Thursday, 26 June 2014


Every time I try and say this bird's name, I tie myself up in knots. Pronothotary is a common one. Prothanorty.... Dammit. Bloody amazing bright yellow bordering on gold warbler. In these cases I find that a photo is worth a thousand words. This is of a breeding bird in Ohio, viewed from the raised boardwalk at Magee Marsh (which, btw, is superb). This is the female, the male is even brighter, and simply glows. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

What is that? Oh bugger.....

A busy weekend just gone, with no birding to speak of, a minor amount of drinking, and a lot of children. Of most interest was a rather flappy bird watched rather distantly from the kids cricket match as it crossed low over the Basin or thereabouts. Highly black and white-looking, and my mind cycled lazily through Magpie, and when some orange appeared to show, Jay, before kicking in with a massive "oh fuck" and desperately trying to get my sunglasses off and my bins up. I just about managed to before the bird disappeared behind trees, but the overwhelming impression was of course, and most unfortunately, Hoopoe. Big floppy stripey black-and white wings, orange at the front, but the view was perhaps slightly less than fleeting as I had not been quick enough. I left the children unattended and zipped over to the south of the Basin where you can creep along the edge of the Golf Course (where the bird had been headed), but bar a family party of Magpies there was no sign of anything other than golfers. Hmmm. I noted a pair of Gypos with three quite large goslings, which Wanstead Birders had hitherto been unaware of, but sadly no stonking southern European vagrants. I could not linger and returned to the cricket, which continued for another three hours or so. And whilst I alerted a few locals, the Golf Course is of course private land....

Once the cricket was over we went home, had a lickety-split lunch, and then headed out to a couple of birthday parties, one in Wanstead, one in Romford. Once done celebrating those, we returned home and I made dinner, and finally, at around 9.30pm, I was free to go and look for the bird. Which, naturally, I didn't. Nor did I manage to awaken early this morning and run amok at the Golf Club, so as far this bird goes, the record is highly unsatisfactory. I am still deciding if I have enough to submit a description, but so far I have been unable to come to any firm conclusion - given the brevity of the view is has to be seen as tenuous. If a Hoopoe is seen anywhere else in the near vicinity, maybe I'll come down on the side of "yay!", but I doubt it. Shame, as per the historic record, the only Hoopoe dates from April 1976 - in the Park and..... on the bloody Golf Course. FFS.

So, a bummer, but not the end of the world. As regular readers may have noticed, birding has been slightly less of a focus of late. Partly this is because it is June, but also it's because I've gone off the boil, realising that there are plenty of other great things to do and that time seems more limited than ever. When autumn kicks in I'll likely pick up the mantle again, and with any luck work may have calmed down - it is particularly and unpleasantly manic at the moment, and my current preferred escape activity is literally that - escape. Escape London and the south-east and go somewhere completely different and far less crowded. Ok so HK and Barcelona don't really tick the 'splendid isolation' box, but Norway did, and Iceland and Sweden which are coming up ought to as well. By the time they come around I should be about 8 weeks behind on the blog, rather than a mere month as I am now. Have a Killdeer from May 27th.

Been one of these on Iceland recently....

Sunday, 22 June 2014

American Roadtrip

Well, it's nearly a month ago now, but right after Hong Kong I travelled to America. I know, I don't travel enough, I'll try and sort that out. Anyhow, I have american relatives (indeed I myself am a yank believe it or not....) including a Grandmother, and so knowing her 90th birthday was approaching, last year I booked tickets for the whole family to travel over for the party. Only after this was booked did I realise that my work forces me to take at least one ten day holiday per year (shucks), so I tacked HK onto the beginning of it. Thus it was that I undertook one of the longest days of travel I can remember, with 12 hours back to London, a five hour lay-over, and then another 9 hours to the midwest. It would have been quicker to go over the Pacific, but the US ticket was non-refundable and so I met the family back at Heathrow - the long way around. God knows what time my body thought it was when we finally arrived in Cleveland, but somehow I got through it. Having left HK at 11pm on a Friday, I arrived in Ohio at 4pm on a Saturday, but about 28 hours later. I was compus mentus enough to argue for one of these though.....

Oh what fun, a massive (though small by US standards) SUV with a monstrously inefficient engine and a petrol gauge that you could actually see dropping. It easily took the whole family and a pile of luggage, and was pretty much the perfect vehicle for a mini roadtrip. The party to end all parties wasn't 'til Thursday, so we had five days in which to see a little bit of America, and above all introduce the kids to all things american. Although I've only had a one major stint living there, I nonetheless feel a lot more american than you might think - the country music and love of bourbon is just one facet. We Brits love to be rude and cynical about it, but it's a great country. If you can forget about the guns and some of the more absurd ignorance involving Charles Darwin, then you will find americans some of the nicest people around, living in one of the most wonderful places on earth. And I really mean that. 

The plan was to drive to Cincinnati and take in a ball game, to visit Buffalo Trace in Kentucky, to slow it down in the Amish district in Ohio, and be wowed by Niagara Falls in New York, and finally to spend a few days in the lovely college town where my Grandparents live, and which is such an integral part of my childhood.

 And to play the licence plate game....

Friday, 20 June 2014

Of Fjords, Cava, and Eagles

I am pretty jammy sometimes. Away in late May on a rare holiday, I managed to miss a complete sitter of a Short-toed Eagle. Had I been in the country, I would undoubtedly have been in Dorset at some ungodly hour watching it sit, depressed, in a misty tree. Mega. But being in Ohio I missed it. Oh well, you can’t see them all (well, some people can, but not most people). Back home I did not rue my luck, I would much rather pursue my global travel agenda than hang around at home waiting for other people to find birds. So it was what it was, and the following weekend I instead went up to Norfolk and clawed the Speccy back, which could have been another big miss.

In Norfolk I learned that the Eagle had been refound in Hampshire. Grrrr. That said, awesome views of Spectacled Warbler, or a massive dip in Hants? Hawky and Monkey chose a massive dip in Hants……. I went home and had a BBQ and a few glasses of chilled wine, content with my morning. The following weekend I was sat in a Tapas Bar in Spain. Or maybe I was cruising down a Norwegian fjord, I can’t recall. Anyway, I was relaxed and very much enjoying whatever it was that I was doing, at which point the Eagle turned up again. I continued supping, be it Barcelona cava or water from a Lysefjord waterfall, and shrugged my shoulders whilst imagining the major grippage occurring back home.

As it happened, nobody saw it, bar Bradders who needed it for his daughter’s list. She’s on about 200 now I understand, and he was worried that with only one Short-toed Eagle every 15 years, by the time the next one came around she might be a stroppy teenager who hated daddy’s sad and boring hobby. Fair enough really. It was easily available all day, was seen to go to roost, and then hoovered up eagerly the following morning as well. Hmmm, had I screwed up by organizing a weekend away? Of course not!

This brings us to Monday evening. From about 7.45pm, the bird was sat in the same tree, fluttering its eyelids with that come hither look that only Short-toed Eagles can really pull off. Sadly I didn’t get home from work until 8.30pm, which is even more sadly entirely normal. I considered going there and then, but realized I probably wouldn’t make it, and regretfully started processing photographs of Las Ramblas. Not really, I’ve not looked at those yet. I actually spent the evening genning up on exactly where this bird was, as the message read simply “sat in pine”, and Ashdown Forest in East Sussex has a few to choose from. It was still in the same tree at dusk, by which time I more or less had it nailed thanks to the good folk of internet – wahoo!

I set the alarm for 2.45am. What a bitch. I was on site at 4.45am, but no pale raptor greeted me. In an ideal world I would have seen it perched, and then returned to London before the rush hour started and sorted myself out for work as normal. Birds however have this habit of non-cooperation, and so I was prepared for plan B and had my suit in the car. Fast forward to 6.40am, and there was still no sign. Mo (shhhhh), Monkey and Shaun were all here too, and Lee was expounding various theories as to why the bird wasn’t there. Time was getting tight for my 9am meeting, and the rush hour through south London would be in full swing. Goddamit, bloody birds!

And then suddenly there it was, soaring above us. Where it had come from I don’t know, which tree had been favoured a mystery. But there it was, perhaps 50 feet above. Bins views were magnificent, scope views almost intolerable in terms of their awesomeness. Get in!! It perched in a distant pine for a bit allowing some more relaxed study, and then reluctantly I headed for Canary Wharf, as getting home to Wanstead and then back to work was now out of the question. Predictably traffic slowed to a crawl, but I took this opportunity to change into my work clothes in true Mr Bean style. Dumped the car somewhere near Lewisham, and was in work shortly after with feelings of elation, but also wondering quite how I was going to make it through the day. Coffee turned out to be the answer, and so make it I did, arriving home some 20 hours after I had left. Big day. Big bird.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Hong Kong Bird List - May 18th-23rd 2014

Little Grebe
Grey Heron
(Eastern) Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Great White Egret
Intermediate Egret
Chinese Pond Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-faced Spoonbill
White-breasted Waterhen
Black-winged Stilt
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Grey Plover
Painted Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Asiatic Dowitcher
Common Sandpiper
Grey-tailed Tattler
Terek Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper
Spotted Redshank
Nordmann's Greenshank
Great Knot
Curlew Sandpiper
Red-necked Stint
Pectoral Sandpiper
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Heuglin's Gull (LBB)
Gull-billed Tern
Black-naped Tern
Spotted Dove
Emerald Dove
Rock Pigeon
Indianl Cuckoo
Large Hawk-Cuckoo
Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo
Plaintive Cuckoo
Asian Koel
Greater Coucal
Common Kingfisher
White-breasted Kingfisher
Pacific Swift
Little/House Swift
White Wagtail
Red-rumped Swallow
White Wagtail
Scarlet Minivet
Grey-chinned Minivet
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Chinese Bulbul
Sooty-headed Bulbul
Chestnut Bulbul
Blue Whistling-Thrush
Yellow-bellied Prinia
Plain Prinia
Common Tailorbird
Mountain Tailorbird
Oriental Magpie-Robin
Masked Laughingthrush
Blue-winged Minla
Silver-eared Mesia
White-bellied Epornis
Yellow-bellied Tit
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
Fork-tailed Sunbird
Japanese White-eye
Long-tailed Shrike
Black Drongo
Hair-crested Drongo
Eurasian Magpie
Azure-winged Magpie
Large-billed/Jungle Crow
Collared Crow
Crested Myna
Black-collared Starling
White-shouldered Starling
Red-billed Starling
Scaly-breasted Munia
Tree Sparrow

Birding in Hong Kong

I arrived in HK on mid afternoon on Saturday. At 6.30am the next morning I was waiting outside an MTR station for David, who was going to show me a few of the best birding sites in the territory. I have no shame, it's just so much easier, especially when without transport, to find somebody to do help you out, even if it means paying for it. Over the years I've done it in Argentina, on Tobago and St Lucia, and in Australia, and every time it has resulted in a brilliant day out and fabulous memories. Despite it being not the greatest time of year for birding out in HK, it still lived up to expectations, and we saw heaps.

First stop the forest reserve of Tai Po Kau, one of the few remaining unspoiled areas in HK, and after a short but steep climb we were happily birding one of the many different trails, and seeing (but mostly hearing) all manner of interesting birds. Unfortunately the weather had different ideas, and some torrential downpours saw us stuck under a shelter for the better part of an hour. As with all forest birding it was very difficult, and I didn't take a single photo worth posting here, so you'll have to take my word for it that Silver-eared Mesia and Blue-winged Minla are bloody fantastic. It was a hefty slog round a small part of the reserve in very humid weather, but well worth it, and eventually I had good views of nearly everything, with heard-onlys reduced to only a few.

Next stop, mid-morning, was the fabled reserve of Mai Po, on the edge of the New Territories and opposite the Chinese megacity of Shenzen. Very few permits are given, so I had had to organise mine well in advance. Once signed in we passed several commercial fishponds, well-populated by these, which I found to be strangely familiar...

Kentish Pond Heron
Once past the tonnes of fish we hit the reserve proper. It's an old shrimp pond complex that has been allowed to revert fully to mangroves, and also has some excellent scrapes. Birds were everywhere, and we collected fifteen species of wader sitting out the high tide very easily, including Nordmann's Greenshank which is pretty rare bird. We made our way out to the shores of Deep Bay to discover that the tide probably had another three hours before any mud was exposed, so I took the opportunity to have a short kip as we bobbed about. Yes, bobbed about - the hide is floating. To get to it you have to walk along a long floating boardwalk, which is supported by barrels on a channel through the mangroves. It would have been pretty easy to fall in, but I managed to make it to the end without incident. I felt much better after my sleep, but there was still no mud! Periodically flights of wader came in and circled, before heading back inland, but finally the water receded and as soon as it did the birds started to feed busily. Highlights included loads of both species of Sand Plover, as well as quite a few Black-faced Spoonbill. The wader tally increased to close to 30, and even though the number of birds present was likely a fraction of what it might have been earlier in the year, it was still an impressive spectacle for somebody used to the Thames foreshore.

With the day heading to a close (it being the Tropics the days are not as extended or as curtailed as they are here), we made our way back to the entrance for some much-needed water, and headed to Long Valley, and agricultural area. The much hoped-for Painted Snipe was seen here, as well as more Prinias, some Red-billed Starlings, and several Long-tailed Shrikes. How I got through the day I'm not really sure, but I did sleep very well on the tube on the way back to Lantau! I'll write up the full list in due course, maybe even right after this, but it was a great day - you just can't beat foreign birding, as I'm sure I've said many times before. You have to work so much harder, but it is a lot more rewarding. Photography on the day was not easy, but my priority was to see the birds. A visit another time and I'd know more about where to go and what to target - especially that Mesia!

Plain Prinia

Long-tailed Shrike - juv

Common Tailorbird

Monday, 9 June 2014

Whilst I could produce a piss-poor pun involving the word Spectacular.... would be about as original as all the shitty football headlines that are going to take over our lives for the next month, so suffice it to say that I went, I saw, and I conquered. The views were amazing, one could even say they were spectacle, or err something like that. Anyway, superb views of this plucky scratchy songster that at one stage I thought I would miss until a brief window of opportunity opened up on Sunday morning. Happily the Spectacled Warbler did the decent thing and stayed, in fact it may stay some time as it appears to be trying to build a nest. Idiot. How is it supposed to know though, and the weather has been distinctly southern european of late. Though perhaps the lack of Black-winged Stilts, Short-toed Eagles and Glossy Ibis should be considered a bit of a giveaway.

An early start chez Bradders, but the pressure was off from the word go as he had news from on-site before 5am (!!) that the bird was still present. My kind of twitch, we just had to not crash on the way up, which with DB at the wheel was never really very likely. The journey up was as uneventful as I had hoped, and I didn't even fall asleep once. A medium-length walk out to the dunes and we could see a small crowd, perhaps 25, watching the sueda below. It was singing before we could even see it, but the views were nothing short of immense as it perched up very frequently and absolutely went for it. Win. It was still early enough that full zoom scope-fulls were unimpaired by warm air, and I'd almost say that the views were as good as those I've had abroad, but an experience in Morocco probably just about tops it. However in the context of the eighth UK record ever, and having dipped one with the aforementioned Bradders in about 2008 (he didn't dip it, he just took a bunch of us back there the day after and once it had done a bunk...), it was nothing short of a magnificent bird at a magnificent twitch.

No photos I'm afraid, though there are some pretty decent ones on the net should you be so inclined. With a small bird like this, and it being a large twitch with all that that entails, I didn't think I could get close enough to improve upon my efforts abroad, and they would all have been pointing down from the declared vantage point, so I didn't even bother. Have this one instead - a green background and perhaps a slightly less well-defined orbital ring and you'll be very close to enjoying the same experience I did. And without four hours in a car. It's OK, don't thank me....

Having arrived with perhaps 25 people there, when I got up to leave maybe two hours later I discovered a large crowd behind me - to their credit they were largely all being very quiet and simply enjoying the, err, spectacular, so I hadn't notice them even arrive. A steady stream of new arrivals continued to plod along the sea wall as we returned along it, so still a popular attraction even a week or so after arriving. And deservedly so.

Good to get one of the goodies back after having seeming missed a somewhat stonking couple of weeks whilst away globe-trotting. The Eagle still lingers, as does the Gull, so there is perhaps hope of both of those summering and me finding some time to do something about them. Time, as ever, remains the big limiting factor, and with crazy crazy work and very little free weekend time prior to mid-July, this mega Warbler may be all that I can manage. Not that it matters much when they show as well as this one did though, and I should be grateful that a few hours materialised that allowed me to nip up there and score. Needing to be back early afternoon, we piddled about on the North Norfolk coast in very pleasant but unbirdy conditions for the remainder of the morning, saw a Spoonbill actually moving which is perhaps even rarer than the Speccy, and returned safely to the big smoke suffering from nothing worse than acute hay-fever. A few false starts trying to remember my Bubo password, but it's inked in there now and for all eternity. Twitching - you know it makes sense.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Another walk in vibrant Hong Kong

Despite the heat and the humidity, I ended up walking miles in Hong Kong, it was a real walking city. London is probably similar in terms of vibrancy, but the stupid thing is that since I live here, I never bother going to see it, instead I stay in the suburbs and take the train to the airport. I just can't get excited by it, but an asian metropolis, wow! Here are few more (a few too many more, to be sure) photos of another walk I took in HK, this time on the main island.

More markets I'm afraid, you couldn't drag me away. I actually bought very little, as apart from the food it's all basically tat. Interesting tat sometimes, but basically cheap fabricated goods from across the border in China. Apart from my kwality new watch of course. I bought the girls some dresses they could use for dressing up, and some PJs for the eldest, which he rather likes.

So after another dose of market, I made my way up towards what they call the mid-levels. Hong Kong is built on the side of a mountain, so after the initial bit of flat (and hugely extended) coastline it actually gets very steep, culminating in the Peak itself. Happily a long series of escalators take you all the way up, otherwise I'm not sure I would have made it. Along my travels were bars, mosques, beauty salons for ex-pats, and great views back down. And a shop that sold deer tail which would apparently treat the seminal emission and frequent urination. Honestly, they've thought of everything.

Another interesting thing about Hong Kong is that almost all the trees are numbered, and if you have a slope, you must register it. Any non-flat piece of land tends to have one of these on it. Admirable for keeping track of slopes, but can you imagine working in that department?

Via the zoo, I eventually found my way back down to the harbour front, and to shopping central. The amount of luxury shopping available is extraordinary, windows glisten with gold and diamonds, watches possibly marginally better than the one I bought, and all manner of handbags and fancy clothes. I bought four pairs of socks for a quid, and felt very pleased with myself. This is the last of my posts about wandering around, or I think so anyway. There might be one more from when I went to the west end of Lantau and hallucinated a pink aquatic mammal, but the next post might actually be about birds, as despite arriving off a twelve hour flight on Saturday afternoon and then going out late to dinner, I then got up at 4am on Sunday morning and went birding all day long. Woohoo!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Happy Valley

An evening at the races. I'm not a big sports fan at all, but one of the "must do" things for HK is to spend an evening at Happy Valley - a racecourse surrounding by high-rise accomodation. Naturally I got rinsed. I bet on the favourite in race one, cleaned up, and in a fit of enthusiasm subsequently lost every other single race. Ah well, easy come, easy go. The races were a sideshow, just being there was the main event. 

I met up with a Uni mate from many many years ago when we had shared some crummy digs in about 1995. He's now an ex-pat vet out there, and has been for donkeys (which is what I bet on.....) years. He is clearly loving it, and is a racing afficionado. I think he lost a pretty penny also, proving that experience means nothing. The track was completely packed, although it was apparently a quiet night  - Wednesday evening is race night. My first horse race, and I loved it. Walthamstow Dogs, step aside, Happy Valley is where it is at. Do you know what a Quinella is? I did, briefly, but could no longer tell you. I tried it, and lost. Again. And again. Horse racing in the upper twenties is quite something, and thankfully it did not rain, unlike every other day that I was in Hong Kong. A wonderful place, properly different from my day to day, and somewhere I want to go back to. And it would be so easy too - twelve hours from west London, truly the world is a very small place indeed. The problem is simply time. Time I don't really have, or at least not until next year. I've got a stack of airmiles, so potentially Mrs L & I could get there very reasonably. Anyone want any children?

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Hong Kong Harbour

I'm finally back from my travels, and am a couple of weeks behind still. Whilst birds did feature, they were very much a sideshow to actual travel, i.e. the experiencing of new places. This makes a refreshing change actually, as many places I have been recently have involved purely the avian highlights, and skipped where they were entirely. Take Morocco for example - I've flown to Marrakech three times in the last year or so, but I've never actually set foot anywhere in the city other than the airport and its car park. Given how interesting it must surely be, this is a bit odd, and a big gap. Apparently Saint Augustine said that the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. Whilst I'm definitely doing a lot of reading, I've been skipping loads of pages, and I need to go back and see what's on them.

Not so in Hong Kong though, where birding took a back seat during most of my visit, and where instead I explored the city widely, admired many incredible views, ate lots of Dim Sum, wandered through loads of markets, and bought a knock-off Rolex. All things that most tourists do in other words. And it was great! Even the watch is a pretty decent effort, if a tad bling.

The best part about HK has to be the water. In addition to having pink Dolphins (what's not to like?), water is central to life in HK, as essentially it is a series of islands. Ferries run everywhere - from the five minute Star Ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, to journeys of up to an hour as far as Macau. I never made it that far, but I did spend a very enjoyable day taking four of five different boats to get from Lantau and back via a series of smaller islands. Inevitably I was drawn back to Victoria Harbour though, and the incredible and skyline of Hong Kong Island as viewed from the Kowloon side. There is a promenade known as the Avenue of Stars (a statue of Bruce Lee, and then hand prints of loads of people you've never heard of) that gives superb views across to Central, and even though it's been done millions of times before, and a whole lot more competently, I had to try and get a photo. Sadly I forgot my tripod, so all of these are with the camera balanced on my bag, which in turn was balanced on a life ring on the sloping sea-wall - you have to be creative in these situations, and overall it all worked out. I picked a pretty good evening, as there were a succession of thunder storms rolling in from the south, meaning that whilst I got wet every now and again, the sky became quite dramatic. Sadly I wasn't in position on the day that the sky turned black at 4pm and lightning fizzed horizontally across the sky, instead choosing to get back to Lantau before it all went horribly wrong, but I'd bet that you could get some simply sensational landscapes if your timing was lucky and you were prepared to die in the attempt. Anyhow, all these photos are basically the same, but they serve as a great reminder of a fun trip and a great ending to a day spent wandering around Tsim Sha Tsui. Anyone want a quality watch?