Sunday, 31 March 2013

Harlequin Duck, North Uist

Another day, another twitch. I seem to be making a bit of a habit of this, but I'm sure it's just a phase I'm going though. When I get to 400, just a short step away, I will no doubt relax, put my feet up, and only twitch as far as Cornwall or South Shields, both of which seem increasingly close..... Anyway, to cut a long story short, the team scored yet another biggie on a remote island, and had a great time doing it with a frankly brilliant supporting cast of both rarities and other superb birds. I have days of blog material - had I stayed in London it sounds like I would have had none. So, to start the grippage, here are few of "the boy", with many more to come. North Uist and its accompanying islands are glorious, we had almost wall-to-wall sunshine, and we visited many beautiful places. I've only just got back, and have a to-do list many reams deep, so this is all for now. More - much more - later on.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

I've been processing a few more Golden Plover shots, and as I was doing so it occured to me how magical it had been. Yes, it was cold. Yes, it was muddy. Yes, I was lying in the cold mud, but wasn't it special? Me and three birds, part-way through a long journey and resting up on Wanstead Flats of all places. I was probably less than ten metres away, they could see me clearly and yet were not concerned. Nevermind that I've never had the opportunity to photograph this species properly before, nevermind that they're one of the commonest waders. They and I were sharing the same moment, they wondering what I was doing, me struggling with exposure settings and hoping they didn't fly off.

Patch Gold
The best wildlife moments, the ones that are relived, the ones that still bring back a smile as the memory of the magic returns, are those where birds are close. I'm not going to go all anthropomorphic or whatever, but being so close to something that normally would go out of its way to avoid you, those are the brilliant moments. I can probably count these occasions on the fingers of both hands and not run out, but this is another reason why they're so special. Hornemann's Redpolls hopping around my feet on Shetland, the Magallenic Woodpecker in Argentina coming around the trunk I was standing behind, the Robin in my car in Norfolk, hand-feeding a Jackdaw in Suffolk, the Steppe Grey Shrike on my scope in Lincolnshire, and the Jack Snipe walking over my hand in Shetland. Here are the last three:

These moments were all because the birds were crazily tolerant of people, but what I'm beginning to find is that in addition to the odd bird exhibiting bizarre behaviour, I can make those moments happen, as with the Goldies. I can get myself into situations where I can enjoy birds at really close quarters, and that comes not from my birding, but from my photography - though if there were any doubt after this weekend that I had forsaken the former for the latter, hopefully that question has been answered. And will I diminish the power of these encounters by having more of them, such that they're expected and not a treat. I doubt it, where birds are concerned you can never have too much of a good thing.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Plover Porn

I'm looking forward this being a popular post with search engines, but in truth only the first part is accurate. Well, mostly - the second is partially accurate I suppose. Remember those Golden Plover I blogged about yesterday? Well they were still there this morning, and in fact had been joined by a third bird overnight. Amazing when you think about it. Yesterday I had felt they were fairly approachable, but selflessly wanting to give others a chance I didn't push it. This morning, knowing their likely reaction, and with the light much better and nobody around that hadn't seen them already, I approached a lot closer.

As you know, my real job is working in a bank. I enjoy it very much, but I also enjoy other things, and at this time of year I'm able to lead a double life. Before I even get to work I'll have spent a couple hours on the patch, and usually I'll take a camera. So it was that at around 8am, fully suited-up underneath my waterproofs, I found myself flat on my stomach on the largely frozen mud of Police Scrape, slowly shuffling forward towards three small waders, with a large lens resting on my bag as support in front of me. It was filthy. I tend to get to work before a lot of the team, so largely have the opportunity to get undressed in peace, thus transforming myself from a muddy wreck and into the consumate professional that I undoubtedly am. A few of them know of course, but I explain that everybody needs a passion in life, and that mine is just a bit stupider than most peoples and involves freezing my butt off for two hours before they have even got up.

Anyhow, my Plover approach worked like a dream - my camo red hat was probably the deciding factor in my success - and I was able to get some shots that I'm pretty pleased with all things considered. After I'd finished, which was mostly dictated by my approaching bus, I backed off the way I had come, dragging my kit with me. At a suitable distance I crouched up and stood in a deep puddle I hadn't previously noticed, going through the ice and filling my right ankle with some nice cold water. The Plovers cared not for my plight and continued to sit around doing nothing, so I packed up, skirted round them and proceeded to the bus, where the people waiting gave me the sort of looks usually reserved for errant creatures from the deep. I casually flicked some mud off my elbows and fished out my Oystercard. It had been a good morning.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Above Average

If somebody were to ask me how the weekend had gone, I would definitely say that it had been above average. Whether it could have got better following yesterday's Wheatear is an unfair question; of course it couldn't. However today was nonetheless pretty fabulous, and all the more so for being one of those incredibly bitter days where only rock hard birders like me are out in the field. Ahem. It was decidely un-late-March-like out there this morning, and after about an hour or so I was close to coming home. Bird of the day at that point had been a Lesser Scaup lookalike that failed to fool me - interesting, and nice to see, but not what I had in mind.

Another bird that didn't have in mind was Stone Curlew, so it was pretty sensational when tramping across the Broom Fields that one caught my eye as it flew ahead of me a short way. I wasn't sure what I was looking at for a moment, but it banked slightly showing a fair amount of black and white in the wing, and thus causing me to have a minor heart attack. It couldn't be, could it? After the bird Nick had found in April 2011, most people, myself included, had given up on ever seeing one again. If you recall, I jammed that one on the second day of it's stay, but it was never seen again. So another one, less than two years later? Surely not. But it was. Even without bins it looked pretty mega, and I already felt bold enough to phone both Nick and Dan with news of a probable heading towards the SSSI. And dropping in! I don't often run, but I did this time. As I crossed the road I became aware of it flying, and managed a series of record shots that confirmed what I had suspected. It banked around the back of Motorcycle Wood and didn't come out the other side. Game on!

It took a long time, but eventually the bird popped up again some distance from where I had seen it disappear, and perhaps ten people saw it, including Muffin who I had gone home to fetch. It appeared to go down into the Broom Fields, so we headed that way, only to discover that it had looped around and flown off high NW. OVER MY HOUSE. Still, can't really complain can I?

Back home a short while later, tucking into a nice healthy brunch, I noted that the Red-throated Diver was still on Staines Reservoirs. I've seen a couple Black-throated, and more than a few Great Northerns, but this one has always eluded me - I've usually been away, or working. So with most of the day still ahead of me, I cajoled Muffin into getting into the car, and off we went. I cannot begin to describe how unpleasant the causeway between the two basins was. If I had thought Wanstead was cold, this raised the bar (perhaps lowered it....) substantially. And it wasn't a simple bowl up find a birder with the Diver in their scope either - there was nobody there. Eventually I found it on the north basin, but not before I had lost the feeling in my left hand - one of the problems with my scope setup is that the tripod head is pure metal, there is no nice rubberised handle. A quick record shot and were out of there!

Feeling pretty chuffed, we were nearly at the M11 when my phone went off - it was Dan Dan the Wader Man, with two Golden Plover ON THE DECK on Wanstead Flats. Wow, though these days Dan is of course followed around the patch by rare waders. I'd missed Goldie by about a minute a few weeks ago, a chance to get it back was very welcome but I wasn't ideally placed. Could the weekend get any better? I aimed the car at the nearest spot to the relevant playing field, and just as I was pulling up I glanced out across the Flats and was somewhat stunned to see the Plovers in the air. Tick and drive! They circled around and appeared to drop back. Abandoning the car we headed off towards to Long Wood, finding Bob also heading that way, who having scored the Stone Curlew was no doubt also wondering if he wasn't dreaming all of this. Dan was still there, and so were the birds, and so I was able to have a bit of a creep.....

So, the first Wheatear of the year on my birthday. A Stone Curlew on the patch, a London tick, and Goldies on the deck. Do weekends get any better?

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Wheatear! (no, really)

I have waited years for today. Years. Today is my birthday (you can send gifts next year) and I found a Wheatear. Not just a Wheatear. The first Wheatear. Like I say, I've waited years for this to fall into place. In all previous years I've either found one well before my birthday, or my birthday has been and gone, Wheatearless. Last year somebody else found the first Wheatear, luckily not on my birthday - I'm not sure what I would have done. This year however I struck gold.

I awoke at 5am and looked outside - raining. FFS. I went back to bed. When I awoke again a few hours later, I looked outside again. Snowing. FFS! I went back to bed. Again. After a nice family breakfast, and in receipt of a message from Tim regarding a Great Crested Grebe on Alex, I decided that a quick spin around the Flats was in order. GC Grebe on the Flats is pretty mega - so mega in fact that I was convinced it was a patch tick* and hastened over there. Grebe in the bag, and with little else likely, I decided to walk the ditch to the west of Alex. Approaching the end of said ditch, I was amazed to be looking at a small bird with a very white rear end flying back past me. Unbelievably I'd done it! I'd scored a Wheatear on my birthday! Years. I've been waiting years, and finally it's happened - the greatest birthday present ever!

Here are some very important stats. God knows what I was playing at in 2009.

2009: March 15th, #63
2010: March 20th,  #71
2011: March 30th, #81
2012: March 16th, #81
2013: March 23rd, #77

Usually the first Wheatear of the year heralds spring. Not so this year. It's filthy out there, and I can only feel sorry for the poor bird. As I type, snow is flying horizontally past the window - it is disgusting. And yet there is a Wheatear on Wanstead Flats. It has come a very long way, and is no doubt regretting its decision to leave Africa. Of course it is the first of many, but the point is that it is the first. I had no camera, blizzard conditions had convinced me that there was no point. When will I learn? All subsequent Wheatear twitchers dipped. Instead here is one from my extensive back catalogue.....

* Nick "Lee" Croft got in touch immediately. No, he said, it wasn't a Flats tick. I had seen one on the same day I had found an LRP a few years back. I checked when I got home, and bugger me if he wasn't right.

Thursday, 21 March 2013


A Wheatear that I have thus far failed to talk about from Morocco is the Red-rumped Wheatear. Why, what did you think I meant? A Northern Wheatear in Wanstead? A spring migrant, in late March? A ludicrous suggestion - it's like the bloody Arctic out there, our chances of spring migrants seem to be lessening by the day! I've been out every morning recently - today the best I managed was a Lapwing - a sure sign that it isn't remotely spring-like out there. So back to Morocco for a bit.

Red-rumped Wheatear was perhaps the bird I was most looking forward to on the trip. Not sure why, it just struck me that it was a bit of a looker. We did find some happily, out on Tagdilt, but never really in the circumstances we wanted. Our second trip to Tagdilt was rained off, so the only photos I have are from our first, in the heat of the day. The birds, a pair, were feeding in the centre of the open tip outside Boumalne, next to a rotting pile of chicken death that stank to high heaven. I think Richard managed a photo on a dead cow. Anyway, it was all I could do not to gag, but from the Wheatear point of view, the flies that this attracted made it a superb feeding opportunity, and we were able to approach relatively closely in the car and get a few shots. The male was the real target, but I never managed what I wanted of him, the best is below, and although the female posed nicely, in reality, and in full keeping with her surroundings, she was pretty scruffy.


Morocco really is my kind of place - stuffed full of Wheatears. We saw six species: White-crowned Black, Mourning, Black, Northern, Red-rumped and Desert. Right now I'd settle for just one of those.......

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Scary Sky

Do you know how many photos of birds I've taken since returning from Morocco? No? Can you guess? You can probably tell, but I'll tell you anyway. None. Zero. Nada. Oh, apart from the Heron and the Black Redstart. Oh, and the Egyptian Goose. Look, it's still not very many, OK? And it's upsetting me. This weekend was a case in point. I managed about an hour and a half on the patch on Saturday. I froze the proverbials off, got soaked and saw nothing. On Sunday I didn't even bother. The real issue is of course the lack of Wheatears. Gradually the various blogs I follow have all been getting Wheatears - lovely photos of spanking spring males are beginning to appear, and I am jealous. Spanking is a word that only really applies to Wheatears in the spring, you don't often see it used in any other context unless you're into specialist literature. Anyway, there have been none in Wanstead. I was out at first light yesterday, and again today, although I was in the wrong place to snaffle Tony's fly-over Woodlark. I managed to twitch his Stonechat though, so all was not lost. This puts me on 76 for the year - on a par with 2010 and 2011, but way off the pace versus last year, when Wheatear was #81 on March 16th, with Stonechat #83 on the 18th.

Noteable absences this year include Bullfinch, Tawny Owl, Grey Wagtail, Peregrine and most worryingly of all, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - nobody has seen one at all. More often than not I get one in January, and the latest in recent times has been the second week of February. It would be a tragedy if they have gone. That said, it doesn't really feel like the third week of March outside. It seems to be more akin to late January all over again, and the end isn't anytime soon if the forecast is to be believed. We shall see - I could have an absolute corker of a weekend and find myself over 80 in short order - Blackcap has been seen locally, and Walthamstow has had Sand Martin and Wheatear. An exciting time of year for sure, but until it actually starts for real, also a frustrating one! Tomorrow is the 20th - that's the third latest date in the last four years for Wheatear. Looking at the forecast, I'd put money on breezing through it....

Here's the sky from Monday. On hitting the Flats at dawn the light was beautiful. Had there been any birds to photograph it would have been fantastic. In the event it clouded over within about five minutes of me getting out, and then there was a nuked-out sky over towards Manor Park somewhere.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Morocco - Oukaimeden

Ouikameden is a ski resort in the High Atlas, only an hour an half from Marrakech. Every single birding trip to Morocco goes there, and with good reason - it's a reliable site for Crimson-winged Finch, a properly rare bird in the Western Pal. In fact it's a reliable site for quite a few birds, and I came away with not just one tick but three - the other two were Alpine Accentor and Alpine Chough. All quite alpine really, but there you go - I've never birded in real mountains before.

It's not a big place, and when we were there all the birds we wanted were concentrated in the middle of "town", which sits in a bowl-like plateau at around 2600m, with ski-lifts taking you higher if you are so inclined (and have a pair of skis - don't worry if you don't, as people will fight each other to hire them to you). There were more people on the make here than at any other place we went to, and it was rather a shock having mostly birded completely alone and undisturbed. Lots of jewellery and rock sellers, a man wanting me to ride his miserable-looking donkey, and people who wanted money for just being there and doing nothing. At one point I considered giving one guy money in order to get him to go away, but felt that knowing I had money he might have just stuck around for more and become even more irritating. The Shorelarks were the most tricky, as they favoured the car park, where gangs of car-minders chased drivers up and down vying for the right to "watch" their vehicles in exchange for cold hard cash. Nice. I just about managed what I wanted despite this, but was happy to leave.

This photo is especially for Mick......

We spent a happy four hours up here, in conditions ranging from lovely sunshine and blue sky, to wind-whipped snow - I guess like any mountains the weather can change extremely quickly and without a lot of warning. Not a lot else to tell really - there were at least a dozen Crimson-winged Finch, at least a dozen Atlas Shorelark, hundreds of Alpine and regular Chough, a flock of Rock Sparrow, another Levaillant's Woodpecker, Alpine Accentors and Black Wheatears. We found a lost Short-toed Lark, and saw Swallows migrating through.

Levaillant't Green Woodpecker at Oukaimeden

In fact this latter was perhaps the most meaningful of all - really hitting home the journeys that migrating birds undertake. We saw Swallows every day in the desert, but of course the Atlas are in the way, and these are real mountains. We also saw Little Ringed Plovers pitched down in a temporary pool in the desert during the heavy rain, and a Green Sandpiper. They were all en-route, and could conceivably be on your patch soon. What I can tell is they're not on my patch. Nothing that has ever been anywhere near Africa is, and especially not Wheatears, which I was looking for this morning whilst getting a face full of rain. Which is why I'm back home writing this up - this represents the final installment of Morocco. We left Oukaimeden at around 4pm, spent an hour with the Moussier's Redstart, and then went back to Morocco to catch our flight. Superb trip, cheap and bird-filled, and as I hope you agree, full of amazing photographic opportunities. I will definitely be going back - perhaps just even for a weekend at Oukaimeden - there are more than enough birds to fill two days.

To finish up with, here are a couple of galleries on my other website.
Atlas Shorelark
Crimson-winged Finch

And the "trip report", such that it is, can be viewed on this page

African Chaffinch (male)

Morocco - The Ourika Valley

The rain followed us over the Atlas, and just as we were tucking up at the cheapest hotel yet, Le Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir, it started again. Mick, ever anxious on matters of weather, informed us the next morning that it had been raining all night. Immediately, our spirits were as damp as everything else. We resolved to give it a go anyway, as now that we were west of the Atlas there wasn't a lot between where we were and Marrakech in terms of birding. And it stopped! We hadn't been in the car for more than ten minutes when it suddenly cleared - game on! After a wash out the previous day, another rain-affected day would have been terrible, but our luck was in.

Not long into our journey into the valley proper, a woodpecker flew over the car. A green one. Bradders unfortunately missed it, and as after Desert Sparrow, Levaillant's Green Woodpecker was his top target, this was a minor disaster. We all bailed from the car, and realised we were at what seemed like a very birdy spot. Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, African Chaffinch, Common Bulbul, a Moussier's Redstart, two species of Wagtail, hirundines overhead, and a funny laughing call from just over to our righ........hang on a minute!

Score! Target bird acquired! And with ease, at basically our first stop of the day. I can't remember exactly where it is, but there will be a trip report in due course. But make sure you hit it at the beginning of the day as it's a parking spot for Camels and rock sellers later on. The birds were mostly enjoying the insects attracted by the Camel dung, and we enjoyed a great half hour before relucantly carrying on and up to the ski resort at Oukaimeden (the subject of the next post).

Common Bulbul
We stopped off again at this wonder spot on the way back down the valley to the airport, as we wanted to have another go at the Moussier's Redstart. This is how we discovered that there were Camels here during the day. To their credit they left us alone until we were done photographing the bird, at which point they all converged with bits of tat. And at which point we fled.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Wheatear Counter....

Houston, we have a problem.........

I think you'll agree that I've been pretty restrained so far, but this is serious. Today was supposed to see Wheatears. I was supposed to see Wheatears! The arrival dates over the the last four years have been March 16th, March 30th, March 20th and March 15th. Using complicated maths that means we're due March 15th again. Possibly. Anyway, today is the earliest day on the patch that Wheatears have previously occurred, it's dark outside and there have been no Wheatears, so that means they're late and I'm annoyed. Actually I haven't been out looking - it was raining this morning, didn't fancy that, and the rest of the day I've been otherwise engaged earning crusts, but there are enough patch-workers (and poachers, you know who you are!) that had a Wheatear been present, it would have been found, and I would have twitched it by now. As it is, March 15th has gone begging, and with the prospect of serious rain tomorrow, the 16th is potentially out as well. And I'm busy on Sunday. Gah!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Morocco - Rain in the Sahara with you

I awoke several times in the night thinking that it might be raining. Surely I was imagining it? Just like the snoring that I had thought I had heard but that had stopped every time I woke up. But when it came to our wake up call there was no doubt. Looking out of the bathroom window, it was chucking it down. Oh dear, this wasn't in the script, was it? I mean, Morocco is a desert country, everywhere we had been was dry, no water anywhere - the lake at Merzouga, the pool at Yasmina, most rivers we had driven past.

Out on Tagdilt it alternated between drizzle and downpour. Bollocks. No photos, and indeed no birding. Bang went my chances for Sandgrouse, so we went back for a muted breakfast at the Riad Soleil Bleu. It continued raining, and our minds were made up: abandon Tagdilt and head back west immediately - this way we would get over the Atlas in good time for birding the Ourika Valley from dawn tomorrow.


Unbelievable. Heavy rain overnight had created flash flooding, water running down from the mountains had made the main east-west road unpassable. Even large trucks were waiting, we didn't fancy risking our large deposit...... Nevermind we thought brightly, we'll go birding! So we spent several hours sat in the car whilst the desert became a series of lakes and rivers.....I did the decent thing and fell asleep in the front seat. Four hours later we were able to cross, but the damage was done, and our day of birding was finished. Somehow the flood had subsided almost as quickly as it had risen up, and although we still had to ford the crossing, and about 14 others en route, we were able to progress fairly easily, and made the Atlas pass by nightfall, and another delicious meal at another ridiculously cheap hotel. Tomorrow would be our final day, but would it be a productive one?

Richard is somewhere in this photo

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Morocco - Show me a Wadi Wadi

We arrived for roughly dawn at the Wadi 9kn west of Yasmina. Like I said, no idea if it has a name. It had been pretty sensational during two hours the previous day, but the light had been particularly horrible. Fine for birding, and we had seen stacks, but poor for photography, and that was one of my main aims for the trip, and perhaps Mick and Richard's only aim! The Wadi is long and thin, so the taxi service dropped each of us off at various points along the way, and then the driver stopped yet further up and did a bit of bird-finding on our behalf whilst we papped away at various species. The morning is of course far better than the afternoon, and not just because of the light. Birds were singing everywhere, Hoopoe Larks, Desert Wheatears, Desert Warblers - all pretty fantastic. The next two hours went incredibly quickly and we all had a lot of fun.

Although searching did not turn up Dunn's Lark, Bradders did find a Mourning Wheatear that we all missed, but even better four Thick-billed Larks. We were counting on getting these at Tagdilt the following morning, so to get them now was a bit of a bonus. By about 9.30ish the sun was pretty high, and so reluctantly we went back for breakfast and to pack - we were going to use the heat of the day to head back west towards Boumalnes, trying a few predetermined sites along the way for Pharaoh Eagleowl and Mourning Wheatear.

Our first stop was a rubbish dump site near Rissani. Scanning more cliffs for owls we narrowly averted tragedy when a massive hole appeared in the middle of the track that would have swallowed half our car, and so decided to proceed on foot. We were attacked my more flies that you can possibily imagine, it was like something out of a horror movie. Up my nose, crawling on my lips, anywhere I had sweated on any of my clothes or gear. In a way it was pretty good news when we failed to find any Owls as it meant we could high-tail it out of there. Consolation Lanner at this spot, but we couldn't bear to stay and watch it. Even the car was full of flies, and we ended up distributing them over large tracts of eastern Morocco at 60mph.

Our second stop, over a hundred kilometers further west near Tinehir, proved much more successful, with Mick sensationally spotting a roosting Owl in a cliff fissure that basically had an invisibility cloak on. Quids in, and yet another Western Pal tick for my burgeoning list - I saw something like 28 news birds on this trip, over thirty if you include distinct African sub-species.

Owl country
Back on the road again towards Boumalne, just west of a town called Imiter an excited Bradders jammed on the brakes as we roared past a Mourning (Maghreb) Wheatear - something of a good bird in these parts. Grabbed a few photos but the light was fading fast - also at this site a pair of White-crowned Black Wheatear, and a Desert Wheatear. Lots of Wheatears = good. Final stop of the day some more cliffs near Imiter where I discovered I do a pretty mean impression of a Pharaoh Eagleowl. My highly professional "Woooh" was immediately answered by an owl down the canyon somewhere. To its credit, it realised it had been duped pretty quickly, but I bet it still got a lot of stick from the other birds.