Sunday 10 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Day 1 - Jo'Burg to Malelane

We landed just after 9am. It had been an excellent flight due in no small part to a very fortunate family upgrade, so I got a very good sleep as we flew over nearly the whole of Africa. The kids meanwhile got a much larger seat, nicer food, and had a thoroughly marvellous time. They didn't have to drive at the other end!

Research somewhere over France

It took an age to get through immigration, but picking up the car was straightforward and perhaps by 11.30am we were on our way. I had heard various horror stories about the drive, and with my offspring in the car I was keen not to get waylaid or crash, and so was super alert and drove extremely cautiously. I needn't have worried, it turned out to be very straightforward - we stopped exactly where we intended to stop to top up the fuel and get water and provisions, and mostly took exactly the roads we wanted to take. The coal trucks that support South Africa's stuttering power grid are a right pain in the backside though, not only are they incredibly slow, but there are thousands upon thousands of them.

Malalane - our first view of the Kruger

At around 4pm we pulled up at the Malelane Gate where a security guard checked that we had accomodation booked and then waved us across the bridge. Naturally we stopped on the bridge to look at the river, erveryone else was for some reason...... Oh sweet Jesus, that'll be a Hippo then. And immense Crocodiles. It was so odd - we had spent half the day in the car and not really seen anything unusual at all - the first hour of driving had been downright regular, urban sprawl giving way to a featureless agricultural landscape with power stations on every the horizon. Gradually this had given way to some much nicer open country, and there had been a few hills, but the only real clue that we were in Africa had been the immense Aloes (probably marlothii) by the side of the road. We hadn't seen a single animal and birds had been virtually non-existent. Then we had turned off the main road and driven through a gate and onto a bridge and all of a sudden we were in AFRICA!! It was like somebody had flicked a switch! But wait, what are those birds!! Egyptian bloody Geese!! (and they would turn out to be one of the commonest birds in South Africa by far!)

We carried on the Park buildings on the other side where I went inside and did the registration. Birds around here were Hadada Ibis, Southern Red-billed Hornill, Blacksmith Lapwing, a Water Thick-knee, and African Palm Swift. It was intensely perfect, perhaps the stress melting away now that the dangerous part of the first day was over, a feeling that the holiday could now truly start, complete with a cast of near mythical animals as far as Londoners were concerned. 

It was to get better though. With about 45 minutes to go before the gates to Berg-en-Dal closed for the evening we returned to the car and headed that way. We had not gone that far when my keen eyes spotted a large grey shape on the opposite hillside. Elephant!! Oh my god this place is mental! It was probably about a mile away but we were super excited as only a first time visitor can be. A short while later we came across one by the side of the road and got even more excited! Of course by the end of day two we were at the "Oh, another Elephant" stage, but I will always remember that first sighting. Birds on this drive included a couple of Grey Go-away-birds and a Crowned Lapwing, also to become very familiar over the course of the next few days. We also spotted Fork-tailed Drongo, Lilac-breasted Roller, Magpie Shrike and best of all, a pair of Bataleur which I did not yet realise were common as muck and so were also put into the mythical bucket next to the Elephant and Hippo.

We reached the camp with a few minutes to spare and got settled into our bungalow. Then we went shopping, loaded up on wood, cold beer and Wildebeest steaks and had one of the best barbeques, sorry, brais we have ever had. We had only been in Kruger for about two hours by this point but it was already one of the most epic holidays ever as far as the three of us were concerned. We could scarcely believe that we had made it and were here. The previous evening we had been in London, and now after having seen Elephants we were sat next to a sizzling grill with strange shrieks coming from the bush as sparks drifted up into the night sky. Brilliant.

Cape Starling

Saturday 9 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Logistics and Itinerary



  • A five day trip in the second week of July with two of the kids on a self-drive safari in the peerless Kruger National Park. The kids met me after work at the airport on a Thursday evening and we took the late flight. We returned overnight on the following Wednesday, after which I went straight to work and the kids went home. 
  • Flights: British Airways from Heathrow to Johannesburg, once again booked with a car to turn it into a holiday. I booked Premium Economy and upgraded with miles to Business - I was nervous about the drive across to Kruger and wanted a good sleep in a flat bed. I booked air miles tickets for the kids in Economy for about £350 each, they weren't driving!
  • Car: A regular petrol saloon, some kind of Toyota I think. A 4x4 would have been better simply due to the extra height, but even the gravel roads in Kruger are perfectly navigable in a normal car if it is dry and you are careful. We went everywhere!
  • Getting to and from Kruger: It is at least a four hour drive from Jo'burg to the Kruger's Malelane and Crocodile Bridge Gates via Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit), and often longer, on the 12 and 4. The dangers of driving in South Africa are well documented, the roads are good but driving standards are poor in addition to other hazards. Drive in the day, stick to the main roads, don't stop other than in petrol stations, have nothing on show and keep windows closed and doors locked at traffic lights. Study the route in advance and don't blindly follow the SatNav. Poverty is extreme and you are rich. Once you are inside the Park you are fine. The remaining family members  in the UK apparently watched our progress every step of the way!
  • Accomodation: We stayed in basic but well-appointed bungalows and huts in the KNP Public Rest Camps, with all nights booked well in advance via the SanParks website as this was during SA school holidays. You need to create an account which is rather a faff and will likely require an email in addition to the automated process as it does not quite work properly, or didn't in late 2022. Other accomodation is available, including much posher private camps both inside and outside the Park.
  • Public Rest Camps
    • The camps are self-contained villages, encircled by high electric fencing to separate you from the wildlife. All have a variety of accomodation, a visitor centre, a restaurant, a shop, and a petrol station. The key benefit is that you are already inside the Park when it opens, and will have it to yourself for a while before people and tours based outside make it in.
    • You can camp, or you can choose from various permanent dwellings depending on how many you are and how much you want to spend. 
    • Most huts and bungalows sleep 2 or 3 people, and all have basic cooking facilities including a permanent brai. As a guide these huts cost something like £70-80 per night in 2023.
    • All the camp shops sell food (mostly red meat and game it has to be said), cold beer, wine, soft drinks, some limited vegetables, and most importantly wood and lighting materials for the fire. You literally don't need to bring a thing, nor transport anything between the camps. They close much later than the camp gates do, so you have plenty of time to get organised and then go buy dinner.
    • All the camps have strict opening and closing times depending on the season. Make sure you get there on time before they close the gates!
    • The camps all offer various game drives or walks, either in the morning, at sunset, or after sunset. These can be booked online with your accomodation, afterwards, or when you arrive. The sunset drive is a little longer, usually 3 hours, as it leaves at dusk and returns after dark, whereas the night drive is 2 hours entirely in the dark. Spotlights are provided.
    • You can enter all public camps as a day visitor to use the faciilties, shop, petrol station etc.
  • Park Information
    • You have to have booked accomodation at the point of entry to the Park.
    • You cannot enter the Park if it would be dark by the time you got to your booked accomodation and the Rest Camp was closed. There may be some wiggle room but you should absolutely not count on it.
    • The Park has a number of entrance gates, and the one you use should be picked carefully, mainly to avoid driving through more dangerous urban areas. We entered and left via the Malalane Gate near the southern Mozambique border, as this is very close to a main road.
    • In addition to the camps there are also Picnic Sites found here and there which serve breakfast, lunch, coffees etc. It is a good idea to buy a map which shows where these and other facilities are.
    • You can use credit cards everywhere within the camp.
    • The Park itself has an entrance fee per person, or rather a fee per person per day you spend inside it, known as Conservation Fees. You can pay this upfront or when you get there, but make sure you factor it in to your costs as it quickly adds up at about £20 per (foreign) person per day. A "Wildcard" (an annual family pass to all SA Parks) might save you money even if you are only going for a week.
    • The Park staff are super-friendly and helpful, but their IT is shocking and on reflection it would have been easier to have bought our Wildcard before we got there.
    • Roads are slow, and traffic jams are common when people stop so look at animals, especially big cats! Make sure you leave plenty of time to get where you are going that evening. 
    • For your first and final nights book accomodation that is close to the edge of the Park.
  • Literature/Resources
    • I used the Kruger Website to understand the different areas in the Kruger which is absolutely vast.  There are sections on each area, which roads are good for which game, which lookout points to try. It is a must read.
    • Books: SaSol Birds of Southern Africa (Sinclair, Hockey, Tarboton and Ryan), and the Kingdon Guide to African Mammals.
    • For birds I printed eBird checklists for all the camps.
    • Tinkers do a foldable map of the Park which shows all the major and minor roads, camps, and facilities, as well as driving times between locations. It can be purchased in all camp shops. Indispensable.
    • At work I sit very close to a native South African who has been to Kruger many times and gave me masses of hugely helpful advice. Cheers Anthony! This page is really a summation of everything he told me and what I learned when I was there.
  • Food - Brai all the way! 
  • Animals have right of way and cars stop. If an Elephant or other large mammal seems to be deliberately coming towards you, back up. Turn around and leave if you have to.
  • Birds are plentiful, but not often easy to see from the car, which of course you are not allowed to get out of and it would be foolish to do so. Birding is actually best inside the camps.
  • Insects - I deliberately went during the two months of the year when the mosquitos are dormant. Kruger is in the malarial zone but we didn't see a single one.
  • Vegetation - varies by season, and is lusher and more inpenetrable in the summer as you would expect. In winter it is probably easier to see animals. Bush fires are common so take precautions and don't ever risk it. There are always other roads to take.
  • Other - South African plugs are odd, and most travel adaptors don't have what you need. Phone signal was OK, especially around the camps, but it wasn't consistent.


  • Day 1 - We landed in Johannesburg just after 9am local time. It takes a while to get through immigration and out of the airport, so time was already pressing when we finally got on the road. The drive was incident free along Route 12 and then Route 4, and took about four and a half hours. We arrived at the Malelane Gate about an hour or so before it closed. It took about half an hour to do the paperwork, which included showing them all my printed copies of my booked accomodation and ID etc. It was then about a 30 minute drive to Berg-en-Dal rest camp.
  • Day 2 - Berg-en-Dal to Lower Sabie via Afsaal Picnic Site and Skukuza. Lower Sabie overnight. Night drive from the camp at 8pm.
  • Day 3 - All day driving around the Lower Sabie region, down to Krokodilpoort and back up (as there was no petrol at LS). Overnight at Lower Sabie again. Sunset drive from the camp at 4.45pm.
  • Day 4 - A long drive up through the grasslands via Orpen Dam, Satara and Olifants to Letaba. Overnight at Letaba. Sunset drive from the camp at 4.45pm. Ideally we would have stayed further south, but the trip was initially booked as two people before adding another indecisive child, by which time we couldn't add a third person to our hut at Skukuza (all the other camps were fine). Letaba, 170km and nearly 4 hours further north was the closest I could find. You really do have to book early.
  • Day 5 - All the way back down south to be in position to leave the camp at lunchtime the following day and do the drive back to Jo'Burg in daylight. Overnight at Berg-en-Dal.
  • Day 6 - We spent the morning looking for game close to the Crocodile River along roads like the S114, before leaving the Park at around 1pm at the Crocodile Bridge gate for the drive back to Jo'burg. This was very slow indeed and we only just made it in daylight. 

Friday 8 December 2023

Lifestyle choices. Writing choices.

There has been some online disappoval of my travel write-ups. Not the write-ups per se, or their content, but more that I write them at all. Possibly even that I travel full stop, though maybe I am taking that a little far. The view expressed was that my travel write-ups sat uncomfortably in a time when many people are struggling with the bare necessities. It wasn't said quite like that but that was the general thrust. Personally I take the view that if I dislike what I am reading I stop reading it, but if one person feels strongly enough to mention it, however bluntly, then there are likely others who will feel the same. Maybe I should not be rising to the bait but here goes.

Let me start by saying that I am not tone deaf. I appreciate that I am exceptionally lucky to be able to travel as I do, and that many people cannot and probably will never be able toIs that a reason not to write about it, for fear that I could come across as ostentatious? I'm not a particularly showy person, but I do have a good job that allows me to travel and pursue other interests. That said it's some way from a free ride - I take it very seriously and I work pretty hard. I lost it once, wasn't my fault, and was unemployed for over two years. Travel simply stopped. When I got another job, at the same company as it happens, I started going on holiday again. Sounds fair to me. Do other people work harder than I do in more difficult jobs for less money? You bet they do. Is that fair? Maybe not. Is that a fact of life? Yes. Can I do anything about it? Not really. Am I going to preface every single post about a trip I've been on by apologising for having been able to go on it? Absolutely not.

This is just what it is. I can't be paralysed by the circumstances of other people and the times we live in. Maybe that is the definition of tone deaf? For most of my working life there has been some catastrophe or other that makes peoples lives hard, it is just constant. The fallout from Brexit, high inflation and high interest rates are just the latest ones. Is it worse than it has ever been? Old people will say no and with good reason, young people will say yes, also with good reason. I'm somewhere in between. It wears you down, how can it not? But I appreciate I'm one of the lucky ones, I've generally always had options. But to forgoe those options because I'm worried about what people might think of me? Inequality is inescapable and in my view it's getting worse. I will be at the ballot box as soon it opens in order to try and reduce inequality by getting rid of those who think that living in a tent is a lifestyle choice, but I am not going to be stymied by it. That's not me. I write what I want to write about, and nobody dictates to me what that is. I feel very strongly about this.

I'm not contracted, not paid, not conflicted in any way. Total freedom to write about what I want. Blogging is a dying medium, very few people read them and the stats back that up. So what? Have you seen me try and change with the times? No you have not. Within this slowly diminishing format it is the travel posts that gain the least response and the fewest views - I am well aware that they have the least capacity to resonate but have you seen me give up writing them because of that? No you have not. Any ideas why that is? If anyone thinks it's because I'm trying to show off they are very much mistaken. My writing isn't in a crowing style, like some gormless influencer being paid to promote the so-called high life; I write because I want to. That's all it is. I enjoy planning my trips, I enjoy going on them, I enjoy going through the photos I've taken, I enjoy looking at historic eBird lists, and I enjoy reliving them by writing them up. I hope that other people may find them useful, informative or interesting, but I don't expect it or demand it. The key words are "I" and "enjoy".

Sometimes - more often that not - I don't write at all. Mostly this is because writing is mood-related in ways that even after all this time I am unable to fully fathom. I just don't feel like it, it's not enjoyable, and so I don't do it (witness February to June this year). Periodically this changes and you cannot hold me back, which is a period I am in right now. And this is when I encounter the second impediment to writing: my life is on the whole exceptionally dull. I work as a middle manager for a multi-national firm. As mentioned above I've worked for this same company for close to 25 years now, my whole adult life more or less. I get up in the morning, spend the day in an office in London, and come home again. Often I just go straight to bed. My day, such that it was, has contained nothing of interest whatsoever, but I don't go and write a blog post about it to try and demonstrate solidarity. I just get up the next day and do the same thing again. This same job that has for years funded my lifestyle is also extremely restrictive.

Now the blog may not currently paint that picture, and it may appear as if I am on some kind of permanent jolly. I'm not. I am just writing up prior trips whilst I have the mental and emotional capacity to do so. There are admittedly a lot - see above, I'm fortunate - but is that really so offensive? It's that or bread. Actually the stats would suggest that people prefer bread, but also, see above. Any suggestion that I should stop writing about trips in recognition of the general malaise and cost of living crisis just isn't justified in the context of why I do it and what I get out of it. I do not write in order to shove my lifestyle down people's throats. If it genuinely upsets somebody that I spend money travelling and then have the temerity to write about it afterwards then they're reading the wrong web page, and I would respectfully suggest that they seek whatever it is that they are looking for elsewhere. I'll take the stats hit, no problem.

Thursday 7 December 2023

London liberal metropolitan elite

I think we qualify. This is not a post per se but really a Public Service Announcement to say that nobody should be spending £4.15 (Gail's), £6.10 (Paul), £9 (some piss-taker on Etsy!) on a loaf of sourdough bread. We are still at it using the original starter that we were given during lockdown. Occasionally it explodes in the fridge, testament to its continuing vitality, but provided you keep an eye on it and use it, say, at least every three weeks, you can essentially keep it going forever. Although I am working from home less frequently than I used to, when I do it is likely that in addition to being on Zoom calls you will find me kneading and stretching dough. It is unbelievably cathartic, and between Mrs L and I we have it down to a fine art. She prepares the starter before she goes to work whilst I prepare the initial dough. During the day I then mix these together and do the periodic kneading and stretching between meetings. The following morning she applies the final touches such as scoring the top and adding an appealing flour pattern, and then bakes it. When it is done, I eat it. With gusto. The flour that goes into the loaf currently costs 88p. The small amount of salt is practically free, and then it is a question of heating the oven for a hour - ever more expensive but still barely 60p. Gail's saw you coming. 

I am sorry if this comes across as crass to people who have never bought Sourdough from Gails. I have and it is very nice, but it is a) nowhere near as nice as our home made sourdough b) significantly overpriced for what it is and c) they get away with it because even mass produced sliced bread is approaching £1 these days, 'freshly baked' supermarket loaves are £2, and so maybe it does not seem much of a difference to upgrade to a so-called artisanal loaf. But if you make the effort, which to be fair is what defeats a lot of people, you can eat nice bread all the time for cheaper. And get nice pics for your insta*.

The latest masterpiece

* I don't have an 'insta'. Or a tiktok. Or a whatever the latest thing is. And Twitter looks doomed. So I am just going to be shoving it down my own throat.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Frigid. No birds.

All local birders look forward to cold snaps because cold snaps deliver unusual birds. Imagine for a moment that I was really really desperate to see a Lapwing or a Snipe for my Wanstead year list. Well were that the case I would have been out every morning freezing my butt off whilst gazing hopefully at the sky.

In unrelated news I've been out birding a lot recently and it has been rather cold. I read somewhere that sometimes cold snaps deliver good birds, but that must happen elsewhere as Wanstead has been completely dead. There was a flock of Redpoll early one morning but other than that nothing at all. Nothing moved. I'd go as far as to say that even the regular birds seemed to go to ground. Snipe or Lapwing? Huh, what? Here? No, of course not, we don't get those.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

My love affair with birding in the USA

I really like America. Partly it is my heritage but mostly it is just a magnificent country. Think of a habitat and it is likely to be found somewhere in America. The grandeur of its National Parks, the sheer size of the landscape, the brilliant birds and yes, the people, who are for the most part delightful. I know plenty of people here who have zero desire to go anywhere near America but they are missing out. It is undeniably weird in many ways, and downright backward in others, but taken as a whole it is just superb. I go there as much as I can, I feel a part of it, I am just at ease there. My trips are about birding, sure, and especially lately, but I go for plenty of other reasons. 

I've been every year since 2014, something like 30 trips in all between then and now. I've not been birding on all of them, but the majority have seen me break out the binoculars. The map below is adapted from my eBird profile and very much appeals to the obsessive part of my personality. Yellow, orange and red are where I have been birding and recorded lists of birds, with the depth of colour indicating density - i.e. red States are where I have seen the most birds, light yellow the fewest, and orange somewhere in the middle - the darker the shade the more birds. I've now been birding in 27 States. California has the most, with New York and Ohio second and third, whilst Georgia and Nebraska languish at the bottom. As you can see I have now shaded in the top eastern corner of the map which was one of the aims of the trip in May 2023. The green ones are States that I have definitely been to but failed to record any birds. Oregon and Montana were when I was 11 years old, and no doubt I did see some birds, but at that point eBird was but a twinkle in some developers eye, and as an 11 year old I failed to assiduously keep lists. I have on my to-do list to go through the family photo albums from that road trip, maybe I'll find the odd Gull or whatever, or a Bald Eagle, but it's a pretty poor way of going about it. This is how I managed to stick one species onto Georgia - a Mockingbird. Nebraska I drove through in the dark, hearing a Mallard and jamming a Snowy Owl. Anyone who knows me will understand how irksome I find this, and will also know that I intend to do something about it. I mean bloody hell, my Aunt lived in Maryland for years, and I visited several times yet I have no records in any medium that show a single feathered creature! Ditto a family road trip that took in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and a week-long trip to Utah with my son.

So where next then? Well it is already booked. That big blank space to the right of Texas, that's where I am going. Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. And I might just squeeze in an hour in Kentucky for good measure. If I can manage all of those that will take me 34 States birded and 40 visited. I should just go and live there. I could. Maybe I will one day, but for now I'm restricted to short trips. Pointless? Very much so. Pleasing? Oh yes.

Monday 4 December 2023

New England - May 2023 - Trip List

I ended the trip on 160 species which included 14 new species for the USA. I notched up 105 in Maine, 75 in Massachusetts, 70 in New Hampshire, 67 in Vermont, 34 in Rhode Island and 12 in Connecticut. And then 53 in Canada either side. My kind of trip, which is not entirely surprising given I was the one that planned it. This eBird link will give you everywhere I went and everything I saw, but for convenience here is a table by species and State, and with counts. I was very dedicated, recording birds as I went along, so this is really quite accurate. Of note are the 20 species of Wood Warbler - a great time of year to go to the US

New England - May 2023 - Day 5 - New Hampshire, Vermont and home

Another early start saw me arrive at Moose Bog for about 8am having birded slowly along the road on the way up there. I kept on investigating little pull-ins, things like that, and it took me over two hours to cover what should only have taken an hour. So much for single-minded focus. 

Once there I headed through the mosquito-infested woodland and down to the short boardwalk. Boy were they hungry today. It was immediately worth it though, with a Black-backed Woodpecker heard calling almost as I arrived. It took a while to track down, obstinately staying on the hidden side of distant tree trunks. Eventually it gave itself up and I was able to get good views through the scope and take a record shot. The Moose was still present on the far side, and the woods had many more Warbers at this time of day - I was able to track down Nashville and Canada, as well as Northern Parula and Magnolia Warbler. Frustratingly the Merlin App also recorded Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, one of my trip targets, but it proved impossible to locate. My rule with this App is that I whilst I can use it to pick out species, I can't tick anything until I've actually seen it and proven it is what the App said it was. It is pretty good, but it certainly isn't 100% reliable - it must drive eBird reviewers nuts, and at several spots I saw 'birders' simply walking around holding their phones in front of them!  For some, this is what birding is in 2023. Technology is great, but at the expense of fun? I'm sure the Flycatcher was there somewhere, the call was nice and clear, but rules are rules. I had another go in Ohio this September and dipped there too... Brown Creeper and both Kinglets were seen, and a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatch were very vocal.

Black-backed Woodpecker

At around half eleven, having retraced my steps a little back towards New Hampshire to take in a site I had missed out on the way up - Fort Hill WMA. This was great, a nice lake and good vegetation. I had a Wilson's Snipe displaying high above me, Bobolink in a field, Swamp Sparrows, lots of Warblers, Veery, and a Warbling Vireo. When I got back to the car I happened to glance at my leg and noted a Tick crawling up it! Oh no! I now recalled having had to brush against some bushes as I negotiated a tricky puddle. That is all it takes. I took my optics off and started undressing. Sure enough there was another one inside my shirt. Amazing. I basically stripped off - luckily it was a remote location - and subsequently found another on my shoulder. You cannot feel them at all. Satisified I was clear, I got dressed again and carried on.

I popped back into Moose Bog but it was a shadow of the morning's activity - now I understood why I'd dipped the Woodpecker a few days ago. As this was the last day and I was flying out that evening, the trip now reverted to State birding and trying to increase the trip list. I added Brown Thrasher on someone's front lawn in Troy, VT, and at Lake Carmi in a shower a large mixed flock of hirundines included about 20 Sand Martin in with loads of Tree Swallows, Barn Swallow, and a few Northern Rough-winged Swallow


Red-winged Blackbird

Swamp Sparrow

My final destination before Canda was Missisquoi NWR, a huge area with loads of birding spot. By the time I got there my time was extremely limited, but in this vast expanse of pools and wet meadows I picked out Caspian and Black Terns, breeding Osprey and lots of other good birds. I'd spent little time in Vermont as I crossed south, so the State birds came thick and fast, with the final ones being Common Goldeneye and Common Tern at Highgate just before I got back on the I7 to Quebec. I spent about fifteen minutes packing everything away and getting ready to travel, and then crossed back into Canada. The airport was about an hour away so I had enough time to spend a few minutes adding birds to my Canadian list at Pike River before high-tailing it to Montreal. 

As I approached the airport I happened to scratch the side of my head next to my ear and was horrified when a Tick fell onto my lap. Oh dear. I had clearly not checked myself thoroughly enough. As soon as I got through security and into the lounge I went and had a proper go, and this time found one embedded in my back, though it can't have been properly dug in as I got it off easily. Still, what a little sod! Now properly paranoid I checked as much more of myself as a could, and finally satisifed that this was it I got dressed again and it was soon time to leave. The story does not end there however. I woke up about 40 minutes from London having requested to be left sleeping until the last moment, and noted that my right hand was rather tingly, maybe I had slept on it funny. I went to the toilet to freshen up and brush my teeth etc, and in horror noticed a Tick on my wrist! This one was a little harder to get out but I managed it and flushed it down the toilet - it was still totally flat so hadn't yet started feeding. How on earth had it still been on me, I had checked myself thoroughly several times, combed my hair, looked through my clothes.... My slightly numb hand was the start of Tick paralysis, yuck! Research established that Ticks need to be attached for around 24 hours before you are at real risk of catching any of the nasty diseases they carry, and so at 16 hours since I been birding in Vermont I was fairly confident that I would be OK but I wouldn't really find out for several weeks! As it has now been over six months I reckon I am fine, but a real eye-opener as I had been so careful for almost my entire trip, trousers tucked into socks, regular checking and so on and had still been done! 

I ended the trip on 160 species, and the list will be in the next post.

Sunday 3 December 2023

New England - May 2023 - Day 4 - Maine and Eastern Egg Island

I was at Pease International Airport in New Hampshire at 6.15am, gazing through the southern fence at a vast expanse of short grass. Somewhere here was an Upland Sandpiper. If I could find it it would be a world lifer! It was quiet, somewhere behind me a Hermit Thrush called and a Cardinal pipped. Then, movement. A Meadowlark flew out of the grass and perched on a distant bit of airfield kit. Rats. And then I heard it, an absurd uplifting whistle, upslurred and then down again. It did it again, where on earth was that coming from? Way above the airfield was the answer! I followed it through binoculars as it came back down, and then scoped it up as it perched on what looked like an oil drum or bollard. Sweet! 

I'd expected this to be much harder from the descriptions I'd read. It had allegedly been present at the Eastern Whip-poor-will site, though I'd only been there in the late evening and I not heard a thing. I drove around to the other side of the airfield in the hope of getting close but if anything it was more distant, but the change angle allowed me to pick up some Killdeer in the same area. Meanwhile the Sandpiper continued to display, what a brilliant bird.

On the coast a short distance away at Odiorne Point I followed up a lead of a King Eider but couldn't find it - I just checked eBird to remember what I had been to looking for to discover it was still there in November! Anyway, lots more Eider and Black Scoter, and Least Sandpiper and Little Blue Heron on the pools behind the road. An Osprey caught a fish as I watched.

Eastern Egg Rock

I birded my way slowly up the coast and into Maine, it was nice day and I wasn't in any real hurry. It was just nice to be out and I stopped quite frequently on my way up to New Harbor. The boats were running today, but the only possibility had been a short trip out to Eastern Egg Rock, a well known Puffin colony, rather than a longer trip that deposited me on the migrant hotspot of Monhegan Island. I'd already seen Puffin from Pemaquid Head, but as there was also a chance of Razorbill and Purple Sandpiper, I had decided to take what was available. In the event it was rubbish, a massive grockle-fest with the so-called experts on the boat seemingly unable to identify Terns. They had a number of posters of 'popular' birds and made zero effort to point out anything other than those. The punters loved it! I am not a punter. Still, at least there were good numbers of Purple Sandpipers on the island, but we never got anywhere near them as we were too busy looking at adorably cute Puffins. I spent the way out and back scanning for Razorbill without success.

Eastern Phoebe

Back on dry land I tried various spots to scope out to sea for auks, but drew a complete blank. A worthy consolation prize was a barrel-chested female Goshawk that flew across the road somewhere near 
Bristol. This became a world lifer with split later in 2023. I carried on up to Alna to bird a road rather oddly called Hollywood Boulevard - a narrow track running through mature woodland. This was excellent, with three species of Woodpecker including Red-bellied, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, and lots of Warblers. This was a large loop and as the afternoon drove to a close I birded Head Tide at the far end of it, a small village with a bridge over the Sheepscot River. This too was great, with Goosander and Belted Kingfisher on the river, and good mixed flocks of passerines feeding in the vegetation alongside it. There were a pair of Baltimore Orioles, a glowing Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinches, a White-breated Nuthatch, and much more. I left at dusk and drove about 100 miles west via Augusta to Gorham in New Hampshire where I spent the night. This was so that I could be close to Moose Bog again for another attempt at Black-backed Woodpecker. I hate dipping!

Baltimore Oriole

Saturday 2 December 2023

New England - May 2023 - Day 3 - Massachusetts to Rhode Island and back

Plum Island is a narrow spit of land that stretches from the top of Massachusetts for about seven or eight miles south, not too far from Boston. There is an inland channel for most of its length, and a single driveable road winds down to the end, Sandy Point. Think of it as an easily accessible Spurn or Blakeney, and as it is right on the north-south flyway it regularly drags in loads of migrants. It is part of the wider Parker River NWR and this was where I was going to see my first Bay-breasted Warbler. Or that was the plan at any rate - the eBird lists had screamed promise at this time of year, and as the season developed I had been keeping a close on eye it. The few days before had seen good falls of Warblers and other migrants, surely today would see more of the same? 

Somewhere near Plum Island. I had to stop.

I was desperate for food, but even with grabbing some breakfast I arrived before 7am, on these kinds of trips there is just no holding me back. It was a beautiful day and although there are birding sites the whole length of the island I headed straight for the area known as Hellcat. This is a narrow strip of pine and deciduous woodland about two thirds of the way down, and as one of the only stands of trees is a magnet for migrants. There were already quite a few birders on site, walking along the road and peering up into the trees - clearly I was in the right place! After grabbing a space in the car park I joined them, teaming up with a local guy who it turned out had been born in Shropshire. There were birds everywhere, especially in the pines which with light gusts of wind shed incredible clouds of yellow pollen. The following counts describe the whole morning, but almost all of them were at this spot: 5 Bay-breasted WarblerCape May, 3 Magnolia, 4 Blackpoll, 6 Yellow, 5 Yellow-rumped, Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula and 3 American Redstart. Non-Warblers included Blue-headed Vireo, tons of Grey Catbird, Eastern Kingbird, Willow Flycatcher and Baltimore Oriole.

Bay-breasted Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

In all I spent nearly six hours on Plum Island, it was simply magnificent, and I came away with a list of 73 species - not bad for a foreigner unfamiliar with the birds. At Sandy Point at the far end were a huge mass of Terns, and once I got my eye in I was able to pick out two Roseate in with the Common and Least. This was another new USA bird, the trip was certainly living up to its billing. The inland marshes and pools were stuffed with Waders, with Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, both Yellowlegs, Turnstone, Dunlin, Killdeer, Grey Plover, and a single Red Knot. The sea held Eider, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, passing Gulls and a Red-throated Diver. Finally some local gen pointed me in the direction of a singing Yellow-breasted Chat on a path that led out from Lot 6, and there were some Purple Martin at Lot 1. I could go on and on, but the full list is here

At midday I decided I had better get going, but what to do? I had no accomodation booked for this evening, wanting to keep my options open. I had the replacement boat trip the following day back in Maine, so what should I do? I had the time to get all the way down to Rhode Island and Connecticut... This had been part of the original plan when I'd booked the flights, but I'd gone off the idea as the trip approached. However there were allegedly Manx Shearwater loafing off Revere Beach in Boston, and once I was in Boston, well, I was nearly there. Why not?

Manx Shearwater, Boston

Heavy traffic delayed my arrival, but once at the "Pink Apartments" eBird hotspot (look for St. George Condominiums on the map) I started scanning the bay. The light was rubbish and the first couple of sweeps picked up nothing, but my perservence paid off after about ten minutes and sure enough there were indeed a small number of Manxie sitting on the sea and occasionally flying loops. How strange. Another new bird -  my tenth of the trip so far, of which eight I'd seen in the UK, including two of the properly American ones. 

After this success I was momentarily paralysed by indecision. Should I go for it? A quick check of the map, and the birding spot I'd picked out in Rhode Island was an hour and a half away, I'd get there by about 5pm. Barely worth it, but there was another reason to go - there was a particular photo I wanted to take for one of my kids.... I'll post it at the end of this blog post and you'll have to work it out. It's as stupid as most of these types of photos is all I'm prepared to say!

I got to Trustom Pond NWR on the stroke of five and walked the big loop for just over an hour. There was nothing spectacular here per se, but it was another new State for my eBird map which appeals greatly to my peculiar psyche and stubborn nature. New birds for the trip included White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wilson's Warbler, Carolina Wren and Cedar Waxwing

I pointed the car west again, and after a short but highly satisfying photography stop crossed the border into Connecticut. With darkness approaching I just needed to find somewhere, anywhere, to bird. So it is that my Connecticut list sits on a huge 12 birds. I managed to find a small woodland at about half seven, and in fifteen minutes of basically standing next to the car picked up Scarlet Tanager, a singing Wood Thrush, and best of all, a most unexpected Common Nighthawk. An epic day, but I needed to be in Maine for 12pm the next day and I had nowhere to stay and no plan! Ebird sorted this out in short order and I was on my way. I reached New Hampshire by about 11pm, food from Chipotle en route, and checked into a cheap motel not actually far from where I'd started in the morning. Trip list 136.

I had threatened her with this and was pleased to be able carry through with it!

Friday 1 December 2023

New England - May 2023 - Day 2 - Maine

I was up six and out the door within 30 minutes, pretty quick for me - long gone are the days when I could roll out of bed and be out in under 10. There are a few signs of age these days, including glasses, but I find the most annoying one to be needing a minimum of 45 minutes in the morning and woe betide should I try and hurry that....

I think it was for this reason that I spent the first few minutes outside my lovely private-host accomodation. I was in rural Maine, a land of beautiful old clapboard houses and towering trees. The crazy rain had passed and on a still but slightly misty morning I concentrated on the garden, and was pleased to very quickly come across Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting, as well as list stalwarts like American Redstart and Common Yellowthroat. It was a good start, and after a quick return to the house I drove up to Damariscotta to bird the Coastal Rivers Nature Centre. 

It was pretty damp underfoot, and required some long jumping of sorts to get around standing water, but the loop around the pond and wet meadow was very productive with more Bluebird, loads of Bobolink, Eastern Kingbird and various Warblers. Virginia Rail and Sora were actually pretty easy in the reedy margins and wet grass alongside. 

After a quick stop back at the house to eat some home-made banana bread and meet my lovely host for the first time (I do have a tendency to both arrive and leave in the dark!) I carried on to New Harbour where my boat trip departed from. Immediate bad news when I was told it was cancelled due to high swell. Oh dear. I could apparently rebook at any time in the next year. How about the day after tomorrow, I could probably make that work? Fine, but rather than a whole day on Monhegan it would just be an hour long Puffin cruise. Bummer, especially as I booked my accomodation in order to be close to the harbour for the morning departure. This left me rather at a loose end as I had been supposed to spend until 3pm on the island but I surmised I could probably see at least some of the species I was looking for exactly where I was, including the seabirds from the shore. This came good immediately with some Eider Duck just up the road, a long-awaited ABA tick, and shortly thereafter both Black Guillemot and Black Scoter. You can probably see where I am headed with this - all USA ticks but all seen previously in the UK, including the Scoter. This is where listing gets a little silly but I don't care. In fact I love it.

I went down to the end of the peninsula to find it totally fogged out, the sea invisible, so I returned to where the fog stopped and birded various sites for a couple of hours - lots of Wild Turkey, quite a few Osprey, Surf Scoter, R-B Merganser and some Arctic Terns - yet another ABA tick. At Waldoboro Town Landing I added Black Duck and Greater Yellowlegs

By now it was about 1pm and local knowledge suggested the fog would be all but gone. So it was, and scoping from Pemaquid Lighthouse picked up a dense flock of at least 100 Black Scoter, four more Tystie, three Bald Eagle and most unexpectedly two Puffins really close in. Given that these were my major reason for having booked an expensive boat trip I wasn't really sure how I felt about them, but there they were!

It was time to head south, as ever I was behind schedule. First stop Lobster Cove Meadow Preserve and I immediately wished I had been there earlier in the day. A wonderful woodland bursting with species, too many perhaps to mention here, but highlights included Purple Finch, Pine Warbler, Brown Creeper, trumpeting Red-breasted Nuthatches and two Chestnut-sided Warblers. Full list here

Biddeford pool was my final stop of the day, beyond Portland and nearly to the New Hampshire State line. There were various targets here, some of which I'd now already seen, but I added White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, a friendly Great Northern Diver, Willet, Piping Plover and Grey Plover sorry I mean Black-Bellied Plover. As ever the clock was ticking though, and I had a date at dusk at the Kennebunk Plains about half an hour away. This was a known site for Upland Sandpiper and Eastern Whip-poor-will, and research had suggested that the latter started vocalising within a very precise window each evening. The weather was perfect as I stopped the car in a huge clearing along a gravel track, and sure enough at 20:17 I heard the first bird. It was difficult to say how many there were but I am certain that there were at least three and likely four. Before it got totally dark I also managed to see Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, Pine and Prairie Warbler, as well as three roding American Woodcock which took the trip list after two days to just over 100. 

Kennebunk Plains

My stop for the night was just above Massachusets in the small town of Hampton. Too small, it was impossible to find anywhere open that served food - beer yes, food no -  and as I was fed up with driving I just went to bed hungry. If you've ever met me you'll know I would likely make it through the night. Still, it had been a good day, one with six new American birds, four of which you could easily see on any given day in the Scotland. Nice.

Thursday 30 November 2023

New England - May 2023 - Day 1 - Quebec to Maine

My flight to Montreal was totally uneventful and very boring, but it's not a long trip particularly. I never really even watch films on planes, so I just got the map up and read my field guide and the research materials I had printed off. I also listened to a few calls from the Audubon App. It was late by the time I picked up my car, a nice red Chevrolet Blazer, which in the UK would count as a large SUV but in America is merely small. I made it one piece about an hour or so east to the small town of Granby where my motel room key was waiting for me in their post box as arranged due to my late arrival. By staying up all the way (UK equivalent time of 3am or so) I would avoid jetlag which is always my first priority when arriving somewhere. 

I had a good sleep and at 6am local time the following morning I was at my first birding site, Lac Boivin, part of the Yamaska NP. It was great to be back birding in the US again, my first visit since the previous September, which now that I write that isn't actually that long ago. I was the only person there, and dosed up with insect repellent I headed off through the woods towards the lake shore. I was a little rusty for sure, but it wasn't long before I'd worked out Great Crested Flycatcher and Red-winged Blackbird again. Birds came thick and fast, with an excellent spell of ten minutes where a mixed group of Warblers bounced through some low trees by the water - Magnolia, Blackpoll, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Common Yellowthroat and a bonus Baltimore Oriole. Out along a boardwalk section the boggy margins held Swamp Sparrow, and a Least Bittern was calling from an area I simply couldn't see into for ages before it finally showed itself on one edge. The lake itself was rather disappointing - only a handful of Canada Geese and Wood Duck, and a single Double-crested Cormorant, so I returned to the trees and walked a circular route back to the still-closed visitor centre. Veery, Hermit Thrush and Rose-breasted Grosbeak were all seen, and a noisy flock of Common Grackle were in a field over which Tree Swallow were flying. Yep, I was back in the saddle again. Nothing special so far, but the list was up and running.

My next stop was further east at another section of the Yamaska called "entre les deux digues", basically the next lake along. I walked west through a campsite to a dam. Red-eyed Vireos and American Redstart were everywhere, along with my first Least Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe. As it was quite damp in this section of forest it was also good habitat for Northern Waterthrush, and I also found Black-and-White Warbler, several Ovenbird, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. The dam had a couple of Killdeer on a small pool at the bottom, and a Great Northern Diver was bobbing about in front of it.

Back west at the Parc Daniel-Johnson Saturday morning was in full swing, lots of people out and about, but the highlight here were two Warbling Vireos and on the lake a Caspian Tern. I would have liked to have continued birding in Canada but I needed to get going, I had something like five hours of driving ahead of me and was only six miles away from where I had stayed the night. Let's get on the road, America is calling!

Welcome to Vermont! This is not what Bernie Sanders would want.

I crossed into Vermont at Stanstead just before after midday and made steady progress in a south-easterly direction along the 111 and 105 to Moose Bog. The target here was Black-backed Woodpecker but it turns out it was an early morning bird. Damn it! Visiting birders who had been there since first light showed me the trees it liked, where it had flown in from, where it had then gone etc, but despite sticking it out for an hour and a half there was no sign. The habitat did look excellent though, loads of dead trees in boggy habitat. Despite this first disappointment all was not lost. Both Kinglets were present as well as Blackburnian Warbler, and best of all a trio of rather tame Canada Jays came to visit me on the viewing platform at the end of a very short boardwalk, clearly expecting peanuts or something! Given how hard I had worked for these at Sax Zim in Minnesota in the depths of winter it felt like cheating! On the mammal front there was very appropriately a large Moose on the far side of the water and a couple of Otters were gliding around. And on the insect front.... well, the less said about the ravenous mosquitos the better. It was kind of tolerable at the water's edge but in the forest it was insane and if you stopped walking you were toast.

Blue Jay

Canada Jay

A Moose in Moose Bog, Vermont

I carried on to my final birding destination of the day, Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire. I didn't reach it until after 5pm so not this was not ideal for birding, but I had always known that today would likely pan out like this. I power-marched into the forest, determined to get to some predetermined spot from my research. The paperwork I had is long gone so I cannot now remember what I was looking for but I didn't find it! It might have been Yellow-bellied Flycatcher now that I think about it, but I did get my first ever Alder Flycatcher on US soil, after a bird on Blakeney Point in Norfolk as long ago as 2010! An annoying and embarrassing gap filled! I picked it up on call as well, having learned it on the plane on the way over, most pleasing. Black-throated Green Warbler and Northern Parula were both new for the trip along this long track - 2.4 miles each way, the return leg in increasingly heavy rain as darkness fell. 

It was a further 3 hours and 130 miles onwards to my accomodation near Damariscotta in Maine, and it rained and rained for the whole journey with the final hour being incredibly treacherous. Given how shattered I was I took it really slowly, and I did also have a short power nap just after the halfway point. But nonetheless my next eBird list starts at 6.34am the next day - this is what I call a 'holiday'!