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

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Walking around Singapore

Singapore has much to recommend it. A thoroughly modern city carpeted in foliage. Incredible buildings are to be found at every turn, and everything operates like clockwork. It feels welcoming and safe, but you can still wander down a side street and know that you are in Asia. Growth has been tremendous (not long ago Singapore was a sleepy colonial outpost), but has been designed with the mission statement of garden city in mind.

I left after work on a Friday, and such is the time difference arrived on Saturday afternoon. I met a colleague for dinner and was given a walking tour of the city which helped acclimatise me to local time. On Sunday I got up for first light and went birding all day - a separate post awaits - and then I spent the evening in the city again. Monday was a repeat of Sunday, but birding mostly different areas, after which I flew home and went to work, wondering quite what had happened over the last 72 hours. Here are few of the sights, mainly around the Central Business District and Marina Bay.

No trip would be complete etc etc

Monday 22 April 2019

A problem of chronology

My blog is like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps not quite as entertaining, but that's the power of big budgets for you. No, I am talking about chronology. I have lost the plot. Within MCU (yes, I am that down with the kids) the films come out in a seemingly random order, which I then further mix up with random dvd purchases generally based on price. Luckily I have children who are completely au fait with all of this and able to tell me the sequence of events regarding the Avengers, Thor and Ironman and so on. With my blog I have no such fallback.

At the moment I am about halfway through writing up a trip I did to Arizona in March. I am also trying to finish off Singapore which was in February, and I've also been on a family holiday to Cyprus which (shock, horror) involved birds. I am not meaning to show off here by the way, and apologies if that is what comes across, but I do like writing about the things I do and travel happens to be one of them. In the face of the XR I am acutely aware that this particular aspect of my life is not exactly to be celebrated, and as mentioned back in January I am still wrestling with it and what I do about it. In fact, and in common with the rest of my blog, I have a half written post which I am still trying to make sense of in my own mind before unleashing it on the internet. I would like to say however that disrupting a light railway in the name of climate change seems counter-intuitive, although the publicity was undeniable. Anyhow, as per my post yesterday patch birding is once again de rigeur, and daily expeditions set forth (on foot!) from Chateau L in search of all the same birds that were seen last year, as that is what birding a local patch is all about - endless repetition. All of these trains of thought are in my head, and keeping track of where they all fit is proving rather challenging, to the point where I have actually stopped as I would rather just be outside in the garden doing the weeding which requires minimal brain power.

I keep looking at the computer guility and thinking how nice it would be if it were all just done. Which is of course is absurd, as writing about it is wholly unnecessary. It may be compulsive, I'm not sure. Clearly not that compulsive. But it won't record itself, and nobody can step in and sort out this big jumble. I have just hit publish on a post on Antelope Canyon, an incredible place in Arizona, but I actually wrote this about three weeks ago when I was on a roll and had written several blog posts in an evening. I actually wrote about being on this roll, whereupon all creative impetus immediately ceased. Won't make that mistake again.

It is building however. I can feel it. Expect a large outpouring in the near future. For now, here is a Rüppell's Warbler from Cyprus. Do you ever wonder about bird names? I do, and I plan to make you wonder about them too. He was a German naturalist who spent many years in North Africa and has loads of birds named after him. This is perhaps the best one, although Rüppell's Robin-chat is a bit of a looker.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Same old, same old?

By April 21st last year I had seen exactly 89 birds on the patch. I don't do fractions. This year I have seen, oh look, exactly 89 species. There is actually less cross-over than I thought, with seven birds seen this year that I hadn't seen by this point last year, and vice versa, but rest assured that it will all even out in the end. My patch year lists are, barring a few species, identical every time, with only the order being slightly different. I could mix it up I suppose, see how many I can get in March, how many in April etc, but do I look like the Prof? (No I do not).

April is usually excellent, and whilst the quantities have been down - only one Wheatear for instance - the expected birds have all, one by one, found their way onto my list. The latest bird, #89, was Ring Ouzel, a reliable species here year after year. And to think I once twitched one in Hertfordshire so little did I know of my local area. Well, all that has changed now. The where and when hold few surprises these days, but with a fly-over White Stork last week, and the run of fantastic birds last year, you just never know and so you go out every morning with the spring of hope in your step.

Despite what I said about being unable to get up, lately I have cracked it and am hitting the patch nice and early. One of the great benefits of this is that I am alone and I get to see the sun rise. You can generally tell quite early if the birding will be any good or not, and so some mornings you invest the time, and others become perhaps a shorter sortie. Last week saw a mixture of both. A run of ten hours over three consecutive mornings bagged nothing more than a single Yellow Wagtail. The following three days have seen Green Sandpiper, a new Cetti's Warbler, two Sedge Warblers, a Rook, quite a few hirundines and the aforementioned Ouzel. I think I'll stick at it for a few more weeks.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Arizona - Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon needs no introduction. If you have a windows-based computer, the likelihood is that you will have seen the amazing swirls and deep reds, oranges and ochres that make up one of the backgrounds that it cycles through. Many of the slot canyons from this area exhibit these layers of sandstone, but Antelope is perhaps the most expansive and impressive. When I was initially researching the various photography locations for this trip I had assumed you could just walk up and walk in, but the canyon is on Navajo tribal land and all of that is off limits….unless you pay. 

Antelope Canyon has spawned an industry! Tours leave many times per day, and small groups enter the canyon at barely staggered intervals with a Navajo guide there to point out features and answer questions, but also to make sure you move through and go not linger and cause the whole system to fall over. At times it felt like the only thing missing was a cattle prod, but there is no denying the beauty of the place, even if you are sharing it with 200 other people. Interspersed between the regular groups are specialist photography tours (add $100 per person to an entrance ticket which is already $60…) who are allowed a little longer and are allowed to take tripods etc. I couldn’t stomach that level of robbery, so went handheld the whole way and hoped I would nonetheless get some good opportunities with the low-light capabilities of the 1Dx. 

Most photographs of the Canyon are taken in summer when shafts of light fall into the canyon from the sun high overhead – I can only imagine how busy it must get. Sand trickles into these beams to produce the most amazing images, however In February when we went the sun is never high enough in the sky for this to happen. Antelope had a treat for us nonetheless - falling snow replaced sand for what I hope are some fairly unique shots.

Friday 12 April 2019

Joshua Tree redux

Coming back to those Joshua Trees I wrote about the other day, it occurred to me whilst there that the plants we had seen near the town of Mesquite on the Nevada-Utah border were different in form to some of the photos I had seen. This led me to undertake some mid-holiday research (all my holidays are this fun) and I discovered that there are two distinct forms of Yucca Brevifolia. I won’t bore you with too many of the details, nor even the names of the subspecies – all you need to know is that one group of plants has a tendency to branch far more frequently than the other, and thus they end up looking far more impressive and tree-like. As luck would have it our route back to Las Vegas took us south of the Grand Canyon and very close to the very dense stands of these Joshua Trees in and around the Mojave National Preserve.

Oh for a drone. I climbed a small windmill to take this....

We turned off the main road at a town called Searchlight. The road was long and straight, and either side of us were hundreds upon hundreds of Joshua Trees. As we progressed west down the road they became denser and denser until they were the dominant vegetation. Turning off onto a dirt track and we were in a forest. Compared to the scattered trees we had found near Mesquite this was another level entirely.  Many of you will be familiar with the album “Joshua Tree” by U2, and so will know what these plants look like. Within the album artwork, at least on the CD I have, there is a photo of the band with a lone tree in the background, as well as one with Bono standing up against a trunk. They were clearly aiming for the desolate look. What Henry and I were looking at was positively verdant! Joshua Trees as far as the eye could see, and not only that, these were huge! No stunted trunks here, instead thousands upon thousands of immense candelabras. Just imagine how old these are, think what they have seen. Nevada saw no persistent white explorers until about 1775, and migration didn’t really start until 1840 so almost every single tree that we could see almost certainly predated what we think of as modern America. Think about that for a minute, trees that are older than the country in which they stand. Half an inch a year means a 20ft tall tree will be approximately 500 years old – this landscape has not changed for centuries. Long may that continue.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Arizona - Horseshoe Bend

Gradually we left the snow behind as we descended from Zion down towards Page in Arizona. Things began to look a lot more desert-like, and the physical elements of the landscape started to look like a Roadrunner cartoon. The famous Horseshoe bend was our destination for the evening, an impressive overlook gives a full view of the entire loop in the river complete with dramatic cliffs. It was both monumental and terrifying. Monumental as the great yawning chasm opened up in front up us. Terrifying due to the absurd selfie-takers putting themselves and in some cases their children at risk as they posed on the edge, well away from the safety railings at the main view point. With my own son there I was taking no chances with either him or me, but my heart was in my mouth for almost the whole time as people behaved like utter idiots. Only a month before someone had died doing exactly what people were doing today, and presumably every hour of every day. It made me sick to watch actually, just the thought of what could happen and what the result would inevitably be. You can take the view that Darwinism will prevail, or you can just be unbelievably heart-in-my-mouth nervous for the safety of perfect strangers. I chose the latter, I’m not sure why.

We were there for the sunset, which in common with the rest of our trip basically failed to materialise. We got the briefest of rays before the cloud swallowed everything up again. No matter though, it was still quite an occasion, and we knew we would be back for the sunrise the following day. Guess what? We awoke to another winter wonderland, with a decent amount of snow on the ground and light snow continuing to fall. We went back to the overlook to find the canyon shrouded in mist to the extent we couldn’t even see the other side, let alone the river. It cleared a bit as the morning progressed, however with people continuing to behave like complete muppets but with added ice my delicate constitution could not cope and we left to do something else, namely breakfast. Meanwhile the snow continued to fall in the desert.