Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Monday, 27 May 2013

Hi Roller!

If you'd have told me when I woke up on Saturday morning that at approximately 3.44pm that day, I'd be looking at a Roller, I'd have given you the slap your lies deserved.

So here are a few digiscoped record shots of Hampshire's stunning, 'drop everything and leg it', Roller - taken at Broxhead Common at approximately 3.44pm on Saturday afternoon. What a fantastic surprise it was to see this stunning bird...just one of many highlights from a brilliant weekend out west.

Did I say it was stunning?

Monday, 20 May 2013

Dusky Thrush and a Brecks blitz...

Ok, you probably know the deal by now - news went out late on Friday that a Dusky Thrush had been found in Margate Cemetery, the first twitchable individual since 1703 or something. I did a double take when the news buzzed through on my phone early on Saturday morning and lay there for a moment unthinking...until I realised what I should be doing. Arriving in Margate just before 8am, there was already a decent crowd of 70 odd staring rapturously at an ornamental pine in the middle of the cemetery and BAM...there she was - a female Dusky Thrush perched at the top. Incredible. I think the bloke who piled in behind me summed it up best, "f**k (gasps)...F**K!" A minute or two later, the bird flew down into cover between the headstones and continued to show but from denser trees and scrub. After another half or so of shifting positions I was happy with my lot and left it to the ever increasing hordes, of which there were loads by then.

No doubt much debate about the birds' make up will follow but, never having encountered one before, I noted that it looked slightly 'thrushier' in its general jizz compared to a Redwing and more washed out than any pictures I'd seen before. The excellent views showed up the breast band/streaking and some well defined wing tracts. What a score it was by a local patcher, I reckon he did well to find the bird, confirm its ID with help and then stand back to watch the mayhem unfold. And I wonder what the bird makes of Margate, it's a bloody long way from the forests of eastern Asia.

Dusky Thrush record shot, Margate Cemetery, Kent, 18/5/13

After the Thrush I did what everyone else there did and headed along the coast to Reculver to have a look for the Montagu's Harrier that had been hanging around the oyster farm for a couple of days. Word was it was showing well, which happily turned out to be a considerable understatement as the bird drifted up and down the old sea wall near to where I stood, I barely ever get views that good of Marsh Harrier. Feeling pretty chuffed with things I carried on along the wall over the fields to see what else was about. With clouds of insects in the air, I was half thinking about the male Red-backed Shrike that had been present the day before and how good conditions were for it when not more than 50m further I watched as two linnets flicked into a hawthorn bush, on top of which perched a...Red-backed Shrike! Jeez. What a bird and what a morning.

Drifting homewards, I detoured off just before Gravesend and after a fairly massive walk round Shorne Marshes, managed to scope out the Cattle Egret amongst the livestock. True, it was still about half a mile away but I had to earn at least one tick that day. A couple of Common terns and a nice male Wheatear along the sea wall was the icing on an epic bird-shaped cake.

Following my highly original jaunt on Saturday, yesterday I headed up to Suffolk, mostly with the Red-footed Falcon that's found Lakeheath Fen to its liking in mind. Typical of a hot May weekend, the Lakenheath car park was a mass of buses and bumbags but I managed to shuffle along to the New Fen viewpoint where sizeable crowd was gathered. Oddly, the majority seemed more interested in pointing an 8ft long camera lens at anything with wings than the falcon and more than once I overheard one of the MANY hobbies dashing by being passed off as the red-foot, followed by clickclickclick, but whatever. Pretty soon the Red-footed Falcon did turn up and it put on a blinding show right in front of us. In fact when it drifted off twenty minutes later, there was a distinct sigh from the crowd, much like when the credits roll at the end  of a decent movie and reality resumes. Nice. Point and click, some for the scrap book:

Red-footed Falcon (m) (Falco vespertinus) - a really smart bird,  Lakenheath Fen, 19/5/13

Following up the Red-foot with a majestic Common Crane that flew past Joist Fen, several reeling Grasshopper warblers and a Bittern that passed so close I couldn't focus my bins in time, it was an excellent few hours in the Suffolk sunshine. Half an hour with the Weeting Heath Stone Curlews, Spurs put in their rightful place and it was a very happy drive home.

For a weekend that began in a cemetery, it sure was one to remember.

A Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) in the Lakenheath woodland (digiscoped)
Orange-tip butterfly (m)
RSPB Lakenheath Fen

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Above average

Well what a rubbish day that was. Nothing really out of the ordinary at all...

From top:

1. Dusky Thrush, Margate Cemetery
2. Red-backed Shrike, Reculver
3. Montagu's Harrier, Reculver
4. Cemetery crowd paying respects (sort of)

Ok, so maybe an above average day. More tomorrow, when I've stopped shaking.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Feb' 2013

India continued...

Dawn on the Periyar River, Thattekad, Kerala 20/2/13

The journey south from Ooty into Kerala was an arduous one, the cool spring climes of the hills giving way to hot, dusty plains and the general state of roads and traffic testing our nerves and evidently those of our driver. Leaving at 8am, we finally pulled into Kothmangalam, a few kilometres from Thattekad, five hours later than expected at around 6.30 in the evening. I had been due to meet Eldhose, one of southern India’s most experienced bird guides, after lunch, but thankfully he was still present to meet us. Sal and Bobby continued on to the Hornbill Camp where they were staying but not before casting envious looks at the plush hotel I had landed in. Normally I’d always pick a scenic experience over luxury but after 11 hours sweating in a cab, the idea of room service and air conditioning was gratefully accepted. In truth though, the hotel was merely a place to sleep as Eldhose took me through his plans for our tour of Thattekad over the next four days. This was something I’d been looking forward to for ages and I couldn't wait to start the next day.

Day one

After a simple breakfast at 6am, Eldhose arrived with a driver and we headed several kilometres east into Thattekad to our first stop on a bridge over the Periyar River. It was a stunning location to start as the sun came up over the water and the noises of the forest took over. From the bridge we had great views of Whiskered terns feeding, long-necked darters cruising like snakes dancing on water, Ashy woodswallows and a single Red-rumped Swallow perched on wires. From there we took a path further into the forest before suddenly skidding out into a waterlogged meadow which was heaving with water birds. Several Bronze-winged Jacana showed well at close quarters as a large flock of Lesser Whistling ducks lived up to their name on the shallow pools. Herons and egrets abounded as did kingfishers, with a stunning golden-breasted Stork-billed Kingfisher being the pick of the bunch. From here we met up with Ragit, a forest guide, for a two hour trail walk that kicked off with a fantastic pair of Brown Hawk owls in a shady roost spot under a palm. Further highlights came in the form of an Oriole overload with three species in quick succession – Golden, Black-hooded and Black-naped. But one bird that stood out for me was an Indian Pitta that flushed ahead of us as we crept through a tunnel of foliage between two pools. This was a bird I’d hoped to see, being perhaps more familiar from the little bit of knowledge I’d gained before the trip. They are typically winter migrants in this part of their range, breeding further much north up to the Himalayas. It hopped in and out view for a minute or two, showing its colourful plumage combination and bold eye ‘mask’, before disappearing into the dense undergrowth.

It had been an excellent introduction to the bird life of Thattekad and we were just heading back for lunch when I was accosted by some friendly locals for an unlikely photo request. Duly papped, conservation was struck up which largely amounted to having names of Premier League footballers yelled at me. But the group soon quietened when a chap stepped forward and said “...but seriously, who is your favourite cricketer?” Unfortunately I couldn't think of a serious answer.

After lunch at the hotel Eldhose returns again at 3.30. We spend much of the afternoon and evening in an area of palm plantations 20km east again, through the forest. Taking a rough track up to a bare, scrubby outcrop, Eldhose spots a well disguised Grey Nightjar roosting on a branch 30 or 40 yards away which results in some unforgettable views. The odd, barren outcrop we find ourselves on offers brilliant views over the forest canopy and I’m content to sit and spend an hour or two watching the coming and goings of birds in the vicinity. Plum-headed and endemic Malabar Parakeets soon appear in the treetops while Eldhose spots a White-rumped Needletail as it darts powerfully over head. I’m really taken by a flock of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters nearby – absolutely beautiful birds.

Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) Thattekad Bird Sanctuary 20/2/13
Grey Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus) dayroost
Malabar Giant Squirrel (Ratufa indica)

We finish the day at a narrow clearing along the track where a small pool of rainwater has formed. Eldhose suggests we sit and wait to see what birds come to visit the pool and before long we’re treated to an exquisite procession of birds coming to drink or bathe. Orange-headed Ground Thrush and Indian Blue Robin head the queue while a Little Spiderhunter and a Puff-throated Babbler make fleeting appearances. A pair of Asian Paradise flycatchers dart across the clearing, including the incredible ghost-like male with its long tail streamers - a bird that could've escaped straight from a Studio Ghibli film. In my field book next to this bird the only thing I’ve written is ‘wow’ (underlined). Continuing the flycatcher frenzy, my personal favourites at the pool are a single male Blue-throated Flycatcher and Tickell's Blue Flycatcher. Their appearance in quick succession gives just long enough to pick out the visual differences that separate the birds, in the extent of their reddish throat patches (extending all the way from breast to chin on the latter) My joyous flycatcher gazing is only interrupted by a boisterous Malabar Giant Squirrel, clambering through the palms above us. Yep, a Giant Squirrel. What an amazing day.

Back at the Hotel that night I met Jon, a visiting English birder from the US. It was perhaps inevitable given we were the only guests but it’s great to swap notes on our trips so far in the overwhelmingly empty restaurant.

Day two

The next day we’re up just after sunrise again and the hits followed quickly. I met my guide from yesterday who takes me off to look for the Sri Lanka Frogmouth. These endemic and odd-looking birds (closely related to nightjars) usually require local knowledge to find their favoured roost sites and so it proves. I almost don’t know what the guide is pointing to at first as we peer into scrubby evergreen bush, but suddenly there it is, not more than a metre from me - smaller than I expected and freakishly wonderful. With Frogmouth done we meet up with Eldhose again who has successfully located a Mottled Wood Owl in a plantation off the road. While scoping this out we're also treated to fine views of an Oriental Honey Buzzard drifting overhead along with a Shikra in the noon heat.

Due to a meticulously observed general strike taking place for the next two days, we’re advised that all cars on the road are being stopped, searched and occasionally stoned, particularly around our for lunch Jon and I visit Sal and Bobby at the Hornbill Camp on the river. It’s a really beautiful spot and the staff put on a great lunch for us all. In the afternoon the four of us take to canoes to explore the huge, quiet Periyar River ambling past their tent. It’s a fantastic way to see wildlife and a Pied Kingfisher is a nice spot along with dozens of Little cormorants. But from canoe to jeep, Jon and I are soon back out on the road with a driver and Sanu, our guide for the evening. This time we head to a valley 25 minutes away, parking up on a winding road with good views of the area - a reliable spot for owls apparently. Over an hour or two, as we wait for dusk, we see some great birds along the road including two Ghats endemics, White-bellied Treepie and an elusive Rufous Babbler, along with Common Hawk Cuckoo and a beautiful Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. I’ve also written ‘dodgy warblers’ in my notebook so I guess we saw some of them too. As dusk rolls in the owls are quiet but another amazing thing happens as a deep, loud, distinct ‘growwl’ echoes up the valley from somewhere below...elephants! The guides are always nervous whenever elephants are around but for me it was a special moment.

As night descends, the owls crank up the action and by using playback we’re able to establish the presence of several in the area. Somehow in the darkness Sanu brilliantly manages to find one as it flies in to perch on a branch just above our vehicle. It’s a tiny Oriental Scops Owl and it shows well for a moment, peering down at us, before disappearing. His next skilful catch is a Collared Scops Owl that appears next to the jeep, its pinkish eyes glowing in the torchlight before it too disappears into the darkness.

Thattekad forest in early morning mist
Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger), Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, 21/2/13  
Malabar Trogon (Harpactes fasciatus) Thattekad Bird Sanctutary, 21/2/13
Cruisin...S, B and a lot of 'branch birds'

Day three

After a great session the night before, the morning takes a more leisurely form with a forest walk a short distance away. The highlight of the walk is undoubtedly an awesome Black Baza which Sanu picks up over the canopy and which we later all catch up with in a tree along the woodland edge. It is one seriously good-looking raptor - imagine a Sparrowhawk in a dinner jacket and a stripy jumper and you’d be half way there. Down on the banks of the river at Idamalayar we get a River Tern flying past, Asian Openbill Stork and impressive views of the dark blue Malabar Whistling Thrush. The latter has a truly beautiful song, much like a national anthem being slowly uh, whistled.

With morning done, Jon leaves to catch a flight home and I spend the afternoon dipping Crested Tree-swift and Red Spurfowl (again) It’s not all bad though as a pond heron unexpectedly flushes a Cinnamon Bittern on the same pool as a Moorhen, the latter generally scarce here.

How we roll...with Sanu and Jon on the bridge over Idamalayar HE dam
Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica)
Indian Pond Heron (Ardeola grayii)

Day Four

My final morning in Thattekad and I’m determined to make the most of it before hitting the road again. I’m keen to try for the endemic White-bellied Blue Flycatcher so Sanu duly obliges and we head off into the forest to an area we’d been previously. It takes a while and some audio encouragement but eventually a male appears briefly in the canopy, just long enough to set bins on before flicking off in that flycatcher fashion. I’m happy and I can tell Sanu is too, he’s a great bird guide. And with a whirlwind tour over it was time to leave again, Alleppey and the Keralan coast beckoning us...

Birding in Thattekad was an amazing experience, taking in some wonderful habitats and locations and I would've liked to stay longer. I've never experienced such avian diversity in a relatively small area and it really opened my eyes to what India has to offer. Having seen some of the chaos elsewhere, reserves like this are all the more important and I really hope it stays this way. I used the Helm Field Guide to Birds of Southern India which served as a good, basic introduction and was well suited to my needs. It's hard to keep things up to date though and from the guides I found several species have since been split, it was light in this respect but that's hardly surprising. My guides, Eldhose and Sanu in particular were excellent, both determined, friendly and knowledgeable, I’d recommend them to anyone. It was a pleasure to meet Jon too, a guy with a great many birding tales that I enjoyed hearing.

Going for an ‘all in’ package I stayed at the Maria International Hotel in Kothmangalam. Sure it’s primed for the tourist dollar but it was a comfortable stay with prompt, efficient service. I even had a Striated Heron from my balcony – they should put that in the brochure.


Monday, 6 May 2013

BBS early visit

Sun rising over the fields this morning, North Kent

I did my first Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) visit to the patch this morning in perfect conditions, a far cry from last year's gloomy start to the month. In place shortly after 6am, this is what I recorded on the transects within my 1km square:

SpeciesTransect sectionsTotal
 06:22 - 06:5007:05 - 07:25 
Pheasant    1     1
Stock Dove1     2   3
Woodpigeon     1131612
Collared Dove1       1 2
Ring-necked Parakeet        2 2
Cuckoo    1     1
Green Woodpecker    1  1  2
Great Spotted Woodpecker     1    1
Magpie       1 12
Jay1      1  2
Carrion Crow1  12      13
Goldcrest        1 1
Blue Tit2    121129
Great Tit      1 3 4
Skylark41393     20
Swallow     12   3
Whitethroat   2 1    3
Nuthatch        1 1
Wren       1  1
Starling71        8
Blackbird1       1 2
Song Thrush1        12
Robin1    1 1126
Dunnock         11
House Sparrow10         10
Chaffinch1      1114
Greenfinch         11
Goldfinch1         1
Linnet5 2311    12
Corn Bunting  211     4
Number of species14235675810830

The photo above gives a fairly good impression of how much of my site looks - wide, open arable fields with a few hedgerows and scrubby areas in between, a young woodland borders one side of the latter half. My transects start and finish around houses, hence the appearance of more garden species.

Some thoughts today - well firstly it was amazing to hear a Cuckoo calling briefly in the distance (>100m) just before 7am! This is a first local bird for me. There were probably two Yellow wagtails as well but they flew down into a stubble field before I could confirm. Of the patch 'specials' four Corn Buntings were holding their usual territories and Skylarks were marginally less obvious but I think this is due to the farmer's crop rotation this year. Linnet were fairly conspicuous, with a handful of pairs and some flyovers; their numbers seemed lower than usual in recent months so this is good. It seems to have been a good spring for whitethroats too with three distinct territories an improvement on last year's single. Off the square there is at least one prospective pair. Other than that, the list presents a pretty good picture of life on the patch these days and perhaps that of a lowland, intensively-managed arable farm in the south east in general?

So what's missing?