Tuesday, 28 March 2017

When not birding in Hawaii



So what else of Maui then? Beyond birding Hosmer Grove for the endemics I didn’t actually do much birding, as I had seen all the waterbird endemics on my last visit. I stopped in at Kanaha Ponds briefly, which are right next to the airport, and this had quite a few Hawaiian Stilt, as well as a few Night Heron, a single Turnstone, Sanderling and Pacific Golden Plover. I picked up a few other birds along the way, mostly from the car or where I stopped the car to go snorkelling. And in fact the car and snorkelling were the major reasons for the lack of birding. The car was a Ford Mustang Convertible, and thus highly enjoyable, and the beaches of Maui offer possibly some of the best easy snorkelling on the planet. Below the water is simply fabulous, often right off the beaches, and the first thing I did after collecting the car was to go and buy a mask, flippers and tube. Things have moved on hugely since I last bought any snorkelling kit, and I am now the proud owner of a highly modern set of gear to replace my knackered old stuff bought in California circa 1986. I didn’t even bother digging this stuff out for the trip, and as soon as find it it’s going. I’m not sure silicone had even been invented then, my mask was rubber and I expect it has long since perished.




I stopped the car and jumped in the water multiple times, wherever it looked good and sheltered. On the first day this was most of west Maui, but on the second day there was some offshore swell that made a number of attempts futile. The best spot was up towards Lahaina, a beautiful beach where I could park the car under the trees and was mere steps from the water with a coral reef running parallel to the beach for several hundred meters. I spent a long time here and saw loads of wonderful fish. Is it OK to have a favourite fish? If so it is the Hunuhununukunukuapua'a, which would be awesome even if it were just plain and boring to look at. Obviously it isn’t .....no underwater camera so you will need to look it up….. The colours and variety were sensational, and in truth far outweighed the birds in terms of beauty and being entranced. As such I probably spent more time swimming than I did birding, which is wrong given mhy self-professed interest but there you have it. The last thing I need is another hobby, but I’ve actually got a trip coming up with my youngest daughter that is 100% about snorkelling as she is dead keen on anything to do with water and always has been – there must have been some kind of mix up as she is part fish. This was part of the reason for taking the plunge (haha) and buying new stuff. What I need to work out in advance of then is how I can get my camera, or a camera, underwater. That could be a whole new challenge for me – I’ve often marvelled at the underwater section of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibitions, or the footage from things like the Blue Planet, but I have never even considered how they do it as I simply had no frame of reference. Now I bet you can just take your phone with you…. Some research needed perhaps.

Zebra Dove

Nutmeg Mannikin
There was not really a huge amount of time in which to explore, but a massive highlight was watching the sun set from the summit of Haleakala - however this will be the subject of a separate post as it needs to be ridiculously photo-heavy to even stand a chance of explaining how monumental it is. For now, let's just say that despite the stupidity and all the time spent getting there, I really am a big fan of Hawaii. For starters they were the first State to challenge Trump's revised travel ban, which at the time of writing is still not going anywhere. There are other endemics to try and eke out, and of course there are Albatrosses....





Monday, 27 March 2017

Slow Sundays

Sunday continued in much the same vein as Saturday, but without the birding. Somehow the clocks changing caused me to sleep in until gone 9 (the new 9), which was close enough to the start of the football on Wanstead Flats that I elected not to bother. From my foray on Saturday morning I felt I probably wouldn’t be missing much, it still feels like migration hasn’t really started, at least locally. Instead I continued to potter up and down between the house and the greenhouse, tidying, sprucing, rearranging. I do like this time of year, there is interest on every front, and I can chop and choose where I spend my time knowing that no matter where I land I will enjoy myself.

Once again it was a beautiful day – not hot, but warm and pleasant enough to feel spring-like. Chateau L became a hive of industry, windows were thrown open to get some fresh air in, the washing machine went into overdrive, and for the first time in many months clothes got to dry outside. Surfaces were wiped down, dusting occurred, the atmosphere was highly positive. More importantly, barbeque coal and rosé were sourced, and once the grill had been cleaned of all the winter gank, the pleasant smell of charcoal started to drift into all the windows we had opened, and with a little bit of shift in the wind direction, blanketed the washing drying on the line in a nice grey cloud.

Oops. You can’t teach this kind of genius, you either have it or you don’t. Oh well, you can’t beat a bit of outdoor cooking for promoting the joys of spring, and thus the day passed very pleasantly indeed. Rosé was replaced by Gin & Tonic at some point during the afternoon, and we simply enjoyed relaxing at home. I am glad I can do frenetic and lethargic and be equally enamoured by both. A small amount of sky watching occurred, but unlike Saturday when the first Buzzard was right on time, I saw nothing all day.

I made it back on patch this morning and barely saw a bird, confirming my suspicion that it is still a tad early. A bit depressing actually, what with all the litter from Sunday’s football, all the razed areas of habitat, and then to top it off a nice bit of fly-tipping.  However just as I was on the point of giving up on a bad job and leaving the Flats to catch the train, three ducks heading over my head west caused me to look up. Shelduck! Annual, and always at this time of year, but almost always a flyover going east early morning. Excellent to get these therefore, but also confirmation that working a local patch can sometimes feel like you are stuck on repeat, merely going through the motions.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Maui List

Here’s a list of the native birds I saw on Maui, ie the ones that got there of their own accord rather than being brought there by people. Writing this list down for the blog is possibly one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done recently!

‘Auku’u
Koloa Mapu
Koloa Moha
‘Alae ke’oke’o
‘Alae ‘Ula
Ae’o
Kolea
‘Akekeke
Hunakai
‘Ulili
‘Amakihi
Maui ‘Alauahio
‘Apapane
‘I’iwi
Moa




Saturday, 25 March 2017

My perfect day

Today was a pretty perfect day. Having been away last weekend I was very much looking forward to a day of doing very little. Of pottering. I am a great potterer when the mood takes me, the hours just fly by. I started early, before 6am, by birding the patch. In all honesty it was pretty dire, nary a single migrant and very quiet indeed. The boys and I naturally started talking about drinking almost immediately - I worry about the liver function of many of our local patch workers. I also sense that a gin & tonic evening is probably in the offing, as we all seem very keen indeed on this most wonderful of drinks. The avian highlight was a particularly lovely male Stonechat in the Ditch of Despair - despite my camouflage hat I couldn't get anywhere near it so the below is about as good as it gets.


Returning home having drawn the proverbial blank I enjoyed coffee and some semi-stale crusts of toast . This is the problem with children, they eat you out of house and home yet don't bother telling you when something has run out (ie, been scoffed). They simply move on to something else. Oh, no bread? Right, cereal then. No cereal? Fruit. They just expect replacement whatever it is, in this instance bread, to magically reappear the next time they look. I open the bread bin about once a week and it is always sodding empty. So it was today, barring the ends of a couple of loaves. The trick is to splash a bit of water on them and then sling them in the toaster.

With this meagre sustenance I set to work. I was delighted to discover that my lawn mower still worked after all this time, and half an hour later the garden looked sensational. It does not matter how crappy your garden is, once you mow the grass ('lawn' would be pushing it at Chateau L) it makes everything look fabulous for some reason. I pruned a few things and did a few edges, you might almost think a gardener had come. Did Mrs L notice when she returned home? No.

Next up was repopulating the terrace with ferocious Mexican plants that have spent the winter under glass. I have a sack barrow specifically for this annual task and so made short work of getting all of them out and back up the garden. The local cats are once again in mortal danger, just the way I like it. And then with so much room freed up in the greenhouse I was able to take stuff from indoors and put it down there, which means we can now move a little more easily in the house. Some watering, some pruning, a but of weeding, and after all this I was amazed to see that my pedometer suggested that I had covered three miles simply walking up and down the garden - talk about industrious!

So now came the time to relax. It was precisely raptor o'clock. I plonked one of the garden chairs on the freshly mown grass and lowered myself gently down, binoculars at the ready. Five minutes later the first Buzzard cruised over, and an hour later the second. The intervening period passed very quickly, it is possible that I dozed off.

And then it was time for gin. 


Friday, 24 March 2017

Birding Hosmer Grove, Maui


There was only ever really one spot where I was going to look for the endemic Honeycreepers on Maui, and this is Hosmer Grove about half way up the road that leads to the Haleakala Observatory, just after the entrance booth to the park. It was a misguided attempt back in the 1920s to try and establish hardwood plantations and form a timber industry on Hawaii. Many of the trees didn't do well, but a handful did too well, thus damaging the fragile native ecosystem. There are still stands of these non-native trees today, some of them are absolutely huge, and the park managers face a constant battle to ensure that the native scrub land and its plants don't get further eroded. Despite this it is still noted as the best place on the island to get a view into that habitat, and is also the site of a protected area called the Waikamoi Preserve, established and fenced off by the Nature Conservancy to keep at least some of the slopes of east Maui as they once were. This preserve is strictly off limits for the most part, though there are infrequent guided walks down the slope to a boardwalk where good views of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers are more-or-less assured. I didn't have that opportunity and neither will most people, so I thought I'd put together a brief guide of how best to see at least some of the birds without being on a guide-led walk into the Preserve itself. 






Access
The first left turn after the entrance booths. There are several small car parks along this short road that ends at the campground, and you can leave your car in any of them. The grove is on your left, and to your right is native scrub land. There is practically no walking involved and you will likely see at least some of the Honeycreepers from the car if you are so inclined. For instance Apapane and Amakihi were relatively easy to find along this road, frequently flying out of the forest and up the slope into the native bushes to feed. The area around the large water tank and solitary pine tree was a good spot.



The actual trail starts at the campground car park itself, as noted on the map above, and first leads through Hosmer Grove itself, and then emerges a little higher up into the native scrub. The Waikomai gulch is to the right (east) of the trail, and presumably the off-limits Preserve is off the top of the map/north. The only non-native birds that I saw in and around the Grove were House Finch and Japanese White-eye, so any sound you do not recognise is likely to be a Honeycreeper. I'iwi in particular make a huge variety of sounds, and are easily picked up. The most productive area was easily where the grove begins to peter out and the give way to native plants - basically at the far right of this map close to where the trail splits in two and these is a shortcut back. As the trail emerges it does so alongside the top of the Waikamoi gulch, a ravine filled with native plants. There are couple of overlooks, the first with an interpretation board, and a stint here looking down into the gulch will produce results. I saw lots of I'iwi from this spot, often extremely well, and Maui Creeper or Alauahio were present in the pines right on the edge of the forest. They tended not to venture out very much, whereas the I'iwi flew back and forth constantly, although preferring not to move too far away from the treeline. I saw only one Amakihi in this area of forest, all the others were further up the hillside. This was mostly true of the Apapane too, I only saw one right on the margins of the forest, all the others were in the scrub.




I'iwi

I visited twice, once in the early evening about an hour before sunset, and once in the morning about an hour after sunrise. The early morning visit was unsurprisingly much more productive, although I did not walk the main trail in the evening. For reference I visited in late March. Note that due to the popularity of viewing the sun rising above the clouds on Mt Haleakala, entrance to the park is restricted between 3am and 7am – you need to have made a reservation and space is limited by parking spaces at the summit. I found this out too late, but a great day out in my opinion would be to start with the sunrise, and then descend to Hosmer Grove (about 25 minutes) and bird the area for a few hours. With uber-planning you could do that and join the guided walk which I believe starts at 8am from along the Hosmer Grove road. The summit is a shade over 10,000ft, and is cold and windy – you need proper clothes if you are going to be up there for any length of time. You can bird Hosmer in shorts and a T-shirt however, it is 'only' about 6,700ft and remains fairly pleasant. Bizarrely the calls of the Honeycreepers are interspersed with the coughs of Ring-necked Pheasant, another introduction to the zoo that defines most of the birding on Hawaii. As you drive up you’ll be serenaded by European Skylark….


Maui Alauahio



Amakihi
I birded the area for about four hours, from 7am on the dot to just before 11 by which time it was quite hot and bird activity had dropped off significantly. Beyond about 10am the I’iwi tended to stay in the trees more and I was happy to join them. The peak of activity was probably from 8am until 9am, by which time a bit of sunshine was starting to get into the top of the gulch. I’iwi was actually the commonest bird by some margin, followed by Apapane, then Amakihi. Alauahio was the hardest to catch up with, and I didn’t see Crested Honeycreeper or Maui Parrotbill at all. These latter are seen only a handful of times a year, but I suspect you would get the former if you went on the guided walk which takes you deeper into native habitat.

My four hour visit produced the following birds, and I got excellent views of them all.

I’Iwi – 20+
Apapane 8
Amakihi 5

Maui Creeper 3 

  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Everglades interlude

Predictably I got up in the middle of the night, my mistake for sleeping on the flight over. I was able to pick up my hire car early, and under an hour country music later I was pulling into the car park at Royal Palm, home of the famous Anhinga Trail. I was the only person there, a fact noticed quite quickly by the resident swarms of mosquitos. Did I have any repellent? No. Unwise, and a lesson for anyone thinking of doing the same thing, which presumably after my last post must be loads of you. Happily the many bites I got during the dawn period were not ones that festered, and by that evening they had all gone down. I suppose I might now have but Zika, but hey.


I wandered down to the pond on the other side of the visitor centre - lots of very large splashes but I couldn’t see anything. Fish? Something bigger….? An Anhinga croaked out of a palm tree in annoyance before the bugs forced me back to the car for a snooze. I woke up as another car pulled in next to me, a fellow nature-photographer by the looks of things. That’s what I was today too, so as it was nearly light I got my stuff together and saddled up. The Trail is hardly a trail at all, a short board walk that crosses a natural watercourse through the sawgrass, a slough (pronounced ‘slew’ rather than like an inspiring town in Berkshire). Birds everywhere though not quite as many as I had hoped – late in the season, a month earlier is probably better.



 




The tactic, such as there was one, was simply to walk round in circles until you came across a bird in photographable range. There were no shortages of these really, but there was a distinct lack of pleasing backgrounds and I didn’t take many photos. I am never at my best on the first day of any trip is another reason I suppose, but for all I’d read about this place it wasn’t what I had hoped. This did not bother the vast majority of lens-toting people who later turned up and who were all too happy to aim their cameras at 45 degree angles down onto birds in the water or on the banks of course, but that is normal everywhere, and especially somewhere as accessible as the Anhinga Trail. Now that I know the lay of the land as it were, it’s somewhere I will try and factor into a future trip, as I think it could be worth a few mornings and evenings. As it was I reverted to birding, always an excellent fallback option, and I am glad that I did. As soon as I stopped concentrating on trying to get angles and views a Swallow-tailed Kite flew over, a bird I had been crossing my fingers I might see. Utterly superb, it just glided past and I swear I was the only person that noticed. I racked up quite a nice little list over the course of a few hours – as well as all the obvious herons and egrets, I pulled out Common Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, a silent Empid I need to try and identify from photos, White-eyed Vireo, Red-winged Blackbird, Grey Catbird and Red-shouldered Hawk


And then there were the stars of the show, the Alligators! By mid-morning they were hauled up everywhere, and there were some monsters! Early morning there had been the odd ripple, a few snouts detectable in quiet corners, but as it warmed up they sought out the muddy banks close to the path and flopped out. Wood Storks and Ibises drifted over, flights of Great White Egrets and Black Vultures everywhere. Excellent views of large fish as well, the Everglades simply teems with life. Most enjoyable, but eventually the crowds became too much and I sought quieter areas. The other target was Snail Kite, and they were not present in the southern glades so I drove back north to Big Cypress, an enormous area of inpenetrable swamp level with Miami where I had to be anyway. To cut a long story I didn’t see one, but I did see another two Swallow-tailed Kites as I drove around Loop Road, a partially paved route that cuts through various swampy habitat and joins back with US41 about twenty miles further west from where you join it.




The time passed all too quickly and I only found my way back onto the highway at about 2pm. I wasn't quite sure how long it would take to get back to the airport so I didn't risk it and started heading east again. Glad that I did as it took an age - I was never in danger of actually missing my flight but it didn't leave a lot of wiggle room and one bad traffic jam could have sunk the entire trip. As it was I made it with about half an hour to spare, and settled down for the next leg in my weekend odyssey, a quick hop over to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.

Most pleasing

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

In praise of being a travel geek

I am over the Pacific somewhere. Bumpy. Our affable captain has just drawled that there might be a little chop… Typing has momentarily become more challenging, but these are the kind of sacrifices I make in order to bring you this. I am on my way to Maui, there to have a second crack at I'iwi, and to see lots of brightly-coloured fish, though hopefully not in the same place, convenient though that would undoubtedly be.

Remember last year some time I did a completely ridiculous trip out this way, more of an experiment in how to accrue a massive number of air miles in a very short space of time? Well it turned out I enjoyed it immensely as I suspected I might, and I didn’t even see an I'iwi! Nonetheless the fun factor was such that when the next European sale that made it possible turned up I didn’t hesitate and booked it up immediately.  As per last time the routing is fiendlishly complicated - this is one of those fares that when you’ve gone through all the legs with the sales agent and the price pops up on their screen there is a small pause at the other end. I like that pause a lot, but it is also indicative of my supreme sadness. You probably know this already, but I take more than a passing interest in flying. Before you say it, this is not full-blown plane-spotting. Proponents of plane-spotting go and sit in cul-de-sacs near airports with short-wave radios and notebooks, collecting lists of planes that fly overhead like, er, twitchers collect birds. I would of course never do anything like that, jeeesh, I still have a little self respect thank you.

No, my interest is dominated going to fun places and seeing the world, but along the way I have become ensnared by exploiting frequent flyer schemes. So whereas a normal person would fly to Los Angeles and then on to Hawaii in the most convenient manner possible, I work out which way will be cheapest and earn the most miles, convenience be damned, and do that. Actually a normal person wouldn’t go to Hawaii for two days even if there was a direct flight, so clearly yet again I find myself propping up one end of a spectrum, and not the cool end…. Look, I’m just saying it could be worse. No anorak, no beard, no notebook. I don’t need a notebook, I’ve got a spreadsheet….
 
Yes, like all good hobbies there is a master geeksheet. I’ve got one for birds which is genuinely a masterpiece, and now I’ve got one for travel. With pivots and everything. The most recent entries show that I flew to Zurich after work on Thursday from City Airport, and after a night in some faceless hotel that I flew back to Heathrow, and then on to Miami where I spent a day in the Everglades. It also tells me that the means of travel to Zurich was an Embraer 190 that I’ve travelled on seven times before, and that the return trip was on an Airbus A319 that was entirely new to me. In birding speak this is a “Tick”, and in my opinion is probably one scale up in the tragic stakes from that. However thankfully this is where it peaks. Well, mostly. I can also recognise different sorts planes, just like someone who is interested in cars can spot different models as they drive past. Or like twitchers can identify rare birds. Oh, wait…..

Talking of rare birds, here is something I don't think I could ever bring myself to twitch, a Double-crested Cormorant

Anyway, A320 or Boeing 737, there’s no fooling me. So with that confession out of the way, what’s the point? I’m not daft enough to miss the point that it is ridiculous circle, as generally speaking the only thing you can do with airmiles is use them flying places, and my shiny loyalty card is of precisely zero use outside of airports. Airlines know this of course, hence why these schemes exist, but at the cost of some research and a little inefficiency you can game the system and see the world at the same time. Let me give you an example that is somewhat more rational than flying to Hawaii for the weekend. Famille L is going on holiday to California this summer, a trip we have talked about for years but never quite managed for one reason or another, mostly cost. As always when it comes to school holidays dates are a bit restrictive, and the airlines know this, and so to fly direct to LAX on the dates we need would cost a minimum of £1,176 per person right down the back of the bus on pretty much any airline you can think of. Were that a realistic option for a family of five (which it isn't, clearly), we would simply leave London for Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon and arrive there on Saturday evening. Easy, but also nearly £6,000, not exactly chump change. 

Instead we’re getting up early on Saturday morning and flying to Stockholm on British Airways on a portion of the miles I am currently racking up on the way to Maui. After what I hope will be a nice and enriching family day out in Stockholm, we start our trip to America by flying back to London in the evening and going home to pack. Bear with me, as whilst it is as stupid as it sounds there is also method in the madness. On Sunday morning we return to the airport and fly to Dallas with American Airlines (which in something called Main Cabin Extra has far better leg-room than any competitor, and which thanks once again to frequent flying I can book for free for all of us) and after a short layover, from there to Los Angeles where we arrive in the evening. So far we have lost a day of holiday in California, but equally we will have had a good sniff around Stockholm, which is not to be, er, sniffed at.

On the way back the direct option leaves Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, and arrives on Saturday morning, whereupon we could go home, unpack, and use Sunday to recover ready for work on Monday morning. Pah!! Not for us! These intrepid travellers leave on Friday morning via Chicago, also arriving in London on Saturday morning, albeit ahead of the direct LA flight. We also go home and unpack. The big difference is that instead of flopping about at home on Sunday, we’re off to Gothenburg for the day which thus deposits us in our starting location of Sweden and meets the criteria of the ticket. We could somehow “forget” to go to Gothenburg, all be struck down by a mysterious illness etc, but that’s cheating and does carry the small risk of a gigantic ticket reprice. On the assumption we do go, I’ve bought some tickets home with Norwegian for under a hundred quid for the whole family.  So the return trip has cost us half a day in California, and rather than a nice relaxing day at home we are exploring another Swedish city, which being totally knackered is probably the last thing any of us will wish to do at that point. The sweetener is that rather than the unaffordable £6,000 of the direct option, this way costs under a third of that. No, I don't really get it either, but I am happy to go with the flow. 

Frankly this is a triumph for OCD, and I’ve just ‘saved’ a huge amount of money, even once you include getting to Sweden and back. This will pay for our Californian camper van for two weeks, all the petrol, camping at Yosemite and other good places, all the food, as well as side-trips like Whale watching out of Monterey should I be so lucky. We’ll probably even have a fair bit left over for another trip. It’s not remotely enough for lunch in Stockholm of course so we’ll have to take sandwiches with us on that leg, but even with the considerable extra faff it is a complete no-brainer, and all made possible by embracing my inner nerd. In fact it is the difference between doing this trip we’ve talked about for so long and not doing it at all. And not forgetting that all five of us earn a pile more airmiles for the combined family stash, enough in fact for three more family day-trips to European cities. I suppose we could have all gone to Bournemouth or wherever, but I want the kids to have far broader experiences. Taking nothing away from Dorset, but we all know where having a narrow world view leads…

So, Hawaii then. Indulgent. Yeah. Stupid. Absolutely. Crazy? A little, and when I first read about this type of trip I thought all of these things too. Then I did it for myself in August last year, and whilst I still think all of these things it worked out perfectly (lack of I'iwi and a knee injury excepted) and was complete blast. Like all trips there is joy in the planning phase as well as the execution phase, and this itinerary was eeked out over the course of a couple days of trial and error until I finally hit upon the route that worked. The day in the Everglades not counting as a stopover was if I don’t say so myself, genius., especially as it connected with a flat bed to the west coast. I hired a car for the day for about 20 quid, nipped down to Homestead, and spent the day in a massive swamp seeing tons of spectacular birds, alligators, snakes and fish. Returning to Miami I got on a plush 777 and snoozed in comfort to LA, waking up only for an ice-cream sundae, and now I’m about an hour inbound from Maui. I’ve only got a couple of days, and the rough plan is on arrival to go and buy snorkelling gear with which to while away the afternoons, and to spend the mornings and evenings looking for endemic birds, enjoying sensational views and taking photos. It is a hard life I know, but that is the price I pay for being a spreadsheet-obsessed gimp. Fair is fair, and so when I am sat on a tropical beach on Sunday evening watching the sun set over the Pacific with a cold beer in my hand, I will remind myself of all the ridicule and shame that comes with it.


New favourite bird