Archive for November 2014

The Comoros: 6th – 16th October 2014   2 comments

On the 6th November we left Madagascar and flew to Moroni the capital of the The Union of the Comoros, a group of three islands that along with the French island of Mayotte form the Comoros, the archipelago of volcanic islands that lie between northern Madagascar and the East African Coast.

IMG_0878 GC beach

Much of the the interior of Grande Comore consists of recent lava flows but the beaches are beautiful, or at least would be if the locals didn’t dump rubbish on and around them.

IMG_0876 salt lake

We were told there was a salt lake to the north of Moroni and visited in the hope of finding wintering waders but instead found a sterile crater lake with a connection to the sea.

IMG_0870 Comoros car aprk

There was a large collection of discarded cars along the route,  some even ended up on the top of houses or on the beach.

IMG_1661 Comoros Blue Pigeon

Birding in a few spots in the lowlands was good with the beautiful Comoros Blue Pigeon,

IMG_1386 GC Drongo

and Grande Comore Drongo.

IMG_1440 France's Sparrowhawk

France’s Sparrowhawk is also found in Madagascar but here is represented by an endemic race.

IMG_1418 Comoros Courol

A number of the birds of the Comoros differ markedly from their Madagascar relatives. The Cuckoo-Roller on Grande Comore (but not on the other islands) differs by being smaller with a greyer throat contrasting with a pure white belly in the male and paler below with more rufous underparts in the female and there are vocal differences as well. It is treated as a separate species in the Birds of the Indian Ocean Islands field guide but not by any of the world checklists.

IMG_0866 view of coast

Our main birding excursion on Grande Comore was an ascent of the 2300m high Mt Karthala. We didn’t have to go right to the top, but it certainly felt that way.

IMG_1463 Humblot's Flycatcher

On the way up we found a number of endemic species including this attractive Humblot’s Flycatcher, sufficiently distinct to be placed in its own genus.

IMG_0859 Mt Kathala

We started at 350m asl and turned round at 1910m asl, a higher climb then the ascent of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. During the seven hours of hard  uphill slog we managed to loose our local rep and have the porters take our camping gear and lunch to various different localities all over the mountain. Eventually things got sorted out but we had to manage without our packed lunch,  at least one porter abandoned us and the one who guided us up above the treeline had to be bribed to do so.

IMG_1499 African Stonechat

The stonechat on Madagascar is now considered a separate species from African Stonechat (which in turn is considered a separate species to those in Europe and Asia) but know one seems to know what the affinities of the birds on Grande Comore are.

IMG_1520 Mt Kathala White-eye

Well this was the bird we slogged uphill for seven hours to see – Mount Karthala White-eye. We must have been crazy, although to be fair I did get eight life birds that day at various points on the mountain. Only found above 1900m on this island, it is a very range restricted bird. Lower down it is replaced by Kirk’s White-eye, a bird that induced the inevitable comments – ‘it’s a White-eye Jim, but not as we know it’ and ‘boldly goes where no White-eye has gone before’ .

IMG_1566 Mt Katharla campsite

Fortunately we didn’t have to descend 1560m that day, we camped at about 1200m asl in this very basic camp site but we managed to see the critically endangered Karthala Scops Owl nearby

IMG_0868 back to civilisation

Just a three and a half  hour descent the next day and we were back to ‘civilization’.

IMG_0892 landing at Moheli

Previous trips to the Comoros have been really mucked around by the airline with flights cancelled at the last minute but we were lucky. Here we are descending to Moheli. There was a strong wind that morning and the flight was very bumpy, we took it in our stride but a number of the locals were really scared and  you could hear prayers being offered  all around the cabin.

IMG_0893 Moheli airport

Moheli airport is not the most attractive in the world ..

IMG_0915 Moheli rubbish

… nor were the environs of our cockroach infested hotel …

IMG_0910 Moheli birding

… but the birding location along the central ridge was really nice and after the trials of Mt Katharla was really enjoyable.

IMG_1542 Comoros Fody

The Comoros Fody is treated as a separate species from the Fody in Madagascar and may itself be more than one species.

IMG_1638 Moheli Thrush

The Comoros Thrush occurs on Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan, each island form is very different. The field guide treats them as three separate species, but again, this is not followed by any world checklist.

IMG_1620 Moheli Scops-owl

Pride of place went to the cute Moheli Scops Owl which showed well in broad daylight.

IMG_1650 Comoros Green Pigeon

The following day we drove to the far side of the island and climbed another hill to see Moheli Green Pigeon.

IMG_1580 Seychelles Fruit Bat

We were puzzled to see a number of Seychelles Fruit Bats flying over the sea and apparently picking objects off the surface.

IMG_0898 Moheli airport

Then it was back to Moheli airport again. The last group had to spend six hours here, we fortunately got away after just two.

IMG_0939 small plane

An unusual plane with virtually no aisle at all. It was quite a job to squeeze your way to the front. Dani (who comes from Spain_ was surprised to find the pilot was a Spanish woman and they had quite a chat after we landed in Anjouan.

IMG_1678 Anjouan Brush Warbler

The hotel on Anjouan was much better than the one on Moheli and we scored with two life birds in the grounds, Anjouan Sunbird and this Anjouan Brush Warbler.

IMG_0995 duff minibus

I once was the Health and Safety Officer at work. Imagine writing a risk assessment for this minibus. A frame bolted to the floor, seats made of plywood with movable cushions on top plus a door that wouldn’t shut properly. Well it got us to our destination.

IMG_0959 Anjouan

In the late afternoon we hiked uphill for about 90 minutes to a remnant patch of forest. After dark we tried for the elusive Anjouan Scops Owl, considered to be the hardest of all the Comoros scops owl to see. Two hours of scrambling, often on all fours on steep slippery slopes only resulted in flight views, although we heard the bird calling at close range. The walk back in the dark was tricky especially for one of our party who was still recovering from a broken leg earlier in the year. Dani and one of the drivers stayed behind to help him, we got back at 2345, they arrived two hours later!

IMG_0987 kids & scope

There wasn’t much more to do on Anjouan so the next day was quite restful with just a bit of exploration in the afternoon. If you run out of birds to see you can always entertain the local kids by letting them look though the scope.

IMG_1013 Approaching Mayotte

The day after we flew to Mayotte, a department of France. Even from the air we could see that this was a much richer island than the others in the Comoros. The islands voted for independence from France in the early 90s, all but Mayotte went there own way – I wonder if they rue that decision to this day.

IMG_1018 Mayotte market

The quayside market. There are still some tin shacks on Mayotte but it look like they are used for storage rather than habitation. Good roads, supermarkets, good housing and plenty of tourists were all things lacking on Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan.

IMG_1715 Comoros Olive Pigeon

Some birds showed better on Mayotte than elsewhere such as this Comoros Olive Pigeon …

IMG_1710 Mayotte Drongo

… but it also has four of its own endemics, Mayotte Drongo ..

IMG_1746 Mayotte White-eye

… Mayotte Sunbird (which didn’t come close enough for photos) and this Mayotte White-eye …

IMG_1735 Mayotee Scops Owl

… but once again it was the endemic Mayotte Scops Owl that won first prize.

IMG_1745 Seychelle's Fruit Bat

Seychelles Fruit Bats showed very well….

IMG_1917 Brown Lemur

… as did a group of introduced Brown Lemurs around our lodge which turn up everyday for free handouts

IMG_1909 coral

With all the endemic birds under our belt we spent the next day on a boat trip around the lagoon and further out to sea.

IMG_1823 Brown Noddies

It was a normal tourist trip and we didn’t have the boat to ourselves so it took a bit of effort to persuade the boatman to detour so we could watch a feeding flock of Brown Noddies.

IMG_1775 Spinner dolphins

Pantropical Spinner Dolphins showed well underwater but only briefly performed their famous spinning acrobatics.

IMG_1901 Humpback Whale

The highlight of the day was a mother and calf Humpback Whale. The mother spent long periods suspended vertically in the water with her tail held just above the surface. I don’t know if this is just a resting posture or one that allows the calf to suckle but the boatman had only witnessed it a few times in the many years he had been doing these whale watching trips.

IMG_1965 Crab Plover

On our final morning we had a look around the shore for waders and found a small group of Crab Plovers, an enigmatic crab-eating wader that occurs around the shores of the western Indian Ocean. A suitable end to a very varied, sometimes tiring, sometimes trying, yet rewarding four week tour.

Madagascar part 4: 2nd – 6th October 2014 – Lake Kinkony and Betsiboka Bay   Leave a comment


IMG_0732 ferry

For the last part of our Madagascar trip we drove to a remote area to the south of Majunga. First we had to cross the wide Betsiboka Bay by ferry. We wondered where all the beer in the yellow crates and the huge sound system were going, it appears they were heading to the village next to where we would camp!

IMG_1055 sailboats

There were many traditional dhows crossing the bay ….

IMG_1058 ragged sail

.. although some looked like their sails needed a bit of attention.

IMG_1077 Mongoose Lemur

We made a detour to a nearby lighthouse where there was a highly visible population of Mongoose Lemurs …

IMG_1082 Crowned Sifaka

.. and a family group of Crowned Sifakas.

IMG_0770 ox cart

With no tarmacked roads, transportation in this remote region was mainly by ox-cart.

IMG_0748 river crossing

Our progress was blocked by a wide river, the cattle could swim across …

IMG_0741 crossing river

… but the ox-carts (and our Landcruisers) had to cross by pontoon …

IMG_0775 crossing river

.. pulled by a very muscular villager.

IMG_0756 Kincloy camp

Our well provisioned camp was beside the beautiful Lac Kinkony.  All seemed peaceful until night fell …

IMG_0752 Kincloy sunset

….. when very loud rap music started up in the nearby village and continued from 1800 until 0800 the next morning. It appears that a much revered local man who had lived into his 80s had just died and his body would lie in state for a week whilst the locals got drunk and partied all night in his honour. Bear in mind that there would be no refrigeration and daytime temperatures were in the mid 30s so it would be wise to approach the village from upwind.

IMG_1187 Lac Kincloy

The following morning, a bit bleary eyed due to lack of sleep, we set of in boats to investigate the bird life of this beautiful lake.

IMG_1137 lac kinckloy

Much of our time was spent searching the narrow channels between the reeds.

IMG_1195 Mad Jacana

We found the endemic Madagascar Jacana …

IMG_1179 Allen's Gallinule

… and Allen’s Gallinules (bizarrely one of these African crakes was found on Portland in Dorset a few years ago but only survived long enough for locals to twitch it) ……

IMG_1244 Sakalava Rail

… but our main target was the almost unknown Sakalava Rail, a bird that was only reliably observed five times in the 20th century but has recently been shown to be quite common at Lac Kinkony.

IMG_1202 Lac Kinkloy camp

Back for lunch and a siesta.

IMG_1203 Decken's Sifaka

Nearby woodland held the beautiful Decken’s Sifaka.

IMG_0759 Kincloy Sunset

We had another boat trip in the late afternoon then it was time to relax with a sundowner …..

IMG_1281 sunset

… before the music from the village started up all over again.

IMG_1292 Grey Mouse Lemur

Nocturnal forays near the camp proved fruitless due to the racket so we drove for several miles to find Madagascar Nightjar and this charming Grey Mouse Lemur.

IMG_0783 boarding ferry

The following day we made the long and bumpy drive back to Betsiboka Bay and boarded an even more decrepit ferry than the one we had come out on.

IMG_1356 Wt Rail

The following morning we took a boat trip from Majunga around the Bay, finding White-throated Rails in the mangroves …..

IMG_1367 Lesser Flamingo

… Lesser Flamingos ….

IMG_1370 Mad Sacred Ibis

… and the recently split Madagascar Sacred Ibis on the mud flats ….

IMG_1345 Bernier's Teal

… but our main target was the endangered Bernier’s Teal which we saw very well. We were due to fly from Majunga to the Comoros Islands but due to a Mad Air reshuffle we had to fly back to Antananarivo that afternoon for an overnight stay and fly to the Comoros the following day, something akin to flying from London to Paris to get to Glasgow. This was the problem that had necessitated the 16 hour drive described in Part 2 of this narrative.



Madagascar part 3: 1st October 2014 – Ampijoroa/Ankarafantsika   Leave a comment




After the previous days horrid drive we spent a very pleasant and rewarding morning around the Ankarafantsika reserve near Ampijoroa. This is the only location I visited on this tour which was shared with my 1992 trip. Then there was no accommodation available and we had to drive the three hours from Majunga to get here. In those days sites were much less well known and inspite of searching for a couple of days we failed to find Schlegel’s Asity and Van Dam’s Vanga, both of which we saw this time. In the afternoon we drove to the coastal city of Majunga.


IMG_0987 Ampijoroa

We spent the morning searching the wide tracks of the Ankarafantsika reserve.

IMG_0917 Mad Hoopoe

The hoopoe on Madagascar sounds more like a Turtle Dove than the familiar oop-poop-poo of a Eurasian Hoopoe and is now considered to be a separate species.

IMG_0899 Sicklebilled Vanga

Is the hoopoe-like bill of the Sickle-billed Vanga a case of convergent evolution?

IMG_0954 Red-capped Coua

The secretive Red-capped Coua kept to the shadows, but gave good views.

IMG_0960 Mad Magpie Robin

The Madagascar Magpie Robin is closely related to similar species in SE Asia, how they colonised across the wide expanses of the Indian Ocean is anyone guess.

IMG_0926 Mad paradise Fly

Paradise flycatchers occur in Asia and Africa so could have colonised from either direction. Females are rufous all over but males occur in two varieties , the commoner rufous phase with a white tail ……

IMG_0968 Mad Paradise Fly

…. and the beautiful white phase.

IMG_0985 Torotoka Scops Owl

This Torotoka Scops Owl, the dry country equivalent of Rainforest Scops Owl, was found at its daytime roost.

IMG_0973 Lemur toID

Also at its daytime roost was this nocturnal Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur.


IMG_0964 Van Dam's Vanga

I didn’t get a photo of my lifer Sclegel’s Asity which kept to the tree tops but managed this shot of Van Dam’s Vanga, shame about the vertical out-of-focus twig.

IMG_0907 Coquerel's Sifaka

The large and attractive Coquerel’s Sifaka was found near our accommodation.

IMG_0977 snake to ID

Madagascar seems to have relatively few poisonous snakes, a good job too as we saw quite a few.

IMG_0702 bugs

Madagascar is full of natural delights. Birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians all come in weird and wonderful forms as do do many insects.

IMG_1003 Mad Fish Eagle

At a nearby lake a pair of the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle was seen ……

IMG_1043 Mad Fish Eagle

Only about 100 pairs are in existence and virtually all birders who have seen it will have done so at this lake. I wonder how many generations of eagles have been at this lake since I saw them there in 1992

IMG_1035 Purple Heron

The margins of the lake were full of herons; Striated, Squacco and the widespread Purple ……

IMG_1024 Humblot's Heron

… but pride of place went to the endemic Humblot’ s Heron.

IMG_0715 rickshawss

We reached Majunga in the late afternoon. The hotel looked good from the outside but was prone to electricity and water shortages. The main mode of transport in Majunga seems to be the rickshaw.

IMG_0720 rickshaw

That’s a good job if you want to stay fit!

Madagascar part 2: 26th – 30th Sept – Amber Mountain and The Mad Pochard site   Leave a comment

We left Antananarivo very early on the 26th for our flight to Antseranana in the far north of Madagascar. The rest of the day was spent birding in the nearby Montagne D’Ambre national park. This is an area of dry deciduous forest which has a few good birds but rather more good mammals and reptiles.

IMG_0677 Amber rock Thrush

Our main target was the very localised Amber Mountain Rock Thrush. I am always glad to add new ‘splits’ to my list, so-called ‘armchair ticks’ but I’m afraid this is an ‘armchair lump’ as it has recently been declared to be the same species as the Forest Rock Thrush that I saw on my 1992 trip to Madagascar.

IMG_0602 Crowned Lemur

An unbelievably cute Crowned Lemur

IMG_0696 Ringtailed Mongoose

A highly entertaining Ring-tailed Mongoose searched the picnic site for discarded scraps.

IMG_0607 Chameleon & Dani

Our tour leader Dani Lopez Velasco holds an Elephant Chameleon. Madagascar is the chameleon capital of the world, We identified eight species on the tour ……

IMG_0588 Dwarf Chameleon

….. the most entertaining one was this tiny Dwarf Chameleon …..

IMG_0605 Dwarf Chameleon

… the smallest reptile in the world !

IMG_0738 Satanic Leaf-tailed gecko

A night walk produced a few nocturnal lemurs, several Chameleons, a few roosting birds and this ultra-bizarre Satanic Leaf-tailed Gecko.

IMG_0620 Giant tortoise

The hotel claimed to be in possession of the oldest living animal in the world, an Aldabran Tortoise that they said was about 235 years old. For certain it has been in the family’s possession since 1904 and was fully grown then.

IMG_0756 Dani & snake

On the 27th we left Antseranana for the 10 hour drive to Antsohihy. On route Dani demonstrated his snake wrestling skills with this Madagascar Giant Hognose Snake.

IMG_0888 Pochard lake area

The drive from Antsohihy to our next site here in the largely deforested, yet beautiful central plateau was plagued with problems. During the first four hours our convoy of three 4x4s covered the first 100 km of dirt road but then just as we turned off to climb up to the plateau one vehicle broke down, fortunately a replacement was hired in the nearby village.

IMG_0658 on route to Mad Pochard site

The next 40km took six hours at little more than walking pace, much of the time we were in four-wheel drive, sometimes having to get out to push or move rocks.

IMG_0766 Mad Blue Pigeon

There were some nice distractions on the way such as this Madagascar Blue Pigeon.

IMG_0664 rough road

Now you can see why we averaged less than 7km per hour!

IMG_0688 vehicle breakdown

In the afternoon the second of our vehicles broke down and the replacement went missing, we weren’t sure if the replacement was lost  but later heard that a wheel had fallen off!

IMG_0663 rough road

The guy on the motorbike was our saviour, unbeknown to us he drove up and down the track passing messages between the various cars and without him we might still be there!

IMG_0666 park HQ cooking

We arrived at the campsite after dark all squashed into one vehicle. Our luggage, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes (it was cold at night in the mountains) and food (a crate load of live chickens) were still on the broken down vehicles. Also we had to cross the river on stepping stones without the benefit of a torch. Fortunately some of the research staff cooked us some rice and plantains but we had to huddle around the fire for a few hours until vehicle number two made it with all the gear, the cook, park warden and chickens

IMG_0673 river at camp site

The following morning we were left to wonder how we had crossed this in the dark.

IMG_0686 Mad Pochard site

The reason for all this effort was to reach this remote volcanic crater lake. A few years ago researchers looking for new sites for the critically endangered Madagascar Fish Eagle found something much rarer, Madagascar Pochard, then thought to be extinct. The entire world population breeds on this tiny lake but it is so deep that young birds struggle to dive deep enough to find food and juvenile mortality is very high.

IMG_0794 Mad Pochard

If we assume the Asian Pink-headed Duck and Crested Shelduck, neither of which have been seen for over half a century, are actually extinct, then Madagascar Pochard is the rarest duck in the world.

IMG_0827 25% of world pop

With a total population of 28, 25% of the world’s population is in this photo. The two small dots in the background are Madagascar Grebes.

IMG_0851 Mad Harrier

An adjacent crater held a lake with marshy edges over which this male Madagascar Harrier hunted

IMG_0682 boardwalk

A ramshackle boardwalk had been constructed across the marsh, to our amazement we heard, and both Dani and I saw, Slender-billed Flufftail, sparrow-sized endemic crake that has only ever been found in six localities and until the previous week was unknown at this site.

IMG_0870 Red Owl

Later that day we walked a couple of miles to a roost of the very rare and seldom seen Madagascar Red Owl. Unfortunately intervening vegetation and low light didn’t allow for pin-sharp photos. Getting to this remote location had been tough but the rewards made it so, so worthwhile.

IMG_0655 rough road

Getting to the Mad Pochard site had been difficult and so was leaving. We didn’t have any breakdowns but the replacement minibus that was sent to meet us at  the village down below was very slow. In the end we all crowded into the Landcruiser and left the luggage on the minibus. Due to Mad Air mucking us up again (this time with our flight to the Comoros in a weeks time) we had to save a day by driving all the way to Ampijoroa rather than Antsohihy, a knackering 16 hour hot, uncomfortable and cramped drive. I’m glad we did though, as we saw some cracking birds the next day which we would have missed otherwise (see next post). We arrived about 2230, the luggage arrived two hours later!





23rd October – 7th November 2104: three musical concerts, more bird ringing and WeBS   Leave a comment

This post updates what I have been up to over the last couple of weeks since I returned from the Madagascar / Comoros.

IMG_0246 John Mayall Bluesbreakers

On the 23rd we went to see John Mayall’s Blues Breakers at Salisbury. This legendary blues player has played a pivotal role in the development of modern blues and rock music. Although he is now 80, he still plays harmonica, piano and guitar, although perhaps his keyboard skills aren’t what they used to be. The backing band, mainly from Chicago were excellent. I have enjoyed his music since I was at school. I last saw John Mayall in 1972 during an amazing week when we saw Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and John Mayall at Leeds University during a eight day period. I forgot my camera so this blurry shot was taken on my phone.


The picture is from the cover of the classic 1965 album: L-R John Mayall, Eric Clapton, John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) and Hughie Flint. The album might be nearly 40 years old but its still one I play regularly today. The number of musicians who came to prominence by playing with John Mayall reads like at who-who of modern blues and rock: Eric Clapton (Cream), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Jack Bruce (Cream), John McVie (Fleetwood Mac), Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac), Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones), Don “Sugarcane” Harris (played with Frank Zappa), Harvey Mandel (Canned Heat), Larry Taylor (Canned Heat), Aynsley Dunbar, Hughie Flint, Jon Hiseman (Colosseum), Dick Heckstall-Smith (Colosseum), Andy Fraser (Free) and Johnny Almond just to name a few from the period 1965 – 1973

IMG_1065 Anglo-italain evening

Now for something completely different. My friend Giovanni runs the Anglo-Italian Society. On the 28th they hosted a musical event where Patricia Bonelli (piano), Rachael Mathews (centre) and Elizabeth Senior (right) played and sang a history of Italian Opera. They performed many lovely songs and arias but i have to admit I had only heard of one piece and two composers before. Here Rachael and Elizabeth sing a piece by Rossini comprising entirely of the word ‘meow’.

IMG_1055 Anglo-italian evening

What is really remarkable is that Rachael is only 17 and has had no formal training. The Anglo-Italian Society meets in the rather ancient Chiropractic College in Bournemouth. It seems strange listening to such lovely music in such a old fashioned and cluttered lecture theatre.

IMG_1083 Gigspanner

On the 2nd we went to Bournemouth’s Folk Club to hear Gigspanner, the new folk trio led by Peter Knight who has been the fiddle player for Steeleye Span for over 45 years. I first saw him play in Leeds in 1969 when the entrance fee was a mere 2 shillings (10p). Gigspanner have left behind the traditional folk jigs and reels and play some beautiful, thoughtful and highly entertaining music.

IMG_1053 Bruce Pearson exhibition

One morning whilst at Durlston I went down to Durlston Castle to see ‘Life, Light and Landscape’ an wildlife art exhibition by Bruce Pearson and Anne Shingleton. Here Bruce Pearson chats to Tasie Russell and Mo Constantine. Bruce and Anne were brought to our ringing station by one of the wardens earlier that day but unfortunately we had no birds to show them at that moment.

IMG_1973 Trick or treat

Of course 31st October brough ‘trick and treat’ and the local kids hit the street.

IMG_1041 Arne Ringing demo

We are asked to do a number of public ringing demonstrations over the course of the year. This allows us to explain the purpose of our research and hopefully will convince the public to report any ringed bird that they might discover and show that that ringing can be carried out without harming the birds. Here Paul Morton is showing the public a Great Tit at the Arne Forage Festival on 25th October.

IMG_1045 Arne ringing demo

Know how to tell the age of a Blue Tit? Paul will explain.

IMG_1075 DCP dawn

We are still ringing at Durlston whenever the wind and rain allows it. Migration of grounded migrants has tailed off considerably but vis mig continue apace with large numbers of Woodpigeons, Goldfinches and Linnets overhead.

IMG_1048 Reed Bunting

Common enough at Lytchett Bay, Reed Buntings are a bit of rarity at Durlston, at least in the hand.

IMG_1077 ad Linnet

This adult Linnet is much cleaner in appearance with well marked wings and tail and broad tail tips compared to a first-winter bird.

IMG_0245 Redwing

The mild conditions that persisted until recently haven’t been conducive to big thrush movements but we did trap this Redwing on 30th October.

I have been assisting with the training of ringers for many years but I haven’t had any trainees registered in my own name. However in the last few weeks I have taken on two trainees who are currently learning the basics of how to hold, measure, weigh and age birds in the hand.

IMG_1087 Rik

Rik McCoy


Ginny Carvisiglia

IMG_1068 Firecrest

Rik was lucky on only his third outings to ring a Firecrest ….

IMG_1071 Jay

.. and this Jay, although great care had to given to make sure that the Jay didn’t sink its vicious bill into his fingers.

IMG_1073 Marsh Tit

Whilst Ginny ringed the increasingly rare Marsh Tit at Holton Lee, a bird a lot of experienced ringers seldom see in the hand, at least in Dorset.

IMG_1074 Marsh Tit

The glossy cap, lack of pale wing panel and less muscular neck all help separate Marsh Tit from Willow (which no longer occurs regularly in Dorset). However the best field characters undoubtedly are vocalisations.

IMG_1975 Holes Bay waders

On the 2nd I did the monthly WeBS (wetland birds survey) count in Holes Bay. Numbers of common species have really built up in recent weeks with over 600 Wigeon in the NE sector of the Bay alone.

IMG_1977 Holes Bay Mute Swans

Holes Bay is one of the few places in Poole Harbour where Mute Swans congregate. it is not the most pleasant part of the Harbour to go birding, bounded as it is on two sides by dual carriageways and on one other by a railway line, but it does hold a lot of birds.

IMG_1974 Coastguards

Attempts to make accurate counts were not helped by the Coastguards simulating a rescue of someone trapped in the mud!

Madagascar part 1: 20th – 25th September 2014: Antananaviro and the Masoala Peninsula   Leave a comment

Following on from my post of September 20th, I finally arrived in Antananarivo (usually shortened to Tana), the capital of Madagascar in the late afternoon of the 21st, about 16 hours late. Changes to Air Madagascar (Mad Air) schedule meant that this day would be largely wasted anyway, in effect the two sets of flight delays had cancelled each other out!

It had been along and troubled journey but I had arrived at last and the trip could begin in earnest. I had visited Madagascar before in 1992, doing the ‘standard circuit’ of the eastern rainforests plus the south and south-east but in many ways I did that trip too early. Over the following decades not only were new sites for many species located but wholly new species for science were discovered. Rather than go back and do that tour all over again I chose to visit the more remote areas of northern Madagascar on a tour that also included the Comoros islands. The part I was most interested in, the Masoala peninsular, was sold as an optional pre-tour extension, this meant that our time here was reduced due to the delays and also meant that if all went well the best birds of the entire trip would be in the first few day and then it would all be downhill from then on!

IMG_0054 flying into Antananarivo

Madagascar has suffered from catastrophic deforestation. Flying into Antananarivo you see nothing but a devastated landscape, no forest cover, no agriculture, just bare ground and erosion gullies.

IMG_0073 Antananarivo

The view from our hotel in Tana

IMG_0575 nr Tana

You cross this area of paddies on the way from the hotel to the airport.

IMG_0062 Antananarivo

Tana is unusual as it seems to be bisected by a series of paddy fields. Maybe this area is too low lying for construction.

IMG_0122 Tsarasaotra Lake

Our first birding excursion was to Lac Alarobia within the confines of the city. Many good species can be found here including the declining Malagasy Pond Heron. Birds in the photo are mainly Red-billed Teal with the odd Black-crowned Night Heron and Great Egret.

IMG_0130 WF Whistling Duck

A line of White-faced Whistling Ducks with one Red-billed Teal swimming.

IMG_0116 KB Duck

A pair of Knob-billed Geese.

IMG_0142 Mad Swamp Warbler

The endemic ‘acro’, Madagascar Swamp Warbler was common along the edges of the marsh.

IMG_0161 Mad KF

The endemic Madagascar Kingfisher is clearly derived from the Malachite Kingfisher of Africa.

IMG_0274 Masoala peninsula

Later that day we flew to Maroantsetra in the north and the following morning took a speedboat to our lodge on the Masoala peninsular. In contrast to most of Madagascar, the peninsula remains heavily forested.

IMG_0111 Masoala

The lodge on the Masoala, rather basic but a lovely place to stay.

IMG_0329 Helmet Vanga

This was always going to be my ‘bird of the trip’, one of my most wanted birds in the world. Vangas are a family of birds that are endemic to Madagascar region and the incredible and rare Helmet Vanga is restricted to what little remains of these these north-eastern forests. Our first encounter was with a dull, yet still amazing juvenile but an hour or so later this stunning adult male appeared.

IMG_0318 SL Ground Roller

Ground Rollers are another family endemic to Madagascar. On my last trip I only saw three of the five species so I was delighted to see the other two on the Masoala. This Short-legged Ground Roller was seen minutes after the Helmet Vanga and minutes before I saw my third and final Mesite, yet another of Madagascar’s endemic families.

IMG_0462 Blue Coua

Couas are cuckoo-like birds endemic to Madagascar. Arguably the best looking is this stunning Blue Coua, although Red-breasted Coua, which I failed to photograph well, was a much appreciated life bird.

IMG_0346 Red Ruffed Lemur

As well as a wonderful set of endemic birds spread over six families, Madagascar has a host of endemic mammals. Most famous of these are the 90 or species of lemur such as this impressive Red-ruffed Lemur that was found near our chalets.

IMG_0389 Rainforest Scops Owl

Nighttime saw us face to face with this Rainforest Scops Owl ….

IMG_0562 Brown Mouse Lemur

… and the diminutive Brown Mouse Lemur, as small as a hamster.

IMG_0106 Masoala

The beautiful shore was only a few hundred meters from our rustic chalets.

IMG_0491 Mad Prats

Madagascar Pratincoles (or Mad Prats as I called then) stood sentry on the rocks.

IMG_0495 LT Gecko

It’s not all about birds and mammals. Madagascar has a wealth of amazing reptile and amphibians. Isolated from the rest of the world for over 130 millions years, evolution has run riot and produced some very bizarre creatures indeed – such as this Leaf-tailed Gecko ….

IMG_0233 Panther chamaeleon

….. or Panther’s Chameleon …..

IMG_0241 Tomato Frog

… but strange as the above might be, the prize for weirdness has to go to the Tomato Frog!

IMG_0545 Masoala

A final beautiful sunset from the beach on the Masoala …..

IMG_0568 return from Masoala

… before we boarded the speedboats and returned to Maroantsetra and then flew back to Tana.