Archive for May 2016

The Atlantic Odyssey: a summary – 23rd March – 6th May 2016   Leave a comment

Margaret and I have recently returned from a very long trip known as the Atlantic Odyssey, a repositioning cruise that is available once a year as a tourist ship ends its program in the Antarctic at the onset of the southern winter and moves to the Arctic for the northern summer. On top of that we went straight from Cabo Verde, the end point of the cruise, to Mallorca to join our friends at Birdquest in Mallorca to celebrate their 35th year of operation. It total we were away 45 days.

I hope to upload many photos from this remarkable and highly photogenic journey from each of the locations we visited, but for now here is a brief overview of the entire trip.

111 Atlantic Odyssey map

Here is a map of our route. There is one important difference to what shown above. In 2016 for the first time the operators, Oceanwide Expeditions, didn’t take the Plancius to the Antarctic Peninsula before heading to South Georgia, instead cruised directly from Ushuaia to South Georgia. You could take a Ushuaia – Antarctica – Ushuaia trip immediately prior to the Atlantic Odyssey, but this would have lengthened our entire tip to 55 days which we though was too much. I have already been to Antarctica but we both intend to to visit some time in the future.

IMG_1101 view from hotel on arrival

After a couple of days of travel we arrived at Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of Argentina, just as darkness was falling. The view from our hotel was breathtaking.

IMG_4510 Beagle Channel views

Over the next day and a half we explored the Tierra del Fuego National Park …,

IMG_4250 Andean Condor

…. seeing wonderful birds like Magellanic Woodpecker and this Andean Condor.

IMG_4587 Humpback Whale

We took a boat trip on the Beagle Channel and had close up views of Humpback Whales as well as several species of seals and seabirds.

IMG_4682 Plancius

In the afternoon we boarded the Plancius, the ship that was to be our home for the next 34 days.

IMG_4705 fogbow

The passage from Ushuaia to South Georgia was disappointing, we were following the line of the Antarctic Convergence and at this time of year this means fog. This meant few seabirds were visible, even though we did see some lovely fogbows.

7F1A6898 SG glacier

South Georgia was an absolute delight, one of the most wildlife rich and photogenic sites on the entire planet. Described as being like the Alps rising straight from the sea, huge glaciers sweep down from 3000m peaks to the coast.

IMG_4793 Wandering Albert fem + chick

We were able to see Wandering Albatrosses on the nest ….

7F1A7187 King Penguins

…. enormous colonies of King Penguins ….

IMG_5203 KPs

…. many which waddled by completely indifferent to us.

IMG_5227 Fur Seal

There can be few cuter things in this world than a Fur Seal pup.

IMG_5118 Grytviken

We also paid a visit to the old whaling station at Grytviken.

7F1A7748 rough seas

As we left South Georgia we headed north towards Tristan da Cunha we encountered rough seas and several icebergs.

7F1A7910 Wandering Albert

This was the best section of the entire trip for seabirds. Species varied from the enormous Wandering Albatross with its 3.5m wingspan ….

7F1A7931 Wilson's SP

…. to the tiny Wilsons’ Storm Petrel.

7F1A9629 Spectacled Petrel best

As we approached the island of Gough the endangered and much desired Spectacled Petrel put in its first appearance.

IMG_5474 approaching Gough

No landings are allowed on Gough but it is normally possible to cruise inshore in the zodiacs and see the endemic species. On arrival we found the stiff easterly wind had built up a big swell, so we couldn’t approach any closer.

IMG_5622 remotest island

Good weather the following day allowed us to land on the main island of Tristan – the most remote inhabited island in the world.

7F1A9801 Inaccesssible Island

We were not so lucky with the nearby (and appropriately named) Inaccessible Island. Although vertical cliffs prevent access to the interior, the tussocks at the base of the cliff hold a population of the smallest flightless bird in the world – the Inaccessible Island Rail. A swell breaking on the steeply shelving beach prevented any hope of landing and dashed our hopes of seeing this enigmatic bird.

IMG_6032

We were luckier with the neighbouring island of Nightingale, although the landing was far from easy. The endemic finch and thrush were abundant and we hiked up to the relict forest at the top to see the critically endangered Wilkin’s Finch.

IMG_5829 Great Shearwater on launch post

On route we saw many Yellow-nosed Albatross chicks and recently fledged Great Shearwaters (above) which launched themselves into the air from these take-off posts and sometime pattered across the top of our heads to give themselves an extra push.

7F1A0133 Flying Fish

The sea crossing between Tristan and St Helena was the quietest of the trip with only one or two individual birds seen on some days. There were plenty of flying fish about to challenge your photographic skills.

IMG_6154 Jamestown

The capital of St Helena, Jamestown is nestled in this steep-sided valley.

IMG_4093 Jacob's Ladder

There is a winding road connecting Jamestown to the rest of the island of course, but if you want a short cut you can always try the 700 step Jacob’s Ladder.

IMG_3990 White Tern

St Helena’s tourist trade is mainly based on sites associated with its famous former resident , Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course the birders were more taken with nesting seabirds, like this White (or Fairy) Tern photographed at the site of Napoleon’s former tomb.

IMG_4216 Wirebird

Although St Helena had a number of endemic birds before the arrival of man, only one remains, St Helena Plover or Wirebird. We had great views of up to 40 at two locations in the mountains.

7F1A1247 PTS Dolphins

We encountered a few more seabirds as we headed towards Ascension Island but we also saw a good number of cetaceans, such as these Pan-tropical Spotted Dolphins.

IMG_4405 view from Plancius

Ascension is basically just a huge military base and is covered with listening and communication devices. It is technically uninhabited as none of the 800 or so residents has right of abode or can buy property, all are on fixed term contracts.

7F1A1180 Ascension cliffs

Ascension, a relatively new volcanic island, has stunning coastal scenery comprised of layer after layer of lava and ash.

7F1A0921 Sooty Tern colony

The two biggest wildlife spectacles are the Sooty Tern colony on the mainland ….

IMG_4438 Frigates

…. and the huge offshore Ascension Frigatebird colony.

IMG_4443 Boatswain Bird Island

We arrived at the offshore stack of Boatswain Bird Island at first light and saw just about all of the world’s population of Ascension Island Frigatebird leave their roost.

7F1A1086 Ascension Frigatebird imm

As the light improved we had fantastic views of this rare and range restricted seabird right over our heads.

7F1A1417 Leach's SP

As we headed north we crossed the Equator and it became very hot on deck. The following day we passed through the doldrums and the sea was still and flat with an oil-like texture. You could see the reflections of the Leach’s Storm-petrels in the glass like surface ….

7F1A1389 Clymene Dolphin

…. and when a group of Clymene Dolphins came in to bow ride, you could see every detail underwater.

IMG_4286 Praia church

On the 28th of April, 34 days after we left Ushuaia, we docked at Praia on the island of Santiago, Cabo Verde. Margaret opted for a cultural tour of the city visiting churches, museums and sites of historical importance ….

IMG_4518 Santiago rocks

…. whilst I joined the other birders for a trip into the interior.

IMG_4523 GH Kingfisher

We saw three of Cabo Verde’s endemic species, a number of vagrants to the island (from the New World and the Old) and other residents like this beautiful Grey-headed Kingfisher.

From hotel

Whilst most of the other passengers headed home we continued on (via Lisbon and Barcelona) to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. We spent much of the first day relaxing after our overnight flight, but in the evening we met up with 19 other Birdquest clients and 9 members of staff who had come to Mallorca to celebrate Birdquest’s 35th year of operation. Rain affected the first part of the trip but it brought down many migrants ….

IMG_4640 Tyrrenian Spotted Fly

…. as well as newly arrived ‘Tyrrhenian’ Flycatchers, the pale and lightly streaked local race of Spotted Flycatcher, which recent research had indicated is worth specific status.

7F1A2168 Tawny Pipit

Agricultural areas held lovely birds like this Tawny Pipit.

Formentor

The mountainous spine of the island ends in the picturesque Formentor Peninsula, a location for Crag Martins, Eleanora’s Falcons and other great birds.

7F1A2106 Cinereous Vulture

Higher up in the mountains we saw Griffon and Cinereous Vultures (above) ….

Albufera at dawn

…. whilst the marshes of S’Albufera and S’Albufeteta gave us views of many specialties ….

IMG_4774 Red-nobbed Coot

…. such as this Red-knobbed Coot, a mainly African species that in Europe is restricted to Spain.

Cabrera (3)

The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the island of Cabrera off the south coast of Mallorca. In this untouched area of maquis and woodland we found many migrants and well as stunning views of the endemic Balearic Warbler ….

7F1A1738 Moltoni's Warbler

…. and the range restricted Moltoni’s Warbler (which contrary to what I posted last year) is actually the last European breeding bird that is a life bird for me.

7F1A2048 Scopoli's Shearwater

On the way to and from Cabrera I had my best ever views of Balearic and Scopoli’s Shearwater (above). All-in-all our four days birding on the reunion gave me many more species than I saw during the whole of my last two-week visit to the island.

 

As I said at the start this is just an overview of the trip. Probably starting some time in the summer I will post a lot more pictures, treating each site in more detail.

Great birds in May: 7th – 14th May 2016   Leave a comment

With no updates for two months regular readers of this blog could be forgiven for thinking I had given up with it. In fact Margaret and I have recently returned from a very long trip known as the Atlantic Odyssey, a repositioning cruise that is available once a year as a tourist ship ends its program in the Antarctic at the onset of the southern winter and moves to the Arctic for the northern summer. On top of that we went straight from Cabo Verde, the end point of the cruise, to Mallorca to join our friends at Birdquest in Mallorca to celebrate their 35th year of operation. It total we were away 45 days.

We arrived home on 6th May with many thousands of photos to sort and edit. Whilst I am making good progress, it will be some time before I can upload more than a few. On our return we found there was a whole suite of quality birds locally, which has greatly delayed progress on sorting photos and other matters. So my first post since returning will not be about the Atlantic Odyssey or Mallorca, but  on the good birds I have seen in the last week.

On Saturday 7th I was keen to get ringing again, especially as I had not seen my ringing colleagues for several months. Ringing at Durlston this spring has been pretty slow, but thanks to local ringer Mick Cook the site has been manned on eleven occasions. We have only ringed 72 birds over the spring but retraps have included a number of migrant birds that were ringed in previous years which have returned to breed, this is very useful data. Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat and Common Whitethroat (above) have made up the bulk of migrant birds.

Red-footed falcon1 Chris Minvalla

After ringing my trainee Daniel and myself stopped off at Mordon Bog, he heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming and a Cuckoo but the prize was this beautiful female Red-footed Falcon that hawked insects over the bog. Unfortunately the views were quite distant, but my other trainee ringer Chris Minvalla provided me with this superb flight shot he took a few days earlier. There has been speculation that this is the same individual that was seen at Wareham in 2015, but we will never know either way.

IMG_4760 Pom Skua

On Sunday 8th I went to Portland in the hope of seeing some of the spring migrants, but many have already passed through to their breeding grounds and I won’t be seeing them until the autumn. I was also keen to do some seawatching and in particular look for Pomarine Skuas, as the first ten days or so of May is the best time of the year to see them. In the event I saw three, along with two Arctic Skuas and a few Manx Shearwaters. Of course birds seen from the Bill are far too distant for photography, so I have included a shot I took from a pelagic off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in May 2014. Note the lovely spoon-shaped tail feathers of an adult bird in spring, in the local vernacular ‘with a full set of cutlery’.

A full low tide at Lytchett Bay results in many waders feeding out of view in the creeks.

During the last few days the flooded fields and mudflats of Lytchett Bay have been attracting good numbers of migrant waders. A visit on Monday 9th gave me views of two Ruff and other birds but not the Whimbrels that have been regular at this site recently.

IMG_4966 Caspian Stonechat

Late on Tuesday news broke of a ‘Caspian’ Stonechat at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire so my friend Roger and I decided to pay a visit on Wednesday morning.

IMG_4941 Caspian Stonechat

The taxonomy of the Stonechats has been complex and controversial. DNA studies confirm what has long been suspected that at least three species (probably four) occur; African, Siberian and European. The trouble is that the DNA studies didn’t include the very distinctive ‘Caspian’ races of Siberian Stonechat variagatus and hemprichii.

IMG_4949 Caspian Stonechat

Siberian Stonechat is an annual vagrant to the UK with about 10 records annually but this is only the 6th record of ‘Caspian’ Stonechat. Whether this is considered a subspecies or a species, this is a bird well worth travelling for.

IMG_4956 Caspian Stonechat

One of the features of Siberian Stonechat is the black underwing coverts and the paler rump, in addition the ‘Caspian’ races also show extensive white in the tail …

IMG_4946 Caspian Stonechat

… the white rump, uppertail coverts and the base to the tail can be seen in this and later photos.

IMG_4945 Caspian Stonechat

There had been heavy rain that morning but Roger and I turned up just as it cleared up and the bird perched up to preen and dry out.

IMG_4971 Caspian Stonechat

Moult pattern clearly shows this is a second summer bird (one year old). The primaries and most of the flight feathers have been retained, whilst the tertials and outer secondaries and the remaining coverts have been moulted.

IMG_4979 BW Stilt

Whilst still at Titchfield Haven we heard that a Glossy Ibis had been seen at Lytchett Bay, less than a mile from my house, a first record for the site. We decided to return once we had the fill of the stonechat but later heard that it had flown off. Late that evening I had the news that a Black-winged Stilt had been found there, second record for the site but my first. I arrived with very little light left and a mist descending. Through my scope I could see a faint black and white blob but little else. Hardly a satisfying patch tick.

IMG_4976 BW Stilt

The following morning (12th) I had already arranged to visit Durlston with Daniel, Chris and Mick but only a few birds were around. Hearing that the stilt was still at Lytchett we packed in early and returned to Poole. To our delight we found that the stilt was showing well.

IMG_4975 BW Stilt

Himantopus stilts are another group with complex taxonomy, the six forms have been considered to fall into one, two or five (curiously never six) species, but the differences between the five ‘pied’ forms is rather slight, so perhaps two species is the best approach. Whatever the taxonomy, stilts are common in the tropics, subtropics and milder temperate reasons worldwide. The occurrence of another at Lytchett was not wholly unexpected, but was very welcome indeed.

IMG_4993 Glossy Ibis

Whilst admiring the Black-winged Stilt we learned that yesterday’s Glossy Ibis had returned, but was now in hiding. After a while all the Shelduck took to the air and the Glossy Ibis with them. Another Lytchett tick and a Poole Harbour one too. 

7F1A2267 GS Cuckoo

Friday’s schedule was greatly disrupted by the discovery of a Great Spotted Cuckoo on Portland. Initially the views weren’t great, as it was buried deep in a bush but later it perched up giving better views.

7F1A2278 GS Cuckoo

It returned on a number of occasions to this bush bordering a footpath (where it was sometimes spooked by passers-by) as there was a good supply of Brown-tail caterpillars.

7F1A2282 GS Cuckoo

Great Spotted Cuckoos are scarce summer visitors to Iberia, southern France, Turkey and parts of the Levant. There is also a breeding population in tropical Africa. Nowhere near as well known as Common Cuckoo, this species parasitises corvids, especially Magpies. On average one is found in the UK annually. This is the third record for Dorset but the first to be seen by more than one observer. This is the third I have seen in the UK (Humberside in 82, Hampshire in 00) and only the 22nd worldwide.

Great Spotted Cuckoo1 Chris Minvalla

Although it was sunny in Poole when I left there was rain, often heavy, at Portland not making for ideal conditions for photography. In poor light and rain I failed to get any flight shots, but again it was Chris Minvalla to the rescue, who turned up just as I was leaving and offered to share this wonderful photo with me. Note the rusty-brown tones of the primaries, these are unmoulted first year feathers and indicate that the bird is in its second summer.

IMG_4383 Daniel, Ginny and Chris

It was back to reality on Saturday, I was joined at Durlston ringing station by Mick Cook and my three trainee ringers, L-R Daniel, Ginny and Chris. I think this is the first time I have ringed with all three of them at the same time. However the results didn’t justify the effort, just two birds were ringed, a Whitethroat and a Willow Warbler. As far as the majority of migrants are concerned spring migration is over and we won’t man the site again until the start of autumn migration in mid-July.

HB Mustafa Sozen Turkey

That said, the morning wasn’t wasted as we had distant and rather brief views of a Honey Buzzard to the north of the ringing station. Of course I didn’t get a photo, so here is one from Internet Bird Collection taken by Mustafa Sozen in Turkey. Our success was short-lived as whilst we were taking down the nets we completely missed a Black Kite that was seen flying over the car park.