Friday 31 May 2013

Birding in Morocco - part one

Myself and Nick Watmough embarked on a short trip to Morocco last weekend. In 64 hours we covered 1,100 kilometers. Nick has drawn up an exciting itinerary using trip reports from Josh Jones and Richard Bonser and the excellent David Gosney guide 'Finding birds in Morocco: the deserts'. Our trip took us from the forests of the Middle Atlas mountains to dry wadis and desert pistes on the edge of the Sahara.

Here's how we got on!

Thursday 23rd May 2013

Nick picked me up at 7am on a wet and chilly Thursday morning in Norwich. En route to Stansted we made a quick detour to check out the Wood Warbler at East Wretham which was still showing well. Following a very thorough check of our camera gear at airport security (swabbed and all!), we boarded our Ryanair flight to Fes and were finally on our way.
After the cool dampness of Norfolk, the bright sunshine and warmth of Fes was a welcome change. First birds on disembarking from the aircraft were Spotless Starlings - a tick for me!

Fes airport, Morocco - 23rd May 2013
Without too much hassle we picked up the rental car. A Skoda Fabia that both looked and smelt like it had seen better days. But at least it had AC.
We took an unplanned detour around Fes before a helpful local directed us towards Ifrane, not before I had to cross his palm with silver though!
We were headed for the woodlands between Ifrane and Azrou to see Atlas Flycatcher. En route we spotted many Cattle Egrets in the fields and along the roadsides as well as nice views of some European Rollers perched on the telegraph wires.

European Roller, Morocco - 23rd May 2103
Within an hour we reached the ski resort town of Ifrane. We became a little lost here but a kind Gendarme set us on the right track to Azrou. Thank God for our ropey French! At the 'Marrakesh 411km' marker we pulled in and began checking the woods for Atlas Flycatchers. It wasn't that difficult and even as we pulled our gear from the boot we could see and hear some male birds. There were at least three males and several females within the first one hundred meters of woodland. But getting a picture was tricky. The birds showed very well but spent much of their time high in the oaks chasing females or other males. One male would find a perch and sing for a couple of seconds before another male would chase him away, great fun to watch but no fun to photograph. Fantastic birds though and we were both very pleased to connect with the species. The record shots below were the best I could manage.

Male Atlas Flycatcher - Ifrane/Azrou road - Morocco - 23rd May 2013

Female Atlas Flycatcher - Ifrane/Azrou road - Morocco - 23rd May 2013
Present also in the woods were several Hawfinch, ultramarinus Blue Tits (stunning birds), 'African' Chaffinch, Short-toed Treecreeper, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Spotted Flycatcher. We dipped on Levaillant's Green Woodpecker although I did have a brief sighting a darkish large 'pecker but that was it.

Nick watches the Atlas Flys

As the sun dropped we decided the best bet was to continue on towards Zeida where we were planning to overnight. We passed through a small village where several White Storks were nesting on the rooftops. We stopped for a look and noticed this nice pale phase Booted Eagle perched in a tree top. It took flight just as I tried to take a shot.

Pale phase Booted Eagle
As we left the woodlands of the Middle Atlas, the roads opened out onto some beautiful mountain plateaus. The scenery looked very impressive as we drove south-east, the setting sun behind us reflecting on the red hills.

A full moon as we head towards Zeida
We had one more avian encounter before the day was out. Nick spotted a dark shape perched on a telegraph wire as we drove into some small village along the way. He slowed down beside it and we could see the silhouette of a Tawny Owl. Before we had a chance to put the bins on it, the bird flew off into the night. It would have been good to see if it was barred rather than streaked. Also, although the light was poor it did look quite dark, so was possibly of the race 'mauritanica' or Magreb Tawny Owl.
Sometime between 9.30pm and 10pm we finally reached our destination for the night. The Ksar Timnay Hotel was good value and comfortable. We enjoyed a meal of Moroccan salad, Tagine and some cold beers before setting our alarms for 5.15am and hitting the hay.

Bed for the night - my room at the Ksar Timnay Hotel outside Zeida.

Monday 20 May 2013

Penance at Blakeney Point

Readers of my blog from Ireland will know what I mean when I talk about Croagh Patrick. It's a mountain in Mayo overlooking Clew Bay which devout Catholics climb once a year in their bare feet across sharp rocks and stones in order to atone for their sins. I would say this to them, if you really want to experience that true sense of penance and punishment for your manifold sins.......try lugging 10 kilos of birding gear all the way along the shingle of Blakeney Point and back again. You'll feel like someone thrashed you across the shoulders, back and legs with a great big dirty me, Croagh Patrick is like a gentle pedicure compared to it!
Ever since I knew I was moving to Norfolk, Blakeney Point has been on my radar. It has an envious record of rare birds. I'd been talking about 'doing' Blakeney for months now, so with suitable winds and a Bluethroat reported from halfway along the Point, that's where we headed for on Sunday.
We parked up at Coastguards and I began selecting only the essential items I would need for walking the Point. I still felt a little bit 'weighed-down' as we trudged the first hundred yards or so from the carpark. But the weather was glorious and the promise of 'frame-filling' Bluethroat shots filled my mind.

Blakeney Point from Coastguards - 19th May 2013

After forty minutes or so we reached the area just beyond the Half-way House and before the area of dunes known as 'The Hood'. Several birders were already assembled, they told us the bird had been showing well as we were fifty yards or so away but by the time we arrived it had vanished again. But not to worry, the best advice was to sit and wait. I spread out the legs of my tripod, mounted up my camera and lens, parked myself down on the shingle and began to wait. I enjoyed a relaxing lunch listening to the calls of the many Sandwich and Little Terns flying up and down the Point. After an hour there was no show, but I mentioned to Nick that I was happy to give it as much time as it would take to see it, I mean, its a summer male red-spotted Bluethroat, what was the rush? More birders had assembled at this stage and just then several more arrived on their return from the far end of the Point. I think some of them hadn't seen it on their way out so someone thought it might be a good idea to start some 'Suaeda-bashing' and three or four birders began moving through the sueda from opposite ends hoping to flush the bird out. I understand that on Blakeney this is sometimes the only way to see a bird but given that some of us had patiently and quietly waited for an hour hoping to see the bird pop out onto the shingle edge, I wasn't so sure I liked this approach. The bird was flushed and flew out of the Suaeda and dropped down in a different spot. The group headed towards where it had gone in and this is where the field-craft 'best practice' began to fall away. Nick and I decided that decent views would be tough and photos nigh impossible, so we gathered up our gear and decided to walk to the end of the Point. These are the best shots I got in the end.

Red-spotted Bluethroat - Blakeney Point, Norfolk - 19th May 2013
If you want to see proper shots of the bird take a look at Penny Clarke's excellent photos here

We passed many Meadow Pipits, Skylarks, four Whimbrel, several Wheatears and a Marsh Harrier on the way up to the end of the Point. After an hour we reached the Lifeboat House. Just before it is a small group of willows and sycamores called The Plantation. It looks really juicy! I mean, its had Alder Flycatcher in there after all! On Sunday the best we had was a male Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Common Whitethroat and two very pallid looking Willow Warblers ('Northern' types maybe).

'Northern' type Willow Warbler (?) - The Plantation, Blakeney Point
While Nick went to check the Lupins around the Lifeboat House, I had nice views of a Short-eared Owl as it drifted past along the ridge of dunes.

Lifeboat House, Blakeney Point, Norfolk - 19th May 2013

We began to make our way back, we arrived back at the Bluethroat spot giving ourselves half an hour to see the bird. This time things were much more civil. We were joined by a couple of other birders and we all sat still quietly waiting for the bird to show. However a cold mist rolled in off the sea and the bird remained buried in the Suaeda, probably keeping its head down for the night.
It was now time to start the trudge back. I thought I'd never see the carpark at Coastguards, in fact I couldn't actually see it through the fog and was glad there were a few Blakeney regulars in front of us so we were able to find our way home. By the time we reached the car I was ravenous. Lunch had been a long time ago, my shoulders were killing me and I was shattered. But at least I had the 'Blakeney-experience'.
So on the basis of my first visit there, what would I do to make it that little bit easier next time. Well first of all, bring food and water (which I did), only bring what you need - although I would hate to walk all the way to the Plantation without my camera only to find a cracking bird there giving itself up. A light lens would be good but the only lens I have which is lighter than the 500mm f4 is a 300mm f2.8, they're both bulky. Also, get a good kip the night before and stay off the sauce (definitely don't stay up late watching movies and drinking nice cold'll pay the next day..........ahem!). Finally, I would probably hesitate to do it on spec. Only if the winds were good for migrants or if I knew there was a good bird there. It must be tough to track all the way to Plantation only to see a Chiffchaff.
My next blog update won't be for another week. But it will be from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco where Nick and I are headed later in the week for Tristram's Warbler, Atlas Flycatcher and Seebohm's Wheatear amongst other stuff. It promises to be good!

Thursday 16 May 2013

Not a good bird, a great one!

Wood Warbler is a good bird for Norfolk I believe. For me, no matter where they are, they're not a good bird, they're a great one. I've always loved them, their spinning coin song and plaintive 'puw' call. Lemon yellow throat, white underparts and moss green upperparts. A real gem!
One had been reported in song from a local reserve for the last few days. I was hoping to get there sometime during the week but the weather didn't seem to be suitable, it was either wet or windy or both. However conditions for Thursday morning were looking a little bit more promising, so I headed for bed early Wednesday night setting the alarm for 5am.
At 6am I reached the site, a little later than intended but enough time before work to see the bird. I had good directions but in the end I just followed my ears. I travelled the path through the woods as told and could hear the bird about one hundred yards or so off to my right belting out his familiar tune.
Once I pinned down the exact location I quietly set up my camera and tripod and waited. He would fly from one branch to next, sing for up to thirty seconds before gliding off to the next branch and doing the same, all the while pitching in with a few bars of 'puw-puw-puw'. In my opinion there's no finer birding experience than sitting in a quiet woodland listening to and watching a Wood Warbler doing his stuff! I got a couple of reasonable shots as the light steadily improved and a few movie clips also. By 7.15am, it was time to go to work. I packed up my gear and made my way back to the car with the bird still singing as I left. Not a bad start to the day you could say.

Wood Warbler, Norfolk - 16th May 2013

Sunday 12 May 2013

Warblers finally play ball!

I got a facebook message on Friday from Cork birder Floss Gibson to say that he would be in Norwich for a quick visit. So over a few pints and a curry on Saturday evening we devised a plan to hit a few local spots around Norwich on Sunday.
I picked Floss up at his hotel on Carrow Road at 10am (a respectable hour) and we headed first to Whitlingham CP. The morning had started overcast and warm and a big flock of Swifts were feeding above the visitor car park. We counted about thirty at first but by the time we reached the broad it was clear there were far greater numbers in, hundreds in fact flying low over the water hawking insects.
We stopped after about thirty yards to listen to a Reed Warbler which was singing very close to the path. It was within a few feet but stayed well buried singing away happily to itself. A second Reed Warbler was singing further up the path and a nearby Sedge Warbler was giving it a good run for its money also. We could see movements in the long grass but the bird stayed buried deep, however eventually it broke cover and flew a short distance, pausing briefly to sing from a reed stem and pose for a photo.

Reed Warbler, Whitlingham CP - 12th May 2013
We pushed on. I wanted to show Floss some Garden Warblers so we headed towards a couple of likely spots further along the path. The first place seemed quiet but Floss picked up a single bird moving around in the cover. We watched for a while and noticed a second bird so hopefully a pair. As usual photos were tricky. A Willow Warbler sang in the same area and when I took a few quick shots the bird flew over towards us on hearing the sound of the shutter. It sang a few verses from the branches directly above us before deciding we were not worth bothering with and headed off again.

Willow Warbler, Whitlingham CP - 12th May 2013

Further up the path we had several more Blackcaps, Common Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs. We stopped to look at a Common Whitethroat around on the north side of the broad when a bird popped out of the brambles. My first impression was of a pale phyllosc but once I got the bins on it I could see it was my old friend the Garden Warbler. This one was certainly much more showey that the other birds we'd seen but it was still difficult to get a clear shot. At one stage a second bird appeared with it suggesting a pair. One of them posed atop a bramble for a second or two, I fired off a couple of frames before we decided that discretion was required and we left them alone.

Garden Warbler, Whitlingham CP - 12th May 2013
Satisfied with what we had seen I suggested we head to nearby Strumpshaw Fen for Garganey. As we took our lunch in the car park a single Hobby flew overhead. A tick for Floss!
At the first hide we enjoyed great views of two male Marsh Harriers and a Common Tern hunting and dive-bombing.
We walked over towards the tower hide to look for Garganey, sadly we lucked out on these but enjoyed nice views of hundreds of Swifts over the reed beds and high up in the sky. We could see a single Hobby hawking insects but it stayed at quite a distance. With time ticking on we headed back towards the car stopping off at the first hide for one last look, this time we had not one but two Hobbys. As we tried for shots a third bird appeared and we both had binocular views of all three Hobbys hunting together. They remained distant and the skies had darkened, but three together.......fantastic!

Record shot - one of three Hobbys at Strumpshaw fen RSPB - 12th May 2013
Our final stop was Bluebell March at UEA campus for Cuckoo. I had two possibly three birds here earlier in the week but now the temperature was cooler, the rain was starting to come down and there was no sign of any Cuckoos. As the rain got steadily heavier, we decided we had done well enough for the day so headed home.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Gardens and Groppers

I had a a very early airport run to do on Monday morning. Polina's Mum needed to be at Luton airport for 6am so we left Norwich at 4am. On our return at 9am, Polina crashed out so I took my chance and headed out for some birding. With excellent directions once again from James Emerson, I headed to Whitlingham CP to look for Garden Warbler.
Garden Warblers are scarce breeders in Ireland, more or less confined to suitable areas around the counties of Monaghan and Fermanagh. Other than that they are scarce migrants on headlands in the spring and more so in the autumn. Apart from a bird in July at Lough Crom, Co. Fermanagh in 2004, I've only ever seen them on headlands and the only time I'd heard one sing was in Latvia in 2011, that time I had to wait to see the bird so I could rule out Barred Warbler, a nice problem to have!
So before reaching the location I had to refresh myself on Garden Warbler song. There were plenty of Blackcaps singing around the broad so I wondered if I could possibly make the mistake of confusing them. However, once I reached the location, I was able to pick out the song straight away. Not quite as melodic as Blackcap, more consistent and steady with less 'flutey' bits really!
Views through the bins were reasonable but getting a photo was a whole other kettle of fish. The bird either moved around a lot or simply sat in cover and sang. So no photo. For such a nondescript, anonymous looking creature I find them really appealing. Their beauty is in their subltey. Their rather plump composure, nice little grey semi-collar, stout bill, beady dark eye and incomplete white eye-ring. You'll forgive me if I dig out an old shot from 2011 of a migrant Garden Warbler on Knockadoon Head, Co. Cork.

Garden Warbler, Cork, Ireland - November 2011
Sylvia Boring they are not!

In all I had at least two birds at Whitlingham yesterday. 

This evening I had directions for Grasshopper Warbler at UEA campus. I left it suitably late enough so the bird would start singing when I got there. I reached the spot, passing a Garden Warbler in song en route (buried in deep cover of course). While I waited for my quarry to start reeling, two Cuckoos chased each other around the reedbeds, I managed one distant record shot of one bird sitting quietly in a willow tree.

Cuckoo - UEA campus, Norwich - 7th May 2013
I think I had a third bird also on the opposite side of the river.
Right on cue at 8.15pm, the Gropper started reeling. A minute or two later it stopped and remained silent for the next forty five minutes. It had just started again at 9pm but by then it time to head home. And of course, photoless :-(

Sunday 5 May 2013

Breckland birding - Cuckoos and Stone Curlews

With south-westerly winds there was little point in heading for either east or north Norfolk. Migrants would probably be thin on the ground so instead we decided to take a trip around the Brecks to see if we could mop up a few species.
Nick suggested we visit Lakenheath, Weeting Heath and Santon Downham and if anything good turned up on the north coast we would be reasonably well placed to make a dash in that direction.
At Lakenheath Fen a Cuckoo was singing as we stepped out the car, my first of the year (Nick had one earlier in the day not far from Eaton). As we made our way over to the visitor centre, a Cuckoo alighted briefly on a fence post within several meters of the building before being chased off by a second Cuckoo. Hearing them is one thing but seeing them is another, and not one but two! Too quick though for even a record shot.
I asked at the centre if there were any Golden Orioles in, 'None singing' I was told. 'So does that mean there is some females then?' I asked. 'Maybe' was the reply. So with those vague details we headed in the direction of the poplar trees. We didn't see or hear any, maybe some females are there but you'd be doing well to pick them out. We headed along the bank parallel to the plantation listening to Reed and Sedge Warblers and to one of the Cuckoos. We kept an eye out for the male Red-footed Falcon reported from the previous day but didn't see it (it was reported later though). We were, however, a little surprised not to see any Hobbys at all. I believe Lakenheath is used as a staging post by them and when they arrive their numbers can top fifty birds, that has to be impressive.
From Lakenheath we headed next for Weeting Heath, home of that fine Thick-knee, the Stone Curlew. Our luck was a little better here and we enjoyed distant views of three birds from the west hide. And when I mean distant, I mean distant. Not a photographers dream really, but the hides and the reserve are not here for the benefit of us lens jockeys! The only bird I've seen away from Spain was one Julian Wylie found on 20th March 2010 on Sherkin Island in west Cork, so it was good to see these ones.
I cropped the crap out of the shot below and sharpened it to within an inch of its life, you can just about make out that its a Stone Curlew.

Stone Curlew, Weeting Heath, Nofolk - 4th May 2013
From there we headed to a spot near Santon Downham to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We lucked out on this one too but strolling along the bank of the Little Ouse river we had nice views of three Crossbills (one fine red male and two females) taking a drink from the river's edge. Before I got the lens on them they picked up and headed off with the rest of the flock. Still my best Crossbill views ever, normally only seen they on the tops of conifer trees against the light or flying over going 'chup' chup'. Other then that many of the common warblers were in song, Blackcap, Willow and Chiffchaff as well as plenty of Brimstone butterflys and Orange tips.
From there we passed a couple of likely looking spots outside Thetford for Nightjar or Woodlark, definitely worth staying late in the office some evening and heading there on the way home for some Nightjar action.
Finally we stopped off at the BTO Nunnery lakes reserve in Thetford where we searched in vain for a female Whinchat, we checked suitable habitat but no sign. A flock of six Common Swifts were the best there and the first of the year also for me.
On the way back this nice Red-legged Partridge posed for a few shots. To many others these must be trash birds, but I still like them and this one gave me the only decent photo opportunity of the day.

Red-legged Patridge, Thetford, Norfolk - 4th May 2013
The winds swing a bit to the south and southeast early in the week so next weekend it may be back to some migrant hunting and maybe a visit to north Norfolk to look for Temminck's Stint.