Sunday 15 December 2013

Topsham Birds

As the year hurtles to an end and Christmas madness envelops the Nation a few hours birding at Topsham on (Friday) 13th December despite the grey skies, flat light and heavy rain showers was very restorative despite not adding any new birds to my year list.

On arriving at Topsham it was actually not raining and as the tide was low I headed off to the recreation ground for a look around. I checked through the gulls bathing in the river but despite searching could find nothing more exciting than an adult lesser black backed gull amongst the herring, common, black headed and great black backs. 3 male and a female red breasted merganser gave some great close up views along with teal but despite looking and listening I failed to find any of the recently reported bearded tits.

A passing local birder put me on to a water pipit feeding on a stoney island in the middle of the river, easily overlooked in the dull light and against the stones, and it showed well before flying off and out of sight. A female type black redstart was an unexpected find in some nearby trees, giving a flash of summer colour as it quivered its tail.

Heading towards Bowling Green Marsh I stopped at Topsham Quay where I had some nice views of an adult and juvenile spotted redshank feeding , both birds almost submerging in the water before running to the shore to eat what looked like small crabs that they had caught. Later I saw (presumably) the same 2 birds from the viewing platform as they roosted along the River Clyst.

Bowling Green Marsh was packed with birds but they were very nervous and flighty. A fly by sparrowhawk was seen but no peregrines. Black tailed godwits and wigeon gave close views along with pintail, teal, shoveler, tufted duck, pochard, lapwing and snipe, and brent geese flew over from Darts Farm to Exminster Marsh in noisey flocks. A surprise sight were a pair of red breasted merganser bathing and preening on the water before roosting amongst the assorted wildfowl, my first on the Marsh.

I had had an enjoyable few hours birding despite getting a bit wet with the rain before heading back to Exeter to meet David and Julie for lunch and enduring some Christmas shopping hell.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Rough Legged Buzzard in Suffolk

Off to Ipswich on the 29th November for a pre-Christmas visit to see the family and from the train I saw the usual birds - greenshank, brent geese and wigeon along the River Exe, stock doves and fieldfares and redwings in the fields, and brief and distant views of 6 red kites near Reading.

I didn't have much birding time but a trip to Snape Maltings on the 1st December and I managed brief and distant views of bearded tits flying over the reedbeds and avocets feeding along the River while a Cettis warbler was heard calling. After visiting the shops and having a cup ot tea in the cafe we headed off to nearby Orford for a walk. Arriving at Orford Quay I was very surprised to see a swallow flying around the buildings, presumably a juvenile bird with short tail streamers, and my first December swallow.

Heading off along the Riverside walk towards Aldeburgh and I had good sightings of more avocets feeding on the mudflats - when I lived in Suffolk it was uncommon for avocets to over winter in Suffolk but I guess global warming has encouraged them to stay in Suffolk and not head off to Devon! Also seen were 3 brent geese and black tailed godwits amongst the usual winter waders but on arriving at the part of the river overlooking the BBC building on Orfordness I caught sight of my target bird on a pylon, a rough legged buzzard, which has been present for a little while now in the area and a life tick for me. I only had my little travel Leica binoculars with me and it was distant but another birder arrived and I had a good view of it through his telescope when its dark belly and white tail with a dark band at the tip where easily seen, both at rest but especially when in flight. To add to the excitement a very nice short eared owl was flying over the nearby fields.

The following day we flew to Germany from London City Airport and flew over Orfordness, getting a marvellous clear view from the airplane. A few days stay in Cologne were as enjoyable as ever with its Dom and Christmas markets. Bird wise the best sightings were 2 short toed treecreepers feeding in trees right by the side of the road in the centre of Cologne, being located by their very different call sounds to regular treecreepers. Also seen were 2 dippers along the river at nearby Wuppertal, they had rufous tones to their belly feathers so were not quite dark bellied types.

Cologne Christmas Market from the top of The Dom
Cologne Dom from the Christmas Market

Heading to Amsterdam by train on the 5th December and I saw a very nice great white egret along with distant views of grey geese flocks, maybe greylag or maybe something more unusual. Amsterdam was very nice, often the second location of a 2 centre holiday suffers after the first location but on arriving in Amsterdam it just felt right and we had a really good time. We visited the red light district in the daytime and it felt very sad and seedy and stunk of cannabis, most unpleasant and a shame as the rest of Amsterdam was very nice with some great architecture. Bird wise the best sightings were ring necked parakeets coming in to roost in trees along the canal side at dusk, another great white egret on the train trip to Leiden along with more frustrating views of distant grey geese and 2 Egyptian geese.

 Canal side Great Crested Grebe
Canal side Coot
 Carved Elk Horn in the Rijksmusueum
 Japanese crane table decoration and food holder, Rijksmusuem
 Impressive swan painting, Rijksmusuem
 Assorted wildfowl, Rijksmusuem
Assorted dead wildfowl, Rijksmusuem

And best of all I managed to tick another item off my bucket list, the Temple of Taffeh at the museum in Leiden, another Egyptian temple rescued by UNESCO when Lake Nasser was formed in Egypt and given to Holland for their assistance. It just leaves one temple left to see, the Kalabsha Gate in Berlin, so I had better start saving my pennies now!

The Temple of Taffeh, Leiden

Sunday 17 November 2013

Searching for grouse in Scotland

Three years ago I had a great short break looking for Scottish speciality birds in the Cairngorm Mountains with Heatherlea, a birdwatching company, but I failed to see capercaillie, and so I decided that this year I would have another attempt.

Arriving by train in Aviemore on November 9th after a 2 night stay in Edinburgh and I had a few hours to kill before being picked up by the Heatherlea guide so I jumped on the bus to the Cairngorm funicular railway. Unfortunately there were no left luggage facilities at Aviemore railway station so I had to drag my suitcase with me but as I got on the funicular railway for the ascent a kindly attendant noticed my luggage and let me store it with her which made things much easier for me.

It was a Saturday, the sun was shining and it was the first day that the ski slopes were open following some good snowfalls and as a result it was incredibly busy. I had heard of birders seeing ptarmigan from the railway or from the cafe at the top of the mountain but on arriving at the top it was totally white and covered with skiers and so after admiring the views I headed back down to the base station.

I took a walk up the mountain from the base station towards the middle station, seeing a few red grouse flying over the heather on the hillside or across the valley. A pair of ravens then appeared along the ridge line with the lead bird dipping down at times towards this ground which resulted in red grouse being flushed from the vegetation. I casually watched the ravens progress when a grouse was flushed and as I got my binoculars on to it as it flew high up above the white skyline I saw it was all white - a ptarmigan, a lifer for me and my second grouse species of the trip! It was joined by a second bird also flushed by the ravens and both birds flew off low over the snow to be joined by a further 10+ birds before they all flew off in a line and out of sight - an amazing sight with the birds being virtually white except for a few patches of brown, mostly on the back, and a good start to my trip.

Red Grouse

The following day we had a before breakfast search for capercaillie but lucked out, seeing a calling flock of 18 whooper swans flying over and 2 redhead goosanders diving for fish in a river as compensation. Heading back for breakfast we stopped at a black grouse lek and saw around 8 males amongst the grass before they were spooked by a female sparrowhawk and flew off. The views were a little distant but they were very handsome birds and my third grouse species of the trip.

After breakfast we headed off again but still dipped out on capercaillie. Highlights of the day were  crested tit in a feeding tit flock, dippers, red and roe deer, brown and mountain hare and a red squirrel but the best sighting were 3 golden eagles together soaring over a snow covered mountain top against a blue sky with a large moon behind them - an amazing sight of a large female, 2nd year bird and a 1st year bird, all showing a golden glow around the head and neck feathers in the strong sunlight and dwarfing nearby ravens before they drifted off out of sight.

The next day and we again dipped out on capercaillie.Good views were had of 2 crested tits coming to feed on seed with coal tits at Loch Garten and as we headed back to the minibus I caught flight views of 2 birds flying down to drink at a large puddle. I managed to get on to one of the birds before it flew off to the top of some pine trees with the second bird flying off out of sight and I was pleased to see it was a juvenile crossbill. However on getting a good look at it sat on the top of the trees and hearing its slightly odd sounding crossbill-like call the guides realised it was in fact a juvenile parrot crossbill with a large head and neck and bill, my second lifer of the trip. One of the guides managed to get some good photos of the bird as well before it flew off.

Crested Tit at Loch Garten - the best photo I could get

The afternoon was spent on The Black Isle where highlights were 4 red kites, around 2000 pink footed geese, scaup, eider, long tailed duck, black tailed godwit and red breasted merganser. A motley collection of hooded crows were seen with the carrion crows but a few birds were very good candidates for pure hooded crows.

The last day of the trip and another capercaillie search drew a blank and the mood on the bus was a little downcast. I had resigned myself to not seeing capercaillie but I wasn't unduly upset as I had decided I would just have to come on the trip again at some point in the future. However as we slowly drove along a road running through a swathe of old Scots pine forest on a lookout for them one of the guides yelled out "Male caper on the right!" and there it was, grouse species number 4 and my 3rd lifer of the trip! It was standing stock still amongst the trees about 20 metres from the (fairly busy) road and we had excellent prolonged views as it carefully watched us watching it. It had a beautiful green sheen to its feathers across its belly and a brown sheen to its back and a smart ivory coloured bill. Some of the group also saw a second male bird nearby which I missed but after turning around and driving back along the road both birds had disappeared from sight. The mood on the bus became very cheerful after finally seeing our target bird and I was very pleased to see it but also a little disappointed as I now haven't got a good excuse to come and do the trip again!

Male Capercaillie

The afternoon was spent along the coast near Burghead where we had excellent views of both velvet and common scoters close to shore and in bright sunlight (beautiful birds) along with eider, long tailed duck, Slavonian grebe, red throated diver, goldeneye, red breasted merganser and gannets. A search among the small groups of eiders eventually yielded a beautiful male king eider, presumably the bird that I saw here 3 years ago. It was coming out of its moult and was a little tatty looking but better than when I saw it in moult 3 years ago, and to finish off a fantastic day as we watched the king eider a pod of bottle nosed dolphins passed by close inshore behind it - an amazing sight against the grey skies and rough surf and totally unexpected.

 Male Eider
Male King Eider

Heading back to Plymouth by train on the 13th November and I enjoyed the scenery of the Highlands as I ate my cooked breakfast, seeing red and roe deer, pink footed goose, whooper swan, red grouse and ravens but best birds were 3 male black grouse flying off amongst the trees as they were disturbed by the train and a great farewell to my Scottish trip - I am sure I will go again as it is such a good trip with excellent birds and other wildlife, excellent scenery, excellent food, excellent guides and good company. And 4 grouse species and 3 lifers in 4 days is pretty good going!

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Mandarin duck at Wembury and Wryneck at Ford Park Cemetery

Since returning from the trip to Ethiopia I haven't been out and about much, instead I have been catching up with chores (and sleep!) and being busy at work.

With the mild weather I had the moth trap out in the back yard on October 23rd/24th and for my troubles I had 3 moths - a light brown apple moth, a plume moth and a common marbled carpet. I guess it is now time to put the moth box away until the spring.

A trip to the caravan at Bude to put it to bed for the winter on October 15th was pleasantly sunny with a few butterflys flitting about and feeding on ivy flowers including a very smart comma. Nearby Maer Lake had wigeon, teal and shoveler amongst the mallards and a very frustrating view of a distant small wader feeding on its own at the back of the Lake and mostly hidden by grass - it had the jizz of a little stint with one having been reported a few days previously but without my telescope I couldn't be sure.

Comma and Red Admiral, Bude

Unfortunately the Out-laws had forgotten to bring the caravan cover with them so we headed down to the caravan again on October 24th to finish the job. A painted lady was trying to warm itself up in the brief spells of sunshine and a plume moth was found in the waste disposal block. The caravan park has been taken over recently and bizarrely the security light on top of the waste disposal block was on in the middle of the day - maybe next year the light will be back on overnight and I will get some decent moth sightings after a poor showing this year.

Bird wise a flock of around 40 golden plover were flying around over Maer Lake where around 300 Canada geese were noisily roosting and bathing and a sparrowhawk was being buzzed by a small flock of starlings. Best birds were 2 adult winter plumaged Mediterranean gulls which flew over the caravan heading inland, looking beautifully ghostly white in the sunshine.

October 30th and I headed off to Wembury for a muddy and blustery walk along the coast path. It was quiet bird wise with 2 cirl buntings, 2 buzzards, 2 little egrets, stonechats and a grey wagtail being the highlights. However the best bird was a totally unexpected male mandarin duck feeding with mallards amongst the rocks by the sewage pipe, a first for Wembury for me and looking quite out of place on the sea.

 Male Stonechat, Wembury
 Male Mandarin Duck, Wembury
Male Mandarin Duck

 Rusty Dot Pearl, Wembury
 Caterpillar at Wembury, ? a ruby tiger
Red Admiral, Wembury

Arriving home and on checking the sightings page I read about a wryneck being seen at Ford Park Cemetery so I headed off to have a look for it. On arriving at the Cemetery 2 birders were staking out a patch of gravestones and as I watched the area a small group of meadow pipits noisily flew up and away from the grass along with a slightly larger bird which flew in to the nearby hedge. I was reliably informed the bird that flew in to the hedge was the wryneck which they had been watching but I didn't actually get the chance to ID it for myself so I guess it would have to be a half year tick, if a year tick at all. I spent some time wandering around trying to find it again but with no luck and after 45 minutes it began to rain so I headed off home, seeing a noisy flyover raven and around 12 flyover redwing, my first of the Autumn, before leaving.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Ethiopia, 28th September to 12th October 2013

Having achieved second place in the bid for hosting Davids Sumptuous 50th Birthday Holiday Extravaganza last year, Ethiopia came first this year in the bid for hosting his Sumptuous 51st Birthday Holiday Extravaganza. And so off to Heathrow we headed by train on the 27th September for our night flight to Addis Ababa, seeing just 3 red kites near Reading and the resident Slavonian Grebe on the River Exe from the train on the journey.

On arriving at the Hotel Ghion in Addis Ababa the following morning a quick walk around the wonderful hotel gardens provided plenty of sightings of various exotic birds and 5 bird species endemic to The Horn of Africa but I was too tired to appreciate them fully so headed off to bed for a few hours sleep. And so the tour of the historical circuit of Northern Ethiopia began and it was a whistle stop tour to say the least, purely cultural with wildlife watching snatched in breaks here and there.

Ethiopia is an amazing place - stunning scenery, very green and teeming with birdlife, with lots of interesting ruins and churches along the way. The Blue Nile Falls and the Awash Falls were brilliant after what has been a very wet rainy season in Ethiopia, and the castles at Gondar, stellae at Axum and the rock carved churches of Lalibela were pretty fantastic too.

The Blue Nile Falls

Wildlife highlights were feeding wild hyenas with strips of meat in Harar, hippopotamus in Lake Tana, Beisa oryx and Salt's dik-dik in Awash National Park, Gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains and 2 species of hawk-moths attracted to the hotel restaurant lights at night.

Feeding Wild Hyenas at Harar

Sleeping Hippopotamus in Lake Tana

Beisa Oryx, Awash National Park

Salt's Dik-dik, Awash National Park

Male Gelada Baboon, Simien Mountains

Privet Hawk-moth?, Gondar

Verdant Hawk-moth?, Lalibela

Vestal Moth, Bahir Dar

Drinker Moth type species?, Harar

Birds were everywhere and I managed to see around 180 species, including 11 endemic species to The Horn of Africa, but including birds that I didn't ID as they flew off or showed briefly amongst vegetation or were glimpsed as we whizzed past in the mini-bus or that I could only assign to a family and not to a species. Highlights were thick billed ravens, one of my favourite birds of the trip, endemic and with the most amazing thick bill; lammergeiers flying past at eye level along a mountain ridge and almost close enough to touch; a stop at a rubbish dump near Bahir Dar where griffon, hooded and Egyptian vultures scavenged with marabou storks while various races of yellow wagtails fed between their feet; and an amazing early morning boat trip on Lake Tana where the birds were overwhelming in quantity and variety and included little bee-eater, great white pelican, African darter, hammerkop, black headed coucal and silvery cheeked hornbill.

 Thick Billed Raven, Simien Mountains (Endemic)
 African Paradise Flycatcher, Addis Ababa
 Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Harar
 White-winged Cliff Chat, Harar (Endemic)
Male Little Rock Thrush, Harar
 Greater Blue-eared Starling, Harar
 Feeding Yellow Billed Kites in Harar
 Augur Buzzard, Lake Bishoftu
 Hemprich's Hornbill, Lake Bishoftu
 Ruppell's Weaver, Lake Bishoftu
 Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, Addis Ababa (Endemic)
 Silvery Cheeked Hornbill, Lake Tana
 Black Crowned Crane, Lake Tana
 Griffon Vultures, Bahir Dar Rubbish Dump
 Male Village Weaver, Lake Tana

 Yellow Billed Stork, Lake Tana
 Giant Kingfisher, Lake Tana
 Male Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Bahir Dar
 African Harrier-hawk, Gondar

 Immature Tawny Eagle, Gondar
 Pied Crow, Debark
 Ruppell's Robin Chat, Debark
 Groundscraper Thrush, Debark
 Bruce's Green Pigeon, Axum
 Abyssinian Wheatear, Axum (Endemic)
 Speckled Pigeon, Axum
 White-billed Starling, Axum (Endemic)
 Male Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Axum
 Hemprich's Hornbill, Axum
 Black-winged Lovebird, Axum (Endemic)
 Juvenile White-winged Cliff Chat, Lalibela (Endemic)
White-collared Pigeon, Lalibela (Endemic)

And so it was a fantastic holiday - with an amazing tour guide called Sue who really helped to make the country come alive.It was exhausting, frustrating, uplifting, fun, humbling, upsetting, thought provoking and breath taking - I need a holiday to get over it all especially as I returned with a stinking cold and having experienced a 7 hour flight delay on the way home with a very chilly night trying to sleep in Addis Ababa airport!