Saturday 31 December 2016

Top ten from 2016

In 2015 I saved 764 photographs, that is to say I thought that they were decent enough to keep and do something with. I dread to think what pitiful percentage of the overall number taken that is, but this is entirely normal and 2014 saw a similar number of keepers. Looking back on 2016 I already knew that this was far from a vintage year, but I was surprised to only have 369 in my "best of" folder. In old money that's barely ten rolls of film. I am at a loss to explain what has happened, after all it is not as if I have been out birding much is it? But there you have it, a low total, but on the plus side one that should be easy to surpass in 2017. It has also made it a lot easier to sift out a small selection of favourites, which are shown below, each with a teensy little bit of a story as I do so like typing.

Finsch's Wheatear in the rain, taken in Cyprus in January - a very short visit targeting this species during the few short months that it spends wintering in the mountains here. I think we only saw one bird during the entire trip, admittedly at one of the regular sites, but it was far more difficult than I had anticipated and when Andrew M and I found the bird it then proceeded to give us the run around. This is a reasonable crop, using the 800mm lens, a 1.4x converter, a monopod and somehow getting something tolerable at 1/200th of a second. Like I said, hard work.

I can scarcely believe that this is a real bird, but it truly was as bright in real life as it is here - I have done nothing to it. It is a Vermilion Flycatcher taken in Arizona in February. I was actually twitching a rare Mexican thrush, and then this super little thing popped up right in front of me. It was the first I had ever seen and to get views like this was extremely fortunate.

This is the church at St Julian's on Malta. I spent a long weekend here in April on a non-birding trip - pretty sure I didn't even pack binoculars. I had researched this location and got up before sunrise to be there. In retrospect I think I needed to be there at Sunset, but I had other plans for the evening and so did not make it back. This was quite a long exposure on a tripod, and using a couple of warming filters.

Shaun and I 'walked 'this  Ptarmigan in May in Iceland. That is to say we took a few steps forward, took a few shots, took a few more steps, took some more, and gradually got closer and closer whilst our photos (presumably) got better and better. This is one of the last ones I took before the bird flew off, and I really like the pose. And look at those legs! Handheld using the 500mm and converter, my absolute favourite birding lens.

Slavonian Grebe in Iceland from the same trip as the Ptarmigan. We received some much-needed gen from a passing birder about a lake close to the main road where you could get good views of this species. Having had a tough day in the field we were delighted to find a narrow strip of water with a pair of birds on it that really didn't seem to mind us too much. We approached as close as we felt we could during their frequent lengthy dives, lying prone on the bank, and eventually they swam right past us and out into a wider bit of water. By then we had what we wanted so we left them to it, chuffed with this great end to the day.

Black Skimmer chick in NY in July. I spent a weekend on Nickerson Beach on Long Island hoping to catch this species at a large colony. Overall the weather was against me - windy, overcast and stormy, but generally with patience something will come up and you'll be able to grab a few.  It wouldn't hurt to go back though. This photo is notable for being taken with a broken hand supporting the lens - I snapped my metacarpal three days before leaving. I'm not sure this was quite what the doctor ordered but I survived.

 When people think of Shetland (especially in October), blue skies and still water are probably not top of the list of conditions, and it is certainly true that other types of weather do exist, but this was a simply beautiful morning on North Mavine as we headed up towards Eshaness. 16mm lens on a 1.3 crop sensor, so about 21mm. You get a lot in with something this wide.

This is a Black-chinned Hummingbird taken in the Rio Grande Valley in October. I wish I had stopped down a bit more to get the tail in focus, but apart from that I am pretty pleased with how this came out, especially when you consider how tiny these birds are. Having had a quick drink at one of the many nectar feeders around the visitor centre at Bensten State Park, the bird then basked on a thin twig in the early morning sunshine for a while - time enough for me to lock on and take half a dozen shots.

Green Bee-eater in the UAE. At the north end of Fujairah Beach there is an industrial complex, and running alongside this is a rancid stream. With only stray dogs, mosquitos and litter for company, you would struggle to see the attraction, but it is just excellent for birds, and I made a bee-line for this lovely place as soon as I arrived on the coast. It did not disappoint. This is amother image notable for being taken whilst incapacitated. The day before I had sprained my ankle, and although I did not know it at the time, various ligaments were in shreds which is why I had to balance on one leg to take this...

Played for and got, a Hume's Wheatear on a rock in the UAE. Underneath the rock is the bird's favoured perch, a wooden post, but it didn't seem to mind too much, and I removed the rock when I was done. I'd had this image in mind for over a year, so it was really pleasing to actually take it. Regrettably the Hooded Wheater wasn't around, so I will have to go back which is of course a real shame. 

Thursday 29 December 2016

There shall be less wallowing

2017 needs to see significantly less wallowing. Reading this I expect many of you are thinking self pity. Though the level of self-inflicted injuries may partially determine that, what I’m actually talking about is wallowing around in bed. 2016 has been notable for a dramatic shift in my ability to get out of bed in the morning. It was bad before we got the electric blanket in the autumn, now it is just a disgrace. This morning would have been a wonderful time to be out on Wanstead Flats – a heavy frost, a clear day, it would be have been beautiful. As it was I lay under my duvet doing nothing other than wasting time. I wasn’t asleep, I was just wallowing in snuggly warmth. It was very nice of course, but I regret it, just as I regret most of the other mornings where I have done the same thing in preference to leaping out of bed and getting on with something worthwhile.

I mean even getting up and pottering around the house would be better than flopping in bed. I could water plants and check for bugs, I could fill up empty bird feeders, I could pick up things from the floor where the children have left them. I could do the recycling, I could clean the fish tank, I could unstack the dishwasher, I could crack on through my never-ending to-do lists…. I don’t have unstack the dishwasher on my to-do list by the way, that was just an example of the regular tedium that all of us have to bear, but doing useful tasks isn’t what I meant as an alternative to wallowing. Rather than tumble out of bed, shower and then head off to the salt mines, what I really want to do is go birding, go take photos in beautiful early morning light.

This is all feeling a little New Year’s Resolution-y. That’s not my intent either, but I really must pull my finger out. Part of the problem is that I go to bed too late, mostly as I am zapping around like a blue-arsed fly trying to maintain a thousand hobbies whilst simultaneously preventing Chateau L from descending into complete squalor. It does not help that I regularly get home at 8pm which doesn’t leave a lot of time for getting things done. I persevere of course, as I am spectacularly pig-headed and insistent that I will do everything. And then of course rather than a nice relaxing weekend which normal people use for catching up, I bugger off to foreign climes before the crack of dawn and return after dark on Sunday.

This is a state of affairs entirely of my own making. My own stupid fault. It has been like this for many years, and it means I am perpetually knackered, and that I – regretfully – really enjoy lying around in bed doing absolutely nothing. But for all my moaning, I genuinely really enjoy almost everything that I do which is why I can’t change the way things are. And the key thing that I do that I don’t enjoy is what unfortunately funds all of the other things…. so I had better get used it! Which of course I am after many years, being run off my feet is quotidian and I think I might miss it were it to stop. Imagine if I just took all of my plants to the tip, gave away my one remaining pair of binoculars, handed my passport in and sold my camera? What would I do all day? Stay in bed for a lot longer I expect!

No. I am determined that this will change. And fortunately the answer is close at hand and I don’t even need an alarm clock. Middle age and the tummy stuff I am on means that almost every day I now wake up at about 5am needing to go to the loo. At the moment I carefully replace the duvet to preserve the warmth before tiptoeing out. In future however I shall leave it cruelly cast aside and be forced to get dressed for warmth. And then I might go downstairs and make a nice cup of tea. I just need to avoid the sofa….

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Best Trip of 2016

Lucky so-and-so that I am, by my own admission I have been a lot of trips this year. I knew that this was likely, nonetheless I have surprised even myself by quite how much I have travelled. As usual it has been a healthy mix of birding trips and city breaks, either solo, with some or all of the family, or with a friend.

Taking these latter first, I had four fun trips with friends – Cyprus in January with Andrew M for Finsch’s Wheatear, a daring Rubythroat twitch to Holland with Bradders, a photographic long-weekend in Iceland with Shaun in late May, and then after a long gap, a few days in Shetland during the autumn mirgation with Bradders, Bob and Howard. All four were enjoyable in their own way, but if I had to pick one to repeat it would the Icelandic jaunt. I wasn’t very well during the trip (this is the new norm I suppose), but the landscape and the photographic opportunities are almost unparalleled, and travelling with “I need a cup of tea” Shaun was a lot of fun. I’m planning another trip next year focused on a very specific area and just a handful of species, but nothing is booked yet. As for Shetland 2017 I am undecided at the moment – a waning enthusiasm for rare birds so we’ll see what transpires. I am taking one of my daughters to Cyprus in the spring though…

There have been a lot of family holidays too - nothing long range this time, just European cities mainly. We went to Extramadura and Seville in the spring for a wonderful half-term break, a week split equally between the two locations. In particular I would move to Seville tomorrow, a wonderful city, east meets west architecture and culture, with fine food and a laid-back atmosphere. We also had a summer holiday split between Budapest and Vienna, exploring these two capital cities. Mrs L and I had been to the former last year and had wanted to bring the kids back, and none of us had ever been to Vienna. We enjoyed this very much, especially the vast slabs of cake, and later in the day the wine from the Wachau valley. We also had our traditional Scottish break in the summer with my parents, and then for larks went to Hamburg for the day earlier this month to buy some new Christmas decorations.  We also tend to go places in smaller groups; Mrs L and I went on quasi-romantic trips to New York and Prague, Henry and I went to Texas for a manic birding break in October, Mrs L and middle kiddo went on another trip to Scotland, there was a cycling holiday in Suffolk, and I took various combinations of girls to Athens, Bordeaux and Provence.

And then of course there are my solo forays, which this year took me mostly westbound to America, with a couple of shorter diversions in Europe such as to Malta and Istanbul. The big trips were New York for wader and skimmer photography, to the UAE for Wheatear photography, to Arizona for an exploratory birding trip, and then a wonderfully ridiculous trip to Hawaii. Of these four I know which I would most prefer to repeat! New York was OK, I came back with some of what I wanted, but overall it was let down by poor weather and a poor choice of accommodation. Abu Dhabi was a lot better until I fell over, with wonderful weather and light, and at least one target Wheatear was present and correct. Arizona was out and out birding – the pressure was off in other words, and I could just enjoy myself. I just love going to new areas with brand new birds – just me and a field guide. Four days was just enough for a taster of this wonderful area, dipping into some key sites close to the Mexican border, and I came back with a handful of pleasing photos too. 

But it is the long weekend to Hawaii that I keep smiling about. Mostly that I was daft enough to do it in the first place, and that it went off without a hitch including a flying visit with my Aunt and Uncle on the way. But also that once I got there it was simply a stunning place and I got to stand on a mountain ridge with amazing views and with Tropicbirds drifting round. I mainlined on fruit, swam in the pacific, walked along sandy beaches and hired a convertible. A mid-life crisis perhaps, but rarely have I felt as relaxed as that first evening lying in my hammock between two palm trees looking at the stars and swigging on a cold beer. I don’t think I took a single photograph I would even consider publishing on my bird website, but that was never the aim and this is a trip I would do again in a heartbeat. Stupid unashamed fun.

Texas - Trip list

150 Species
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck - Port Aransas, Estero Llano, Brazos Bend SP
American Wigeon
Mottled Duck - Port Aransas
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal - Estero Llano
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Plain Chachalaca - Estero Llano, Bentsen SP, Frontera Audobon
Wild Turkey - Aransas NWR
Greater Flamingo - Port Aransas
Least Grebe - Port Aransas
Pied-billed Grebe
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove - Estero Llano
White-winged Dove
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary
Greater Roadrunner - Bentsen SP
Common Pauraque - Estero Llano 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Estero Llano, Bentsen SP
Black-chinned Hummingbird - Bentsen SP
Buff-bellied Hummingbird - Estero Llano, Frontera Audubon
Sora - Estero Llano
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
American Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson's Plover
Piping Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Long-billed Curlew
Ruddy Turnstone
Stilt Sandpiper - Estero Llano
Least Sandpiper - Estero Llano
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher - Estero Llano
Short-billed Dowitcher - Port Aransas
Wilson's Snipe - Estero Llano
Spotted Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs - Estero Llano 
Laughing Gull
Franklin's Gull - Quintana beach
Ring-billed Gull 
American Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull - Quintana beach
Forster's Tern - Quintana beach
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Black Skimmer - Port Isabel/Boca Chica SP 
Wood Stork - Santa Ana NWR 
Neotropic Cormorant 
Double-crested Cormorant
Anhinga - Brownsville 
American White Pelican 
Brown Pelican
Least Bittern - Leona Turnbull Birding Centre (Port Aransas)
Great Blue Heron 
Great Egret 
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Reddish Egret 
Cattle Egret - Quintana beach
Green Heron - Leona Turnbull BC
Black-crowned Night-Heron 
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Port Isabel, Estero Llano
White Ibis
White-faced Ibis - Estero Llano
Roseate Spoonbill - Port Aransas
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite - Boca Chica SP
Northern Harrier 
Sharp-shinned Hawk 
Cooper's Hawk 
Harris's Hawk 
White-tailed Hawk - nr Falfurrias
Red-shouldered Hawk - Estero Llano
Broad-winged Hawk - Bentsen SP
Red-tailed Hawk - nr Falfurrias
Eastern Screech-Owl - Estero Llano
Ringed Kingfisher - Estero Llano
Belted Kingfisher - Quintana beach
Green Kingfisher - Frontera Audubon, Santa Ana NWR 
Golden-fronted Woodpecker - nr Rio Hondo, Estero Llano, Frontera Audobon
Red-bellied Woodpecker - Brazos Bend SP
Ladder-backed Woodpecker - Estero Llano
Crested Caracara - open country south of Riviera
American Kestrel
Black Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher - Estero Llano
Great Kiskadee - Estero Llano
Tropical Kingbird - Estero Llano
Couch's Kingbird - Estero Llano
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - widespread alongside I-77 south of Riviera
Loggerhead Shrike
White-eyed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Green Jay - Sarita rest stop, Estero Llano, Bentsen SP
Blue Jay
American Crow
Chihuahuan Raven
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 
Cliff Swallow
Tree Swallow
Cave Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse - Brazos Bend SP
Black-crested Titmouse - Sarita rest stop
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Hermit Thrush - Estero Llano
Clay-colored Thrush - Estero Llano
Gray Catbird - Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary
Long-billed Thrasher - Bentsen SP
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
House Sparrow
House Finch
Black-and-white Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler - Santa Ana NWR
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Canada Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal 
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Brewer's Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Altimira Oriole - Bentsen SP
(Yellow-chevroned Parakeet - Corpus Christi)

Saturday 24 December 2016

Merry Christmas!

The Happy Fulmar wishes you and yours a Merry Christmas and a happy 2017!

Texas - Day 4

Our final early start saw us arrive at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary on the Gulf coast. This is a tiny reserve set amongst residential properties and against the boundary of a huge industrial area. So not that prepossessing on first glance, but this small lot is clearly a labour of love. There is a small tower, and then a number of small paths that run through some dense scrub and some more open areas. Running water and drinking pools, with 'rides' you can view down. Set against the gas works and diggings, and the houses with no cover to speak of, it must stand out like a magnet for small birds as they hit the coast. Obviously this is late October rather than early May, but it was still pretty decent and we added several new birds in the push towards the magic 150 (initial target was of course 100, but I new we would smash that easily. 150 the next boundary but of course it gets progressively harder) including a very elusive Yellow-billed Cuckoo, our first Gray Catbird and a Blue-headed Vireo

Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Phoebe

Heading to the beach at the eastern end of the point it became very birdy indeed, with many Terns, Gulls and Pelicans milling around. We hoped to find roosting birds on the sandy beach and soon came across a crowded section with many Franklin's Gulls - my first outside the UK - Royal and Forster's Terns and many Lesser Black-backed Gulls. All were very wary and we could not get close but excellent scope views were obtained. We then drove along the shoreline at Bryan Beach Park, passing an American Oystercatcher alongside the usual selection of waders. The inland water held thousands of American Coots, and it was also here that we lucked out on a Belted Kingfisher, completing the set for the trip.

Nearly a teenager

Working our way inland along the 36 northbound it wasn't long before we arrived at our final birding destination, Brazos Bend State Park - more of a recreational area but a good mix of woodland and swamp habitat. With 141 species under the belt could we make that final push. After enjoying being shown a baby Alligator at the nature centre, we took one of the trails into the woodland. First up, high in the trees, was a vocal Red-bellied Woodpecker. Somehow Henry grasped that 150 meant a lot to his stupid father, and from here on in he transformed into bird-finder extraordinaire. He eeked out Carolina Wren, identified only from snatches and then referenced to the Sibley to get to the answer. A fantastic couple of hours followed as we found some feeding flocks in the scrub and tall trees, coaxing many down with earnest pishing - Magnolia Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse and White-eyed Vireo all gave themselves up, and with American Crow and Blue Jay added around the carpark we found we got there with ease in the end. 

Cute now....but give it time!

We walked around Elm Lake looking for the other whistling duck species but drew a blank - hundreds of the commoner one though. I surprised Henry with scope views of some truly impressive Alligators basking - he thought I was on a bird when I invited him to have a look! Compared to the small lizard we had petted in the visitor centre a few hours!  By now mid-afternoon we had to head back to the car as it would have been poor to have missed our flight home, and the airport was around the other side of Houston which is so massive that I could forsee it taking some time. This proved to be spot on, and an extremely late lunch later we joined the frankly ridiculous traffic rotating around America's fourth largest city.

One mall stop later for some final clothes shopping we pointed our car towards George Bush Intercontinental. Houston in rush hour is to be avoided, but then again an 8pm flight out is pretty ideal really and we made it with a little time to spare and settled down for nice sleep on one of the newest Dreamliners...

In retrospect it felt like we did a lot of driving, though if you want to bird the Rio Grande Valley then Austin and Houston are the nearest international points of entry and they're several hundred miles away so you have no choice. I suppose therefore that this is mostly down to the extremely short length of our trip - four days is not a lot when you have that much ground to cover. No matter where I go I always feel like I want an extra day, and no doubt this still would have been true had I organised a five day trip to Texas. But this is what I do - I would prefer to have three short trips than one long one, but also it is far easier for me to squeeze in multiple short trips than it would be to be away from home for long stretches at a time, even if it all evens out in the end.

Trip list = 150

Friday 23 December 2016

Texas - Day 3

We woke up refreshed and looking forward to our next foray along the Rio Grande. Checking out of our hotel quite early we made our way the short distance to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. This is a big reserve, and whilst you can walk it, it is not really the American way – believe it or not there is a shuttle that runs loops. We decided to take one of these but to first spend a bit of time birding around the impressive visitor centre. This was excellent, with another top target Altimira Oriole found in the trees here – found by Henry. There were plenty of Plain Chachalacas around too, and of course lots of Hummingbirds and a variety of other small birds. The ubiquitous Orange-crowned Warbler, and quite a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. After exhausting the possibilities here a friendly ranger drove us on the shuttle around to the Hawk Observation Tower, and it was on this short drive that we managed to bump into a Roadrunner, a bird I was keen that Henry see given his enjoyment of the eponymous cartoons. He commented that the bird wasn’t quite as blue and orange. Quite.

At the Hawk Tower, an impressive structure, we met a volunteer on raptor-watch duties, and he helped us get on to various spiraling and gliding birds headed south into Mexico. Loads of vultures, Broad-winged Hawk, an Osprey and a few others, although unfortunately the local Gray Hawk did not make an appearance. Another Altimira Oriole here, and a Long-billed Thrasher feeding around the base of the tower. All too soon however it was time to go – we had a monster drive back up to somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston. We stopped for lunch briefly at a packed Mexican eatery in Edinburg where the menus were exclusively in Spanish – one of the best meals we had all trip – and then we hit the road.

There is something about US road trips that is very enjoyable despite the distances involved, I cannot quite put my finger on it. I think it is just a fundamental part of the American experience. We had good music (or what I call good music!) and as you don’t exactly travel fast we could look for birds as we went, stopping whenever we saw something interesting. Our route was the 69 North to Falfurrias, and then “Raptor Alley” (285) east to Riviera. This did not disappoint, with several White-tailed Hawks and various other birds of prey . Then we rejoined the 77 up to Corpus Christi and passing the USS Lexington headed across the bay towards Aransas NWR, our late afternoon birding stop.

Aransas is some distance from the main road, as you have to track across small country roads to the coast, or rather the inner coast – the gulf of Mexico is behind the barrier island of Matagorda at this point. The place was near empty at this time of day and we headed over to the amazing observation tower that overlooks Mustang Lake. As we approached the tower we could see lots of black shapes on the top – Turkey Vultures! Deserted, they were using it as a huge roost and it was covered in both birds and bird droppings! As we climbed up the long zig-zags that raise you above the tree line the birds gradually flapped off, and then to our delight they simply started cruising around the tower. Birding was momentarily forgotten and the cameras came out. Although we had taken cameras, generally what happens on exploratory trips like this is that photography comes a distant second, a few grab shots as I go but nothing more as I’m much more keen to see stuff and to get a decent list going. So it was nice to have a half hour session devoted entirely to seeing what I could get on film, and the light was gorgeous. The wind wasn’t quite right for banking shots, but with perseverance I got a few nice ones – not that vultures are the nicest of subjects but sometimes that doesn’t matter. As the sun set and the birds settled down on other roosting sites we had a quick scan of Mustang lake – lots of Egrets as you would expect, but we were too early for the Whooping Cranes.

Our destination for the night was Lake Jackson, south of Houston near the coast, so we still had some distance to go, well over 100 miles. I think we did around 350 miles in total so we didn’t arrive until mid evening. We stocked up on chicken wings at a total dive of a sports bar before gratefully hitting the sack. Final day tomorrow!

Trip List = 134

Monday 19 December 2016

Best Twitch 2016

Once again it is the time of the year for “best ofs”. Fillers, as they are known. This comes as welcome relief for those like me who occasionally struggle for something to say and instead say silent…. In the past I’ve sometimes done the whole lot in one hit – the year in review if you like, but in 2014 I gave up on that approach. I think even then I was struggling, and so when my carefully constructed post at the end of 2013 sank without trace I couldn’t be bothered to do it again. For the last two years I’ve instead broken it out into several posts, best bird and so on. These mostly sank without trace too but just recently I’ve begun to detect a minor improvement in blogging conditions, a bit more community spirit rising to the surface perhaps, so I’m going to give it one more go.

Let’s start with the best twitch, seeing as 2016 has been a mega year for rare birds and I’ve seen absolutely loads. Oh wait…. Talk about a pointless exercise! I’ve been on precisely two twitches all year, well three if you count the Lanceolated Warbler on Shetland but I didn't have much choice on that one. An exercise in futility in many ways but here goes. So one was a day trip in fabulous fall conditions up to Spurn. The other saw me drive out to the Essex coast mid-morning and be back for lunch.

Both have their positives and negatives. If you view twitching as stupid, fundamentally lacking in skill and having little to do with birding, then the Essex Forster’s Tern was in many ways the perfect twitch. A leisurely start waiting on news, not very far away, easy parking, bird on view more or less immediately and showing quite well, smash and grab. And dull as ditch water. Completely and utterly boring, a tick in a box. The only way it could have been less fulfilling would have been if it had been a distant blob. I mean I like seeing new birds as much as the next guy, but really? Twitching is a mug’s game if this is what it is reduced to. I drove, I saw. Hmmm. And many of the birds that I have twitched I have often seen far far better abroad. As the years go by this is probably the reason why I am twitching less and less. And I just gave up my bird news subscription if that is any indication of what 2017 holds.

Forster's Tern, Mistley Quay, Essex. Oh no, my mistake, Florida.

The Siberian Accentor at Spurn was in many ways the exact opposite, leaving at midnight and driving miles through the night on no news. Generally this is not my preferred approach – for starters I need more sleep than in the past, and then there is always the risk of a massive dip. And whilst I generally react to big dips with nothing more with a shrug of the shoulders, I’d prefer not to be in that situation. I know you have to be in it to win it, but with no interest in winning I’d rather not be in it really. Anyway, all that is irrelevant because I went. I do not know why, but I went. The bird was there of course, but the day is memorable for entirely different reasons. In fact the twitch element of it was bloody awful if I am honest. It was still dark when we walked through the village, and it just does not feel right parking up in front of peoples’ houses in the still of the night, getting out to stretch legs, have a cup of coffee and so on. If I looked out of my window in the middle of the night I would not want to see throngs of people walking down the street, or waiting outside what passes for my front garden. The closing of car doors, the hum of chatter, imagine if – as must be inevitable – you woke somebody up? None of that matters though, seeing the bird is all that counts, no?

Anyway, rounding a corner at 5am and in the dark to find the Dull Men of Great Britain Convention in full swing was a bit of a shock, if not entirely surprising. The behaviour was less of a shock, and whilst it didn’t reach the lows of the Dusky Thrush grave-trampling, there is something about large crowds of desperate birders that sits very uncomfortably with me. I want to see the bird, but I don’t want to be part of the crowd. Part of it is self-preservation - I don’t want to be crushed, especially as I appear to be so fragile these days (MRI scan last week, two X-ray scans already this week and it is only Monday. Don’t ask….). I don’t want to be tarred by any accusations of being involved in habitat destruction, trampling, lack of decorum etc. And I also don’t want to be part of a group of people embarrassing themselves, even though simply being there is embarrassing enough. So as usual I hung back, unwilling to be part of the surging mass. One day this will cost me a bird I am sure, as the poor creature does a bunk immediately, freaked out by the wall of humanity* rushing towards it, but I just can’t deal with it. That first 90 minutes of waiting slightly removed from the ever-swelling crowd ranks as a 2016 low, and the hysteria triggered by the first sighting, or what people understood was a sighting but probably wasn’t – well you had to be there to believe it.

Thankfully the rest of the day was a lot better. We birded Spurn in fabulous conditions, with birds falling out of the sky all around us. We saw nothing overly noteworthy, more decent quantities of good, but it was bloody brilliant and was topped off when Sam finally saw a Little Bunting. To be there for that moment was very special, and the day is memorable for good company and superb birding. None of this really had much to do with the twitch, albeit that without the presence of a rare bird I wouldn’t have been there. It therefore feels silly to award this the much coveted title of Best Twitch of 2016, but in the absence of contenders… Tell you what, let’s call it a draw. Or more realistically, no winner and so no award. Deferred until 2017. Or never.  

*I am being generous….

Saturday 17 December 2016

Texas - Day 2

Day 2
This was one our key birding day in the Rio Grande Valley, we had no travelling to do and could spend the entire day out birding. So that’s what we did! We started in the dark – my poor boy is very understanding – at Estero Llano Grande State Park, hearing all sorts of wonderful sounds on the Green Jay Nature Trail but not knowing what they were. We did manage to get a glimpses of Hermit Thrush and Clay-coloured Thrush, and gradually a lot of rustling resolved itself into Plain Chachalacas moving with remarkable nimbleness though the low scrubby trees – I had been expecting to see them only on the ground like Turkeys. We also got really good views of White-tipped Dove here, but the highlight was the enormous Ringed Kingfisher that flew over with a huge rattling call in the half-light. Truly impressive.

Once it got fully light we crossed over to the main side of the road to the visitor centre – what we had failed to notice in the dark were the unbelievable swarms of ants. Tiny and non-biting, nonetheless the sheer numbers were staggering – there must have been millions, they covered every square inch of ground and that is not an exaggeration. We later learned that they were an invasive species from South America that were on a steady march across the Gulf Coast.

Now 8am, we mucked about watching the hummingbird feeders for a while before joining a volunteer-led tour as we felt this would allow us to see more. Estero Llano is a relatively new site, but as it has so many diverse areas of habitat the site list is already very large. We had identified this as a good place to go based primarily on eBird sightings lists and indeed it was one of the regular contributors who was leading the walk. We were not wrong, and as there were only five of us it was a really nice experience and we added heaps of species. Starting off at the Visitor Centre and then the walking around the lake added lots of wildfowl including Cinnamon Teal, waders including Stilt Sandpiper (a bird I’d only ever seen in the UK), Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper, as well as a Sora, a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers, and a Black Phoebe.

At the furthest lake we scanned for Alligators and Kingfishers but got neither which was a shame – unlucky apparently as most often you get the Ringed and the Green on this lake. Lots of Yellow-crowned Night Herons roosting in the trees at the western end of Alligator Lake though, and a fantastically cryptic Common Parauque at a known roosting spot. Moving up the path and south alongside Dowitcher Pond we were treated to immense flocks of Black-bellied whistling Ducks on the Llano, perhaps three hundred in total, as well as a number of American Pelicans.

Great Kiskadee

Back down the levee and we were in yet more different habitat – Lincoln Sparrows in a grassy field alongside the Spoonbill Trail, and lots of Warblers including a magnificent Yellow-rumped Warbler and more Orange-crowned. Once back at the visitor centre I left Henry at the Hummingbird feeders so he could get some photos, and I continued back to where we started on the other side of the road. I was glad that I did as we picked up both Tropical and Couch’s Kingbird here, another Parauque, and had excellent views of Green Jay and more Chachalacas here at some stocked feeders. Talking of which, be aware that if you travel in October as we did, many of the feeding stations are not yet in operation, and as such – not that it is difficult to find many of the birds – the mind-blowing views of Orioles and Jays that you hear talked-of down by the Rio Grande at places like Salineno are not on the cards. There is a birding festival at the beginning of November, by which time they are all in full swing. I am half-planning a return trip in December next year, so I will let you know!

"McCall's" Eastern Screech Owl

Green Jay

Our next stop was a Denny’s for another monster breakfast. Henry demolished this and then had some pancakes to fill up. Oh to have that metabolism again. With breakfast done it was on to the next birding spot, a delightful reserve called Frontera Audubon Thicket, a wooded lot seemingly in the middle of suburbia. This too was excellent, and thankfully here we had excellent views of Green Kingfisher, probably the most difficult of the three US species. The reserve is extremely well designed, loads of cover but equally loads of open areas with feeders, and deckchairs and benches set up for visiting birders. Henry and I chose one of these and sat down for a little while to aid digestion, and watched a succession of interesting birds come in a visit the feeders. The best of these was a Golden-fronted Woodpecker that stayed for close to twenty minutes and gave great views.

With the day running out already, or that’s what it felt like, we headed to Santa Ana NWR to see what new birds we could find. First on the list were two Northern Jacanas, present on two of the different lakes, but alas we couldn’t find them. We did however enjoy some of the most memorable birding of the trip whilst a small flock of warblers came through, attracted by our pishing of an Orange-crowned Warbler. We added all sorts here, probably more small birds than we had seen combined, with Black-and-White Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. The trails took us alongside the Rio Grande so we were literally a stone's throw from Mexico - the closest I have ever been. We added another Green Kingfisher on one of the lakes, and watched a number of Wood Stork coming in to roost - the light was just starting to fade and a great day was nearly over. 

So what better than a side trip to Mexico for a country tick? Only a mile of so down the road was the Donna Rio Bravo border crossing. We weren't quite sure whether this was sensible or not but really what could possibly go wrong? Seeing the immense jam of cars trying to get back into the US, we left the car in America and headed towards the bridge. A disinterested security guard let us through and we simply walked across the bridge and into Mexico. At the other side nobody at all was interested in seeing our passports so we had a poke around, attempted a conversation in spanish, and then turned around and came back. We walked past all the queuing cars and were then beckoned over to a booth by one of the CBP guys who I don't think had ever seen anyone on foot before. I don't think he was impressed, but we were let back in and went back to our hotel for a swim followed by lobster tacos.

Trip list = 122