Saturday 31 March 2018

What do you know?

Despite reports from early-rising birders that Wanstead Flats was utterly dead I ventured out anyway - I still believe that first thing on the patch is not the best time, and that a couple of hours are needed before any real action starts. Once again it was overcast and cold, however it was at least dry, and I was heartened by seeing a dog on a lead in the Skylark area, and even more astounded to then see its owner pick up a poo it deposited. The main and unspoken reason that dog-walkers prefer the long grass is that their pets can relieve themselves invisibly, and if you are conveniently looking the other way when that happens, well.... I am sure none of them have ever wondered why it is that in all their years of dog ownership their pet has never knowingly defecated. Convenient. Hats off to that lady, whoever you are - you are welcome on the patch.


More Parakeets are on the way...

I met Tony on Alex ridge sifting through gulls and we started moaning about how dreadful it was. He hadn't been out yesterday so at least he wasn't disappointed all over again like I was. Chewing the fat, talking about what might be my 150th bird on the patch, our conversation turned to Corvids, in particular Rooks and how it was that Nick saw so many and we did not. Rob turned up briefly, and upon discovering that we had seen no Rooks, went home again. Fair play, it had been a really shit morning. Then a funny thing happened - a corvid flew in from the west that appeared Rooky. I have no sixth sense or anything like that, but I'd been critically examining all the Crows all morning with no joy whatsoever and somehow was gamely still raising my bins for each one. I thought I observed a paler beak but it was probably the light, and then I decided that the forehead appeared to have a distinct peak. The bird disappeared behind the island, appearing to land in the trees  Enthusiastically talking it up, trying to convince myself in the manner that birders frequently do, I turned to Tony for his thoughts. Now imagine that I am having a parade, it does not matter what for. Well Tony was a large, black and extremely water-laden cloud!

I stopped talking it up as I did not want to appear stringy, but could not get the thought out of my head that the bird had frugilegus credentials. With nothing else happening I suggested that we walk around the lake and take a look in the trees. Roughly the third bird we looked at seemed to have a peaked forehead and a sharp pointed bill. We approached closer and began to do our utmost to unconvince ourselves. Surely this was just a Crow and we are idiots? No, it has to be a Rook. Doesn't it? To cut a long story short it was a Rook, a juvenile, but we made it a lot harder than it probably was. It as times like this you realise how infrequently you look properly at common birds like Crows. They are one of the species that I routinely ignore, I don't give them a second glance. And then, under pressure, when you really need to know what a juvenile Crow looks like versus a juvenile Rook you realise you don't actually know, or rather that you can't be confident in what you actually do know. I mean you do know, of course you know, and although it is subtle Tony and I knew, but were still doing our best to deny it - it was a patch tick for TB and you have to be sure about these things! Luckily technology has the answer, and a quick check of the Collins application settled our shattered nerves. Of course it's a Rook! Duh! Tony has a series of dreadfully over-exposed photos, ahem, which I am sure will feature on his blog at some point later on.

With the cold wind blowing we decided that was it and parted ways. Almost as soon as I was in the door Tony messaged to say he hadn't gone home after all and had jammed a Wheatear in the Old Sewage Works. Gah! Naturally I twitched it immediately. And dipped. The new horse paddocks down there are a decent place for ground-feeding birds, and in the recent cold spell Tim had lots of Thrushes in there. It is electrified and thus undisturbed. Hopefully we will get more birds there, perhaps lingering Yellow Wagtails if we ever get any migration. Disappointed I trudged home again.


Incredibly welcome

There is a happy ending though, as in a brief spell of late afternoon sunshine (almost unheard of this month) I went out for a third time and this time struck gold. Well, peach. A male Wheatear, actively feeding amongst the anthills near the VizMig Point. It looked decidely chipper and pleased to be here, and I was extremely pleased to see it. It is a day later than my latest ever Spring Wheatear, which was in 2011. It has begun, finally.




Friday 30 March 2018

Before the rain set in

The forecast was nearly right I suppose, it has mostly been a miserable day. However the rain did hold off until about lunch time, after which it came down in rods and sent everyone scurrying for home, me included. But this meant that I did get most of the morning out on Wanstead Flats, and whilst it was very quiet it also wasn't indoors at a desk, so in that sense it was truly excellent. In the first few hours I think I saw more birders than birds, each of us out and hoping for a sign of spring. A sign with a white backside....

There were none. In fact barring a few Chiffchaff there were precisely zero signs of spring, and my red hat stayed firmly on my head as it felt more like winter for most of the time. Early morning sunshine on the Flats was gradually replaced by a build up of cloud and a biting wind, and at this point I bade farewell to Nick, and previously also Bob, Marco and Rob, and Tim and I carried on to the Park in the vain hope that the weather front might drop a few hirundines in. I didn't. However we did meet up with Rob again in the Old Sewage Works, and were pleased to find the Hawfinch in roughly the same spot as he had seen it half an hour previously. This was a sub-patch tick for me, and a bird (I assume the same individual) that I had dipped a couple of times already this year. I split my Wanstead patch into four areas - Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park, Bush Wood and my back garden. Whilst Wanstead Flats clearly leads the pack on 139 (out of 149) simply by virtue of birding it more often than any of the other areas, the Park continues to improve and the Hawfinch was my 109th bird there, following hot on the heels of the Dunlin delivered by the Beast from the East, and the Great White Egret delivered by, errr, Uber. My garden lags behind on 82, and Bush Wood is simply pathetic at 43. 

I didn't carry a camera today due to the impending downpour, but tomorrow I may do so as tomorrow marks the start of the official breeding season, where we vainly try and keep the long grass clear of incursions. The way today went does not bode well. One lady had seven dogs. Seven! A man had five. A jogger went right through the middle with her bouncy dog pretty much doing loop the loops in the breeding area. The birds have little chance. But wait, there are signs!

Well yes there are, but they do not apply to dog walkers. In fact no rules apply to dog walkers, they can do whatever they like. Including ripping the signs down and stamping on them as they are so offensive. By offensive I mean suggesting that they keep their pets on a lead from 31st March to 31st August. I mean that is just bound to tip a dog walker over the edge isn't it? Anyway, here is one of the signs that is still up - they were made by a local school and were placed earlier this year. I don't expect this one will last, Nick discovered two of them smashed to bits on the ground yesterday. Just how small-minded you have to be to do something like that is really hard to fathom. 



So from tomorrow I will start talking to dog owners who are ignoring the signs, and other local birders will be doing so as well. I don't know how long I will last - I mentioned in an earlier post I am not really up for conflict, and in my many years of trying to make dog walkers take notice I can tell you that it does not really matter how you approach the subject. Softly softly or straight to the point, perhaps even rudely straight to the point, it makes no difference. Not a single person has ever said they are sorry and they did not know. To a man/woman, they are doing nothing wrong and they can go where they like. Their dog does not chase birds, their dog is a nice dog. Or they just tell me where to go. Or threaten me. I've enjoyed that edgy feeling a few times in the past with particularly aggressive owners. I suppose I could do the whole name and shame thing, take pictures, post them up etc etc. I've think I've done that once or twice in the past, but the more I see of social media the less I think that it is a good contribution. And it's not as if the land-owner will act on any photos anyway. No, I do not want to stoop to the base baying for blood level that is frequently present, we all need to move away from that. I will probably just try and have a quiet word and be told to get stuffed (or worse) for my troubles. Welcome to modern Britain. It's every man for himself.

Thursday 29 March 2018

The thorny issue of drawing with light


This is a Green Thorntail from Costa Rica. It is rather lacking in the thorny tail department because it is the female and when they were doling out long tails the females weren't allocated any. Shame. In Costa Rica Bob and I saw a staggering 37 species of Hummingbird, and looking through my images I've managed to photograph a fair few of them. Not all of them by any means, but enough, I think, to manage the odd filler post like this. 

Hummingbirds, despite their crazy speed and unpredictable nature, are probably my biggest successes from the trip. You would think that they would be the blurry rubbish ones but I seem to have done OK. Generally photography was exceedingly difficult, the biggest reason being the irreconcilable conflict with birding. I simply had no time in which to realistically get what I wanted. I know, moan moan moan. It is what I do best. If I stopped to spend time photographing a bird I stopped birding, and that I wasn't prepared to do on the birding trip of a lifetime. This meant being largely restricted to grab shots here and there and then having to catch up whilst hoping Bob and Leo hadn't seen a Quetzal yet. I don't think I missed any birds by lingering, but there were very few birds that I felt I spent adequate time with.

The exception to this were various feeding stations where I made hay whilst the sun shone. Literally. Rather than have a siesta in the heat of the day, I camped out by various collections of sticks and piles of fruit. As many people familiar with such things will know, the middle of the day is not the time to be taking photographs. It was that or nothing. So whilst I saw over 400 species, the number of birds that I would say I had decent keepers of is far far lower. I have, in my opinion, barely enough with which to illustrate a trip report, and certainly a day by day trip report is proving rather hard as some days were far less productive than others. 

And don't talk to me about the light! Awful. Heat of the day or the dappled darkness of the forest. ISO 4000 was my most-used speed. The camera kept up - just - but the images looked better on the screen than they are in real life and lulled me into a false sense of security. Most of my rainforest photos are complete rubbish, the odd ones rises above the discarded heap. Maybe this is why the Hummingbirds came out better than expected, they were at the margins or in the open. The above image was taken at almost precisely midday at ISO 1600 in a clearing, with a fleetingly beneficial bit of white cloud keeping the glare in check. I am pleased with it, pleased by the simplicity and the hint of action, but by far the majority of what I have taken leaves me wanting more, wanting to go back at a slower pace and do it again. Properly, with thought and care. Second visits to places are often good for that, but let's see. Time is short.


Wednesday 28 March 2018

Local accident

My Wanstead year-list tripped up by accident earlier this week when I unfortunately heard a Chiffchaff whilst walking to work. Ooops. I had been hoping to get all the spring migrants in a single concentrated visit later on, but had forgotten that my ears still work. After a frenetic January I can now barely remember the patch, but hopefully the upcoming four day weekend will allow me to reacquaint myself with it. 

I was about to say I have not missed much but I have - Hawfinch, Woodcock, RookRed Kite, Marsh Harrier to name but a few. Oh, and Med Gull. Nevertheless I need to go back many years to find one where, by the end of March, I am approaching 80 species. Usually this is the mid-April mark, and barring my pre-emptive Chiffchaff strike I've not yet had a sniff of a spring migrant. Even the joys of my first Wheatear still await me. 

I had a vague plan to wake up early both today and yesterday, but was sent back to bed by rain hammering on the windows. The same may be true of the upcoming bank holiday - it looks miserable three days out, with only Sunday dry and the other days a potential wash out. Spring feels as far away as it has been for a while, but let's see, a lot can change in a short period of time.











Tuesday 27 March 2018

Costa Rica - Day 2, afternoon

Only a short drive from La Paz Waterfall Gardens we left the main road and descended into the valley below - an area known as Virgen del Socorro. This will forever be a place etched in my memory for one very simple reason. I saw my first Toucan. I actually spotted it myself, no laser pen necessary, as it flew across the road near the new bridge and settled in a tree. It was not the classic Keel-billed Toucan I had been expecting, but the larger Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. I remember feeling the same way when I saw my first Hornbill in Singapore - birds that just have that certain something that connects them to where they live. Toucans scream tropical, and whilst I have visited the tropics a number of times this was my first encounter. It was so good that even though the photo is distant and suffering from excitement, I am posting it anyway. Record shots can also have deep meaning.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan


Once we crossed the bridge Leo had a plan. He knew where a certain Heliconia grew, and that if in flower (which let's face it is almost continuously in the tropics where it is simultaneously all seasons other than winter) it might be visited by quite a rare Hummingbird, the White-tipped Sicklebill. We staked it out, Leo pointing out which flowers were at the perfect state of development to be attractive to the bird, and remarkably one came by. Even more remarkably I managed to get a photo of it in the semi-darkness of the rainforest. Like the Toucan it isn't the best, but all I can say is just wait until you see my Antpitta.

White-tipped Sicklebill

Flush with hummer success we carried on up the winding road that climbed up the opposite side of the valley, and a few judicious stops - even in the middle of the afternoon - added gazillions of great birds. It was neck-aching stuff, with some birds like Black-headed Tody Flycatcher hundreds of feet up followed by Bay Wren hopping around at our feet. It was the Tanagers that stole the show though. Leo pointed out Bay-headed Tanager, a vision of electric green and blue, but as I was taking this in I saw something even more remarkable which just got better and better as I described it. I had no idea what it was of course, but my description was so good that Leo called it as an Emerald Tanager before he even saw it. I think there were three in the end. 

Bay-headed Tanager -  heavy crop does not do it justice!

It is so difficult, only a few short weeks later, to remember what birds we saw where - even with the aid of my notebook which I assiduously wrote up each evening.The days were endless blurs of birds, thick and fast, from first light to last knockings. From memory along this short section of road we also saw Plain Xenops, Crested Guan, Lesser Greenlet, Barred Becard, Russet Antshrike, Slate-throated Redstart, Black-and-Yellow Tanager... the list goes on and on. Towards the end of this multi-stage trip report I will try and set out the day-by-day list, as well as the total. All I can say for now is that don't be concerned that you might not see many birds if you go to Costa Rica.

Roadside Hawk

Our final stop of the day was at the small lagoon just outside of San Miguel. We spent an hour or so here looking for a White-throated Flycatcher, but being puzzled by what appeared to be an out-of-range Bran-coloured Flycatcher. Whilst trying to photograph what might be a new bird for the Caribbean side we also notched up both Grey-headed and Olive-headed Yellowthroats, Greyish Saltator, Variable and White-collared Seedeater, Rufous-throated Sparrow. With darkness falling we drove the remaining short distance to La Quinta di Sarapiqui. Here we finally met up with the inestimable Kevin, and made plans for the following day that would be spent at La Selva Biological Station, a bastion of tropical research over the years. The trip list at this point stood at 109, not bad for a day of driving with four stops!

Grey-headed Yellowthroat



Monday 26 March 2018

Costa Rica - Day 2, morning

We were up before first light, the chirping of unfamiliar birds outside our window. Eagerly we got ready and headed out to explore the gardens again. But wait, where are Bob's binoculars? Ah yes, hanging on the back of his chair at the outdoor restaurant the previous evening. Well, let's just hope that they have been handed in as a week of birding in Costa Rica might otherwise be a little bit tricky. Luckily they have and Bob comes back from reception with a pair of bins, panic over.


Spot-breasted Oriole

Shortly after Leonardo - Leo - turns up and shows us all the birds in the garden that we have somehow missed. He is birding by ear and the bird we do not want to miss - Spot-breasted Oriole, here and nowhere else on the itinerary - he picks up quite quickly. I'd gripped Bob off the previous evening with a quick glimpse, so he is doubly pleased to be able see it. And with the added bonus of through his binoculars! Cinammon Hummingbird is also around the pool feeding on the small purple flowers known as Porterweed, as well as Rufous-naped Wren, a chunky bird that belies the status of Wren! 

We get to know Leo a little bit over breakfast and then head off north towards Poas volcano on Route 146. Our first stop is a small garden opposite a restaurant (Tour de Fresca Organica Costa Rica) in village called Poasito. It is a brief stop as we have some way to go but we begin to add to our Hummingbird totals here, including Purple-throated Mountain Gem and various others. Futher away from the feeders we get our first of many Common Chlorospingus (aka Common Bush Tanager), and Red-faced Spinetail. A key bird here is White-eared Ground Sparrow and we pick that up too. We discovered here that Leo has a laser pointer that will play a key part in getting us on the birds before they disappear - rather than attempt to describe where in the huge tangle of vegetation the bird is he simply shines the green pointer somewhere close to it, or we follow it up an obvious branch and then only when the light is approaching the bird does he say left of the light, above the light two feet etc. Genius, and I can truthfully say that throughout the trip it made a massive difference. 

Common Chlorospingus

As payment-in-kind for the upkeep of the garden and short trails we bought a delicious strawberry milkshake from the café opposite and then made an abortive attempt at Resplendant Quetzal at a nearby fruiting tree. Whilst this was not the key place for the Quetzal I think a lot of guides try and get it early to relieve a bit of the pressure, so worth a try. No dice but we did get our only Prong-billed Barbet of the trip, a bird which I remembered from the field guide as it looks a but like a Hawfinch. Some White-crowned Parrots were here too, and I spilled half the milkshake in the footwell of the car which impressed Leo no end.


Coppery-headed Emerald

Coppery-headed Emerald


Violet Sabrewing

Green Hermit

The next stop is a familiar one on many Costa Rica agendas, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (Catarata de la Paz, on route 126). This is mostly a zoo as far as I could tell, but it has many fabulous trails and loads of Hummingbird feeders. The entrance fee is steep but it includes lunch and was in any event included in the trip cost. Violet Sabrewing, one of the larger hummingbirds, was probably one of the first birds we saw, but the feeders lower down had plenty of other Hummers including Coppery-winged Emerald, Lesser Violetear, Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant and Green Hermit. I could have stayed all day taking photos, trying to get images of birds away from the many sugar feeders and instead on natural perches or in flight (unbelievably difficult!) - indeed this was the case at many places we visited - but birding took precedence and we took the trail that leads down to the main waterfall vista. 





Purple-throated Mountain Gem on sub-optimal perch.


Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Ochraceous Wren

There were birds everywhere, you simply did not know where to look. (Hint, at the green light!). Black Guan in a tree, Ochraceous Wren climbing a banana tree, Yellow-thighed Finch on a log, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch grubbing around in the leaf litter, stripey-headed Costa Rica Warblers bouncing through the mid-levels and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers hopping up vertical trunks. I've rarely experienced birding like it, the action was non-stop. Some time was spent hoping that an Ochre-breasted Antpitta that Leo had heard call twice might respond to his speaker, but sadly it did not. By the way, in my experience tape seems to be an integral part of guided birding in South America and the Caribbean. As well as Costa Rica, guides I've used in Argentina, Tobago and St Lucia have all used mp3 extensively to bring birds in. In the UK a certain segment of birders loathe it but abroad it seems to be very common and, like the laser pen, it made a huge difference in getting good views, indeed any views, of quite a few species. 

We gradually picked our way down the ravine to the waterfalls lifering constantly, tick after tick after tick and many of the birds seen exceptionally well albeit not to photograph. Tufted Flycatchers sallied high above the water whilst a Green Lancebill hunted insects closer to the surface. A shuttle took us the short distance back up main road to the entrance, and then we returned to the restaurant and hummingbird feeders for a break. Sooty-faced Finch was pottering around the buffet, another bird we were not likely to see anywhere else, and I managed to sneak another few minutes with various hummingbirds. It had been an exhilarating morning and this was only our second stop!




TBC

Saturday 24 March 2018

Costa Rica - Day 1

With the Beast from the East in full swing, Bob and I left London the night before and headed through the snow to Gatwick. Although the train companies had been saying to complete your journey before 3pm this was rather incompatible with work, but in the event it was a slow trip but one not complicated by any of the extreme weather. We settled nervously into the Marriot in preparation for possible excitement on Saturday. Gatwick would, I hoped, show its customary resilience in the face of crap weather.

Which is exactly what happened. Snow, what snow? The plane took off more or less on time, leaving a white Sussex behind. With an entire field guide to learn and a ready supply of G&Ts the flight passed really quickly and a few minutes later we arrived into a warm San José. No snow here - what a difference a few thousand miles makes! First bird a Black Vulture out of the window as we taxied in. The airport was relatively efficient and barring a cursory and pointless x-ray of our suitcases we got through very painlessly. It took a while to find our pick-up, but we were soon on the road, heading west away from the city centre to our hotel. 

This was the Hotel Robledal which had very welcoming staff and nice rooms. And, from my point of view, spectacular gardens. God I love the tropics - heliconia and gingers everywhere, bougainvilleas draped in colour, palms and a profusion of large-leaved vines.





We had a few hours to kill before dinner and devoted these to birding the hotel gardens. Whilst it wasn't as tropically birdy as I hoped we added a whopping 13 species before settling into deck chairs by the pool for our first beer - Imperial. We also learned from reception that a man called Leonardo was to be our guide and that he was arriving on Sunday morning at 6am. To say we were excited does not adequately describe the state of affairs. The first of many chicken and rice dishes for dinner and we hit the hay.

Great Kiskadee - very common almost everywhere

Great-tailed Grackle - ditto

White-winged Dove


Pygmy Ferruginous Owl nested in the hotel gardens




Tuesday 20 March 2018

Costa Rica - Logistics and Itinerary


In early March 2018 my fellow patch-worker Bob V and I spent an entire week in Costa Rica. This is by far and away the longest bird trip I have ever been on and I mean that entirely seriously. Most trips to this country however last a fortnight, time I am not able to take, and as such we reduced the number of distinct areas we went to and also reduced the typical amount of time that is spent in each of these areas. If we missed something there were limited opportunities to try again. Despite the compressed timetable it was utterly fantastic and by some margin the best place I have ever been birding. We missed very little and notched up 412 species in 6.5 days, not far off the totals expected on the longer itineraries, and what's more had a lot of fun doing it. The Tropics are simply incomparable.

Logistics
  • We opted on a fully guided trip - rain forest birding in a country with the diversity of Costa Rica is incredibly difficult and we wanted to maximise what we saw.
  • We used 'Costa Rica Gateway' to create a bespoke itinerary for us, focusing on seeing as many of the near-endemics as possible in the allotted time. Kevin Easley runs CRG and proved to be excellent.
  • The cost was approximately £1550 per person and included a guide, a vehicle and all fuel, seven nights accommodation, most meals, and all reserve entrance fees. 
  • We spent barely anything else during the week- a few cheap lunches, some evening beer and a tip for our guide.
  • Travel was with BA was an easy choice as they have four direct flights to San José from Gatwick every week. Prior to this option flights were via Madrid or the USA. We left on Saturday morning, returning the following Saturday afternoon. 
  • No visas were required for UK citizens.
  • The local currency is Colones but US Dollars are widely accepted. 
  • Mosquito repellent is a must but the bugs were not as bad as you might think. 
  • It was hot in the lowlands and a bit cooler in the highlands - a mix of clothing is needed, as well as waterproof shoes and a raincoat for some areas.
  • We took the Birds of Costa Rica (Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean). This was wholly unnecessary as our guide was Leonardo Garrigues. The clue is in the name....he was unbelievable. 
  • Leo came with a scope so there was no need to bring one. I took my camera instead but birding always came first. Blink and you'll miss it.
Lesser Violetear


Itinerary
The itinerary was a tried and tested one - two days each in the Caribbean Lowlands, Highlands and Pacific Lowlands, with some time devoted to travelling between the areas. The reserves and areas visited appear on many if not all trips reports, as indeed did all of the hotels, and are chosen for good reason - they were all exceptional. Each birding location had a different mix of birds. 

Day 1 (3 hours):
Flight to SJO, arriving early afternoon. Met at the airport for hotel transfer, late afternoon chilling out at a nearby hotel. 
Day 2: Early pick up by Leo, transfer via La Paz Waterfall Garden to La Quinta de Sarapiqui in the Caribbean Lowlands. 
Day 3: Full day birding La Selva Biological Station. Overnight at La Quinta.
Day 4: Morning on the Caribbean Slope, afternoon drive back through San José to the Savegre Valley in the Highlands with various birding stops. Overnight at Savegre Mountain Lodge.
Day 5: Full day birding the Highlands. Overnight at Savegre Mountain Lodge.
Day 6: Morning birding the Highlands and Pacific Slope, afternoon drive to Tarcoles via San Isidro and Dominical. Overnight at the Hotel Villa Lapas.
Day 7: Morning birding Carara NP in the Central Pacific Lowlands, afternoon in the Mangroves and around the Tarcoles river. Overnight at Villa Lapas.
Day 8 (half day): Dry forest birding and further mangroves along the Guacalillo Road, lunchtime transfer to San José for a 3.30pm flight home, arriving home on Sunday morning.



Locations
1. Hotel Robledal
2. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
3. La Quinta di Sarapiqui
4. La Selva OTS
5. Cope's Place
6. Old Butterfly Garden
7. Savegre Valley
8. Bosque de Tolomuco
9. Carara NP
10. Guacalillo Road



Flame Tanager

A short word on pace - because we were travelling as a party of three and not restricted by the needs and limitations of a large group it is fair to say that we went at it quite hard. We wanted and were given intense birding - starting before breakfast and often continuing after dark for Owls and Nightjars. Nonetheless each day had a leisurely lunch stop, and those days where there was no travel had a decent block of time in the middle of the day for a siesta after lunch, or in my case a much-needed opportunity to concentrate on bird photography at the various feeding stations that two of the three hotels had. The third had a swimming pool and free beer....




Monday 19 March 2018

Costa Rica - Yet another taster

Sorry, it is taking me longer to get my arse in gear than I had anticipated. I blame real life which is relentless. This is a Sulphur-winged Parakeet feeding on apples at the Savegre Mountain Lodge - the same place where those funny Pretzel birds live. I've got some photo's somewhere, but I'm scared to post them in case they make you choke.


Sunday 18 March 2018

Inspired by jungle fever


The rainforests in Costa Rica were like heaven to me, I spent as much time looking at plants as looking at birds. As we wandered down trails I was forever touching plants, feeling leaves, looking and learning. A few were familiar - understory palms that looked very like some of the Chamaedorea that I grow at home. I also came across a seedling of Zamia neurophyliddia and was then shown an adult by the forest owner. Everywhere you looked there was something of interest, to me at least. Perhaps most interesting of all was the incredible profusion of epiphytic plants - mosses, orchids, vines and ferns. Huge columns of what looked like Monstera (Swiss Cheese Plants) grew vertically up huge trunks, Philodendrons dangled down, mosses and air plants grew luxuriantly at all levels of the forest. Whilst I couldn't identify most of them, I did recognise the Staghorn ferns that were of epic proportions high up in the forks.



I have one at home, given to me by my friend Howard. He rescued it from somewhere and it has been living in the new bathroom in Chateau L, enjoying the extra humidity from the shower. It was in a small pot and had gradually been growing new shields - these plants have two sorts of leaves, the pronged leaves that you would say are the actual leaves, but then also basal leaves that gradually attain a round smooth form and hold the roots against the trunk. I say was in a small pot, because whilst they can be grown in pots, they can also - and indeed prefer - to be grown as nature intended, without soil and hanging vertically. So inside my warm house and with snow falling outside, I spent a portion of this afternoon pretending I was back in the glorious rainforests and preparing a new growing environment for my fern. 

I carefully divided the pot into three parts, each with a few growing points and a shield - the lighter-coloured veined part towards the bottom.

I finally found a decent use for old wine cases. These are about 30cm x 15cm

Add a fixture for wall-hanging

Add a number of screws on the front in a ring around where you expect to place the plant - don't put them in too far as you will want to screw them in a bit more at the end. These will be used to attach the wire that will hold the rootball in place.

I bought some dried sphagnum moss - 100g made 4.5 litres and cost a fiver. Just add water.

First I laid a layer of moss on the board, and then I laid the fern on top. Then I made a nice ball of moss over and around the roots, before tying the whole thing down with a cats-cradle of wire. Screwing the screws in a little further after the wire is attached helps to tighten the wires.

Mrs L unwittingly contributed a pair of her nylon shoe-socks that apparently can only be bought in America. I am in the dog house, but the ball of moss is now nice and secure.

Finally mount the plant on a wall. Here it is temporarily hanging on the bathroom cupboard handles whilst I accrue enough brownie points to be allowed to put up a picture hook above the shower. Given the sock incident this may take a very long time, or indeed never happen at all. Be warned, these plants can become very large indeed over time. To water either mist the leaves, or just shower the whole thing for a few seconds, dunk in a sink etc. The wood will eventually rot, at which point either replace it or nail it onto a new piece of wood.



Saturday 17 March 2018

Costa Rica - Another taster

Sorry, too many photos to get through means no time to write anything. In addition to probably still being over-awed... Another reason it is taking ages is that it was all very easy when I was there as I had the amazing Leonardo telling me what everything was. It is less easy having to do it for myself at a desk using the field guide. Weak I know, but you simply do not have time to identify every bird in the field as you go along - you would see only a fraction of what was there, and Leonardo had one aim which was to ensure that Bob and I saw as many of the endemic and near endemic birds as possible. They came thick and fast, barely time to get any images of any of them else I would have fallen behind and might have missed something. And worse, Bob might have seen it! Anyone who has been birding in a tropical rainforest will know what I am talking about. 

Anyway, I am condfident that this is a Broad-billed Motmot, and it was at La Selva OTS Biological Station, a simply amazing place stuffed full of birds which we barely dipped into. Scratched the surface, no more than that. Sadly it only has one dangly bit at the end of its tail, whereas it should have two, but I am not that picky. I would also like to point out that these were at ISO 4000 - it is dark in rainforests, very dark, and I worked with settings  that I have never before attempted. I can see more "noise" than I would like, but at the same time the fact I have a usable image almost beggars belief. And I didn't stop at 4000 either but more on that another time.



Friday 16 March 2018

Costa Rica - Taster

There are no words really...
However I will surely find some to relate the best birding trip I have ever been on.


White-collared Manakin

Thursday 15 March 2018

Unsightly, messy and exciting

I have just been away for a week. No surprises there, and Costa Rica was sensational. However when I came back look what I discovered is now in my garden.



Persons unknown have dumped a huge unsightly pile of sticks in the top of my beautiful Monkey Puzzle tree. What was a lovely candelabra shape, a thing of precision and of daily happiness is now a complete mess. Whilst it is tempting to blame the children or squirrels, the actual perpetrators are a pair of industrious Magpies who are in the process of making an absolutely gigantic nest. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I am very pleased – I will be able to watch a family of Magpies at close range – the new turret at Chateau L is at exactly the right level to get a really good view of all of the comings and goings. Magpies are characterful birds with bags of personality, clever and inventive. More interesting you would say than a Blackbird

On the other hand my Monkey Puzzle tree is a source of great joy to me – it is, as older readers will perhaps recollect, the main reason I live in Chateau L. I doubt the nest will be detrimental to the health of the tree, but it just looks terrible, and might get worse as the parents and (hopefully) chicks start chucking waste out of the side of the nest. And then of course there is the threat that Magpies as a species pose to smaller birds, several of which also nest in my garden – Blue Tits, Robin, Goldcrest. The eggs and chicks of all of these are excellent foodstuff for Magpies and are known to form part of their diet, albeit that studies suggest that Magpies do not pose a conservation problem to garden birds. I’m not sure what a “conservation problem” is in this context, but I suspect that it means that a certain level of predation by Magpies has no discernible impact on common species at a national level, but that at a local level (as local, say, as my garden) there could be huge variation. Personally I now have great concern for the other birds that I know live and breed in the grounds of Chateau L, but it is what it is and nature will run its course. My Blue Tits are in a nest box and should be OK, but the others are not. Red in tooth and claw as they say. But why couldn’t they be Oropendolas?

Wednesday 14 March 2018

North-eastern Oman Trip Report


In late February 2018 Mick S I spent a four day long weekend in the north of Oman. I’d previously spent some time in the UAE, and whilst the birds and birding were not hugely different here, the country itself felt different – the people, buildings and food. And of course the Crab Plovers were different, as this time I did not dip them as I have done on all previous visits to the Middle East!

Logistics
  • Travel was with BA overnight on Wednesday, arriving on Thursday morning at about 7am. For some reason flights to Muscat (as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi) are really cheap at the moment, under £300.
  • We got our e-visas before we travelled to avoid the queue on arrival, but it still took a long time.
  • The trip was entirely self-organised, with good-value hotels booked via the usual outlets and a 4x4 rented from Avis (this was really useful for many of the areas we went to).
  • The car, a Mitsbishi Pajero, was expensive at about £300, and became even more so when we discovered upon returning it that there was a per day limit on mileage which we had significantly exceeded by travelling all the way the the easternmost tip of the country at Al Hadd! Be warned!
  • We ate in local restaurants and coffee shops that seemed popular with locals – the food was cheap and delicious, but you need to avoid the fried options which can dominate.
  • Many if not most places point blank refused to take credit cards, including at petrol stations where the guys were wearing shirts with Visa and Mastercard logos. Get cash in Muscat - local machines took our cards without issue.
  • We took the Birdwatching Guide to Oman (Sargeant and Eriksen) and the Helm Field Guide to Birds of Oman (Eriksen and Porter)
Itinerary
Day 1 (Thursday): Morning arrival into MCT, slow drive south–east to Ras Al Hadd via Sur.
Day 2 (Friday): Dawn at Al Hadd on Friday, followed by birding our way through Qurayyat en route to the Al Hajar mountains. Evening at Barka.
Day 3 (Saturday): Birded Sawadi Al Batha, a quick look into a closed Al Ansab Lagoon, Sunub foothills south of Muscat and then finally Al-Qurm Park. Evening exploring Mutrah and the Souk.
Day 4 (Sunday): Morning flight home arriving UK lunchtime same day.

Pallas's Gull

Day 1
After an uneventful overnight flight we cleared a somewhat chaotic immigration and customs before picking up our rather dusty car and heading south-east towards Ras al Hadd via Sur. Getting out of Muscat was rather complicated as there are so many new roads and the signposting is not that great, but my advice if leaving the city is to head for the Muscat Expressway as this will be the quickest way to the main roads that head to the other towns. 

At Sur we birded the lagoon for a while, picking up a variety of waders including Greater and Lesser Sandplover, Terek Sandpiper, and one of our main targets, Great Black-headed (Pallas's) Gull. Being a bit tired we also stopped for a jaw-droppingly good turkish coffee near the market which had us back on our feet very quickly. At the far end of the lagoon, where the mini suspension bridge crosses, we took our 4x4 onto the beach to check out the gulls. Plenty of Heuglin's, Steppe and Pallas's found, but photography was a but challenging as for some reasons the latter was incredibly skittish. As it turns out we didn't find a bold/confiding individual the entire trip. Whereas the white-headed Gulls barely moved, every single Pallas's - without exception - always flew or moved further away! Who knew? Very timid given their bulk.





Continuing on towards Al Hadd, we then tried the Crab Plover location near the mangrove island. Here disaster struck as driving across the mudflats I got the car stuck. I managed to reverse it out only to get stuck again in an area we had just driven through. This time we were properly stuck and had to spend ages digging ourselves out, aided by various rocks, sticks, bits of old persian carpets, anything we could find basically. With dead fish on the mudflats and an incoming tide I was getting rather nervous that my Avis bill might be heading somewhat higher, but Mick did not panic and steadfastly dug and wriggled the car out and this time didn't stop reversing until we were safe. Probably took an hour all told during which we got covered in mud, and there were no Crab Plovers either. I had unfinished business with this species having dipped twice in the UAE. Unfortunately whilst I can now see the funny side, my state of nerves at the time meant I neglected to take any photos of our predicament, which is a shame as they would have been very amusing. All I can say to future travellers is to walk.


Sooty Gull


Indeed this is what we did at our next stop about 1km around the Khawr Jirama lagoon, and it was good that we did as the ground was even softer here even though it didn't look it. Once bitten twice shy so we endured a very long walk towards some white dots that I felt might have promise. Neither of us had a scope as we had cameras instead, so it took a long while for the blobs to resolve themselves into birds. However there were clear hints of black and gradually my confidence built - Crab Plovers. We had to take our shoes off and wade the last few hundred metres using the mangroves as cover, but we got excellent views of about 20 foraging birds at the waterline. I think they are up there with the best birds I have ever seen, the years of anticipation and disappointment made it all the sweeter.


Crab Plovers - get in!
A messy business. You can see the water in the distance.

At Ras al Hadd we drove past the fort and alongside the Kwahr al Hajar where we discovered hundreds of Pallas's Gulls roosting on the beach. In Abu Dhabi I'd seen one single bird, but this small distance further south and officially into the tropics there were loads. Unfortunately we lost the light early but not before being stunned by the amazing spectacle as the gulls took off en masse as people passed them - the beach is very busy with lots of fishing shacks. Our accomodation was a rather odd hotel nearby, the Al Hadd Guesthouse, built alongside the disused airfield. Cash only and they have no restaurant but will cook you a huge chicken maqbous which you can eat on their third floor terrace.




Day 2


Al Hadd at dawn

We were up before the sunrise and exploring the desert scrub next to the kwahr. Gradually the sun came up and started to light the desert, and we spent the golden hour photographing a crazily cooperative Desert Wheatear. Also present were plenty of Crested Lark and a few Black-crowned Sparrow Lark, another species I had previously missed in the Emirates. The tide was out so the close waders we had seen the previous evening were miles out. Still, who needs waders when you have Wheatears. A migrant Wryneck was unexpected.


Crested Lark






Desert Wheatear

Black-crowned Sparrow Lark

We returned to the hotel for an odd breakfast and then birded our way back towards Muscat via a number of small kwahrs along the coast road to Qurayyat. These gained us Indian Pond Heron, Red-Wattled Lapwing, and along the beach a somewhat surprising Pomarine Skua sitting alongside the gulls and terns. Ospreys fished offshore. Plenty of small waders on the beach as well, mostly Sandplovers, but it was not the ideal time to be birding - we had spent the best hours with the Wheatears. We also visited the tip here which is inland of the main road, and with nobody at the gate drove straight on to be confronted by many Egyptian Vultures and a few Steppe Eagles. Dead goats were really quite pungent, and with lots of accompanying flies we did not stay very long. In terms of photography it seems that you have a short period in the morning, and if the light holds, slightly longer from about 4pm. I am going to devote a further post to the quality of the early morning desert light as it is absolutely mesmerising in my opinion.


Pomarine Skua 


Egyptian Vulture

It took a lot longer that either of us expected to get to the Al Ghubrah Bowl in the Al Hajar mountains, the roads in Oman are not fast, and there is a lot of construction activity that slows you down. We got there with only a about 30 minutes to spare before the sun went below the mountains and in that time failed to find any birds - a Red-tailed Wheatear did a vanishing act and that was that. Outside the bowl where the sun lasts a little longer we found another but this too was uncooperative - it's a species I simply have to do better on. Our only Arabian Babblers of the trip were here too, near a funny bunker-like building.



The Al Ghubrah bowl. The sole entrance is the gap to the left.





Day 3
We had stayed the night in Barka, and so headed back towards the bowl at first light for another crack at the Wheatears. We turned off some way before Nakhul and hit a promising area, but were immediately undone by some unexpected thick mist - who expects murk in the desert? It did not look like it would burn off until the sun was high in the sky, and in complete contrast to the previous day it was not photography light. Plan B was to go to the coast at Ras Al Sawadi. This was a lot better and we found a singing Desert Warbler and some good activity on the beach in excellent light - however once again we simply could not get near the Pallas's Gulls for love nor money. The one good opportunity that we had was ultimately spoiled by locals coming over and taking an interest in our gear - always a risk I find, and the birds flushed.



Desert Warbler

Great Grey Shrike

Bar-tailed Godwit

Pallas's Gull

Sooty Gull



One of the locals. Didn't much like his T-shirt...

Al Ansab water treatment lagoons were easily found next to the Muscat Expressway, but as expected were behind locked gates on a Saturday. However we added quite a few waterbirds to our list simply by scanning through the fence, and the nicely irrigated playing field held a stunning Black-headed Wagtail and a White-tailed Plover. With everything behind wires we did not linger and instead tracked down Sunub a short distance away where we found our first Hume's Wheatears of the trip in the foothills. With the temperature now at 37 degrees neither we nor the birds could summon up a great deal of enthusiasm for photography. Back in the car we enjoyed the air-conditioning on the way to Al Qurm park on the far side of Muscat, and then spent the rest of the day birding there - tons of birds but unusually for a park hard work to approach. Species here included Common Myna, Indian Roller, Isabelline Shrike, Citrine Wagtail, Hoopoe, and various waders in the mangrove-lined creek that starts past the fountain and amphitheatre.


Pale Crag Martin hovering in the wind

Hume's Wheatear

Common Myna

As darkness fell we returned to Seeb (near the airport) and our final hotel to shower after a hot day, and pack ready for the flight the next morning. Rather than just sit in the hotel I suggested a bit of culture so we took some short lenses and headed off to the old town of Muscat, known as Muttrah, essentially all the way back past Al Qurm park where we had just been but at least we were clean. This is a fishing village with a corniche that has escaped the mass Dubai-inspired building program that is currently tearing up modern Muscat by building pointless 10-lane motorways everywhere, and we explored the rambling covered Souq and had dinner on the esplanade - a fabulous chicken shwarma. Both loving the non-bird photography at this stage, on the way back we got diverted by a number of stunning mosques which at night are lit from both the outside and the inside, and eventually got back to our hotel at about 1am.

All in all nice break from the dismal english winter and one I would definitely do again, although I fancy a little bit longer and a flight down to Salalah at the southern end of the country centered around the birds of the Dhofur region.




Muttrah Corniche

Al Zawawi Mosque

Al Ameen Mosque, only recently completed. Inside is the 3rd largest carpet in the world.


Trip List (in approx order seen)

1. Brown-necked Raven
2. Egyptian Vulture
3. Steppe Eagle
4. Pallas's Gull
5. Heuglin's Gull
6. Steppe Gull
7. Swift Tern
8. Cormorant
9. Lesser-crested Tern
10. Sooty Gull
11. Great White Egret
12. Little Egret
13. Greater Sand Plover
14. Lesser Sand Plover
15. Pacific Golden Plover
16. Curlew
17. Whimbrel
18. Oystercatcher
19. Greenshank
20. Redshank
21. Terek Sandpiper
22. Common Sandpiper
23. Grey Heron
24. Western Reef Heron
25. Greater Flamingo
26. Ringed Plover
27. Pale Crag Martin
28. Pallid Swift
29. Indian Roller
30. Desert Wheatear
31. Crested Lark
32. Red-tailed Wheatear
33. Black-crowned Sparrow Lark
34. Wryneck
35. Crab Plover
36. Laughing Dove
37. Kentish Plover
38. Common Myna
39. Green Bee-eater
40. Rock Dove
41. Collared Dove
42. Slender-billed Gull
43. Sandwich Tern
44. White-cheeked Tern
45. Caspian Tern
46. House Sparrow
47. Purple Sunbird
48. Desert Lark
49. Hoopoe Lark (h)
50. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse
51. Asian Desert Warbler
52. Great Grey Shrike
53. Indian Pond Heron
54. Eastern Orphean Warbler
55. Red-wattled Lapwing
56. Pomarine Skua
57. Bar-tailed Godwit
58. Osprey
59. Hume's Wheatear
60. Red-vented Bulbul
61. White-spectacled Bulbul
62. Shoveler
63. Teal
64. Mallard
65. Glossy Ibis
66. Black-winged Stilt
67. Ruff
68. White Wagtail
69. Yellow Wagtail (feldegg)
70. Dunlin
71. Little Stint
72. White-tailed Plover
73. Siberian Stonechat
74. Swallow
75. Hoopoe
76. Little Grebe
77. House Crow
78. Whiskered Tern
79. Black-headed Gull
80. Kingfisher
81. Isabelline Shrike
82. Graceful Prinia
83. Alexandribe Parakeet
84. Ring-necked Parakeet
85. Pintail
86. Marsh Harrier
87. Moorhen
88. Coot
89. Peregrine
90. Kestrek
91. Grey Plover
92. Griffon Vulture
93. Turnstone
94. Arabian Babbler
95. Citrine Wagtail
96. Cattle Egret


Unexpected wildlife of the Al Ghubrah bowl...