Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Arizona - The Grand Canyon

There is probably little that hasn't been said about the Grand Canyon in the way of superlatives. It is mind-blowing in its scale and grandeur, neither words nor photographs can do it justice. You have to be there, to be standing on its edge, to fully appreciate the immensity and the timelessness. You are a brief dot. It, a chasm millenia old.

Henry and I headed to its southern rim from Monument Valley after lunch on our penultimate day in America. It was a fairly long drive through scenery less spectacular than what had come before, but soon enough the landscape changed and a small gorge became visible on our right - the Little Colorado river. For us english folk this was pretty grand, little did we know. The road leaves the rim here and does not rejoin it until the scale has changed dramatically. Oh my.

We spent the afternoon moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, no two vistas the same but all equally impressive. I can thoroughly recommend it, but if you go in February make sure to dress up warm, this was the coldest we had been - at dawn the following day the mercury was down at minus 22c. I've only ever experienced colder in Estonia, by one degree - the sea froze there if that is any indication. Many cups of coffee were required to recover. 

But despite nearly losing all my digits I could not have wished for anything different. For starters we saw the sun for the first time all trip. Not a classic sunrise by any stretch, but a warm glow of the sort that had been entirely absent up until then. I can't begin to describe the scale. Everything is big in America, but this is different. Standing on the windswept edge looking alternately across and down you are reminded quite how ancient the land is. The Colorado river carved this landscape millimetres at a time, century after century, age after age. We are privileged to see it in its current state.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Local birds for local people

Well things are hotting up in Canary Wharf. Whilst my score is now 25, James has streaked ahead to 31. Given his CW life list previously stood at 35, this is perhaps more testament to his prior ambivalence than to his current level of excitement. I suspect it's a bit of both. I’ve not managed to get out much since the initial flurry, but a notable success was the addition on Blackcap whilst twitching a Reed Warbler. Yes, you read that right, I was twitching a Reed Warbler – this is what I have become. James had remarkably heard one burbling away close to the House Sparrow colony – this is (at the moment since we don’t really know any better) a fabulous record for the area and I was keen to get it on my list. The concept of lunch is somewhat nebulous where I work so I had to wait until the evening, by which time it had either shut up or moved on, but whilst looking for it I chanced upon the Blackcap and was equally stunned. Blackcaps are of course two a penny in Wanstead – in fact there is one regularly singing from my neighbour’s garden so I get to here the lovely song all the time, but in Canary Wharf, well.....ooof. A CW tick no less.

Talking of lovely song, a common confusion species (by sound) for Blackcap is Garden Warbler. In Wanstead a Garden Warbler is always a valued bird. This year has been really good for them, and we are possibly on five birds already. The song has a very very similar timbre and phrase to Blackcap, but has fewer if any scratchy elements, and is overall sweeter and more melodic. I also find that it is a tad faster and seems to go on for longer, almost like the reeling of a Dunnock or the swittering of a Goldfinch. However when you see a Garden Warbler it is almost shocking how plain they are. You expect something to match the song, a bit of glamour, a bit of pizazz, but instead you get a dumpy grey and brown thing. Then again the Nightingale is a very plain bird too, perhaps those birds that have the best vocals lose out in the looks department? When you hear your first Garden Warbler of the year you do a double take as you expect it to be a Blackcap but somehow there is something wrong. Even then you are not quite sure that your ears (and your keenness for a year tick!) are not deceiving you, and you have to get a view of it to be certain. Beware the non-singing Garden Warbler by the way, I’ve been done by autumn Whitethroats a few times. Don’t ask me how, it just happens! Song is by far the best bet, especially as Garden Warblers can be quite skulky.

And whilst on the theme of singing skulkers, that prize always goes to Nightingale. A bird that is unmistakable, but that you rarely if ever see. Occasionally you will sneak a view through an impossible tangle of vegetation of a plain bird producing the most incredible repertoire but for the most part they remain hidden. Another bird that frequently remains hidden whilst belting out an incredible sound track is Marsh Warbler. One was reported yesterday in Wanstead Park by an unknown birder. Us locals only got to hear about it via the bird information services, and so naturally a few of hurried right there. If there was ever a bird to turn you into a birding incompetent, it would seem that Marsh Warbler ticks many boxes. Despite the cacophony from the nearby Crow colony, three of us were convinced we heard it from a small patch of gorse on an island on Heronry. Perhaps my mind was addled by the mere thought of a Marsh Warbler, a patch tick, but I had little doubt that the burst of song was indeed coming from an invisible, small, brown and unremarkable Warbler, plainer even than Reed Warbler. The trouble is they are mimics, which makes them very hard indeed. Song Thrush, Blackcap, Blackbird, Reed Warbler, these birds can throw them all in and more. I would swear what I heard could only have been produced by a mimicking Acro, but the longer I stayed and the more I listened the more confused I became, especially when others turned up, didn’t hear what I had and started chipping in with helpful suggestions that sowed the seeds of self-doubt. So far theories range from a funny Song Thrush to a versatile Blackcap, but I have a nagging feeling that a rare bird has just slipped through everyone’s fingers. The bird was not present this morning despite my 5am start, so thanks a lot whatever you were! 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Local birding, but not as you know it ….

…. Jim. Well, James. Do any of my readers remember the Peanut Challenge at all? It was probably back in about 2012 that James A and I decided to have a competition to see whose local work patch was the worst. He worked at Tower Bridge, whilst I was at Canary Wharf. We contemplated a ‘lowest score wins’ format, but ultimately decided against it as too much lying and stupidity would be required. So, a traditional patch list competition, the prize being a symbolic packet of peanuts, reflective of the avian quality of the two patches. In the event is was a dead heat on 42 species each, and so the peanuts were duly shared out. Or maybe James didn’t in fact like peanuts and I ate them all? Regardless, given I can see 42 species in a 20 minute foray onto Wanstead Flats at almost any time of year, it did at least prove that inner city concrete habitats really are quite poor for birds.  This was several years ago, and if anything there is now more concrete in Canary Wharf than there used to be. There are a couple of posts here and here that describe it in a little more detail, but I think I created a separate blog for it that was subsequently deleted.

James H (a different James) is a fellow Wanstead patch birder. He and I are quite unusual for London birders in that we both have jobs and are unable to spend every minute of every day with bins around our necks. The three day weekend we have just had was very much appreciated but was not kind to us on the birding front. Back at our respective desks on Tuesday morning, we were appalled to see a flurry of messages from our Wanstead Flats birding colleagues, who not bound by the constraints of employment were having a whale of time. Multiple Whinchats in the brooms, Swallows moving through, singing Warblers – all of this we had to ‘enjoy’ vicariously. In response James sent a photo of the patch of concrete he can see from his window. As we all know, somebody else’s misfortune always improves another person’s outlook on life, and stuck in exactly the same boat I was highly cheered by this and so sent my own lovely concrete-dominated view. If I am honest I think my view is a lot better, but the bottom line is that neither of us see many birds in Canary Wharf. Firstly we are both supposed to be here working and not staring out of the window, and secondly it is absolutely awful. So awful in fact that I have not bothered birding Canary Wharf since the original Peanut Challenge, there is just no point. 

So naturally I immediately suggested that we attempt a new Peanut Challenge. To say he bit my arm off is not much of an understatement. Even in a place like this the competitive fire burns strong. Or maybe that is precisely because it is a place like this? Anyway, he even beat me in creating a spreadsheet and that takes some doing! Neither am I reluctant of course, and so for the first time in years I found myself back at xxxxxxxxxxxxx (location redacted, this is a serious  competition) eking out a Blue Tit, a Great Tit and a Dunnock, and I took a slightly circuitous route to the tube in the evening to snaffle a suppressed House Sparrow colony. At the time of writing the score is 23-17 in case you were wondering, with probably the current best bird being a Goldfinch. I did have binoculars though…

Every species must be proven beyond doubt

But that isn’t why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because this dumb competition got me out in the field and really enjoying proper birding. I listened, I looked for movement, and do you know what? Even in the urban wastelands there are birds. On my lunch time foray I noted an occupied Great Tit nest box which I never knew was there. I observed a Pied Wagtail feeding two young on a rare patch of real grass. Later on I found five Grey Wagtails in the space of 20 minutes, including two more youngsters being fed by an attentive parent. There were Canada Geese with Goslings, young families of Coot, in short it was great. Well, let me qualify that. I was not sat at my desk. Instead I was out and about and there were birds – unexpected and successfully breeding birds – right where I work.  Alongside the Goldfinch, Grey Wagtail was perhaps the biggest surprise. This is a species I struggle with in Wanstead, indeed my 2019 year list is still missing it. Here however, in an environment that you would have to say is inferior in almost every way, I saw five in short order, including young birds.

Of course yesterday was the easy and exciting day – the January 1st equivalent of the traditional year list competition. From here on in it will get progressively harder and far far less interesting. For now though, there is a Robin to try and find!

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Cyprus break

Over the Easter break we had a very enjoyable family holiday to Cyprus. I think this was my fourth visit, and I had taken one of my kids on one of them, but for the other two kids and Mrs L this was their first visit and I was keen to show them some of the places I like to spend time. In common with all of my previous visits we flew to Larnaca and then went further east to Agia Napa. Our hotel at Nissi Beach was one of those large multi-pool affairs, which was exactly what we all required. It had been a long term and some quality time doing absolutely nothing was sorely required for all five of us. Normally my trips are absolutely exhausting, trying to pack in as much as possible, but for family holidays I rein it in. Thus for five days I read a lot of books, listened to a lot of music, and turned most bits of my body bright pink as I flopped on airbeds and loungers. Mrs L and the kids did exactly the same and we all enjoyed it a lot as we had not done a med sun break for a while.

Nissi Beach is however really quite close to the aforementioned Cape Greco. You would almost think I had booked the hotel on purpose. So even though the holiday was a relaxed affair, it would have been rude not to pay it a visit. I went every day.

Whilst the family slumbered, each morning I was up out and watching the sun rise over the eastern Mediterranean in solitary splendour. I never tire of it. And with a little bit of warmth then in the air, and in glorious golden light and surrounded by fragrant foliage and spring flowers, I went off in search of birds to photograph as I had just happened to find a 500mm lens in our luggage when I was unpacking the towels. Ideal frankly. My time was extremely limited, this was after all a family holiday, but provided I got back for breakfast and then spent the rest of the day by the pool then those morning hours were all mine and I would like to think I made the most of them. As the old adage goes if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so I spent almost all the time at the Cape, only abandoning it once to twitch a Demoiselle Crane at Paralimni on the way back to breakfast. My targets were the resident passerines of Cape Greco as well as migrants passing through. Warblers, Larks and Wheatears. Could I improve on the images I had taken in 2017 and 2014, and could I add anything new? Here are a few of what I ended up with – many of them taken out of the car window down by the Sea Caves.

Northern Wheatear

Cyprus Wheatear

I had half an eye on actual birding of course, and whilst I was crawling along the ground and creeping around bushes, as well as driving along the various tracks that criss-cross Cape Greco, I racked up what I thought was a nice little list in just 8 hours away from the hotelI was also allowed a quick fifteen minutes at Oroklini Marsh on the way back to the airport which did not result in any photographs but did add a few more birds to the list. 

Alpine Swifts live under the cliff edge

One afternoon I managed to convince soporific family members to forgo a couple of hours by the pool and to come and see what all the fuss was about. I am pleased to say that all members of my family have now seen Cyprus Pied Wheatear at close quarters. Were they impressed? No, not really, it is just a bird apparently. Losers. The Alpine Swifts zooming around at eye-level probably made more of an impression, but basically birds are Dad’s [sad, boring] hobby, and could we go back to the hotel now please? Fine.

Cyprus Warbler

Ruppell's Warbler

Spectacled Warbler

Crested Lark

Chukar Partridge

House Sparrow

Cape Greco migrant patrol looking guilty.....

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Arizona - Monument Valley

Henry and I left Page in blizzard conditions and headed east. It was actually quite worrying – we had a large American SUV, but these are 4x4 in name only, they’re not Land Rovers. The first half hour was seat of your pants stuff, desperately hanging on to the wheel to try and stay in the tracks of those who had gone before – either side was deep snow. We had the occasional scary wobble causing the back end to slide out, but I recovered each time and gradually it thinned out as we left the plateau and headed down to the AZ-98.

Our first view of anything resembling Monument Valley was, err, monumental. There is no other way to describe it. We turned off the main road towards Mexican Hat, and after a few miles the landscape opened out and…. wow. A butte of the sort that I had thought only existed in cartoons or westerns. But this was only the start. We passed what is known as El Capitan butte on the right, and in the distance we saw the spires and fingers of legend. And, for the first time, blue skies… the diet of snow and blizzards seemed behind us.

I cannot even begin to describe how awesome the landscape was. We crested a small hill and there it was laid out in front of us. The east and west Mittens and the Merrick Butte. It is almost impossible to do these justice in photographs. The rocks are all sandstone, and it is the process of erosion over millennia which creates the amazing pillars. The least eroded, like a kind of plateau is called a mesa. The next step, where the edges of plateau collapse leaving a central structure, is called a butte. The final stage is called a spire, where all that remains is a slender column. This is what is on each side of the east and west Mittens, causing them to resemble hands, hence the name. I suppose the spires finally collapse and that is then that, and that one day it will look very different. I expect that this is not measurable in human lifespans so you needn’t worry about going right away.

Our first stop was the view made famous by Forrest Gump, the road looking south towards Monument Valley. It is nothing short of magnificent, any thoughts of twee and tired were immediately dismissed.  I was amazed that so few people were here, surely this was a prime spot for tour buses galore. To be fair there was a lot of space for parking, and a steady stream of passers-by stopped, ran into the middle of the road for that all-important selfie, and then headed off again. We didn’t bother with the selfie part, that’s not my style at all. What is my style of course is small black panthers…

Once again the weather was doing its best to confound us, and it didn’t look like there would be any kind of decent sunset. Then again, with a landscape like this there is perhaps no need for photos. We finished up the day on the dirt road known as Valley Loop, hoping to get the last glorious rays illuminating the Mittens.

We were staying at the very conveniently located “View” hotel – options are extremely limited in the area and thus all are expensive. Every room has an amazing view. This also meant we could simply walk out of the hotel the following morning to take in the stunning sunrise. Once again the alarm was set and we woke up far earlier than either of us really wanted. You will be surprised to hear that instead of a clear glowing sky that instead it was snowing. Excellent, just what we wanted! The desert had turned white, which was a pretty unusual look. The forecast did have it clearing though, so we decided to go and look at the Forrest Gump view again and wait for some blue sky. Gradually this appeared and we gained a bit of clarity. And by the time we got back to Monument Valley to drive the loop it was the pure blue sky we had been dreaming of. The views from various spots were spectacular, inhospitable, but beautiful, and it was possibly my favourite place we visited on this trip.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Birding in Singapore

A two (!) day trip in early March for no other reason that I felt I needed some tropical heat and tropical birds.
  • Flights with British Airways to Singapore had been purchased in a sale at £400, and once again I used some airmiles to get a flat bed for the way back - the return journey is always important as I typically go straight into work after landing. Other airlines are available. Allegedly.
  • I stayed at "The Hangout" at Mount Emily. Cheap and Cheerful, but like everything else in Singapore, clean.
  • Transport was mostly by Grab, the Asian equivalent of Uber and very reasonably priced. The MTR is of course a lot cheaper, but I wanted to move between sites very quickly with my limited time. You can set the Grab app up before you leave but you can only add payment card information once you arrive for some reason.
  • Over the course the weekend I saw exactly 50 species. That doesn't sound a lot but all I can say is don't underestimate how hard it is to keep going all day carrying a large camera - the heat and humidity are intense. On my last day I also had to carry around all my other things as I was headed straight to the airport. Luckily for a part of the day I was able to leave my stuff in a locker in the Gardens by the Bay.
  • Literature was "Birds of South East Asia" by Craig Robson.

Day 0 (Saturday PM): A walking tour around Central Singapore but no time for anything other than this. 

Day 1 (Sunday): First light at Macritichie Reservoir, late morning at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, afternoon at the Botanic Garden, evening at Gardens by the Bay East in order to take a non-existent sunset photo of the Singapore skyline.
Day 2 (Monday): First light at the Botanic Garden, rest of the day at Gardens by the Bay.

Blue-winged Stunpitta

Overall Macritchie had more birds than anywhere else, including a Blue-winged Pitta that I somehow jammed, but photography was far better in the Botanic Gardens. Part of the reason for this was that the place was crawling with early morning joggers and trekkers. And I mean crawling, the Sime Trail was over-run with people, and it was only once I got onto the boardwalk trail that goes past the canopy tower (plenty of Parakeets and Sunbirds from up here) and skirts between the reservoir and the golf course that it started to thin out a bit. I guess this is just what happens on weekends. It was on the boardwalk trail that I found the Pitta, having first found a Red-legged Crake in exactly the same place. Trying to photograph it another bird flew away, but soon came back and I could scarcely believe my luck. What a stunning bird - apologies for the crappiness of the photo, the bird was in near darkness but I had amazing views. There was a troop of Long-tailed Macaques here too.

Red Junglefowl aka Chicken

Long-tailed Macacque

Plantain squirrel (Callosciurus notatus)

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

Plaintive Cuckoo

Once the forest thinned out a bit it became easier to see birds. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and a Dollarbird were perched high up on a dead tree, and a smaller tree next to the lake had a Plaintive Cuckoo and several Asian Brown Flycatchers in it. By this time it was mid-morning so I took a Grab. It was about a half hour ride to Sungei Buloh wetlands, and the sun was high in the sky.

Nonetheless I slogged it around the western loop seeing all sorts of Herons and both White-throated and Collared Kingfishers. There were a few waders out on the mud, including Whimbrels, but I had no scope and they were just too far away for the most part. The bushes on either side of the path had a few smaller birds, including an Arctic Warbler, so remember if you see one of these on Shetland or wherever, think how far it has travelled to be with you.

White-throated Kingfisher

By now it was midday and all sensible people were indoors in air-conditioned comfort, but I persisted, first walking the Mangrove boardwalk and then taking the path all the way to the eastern entrance. In truth I saw very little for my troubles, a few Doves and an immature White-bellied Sea Eagle.

Next stop was the Botanic Gardens where I was able to finally get a nice cold drink and something to eat beyond the bananas I had been carrying. I had been here on each of my previous visits and had forgotten how nice it was. I resolved to come back first thing the next day as it opens very early. I wandered around primarily enjoying all the plants, but also making mental notes of which spots to come and visit in the cool of the following morning. By mid-afternoon I was pretty dead and went back to my hotel to have a rest, but only a short one as I wanted to catch the sun setting from Marina Bay east. As with most of my trips recently the weather seemed to have other ideas so the glorious photo remains untaken. Having arrived from the south I then walked all the way around the north side of the bay and back to the Helix Bridge and the massive food court on the bottom floor of the Marina Bay Sands complex - known as Rasapura Masters. Gorged I retired to my hotel at Mount Emily with extremely sore feet.

The next morning the first thing I saw was an Otter - a Smooth-coated Otter to be precise. I heard an almighty splashing from one of the pools right next to the Cluny Road entrance, and was delighted to find an Otter demolishing ornamental fish. Nom nom nom. 

Olive-backed Sunbird

Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker

Yellow-vented Bulbul

Oriental Magpie-robin

The next four hours were spent mostly around the Pulai Marsh and the Keppel Discovery Wetlands, as well as the extensive stands of heliconias to the east of Symphony Lake which were a haven for Sunbirds. All too soon it was time to go back to the hotel and pack up but I had had a much more productive session with the camera. On day one of a trip I am generally always useless and then up my game later on.

Olive-backed Sunbird

After checking out I headed to the Marina Bay Gardens.This time I had to cart not only the camera but also all my clothes etc. After lunch at the same food court and after exploring the actual building, I got lucky with a left luggage locker near the Dragonfly bridge. I dumped as much as I could and spent the whole rest of the day making circuits of the gardens which are highly impressive. There were birds everywhere - Herons and Waterhens in the pools, large numbers of Pacific Swallows and a few Paddyfield Pipits over "the Meadow", and generally really rather good. I also visited the Supertree grove, the Barrage, every single lake, and once again spent a lot of time looking at plants. The cycad collection is particularly noteworthy, and having chatted to one of the gardeners the rate of growth is unbelievable. Whilst I am jealous in a way it is a good thing that growth is so slow under glass in the UK, otherwise I would be divorced by now.

Pied Fantail

White-breasted Waterhen

Ashy Tailorbird

It had been another hot day, and whilst I had planned to stay for sunset again, a large rainstorm put paid to my ambitions and I headed to the airport. I was able to have a shower, several fruity drinks and a nice meal before gratefully falling asleep on the plane. 

Trip List