Friday 19 July 2019

On the Beach

This photograph was taken shortly after sunrise on a June Saturday morning at Nickerson Beach, Long Island, New York State. On Friday evening I had been at a desk in Canary Wharf, London, which is where I was also to be found on the subsequent Monday morning. I know which I prefer. This time there was no missing/drunk AirBnB host, no gigantic trip-ending thunderstorm, just me and lots and lots of fabulous birds. It is also the last time I picked up a camera, which in part explains my lack of output (but only in part, see here). In short it was a wonderful two days that I thoroughly enjoyed, and that I would like to repeat when time allows. Needless to say it is an American Oystercatcher with a young chick. The chick waits, hidden in the sand, whilst the adult hunts on the shoreline. When a morsel is found the parent makes a short call which has the youngster up and scurrying down the smooth wet sand. There they meet and the meal is passed over, after which the chick heads inland again and the adult runs back down to the surf. I could watch it all day.

Monday 15 July 2019

Bulgaria May 2019 - Trip Report

I'm gradually catching up on various trips I've done, so after my wildly and insanely popular series of posts on Texas (seven lengthy posts, zero comments) it is time to get Bulgaria over and done with. It is clear what my readership wants and I intend to deliver. Trip report means trip report!

Look, I'll be brief.

  • A three day trip in mid-May with Mick S to Bulgaria.
  • Flghts - British Airways timings and prices were good to Sofia, and booking with a car saved a fair bit.
  • Some hotels booked in advance, but weather changed our plans and one of these was abandoned. One of our replacement hotels was basically in a petrol station, but it did only cost £14.
  • Day 0: Afternoon drive from Sofia down to the Thracian Plain, and then up into the mountains with an overnight stay at Batak Reservoir.
  • Day 1: A large loop through the Western Rhodopes to Trigrad Gorge and then back to Pazardzhik for late afternoon birding in some steppe habitat.
  • Day 2: Morning in the Besaparski Hills, before a long drive back west around Sofia and up to the area around Dragoman Marshes.
  • Day 3: A morning in a hide near Dragoman before a lunchtime flight back to London

In short it was hard work with inclement weather in the mountains scuppering our carefully laid plans. We reverted to following the 'better' weather where we could, and saw lots of nice birds - Eastern Europe is fantastic at any time of year. We failed to see Wallcreeper at Trigrad. This was once the place to go for this species, but the very easy pair are no longer there. Other pairs remain, but these are closely guarded secrets by tour companies looking to extract cash from retirees, and we didn't find one ourselves. My quest for this elusive species goes on. 

Crested Tit

The brief time we spent in the Rhodopes was extremely pleasant, but birds were quite scarce. Our morning in the mountains above Batak was beset by mist, and we only saw one Ring Ouzel and a handful of Crested Tits, but hirundines were plentiful in the afternoon when the weather improved, including some Crag Martins collecting mud at Golyam Beglik. The rain caught up with us again as we left Trigrad and did not let up until we descended to Isperihovo/Novo Selo and the Besaparski Hills. We found some lovely steppe habitat here with three species of Wheatear, dozens of Calandra Lark, Red-backed Shrike, Lesser Grey Shrike, Golden Oriole and a few Black-headed Buntings. None wanted their photographs taken.

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

We stuck with this area the following morning, and wiggled our way through the hills to reach the motorway and return to Sofia. Some good raptors here, with Honey Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard and Eastern Imperial Eagle. We arrived at Dragoman in the later afternoon and added Montagu's Harrier to this list, as well as our first Marsh Harriers. I finally found Sombre Tit, a much-wanted WP tick, on the slopes above the marsh, along with a singing Ortolan Bunting, and on the rather short boardwalk we notched up at least five Savi's Warbler along with Great Reed Warbler and Reed WarblerBitterns boomed in the background but we never saw one. Instead we notched up flying Purple Heron, Great White Egret and so on, but the marsh is huge and essentially impenetrable - the best views are from up the slope but would require a powerful scope.


Spanish Sparrow

Corn Bunting



Subalpine Warbler

Black-headed Wagtail

The following morning we spent in a hide in the hills to the south of the marsh. During the three hours or so we had the hide was visited by just three species which was not at all the plan! Tree Sparrow, Sombre Tit and Great Tit. Still, until the previous day I had never seen Sombre Tit, so to have them at point blank range was rather good. 

Tree Sparrow


Sombre Tit

Overall we notched up 114 species, but as a photography trip it was not one of the better ones unfortunately. And of course when you aim for photos the amount of birding you do decreases, so the species count could have no doubt been higher. This is an accepted outcome of course, but when the photos don't really work then you do question whether you made the right decision. When it comes off however....

Trip List

Red-backed Shrike

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Upper Texas Coast and Cape May Trip List

Upper Texas Coast / Houston Trip List

A highly productive trip. Although on reflection I might have done better on the Warblers in Canada, the UTC has it all. When the woodland passerines aren't happening then the shore and the marshes are right next door. It was here that I took my most pleasing photos. This was a birding trip though, and so the all-important list is below. Nearly made it to 200, with a little less time at Anahuac and a bit more time at other places I think I would have got there. Of the 192, 31 were ABA ticks.

Cape May Trip List (extension)


Monday 8 July 2019

One Day Cape May

Cape May Lighthouse

This was just a brief stopover on the way from the main event of the Upper Texas Coast as I'd always wanted to know just what was special about Cape May that drew birders in huge numbers every autumn. Now I know! The place is small, relatively easily walkable - i.e. you could easily spent the whole day at South Meadows and the Lighthouse if you were so inclined, the potential seems to be enormous. 

Purple Martin

Lighthouse was where we started, parking underneath a Purple Martin nest tower. Looking at eBird the previous evening the sightings from Coral Avenue had looked the best, but what I didn't realise was that this was because a vizmig station was set up here on one of the wooden platforms and manned by a team of elite birders that didn't miss a trick, but equally a lot of what they were seeing were dots in their scopes. EBird is a great resource, but a bit of local knowledge is even better! I spoke to one of them who suggested it was not going to be a great day. What?! Nonsense, of course it was going to be a great day, I was birding in America and any day that happens is automatically a wonderful day!

American Oystercatcher

I lost Mick while I was having this conversation, and did not find him again for a couple of hours. During that time I photographed a pair of American Oystercatchers by Battery 223, and all sorts of other things along the trails that led to South Cape May Meadows alongside the Bunker Pond. Tree Swallows flitted around, along with Purple Martins and Barn Swallows. The Ponds were ruled by Mute Swans and Canada Geese, but a nesting Killdeer on the side proved easy, as well as Mockingbird and Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. I walked several miles, mostly just birding happily, but occasionally the camera got a bit of action, never much though. This is my favourite type of bird photography, what I would describe as "roving". No hide, no hours sat still, find a bird and see if you can make it work, and if you can't move on.

Tree Swallow

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher


Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

I found Mick back at the Lighthouse car park taking photographs of American Robins, and so we swapped for a while, he to walk the paths and me to get down low. Once bored of this we had a change of scene up at Sunset Beach - mainly tourism-related, followed by some birding at the Meadows. Here we walked a couple of loops, photographing Black Duck and adding American Wigeon and Gadwall to the list, as well as Bonaparte's Gull and Fish Crow.

American Robin

Black Duck

By now lunchtime and with a flight at six, we needed a new plan and a new place to explore. The next-best place seemed to be Higbee Beach, as short drive away. Here we spent a pleasant hour or so wandering around the woodland, adding Prairie Warbler and Belted Kingfisher

Prairie Warbler

We had one last go at South Cape May Meadows which had been the most birdy, and on a sandy track near the beach caught up with Field Sparrow that eBird had said was present here. We also took a dead end but not without excellent view of Carolina Chickadee, and then it was time to head back to Philly for the overnight flight back to London and work.

Field Sparrow

Carolina Chickadee

Sunday 7 July 2019


Warning: this is a filler, in more ways than one....

This is Pasta with greens, garlic and chilli, from the River Cottage Veg Everyday cookbook. The green is the case was cavolo nero - very good for you. It was delicious and a big hit, scoring highly from all of famille L. I said I thought it was nonethess better with spring greens, but was told not to be rude.

In the same vein, another veggie recipe that we tried last week. This is Green Bean Courgette and Bean salad with Tahini Dressing, also from the River Cottage recipe book. In case anyone is wondering, the bowl in both dishes is made by a danish company called Broste, and the range is called Nordic Sea. It is very wide and quite shallow and works very well for dishes like this. In the absence of birds I am moving into lifestyle blogging.

Here is one of my tomatos. It is only about 2cm wide at the moment but give it time. The variety is Costoluto Fiorentino, a beefsteak tomato. I grew these from seed, starting them off in the greenhouse in about February, and I have high hopes. Expect to see them in danish crockery soon.... 

And while we're on the topic of plants, here is a flowering Plumeria, otherwise known as Frangipani. I cut a small branch off a tree on Madeira about 18 months ago and brought it home in a suitcase. It rooted quite easily and doubled in size last summer, and then I managed to keep it alive throughout the winter which was the hard part. It is now rewarding us with vibrant flowers and wonderful scent. This along with Philodendron vines which I also grow in profusion ensures I regularly think I'm in a tropical paradise rather than in the bowels of east London suburbia.

Saturday 6 July 2019

Texas - Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Back when I was last in Texas with Henry we had planned to try for Red-cockaded Woodpecker at WG Jones State Forest on the north side of Houston but had run out of time. This is a properly hard species to catch up with, with a very limited distribution and range. They like a particular type of pine forest, and are very very fussy. WG Jones State Forest is just right it seems, and is probably the place most people see this bird. We arrived early morning, with about two hours to try and fine one. EBird news suggested that there were at least two pairs in the smaller part of the forest north of the road that bisects it, but beyond that I had no idea where to look. Happily the management had taken the guesswork out by closing a loop of path, which was strongly suggestive of birds that they didn't want disturbed. We took up position but the ropes but saw absolutely nothing and wandered off to do some actual birding. Brown-headed Nuthatch were numerous and vocal, but steadfastly at the top of very tall trees. Easier were Eastern Bluebird in purpose-built nest boxes, and Pine Siskin and Cedar Waxwing were everywhere. We found several Red-cockaded nest boxes within the trees - cleverly done - but they did not appear occupied.

It took a visiting birder to help us out, who immediately on arrival had seen a female Woodpecker from exactly where we had been standing. Naturally, I wouldn't have it any other way. We went back there and eventually saw it through a precise gap between numerous trees. It was relatively obvious where the nest hole probably was, but of course we couldn't go any closer. Eventually Mick spotted the bird, not sure if the same one, behind us and towards the parking area, but we didn't get much on it before it flew back into the closed area. Still, probably the best views we could have hoped for in the circumstances. There are more pairs south of the road, but that is a much larger area and it would have been a lot harder I suspect. Still, on the list.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - best I got

By now it was mid-morning, and we had a mid-morning flight to Philadelphia for the next part of the adventure - Cape May, New Jersey. The trip list stood at 163.

Thursday 4 July 2019

Upper Texas Coast - Day 3

We tried Yellow Rail Prairie just before dawn to see if we might find its namesake but drew a blank. We did however treat a selection of the UTC mosquito population to a fine breakfast, so for some at least it was a profitable start to the day. As the day dawned we returned once more to the Shoveler Pond Loop, and were pleased to find both Sora and a King Rail at the first corner, the lateter giving exceptionally unexpected views. From the boardwalk on the western side of the pond the light was phenomenal, and I enjoyed some low shots of Stilt Sandpiper, Blue-winged Teal and various other birds. Soon however the loop began to fill with other cars, and so as not to get stuck behind a massive queue of people simply birding from vehicles on a single-track road we moved back to the favoured eastern edge for some more flight photography as the herons and egrets began to head out of roost and off to feed in the nearby fields and ditches. In this way the first couple of hours of the morning passed most satisfactorily.

Blue-winged Teal

Stilt Sandpiper

Short-billed Dowitcher (I think!)

King Rail

Yellow-crowned Nigh Heron

Purple Gallinule

Cattle Egret

Tricoloured Heron

Little Blue Heron - a nice blue version

Great White Egret

American White Ibis

Back at High Island we spent a little more time seeing if anything new was at Boy Scout, and on the point of leaving bumped into a very nice man called Victor Emanuel. Now obviously I don't like to name drop, but I'd actually had a nice chat with him on my flight over from the UK. Long story, but my immediate neighbour on the plane was returning from participating in a VENT trip in Spain, and had told me that Mr. Emanuel was also on the plane and went to find him. Gratifyingly he had then come along and said hi, and we had proceeded to have a very long chat about bird in Spain as well as his special subject, birding the Upper Texas Coast. He was exceedingly kind and helpful, and my eBird printouts were soon covered with copious notes and hand-drawn maps. I still have his pen in fact. He had suggested meeting up at High Island later in the week to go birding, an amazing proposition, but I declined as I was with Mick and I didn't know what our movements were going to be. Anyhow, we recognised each other and picked up where we had left off, albeit that I forgot to give him his pen back once again. So a lot more gen and then we did a spot of birding in the garden opposite Boy Scout. It was pretty fabulous to have his insightful commentary as we were going through the birds, but I suppose this is a man who has spent a lifetime guiding numpties....

Gradually other people nearby became aware that this was THE Victor Emanuel and starting fawning, at which point we took our leave, but with a list enriched by Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoo in the same tree. Some of the new gen concerned a pair of Whooping Crane that had not moved north with the rest of the flock, and were instead frequenting the fields around Winnie. This is a seriously rare bird in a global context, and I had not seen them at Aransas NR on the coast on a previous visit. In other words this was a must see and the twitch was on, so even though this was somewhat in the wrong direction versus our plans we went back north and sure enough found them feeding in a large field. Too distant for photography even with birds of this impressive size, but it was a real treat to see this highly endangered species. There are fewer than 1000 birds in total, and at one point the population had declined to 20 before conservationists stepped in.

Swainson's Thrush

Grey Catbird were omnipresent

Black-and-White Warbler

We stopped at Hooks Wood briefly back on High Island, but our actual destination was Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. A happy hour was spent at Rollover Pass, where we upped the list significantly with heaps of new waders and terns, before heading to the Flats. This was amazing - vast numbers of birds on the beach and in the shallows. Waders included Semipalmated Plover, Wilson's Plover, Grey Plover, Willet, Sanderling and Turnstone, whilst on the laridlike front there were Least Tern, Forster's TernBlack Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern and Caspian Tern, along with Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull and American Herring Gull. Flat on my stomach I enjoyed one of my favourite types of photography, although my clothes enjoyed it less and I nearly had to throw my trousers away. We also saw a thoughtless couple stroll straight out into the roped-off protected area with an enormous unleashed dog, totally ignoring all the signs, so it isn't just in Wanstead that people believe that they can with impunity.

Least Tern

Least Tern

Wilson's Plover


We finished the day back at Boy Scout trying for a few more photos around the drips but this was only moderately successful and involved more of the same fare, that is to say endless Catbird and Swainson's Thrushes, and it was then time to head back to Houston for a new phase of the trip, and to put right another ancient miss.