Fastnet lighthouse. Fingers crossed that it was guiding some North American waif onto the island!

Kuwait - Part 8

The final day of our trip started with a return visit to the excellent Liyah reserve. The weather was thankfully cooler than previous days with a spot of rain too. Migrants were plentiful with a decent sized flock of Ortolan Buntings, a lifer in Eastern Orphean Warbler, lots of Blackcaps, Willow Warblers (which were now clearly on the move), a lot more female Common Redstarts, yet more White-throated Robins and a single Roller.
I spent the time there trying to get shots of this beautiful Isabelline Shrike. It was very busy hunting lizards and doing pretty well in the process.

Isabelline Shrike, Liyah Reserve, Kuwait

From Liyah we were city bound once more stopping at Green Island for Red-vented Bulbul.

Red-vented Bulbul agaist the Kuwait City skyline

We also had Tree Pipit, Redstart and plenty of Willow Warblers there too.
We birded several different spots around Doha Spit where we had Terek Sandpipers, Ruff, Common and Marsh Sandpipers, Little Stint, Whimbrel, Lesser Sand Plover, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover and Kentish Ploverand Dunlin.  We also had this rather brutish looking Steppe Gull.

Steppe Gull, Doha Spit - Kuwait
We did a quick tour around a nearby business park for Indian House Crow - reminding me of the one that took up residence in Cobh, Cork around 10 years ago!
Our last stop of the trip was right back where we started at Jahra Farms. The Wryneck that was present on the first day was still in the same spot. We had a small mixed flock of Yellow Wagtails (Beema, Lutea and Thunbergi), lots of Willows Warblers and an obliging male Redstart to finish the trip (what else of course!).

Male Redstart - the final bird of the trip and is still my favourite of all species anywhere!

Kuwait - Part 7

Our penultimate day started with a drive northwards from Kuwait City to Budai Farm, Al Jahrah, to search for Afgan Babbler. We managed to find several birds and enjoyed decent views but I was more interested in the fact that we were only 5 kilometers or so from the Iraqi border.

From there we drove back to the Liyah Reserve and drove along some tracks checking the Acacias for migrants - of which there were quite a few. By now there were some female Common Redstarts starting to move through, also male and female White-throated Robins, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Rufous Scrub Robin and a single Hume's Whitethroat that was sadly carrying an injured wing. With hunters in the area this was no doubt a result of gun-shot.

Hume's Whitethroat - sadly carrying a injured wing

White-throated Robin - Liyah Reserve, Kuwait

White-throated Robin - Liyah Reserve, Kuwait.

After a quick stop for lunch I walked around the Acacias on foot myself. I had several more Redstarts, Blackcaps and a Spotted Flycatcher. Sadly though I wasn't alone and this individual in his SUV was driving around the Acacias taking pot-shots at the birds with his rifle. He had a little bag that was no doubt filled with dead Redstarts, Blackcaps and whatever else. What he does with these at the end of the day is anyone's guess but possibly they just get tossed in the bin. It's a hard thing to see and a completely pointless and callous pursuit - a sad and pitiful man!

'Hunter' climbing out of his SUV to pick up whatever he'd just blasted out of the nearby Acacia!
The one and only Spot Fly of the trip - mercifully dodging the gun-shots!
We completed the day at
Mutla'a ranch where we had Masked Shrike, Turkestan Shrike, Namaqua Dove and Roller. However  I manged to lose track of time and of my fellow birders and got locked behind a gate - I needed Nick and Paul to assist with my exit.


That evening back in Kuwait City I decided after 7 days of city and desert birding that I needed a bit of a clean-up and went for the full Kuwaiti shaving experience.

*Much to my delight Common Redstarts were far and away the commonest migrant of the trip as it happens!