Cooling Marshes, Kent, 7th December 2014

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

No. 6

Me vs Wheatears of the world, no.6:

Pied Wheatear (Oenanthe pleschanka), Landguard NR, Suffolk, 3/11/15

Nothing beats a wheatear, especially a new wheatear; after all, they are, in their entirety, little white-arsed harbingers of joy.

This was my first encounter with a Pied Wheatear today - at Landguard Point in Felixstowe.

Pied wheatears are rare enough in the UK and they don't get much better than this fine adult male. Arriving in Suffolk (rather than eastern Africa) yesterday, the bird spent a lot of the time preening and paying some attention to the ring on its leg (it had been trapped at the Obs this morning). But this behaviour allowed good views to be had of its features - its dark, scaly mantle, ample white rump and uneven 'banded' tail. The pinky-buff breast colouration was quite distinct, as it was over the crown. It had a good plump shape to it too...and they say that black is slimming.





Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Chaffinch Appreciation

Had a hard day? I expect it wasn't as tough as the ones these guys had:


I thought I would share this footage which I saw posted earlier today by the BTO, showing a huge number of migrating birds, predominantly chaffinches and brambling, stopping to rest on a research ship in the Baltic Sea this month. Illuminated by the spotlights it looks like a snowstorm blowing across the deck.

It's an incredible, moving scene, in every sense; the darkness, the noise, the random factor (the passing vessel), above all - the primal instinct to survive at all costs laid bare. Following this crossing, many of these birds may have continued over the North Sea to Britain to make the most of our temperate winter. Maybe they're in your garden right now?

Colourful, chirpy and living dangerously. Ladies and gentlemen, the humble chaffinch.




The graph above shows peak counts of chaffinch numbers per week on my patch so far in 2015 courtsesy of BirdTrack. (I didn't visit between mid-March and late July but numbers would certainly have continued in the form of weeks 8 and 9). The annual spike between weeks 40 and 43 is a result of the arrival into North Kent of birds like those above.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

'Empidonax' Flycatcher, Dungeness, 22/9/15

If you try and text the word 'empidonax' on my phone, the auto correct changes it to 'emptiness'. As in Emptiness Flycatcher.

You can't really blame the program designers for that, it's not often a British birder would have reason to do such a thing. Empidonax flycatchers are a group of birds highly similar in appearance that range throughout North and South America...which makes the discovery of one on the beach (!) initially, at Dungeness on Tuesday morning, ludicrous frankly.

When I first heard the news my mind drifted back to the Caribbean islands I visited in January; there I saw tyrant flycatchers (the family to which 'empids' belong) among lush, humid gardens and forests. It was this jarring realisation that set off the unexpected after work trip to the coast.

Emptiness would definitely not be a word to describe the scene on the Dungeness road that evening, even less so the front garden of a little cottage that the bird eventually sought refuge in for the rest of the day. There it lurked in the dense collection of shrubs, the closest thing it could find to a forest, through the constant drizzle and showers with a few chiffchaffs to keep the masses on their toes. Occasionally it hopped into full view, making use of various garden items as perches from which to dart after tiny insects - water butt, wheelie bin, satellite dish, picnic bench, window sill, scooter handle, old lobster creel and best of all...the doorstep. As the rain passed and the sun hurried home the evening, the bird became more active and for a delightful twenty minutes or so flitted regularly between perches, once or twice darting up to pick out insects from webs under the roof. In the best of the light it was a striking bird, two white wing bars on long wings and a greenish mantle contrasting with distinct yellowish underparts more obvious than I had imagined. Not that my souvenir record shot, replicated here and formally lowering the quality of the web, would suggest:


'Empidonax' Flycatcher (Acadian?) on a scooter, Dungeness, Kent, 22/9/15



So, of these very similar-looking birds, which species it it? Logic (and better photos than this) suggest the bird is likely to be one of five empids that breed on the the eastern coast of North America with consensus pointing towards Acadian Flycatcher which would be a first for Britain (and a second for the Western Palearctic). Being wholly inexperienced with this group I'll make my own mind up when I've read more, but that sits well with what I've seen so far. Plus some of its poo was collected for dna sampling so maybe that'll help solve it - see, isn't birding exciting?!

Dashing off to see things like this isn't for everyone (as this excellent and thoughtful blog describes), but it was a unique encounter that will linger in my memory.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Can you hear the nightingales sing? (Part 3)

It had all gone quiet on the Lodge Hill front recently...until this headline rather came out of nowhere yesterday:



The BBC reported on it here and Miles King provided this interesting blog on the news.

Too early to celebrate? Perhaps, but this is certainly a welcome development in the saga.
"We have recognised a loss of £11.3m due to increased uncertainty over the recoverability of our costs to date following the disappointing decision by the Secretary of State to call in the proposed scheme for public inquiry"
I'm not sure what they've spent £11.3 million on so far but with an experienced developer like Land Securities releasing a quote like this, who would want to step up in their place?

Lodge Hill has been shown time and again to be a site of unique value for wildlife on a local and national scale. It's time that the MOD ceased this reckless pursuit and perhaps took a look at the positive steps taken by the German government with regards former military bases. Similarly, Medway Council needs to take this opportunity to re-evaluate their planning strategy. Chattenden is not the place for a development on this scale, it's time to move on.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Honey

(When is a butterfly not a butterfly?)

I've seen some wonderful sights in recent months - including some great birds. One that I hadn't necessarily expected to encounter in spring or summer on Cyprus is Honey Buzzard. Spring passage tends to be rather fleeting with birds generally scarce, it's autumn when the classic spectacle of birds massing on migration occurs.

Surveying near Amiandos, up in the hills, on Saturday, I caught sight of a large bird of prey cruising way up over the forest. Watching for a moment, I expected the form to become a Long-legged Buzzard, the most commonly encountered Buteo here, but it wasn't happening - too dark and as it drifted closer, the shape was off. Then as I turned my mind to other buzzards it accelerated, moving with carpals thrust forward, its head up and cruised overhead...it was a Honey Buzzard.

I watched it move over the valley, always at height and made a note for the 'other species' part of the survey sheet.

It was an unexpected encounter, but it got better. As I watched it started folding its wings and plummeting short distances in the air while making rapid, fluttering wing-beats. I have read this described as its territorial or pairing 'butterfly display' but this was the first time I've seen it. Beautiful, it has great agility for a large bird. Honey buzzard doesn't breed in Cyprus (does it?), so perhaps this was an immature bird 'rehearsing' for the future.





From top, some butterflies of Cyprus: Southern White Admiral, Long-tailed Blue, Grayling sp.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

City of Swifts

It’s a strange feeling to walk through the old town of Nicosia and find streets and buildings cut in half. Running across the city, from East to West, is a wall that looks like it was thrown together in places with oil drums, salvaged wood and chainlink fencing; barbed wire is the thread holding it all together. The blue and white striped pedestrian border crossing at the end of Ledra Street feels more like an interactive museum piece the first time I see it. In other places bored teenage soldiers eyeball passersby while listening to the radio. A sign at the crossing points out that Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe.

From the balcony of the youth hostel in the furthest corner of the old town, I could throw a stone into no-man’s land. Beyond it is the Turkish occupied territory, the main difference on the skyline being the tall turrets of the stunning Selimiye Mosque, formerly the 13th Century cathedral of Saint Sophie, which the sun drops over every evening. The churches of the town are mostly quite exotic buildings, small and sturdy and shaped so much that I can’t shake the feeling that they look more like sandstone forts. Of course, there may be something to this impression. The history of the city that is told so well at the excellent Leventis Municipal Museum is one of shifting fortunes and political unrest. The city walls, so beautifully planned and realised in the Venetian era as a series of eleven heart-shaped bastions with several discreet access gates, are the stuff of fantasy novels but it’s possible they worked better as a lesson in renaissance architecture than defence.



I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the old town. I particularly love the merchant’s quarter and the clues as to the former industries that used to be found here; how each street had a different role to fill, woodworkers, shoemakers and metalworkers among them. Now the area seems to be being adopted by local artists, colourfully filling a void in that way. Many of the old workshops are now boarded up but retain original fa├žades that must have looked fine at the turn of the 20th century. Here and there are odd remnants of the past, dusty signs filled with letters that I cannot understand; Greek is a delightful looking alphabet. Broken windows abound and wooden doors with subtle, ornate features that haven’t been opened for a long time. The streets are mostly quiet but it’s upstairs, up, up, up over the rooftops where the noisiest residents reside.

Nicosia is a city of swifts. You cannot walk a few paces in the old town without their calls drifting down into the shady, winding lanes; it is as if a kettle were constantly rolling to a boil, whistling incessantly. It is most impressive before dusk as hundreds gather in screaming parties, chasing and cavorting over the rooftops. In places they swoop low and then disappear up under the eaves with an effective but graceless scramble. I see it as a breath of life in those old, faded buildings.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Scops

A Scops Owl calling along a forest road during a nocturnal survey last night:


It's not often I have them so close. I had no other means of recording it other than my camera. Riveting footage, yes?

But is it one owl or two?

Cyprus Scops owls have a two-note call so although it sounds like two birds a lot of the time, it's likely to be just the one. It sounds like they're answering themselves. The new Sound Approach book on owls (which is great, as ever) describes the cyprius Scops Owl call, specifically the second 'answering' call or 'bip' being "the rule and very audible" as opposed to it occurring in other scops owl sub-species at 'low incidence' or only being heard quietly or at close range.

So in this audio example, the single bird is easy to record accurately but when there are six or more calling at the same time with the double note, like in Pafos Forest recently, it gets interesting!




Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Autumn in June

Yesterday evening I walked out over the salt lake, its vast edges now a smooth surface dusted with salt crystals, in places it cracked under my feet like a freshly baked cake. A few rubbery plants still poked through here and there in remarkable defiance of the conditions. A few weeks ago the water would have been past my ankles here but the unrelenting heat and wind has drawn the lake backwards to a remarkable degree, a hundred metres or more, so far that birds disappear easily into an oily haze and counting them would be impossible any other way.

Under a glaring sun a few Black-winged stilts headed my way shrieking in alarm and way beyond them a rippling off-white smear over the lake marked the massed ranks of greater flamingos - one thousand three hundred and forty two of them I recorded a little while later.

That the water retreats so much is not surprising given the heat now, but I have also found that Akrotiri is one of the windiest places I have ever been. The peninsula, a thumb of land welded from sand, mud, shingle and sun-scorched rocks, seems barely an inconvenience to the Mediterranean and its prevailing winds pass across as if it were not there.

Other little changes have slowly revealed themselves. I first noticed it last week when those same winds materialised a common tern on the salt lake from somewhere, a bird far scarcer here than in North Western Europe. The same evening, a large roost of adult yellow-legged gulls appeared and set about causing consternation in the kentish plover colony. But yesterday a check on the kentish plovers in the gravel pits also sent a pair of green sandpipers noisily airbound. Unlike the plovers, their breeding range lies much further north so it seems these birds were already headed south – an indicator that migration has started again and the avian calendar has already turned a new leaf in its seasonal spread.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Spotted

(But I nearly missed it)

In fact, were it not for the sudden darting movement from an upper branch of the pine tree I would've carried on past. Instead, I glanced up in time to see a Spotted Flycatcher picking its way down the tree, branch to branch as if it were descending a ladder. In the late-afternoon gloom of the forest, a spiky monochrome canopy against the sky above, it paused before sallying to an adjacent tree. Following its direction I realised it had alighted at a nest, a small, bushy cup bound with lichens and strands of webs fixed to the side of the trunk. The bold location for something seemingly fragile was a surprise, on a better day it would be just feet above oblivious picnic-ers on the tables below. It would certainly be a treat for any passing Jay or suchlike. But maybe it's a case of hidden in plain sight?

A female was sat snugly on top, a shifting blend of streaked grey or brown that suitably matched the surroundings but so far from plain as to be rather beautiful. The male tended to her as several blind, beaky tufts peeped up from beneath. I watched this little scene contentedly, the rest of the wood, the rest of the world, faded out for a few minutes.

I was reminded of this encounter at the weekend when I read in the news today that nearly 20% of bird species are considered to be at risk of extinction across the European Union. What a tragedy.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Karpasia

Audouins's gulls, Kleides Isles, Cyprus, 30/5/15


Whilst my main role in Cyprus has been to collect field data relating to breeding and migrating birds, I have also been working on a project of my own. This investigates the hypothesis that the further I actually I am from home, the more successful Arsenal are. After assessing two years of data now, the correlation is a positive one. On cup final day last year I was attempting to find phone reception on a hilltop in the Outer Hebrides when we finally wore Hull down. This year, c2400 miles to the South East, in another distant corner of Europe, I found myself counting cattle egrets on a lake somewhere on the outskirts of Famagusta as the players ran out at Wembley. The greater distance involved clearly worked in our favour as we won 4-0. There may be some other variables to consider but a spring trip to Mongolia next year might just see us win the league.

So despite kind efforts I missed the cup final again this year. Instead I settled for a cold Efes, a Turkish TV drama and the sound of cicadas as I headed into North Cyprus with a few others to conduct the annual count of seabirds on the remote Kleides Islands at the very tip of the Karpas peninsula - the ‘pan handle’ of Cyprus.

En route we checked an area of seasonal wetlands on the edge of Famagusta’s ugly sprawl to find the spectacular cattle egret colony in full swing. Emerging from the murky water, bare, skeletal tamarisks sagged under the weight of nests, their spiky, feathered contents spilling this way and that. I counted a good number of chicks, some mere balls of fluff buried under similarly fluffy siblings, others clambering awkwardly in pursuit of newly returned adults. I watched one feeding its young and winced at the eager pulling and smacking of their bills clamped against the adults'.

Reckless coastal developments render the road to the Karpas forgettable until it veers in land and the undulating Mediterranean landscape of farms and villages reappears. It was a relief to leave the coastal strip behind, the unappealing holiday villages, the empty shops and scruffy parking lots. It's hard to fathom the process, or lack of, that continues to result in places like this. Worse still are its infections into the Mesoaria plain, the sweeping arable 'basket' of the North...the sight of an abandoned shopping mall next to the shell of a 15-storey hotel, surrounded by fields of wheat, is the most ludicrous of all.



Karpasia
A Calandra Lark in flight, a wonderful bird


But further east, through Karpasia and past the last village, things improve. Pockets of wheat, fringed with the spiky purple heads of donkey thistles fill the narrow valleys, while small stone huts seemingly as old as the hills lie scattered between them. Old shepherd's huts I assumed, but in fact they were drying sheds for the tobacco that was once grown here. Over one such field we marvelled at the sight of six eleonora’s and two red-footed falcons dismantling insects on the wing.

The Kleides Isles are inhabited only by seabirds and inaccessible from the mainland so a fisherman kindly took us out in order to complete our surveys. Most important among these is the small breeding population of Audouin’s gulls (the most easterly in Europe?) and Mediterranean desmaresti shags. Both are typically outnumbered by Yellow-legged gulls and on our visit so it proved. Thankfully the audouins remained largely stationary as I checked numbers from the lurching boat. Aside from the gulls and shags we also spotted several little egrets, a peregrine and a flock of swifts wheeling around one of the many caves. The strangest sighting of all though was found on the very last rock, the most easterly tip of Cyprus...a roosting Spoonbill, perhaps contemplating the final leap across the sea to the wetlands of Turkey or beyond.


The end



Thursday, 21 May 2015

Lesser Flamingo - a first for Cyprus?

Last Tuesday, Anders, Martin and myself went over to Northern Cyprus for a series of Calandra Lark surveys on the Mesaoria plain which went really well. Straight away the birds were lively, chasing over the expansive, simmering fields of wheat that reached the horizon in every direction, or displaying high in the sky, their rapid, buzzing song spilling down beneath them. The birds proved to have a good repertoire of mimicry which had me searching on occasion for goldfinches, bee-eaters and swallows before the true source revealed itself.

Every now and then a lumbering combine harvester or tractor disturbed the peace. At one point a small group of farmers waved me over, rightly confused as to why an Englishman with a notepad and binoculars was wondering around their fields on a Tuesday morning. My answer was met with some amusement (and even more confusion).

Mesaoria 

Following the surveys, we headed to Kouklia Lake on Martin’s suggestion for a break before heading home as it apparently still held a good amount of water. Getting there we found that to be very much the case and, as a result, a huge number of birds using this impressive oasis in an otherwise intensively farmed plain. Straight off we picked out dozens of herons and egrets, a spoonbill, two marsh harriers and ducks including garganey, ferruginous and (surprisingly for May?) a trio of gadwall. The surface was pocked with coots and little grebes, at the far end a flock of greater flamingo took to the air momentarily.

Moving around the lake to the other side we continued to find good numbers of birds with squacco herons, wood sandpipers and black-winged stilts conspicuous on the rushy edges. We each focused on counting different species, Anders counting stilts, some of which were in amongst the feet of the now-nearer flamingo flock. While doing this he turned to Martin and me and asked us to check out an odd flamingo with an ‘all black’ bill and a shorter neck. The bird was feeding separately from the flock but clearly had a much darker bill, appearing at our distance to be black or dark brown. Anders suggested it could be a Lesser Flamingo based on an illustration in the Collin's Guide - predominantly an African species rarely recorded in Europe. Aside from the bill though, which we agreed was unusual and unlike Greater Flamingo, it was hard to gauge much else at this point and there were no other flamingos in the same view for close comparison.

However, soon the bird moved back to the flock and straight away we noticed the size difference – it was significantly smaller than the greater flamingos by a third or more! At this point I think burst out laughing as the differences became more apparent.

The bird then moved to the rear of the flock where it was easy to follow because of its size. It began preening during which point its legs were more clearly seen. These were darker in comparison with the other flamingos, like the bill, they appeared more reddish/brown than pink. After watching it for around 25 minutes, A and I felt confident it was a Lesser Flamingo which Martin pointed out would be a first record for Cyprus. None of us had ever seen this species before so photographs etc have been sent off for further study. It was a great spot by Anders and a good reminder that double checking 'common' or abundant birds can pay off.

Feel free to leave any comments below.


Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor), Kouklia lake,  Cyprus, 12/5/15. Photo digiscoped (PB)
Bird is roughly in the centre of each photo (though slightly hidden in the second) Initially spotted by Anders Gray.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Eleonora's

Eleonora's Falcon, Akrotiri, April 2015

Whilst having lunch this afternoon I could hear bee-eaters calling outside the flat and went out for a look. A small flock soon drifted into view, high up in the sky. In their midst was a different shape, a long-winged falcon, black against the light, cruising effortlessly like a shark amongst a shoal of fish.

I see Eleonora's falcons daily here. They hawk the craggy coasts and scatter hirundines over the marshes - sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups. Often I see them at dusk over the village, a brief, sinister movement above the rooftops or the alleys between the houses and then nothing.

The bird in this photo had the feel of a migrant as it smashed its way northwards along the coast, on a journey from wintering grounds in Madagascar to the Mediterranean. But equally it could be a local breeder freshly returned to steep sea cliffs in the area to await summer's bounty of passerines. Whatever the case, they are special birds to watch and I am always delighted to see one.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Change of Pace



Some things happen fast in the natural world, especially when observing bird migration at close quarters. In a few seemingly short weeks the scene in this hot, breezy corner of the Mediterranean has changed more than I might have imagined.

By my own experience, recent weeks have seen early April’s flurry of warblers depart and wheatears and flycatchers long gone on their journey’s north. The change is evident too in newly harvested fields and the ladders propped in orchards, in the creeping expanse of crystals on the edge of the salt lake. For many of the seasonal pools in the area it’s a case of here today, gone tomorrow as the days get hotter and longer.

Part of the joy of experiencing migration is learning the patterns it forms, of when birds arrive and depart. With these birds all but gone through, new species have appeared, heralding the start of May. In fact, for a spell last week, each day seemed to be marked by the presence of a different species around Akrotiri.

Despite strong winds, firstly it was a passage of red-footed falcons in the area, scything their way northwards, over Phassouri marsh and into the patchwork of citrus groves beyond. Last weekend it was cuckoos and golden orioles, a dozen or so of each, which suddenly appeared loitering on the margins of the village, the first attractive piece of habitat many spring migrants encounter. Perhaps best of all though was the passage of turtle doves early one morning. The sight was something I’ll never see in Britain now which made it all the more memorable, a fact underscored with the passing overhead of one bird in particular sporting shot-damaged primary feathers. Somehow this small event, this tattered feather, provided a vivid link in a vast chain often so difficult to comprehend. It provided a brief, passing history that made distant countries seem simultaneously close and very far away.

Cretzschmar's Bunting, an attractive and confiding breeding migrant frequently encountered in the hills
Lemesos Forest with the Troodos range in the background

The hills, valleys and plains are where much of the action is happening now as breeding birds firmly announce themselves. By Tuesday I noted black-headed buntings were back on breeding territories in the hills - bright yellow males rehearsing their sweet, fluid song amidst orderly vineyards now flickering with pale green leaves.

It’s the journeys into the hills to record resident and migrant breeding birds that I enjoy most of all. The slopes bristle with the machinegun scatter of sardinian warblers, the loud, repetitive loops of olivaceous warbler song and, in places, the dry, throaty rattles of cyprus warblers. Hiking along a trail in the week, in the midst of a dusty, scented forest of calabrian pine, endemic Cyprus coal tits added to this chorus. But most notable was the ever-present song of masked shrikes – an endearing an attempt at impersonating a warbler as a drunken uncle at a wedding disco.

Perhaps the most evocative sound of the season, one I look forward to so much at home, could be heard at dusk in the same valleys I crossed in the day. As the heat passed and the landscaped breathed again, dusk felt like squinting across a smoky room from whose midst the soft churring and odd yelps of nightjars could be heard – a song so intrinsically bound to early summer days.

Masked Shrike, Lemesos Forest, 28th April 2015

200 Collared Pratincoles whirling over my head



Lady's Mile beach, April 21st 2015

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Garganey


In a normal situation for me this flock might consist of several hundred whistling wigeon and that stony, grey sky would fill a winters afternoon on the Thames estuary. But this time these birds are garganey and it was Akrotiri beach they flew over last week.

I've never seen a flock of garganey like this before, it was quite a spectacle as they rushed overhead, clicking like hundreds of snap-happy tourists on their travels...


Monday, 6 April 2015

Hoopoes, shrikes and honey bread

You know how it is, you open the front door, a hoopoe flies past and there’s a lesser whitethroat skulking in the beaming orange tree across the yard...

Here are some photos from my first few weeks in Cyprus, where I'm volunteering as breeding bird field surveyor with BirdLife Cyprus for the next four months. It's been a great start - a lot of new info, sites and stunning birds; my brain is scratching to the sound of sylvias galore, the chatter of house sparrows and swallows is never far away. It took a few days to adjust to the fact that migrants I’d be waiting weeks and months for in England were already here. This weekend, in Pafos Forest, a Nightjar swept up into our headlights from a carpet of pine needles at the side of a road.

The new patch is immense, it's like Cliffe on steroids, it even has flamingos (if you squint)...

Akrotiri Salt Lake, Limassol in the background

My primary focus at the moment is atlas surveys and breeding bird transects (including nocturnal visits) which has taken me to some beautiful locations the length of the island...



And what's it all about...

The endemic Cyprus Warbler (Sylvia melanothorax), near Agros - an important breeding species 
Masked Shrike, Troodos foothills, 30th March
Black Francolins find a prominent perch to sing from
Greater Sand Plover (male), Lady's Mile, 28th March

Or possibly what it's really all about -


Cyprus is amazing.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Spring's sentinels

Whether we realise it or not and wherever we live, we probably all have our own wild indicators that tell us the season's are changing. It might be the morning light creeping through the curtains into what was before a comfortable darkness. It could equally be a sound.

For me, it's my local corn buntings that herald the return of spring. In winter, they are fleeting specks in the muddy fields, blending cryptically into hedgerows and stubble, only spilling into my consciousness with sudden flight and soft, rippling calls.

But come February they have grown bolder and by the middle of the month the first males are seeking out perches from which their rattling song can transmit. Tucked somewhere about them must be a small bag filled with shards and shiny fragments which they juggle and swing, because this is how I can best describe the song that stirs the fields from their wintry pallor. Unlike many other birds, my corn buntings are oddly confiding, happy to let an observer into their realm down to a few metres. The song draws me into a landscape that has changed significantly over the decades, the fields have expanded and people have retreated. But atop telegraph poles and hedgerows these birds still return at this time, perched like streaky sentinels, ever alert to the season's sneaking presence.

Corn Bunting, North Kent, February 2015

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Grenadines & Dominica, Jan 2015

Looking North to Union Islamd from Carricou, Jan 2015

This is the second part of my Caribbean trip write up from January this year, a little later than planned but such is life. It all feels like a dream now.

Following Grenada our trail took us north via the Osprey ferry to Carriacou, a small and exceedingly relaxed island. Brown pelicans greeted us in the small harbour where royal terns flickered over the gentle surf. A quiet walk around the northern tip of the island that afternoon resulted in good views of a mangrove cuckoo in amongst the dense, wiry stands of coastal scrub. From a secluded beach, little more than a thread of white sand between the mangroves and the sea we could see the islands of Petit Martinique, Petit St Vincent and Union, the path between them dotted with reefs and several shipwrecks. The next afternoon, our own journey to Union Island was underway, albeit with a delay due to the small cargo vessel that agreed to take us suffering engine trouble. Eventually we set off, crossing the sea (and the international border between Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines) as the sun set, a deckhand using the trip to catch two barracuda from the back of the boat.


My short experience of Union was a pleasantly odd one. Arriving at dark and stateless from our delayed border crossing we were bundled into a van and off to the airfield's 'immigration department'. En route the driver proudly showed us his pet iguana, held in one hand while the other prodded the steering wheel. The island offered little in the way of birdwatching opportunities in our short stay but I was pleased to find the salt lake holding a number of blue-winged teals and best of all, four whimbrel that flushed out from a shallow edge. A flock of barn swallows swung wild circuits around the peak of a nearby hill.

Another ferry and another day, this time to Bequia, a stop for a few days to recharge literal and metaphorical batteries. Ultimately I thought the place was pretty dull but sometimes dull is ok and I still enjoyed our grandest accommodation of the trip in Port Elizabeth and one of its best meals at Sugar Reef cafe. A meandering Sunday walk to the latter also took us to the Old Hegg turtle sanctuary tucked away on a remote beach on the east coast. The owner was happy to show us around and tell his story, of how he fished and free dived for hawksbill turtles as a boy on the island before coming to realise their critical plight. "More fishermen...less fish" was his answer to the state of the seas on his island when I asked him. He was an admirably determined old sort, doing things his way. From a blustery headland we had a great views of an osprey riding the wind over the cliffs, while I was pleased to find a single American Oystercatcher on the beach in Industry Bay.

Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) at Old Hegg turtle sanctuary, Bequia
Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor), Union, St Vincent, Jan 2015
Port Elizabeth stadium groundsman at work, Bequia

An epic day of travelling via ferry and planes took us on to Dominica but not before a whirlwind stop on St Vincent. With no time to head up in to the hills we used a few hours between connections in Kingstown's botanical gardens. Although I didn't realise it at the time, the gardens host a St Vincent Parrot reintroduction project with a number of birds visible in outdoor pens. Captive they may have been, but with their pale crown plumage they are perhaps the most stunning of the Antilles Amazona parrots.

Flying in to Dominica felt a bit like the opening scene of 'Jurassic Park', a lush, mountainous island emerging from the sea beneath heavy, grey skies. This impression stayed with me for much of our visit, such was the magnitude of forest that greeted every turn of the road. With three days on the cool Atlantic coast and two on the Caribbean side we were able to explore much of the island. There was good hiking around the village of Grand Fond where a steep trail led down to the Derniere Falls, a pretty, remote spot sheltered under a stunning canopy. I found Plumbeous Warbler here and luckily flushed a Ruddy Quail-Dove where the path twisted through some gardens at the forests edge. An enjoyable birthday whale-watching trip from just south of Roseau paid off with distant views of a group of Sperm whales, one obliging with the 'tail shot' that everyone wanted. I'd hoped for tropicbirds on the trip but birds were scarce, bar a Red-footed Booby that kept pace with the boat for a while and, more surprisingly, a single Pomarine Jaeger (ok, skua).

For our final day of the trip, we met Bertrand, aka 'Dr Birdy' - a passionate conservationist and Dominica's birding oracle. It was straight down to business and from Portsmouth we headed up to the Syndicate National Park principally in search of Dominica's rarest resident bird, Imperial Parrot. En route we worked some low-level coastal forest which gave up Red-legged Thrush and Caribbean Elaenia but dipped on Ringed Kingfisher. The key to finding Antillean Euphonia was apparently mistletoe trees and a stop on the road up to Syndicate eventually resulted in views of this colourful bird just as we were about to leave. After an extensive search for a Lesser Antillean Pewee which proved unusually elusive, we headed to the parrot watchpoint mid-afternoon. With views over a deep, forested valley and mountainside it offered the best chance of seeing the 'Sisserou' or a bird Bertrand described as "the ghost". Having been told we could wait several hours, it wasn't long before some Red-necked parrots appeared and then after fifteen minutes or so, with the guide looking the other way, I spotted a large parrot flying across the valley below us. Bertrand turned and shouted 'that's it!' pointing out the lack of yellow tips to the tail. Somehow, in a flash, he pinpointed its landing perch which led to some good scope views, it's deep, bruised facial plumage and large size evident. With the parrot in the preverbial bag we then enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon watching Lesser Antillean swifts plunge overhead as we explored more of the fertile, farmed valleys in the park.

And that was it, trip done bar an early morning flight the next day to Antigua for the international connection that evening. After a delayed arrival due to a plane not turning up ("probably gone somewhere else" - airport official) we had half a day on Antigua where I managed to jam in a few more bits. A walk along Dickenson Bay led me a short way inland to a massive brackish lake full of birds. Upwards of thirty black-necked stilts were present, plus many white-cheeked pintails, masses of egrets and my first genuine ruddy ducks! White-crowned pigeon was also present there to round off a decent 80 species for the trip.

A hugely memorable trip to a lovely part of the world.

Recommendations:

3 Rivers Eco Lodge - a unique and commendable lodging on the Atlantic coast run by Jem  = a really helpful guy. There is a little bar there too serving the best homemade rum punch we had
Steve's Bar - Grand Fond. Steve is a cool guy and also provides meals at 3 Rivers
Whales
Cabritts - pretty interesting place, good for snakes and lizards. Visit the little gift shop just outside to learn about the local 'miracle oil' from an amazing guy who'll show you photos of his unlikely (and amazing) previous life
Bertrand 'Dr Birdy' can be reached via drbirdy2@cwdom.dm
If you need to go anywhere on Dominica ask for Winston (everyone knows Winston)


A river reaching the sea near Grand Fond, one of 365 rivers on Dominica
Red-necked Parrot (Amazona arusiaca) in an orchard, Dominica, 16/1/15
Lesser Antillean Flycatcher (Myiarchus antillarum), Syndicate NP, Dominica, 16/1/15
Goodbye Dominica

Monday, 16 February 2015

The light returning

Estuary sunset. Looking across Cliffe creek to Gravesend and Tilbury.

Out on the marshes the light lasts longer; it travels for miles, through reeds and scrub, across rank fields dotted with grazing livestock, it blazes across the pools, pink, blue and purple.

I made a late visit to Cliffe yesterday, arriving with the mixed throngs of wigeon and lapwing already uttering their restless pre-roost assurances from the causways snaking across the site. From their midst, the barks of noisy greylag geese drifted across the water. The pools were flat calm, so much that a little grebe diving under the surface fifty metres away was more of an event than usual. Not much stirred but I was able to pick out the wintering male scaup among some tufted ducks on radar pool. 

In the peachy dusk cast over Flamingo pool, coots made for their corners and a distant harrier stirred up all manner of squeals as it passed. A pair of goldeneye drifted close by, the resplendent male head bobbing as it went. Wild swans have been scarce in the area this winter so I was pleased to catch up with a party of seven bewick's swans, one of my favourite seasonal migrants, roosting on the beach. Paddling serenely or half-asleep, it's a wonder to think of all the land that will be passing beneath their powerful wings on the journey they'll soon be taking back to Siberia.

From the sea wall I watched the sun's fiery slick across the water meander to nothing as it dropped into some untraceable suburban shadows beyond Gravesend. In its absence, under the clear evening sky, misty patches appeared along the edges of the track like snagged wool on a wire fence. The mist clung low to the damp fields but I could still make out the shapes of harriers drifting in, gliding silently over the reeds, ever lower until they too were gone.

From the track, teal and mallards called in the dim light but above it all rose the formidable shrieks of a song thrush deep within its guarded hawthorn thicket. Although not quite at its peak, a little rusty perhaps, there was no mistaking its sure understanding that the light will soon be returning.  

male Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Cliffe Pools, 15/2/15 
Bewick's Swan (Cygnus columbianus bewickii), Cliffe Pools, 15/2/15