Friday 28 October 2022

En Provence

I've just had a few days en Provence with the family. The weather has been glorious, the rosé chilled and plentiful, the seafood wonderul. With everything that is going on in the UK you start to question why exactly it is that you live in London. The cold and the damp, the toxic atmosphere, the battle to find decent food, the loooming central heating decision. Here life is simple and straightforward. I need to become one of these digital nomads that can work from anywhere.

We are in Cassis, on the Med near Toulon. A quiet but somewhat chi chi fishing port for the well-heeled of Aix and Marseille. I love Provence, I spent some of my childhood here, the beach a regular weekly trip from our home in the hills above Aix. Fond memories, and it is good to be back with my own kids.

We have not done much, it is all tooo easy to get into the rythym of the south. Morning strolls and coffee. Wandering around the arket. Relaxed lunches. Visits to vineyards. A hike into the Calanques to swim in the crystal clear waters. The smell of pine and salt. Did I mention rosé? Firecrest seems to be the commonest bird by far but I have been too soporific to actively seek them out, A Black Redstart lives on the roof of our flat which has a view of the harbour. I could get used to this, but alas...

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Turkey - Day 5

Day five and Mick is restored, 24 hours asleep has done him the world of good and we can continue birding. Riva is on the Black Sea coast, and we had chosen to stay there as of all the spots around Istanbul it seemed to offer the best chance to increase the list. This was very much a birding trip, rather than concentrating on photography. The beach wasn't up to much, fishermen covered every spot of sand even first thing in the morning, but the reed bed along the river was a lot better with Kingfishers, Cetti's Warblers, Water Rails and so on, whilst Marsh Harrier and Hobby hunted above. Bird of the morning spot went to a Short-toed Eagle cruising overhead (little did we know) and in the scrub above the road there were Sardinian Warblers, Blackcap, and Long-tailed Tits.

Our main destination was the watchpoint of Toygartepe - there are a number of spots along the Bosphorus that come into their own during migration season. In the spring you position yourself on the western side and look east, and in the autumn it is the other way around. Toygartepe is the northern watchpoint, with panoramic views of the final bridge all the way around to the city of Istanbul to the south. We found the right spot at the second attempt - my pin had been set on the right hill but at slightly the wrong location, just underneath where we wanted to be. A friendly café owner put us right and we were soon in place with the scope pointing west. It was breezy, and there were no other birders - this was disappointing as we felt we would need help!

For the first 45 minutes nothing happened. We wondered if we had completely misread the forecast, and that this was the reason for there being nobody here. Were there huge crowds at the southerly watchpoint? Or were all the vizmiggers taking a day off knowing that the conditions were suboptimal? Three days previously there had been thousands of birds streaming through, today there were none.

We need not have worried. A Short-toed Eagle appeared mid-morning, followed by what we thought was likely a Lesser-Spotted Eagle. As birders who rarely see large birds of prey this was sensational, and we congratulated ourselves on having made a great decision to come here. Then the floodgates opened and for the next two hours we simply did not know where to look. Birds were arriving from Thrace on a broad front, passing north and south of us. Those to the north would circle slowly upwards in an immense spiral as they hit the bridge area, and once enough height had been gained to see the way forward, would peel off in a line and bomb across into Asia. South of us appeard to be more of a steady stream, but was equally impressive. Relatively few birds passed directly overhead, and for a while we wondered if we ought to move to the north for a better position, but with local knowledge lacking we stayed put. Toygartepe must be the best spot for a reason. Looking back it is a bit of a blur, birds were impossible to count with any accuracy, especially Lesser-spotted Eagle which came over in such numbers that we got to grips with them fairly easily, but most of the time we simply did not know where to concentrate. The following is taken from my eBird list that I tried to maintain as we scanned.

Alpine Swift = X

Palliid Swift = 1

Black Stork = 101

Griffon Vulture = 1

Short-toed Eagle = 24

Lesser Spotted Eagle = 1060

Booted Eagle = 4

Levant Sparrowhawk = 1

Eurasian Sparrowhawk = 5 + 15 unassigned

Common Buzzard = 7

Long-legged Buzzard = 1

Kestrel = 1

Hobby = 3

As I said, this may have been a sub-par day with no other observers, but for us it was mind-blowing. Mostly I see zero Eagles per year. The single ST Eagle in the morning over Riva had felt monster, but the count from Toygartepe was, well, I don't really know. There so many large raptors that it would be easy to become blazé about it I suppose. What I do know is that I want to do something like this again - Gibraltar, Batumi, perhaps a return visit to Falsterbo.

After a late lunch we drove to a final birding spot over the bridge, an annoyingly long detour that took us south of the bridge in a huge loop and then back underneath it to the coast at Rumelifeneri. We finally added Yelkouan Shearwater here, bobbing about on the sea like winter auks. A nearby quarry had a Little Owl, and evidence of a Bee-eater colony. We fought our way back to the motorway via the same enormous loop we had done earlier, fought being the operative word - with hindsight I would not recommend this detour, on the map it looks like being no distance at all but it takes ages.

And so that was the trip. The full trip list with locations and species can be found here, but in sumamary we drove halfway across Turkey, around 2500km, during which we saw 166 species. I showed the route at the start of the first blog post, but you can also chart it via eBird, and it looks like this. I am rather obsessed by eBird, and increasingly by this map function where you need to record a bird in the county or state in order to "fill it in". Detours have been known...

Sunday 23 October 2022

Turkey - Day 4

We had no specific desitination in mind today - just a need to get west. The flight home was the next day and we were at least eight hours away. Still missing Radde's Accentor, we decided to spend the morning in the mountains and slowly pick our way back towards Sultansazligi where we hoped to find the elusive water. 

Our first stop was back at Cimbar Canyon, and if anything it was birdier than the previous day. Warblers were everywhere, and some smart Rock Buntings that we had missed before were at near the road. Western Rock Nuthatch seemed to have increased as well, with at least ten in the first 500m. It soon became apparent however that Mick was not feeling very well and needed to have a lie down - not great with potentially 800km to drive. We cut birding short and got on the road with me driving. We took it slow out of the mountains, with frequent stops to drink water and survey the scenery which was magnificent. In this way the list continued to tick over, with Common Redstart in a small village, Cuckoo at a petrol station, Hobby at a layby and so on. 

On the northern side of Sultansazligi/Yay Golu the water proved non-existent, but picking our way through an agricultural area added a decent selection of migrants and our first Lesser Grey Shrike which was unfortunately miles away. Rather than water there was just a huge dry bed - there probably had been water once, but this had been a long time ago. From Sindelhoyuk the satnav took us west along a road that was highly unsuitable for our car and for a moment I thought we were going to get stuck or grounded, but eventually we made it out the other side and onto a proper road near Cayirozu. A lucky stop near here added Golden Eagle, and a short way further a pair of Roller on the telegraph wires.

It was somewhere around here that we crashed the car. A car on the hard shoulder suddenly pulled out just as we about to go past it, aiming for a turning on the opposite side of the road, and there was no avoiding it. I braked and steered away as best as I could but we still ended up colliding. The other car had most of the damage - rightly so, a ridiculous bit of driving, but nonetheless we had obvious collision damage on the front wing. We pulled over and a very apologetic Spanish lady got out of the other car. Everyone was OK, and both cars were still perfectly driveable so no real harm done other than potential hassle giving the car back. We had full insurance so were not too worried, but she may have been stung. Which is what then happened to me! As we were exchanging details I got stung by a wasp on my index finger. The lady rushed to her car and got me some anti-venomy stuff to dab on it. Lucky we met you I quipped, but I'm not sure she got it. Anyway, I have no idea what we you are supposed to do if you are in a crash in a Turkey, especially if you are in the middle of nowhere like we were, but we took her rental details, took a few photos and carried on. Here's one of them.

I was still pouring water down Mick, but he was pretty dead and at one point I had to pull over quickly as he nearly threw up. Spotted Flycatcher and Red-backed Shrike wherever this was! When we eventually hit the motorway he fell asleep and as he seemed comfortable I just went for it. The road is excellent and I passed the time by birding out of the window - various Raptors and Larks, the odd Hooded Crow.

By the time we arrived at Yenicaga Golu, 500km away, it was 5.30pm. Mick was still alive, possibly recovering, and we were able to spend the hour before dusk birding. It was actually a pretty good site, with Serin and Kingfisher new birds amongst a decent list. Istabul was now less than three hours away, and so after some food locally we decided to go for it - destination Riva on the Black Sea coast - still on the Anatolian side, but very close to Thrace. We reached this without incident - I had driven 900km, which had taken nearly 10 hours. The next day had almost no driving, and with the flight at 8pm we could take it easy.

Saturday 22 October 2022

Turkey - Day 3

We had arrange to meet Recep just after 6am at the jeep. Although we might have tried it with a regular car, I felt it was best to go with a proper option despite the cost. The track we ended up on proved my point - we might have got a portion of the way, but the 4x4 was the realistic option and it meant we got someone who knew where they were going. On the way up he said that the main time people come is in May, and in fact that he could not remember ever taking people up in September - this did not bode well!! It turns out that there is a good reason for this - in May the Caspian Snowcock are very vocal, and you can track them down by their song and calls. In late September however.....

As we surveyed the rockface, cliffs and peaks from the silent plateau Recep confessed he was worried. He could not understand why the Snowcock were not singing and he thought that they most probably were not on the mountain any longer. As the birds live here year round I felt that the birds were here - somewhere - and that the reason that they were not singing was that we had stupidly come after the breeding season.... There were plenty of other birds though,and my life list increased by three in quick succession - Western Rock Nutchatch, White-winged Snowfinch and Red-fronted Serin, the latter two in quite large flocks on the plateau, mixed in with Shore Lark as you might expect for the habitat. Chough called overhead, and a Blue Rock Thrush was in the area. All in all rather splendid. 

Shore Lark

I continued to scan the high peaks with both scope and binoculars in the hope that I might pick up movement. On one of these regular left to right scans I spied a bird on the skyline which quickly turned into two. Given the distance they seemed quite big... I quickly got the scope on them. Lady luck was with us - Caspian Snowcock! Recep could not believe it. I could, I am a jammy bugger! Played for and got. There were four bird in total, slowly picking their way down the slope, and as soon as they dropped from the ridge they became more or less invisible, scanning would not have picked them up. It might not have been the haunting experience you get in the spring, but the elation was perhaps greater in the circumstances.

Caspian Snowcock

After a celebratory coffee we descended back to the valley to bird a different area, Cimbar Canyon, probably the most-visited site. On the track down a black and white Wheatear bounded ahead of us - we expected Black-eared but this was much better - a male Finsch's Wheatear. Somehow this had not been on my radar, but really it should have been. I've only ever seen this species in Cyprus before on a winter trip specifically targeting it, whereas this is where they live for the rest of the year. We saw several more on the way back down - the morning was getting better and better.

Finsch's Wheatear

You can park off the road at the start of Cimbar Canyon and then proceed on foot. The lower area was stuffed with birds - loads of Black Redstart and Western Rock Nuthatch, another two Blue Rock Thrush, an Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, and our first Lesser Whitethroats and Balckcaps of the trip. Crag Martins were overheard. The target bird here was Radde's Accentor, but perhaps we did not ascend high enough and we would have been better searching around the plateau where we had just come from. 

Cimbar Canyon

The day was still relatively early, we had done amazingly in the mountains all things considered. With birding coursing through our veins we hatched a plan to drive south into another biosphere and see a pile of different birds. The coast was a little over two hours ago, and checking a few likely eBird hotspots suggested gems like Pied Kingfisher, Spur-winged Lapwing and Collared Pratincole. If we got going we could arrive shortly after lunch. Why not? Thanking Recep we said we would play it by ear and may or may not come back that evening. We had paid for the room anyway so we had an option on a stop off point two hours closer to Istanbul if we so chose. 

We were aiming for Tuzla Golu, a lagoon right next to the sea south of Adana and east of Mersin. The first hour was a gradual descent, and once back into the lowlands we started to see different birds. A random bridge over a canal had a large flock of Cattle Egret, our first Pied Kingfisher, three Caspian Terns and a pair of Spur-winged Lapwings. These very nearly justified the drive by themselves, but the lagoon was another level.

There were Red-rumped Swallow in the village, and as the houses end there is a causeway across the middle of the lagoon. The best birding is on the edges of this, as well to the east which is shallower and has more vegetation. A stunning nine Pied Kingfishers were sat on the wires here, and there were stacks of waders wherever you looked. Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Temminck's Stint, Little Stint, Kentish Plover, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Knot, Greenshank, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, five Spur-winged Lapwings and two Collared Pratincoles.

A large flock of 100+ Slender-billed Gulls were back and forth over the causeway, with Sandwich and Gull-billed Terns, there were a minimum of 50 Grey Heron and 25 Great White Egret, over a hundred Flamingo, you get the picture. I left Mick with the big camera and had a wander in the small dune system south of the lagoon. In the vegetation here I found Laughing Dove, Zitting Cisticola, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, and several Red-backed Shrikes. A lone Garganey was in the reeds and departed swiftly to the middle when it heard me. All in all it was a terrific spot, and as the sun went down over the Med we felt lucky to be alive.

Red-backed Shrike

We were not done yet though - after dinner and a long drive back into the mountains we still felt chirpy enough to try for Scops Owl in Cimbar Canyon. We had no idea if there might be one there or not, but why not give it a go? There wasn't. It had been scared off by a hugely vocal Eagle Owl! What a day!

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Turkey - Day 2

We were up early to try and get to our first birding destination of Mogan Golu whilst the light was still good. A farce trying to get coffee out of the hotel, who insisted on writing out some piece of useless paperwork that I was supposed to sign for. Sensing actual coffee was some distance behind the admin associated with coffee we left and got one on the road south of Ankara. Unfortunately it was utter filth and we threw most of it away, but I did get to scope Mogan Golu. Like the Sea of Marmara this also had a million Coot on it, hundreds of Great Crested Grebe, and our first Sand Martins

Our actual destination was a little further, Mogan Golu Sel Kapani, and we spent a good part of the morning here. This is a wetland habitat, a lake surrounded by shallow pools, reeds and fields. It was excellent, birds everywhere you looked. Coots got an "X" here, there were too many to even estimate, but we were also able to pick out hundreds of Ruddy Shelduck, some Spoonbill, both Storks, Purple Heron and a Little Bittern. The margins had good numbers of Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, and Snipe and Ruff were common too. The pinging of Bearded Tits was almost overwhelming. A single White-headed Duck was on a close pool. The fields around the edge had Red-backed Shrike, Tawny Pipit, Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Whinchat and Bee-eater, and overall we recorded over 60 species. As with many places we would go there were a lot of fishermen, but also birders doing what we were doing, driving slowly around the edges which was a good tactic to avoid flushing things. The tracks seemed pretty solid, but we visited during a dry period. I would think the dam  end would always be passable, even in a normal car such as ours. A scope is a real necessity at this site - whilst you can get great views at the margins, substantial numbers of birds are on the lake itself, and you won't to be able to identify distant ducks and waders without one. 

Our next stop was Kulu Duden Golu, another wetland and saltpan site about an hour further south. It was on our itinerary as a good place to look for Larks, in particular the central Turkish race of Turkestan Short-toed Lark A h aharonii. We started at the northern end, access from the east side of Kulu. We were soon in an arid agricultural landscape with occasional running streams of water - one of these on the outskirts of town held both Temminck's Stint and Spotted Redshank. Driving a little further, we became aware of torrents of birdsong. There were Larks everywhere, field you thought were empty had dozens of birds hidden in furrows. Picking out the Short-toed Larks was far harder than we had thought, and was really only possible in flight when you could separate the smaller birds from the Greater Short-toed Larks and see the wing patterns. I think we got one look at a markedly grey bird on the deck, but it soon moved out of sight. At every field we stopped at a huge cloud of Larks would vocally ascend, move a certain distance, and then as one vanish as they touched down. 

The 'water' was some distance away to our south, but it seemed as if a track along the eastern edge might give us a view. In short, it didn't, and whilst we saw tons of Wheatears and yet more Larks, the saltpan was exactly that, salt. No life. It took until we were driving away from the site on a block-paved road heading back north to Kulu that we saw some water. We managed to find a track that got us about halfway and walked the rest, but this did mean we spooked some of the closer Ruddy Shelduck to distance they felt comfortable with, whereas the Flamingos didn't move. We estimated around 2000 Ruddy Shelduck and 1200 Flamingo. Mixed in with the latter were 28 Common Crane, and what we assumed were Armenian Gull were simply too far away to rule out Yellow-legged. Once again there was a decent selection of waders on the near margins, including our first Kentish Plover.

It was now mid-afternoon, and we had one more site on our agenda before the mountains, the hotspot of Sultansazligi MP, still three hours away to our south-east. We didn't arrive until 6pm, and were dismayed to be immediately collared by a scruffy "guide" who pointed at an information board that said that all viewing of birds had to be done in the company of an official guide. An official paid guide! This is where eBird research falls down, the lists look great but the situation on the ground is far more complicated. Furthermore, the birds were half an hour away, and we would have to drive. As we only had an hour before dusk we declined this offer and instead paid a nominal sum to visit the bird museum and observation tower. From the top of this we could survey the area but it was immediately apparent that the water was miles away. All we could see was a vast reed bed stretching into the middle distance. Looking at the map it suggested there was some water right in the middle, but our hoped for Ibis and Waders were clearly off the menu. Instead we enjoyed the spectacle of innumerable Hirudines circling against the backdrop of Mt Erciyes (3917m, so not insignificant!) catching the last sunlight of the day, and murmurations of Starlings numbering thousands of birds. Various other species were also heading to roost, including many Egrets, 50+ Bee-eater, a Purple Heron and 20+ Marsh Harriers. A Little Owl hunted from the top of the tower as dusk fell.

Our accomodation for the night was an hour south, up and into the Aladaglar NP (Crimson Mountains) and the wider range known as the Anti-Taurus mountains. We arrived in Cukurbag right on time to be greeted by our host, Recep, who would be driving us further up the next morning. We agreed on a time, and then I taught Mick how to cook pasta in the communal kitchen where we also met some German ecologists who were cycling from Frankfurt to Singapore. Now that is travelling!

Monday 17 October 2022

Turkey - Day 1

After being turned away from the hotel I had booked (they had sold the room to someone else...) we eventually found a place back near the airport - in fact west of the airport, so not ideal for our early start heading east. The plan had been to spend the morning doing vizmigging over the Strait, but this and a realisation that the distance that we needed to cover was immense meant we changed plans and got on the road after a quick spot of pre-breakfast birding. The Quail we had heard before falling asleep was still going for it, and we got the list off to a pleasant start with just under 20 species seen in a short walk, including buzzing Tree Pipits, a Syrian Woodpecker, a Spotted Flycatcher and a Little Owl. Crazy numbers of Alpine Swifts over the motorway on the western side of the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge - impossible to count on the move but thousands.


First stop Izmit, on the eastern edge of the Sea of Marmara. We arrived mid morning and started birding immediately, albeit that it is suprisingly difficult to get to the most interesting bits of the shoreline. Keep trying is my suggestion - we entered via a restaurant, and you can drive to reasonably close to the canal at the northern end. There were birds everywhere, and we had our first views of Greater Flamingos and Pygmy Cormorants - we were definitely a long way from home! Coots and Black-headed Gulls dominated (perhaps not so far after all...), and a good selection of waders fed on the mud - Grey Plover, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Redshank and Spotted Redshank, Ruff and Ringed Plover. We picked out a handful of Black-necked Grebe offshore amongst the more numerous Great Crested and Little Grebes, and a Marsh Harrier patrolled the reeds. We racked up about 30 species all told here, a good taster of things to come and an easy place to break up the journey about an hour and half from the airport.

We continued east for another two hours towards the town of Bolu, beyond which the landscape became more agricultural. I was aiming for the village of Dortdivan, picked from obscurity by virtue of a decent eBird list earlier in the month that had been heavy on raptors. There is no particular spot to go birding, we just parked the car by the side of the road in a series of good-looking spots. Locals were quite curious, and I showed some of them birds through my scope. The list here included many Long-legged Buzzard in the fields, ofter just sat on the ground, an Imperial Eagle, a Black Stork, Bee-eaters, Red-backed ShrikeYellow Wagtails and lots of obviously migrant Willow Warblers, plus a good selection of chats - resident Black Redstarts, and migrant Whinchat and Wheatear. We spent a lot of time here, probably more than we should have - a common feature of birding travel.

From here we headed north through Gerede and into the mountains. The target was Kruper's Nuthatch, the first lifer on the list. Research had suggested they were common, but we couldn't find one, and in fact it was slim pickings all round. A Crag Martin was a bonus about half way up, but the pines held only Goldcrest and Coal Tit. A quick check of eBird suggested another site half an hour south east (ie the right direction), Camkorus Tabiat Parki, which we reached by 6pm. Bird activity was low, but on the point of leaving I heard the Nutchatch and scrambled up a slope and into the trees to get a view, guided by ear. And sure enough, way up at the top of a pine a lone bird was mooching about. My view lasted about 10 seconds, if that, before the bird flitted further away. By the skin of my teeth - I was glad to have found it as the bird is only in certain habitats and I didn't want to have to devote another site to it on the way back.

Looking south towards Gerede

It was now getting dark, and with no accomodation booked we got back on the main road heading south to Ankara. Our first birding site tomorrow was under two hours away, so we figured it made little difference how far we got this evening and found a hotel about half way - a immense ugly edifice called the Connect Thermal Hotel. But it was reasonably priced and came with dinner and a Barn Owl in the garden, so pretty perfect for our purposes. I don't think we managed to take single photograph of a bird all day, but we had covered 450km, notched up 78 species under blue skies, and most importantly were over halfway towards Aladaglar NP where we had accomodation booked for the following night. 

Sunday 16 October 2022

Turkey, September 2022 - Logistics and Itinerary

Turkey, 24th-28th September 2022

I travelled to Istanbul in April this year for a city break, but a boat trip up the Bosphorous during the spring migration convinced me to immediately book an autumn trip for the return passage. The flights are cheap, the country cheaper still, and there would be loads of possibilities for quality birding. As the date approached I started to wonder what to do - a quick check of eBird suggested a glut of lifers in the mountains south of Kayseri, with a number of others further south-east towards Syria. With another day I might have been tempted to try for these, but with limited time as well as various security concerns I decided not to push my luck. There would be plenty to see and it was already a lot of driving.

Mick and arrived at about midnight on a Friday night with a full five days ahead of us. The only concrete plans were a pre-booked jeep trip up into the Aladaglar Mountains to try for Caspian Snowcock, and a deep need to get in on the autumn passage action over the Bosphorus. We awoke bright and early on Saturday morning and headed east....

  • A five day trip in late September departing London on Friday evening returning the following Wednesday evening.
  • Flights: from Heathrow to Istanbul on British Airways.
  • Covid logistics: nothing - all gone, and visas seem to be a thing of the past too.
  • Car Hire: Some kind of automatic Fiat. We only crashed it once.
  • Driving: The main toll motorway connecting Istanbul and Ankara and owards to Adana is superb, and in general even minor roads were decent. Turkish drivers are a little crazy and lanes are somewhat nebulous, so be on your guard. Also beware Spanish tourists....
  • Accommodation: The first night in Istanbul and then a hostel in the Aladaglar region were booked in advance, but all other hotels were booked on the day via The only wrinkle was my credit card being declined from the first one and arriving at 1am to find my reservation had been cancelled whilst I was in the air.  
  • Food: Do you like kebabs?
  • Literature: The Collins and eBird. 4G everywhere, including in the mountains.


Day 0: Landed at IST at around midnight. Hotel shenanigans meant we didn't get  to sleep until gone 1am.
Day 1: Early morning headed east, first stop Izmit, the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara, followed by various stops towards Ankara primarily in mountain habitat looking for Kruper's Nuthatch. Overnight just north of Ankara.
Day 2: Morning at a wetland site, Mogan Golu, and then saltpan habitat looking for Larks and Sultansazlig. Overnight in Aladaglar NP.
Day 3: Morning jeep trip to the Arpalik Plateau around 2200m to search for mountain specialties. Afternoon excursion down to the Mediterranean coast near Mersin to boost the trip list.
Day 4: Morning in the mountains, and then an immense drive west to Istanbul. Overnight in Riva.
Day 5: Vizmig from the eastern side of the Bosphorus at a watchpoint called Toygartepe. Immense. A quick stop on the Black Sea coast before an evening flight back to London.

Monday 10 October 2022


Autumn for me has not really yet got going. I have been away - not Shetland or Scilly, I missed all that drama, although most of it seems to have played out online rather than onsite, which is nothing if not predictable. Lots of people saying other people should take a long look at themselves, but also suffering from a distinct lack of introspection. It is just too easy to bash out a tweet, a comment, a whatever, from afar without really thinking about how precisely the same thing happens daily much closer to home. I am not taking sides, if you want to bash twitchers and autumn rarity-seekers, you go right ahead. The photos from various sites look pretty crazy I'll grant you that - my tolerance for birding in a crowd gets smaller every day and the recent scenes have done nothing to change that. Equally if you want to go birding on Shetland and see skulking eastern birds you'll never see anywhere else, carry on, and ignore the haters - mostly they're just jealous I expect. I've been to Shetland many times, it is an amazing place and great fun - a sense of palpable excitement in the air each morning (which is sometimes over by 10am!), and the birders on there are united in their desire to look in bushes, walk ditches, peer over walls and slog through iris beds. If you are on Shetland and you don't want to be doing that, and are just hoping that one of these sibe megas is going to pop up right in front of you without any prompting then you are mostly going to be seeing nothing. It is not a cheap trip, and you are wasting your time and money. It does happen of course, but mostly you need to work to see birds as their natural inclination is to hide from you. And especially from big crowds of people all dressed in green.

I skipped it this year, not because of any of the above, but because I had no time. I've been birding abroad instead, and as my holidays are limited I have to make a choice. This year I've prioritised birding travel over domestic rarity hunting. You get to see many birds entirely by yourself that would draw enormous crowds on places like Scilly and Shetland, and increasingly I find this to be far superior to big lines of people along narrow lanes. I have been part of that of course - a Falcon, a Shrike and a Gull this year, and very exciting they all were too. I am glad I went, variety is the spice of life, I find a little of everything works very well. 

Toygartepe, Istanbul

So I suppose when I say autumn has not really got going I don't really mean that. I spent a morning on a hill above the Bosphorus and watched over a thousand Lesser-spotted Eagles sail east into Asia. If that isn't autumn then I don't know what is. I counted hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes spinning on a shallow pool in California, and found bright Warblers feeding in tamarisks before heading south into Central America. Again I wager this is most likely autumn. I guess what I meant is that I have not done much local birding, or that is what it feels like. I have not yet had one of those remarkable vizmig sessions where you are acutely aware of passage. And I have not yet seen a true vagrant on these shores. And so now my focus will change. There is still plenty of time.

Saturday 8 October 2022

On approach

When I fly I always book a window seat. I just love to try and pick out recognisable features on the land far below. There is something strangely satisfying about knowing that you made your way on foot along the features you can see from above, that it took you hours and hours but that in a plane you pass over it in an instant. The photos below are from a flight into London City Airport, down the Essex coast, up the Thames Estuary and then a loop around London Bridge and landing on the easterly runway (there is only one runway of course, but when there is an easterly wind you approach from the west, which requires a dramatic approach over the City and Canary Wharf). I think this was trip for work, travelling home from Glasgow. It was a magnificent day for flying, smooth as can be and with amazing visibility. I'm aware that not everyone likes flying, nor have much time for people like me who get on planes, but I make no apologies for it these days. Time in America recently has steeled me to our future - do what you want, it doesn't matter. You and I are but drops in the ocean compared to the excesses of the USA and other places, the way I see it there is absolutely zero chance that the excessive consumption there will ever change, even in the face of ever-increasing natural distasters like Hurrican Ian that just this weekend flattened a large swathe of Florida. They are not going to wake up. I'm well aware this is pure whataboutery, but we live our lives here so differently it is almost scandalous. We can all do better, but at the same time you need to enjoy it while you still can.

A coastal wind farm

Walton on the Naze

Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs

London Bridge

Canary Wharf

Tuesday 4 October 2022

Range based identification

It is a funny thing, but you see what you expect to see, and you look over that which you do not. In my view birders whose brains are not wired like this are in a huge minority, and the masses, of which I am one, are generally all proponents of range-based identification. That is to say, if you are in a place where a species is resident or expected, and you see something that looks like it, it is very difficult to not record it as such. Combined with the human trait of familiarity breeding contempt many birds are unlikely to even get a second glance from the majority of birders. Those that do look more closely, carefully and above all, slowly, are in a different league from you and I. Well, I don't want to tar all my blog readers with the same brush, but I really really hope that this is not just me!

I was made painfully aware of this just recently in New York. The previous day a local birder had photographed a presumed juvenile Ringed Plover on the East Pond at Jamaica Bay. A very rare bird indeed, perhaps the third record for the State. The arrival of a UK birder, doubtless highly familiar with all ID features of juvvy Ringed Plover, distinctly cheered the many twitchers who had driven from all corners of New York. Oh dear. In the UK we are naturally taught to separate Ringed Plover from Little Ringed Plover, that is the confusion species, and if the two were side by side I could likely manage that. But to have a crowd of people all asking you, a perceived expert, if this bird here was the Ringed Plover, and not just another Semipalmated Plover.... Awkward!

I realised quite quickly this task was beyond me, mainly as I had no idea (other than the largely invisible feet) what differentiated non-calling juvenile Ringed Plovers from Semi-ps. Worse than that, I realised I could not really describe a juvenile Ringed Plover at all, or at least not in a way that was going to be of any use in this particular situation. I've been birding for years, but at that moment I appeared as if I knew nothing, a complete duffer. I muddled through it, and as far as I am aware nobody (with or without my 'help'!) saw the bird that day, but it was embarrassing and got me thinking. And writing this, as I expect that many people will be in the same boat and it would be nice to get them thinking too.

There are not many Ringed Plovers in Wanstead, although I live in hope. But even when I am at the coast, for example in Fife where Ringed Plovers are common, how much do I really look at them? The answer is not at all. If they are on a beach, as they normally are, I probably don't even think to look for LRP. I do a rough count, and they all go in the book as Ringed Plover. A day tick perhaps, and I move on. This is classic range-based 'identification', identification in the loosest possible sense of the word as in truth I have not ID'd the bird at all. I have just gone with the likely option, which 99.9999999% of the time will of course be correct, but does nothing whatsoever to enhance by birding skills. Or, as I just found out, my reputation.

Not all species are as tricky to sort out as Ringed Plover from Semipalmated Plovers of course, it is probably one of the worst possible conundrums to be faced with. I am struggling to think of another that is in this league - Snowy Egret vs Little Egret perhaps? Female Wigeons vs their American counterparts? Greenshank and Greater Yellowlegs.....The point is that you don't look at them closely, and the same can be said for any common species. Next time you are out take with you a piece of paper and three pencils - black, blue and yellow. Ask the first birder you come across to draw a Blue Tit. The results may surprise you. This is one of the reasons I bought an art pad and some pencils some time back. Have I used them? Have I f...

Anyway, a salutory lesson on how we mostly bird and how we ought to bird. I remember a day spent on the Aberdeenshire coast trying to find a Black Scoter amonst the flocks of Commons. It was one of the most exciting days birding I have ever had and it took me something like seven hours to finally and confidently pin it down. It was great, so why don't I do more of it?!

Monday 3 October 2022

California & New York trip List

I spent three days in California and visited loads of sites, and about six hours in New York visiting just one, which explains why the former list is much longer that the latter. Here's the combined trip list. You can search for detailed site information on the Trip List that I created on eBird, found here.

Sunday 2 October 2022

New York Stopover

The flight from LA landed at 6am, the onward flight to London departed at 6pm. Planning. I would not always do this, in fact a trip next year sees me return direct, but I wanted to see what the autumn shorebird passage looked like versus the west coast. I didn't have access to a car - or rather had chosesn not to - so my choice of destination was limited to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. No problem, it is a site I know fairly well, and I had been following with interest what had been being seen there over the last few weeks. My hope was that I would pick up the last of the passage, including Semipalmated Sandpiper, a species that I've seen several times in the UK  as a twitcher but inexplicably never in the USA as a birder. Hopefully I would be able to right that wrong!

I went to the Amerian Airlines lounge for breakfast and a repack - all the optics into one small bag, all the clothes and anything else into the rollaboard which I left there, hopefully nobody would mind. I made sure to display the bag tag, so that anyone worried by it would be able to connect it to the evening flight and assume I had gone for a walk somewhere. Which indeed I had. I hailed a cab and was soon out of JFK and heading down Crossbay Boulevard - it really is very close, although the route to get there is a bit circuitous. 

Annotated map of Jamaica Bay. Click to enlarge.

1) Causeway - viewing point for West Pond, 2) Terrapin Point (technically in Brooklyn...)

3) Woodland for Warblers etc, 4) Access Track for south end of East Pond

5) East Pond viewing point, 6 & 7) East Pond north end viewing points

As I was unpacking the optics and setting up my scope I met some birders who alerted me to a potential mega on the East Pond, a Ringed Plover. I hadn't quite envisaged running around after a European bird, and worse than that people might expect me, as a UK birder, to able to competently separate it from all the Semipalmated Plovers. Yeah right! I am afraid I am a proponent of range-based identifcation! Hats off to the birders who habitually and diligently scour through flocks of common waders or ducks looking for the one that is slightly different. Maybe if I was a coastal birder, but I'm not and in any event that's not me. I will return to this topic in another post perhaps.

I decided to swerve the East Pond for now and instead have a look at the West Pond which was much closer. At the causeway I set up my scope next to some excited birders who were looking at a Black-necked Grebe. A rare bird here but one I'd seen hundreds of in San Diego, it turns out that this was in fact a bird worth twitching here and Ari and his pal from the north of the State were doing just that. They too had heard about the Plover, and Ari kindly drove me and all my stuff over there (probably hoping I might be helpful!). It was good that he did because I had never visited the north end of the East Pond and getting to certain parts of it is a bit of a mission and unless you know exactly where you are going you could easily get stuck in deep mud.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Sandpiper (Thanks Steve!)

White-rumped Sandpiper with Semip behind. 

The water levels were fantastic, and there were waders everywhere. Semip fell easily, and there were tons of other species to compare it with - White-rumped, Western, Pec and so on. Of the Ringed Plover there was no sign - as the twitch grew a candidate was identified but just didn't seem right. The Pond is vast though, and most of it you cannot really get to. Everywhere we looked there were Semipalmated Plovers.... Birders kept arriving all the time, this would have been the third State record or something, but I am not sure that it was ever seen again. Whilst it was fun being around all the chat it wasn't quite what I had had in mind, but there was just time to scoop a true European mega, and one which I could just about recognise!

Behold an ABA Black-headed Gull!

I commenced the long walk back to the West Pond, which take you down a wooded ride alongside the west side but without any water visible. I added Carolina Wren, Northern Flicker and best of all, American Redstart which were quite numerous. It is a longish walk, perhaps tow miles, and I had not been back at the West Pond when some of the birders that had been at the East Pond arrived, somewhat incredulous that I had walked rather than get a lift. Maybe that would have been the smart option as I was now pretty knackered on what was a hot day. The airport, with its showers and air conditioning, was looking very attractive.

American Redstart

It had been a fun interlude, I had upped the trip list to over 150 and added a couple of new ABA birds - I am now knocking on 550. That will be the next target once the FX rates and car hire prices return to something sensible, but right now I am not contemplating booking any further trips to the USA beyond my existing April booking. The eBird Trip Report with lists and sites is here.

Saturday 1 October 2022

Southern California - Day 3

Another early start, this time to try and chase down a Common Poorwill in a nearby canyon before sunrise. Somewhat amazing this actually worked, with the characteristic call being almost the first thing I heard at Tecolote Canyon at around 5.40am. A Great Horned Owl floated past as I was walking up too - a great start to the day. As the sun came up various bird started to sing from the hillsides, and eventually I managed to pin down California Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird. Despite a slight feeling of being hemmed in by the urban sprawl on either side - housing to the north, where the Poorwill was calling from, and the University of San Diego to the south, I had the place to myself for a decent while.

Eventually the first joggers and walkers of the day started to appear and I beat a retreat to a spot of breakfast down towards the Otay River - Huevos Revueltos con Chorizo, magnificent. I had unfinished business on the Bayshore - a vagrant Little Stint that I had managed to miss on a earlier visit, no doubt hiding in with the Least Sandpipers. Turned out that I had not been in the right spot and had been scoping a different lagoon. A short distance along the bike path I discovered a much closer sand bar with a good selection of waders on it , including American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Grey Plover, and lots of small peeps, including one that looked pretty good amongst the Westerns and Leasts. I also noted quite a few Wilson's Phalaropes , not sure how I missed them, and a very distant pool had hundred and hundreds of Black-necked Grebe in a tight flock. It is an incredibly rich environment at this time of year.

I am still not very good at phone-scoping....

Continuing in the spirit of cleaning up, I headed to Tijuana Beach to try and find the Flamingo and the Baird's Sandpiper. I got the latter, right at the end near the river mouth, but if there were any Flamingos they were doing a good job of hiding. I had a paddle in the Pacific and mucked about with Snuffi for a bit, reflecting on how fortunate I was. There are a lot of people around here that cannot say that - homelessness was rife in downtown San Diego. And as you head south there is one thing that you cannot avoid - the immense wall. From the beach where I was enjoying the surf I could see the border and the crazy security operation designed to keep Mexicans out of America. The fence, tracks, cameras, jeeps, quadbikes and presumably a lot more besides. A plane, probably with an array of detective equipment in it, droned constantly high overhead in a steady pattern. On the other side of the river the fence, Trump's 'beautiful wall', continued across the beach and well into the sea. You have to ask if it is worth it - the majority of the people I saw were hispanic anyway, and every single place I ate at was run by them. In fact the food was universally fantastic and I ate Mexican all the way.

By now it was past midday and with an evening flight from Los Angeles I had to make a bit of distance. But the birding was not over! I found a fabulous spot called the Oso Creek Trail in Orange County - again hemmed in by housing but full of birds. Here I finally found a Black-throated Grey Warbler, a magnicent male that I could scarcely believe was real having resigned myself to not seeing one on this trip. A nice selection of plastic was also present, with Pin-tailed Whydah and Scaly-breasted Munia. Along with all the Parrots I had seen I was starting to feel a little self-conscious, so to make myself feel better I used eBird to find both Egyptian Goose and Mandarin Duck on my way back to LAX. The lists seem to accept them all, I have no idea why and it is faintly ridiculous.

The Pacific part of my trip was done- California had delivered 136 species in yet another whirlwind tour, including 23 ABA lifers. When I set off my expectation was for perhaps a dozen, 16 if I was exceptionally lucky. I love birding in America, the last three days had been pretty wonderful, but I was not quite done with this trip...