Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Taiwan October 2019 - Logistics and Itinerary

Taiwan 26-30th October 2019

I had a week beyond the half term that I needed to use up, and tempted by numerous stunning photos of endemics on the internet I decided I could do worse than head to Taiwan for a few days. Originally this was planned as a pure photography trip with a friend, however he ended up not being able to come and the trip therefore became a birding trip. As it turned out the photography was exceedingly hard in the largely forest habitat, but the birding was so exciting that this didn’t matter in the slightest. 

In just over four days of birding I saw nearly all the endemics and a large number of Taiwanese sub-species that may one day get elevated whilst I am sat in my armchair. I did not use a guide, and birded from first light to dusk every day, with the exception of one day where I had to take a painful mid-morning break to get a new tyre fitted to my hire car.

  • Four and a half days of birding in late October which is one of the drier months on this largely tropical island, but a longer trip due to complicated travel arrangements.
  • Getting there: I flew from Stockholm via Doha and Hong Kong on Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific. There are quicker ways of getting there, and cheaper, but I got to travel in extreme comfort and experienced no jet lag at any point. However I left London (on a separate ticket that straddled the long-haul flights) on Thursday morning and did not arrive in Taipei until after dark on Friday, albeit that I had a nice day of tourism in Stockholm. On the return I left Taipei mid-afternoon on Wednesday and arrived home in London on Thursday evening. This included a night in a fantastic hotel next to a souk on the outskirts of Doha. I love travel and I love birding, and I don’t mind more of the former at the expense of the latter. Die-hard listers will likely want to get there faster and there are a number of options that would perhaps give you a couple of hours birding near Taipei on the first afternoon and allow for positioning to the central mountains that evening.
    • The flight to Doha from Stockholm left at 11pm, therefore in theory I could have left far later from London and still made it. However this is a very risky strategy as if you are not present in Stockholm for the departure your entire ticket is cancelled. It is not Qatar Airway’s fault that British Airways (or whoever) did not get you to Stockholm on time; you are simply deemed a no-show. This is the risk of buying cheaper airline tickets from European cities, therefore I left London early to ensure plenty of time for screw-ups. In the event there were none and I had an excellent day in Stockholm. On the way back the worst that could happen is that you miss your flight back to London and have to buy another one, so I baked in zero contingency. Everything went smoothly.
  • Car Hire: I hired a Ford Focus automatic from Avis for five days which cost about £300, on the expensive side of destinations. I added a wi-fi router for an additional £12, which meant I paid no roaming charges. It is essential that you have an International Driving Permit to rent a car in Taiwan. These are available from larger UK Post Offices for £5 and require a passport photo. Note that Taiwan does not seem to appear on the list of destinations that require one, therefore the counter staff will probably tell you that you do not need one. Just insist.
  • Driving: Generally exceptionally easy when I had all four tyres, and though I could not read many of the road signs the sat-nav (simply Google Maps on my phone) got me to all destinations and birding sites flawlessly.
    • Many of the freeways are toll roads, but there are no barriers or toll booths. Hire cars all come with a tag and you settle up at the end. I drove a large loop of approximately 850km around the northern half of Taiwan and racked up a bill of only £4.
    • The Taiwanese are not the greatest drivers. Sitting in the outside lane on the freeway is accepted, and thus there is a lot of undertaking and weaving about. On mountain roads drivers seem to have no particular concerns about overtaking on blind bends, nor taking a racing line or a nice wide oncoming turn. I came to expect this after a short while. Keeping alert will keep you safe. Beware of roadside rocks
    • In Taipei in particular be very aware of mopeds, of which there are thousands coming at you from all directions
    • Parking: There are no parking meters, instead Parking Wardens will come along and place a ticket (not a fine!) on your windscreen after a short while, and continue to add tickets at whatever time unit is relevant until you leave. You can then pay these tickets off at a number of convenient shops, such as 7-11s, which are everywhere in Taiwan.
  • Accommodation: Other than the first night where I stayed at the airport before collecting my hire car the following accommodation I did not book in advance as I wanted to remain flexible in the event of bad weather in the various mountain ranges which are susceptible to rain and poor visibility at all times of the year. With the exception of Wushe and Wulai which are very touristy, there are limited hotel options in the areas where birders will spend most of their time. Knowing this I packed a sleeping bag and slept in the car on two of the nights, which also meant I could be birding at first light. Softer birders may consider booking into Anma Lodge at Daxueshan, although this needs to be done well in advance. Google helped me find hotels on the other nights, which were £40-£50 per night.
  • Language: In Taipei you can get by with pidgin English. In rural areas you are very much on your own, however Google is marvellous at translating into Mandarin and both displays the text and speaks it. Note that Mandarin is not the only language in Taiwan and you may come across someone who is a Hokkien speaker. I am guessing this is what happened to me once or twice, and I reverted to basic sign language which is universally understood.
  • Money and Prices: The Taiwanese currency is the TWD. At the time of my visit I got about 40 to the pound. Cash machines are abundant, and generally found in most 7-11s or Family Marts. Hotels were pleasantly cheap, food even more so. Parking in central Taipei cost about 50 TWD per hour, and a full tank of fuel for the car cost 1500 TWD. A new tyre was 2400 TWD…. My total spend including the tyre over the five days was just under £300.
  • Food: Armed with a few basic Mandarin phrases and an uncanny ability to replicate the sounds that animals like ducks and chickens make, I ate excellent and cheap food. Roast duck, vegetables and rice one evening cost 80 TWD. The most expensive meal I ate was the equivalent of £7 in a restaurant near Wulai. 7-11s provided breakfast and lunch. Generally this was sushi or a pot-noodle. In the UK if you can still find a 7-11 it will be shit. In Taiwan they are a fundamental part of life and completely excellent. Pot noodles came in a million varieties, cost next to nothing, and the 7-11s all have boiling water and microwaves on standby for customers.
  • People: Extremely friendly and helpful, especially in times of need, and lots of smiling. The chap who fixed my tyre made me a coffee and his wife insisted on making up my pot noodle. Everyone says hello, either in Mandarin “Ni-hao”, or in English if they can manage it, and change is returned with a small bow.
  • Health and Safety: Taiwan is one of the safest countries in Asia, at no point did I feel in any danger whatsoever wandering around with tons of optics, nor leaving stuff in the car.
  • Literature: I used the Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil which was all I needed. It is admittedly a little bulky, but it will fit into a cargo pocket if you bend it a bit. Field guides are supposed to be abused. Various trip reports of the web were consulted, especially on the main areas like Daxueshan and Wushe-Wuling, and in Richard Rae’s who happens to be a mate of mine and did a similar solo trip in 2012. The ever-fabulous EBird.org helped me work out what had been seen recently at these sites, and when time was tight helped me work out where my remaining targets were concentrated.

Birding Areas

Hsinchu (1)
  • Jincheng Lake and surrounding area good for Ducks and Waders (24.810249, 120.910903)
  • Shuiziyuan Park – Good scrub habitat (24.796643,120.916935)
  • Xiangshan Wetlands – coastal mudflats good for Waders (24.783767,120.914912)

Daxueshan Mountain (2) - the premier birding destination on the island, anywhere along the road is good. The road up starts at 24.247637,120.832194.
  • Km 6 – a roadside stop above a stables, good views of Taiwan Hwamei (24.233890,120.877924)
  • Km 11.5 – a roadside stop above agricultural area was good for Collared Finchbill and Grey Treepie (24.220592,120.892322)
  • Km 14.5 – take the minor road on the right heading down the river through bamboos. Trails either side of the bridge good for birding, particularly downstream. Good site for Taiwan Scimitar Babbler, Brown Dipper and Plumbeous Redstart (24.239214,120.909600)
  • Km 23 – regular Swinhoe’s Pheasant stake-out (24.246602,120.935405)
  • Km 35 – past the entrance booths track 210 to the left of small temple can offer good forest birding (24.245458,120.974852)
  • Km 50 – lots of trails, I found the area around the small lake to be the best, with Taiwan Fulvetta, Flamecrest and Steere’s Liochichla aplenty (24.282674,121.027152)

Wushe to Wuling (3-4)
  • Km 15.5, the “Blue Gate” trailhead is on the northern side of the road, and there is plenty of space to pull a car off the road. On eBird this is known as “Ruiyan River Major Wildlife Habitat – Shuigan Trail 0-3km”. Good forest birding, I found lots of Flycatchers along this section (roughly 24.097183,121.181050)
  • Km 18, a side road to the north with a Police Station on the corner (24.105453,121.197522) leads down to the “Continuation Trail”, which is an extension of the aforementioned “Blue Gate” trail. There is a small spot to park at about 24.111226,121.196307. On eBird this is the same as the above, except 3-5km. Excellent forest birding, the only place I found Taiwan Wren Babbler (Cupwing), Taiwan Barwing and Taiwan Shortwing.
  • Km 24 (Yuanfeng) – a small rest area where I found various montane species (24.117961,121.237117)
  • Km 29 (Kunyang, Hehuanshan Mountain) – amazing views of White-whiskered Laughingthrushes and Taiwan Rosefinch (24.122638,121.272377)

Taroko National Park (5) – almost anywhere along Route 8 has potential, and the landscape scenery is breathtaking.
  • 7.5km east of Dayuling on route 8 – a random stop produced Mikado Pheasant feeding by the road (roughly 24.185371,121.351678)
  • Luoshao – good spot along the river for general birding (24.205566,121.451795)
  • Buluowan Service Area – excellent birding on both the lower and upper terrace trails, as well as around the car park. Lots of Tits (24.170502,121.574243)

Yilan (6)
  • Lizejian / Wusheirjian Wetlands – excellent paddyfield habitat filled with waders, ducks, egrets and raptors (24.659980,121.818578)

Taipei / Taoyuan (7)
  • Botanic Gardens – exceedingly busy but the site for Malayan Night Heron. Lots of potential for a couple of hours (25.032654,121.508821)
  • Huajiangyanya Natural Park – Wetland Area within convenient distance of the Botanic Gardens (25.039023,121.493591)
  • Xucuogang Wetlands – wader habitat, various ponds and mangroves (25.087850,121.175995)

Wulai (8)
  • Laxa Trail – from the multi-storey car park bear right over the first bridge and then turn immediately left along the right bank of the eastern fork of the river. After about 400m take some steps on your right at 24.862263,121.554417 and bird the lanes around the cemetery. Birds everywhere, including flocks of the Taiwan Blue Magpie 24.860580,121.553685
  • Road to Wulai Falls 24.861541,121.551366. Good birding all the way to the falls and beyond, lots of mixed flocks and numerous Taiwan Whistling Thrush along the river. I walked to about 24.839742,121.538513

Hehuanshan Pass


Day 1: Collected hire car at 8am and birded my way down the west coast, the site of particular note was Jincheng Lake and the surrounding agricultural area near Hsinchu City. Arrived Daxueshan Mountain at around 1pm and birded my way up to km 50 by dusk. Overnight in the car at km 50.
Day 2: Daxueshan all day, birding down from km 50 to the start, then drove to Wushe in the evening. Hotel east of Wushe on northern branch of the 14.
Day 3: Early morning birding the “Blue Gate” trails, however several hours lost due to tyre issues that could only be sorted out at Puli. Afternoon up to the Wuling Pass / Hehuanshan Mountain, and then down to Taroko Gorge. Overnight in the car at Luoshao.
Day 4: Birded from Luoshao down to Taroko entrance via Tianxiang and Buluowan. Afternoon stops at the Lizejian/Wushierjia Wetlands at Yilan, and then onwards to Taipei where I stopped briefly at the Botanical Garden and then birded the Huajiangyanya Natural Park alongside the Tamsui River until dusk. Evening drive to Wulai where I found a reasonably priced hotel.
Day 5: Birded Wulai all morning, firstly the Laxa trail on the eastern branch of the river, and then along the western branch of the river up to approximately Xinxian. Then back to Taipei for a 2pm flight.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

The coffee run gauntlet

Contrary to popular opinion, I do in fact bird Wanstead Flats. At the moment, indeed as for the whole of the year, this is almost exclusively a Saturday morning activity, although during spring migration it also tends to be before work as well. So although I have not written very much about it as it is so dull (for the most part), it does still happen. 

Take last Saturday for example. I was lounging around in bed when Tony's message came through about a fly-over Yellowhammer. This is a good bird locally, probably annual but not reliably so for weekend birders. I resolved to get up, stable doors and bolts notwithstanding, and see what I could eke out. It was quite a nice morning out there, and I soon met up with the aforementioned TB and other members of the gang - Marco, Bob and James. James had managed to get the Yellowhammer circling over the SSSI whereas I dipped, so we sent him to get the coffees and breakfast - he had had his share and could afford to miss it should it come over again.

What we didn't anticipate, and I suspect neither did he, was a Woodcock flying low across Long Wood and diving into the Esso Copse. Ker-ching! I picked it up fairly far off to the left of Vizmig, and as is their nature it barely deviated as it flew across our field of view, behind Long Wood, and then out the other side and across to Esso. As it flew across the path it neatly bisected Tony and I at Vizmig, and a lone figure struggling towards us, laden with steaming coffee and bacon rolls...

Oh dear. Had he seen it we wondered? Should we tell him? Should we [shudder] suppress it, and just thank James for doing the breakfast run? Did I miss anything? No, all quiet here.... In the event we told him, we had to - mainly as it was a year tick for me :-). And unfortunately he hadn't seen it as he had been concentrating too hard on anti-spillage measures. I had flat white by the way, excellent as usual. It is difficult to know what to say in these situations, but I would like to think that there was no awkward silence, even though bacon rolls could fulfil that function. This is the risk of going to get the coffees. We take turns, but what can you do? I missed Snipe the other day, perhaps not in the same league but gutting nonetheless. 

We need to invest in some kind of ceremonial eye-masks, to be put on the moment the coffee runner steps away from the group, and not to be removed - no peeking! - until he is back. And no heard onlys! 

We had seen where it landed, and trudged over to have a look, but it is a complete tangle over there and despite a good thrash of the cover we could not persuade it to reemerge.

I think it's my turn again soon...

Wednesday, 6 November 2019


I am of a generation that actually remember cigarettes. I am old enough that I remember people smoking on planes. The armrests used to contain ashtrays. Sometimes if you fly on a really old plane they're still there! Imagine that! Totally unthinkable today. When I traveled to France as a student on Eurolines coaches, 15 hour marathons down to Montpellier, there would be people smoking the entire way in the "smoking section" of the bus - what a joke that was! Completely and utterly disgusting of course, but somehow acceptable in those less enlightened times. You would stagger off the bus stinking, much as a you used to come home from the pub reeking of tobacco even if you didn't smoke, as that was just what happened. Not that I go to the pub very much these days, but when I do I am thankful that this is no longer the case. There are still some old boozers where the stench is still leaching out of the yellowed walls, but by and large it has completely gone. A lot has changed in a short time. The irony is not lost on me that I'm more likely these days to encounter a big cloud of smoke outside on the pavement.

However these days that cloud is perhaps more likely to be minty, or to have a sickly whiff of fruit about it. The curse of the eCigarette. I have no idea what is in these futuristic-looking contraptions but in my view they are equally disgusting, just in a different way. The other day I was walking down the street and all of a sudden I was enveloped in an apple mist. Yuck! A fog of crud that had until five seconds earlier been inside the bloke in front of me's chest! Double yuck. The trouble with these things is that they have a stealth mode - they are 'always on' so to speak. So one minute the air is lovely and clear, or as clear as it can be in London, and the next second a nicotine pang strikes and unwary passers by are instantly suffocated by a chemical concoction of tutti frutti via a total stranger's internal organs and windpipe. I find it deeply gross and highly antisocial, almost worse that an actual cigarette.

Hopefully it won't be long before some bright spark proves that these things are actually more deadly than real fags, and they and all the cheap vape shops that have sprung up nearly everywhere are a thing of the past. Mind you, by then people will have found some new dumb way to kill themselves and have moved on to that.

Anyway, must dash, my nightly Gin and Tonic is waiting.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Taiwanese Endemics

I have just returned from an epic four day birding trip to Taiwan. I birded my socks off from dawn to dusk and am totally shattered. I didn't see everything, that would have been miraculous, but I had a bloody good go and saw the vast majority of the endemics that make this island so special.

I have nearly completed my trip report, 7,500 words rattled off with ease. At university I had to write a dissertation on some vague aspect of french art and literature. It was 10,000 words and at the time seemed to be torture. I can't remember exactly how long it took, but it was weeks and weeks, eking out a hundred words at a time. Writing about Taiwanese birds took no effort whatsoever, a matter of hours. I guess if you are interested in what you are writing about then it simply flows. How do I get paid for birding? As it is I am heading back to banking tomorrow, however I am doing so in a state of extreme satisfaction. Birding a brand new location with nothing but a field guide is the pinnacle of birding enjoyment as far as I am concerned - back to square one, no preconceived knowledge, no assumptions, nothing taken for granted. Careful observation and graft, piecing together glimpses and sounds, putting together a trip list. You can't beat it.

I'll publish the report soon, but in the meantime here are some Swinhoe's Pheasants, one of the stand-out special birds high on the list of desires of visiting birders.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

To reminisce or not to reminisce?

Of the few blogs I read, a few have started to go back in time. Some of them are just random, others are triggered more by current events - a gem of a Red-throated Pipit on Scilly earlier this month caused Gavin H over at NQS to recall his first ever RT Pipit back on the Scillies in about 1885. Sorry, I mean 1985 of course. 

Which brings me neatly to my point. Is reminiscing purely the realm of old codgers reliving their glory days because, and to be frank, they have passed. For example were Gavin to be lucky enough to find a Red-throated Pipit in Dorset tomorrow, would it generate in him the same amount of excitement that it did back then? Maybe it would generate more simply due to being wholly unexpected! It might all be too much!

The chances of me finding anything rare are remote, I don't stray sufficiently off patch to coastal locations. That is not to say that Wanstead cannot generate a rarity or two, as Rustic Bunting and various other unexpected birds are testament to, but Porth Killier it is not. However If we aim at the next level down, things that are good in a London context, I can attest that finding a quality local bird remains very exciting indeed - it would have been very interesting, perhaps even downright worrying, to have measured my blood pressure when the Stone Curlew flew up ahead of me back in March 2013. I can still remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday, that is what these moments mean.

And I think that is the key to it really. If for you it retains a freshness that will never fade, brings a smile to your face each and every time, then it is surely worth writing about. It likely won't mean a thing to anybody reading it, why would it, but if it it's that exciting for you then it is also likely that it will translate well into a jaunt down memory lane. Reminisce away I say.

Which is also why rather more dry nuggets like the fact that on this day exactly ten years ago I saw a Brown Shrike on a misty Staines Moor don't work as well and you won't find me writing about it or posting photos or anything like that.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Wrong Way Listing

Here is a list of ten birds. I would like you to guess what is special about it.

Slavonian Grebe
American Bittern
American Golden Plover
Black Scoter
Red-throated Diver
White-fronted Goose
Baird's Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher

Need a clue? I would have thought the final two birds on the list would have given the game away. No? OK, I'll tell you. These are birds the commonest American birds that are not on my ABA list but that are on my BOU (UK) list. Four of them are of course common to both areas, but the others patently are not. In fact out of the 100 most common gaps on my American list, fully a third are birds I've seen in the UK. Given how frequently I go to America this is amazing really, what on earth have I been doing wrong?

Going repeatedly to Florida is one of the things I've done wrong. The birds are incredible, but barely any of them are ticks. I'm going again soon, and there are perhaps five new species on the cards. Mostly I'll be photographing Willets I expect....

Going on family holidays is another. I get the odd session where I pick up a few here and there, but there is no real birding. I went to Monterey in 2016. Did I go any pelagics? In Atlanta all I saw was horses. In Utah and Arizona, snow....

In fact I've only been on three trips to America where my ABA list has advanced significantly. A full week in the Pacific Northwest was superb and added 75 species, four days in Arizona the following year added 55, and three days in southern Texas added 34. American big listers get 700 in a year, my total across countless visits is 419. I need to pull my finger out.

The alternative argument is that listing is a pile of nonsense and provided you are out birding and seeing and enjoying birds for what they are, rather than as numbers based on where they are, then that is all that matters. If you have to have a list, make it a world list. My world list is around 1,800. In 2015 a guy called Noah Stryker saw 6,042 in a year, smashing the previous record. The very next year another guy called Arjan Dwarshuis saw 6,833.....

Thursday, 10 October 2019

The Mail Fail and the Whale

I learned a few things about the press this week that I had not previously known. I knew they would pick up on the Humpback Whale story, but I was a little surprised to find them all over my Twitter feed and this blog. Could they use the photo please? Initially I naively said yes of course, and, it being Monday, got on with my work. A few hours a later as I was having lunch I found that there were a few more enquiries, and I started to pay a little bit more attention. One of the requests was from a press agency who made photos available for the press, and said that my photos could get picked up by any newspaper but I would not get paid. Hmm, that's interesting isn't it? I send my photo to them, the newspaper buys it from them, and they pass the money to.... ah, I see. They keep it. Great business model when you think about it, I applaud the enterprise. Whatever. However when I also learned that any newspaper could pick it up I realised I'd been had and rescinded my permission. There are some things that are more important than money. What if The Sun had used my photo? Or some other racist fear-mongering hate-merchant? What if, heaven forbid, it had been the Daily Mail?

The Daily Mail did in fact ask me directly if they could use my video footage (this was before any decent footage had been obtained of course, I was very quick off the mark apparently). You can imagine the response that got, and also how pleased I was to have been handed that opportunity! What I found interesting was that after I replied - politely I might add, albeit making my feelings quite clear - The Mail decided to delete their request from YouTube, which also deleted my response. Cunning. Not cunning enough though.

Various other requests followed, including from The Times, which put my crappy photo in their online edition. Possibly also the print version but I don't buy it so I have no idea. This one I followed up on, and remarkably I might actually earn a few quid and I've sent them an invoice. I took it though my scope with my knackered old phone, which given I earn precisely zero from all the bird photos I take with my extremely expensive SLR equipment does rather make me laugh. A cursory search also found my photo on the online version of the Evening Standard, who had never been in contact at all. Unfortunately It's a screenprint from Twitter and I'm told that the small print suggests that they can do this with impunity. 

My conclusion is that trying to make a living as a press photographer, or indeed any photographer, is a non-starter. People either steal your photos or want them for free. About the best you can get is a copy of the book, or in the case of the Standard, a screenprint of your screenprint....

Unfortunately the story does not have a happy ending. The Whale was found dead during the week, and a post-mortem suggests that a ship strike was the cause. Whether it was fully healthy in the first place I suppose we'll never know - certainly swimming up the river was abnormal, and whilst it wasn't certain that it wouldn't make it out, I guess it was overwhelmingly unlikely. That the Beluga made it out last year was perhaps a miracle.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Thames Whale

Just another October London whale.... 

Yesterday news broke of a possible Minke Whale off Rainham. It was still there, or thereabouts today, and around 4pm I decided it was now or never and headed over there. My London Whale list means a great deal to me. Andy L was viewing it just from the Kent side just east of the bridge but felt confident that it would return upriver on the rising tide. He was spot on, but as I walked down the dead end path at Purfleet's Harrisons Wharf, I was still astonished to see a huge blow from a surfacing cetacean just off the condemned jetty. 

The whale was making its way slowly upstream, and about every five minutes I had a view as it surfaced. First at the Mardyke, then off Rainham RSPB, and finally in Aveley Bay. I was camera-less, electing on this occasion to go with a scope. I could always take a shot with my phone... yeah, in the three seconds it spent on the surface each time! To see it against the London skyline was surreal in the extreme. Let's hope it finds its way out again.

By now Dave C had it from the small car park at the west end of the sea wall, so I hopped back in the car and drove around to Coldharbour Lane. As I walked down the path it surfaced again off Erith Yacht Club, still heading steadily west. We tried the Stone Barges in the hope it would come round the point, but the light failed before it did so. 

By now I had a few photos, the 'best' of which are shown here. I am not very good at phone-scoping, but Dave has some better ones, including of the tail flukes. The latest thinking is that this is a Humpback Whale, which would be quite extraordinary if confirmed. The Beluga last year got quite a lot of press attention, this may do so as well once it gets picked up on. Here is a very short video segment of it briefly breaking the surface. 

Saturday, 5 October 2019

8am is the new Raptor o'clock

I had always thought that around 2pm was the best time for raptors. That's traditionally when it would be eyes to the sky in anticipation of birds of prey drifting over. Not so in Wanstead. Last weekend the Osprey flew south at 8.04am. Today, six days, 23 hours and 54 minutes later, it was the turn of a Marsh Harrier. Next week, well who knows? Bataleur?

In 2012 I missed a flyover Marsh Harrier whilst looking at a Wryneck. Shaun H, a visiting birder, tried to get me onto it but unfamiliar with patch landmarks he just couldn't direct me. It has taken me this long to claw it back. James and Bob had met Charlotte and I in the SSSI, and had just crossed the road to Long Wood. Skirting around its southern fringe I spied a long-winged raptor coming east over the brooms. Bins up through the gap in the foliage but it didn't look right. Clearly not a Buzzard, and not a Red Kite either. Another Osprey? No, not that. It's looking quite like a Harrier, but that can't be right can it?

Cue bedlam. My daughter was able to see what makes grown men tick. And run. James made the first dash for open skies, I wasn't far behind. "Get a photo!" I yelled, and fumbled with my phone to call Tony who I knew must be somewhere south of us. He was already on it, already thinking what we were thinking. A Marsh Harrier, a patch tick for all of us. Yes, including Bob once again, I don't know how he does it! 160 for him, seriously impressive. 155 for me, which given I wasn't really expecting to get any ticks this year I am delighted with. Many years ago I remember being in awe of Vince at Dagenham Chase, his local patch, where he had seen 160 species. 160? Surely that isn't possible?  A normal thrash around Wanstead would produce perhaps 40-50 species, an average year perhaps a shade over 100. 160 was the realm of fantasy! Well guess what, it isn't. It's simply a product of the passing of time and of dedication. I've been birding Wanstead for around 14 years now, and slowly but surely this is just what happens. It gets harder every year of course, but there is always something.

What will be next I wonder? 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

On this day...

France has had an Ovenbird and a Blackburnian Warbler. There are Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Red-eyed Vireos in the South West. Shetland has rare Shrikes by the dozen. Meanwhile I am in Canary Wharf, racing against other rats as usual. I had been planning to go to Shetland this year as I have not been since 2016, but the trip never really got off the ground and I ended up using my annual leave for something else. That something else has yet to happen, but I have high hopes. Shetland is unique however, and I wish I could be there. 

But I can't, so why not relive a few past glories? It's the 2nd of October today, the beginning of what I call the silly season. September largely sees the commoner rare birds, Little Buntings, Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers etc, but it is really in October that things begin to hot up and the outrageous birds begin to appear.

The 2nd October was a 2010 was a case in point. It had been an anxious trip up to Shetland, with our flight from London cancelled and a mad dash in a taxi to Birmingham to catch another, which ultimately got us to Sumburgh on the same day, albeit with little time for birding. Somewhere along the way my suitcase disappeared but I had my binoculars so all was well. In the three or so hours before the daylight ended I'd seen a Syke's Warbler and a Swainson's Thrush, which had arrived on the island from entirely different directions. They breed, at a minimum, close to five thousand miles apart, yet on Shetland one was at Channerwick and the other at Levenwick, roughly one and a half miles apart. 

Amazing to think that this was nine years ago, how time flies. Three years ago, also on the 2nd of October and also on Shetland, I saw a Lanceolated Warbler creeping through some long grass, but it is the first afternoon of my maiden trip in 2010 that sticks in the mind, the start of a crazy week up there where I got six 'lifers'. Subsequent visits, six in total, have never managed to live up that first trip, but I'm feeling the urge to get up there again. Quite when I am not sure, but my tentative plan is to spend a month up there when I next get made redundant. I am a glass half full kind of guy.

As I have no UK autumn birding planned this year, this is advance warning that this type of post could feature again. Scanning down my list early to mid-October is rich in the kind of birds that bring out the urge to reminisce all too easily. I could just tweet them to far greater reaction, but where is the fun in that? Also I need to write a further 62 blog posts this year in order to equal last year's already meagre total. Quantity not quality...

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Book Club 3

Another installment of the book club I'm afraid, covering all the things I've read since the last time I posted. It's a surprising amount actually, I guess I just really like reading, and it makes my commute to work and other travel I undertake pass that much more quickly. On a recent journey I went on I'd finished the one book I had taken with me by the end of the first flight and had to swing by a bookshop and stock up. It is rare I even switch on the fancy entertainment systems on a plane these days - maybe at a push the moving map, but I'm perfectly content just reading and listening to music. Ensure a regular supply of gin and tonic and I am an extremely fuss-free traveller. It has to be real book by the way, made of paper and so on. A bit old fashioned these days but I doubt I would read half as much if the sole option were a Kindle or whatever. 

So, what have been perusing?

A Single Swallow - Horatio Clare
You might think this is about birds, and in a way it is, but actually that's just a pretext. The author leaves a life of material possessions behind and attempts to follow the northbound migration of the Barn Swallow from South Africa to the UK. So it becomes an overland journey through Africa with a passing nod to Swallows from time to time, and is mostly about the people he meets, the physical travel and landscape involved, and how the journey changes him. And this is of course what makes the book. I'm fascinated by the continent, yet have only visited the very top and the very bottom. Horatio Clare does too, indeed he starts off at somewhere I've been birding. I enjoyed it a great deal, though it is not in the same league as Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux, which is the same journey north to south. 

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
This was one of those moments where you're working your way along a shelf of books with your head cocked awkwardly and the title jumps out at you and your inner voice says "Oh, wasn't that a film?", and reached out for it. Like me, most people will know or know of the film starring Anthony Hopkins, and so as I'd never watched it I gave it a try. And it was rather good, without being exceptional like some books I've read recently. Despite it being a novel in which not a great deal happens, it is just very well written as a character portrait. A butler in a once great english country house relives past glories of professionalism, loyalty and dignity, but at what cost did they come?

The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
This was a real left field choice, picked up in hurry whilst trying not to miss a flight, but it proved to be one of the very best things I've read recently. At first glance a 1920s novel about four unacquainted and very different ladies who leave their lives behind and together rent a castle in Italy for month was not exactly something I would normally reach out for, but somehow it sounded, well, enchanting. And it was, in fact it was completely wonderful. The writing is superb, the comedy understated, the characters expertly formed, and the eye for human frailty, small-mindedness and various other personality traits fantastic. Like the book above, the storyline is quite banale and simply to do with happiness, but that doesn't matter in the slightest and it is quite charming. Pick it up, and like Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Lady Caroline and Mrs Fisher, let the sun and the Italian riviera work its magic.

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
This was another loan from a friend of mine, very different to anything I might normally read. London Below is a parallel city inhabited by the magical and the occult. You cannot exist both in London Above and London Below, and one evening Richard accidently crosses from one to the other losing his identity in the process. Expect many plays on words, for instance there is genuinely an Angel called Islington, an Earl holds court, and there some Black Friars and old man called Bailey. See what I mean? Richard is taken on a whirlwind tour of this alternative and scary London by the Lady Door, hunted by ruthless assassins. Hard to put down, but ultimately not a book I can rave about for some reason. Nothing wrong with it, just not really my kind of book.

Pathfinders, The Golden Age of Arabic Science - Jim Al-Khalili
This was hard work but rewarding. I learnt heaps about heaps, and not just about the scholars, philosophers, scientists and polymaths of 9th century Baghdad. If you thought you knew about "modern" science, think again. Copernicus, Kepler and Newton and the like might be the ones we know in the west, but Arabic scientists had established the circumference of the world to within a percent of the actual distance by the 11th century, and much of the work of the court of the Abbasid Caliphs laid the foundation for much of what is known today. Algebra, Algorithm....just think for a moment where those words might have come from. I am completely hopeless at science and [real] maths, and I know far less than a middle-aged man ought to know about the laws of the universe, so this was a massive eye-opener in basic terms as well as for the historical story Jim Al-Khalili tells. If you have not heard of the enlightened Caliph Al Mamun and the House of Wisdom, well, you have a lot to learn. Fascinating.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

The shape of water

The theme is water. The rain in Wanstead, indeed much of the country, has been torrential this past week. I predicted last night that the short break in the deluge that we were due this morning would be good. Little did I know. I met Bob first thing and together we surveyed the SSSI, water squelching underfoot. A small flash had developed in the area near what was, pre-conflagration, the heather clump, but sadly held no waders.

Bob carefully surveys our newest pond for any signs of Jack Snipe

A short while later we found ourselves at the rather-more impressive fairground flash, which we think is mostly due to a leaky pipe but has been significantly enlarged by the recent rain. Excitingly this held two Egyptian Geese and some Gulls. Ahem. Still, more rain forecast for the next few days, so this could be a lake next time I look.

We met Tony and Rob in the brooms. Rob is Shetland bound, and Tony has promised him a pint for every Yank passerine he sees, so we passed some time predicting how many evenings down the pub we would need for Tony to make good on his promise. As Bob and I had not checked the Jubilee Pond or the burnt bit, we all crossed the road back to the SSSI, chatting away. This is the reality of patch birding, seeing not very much and gassing. Possibly the two are related. Luckily Tony is ever alert, and a large bird flapping down Centre Road was not the GBB he thought it would be. 


Told you it was all about water. Rather amazingly it had no accompanying corvids, and simply flew into and subsequently out of our air space in under a minute. Blink and you would have missed it. How many birds do this? What if we had still been facing the other way, admiring the returning Norwegian-ringed Common Gull? This is the second Osprey I have seen on the patch, so I have been happily able to unitalicise it on my list. Of my list of 154, there are 16 species I've only seen once in 15 years - this is what is all about. For the others however, including Bob, this was a full-fat tick! Patch gold! 

Saturday, 21 September 2019


The other day I found myself in Boston. By design of course, not an accident (that would have been very odd), and so I had a day to explore the city. My sister lived there for a while and had good things to say about it, plus of course it has a sculpture of “Make Way for Ducklings”, a perennial children’s favourite for those of American heritage, which I was very keen to see for a small panther-related reason.

As I had other things to do I arrived quite late on Saturday evening and went straight to a bar that a family member had recommended. It did not disappoint, especially the guy behind the bar who had probably behind it for 40 years – a proper character. Whilst I would have liked to have stayed all night, that would have ruined the following day which was when I planned to charge around the city like a mad man. Plus of course I am now properly middle-aged and don’t do all night drinking any more.

So as planned I managed to get up early enough to see the sun rise over Boston Harbour from the North End, and scoffed down a traditional American breakfast to fuel my day.  Hashbrowns, bacon, poached eggs and caw-fee.  Sated I rolled off into the empty streets near the Coast Guard station and walked at least a bit of it off around the wharves before joining the Freedom Trail near the Paul Revere House. I don’t intend to give a huge history lesson here, but Paul Revere was quite an influential person in the early stages of the American Revolution and the various skirmishes with the English which of course eventually led to the founding of the USA with the July 4th 1776 Declaration of Independence.

I will come back to (and did) the Freedom Trail later, as I was keen to visit Beacon Hill before the crowds arrived and perhaps take a few photos without people in them. Beacon Hill is one of the oldest districts in Boston, a delightful suburb of old house set in leafy streets, some of which remain partially cobbled.  It is also the location of “Cheers”, if anyone remembers that, right on Beacon Street.

Across from Cheers was the main event of the day, in the north-east corner of the Public Garden.  They did not disappoint. I was read the book very frequently when I was a child, and made sure that our house had a copy when our kids were little, though it probably did not have the same appeal as The Gruffalo. It was still very early with few people about, so I was able to mess about to my heart’s content without shame or embarrassment.

I then took a very lengthy walk along the south bank of the mighty Charles River to MIT on the north side. The weather was great and with a nice breeze blowing it was extremely pleasant. Not much bird activity beyond Common Grackles and eponymous Mallards, but then I did not have bins and wasn’t in birding mode anyway. 

MIT is very grand, especially the massive Dome, and I have to say it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I guess the name “Massachusetts Institute of Technology” conjures up images of gleaming space-age buildings. Whilst there are some of those, actually it was founded in 1861 and so a lot of the campus is old and imposing. By now it was mid-morning and a lot of the students were beginning to wake up – I am not sure how many students there are but the campus is enormous.

I pushed on – literally, I rented a bike – to Boston’s other major campus, Harvard. Technically it is in Cambridge, but there is no telling where Boston ends and that begins. This is much older than MIT, and you can see why the town’s name was changed to mirror that on which it was modelled. I’m from the original Cambridge, and was keen to see if lived up to its namesake. I did and it didn’t – it clearly felt like a university town, and the campus squares with lawns also emulated my home town, but fundamentally it is just not as old. Harvard was founded in 1637, some 400 years after Cambridge, and that is quite telling when it comes to buildings and architecture. What it does have in common is the number of tourists wandering around, of which today I was one! Still, it had a nice feel about it, and I spent some time listening to a choir rehearsal in the chapel, and then a pleasant half hour in the world-famous Harvard Book Store where I added to my meagre luggage.

By now it was time for lunch, so I hopped on the tube and went back south to China Town.  Sunday is a big day in China Town, and the city’s Asian residents were out in force enjoying their afternoon. I watched a bunch of old guys playing cards and chain smoking, and window-shopped numerous bakeries. This along with all the walking and cycling I had done confirmed that my large breakfast had completely disappeared and I was in need of more food. Nothing enormous and American, just a snack, so what better than Dim Sum? The Empire Garden was enormous, a sea of tables between which staffed pushed trollies of fresh steamed dumplings and other treats. It used to be a theatre, and it has all the faded opulence that you would expect. Dim Sum comes in baskets of four, which obviously wouldn’t be enough, whereas eight would probably be too many. I had eight. And an egg custard tart for good measure – I had a lot of walking still to do. 

Finally I found myself at Boston Common and the start of the Freedom Trail that I had intersected in the North End. The Freedom Trail is a self-walking tour that takes you from the Common and past numerous historical markers to Bunker Hill, site of a famous revolutionary battle between the English and the American colonists and today of a huge obelisk. Boston has a huge amount of late-colonial and revolutionary history. Some of its most notable residents were instrumental in the founding of the United States (13 of them in 1776!), and indeed some of their signatures are to be found on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness etc etc. )

Founding Fathers like Samuel  Adams (after whom the beer is named) and John Hancock were from Boston, and are interred in the Granary Burying Ground, which is perhaps the second or third stop on the trail. South Church Meeting house is also on the trail, and is where the Boston Tea Party (not actually a social event!) and other acts of resistance were organised. Anyway I followed this trail almost all of the way through the city, zigzagging from historical waypoint to waypoint (via a canoli in the Italian district!), before finally finding what I had been looking for all along just over the North Washington Street Bridge, a bar! 
Perfect. Time to try a selection of north-eastern American pale ales. Although the concept started in the Pacific northwest, I was delighted to find that one of the first pioneering beers was brewed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Boston’s own Paul Revere’s midnight ride in 1775 when he snuck across the river to warn the colonists that the English were on their way. The tradition is alive and well in New England, and I enjoyed two great beers from Maine washed down with some Clam Chowder. While in Boston….

And that was it really. I had a quick look at Bunker Hill and at Old Ironsides, but I needed to get to Logan for my flight home and work on Monday morning. Due to striking pilots I had to go via Dublin which wasn’t much fun as it’s a five hour flight which results in a fairly meaningless amount of sleep, but I was able to freshen up on arrival and get myself ready for work before the short hop to London City. 

Friday, 20 September 2019

Hawaii Big Island - Trip Report

Hawaii again I'm afraid. Big Island. I actually cancelled the last trip I had planned for various reasons, and this one very nearly went the same way. In the end I decided to go, and once again it was terrific, albeit with a terrible ratio of time on the ground to time in the air. My Hawaii list continues to grow, and the Big Island is incredibly interesting for non-avian reasons. 

  • A four day trip in mid August, leaving on a Saturday morning via Stockholm (obviously), and arriving at Kona about mid-morning local time on Sunday. I left again late on Monday evening after a whirlwind tour of the island, arriving back in London on Wednesday morning and going straight to work.
  • Flights were mostly American Airlines, with the transatlantic component being British Airways who thankfully were not on strike. They also took me to Sweden and back which turned this into an affordable trip - I think it is something to do with wanting to compete with the home market of budget carriers like Norwegian.
  • Car hire via Thrifty this time, where I went for a "wildcard" which was an extremely cheap option whereby they give you whatever car they happen to have spare. My luck was in and this was a red Camaro convertible which I have to say improved my trip significantly.
  • I stayed in the village of Volcano next which is right next to the Kilauea Crater rim, in a rather odd guesthouse, but as I wasn't there for any length of time it really didn't matter. I met a nice group of German agri-ecology students staying there who were studying trees on the islands, with a ratio of about one day of actual research to a week of time off having a ball. 
  • I visited five key birding sites on the island; Aimakapa Fishpond on the west coast, Kipukapuaulu on the slopes of Mauna Loa, the Pu'u O'o Trail which is part of the Upper Waiakea Forest Reserve, Hilo Pond, and Kahoa Restoration area on the west side of Mauna Kea. The rest of the time was spent admiring incredible views, waterfalls, beaches and snorkelling.
Day 1: Travelling
Day 2: Arrival at Kona, south to Aimakapa Fishpond in Kaloko Honokohau State Park, then Kahalu'u Beach Park for some R&R, followed by a quick stop to view the Captain James Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay. Further quick stops at Whittington Beach and Punalu'u Black Sands, before a couple of hours birding the Kipukapuaulu Trail. Overnight at Volcano.
Day 3: Early start down Chain of Craters Road stopping off frequently, ending at the cliffs at Holei. Then another circuit of the Kipuku before descending to Hilo and Waiakea Pond. Tourism at Rainbow Falls and then up the Saddle Road to the Pu'u O'o Trail where I spent the afternoon in amazing birding habitat. Late afternoon not finding at Palila at Kahoe, and then back down to the western shore for more R&R at Hapuna Beach, flopping about in the Pacific whilst watching the sun set. Evening flight to Los Angeles.
Day 4: Travelling, lost most of the day to time changes and then another overnight flight from New York to London.

The stars are the places I visited or planned to but didn't

Days 1 and 4 I am not planning to cover as they do not involve Hawaii at all, and descriptions of sleeping on airplanes are very dull. Days 2 and 3 were the main event.

Day 2: The arrival into Kona was superb on Sunday morning. Big Island is the most volcanic of the lot, and the tropical shore on the west side of the island is punctuated by huge lava flows originating from Mauna Loa and flowing all the way down to the sea in vast black rivers. I soon picked up my car and with the first birding stop mere miles away I had binoculars to my eyes in no time at all. I left the car at the marina at Kaloko Honokohau (turn right after the petrol station, signposted Honokohau Harbour, and then take the first right) and took the short path out to the beach, walking along the warm sand to the Finshpond which is perhaps a quarter of a mile north up the beach. There was a Pacific Golden Plover on the path, and several Grey Francolin in the scrub, and on the beach Turnstones and a Red-crested Cardinal foraged. Aimakapa Fishpond had a large number of Hawaiian Stilt, more PGPs, lots of Cattle Egret, two Black-crowned Night Heron and a few Hawaiian Coots, but armed only with a toy lens on this trip I wasn't able to take advantage. Around the pond were lots of tiny Zebra Dove, a Yellow-fronted Canary, but the dominant species of passerine was Common Waxbill. This is basically the story of Hawaii. There was a dead Orangespine Unicornfish on the beach which was rather a shame, but I would see a lot of far better looking ones very soon.

Pacific Golden Plover

Orangespine Unicornfish

My next stop was Kahalu'u Beach, identifed as good and safe spot to go snorkelling. Being a Sunday it was quite busy, but a significant portion of my luggage was my swimming stuff so there was no way I was going to miss out. Parking was easy, and soon I was happily zipping about in clear warm water amongst tropical fish and Green Sea Turtles. The 24 hours of travel and some killer small hours in LAX were swiftly forgotten, this is why I put myself through it. The fish were amazing - Humuhumunuknukuapua'a, Yellow Tang, Orangespines, Four-spot Butterflyfish, Lined Butterflyfish, Hawaiian Spotted Boxfish, Bullethead Parrotfish, Raccoon Butterflyfish, Convict Tang, Hawaiian Sergeant Major, Moorish Idol, Hawaii Whitespotted Puffer, Black Triggerfish.... most of them in large numbers, in other words monumentally fantastic. It is a great shame that my little underwater camera is so crappy.

Sated, for now, I hauled myself out, and without waiting to dry off, jumped back in the car and with the roof down drove off along the coast road. I made a quick stop at a supermarket for some regulation Poké and a few beers for later on, and then made my way down to Kealakekua Bay and the James Cook Monument. Unless you take a boat tour you can't really get to this easily, but it is a white obelisk that marks the spot where Captain Cook was killed by natives in 1779 after a confrontation. I ate my Ahi Poké from across the bay in a contemplative mood. My first proper tick occured at around this point - as I was driving up towards Keokea via Pu'uhonua O Hanaunau, an 'Io flew over the car. This is the Hawaiian Hawk that is only found on Big Island, Buteo solitarius, and it was the only one I managed see whilst I was there and a major prize given there are only a few thousand of them. I watched it for a while as it soared against leaden skies, and just as it flew behind a ridge for the last time the heavens opened and I was forced to dash back to the car and put the roof up. I made it just in time, the rain was of biblical proportions, but a few miles up the road it was completely clear again. 

By now it was mid afternoon so I continued my anticlockwise journey around the island, very much enjoying the quiet roads. There are no major settlements in the south west corner of the island, consequently it is fairly wild and free of people. I made a short stop at Whittington Beach State Park, where a local BBQ was in full swing and birds were nowhere to be seen. Back to tourism mode, as a few miles further on is the very famous Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. This I had to see, and it was indeed very black. Again lots of locals enjoying the sand and the sea, and barring a number of Muscovy Ducks on a small pond just inland there were no birds about. The main birding site of the day was only half an hour up the road however.

A kipuka is a tract of old growth trees that has been cutoff at some point by a flow of lava and thus exists as a pocket of habitat. One of the best known of these is the Kipukapuaulu just outside the village of Volcano, just off the Mauna Loa Road. It is a circular track that is very easy going and it is crawling with birds. I had just enough time to do a leisurely circuit before dusk. The first birds I hit upon were Apapane, probably the most widespread Hawaiian Honeycreeper and distributed across all the islands. I counted probably around 20 in small groups around the parking circle, but once in the forest saw no more. I did jam upon a Hawaii 'Elapaio, a species of Monarch Flycatcher endemic to Big Island, so another pleasing score. The uber-sepcies is present on three of the islands and was split in 2010, and I had previously seen the Kauai species. However one school of thought also subdivides the Hawaii species into three further sub-species - Kona, Mauna Kea and Volcano - I was looking at the latter. Overall the circuit was quite quiet - a handful of Kalij Pheasants and some Red-billed Leiothrix which whilst both imports are very beautiful. At last knockings I tried the Mauna Loa viewpoint but the road was quite bad and went high enough that the final mile was in a cloud I couldn't see anything. I returned to Volcano and found my accommodation, chatted to some German students off to study the trees in the Hakalau Forest Reserve, had some more Poké (which I cooked because it had been in the hot car all day) and drank my beers whilst planning the next day.

Hawaii 'Elepaio

Day 3: I was up early, keen to make the most of what was my last day before the marathon journey back home. I had read that the Kipuka was better slightly later in the morning, which meant I had time to drive the Chain of Craters Road down the leeward side of Mauna Loa down to the sea. As recently as last year this was where you would go to see the lava flow crashing into the sea, but the eruptions of 2018 unfortunately shut all of that down. I had the road entirely to myself, and with the top down it was a magnificent drive as the road gradually descends to the sea. I didn't see another car either on the way down or the way up. I am not a big driver, and nor do I have much interest in cars, but in certain situations I can see the attraction. I stopped at all the various craters, seeing a few Apapane at the Pauhai Crater, but missed out on the Petroglyph site. At the Holei Sea Arch I parked up and walked across the lava to the cliffs to be presented with a fabulous sight - Black Noddy swirling around tremendous waves crashing against the rocks, with the sun rising above the horizon. 

Black Noddy - the birds on Hawaii are another potential split

Kilauea Crater

I stayed here a while it was so stunning, but really I needed to be at the Kipuku so I dragged myself away. What I hadn't forseen, despite the signs, were two Nene on the road back up to Kilaue. Whilst I had seen some of these on Kauai, I felt that the birds on Hawaii were perhaps 'better', and I had seen eBird reports on pairs seen on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The birds were completely unafraid (even of small Panthers) and fed contentedly by the roadside as I admired them and took a few photos. One was ringed, the other not.

Back at the Kipuku later than intended, I found it overrun with Kalij Pheasants. Battling my way through these I found another Hawaii 'Elepaio but for the life of me could not find an 'Oma'o. I met a volunteer on the trail who was able to identify all the birds on call, and whilst we heard several we couldn't actually see one. Bummer. Instead I had to make do with a Hwamei, another introduction.

Mauna Loa Road

Kalij Pheasant
The Bird Trail at Kipukapuaulu

I descended into Hilo for lunch, grabbing a pot of rice from a local diner and eating it at the pond. Here there were more PGP, lots of Nene (albeit looking less kosher than the ones on the volcano), a pair of Canada Geese, a Wandering Tattler, Mallards and Hawaiian Coots, and lots of House Sparrows. All good stuff! A brief stop at a thrift shop to buy another maxed-out Aloha shirt and I felt ready for a bit of genuine tourism at the nearby Rainbow Falls. This was heaving with people, but was still excellent.

From here I found my way to the start of the Saddle Road that crosses the centre of the island, looking for the Pu'u O'o Trailhead. This had been recommended by the volunteer at the Kipuku. Parking was extremely limited, and also rather exposed, but I hoped that there was enough passing traffic to deter any opportunistic thieves. There were of course warning signs all over the place saying to leave nothing etc, so as an afterthought I put my passports in my pocket before I headed down the trail. Initially you pick your way over broken lava before entering the native forest. At the beginning the trees are extremely gnarled and stunted, but as you pass through the lava and into a more open area they begin to get bigger. I could hear native Hawaiian birds everywhere, including the whistles of 'Oma'o. The trail is helpfully marked with cairns along its entire length, so I followed these across the open glade to the denser stands of native trees. As I entered the treeline I knew I was in the right place - there were Honeycreepers all over the place. The most common of these was the Hawaii Amakihi, another endemic species which has equivalents on some of the other islands. 'I'iwi were all over the place as well, chasing each other through the branches and making all sorts of weird and wonderful noises, and I finally set eyes on an 'Oma'o as it sang from just below the top of the canopy. And the best bit? There wasn't another person there. Other birds included more Leiothrix and also Japanse White-eye.
Native forest at 6000ft on Mauna Loa

The Pu'u O'o Trail

Hawaii Amakihi

The weather seemed to be closing in and I wasn't dressed ideally for 6000ft, so I made my way back to the car rapidly and avoided getting drenched. It was then only a short drive further along Saddle Road to the Kahoa Restoration Area, a Mamane Dry Forest where the last remnants of a population of Palila live. In short I couldn't find one, although there were lots of Amakihi again despite the completely different habitat to Pu'u O'o. I was also driving along in a convertible saloon car, rather than the 4x4 that was strictly required. I am not quite sure why as the dirt road was in excellent condition but I guess if it rains it is another story entirely. And with that threat of rain I did not linger, so Palila will need to wait for another trip - hopefully they will not become extinct before I can get back although as there are only a few thousand of them that is a distinct possibility.

The heavens did open as I made my way back down towards Kawaihae, the deep water port that a lot of Hawaii's goods come in via. It was so heavy at times that the wipers could not keep up, but again it seemed to be just on the leeward slope, as if it had washed over the top of the mountain and then come crashing down. Once back down at sea level it was perfectly clear and sunny. I found some food and hurried to Hapnua Beach State Park. I had planned more snorkelling around the edges of the bay but found the waves too much fun in the middle of the beach. I might be 44 but I know how to act like a small child when called for. Gradually the sun sank below the horizon and my day was over. All that remained was to drive back down to Kona, fill up the Camaro and give it back, and then wait for my flight to Los Angeles. The airport is typically Hawaiian, an open-air affair, so I was able to sit about and have a beer before getting on board and going to sleep.

Day 4: Los Angeles, New York, London...and back to work. :-(. An exhilarating trip once again, with some good birds seen and some better birds missed, but no complaints whatsoever. The Hawaiian endemic Honeycreepers are critically endangered and very hit and miss, to see any at all is a real treat and I've now managed to see seven along with plenty of other birds unique to the islands. 

Trip List