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Oman from the air – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This short post is a postscript to my account of the Andaman Islands and South India account.

I try whenever its possible to get a window seat on a flight with the hopes of admiring the landscapes we are flying over. Even if I’m lucky to get a window seat the view is often blocked by the wing or the engines, we’ve over the ocean, we are too high to see many features, its cloudy, the sun is in my eyes or the ground below is featureless or hazy.

However flying back from Cochin in South India to Muscat in Oman with Oman Air I had some excellent views of this spectacular country from above, the air was clear and dry, the view largely unimpeded. We crossed the coast somewhere near the easternmost point of the country, flew over the open desert and the rugged Al Hajar mountains before descending to the capitol Muscat.

The onward flight to Heathrow was nowhere near as impressive.

I haven’t bothered to annotate the photos as they are self explanatory.

I’ve been to Oman twice, once in 2007 on a comprehensive birding tour of the country and again in 2014 on a much shorter trip when the main target was the newly discovered Omani Owl in the Al Hajar mountains. A full account of the latter can be found on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South India part 2: Munnar, Periyar NP and Thatterkad. 26th – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This is the third post about my trip to the Andaman Islands and South India and the second on our time in South India. The areas covered are Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad reserve.

As I made clear in the last post I had considerable problems with my bridge camera during the tour and by this late stage it had given up the ghost. Thankfully tour participant Alec Gillespie offered to share his photos, for which I am most grateful. All (or nearly all) bird photos are his and duly credited as such, scenery etc are mine taken on my pocket camera. As I write this I have just received the trip report and some more photos from tour leader Dave Farrow. One or two of his are included as well.

 

Right on dusk as we were nearly back to the vehicle our two local guides asked Alec to take a photo of them with his long lens. He had to be this far away to even get their faces in the frame. Notice Alec, like all of us was wearing leech socks, essential in the damp leech-ridden lowland forests.

 

From Munnar we visited the mountain massif of Rajamalai in Eravikulan NP, first crossing vast swathes of tea plantations to get there.

 

 

The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu experienced very heavy monsoon rain and extensive flooding in September. This bridge was washed away meaning we had to cross on this plank and then take a jeep ride to the entrance of the park. From there we were taken to the start of the walk by bus.

 

One of the top birds of the area was this little White-bellied Blue Robin which we managed to see whilst we were waiting for the bus to the mountain. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and at the other end of the bus route we got stunning views of this Kerala Laughingthrush. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and several Malabar Whistling Thrushes. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We walked up the road as far as was permissible, getting great views over the surrounding countryside and towards the highest peak in the Western Ghats.

 

Normally hard to find and only viewed at a distance, a pair of Nilgiri Pipits showed very well by the road. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The same can’t be said of the Nilgiri Thar, a species of goat endemic to the Western Ghats. Usually seen reasonably close, our only views were high on the ridge above. As no-one got a useable photo I’ve included one from Wiki Commons taken by AJT Johnsingh

 

After an excellent morning we had a dreadful afternoon, one of the clients slipped on the path at the hotel and had to go to hospital with a broken nose. Eventually the rest of us went birding but saw little. We travelled through some road works to get to a better area of forest but the mist descended and we lost all visibility. On our return the road was blocked as they were blasting rock. We waited two hours, until well after dark, before we were allowed through.

 

Mist streamed through the trees as we pulled over in an area of forest the following morning.

 

… we saw more White-bellied Blue Robins, more Kerala Laughingthrushes and this Brown-breasted Flycatcher. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Fortunately we passed through the extensive road works without any hold ups this time.

 

There must be elections in the offing as the communist party supporters were holding a rally.

 

We continued on to Periyar. This point in the travelogue gives me an opportunity to include a few of the more widespread species that were seen at some point or other during our South India tour, starting with Brahimny Starling. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Orange MInivet, a fairly recent split from Scarlet Minivet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Indian Nuthatch, which I think we only saw further north. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Loton’s Sunbird  (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Yellow-browed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We had an afternoon, a whole day and a morning in the lovely forests of Periyar NP.

 

To access some of the best forest we had to cross a lake on a raft. Near the embarkation point we had good views of Southern Hill Myna … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Malabar Starling in a flowering tree. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We watched in some trepidation as the transport across the lake was hauled into view.

 

Crossing on the bamboo raft was tricky to say the least but we managed with nothing worse than damp feet.

 

The trails weren’t all that bad but a few stream crossings were a bit more tricky.

 

This was by far the worst place on the trip for leeches and even though we were wearing leech socks we were constantly flicking them off our boots. I only suffered a few leech bites and even then I removed them before they had injected much anticoagulant (which makes the bite itch like crazy).

 

There were some pretty hefty scorpions in the forest …

 

There were some enormous spiders too. Note the small brown blob on this female’s lower abdomen. That’s the male spider mating with it.

 

… and we kept an eye open for snakes, although this Shield-tailed Snake is non venomous.

 

A pretty yellow frog was added to the list of non-avian goodies we saw that day

 

… as was this butterfly known as the Tamil Yeoman. (Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest).

 

Although we never saw one, it was clear that Tigers prowled these forests.

 

As well as resident birds these forests are havens in winter for migrants from the north. Further north on this trip most wintering Phylloscopus warblers were Greenish Warblers but here in the south the closely related Green Warbler (above) which breeds in the Caucasus, predominated. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We also saw Large-billed Leaf Warbler, a shorter distance migrant, breeding in the Himalayas and parts of China. Unfortunately we never connected with Tytler’s Leaf Warbler a rare winter visitor from northern Afghanistan, N Pakistan and NW India which would have been a life bird for me. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We saw many other birds in these forests including one of the most attractive raptors in the world – Black Baza … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… the pretty Flame-throated Bulbul … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Malabar Trogon … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Rufous Babbler, which was a life bird for me … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… a sleepy Indian Scops Owl … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and a rather more alert Jungle Owlet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We were nearly back at our bus one evening when we saw shapes moving in the grass by the village. They proved to be Pin-tailed Snipe, a winter visitor from Siberia. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But the overwhelming surprise during our time at Periyar was seeing another pack of Dhole. To go from ‘never seen before on the South India tour’ to seeing two packs on one trip was remarkable to say the least. The pack of seven had brought down a Sambar by the water’s edge and took turns coming to the carcass and taking away mouthfuls. Unlike the previous pack near Jungle Hut (see previous post) they were relaxed in our presence and we had what is often described as ‘walk-away views’. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Not quite as unexpected, but still amazing to see was this small herd of Gaur or Indian Bison in the forest. Our local guides said that they were hard to see at present because they frequented the water’s edge but water levels were currently very high, forcing them back into the forest. We found them on our final morning at Periyar. This rather dull photo was taken on my pocket camera …

 

.. but Dave was able to get a closer shot. The herd comprised of six cows and a calf. It’s a shame we didn’t see the massive bulls but I’ve been yearning to see this species for years so it was still a magic encounter. Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

The other major find on that morning was this beautiful White-bellied Blue Flycatcher – not to be confused with the White-bellied Blue Robin! (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

The hotels on this tour were of a very high standard and the staff usually most courteous. At this hotel they all turned up to wave us off.

 

Our final birding location was Thattekad, an area of dense forest and rocky outcrops nearer to the coast.

 

We had two evenings and a full day at Thattenkad, among the many species we saw were this roosting group of Ashy-headed Woodswallows … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Crimson-backed Sunbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Black-rumped Flameback … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Golden-fronted Leafbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Malabar (or Blue-winged) Parrot (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… and on our last morning of the trip, Grey-headed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But it was the nightbirds that stole the show – this roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths, which despite their name are not endemic to Sri Lanka, posed beautifully. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The similarly non-endemic Sri Lanka Bay Owl took a long time to track with much climbing through dense vegetation in the dark before we finally got a decent view This species which habitually clings to the side of tree trunks is seldom seen by anyone. It was first seen on this tour last year and was even a life bird for Dave. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

After our final meal together we went out owling one final time and had these wonderful views of the huge Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, a species I’ve heard several times elsewhere in Asia but have never seen. A fitting end to a fine trip. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

 

Four of us had been to Sri Lanka before so we left early the next morning for the airport. The guy who had fallen over and his wife flew to Sri Lanka with the rest of the party but had decided that due to his injury they would cut the tour short and go home, so it was just Alec and his wife Christine who joined Dave for the Sri Lanka part of the tour. From the tour report I see they did very well. If I had have joined them I’d have got two life birds and far better views of a bird that I saw poorly on my 2004 trip to Sri Lanka. Oh well, I guess I’d have liked to have gone but money and time were pressing.

 

 

 

South India part 1: Ramanogara, Mudumalai and Ootcamund – 21st – 25th November 2018.   Leave a comment

In November last year I joined a tour going to the Andaman Islands, South India and Sri Lanka. As I had been to Sri Lanka in 2004 I declined to take the third section of the tour.

My last post covered our time in the Andaman Islands and this post and the next covers our time in South India, mainly in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I mentioned in my Andaman Islands post that my bridge camera was having trouble focusing. This issue continued in South India until about half way through when it failed completely. Fortunately another tour participant, Alec Gillespie who joined the trip for the South India and Sri Lanka segments, volunteered to share his photos. With excellent top of the range photo gear Alec was able to take a wonderful portfolio of bird photos. All of his shots are credited, the remaining, often ‘soft focus’ ones are mine.

 

Alec Gillespie with camera gear. Camera, lens, tripod and associated accessories weigh around 14kg! Rather more than I’m prepared to lug around tropical forests I’m afraid, but he does produce some superb photos.

 

We returned from the Andamans to Bangalore (or Bengaluru as its often called) for an overnight stay. Our first destination the following morning was the rocky outcrop of Ramnogara.

 

Our main target here was the South Indian endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul which we saw but didn’t get to photograph. However there was another interesting bird nesting up on this rock face …

 

 

… the now critically endangered Indian Vulture. All species of vulture in Asia have declined dramatically in recent years with losses of 99.99% reported. Once common species like White-backed and Indian Vulture (seen here) are now rarities due to the use of the drug Diclofenac or Volterol for veterinary purposes. Eating the carcass of a cow treated with this drug will cause liver failure in vultures and a single dead cow (of which there are many in India as religious beliefs prevent them from being used for meat so they wander freely in town and countryside) can poison hundreds of vultures. See this Indian Vulture at its nest was a real treat even if it was a bit distant. Here’s a photo I’ve added to the post later taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

Our next stop was at the lake at Ranganathitto. A waterbird sanctuary, we were able to travel by boat round the lake and get close up views of many of the birds.

 

Nearby signs made it clear how you should behave!

 

There were large numbers of Black-headed Ibis on the reserve.

 

Closely related to the Sacred Ibis of Africa and Madagascar and the White Ibis of Australia, these are familiar birds in wetlands across India.

 

The rarest of the world’s eight species of pelican, Spot-billed Pelican was here in good numbers.

 

White-breasted Waterhens (a species of rail) were seen along the water margins.

 

Asian Open-billed Stork is one of the rarer of the world’s 17 stork species. It’s mandibles have evolved so that only the tips close, leaving the sides ‘open’ so they can manipulate their water snail prey. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

 

The lake held lots of Muggers (or Marsh Crocodiles), We had good and close views of them in the water …

 

… and on land.

 

A real treat was seeing this Great Thick-knee, a species of stone-curlew. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Restricted to south and south-east Asia this is one of 10 species in the family Burhinidae. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

On route to our next destination we stopped to photograph this Red-naped Ibis. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Moving on we drove through one of the tiger reserves where you weren’t allowed to stop unless you had booked a guided jeep tour, however we broke this rule briefly when we saw an Asian Elephant beside the road. We got uncomfortably close to elephants a number of times on this tour as they are certainly not confined to reserves. Indeed one villager was killed by one as he walked back home during our stay in the area. We were warned a number of times not to walk in a certain direction (that is walking outside of the closed reserves of course) because an elephant had been seen/heard in the vicinity. In spite of the dangers the local people seem to accept that elephants and people must co-exist.

 

Our destination was Jungle Hut, a lodge near Mundumalai.

 

One of our main targets was the seldom seen Nilgiri Thrush and during our stay it remained ‘seldom seen’ however we had compensation in the form of this beautiful Indian Pitta. Most Asian pitta species are mega-elusive but this one is an exception, I saw it easily and well in Sri Lanka in 2014 and the same happened here as well. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The locals were here to greet us – one of our first sightings of Southern Plains Langurs.

 

Chital (aka Axis or Spotted Deer) were common in the area and a herd was usually present in the lodge grounds …

 

… as was the enormous (about 1m from nose to tail tip) and very noisy Indian Giant Squirrel.

 

We had low cloud for much of our time here …

 

… but we still got good views of great birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… Jacobin or Pied Cuckoo (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and Malabar Lark (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

One evening we went looking for nightjars and saw the little Jungle Nightjar.

 

The following day we set off in jeeps rather than our usual minibus and climbed high up the mountain mists in search of Painted Bush Quail.

 

 

We hadn’t got far when our local guide stopped the vehicles. At the side of the road a pack of Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes had killed a Chital. Although they were wary of our presence they refused to leave the kill. Eventually several of the dogs pulled the carcass further into the undergrowth. Sorry for posting such a blurred image but the camera was playing up and my hands were shaking with excitement.

 

This was without doubt the best sighting of the entire trip for me. I’ve always been interested in mammals since I was a child and vividly remember reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book long before Disney turned it into a silly cartoon. One of the species mentioned in the Jungle Book was the mysterious wild dog, the Dhole and I’ve longed to see one since. Birdquest have been running tours to South India for decades but this is the first time one, let alone a pack, has been seen! Postscript: I’ve been able to replace one of my blurred images by this much sharper one taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

We searches the fields and scrub areas further up the mountain finding …

 

… the impressive Black Eagle …

 

… Bay-backed Shrike …

 

… and eventually several groups of gorgeous Painted Bush Quails (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

In the afternoon we moved on even higher to the town of Ootacamund, universally known as Ooty. Our first destination was a market at the top of Doddabetta Peak, the highest point.

 

The idea of a sign advertising the ‘plastic free Nilgiris’ is a bit of joke when you can see plastic waste bins, chair, covering of stall and tarpaulin in this photo alone.

 

With a large amount of discarded food on offer many birds have become quite tame such as this East Asian version of our Great Tit, the Cinereous Tit.

 

A Crested Goshawk posed nicely for pictures (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Blackbird is a widespread species in the Palearctic/northern Oriental region but recently it has been split into four – Eurasian, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. This of course is the Indian species which differs slightly from our familiar Eurasian Blackbird in plumage and voice. They weren’t common, I only saw three on the entire trip and the best views were obtained here at the Peak. (photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

Nilgiri Woodpigeons (unlike their Andaman cousins which we dipped on) were common and easy to see here.

 

Two of the best species seen were the endemic Nilgiri Laughingthrush (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the gorgeous Grey Junglefowl. It is of course the Red and not Grey Junglefowl that is the ancestor of domestic chickens. At last I have seen all four species of ‘wild chickens’ (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The elusive Northern Red Muntjac was also seen. As we are in Southern India it may see strange to call it Northern Red Muntjac but Southern Red Muntjac occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia which of course is south of here. The muntjacs introduced to the UK are a third species – Reeve’s Muntjac.

 

The accommodation on the tour was consistently of a high standard but the hotel at Ooty had a foyer of outstanding elegance.

 

… but the wifi was crap though!

 

Whilst in Ooty we visited the Botanical Gardens which gave us views (but not photos – my camera gave up the ghost on Doddabetta Peak) of Nilgiri Flowerpecker …

 

… but we did get to see Square-tailed Black Bulbul well (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

However the gardens seemed a magnet for school outings so getting in (and getting out) was a bit of a hassle.

 

Throughout the Nilgiri hills Greenish Warblers were quite common. They are wintering here from their breeding grounds in western Siberia and easternmost Europe (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Whilst I have seen Greenish Warblers many times before, the beautiful Nilgiri Blue Robin (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Black-and-Orange Flycatcher were life birds.  (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We finally left Ooty heading towards Munnar. In September 2018 the area suffered from torrential downpours and widespread flooding. Our route was still impassable so we had to make a long detour via the coast and got little birding done that day. Time to admire the scenery and relax, which is probably more than the hotel guests in this room can do suspended in mid-air by a few insubstantial beams.

 

Stops on route included this waterfall.

 

…and a spot to do a little birding and watch the Bonnet Macaques …

 

… who were clearly finding plenty to eat along the roadside.

 

The next post will include photos from Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad.

 

The Andaman Islands – India: 15th -20th November 2018   Leave a comment

Once again I’ve been tardy in keeping this blog up to date, but here I report on a trip I made in November 2018 to South India and the Andaman Islands.

The trip could be taken as any one of three modules or combinations of such. The first part was to the Andaman Islands, the second to South India and the third to Sri Lanka. Having already visited Ski Lanka in 2004 and there only being one or two new birds for me, I declined to book on that section. Undoubtedly when I see the trip report and reflect on what I could have seen I’ll regret that decision, but it was quite a lot more time and of course money.

Unfortunately we had a fair bit of bad weather in the Andamans which curtailed our birding to some degree, but in the end we saw 19 out of the 20 endemic species (plus one more, an endemic subspecies of Scops Owl that deserves to be split).

Another downside was that my bridge camera started playing up as soon as I arrived, only focusing at one focal length (and that focal length depended on the distance to the subject). As a result I missed many good shots and only got mediocre results from the ones I did take. My pocket camera however allowed me to get some scenery pics. The bridge camera died completely a few days after I returned to the Indian mainland, but more about that in the next post.

 

The Andaman Islands together with the Nicobars form an island chain that almost connects the north tip of Sumatra with southern Myanmar (Burma). Both island groups belong to India and lie some 1400km east of the Indian mainland. Tourism isn’t allowed in the Nicobars (which is a shame as they have a number of endemic species) but up to 140,000 tourists visit the Andamans each year. The capital Port Blair is situated near the southern tip of the largest island South Andaman and we spent all of our time birding within a few hours drive of the capital. Map from Wikipedia.

 

After overnighting in Bangalore the group assembled for the late morning flight to Port Blair. There were six of us, plus the tour leader, two from Australia and the rest from the UK. This photo was taken during our descent into Port Blair.

 

Compared to other Indian cities Port Blair seemed to be a relatively quiet. Whilst spread out over a very large area, it seemed (at least from what we could see) to lack skyscrapers and modern buildings and predictably suffered from the usual Indian traffic chaos.

 

Port Blair is situated on the east side of a bay in the southern part of South Andaman. Our pleasant hotel, where we stayed for our four nights, was situated on the shores of the bay. The hotel is proud of the fact that view across the bay is portrayed on the 20 Rupee note …

 

… although vegetation now partially obscures the view seen on the note, so my photo above is directed somewhat to the left.

 

I was amused by this illustration of sea/shore birds in the hotel. Whilst I acknowledge that the poster states that all these species would never be seen together, why would illustrate the bird life of the Andamans with pictures of Whooper Swan, Black Guillemot and American Avocet, and other than the Osprey, Mallard and the Diver how many species could you actually identify from this picture?

 

We passed numerous attractive bays as we drove around South Andaman but saw little in the way of birdlife except a few egrets …

 

… and Common Sandpipers.

 

At least this bird allowed me to get a shot of its complex underwing pattern.

 

Other birds of open country included Blue-tailed Bee-eater …

 

… and Brown Shrike. Interestingly the birds that winter in the Andamans are of the race lucionensis which breeds in E China, Korea and S Japan but winters mainly in coastal China, Taiwan, Philippines and N Borneo. One would expect the nominate race, that winters in India, Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula, to occur instead.

 

Many of the birds were more typical of the Malay Peninsula and Greater Sundas than India, such as these Long-tailed Parakeets …

 

… whilst others like the large Alexandrine Parakeet occur in both faunal areas.

 

However most of the endemic species are forest birds so we spent most of our time walking roads and trails like this.

 

Only a few endemics were photographed. Here is the Andaman Drongo …

 

… the powerful Andaman Woodpecker …

 

… Andaman Bulbul …

 

… and one of my favourites, the elusive yet quite common Andaman Crake. My photos of this species are useless so I’ve taken this shot by Kayla Varma from Wiki Commons.

 

Another endemic species is the Andaman Serpent-eagle …

 

Interestingly the endemic race of the very similar but widespread Crested Serpent-eagle occurs in sympatry with the Andaman Serpent-eagle. A bit paler below with differences in underwing and tail pattern, clearly care is needed in separating these two species.

 

There were plenty of beautiful butterflies in the forest but as usual I don’t know their names.

 

Personally I don’t ‘give a fig’ about selfies!

 

In coastal area like this we would sometimes come across …

 

… Collared Kingfishers …

 

… whilst White-throated Kingfishers were commonly found around pools and streams in nearby woodland.

 

However in spite this information board advertising it’s presence, we never saw any ‘Stroke’-billed Kingfishers although we did come across the almost identical STORK-billed Kingfisher!

 

We spent one morning at a series of wetlands along the road that leads north.

 

Intermittent showers produced some spectacular rainbows.

 

Waterbirds seen included this Grey-headed Swamphen, part of the multiway split of Purple Swamphen.

 

We also saw several Cotton Pygmy Geese, here seen with a Common Moorhen. Bizarrely these tiny ducks were known as ‘Quacky Duck’ in the older Indian bird guides.

 

But one of my most wanted birds in the Andamans (and probably the reason I booked on the tour) was Andaman Teal. This was one of just five remaining wildfowl that I hadn’t seen. The remaining four are Baer’s Pochard (China), Freckled Duck (Australia), Laysan Teal (of the Hawaiian island of the same name and effectively ungettable) and Campbell Island Teal (which I tried to see on Campbell Island but was prevented from doing so by a thoughtless and over enthusiastic local). That means there are two more I might see and two more I’ll never see, but out of 165 extant species of waterfowl that’s not bad going. I was unable to get a photo of the distant birds so here is a lovely photo by Jainy Kuriakose see https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/profile/278406/

 

The Andaman Islands have a wonderful run of nightbirds, Andaman Nightjar, Andaman Hawk-owl, Walden’s Scops-owl (treated as a race of Oriental Scops but deserving a split) and the three species shown here. In all cases I was unable to get a photo with my failing camera. After an initial dip we had great views of Andaman Scops Owl on our third evening. Photo by Stanislav Harvancik www.birdphotoworld.sk

 

We tried for Hume’s Hawk-owl on our first evening and were rewarded with great views of two. During our search our leader suddenly stopped and said ‘there’s another group here and they are playing a recording of the the wrong species’. What he had heard was some Indian photographers playing a tape recording of ‘Hume’s Tawny Owl’ an inhabitant of the Middle East now usually called Desert Owl. Once again a good reason not to tick birds on sound alone; you never who is playing what just round the corner! Photo by Jacob Albin from Wiki Commons.

 

But the nightbird of the trip, indeed probably the best bird of the Andamans section of the tour was Andaman Masked Owl, which we saw in the grounds of a college just after dark. Apart from the three species of barn owl, African Marsh Owl and possibly the two grass owls, members of the Tytonidae (barn owl family) are very difficult to get, so seeing this species and another member of the family in South India was a real highlight. Photo by Garima Bahit from the Oriental Bird Club images site http://orientalbirdimages.org

 

By the last morning we were still missing two endemic species, Andaman Cuckoo-dove and Andaman Woodpigeon. Early in the morning crossed the bay by ferry to try a new area of forest on the far side.

 

At that time of the morning the only other passengers were a bunch of ‘fishwives’ ladies taking big bowls of fish to sell at market.

 

That the ferry was a bit of a ‘rustbucket’ was made clear when we passed its sister ship coming the other way.

 

We entered a lovely dense area of forest on the east side of the bay and scored with the missing cuckoo-dove but unfortunately not the woodpigeon. We also had more great views of Andaman Crake and several other endemic birds.

 

Paradoxically the best birding area was around this rubbish tip, where several species including this endemic Andaman Coucal came out of the forest to feed on the flies.

 

We pretty well concluded our birding on the Andamans with this more widespread but still handsome Large Cuckooshrike.

 

The return trip on the ferry was considerably hotter and more crowded than our pre-dawn crossing.

 

Then there was just time to pack, shower and have lunch before a return flight to Bangalore and the South Indian mainland.

The next post will cover part of our journey through South India.

Autumn 2018: a dip on a whale, a visit to Westminster, some ringing, a prog-rock legend and an act of remembrance.   Leave a comment

This post covers a number of activities during the autumn of 2018.

 

Generally these days I don’t travel far for species that I have already seen elsewhere. As I have seen Grey Catbirds many time in North America I didn’t bother to travel to see what was probably the most reliable UK rarity this autumn. However the Beluga Whale that turned up in the Thames at Gravesend in Kent was another matter as I have never seen one anywhere in the world. Having said that I made a dog’s breakfast of the whole thing, I had already arranged to go ringing on the Wednesday and Thursday of the week it turned up, I felt too tired on Friday after a very busy ringing session (see Swallow photo below). Over Saturday and Sunday the M27 was closed for repairs and I knew there would be traffic chaos, so I left it until the Tuesday, a week after it was discovered so I could go with my friend Daniel. You’ve guessed it, we dipped. We spent seven to eight hours in the car and four hours staring at this less than attractive view. Later information indicated it had moved downstream, I’ve only got myself to blame!

 

The following day I was by the Thames again, this time in central London. I had applied for an Indian visa and had to go to the visa centre near the Barbican at a specified time. Margaret came as well so we could do some sightseeing afterwards. After the disappointment and effort of the day before I wasn’t’ best pleased when we found the M3 was closed and all the traffic was diverted. We arrived 40 minutes late and had to get a taxi, but once there everything went smoothly. Afterwards we opted to walk to Westminster along the Embankment.

 

Heading west along the north bank we passed the London Eye …

 

I went on the London Eye years ago and enjoyed the panoramic views over the city, but Margaret doesn’t like heights and refused to take advantage of the opportunity.

 

We passed Cleopatra’s Needle, this 21m high granite obelisk was given as a gift to the Britain by the ruler of Egypt in 1819. It was impossible to get a decent photo of the actual monolith from close up so I’ve just posted a pic of the accompanying bronze sphinx.

 

Moving on we reached Westminster Bridge.

 

Due to the recent tragic and appalling terrorist attacks the pavements on Westminster Bridge are now flanked by barriers as is the approach to Parliament via Abingdon St.

 

The Palace of Westminster (also known as the Houses of Parliament) is undergoing a major refurbishment so doesn’t look as attractive as usual. Although a palace has stood here since the 11th C it has twice been destroyed by fire. Parliament has met here since the 13th C. The current building dates from the 1840s.

 

We weren’t here to visit the Houses of Parliament but the adjacent Westminster Abbey.

 

Photography isn’t allowed inside the Abbey so these photos have been taken from their website. This shows the quire with the nave beyond.

 

Nave of Westminster Abbey. According to Wikipedia: It is one of the United Kingdom’s most notable religious buildings and the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English and, later, British monarchs. The building itself was a Benedictine monastic church until the monastery was dissolved in 1539. Between 1540 and 1556, the abbey had the status of a cathedral. Since 1560, the building is no longer an abbey or a cathedral, having instead the status of a Church of England “Royal Peculiar”—a church responsible directly to the sovereign. According to a tradition first reported by Sulcard in about 1080, a church was founded at the site (then known as Thorn Ey) in the seventh century. Construction of the present church began in 1245, on the orders of King Henry III.  Since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, all coronations of English and British monarchs have been in Westminster Abbey. There have been 16 royal weddings at the abbey since 1100.  

 

So many famous historical figures are buried in the Abbey; Kings and Queens, famous military figures as well as poets and scientists. This is the tomb of Edward the Confessor, one of the last Saxon kings of England whose death in 1066 led to the conflict between King Harold and William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hastings, which ended Saxon rule and started the Norman occupation.

 

Many famous scientists are buried in the Abbey, the most recent has been placed between the graves of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, a fitting place for one of the world’s most accomplished scientists.

 

Photos were allowed in the nearby cloisters and chapels.

 

We slowly made our way back to Victoria coach station via St James’ Park.

 

We had plenty of time to admire the ornamental fountains …

 

… as well as the ornamental wildfowl.

 

As I mentioned in an earlier post St James’ has a wide collection of wildfowl and other birds …

 

… some like this Grey Heron are undoubtedly fully wild, even if they are a bit on the tame side …

 

… others like this Rosybill from southern South America are undoubtedly of captive origin.

 

Many of the rest like this Red-billed Pochard …

 

… the tame Greylag Geese that beg for food off any passerby …

 

… and Ruddy Shelduck were originally of captive origin but now have feral populations somewhere or other. Actually the situation with Ruddy Shelduck is a bit more complicated, on the British List due to an influx of supposed wild birds in 1947, this species is now seen every year, usually in early autumn. These could be (and surely sometimes are) from the wild population in Turkey or Central Asia but most likely from established feral populations in Europe. Either way it deserves a place on Category C of the British List (established introductions) if not Category A (fully wild birds recorded since 1950).

 

Back in Dorset much of my free time has been spent with our ringing program. Part of my time has been helping my friend Shaun with ringing at Lytchett Bay which has been successful with good numbers of Bearded Tits ringed as well as the usual mix of Sedge and Reed Warblers etc. As with previous years a few of our Reed and Sedge Warblers have been retrapped later in the autumn by ringers working on the Atlantic coast of France.

 

We have also trapped a number of Pied Wagtails at roost. This is an easy way to ring reasonable numbers of this species. As it is dark by the time the birds are extracted, the birds are ringed in Shaun’s garage (who lives nearby) roosted in boxes and returned to the ringing site before dawn the next day. This is an established and safe way to research the movements and demography of these birds. Although we haven’t had many recoveries in recent years, previously Lytchett Bay Pied Wagtails have been retrapped or found as far away as Scotland and Algeria.

 

But it has been our site at Durlston Country Park that has taken up most of my time. We have ringed just over 3000 birds this year, a significant drop compared to recent years but this has hardly been a typical year. Dreadful weather in the spring meant that many migrant birds arrived weeks late and probably failed to raise two broods as a result. Hot weather in the summer may have helped, but many are reporting that numbers of migrant species are well down this year. The weather in August and September has been ok in parts, but not settled like July, whilst October was decidedly stormy with strong westerlies. Numbers would be much lower if it were not for a remarkable week in late September where we ringed over 1000 birds. Over a couple of days over 320 hirundines (Swallows, House and Sand Martins) were ringed, this occurred immediately before my double trip to London (see comments with the first photo above) so it is easy to see why I was knackered.

 

As always we ringed large numbers of Blackcaps throughout the autumn. This bird shows unusual white feathering on the greater coverts, this is not staining and it was bilateral. Birders (especially those new to the hobby) should consider an aberrantly plumaged or partially leucistic individual when confronted with a bird with unusual marking. Although not really applicable in this case, leucistic finches and sparrows have been identified as Snow Buntings and all manner of other rarities by the unwary.

 

We haven’t had much in the way of unusual species this autumn but Stonechats are seldom seen within our trapping area, although are common elsewhere in the Park.

 

Similarly Linnets are commonly seen migrating overhead but seldom descent to net level. This bird was ringed on a still, but very foggy morning.

 

Without doubt the rarest bird we have ringed at Durlston in 2018 was this Yellow-browed Warbler. Although nowhere near as rare as it once was, seeing and especially ringing, one of these Siberian gems is always a delight. It is still not known if the birds that now migrate to western Europe and sometimes winter there successfully return to the Siberian taiga, but until a satellite tag small enough to be fitted on a 6 gram bird is developed, ringing will be the only way we can find out.

 

As October morphed into November the weather got stuck in a windy unsettled rut. Not a single day has passed where ringing at our more exposed site at Durlston has been practical. However our site on Canford Heath, where we have set up a feeder station, is both sheltered and productive. although it can be cold and even frosty on a clear morning.

 

We have caught lots of birds this autumn and got some good retrap data on birds from previous winters. Most birds ringed have been finches and tits but one highlight was this tiny Firecrest (photo by Terry Elborn).

 

What was even better was that he brought his mate along too! (photo by Terry Elborn).

 

It’s really pleasing when someone you have been training to ring over several years gets their ringing permit. Both Fenja (centre) and Ginny (right) have been assessed by an external body and shown to have achieved the necessary standard. Fenja has left for a six-month job as a research assistant working on a detailed study involving both ringing and genetics of Blue Tit populations in southern Germany. We wish her well and look forwards to her return in the spring (a bit like the Swallows really).

 

On an entirely different subject I went to see the prog-rock legends King Crimson recently in Bournemouth. I saw them first in Leeds in the early 70s and again in Poole in the 80s. Hardly easy listening, but tremendous musicianship led as always by Robert Fripp’s incredible guitar playing. There have been many virtuoso electric guitarist but Fripp’s style based around his e-bow and ‘Frippatronics’ is totally unique.

 

Only Fripp (top right) remains from the original line up but every member has a top rate musician. The sound and rhythms from the triple drum kit was amazing. The band put a total ban on photography so these shots are taken from their promotional material. Apart from the 1969 seminal ‘Court of the Crimson King’, I find the albums ‘Lizard’ and ‘Islands’ to be most enjoyable. Although ‘Starless and Bible Black’ and ‘Red’ showcase some excellent playing they are more difficult to assimilate.

 

This weekend, particularly yesterday, the whole country has been remembering the First World War and the tragic loss of life, in what seems with the benefit of a hundred years of hindsight, a wholly pointless war. My thoughts have turned to my grandfather Thomas who served in Flanders, suffered from a chlorine gas attack and was awarded the Military Medal for rescuing a team of horses from no-mans land under enemy gun fire. The story was always told that he refused to accept the medal saying he only did it for the sake of the horses, but of course these tales can grow in the telling. Here he is sometime in the mid-50s with me on his knee.

 

Like most of the country we paused at 11 o’clock on the 11th of the 11th month to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1. Photo of the Armistice Day memorial service taken from the TV.

 

I am not an avid Royalist but do think our Royal Family, or at least the key players, do an excellent job and at times like this most of the country looks up to them (in this case literally, as the Queen, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge were watching from a balcony).

 

But let’s end with another photo of what pioneer birding guru DIM Wallace always called ‘the seven-striped sprite’ – the beautiful male Firecrest. (Photo by Terry Elborn)

 

 

Edinburgh, Durham, Leeds and Coventry: 19th-22nd September 2018   Leave a comment

We recently had need to go to Edinburgh to attend a sad event, a family funeral. I’ll say no more about that as it was a private affair. However we did spend three days on the return journey visiting some sites in southern Scotland, northern England and the Midlands which will be the subject of this post.

 

The day of the funeral was marred by high winds and torrential rain. However it was still and dry at dawn so I took the opportunity to visit the shore at Musselburgh which was quite close to where we were staying.

 

This area is famous as a wintering area for seaduck such as these Common Eider.

 

There were a large number Velvet Scoters in the area, spread out over several miles of coast

 

Velvet Scoter can be told from (in most places) the eponymous Common Scoter by the yellow in the bill, white mark under the eye and in particular by the obvious white stripe in the open wing which is caused by white secondaries and greater coverts.

 

The female, seen behind this male, is identified by the two pale patches on the head, quite a different pattern than on Common Scoter. I usually see one or two of this species each year, the odd one winters in Dorset although they are nowhere near as regular as Common Scoter either in winter or on migration. Here I saw no Common Scoters at all, just about 300 Velvets.

 

However the reason I made several visits to Musselburgh was to see Velvet Scoter’s American cousin, White-winged Scoter (third from the left). Recently split from Velvet Scoter, this was only the 3rd or 4th record of the species in the UK (depending on whether this bird is considered the same one as was seen in Scotland in 2017). White-winged Scoter is very similar to Velvet Scoter, differing only (in the male) in it’s larger and upturned white mark below the eye, swollen ridge of the upper mandible and pinkish rather than yellow tip of the bill. The white wing bar is not a diagnostic field mark as is shared with Velvet Scoter, just that in this photo the White-winged is holding it’s wing slightly open revealing the white secondaries. It certainly wasn’t easy to find with so many Velvet’s to check but with perseverance I eventually located it. There is a further type of scoter with white wings, Stejneger’s Scoter from Asia, which I saw well in Mongolia earlier this year. Currently this form is considered a race of White-winged Scoter but many think it deserves species status in its own right. As far s I know there have been no records in the UK but it has occurred in Eire.

 

We left Musselburgh and continued along the coast towards North Berwick. Much of the Firth of Forth is dominated by views of the Bass Rock. The closest approach is just east of North Berwick where this photo was taken. The marbled surface of the rock is actually perched Gannets. 150,000 Gannets breed on the rock, making it the largest Northern Gannet colony in the world. I was surprised that there were still thousands of them about in mid September.

 

We continued eastwards and visited this cove next to the headland of Barns Ness. Good for scenery but not many birds. It was a bit of a shock that evening when I found out there was a Woodchat Shrike there all the time. In the distance you can just make out the southern shore of Fife where we visited last November (see this blog for photos and an account of that trip).

 

We called in to picturesque harbour at Dunbar …

 

… and St Abbs but by mid-afternoon the weather was on the turn and we headed south, back into England and on to the city of Durham. This was my 19th trip to Scotland. So many people I speak to in the south of England have never been at all, well all I can say is they are missing out big time.

 

We spent the morning in the city of Durham with Dave, my friend from University days.

 

We had met Dave, who lives near Consett in County Durham, a few minutes earlier in the quaint Market Place.

 

The Market Place is dominated by the statue of Lord Londonderry which is known locally as ‘the man on the horse’. As the photo of Margaret and Dave above shows we were wrapped up well against the cold but the chilly conditions that morning had no effect on this man. In fact people from the north-east have a well-known resistance to the cold and it said that the Met Office won’t issue a severe weather warning until a Geordie lass is found wearing an overcoat!

 

Durham city centre is encompassed within a loop of the River Wear and comprises a small number of quaint ancient streets.

 

From Wikipedia: Local legend states that the city was founded in A.D. 995 by divine intervention. The 12th century chronicler Symeon of Durham recounts that after wandering in the north, Saint Cuthbert’s bier miraculously came to a halt at the hill of Warden Law and, despite the effort of the congregation, would not move.[7] Aldhun, Bishop of Chester-le-Street and leader of the order, decreed a holy fast of three days, accompanied by prayers to the saint. During the fast, Saint Cuthbert appeared to a certain monk named Eadmer, with instructions that the coffin should be taken to Dun Holm. After Eadmer’s revelation, Aldhun found that he was able to move the bier, but did not know where Dun Holm was. The legend of the Dun Cow, which is first documented in The Rites of Durham, an anonymous account about the Durham Cathedral, published in 1593, builds on Symeon’s account. According to this legend, by chance later that day, the monks came across a milkmaid at Mount Joy (southeast of present-day Durham). She stated that she was seeking her lost dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm. The monks, realising that this was a sign from the saint, followed her. They settled at a wooded “hill-island” – a high wooded rock surrounded on three sides by the River Wear. There they erected a shelter for the relics, on the spot where the Durham Cathedral would later stand. Symeon states that a modest wooden building erected there shortly later was the first building in the city. Bishop Aldhun subsequently had a stone church built, which was dedicated in September 998. It no longer remains, having been supplanted by the Norman structure.

Also from Wikipedia: Owing to the divine providence evidenced in the city’s legendary founding, the Bishop of Durham has always enjoyed the title “Bishop by Divine Providence” as opposed to other bishops, who are “Bishop by Divine Permission”. However, as the north-east of England lay so far from Westminster, the bishops of Durham enjoyed extraordinary powers such as the ability to hold their own parliament, raise their own armies, appoint their own sheriffs and Justices, administer their own laws, levy taxes and customs duties, create fairs and markets, issue charters, salvage shipwrecks, collect revenue from mines, administer the forests and mint their own coins. So far-reaching were the bishop’s powers that the steward of Bishop Antony Bek commented in 1299 AD: “There are two kings in England, namely the Lord King of England, wearing a crown in sign of his regality and the Lord Bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown, in sign of his regality in the diocese of Durham”. All this activity was administered from the castle and buildings surrounding the Palace Green. Many of the original buildings associated with these functions of the county palatine survive on the peninsula that constitutes the ancient city.

 

The 11th century castle and for many years was the residence of the Bishop Princes. It now has been renovated and acts as accommodation for student at University College. Considerably finer accommodation than the terraced slum I occupied for three years at Uni in Leeds (mind you it was the best of times and I wouldn’t have had it any other way).

 

As there were events on for freshers week we were not allowed into the college but the security man allowed me to walk close enough to get a shot of the courtyard through the arch.

 

We wandered through some ancient streets to the Cathedral …

 

Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral so I have taken this photo from https://www.dayoutwiththekids.co.uk/durham-cathedral

 

But I could take photos in the adjoining cloisters …

 

In spite of light rain we took a walk along the banks of the River Wear.

 

…seeing, ducks, swans and the odd canoeist.

 

By the weir on the Wear we had great views up at the Cathedral. Dating from 1093, both it and the Castle have been designated UNESCO Heritage Sites. There can be few cities that have such magnificent views just yards from the city centre.

 

We then headed down to Leeds, checked into our hotel which gave a good view over the east side of the city and then met up with our old friend Nigel.

 

I have known Nigel since school days and shared a place with him at University and beyond. He has developed a strong interest in art and often takes us to either the city art gallery of one of various commercial galleries in the city centre.

 

He is so well know to the staff that they offered him (and us) a drink and allowed us to sit and absorb the art on offer at our own pace. Our visit to Leeds was short and we just spent a few hours in the afternoon with Nigel in the city and then went for a meal, but it was great to meet up with someone who has been your friend for over 50 years.

 

As we drove south to Poole we detoured to visit the centre of Coventry. I was born near Coventry and spent my early years here. I still have some relatives in the city but seldom see them. The purpose of our visit was to show Margaret the amazing modern cathedral.

 

I’m sure on my last visit this used to be a roundabout with the statue of Lady Godiva in the middle. From Wikipedia: Godiva, Countess of Mercia died between 1066 and 1086), was an English noblewoman who, according to a legend dating at least to the 13th century, rode naked – covered only in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband imposed on his tenants. The name “Peeping Tom” for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend in which a man named Thomas watched her ride and was struck blind or dead. Wikipedia goes on to say that although Lady Godiva is a historical figure, the story of the naked ride is almost certainly apocryphal. On the hour a figure of Lady Godiva on horseback appears at the clock and moves from one yellow door to the other whilst the face of Peeping Tom emerges from the yellow triangular opening above. The statue was erected in 1949.

 

Coventry was devastated during the blitz in autumn 1940 (my mother lived through it all and continued to work at the Sainsburys store in the bombed out city centre). Perhaps the highest profile casualty was the destruction of the cathedral. The cross on the altar is formed from two burning timbers that fell on the altar during the blitz.

 

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in 1941. Photo by Capt Horton- War Office official photographer – From the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

 

The cathedral was not rebuilt in its former locality but the ruin was left to stand  as a powerful tribute to the events of WWII …

 

… and has become a powerful symbol of reconciliation between nations with powerful links being forged after the war between the cathedral and church organisations in Germany and elsewhere. Iron nails from the roof timbers have been fashioned into a series of ‘cross of nails’ which have been sent to reconciliation centres worldwide.

 

In 1963 a new cathedral was opened, designed by Sir Basil Spence and is designated a grade 1 listed building. It was built along side, rather than in place of, the old cathedral. It’s design departed markedly from traditional church architecture and like Concord, the Moon landings and the Beatles it symbolised the ‘brave new world’ of the 1960s. Having grandparents living in Coventry I visited it a number of times and was always in awe of its modern magnificence. So 50+ years on would I still feel the same? As you walk up the steps to the entrance you pass the magnificent statue of St Michael’s victory over the Devil …

 

This modern sculpture dominates the entrance. Marked on the marble floor is the ancient Christian Chi Rho symbol.

 

The baptistery window designed by Graham Sutherland

 

Looking down the aisle and past the quire you see the full magnificent of the cathedral.

 

Once thought to be the largest tapestry in the world, the huge tapestry of Christ in Glory was designed by Graham Sutherland. Three nails from the old cathedral (the first of the series mentioned above) sit at the centre of the altar cross.

 

There are a number of side chapels …

 

… in this one the angelic figure is framed by a representation of the ‘crown of thorns’.

 

Looking back towards the entrance you see this lovely etched glass window and the old cathedral beyond.

 

Leaving the cathedral we stopped for a bite to eat nearby and were intercepted by this young lady from a dance troupe called ‘The Dance We Made’. She asked us about our journey from Edinburgh to Coventry and then incorporated ‘aspects’ into the dance. You can see this at https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=jhJv1bFc1XA and we get a mention 3 minutes into the routine.

 

The students were returning to the University (as they had been at Durham and Edinburgh, explaining why accommodation was so hard to find as their parent were taking them to Uni and staying overnight in all the travel lodges). So there were other strange events going on as well as the dance troupe, such as these six students sharing a hexagonal bicycle.

 

From here it was just a matter of finding the M40 and heading home. It had been an interesting few days meeting up with old friends and sightseeing in various cities and doing some birding in Scotland although of course the actual reason for the trip was a very sad event indeed. I’ll conclude with another view of Coventry Cathedral looking away from the altar towards the lovely window by the entrance. And as to the question ‘would the building that I found so inspiring when first seen as a child still do the same today’, then the answer is an emphatic yes.

 

Vietnam part 3: Cuc Phuong, Tam Dao and Sa Pa: 23rd – 31st March 2018   Leave a comment

Apologies for the delay in posting the third part of my Vietnamese saga.

A while ago I upgraded my account to gain more storage space. I quickly used up the allocated storage (by uploading photos at too high a resolution). I was under the impression that my annual subscription would give me that much space every year. In late August I was debited $99 as expected but no extra storage was allocated. It transpired that the extra storage was a one-off and the $99 was how much I had to pay per year to access it. Either that or don’t pay and the blog disappears! WordPress want me to upgrade to ‘business class’ at $300 per year to give me more storage which at the moment I have declined to do.

So I now have the choice of limiting what I upload or deleting old posts, something that I find hard to do, as it’s my personal history.

Anyway whinge over, time for some more travel pics.

 

This third post on my Vietnam trip covers the sites of Cuc Phuong and Tam Dao in former North Vietnam. We didn’t visit Ba Be, however there was an extension to Sa Pa and Fansipan mountain in the far north-west which is not shown on this map (follow a line 30 degrees NW from Hanoi to the Chinese border if you want to know where it is).

 

Here in the north there were many more reminders of the Communist past. Vietnam, remains a socialist republic, although free trade rather than a state monopoly is the order of the day.

 

We spent two nights at Cuc Phuong NP.

 

We had two  excellent morning here and saw some excellent birds like Malay Night Heron, Red-collared Woodpecker and Limestone Wren-babbler but for the much of the time it was very overcast and dull (useless for photography) and the late mornings and afternoon were birdless. In spite of it being a national park locals still use it to graze their water buffalo.

 

We visited a cave which was used by people as a shelter some 7,500 years ago. This time period in Europe is known as the Neolithic and is characterised by the start of farming but I don’t know if this time period in Asia would still be characterised as the Mesolithic. All that walking and climbing is taking its toll of some of the participants knees, as can be clearly seen in this photos.

 

There might not have been many chances to photograph birds in Cuc Phuong was we did see some remarkable insects such as this bug …

 

… a lovely butterfly in flight …

 

… or this stunning dragonfly …

 

Cuc Phuong also has a captive breeding centre for local primates. These are usually individuals seized from the illegal pet trade that are being rehabilitated for release in the wild. I have already uploaded photos of Black-shanked and Grey-shanked Douc Langurs taken in the wild earlier on the tour. I didn’t get a decent shot of the third species, Red-shanked Douc Langur so here are some more Grey-shanks.

 

We also paid a couple of visits to Van Long marsh. Surrounded by rugged limestone hills it would have been very scenic had it not be for the persistent grey skies.

 

It is quite a tourist hot spot and many take a boat trip on the lake, however we just scoped from the shore.

 

If you look at the cliffs in the last photo then you will see how far away these monkeys really are. These are Delacour’s Langurs, another endemic and critically endangered species, showing off their white shorts.

 

We headed north towards the capital Hanoi. Traffic congestion increased as did the incidence of dodgy driving and overtaking on blind corners.

 

We only passed through the outskirts of the city but even there the traffic was dreadful.

 

We eventually reached our hotel at Tam Dao. It seemed like we were the only people staying but we still ended up with rooms as far up the hill from the restaurant and parking lot as possible. It was a bit of a trek every time you need to go back to your room but I suppose it was training for the rigours of Fansipan mountain in a few days time. The hotel, although well equipped was characterised by an almost complete lack of visible staff.

 

Thick fog and overcast skies continued …

 

… great birds like Grey Laughingthrush and Short-tailed Parrotbill were seen but not photographed on this trail.

 

In the afternoon we visited some forest near a Buddhist temple which seems to have been set up in this hanger.

 

 

An unexpected find was this migrant Rufous-bellied Woodpecker.

 

 

Early the next morning we climbed these steps to another temple, seeing more laughing thrushes and other forest birds. On our way down we came across these lads who were already ‘Brahms and Liszt’ in spite of the time of day.

 

At the base of the steps local traders had set up stalls and we were able to stock up on Vietnamese candies.

 

It was then the long drive to Sa Pa. This was an optional extension but everyone on the trip had decided to take it, which was great as we didn’t have to go back to Hanoi to drop anyone off at the airport and so gained extra time in this lovely location. Although the weather remained overcast I have to say that this was the most enjoyable part of the entire trip.

 

Sa Pa is located next to this lake and surrounded by mountains.

 

The area is full of western tourists and tired locals.

 

The narrow streets with their stalls selling everything imaginable are a pleasure to see.

 

There is a great birding location right in the town, Ham Rong Gardens gave us great views of a wide range of species.

 

The local inhabitants originate from hill tribes with their own traditional costumes. Many Vietnamese tourists buy these outfits and then get photographed wearing them in the park.

 

Away from the town were a number of scenic areas, birds like Little Forktail, Blue Whistling Thrush, White-capped and Plumbeous Redstart were seen by this waterfall …

 

… and the seldom seen Pale-throated Wren-Babbler showed brilliantly a few miles further along the road. Photo by tour leader Craig Robson. Copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

A number of hiking trails can be found in the area, some like this one just visit local waterfalls, others ascend Fansipan mountain and require a guide and three days to complete.

 

Along the trail we saw this Brown-breasted Flycatcher, an unexpected ‘write-in’ for the trip. Breeding in southern China and wintering in S India and Sri Lanka this might have been a migrant returning to its breeding area or perhaps its breeding range extends to extreme northern Vietnam.

 

We also sw this White Wagtail of the race leucopsis. Clearly a first year male with very bleached primaries and contrast between moulted and unmoulted coverts visible in the field.

 

We walked though some lovely forest …

 

… alongside a river …

 

… up and down multiple steps …

 

… before reaching the ‘Love’ Waterfall.

 

We were amused by this information board back at the park HQ. Clockwise from top left, Red-winged Laughingthrush, a bird that occurs in north Vietnam but we didn’t get a sniff at, Common Pheasant judging by the habitat probably an introduced bird photographed elsewhere, Great Hornbill which only occurs in the south in Vietnam and a photo of an American Bald Eagle captioned with the scientific name of Western Marsh Harrier! Sorry about the funny angle it was necessary to prevent the photo being ruined by reflections of the flash.

 

On our second day full at Sa Pa the weather improved somewhat and we took the opportunity to go to the top of Fansipan Mountain. Not having three days to climb to the summit, we took the cable car. The service holds two Guinness World Records for the longest non-stop three-rope cable car in the world, spanning 6.3 km and the greatest elevation difference by a non-stop three-roped cable car for the 1,410 m  difference in elevation between the termini (taken from Wikipedia)

 

We were soon crossing the valley and looking down at the rice paddies far below …

 

… and back at the terminus.

 

As we climbed we left the open areas behind and soared over the forest …

 

Eventually we reached the summit, 1.4 km higher than where we had started. The mountain is 3,143m asl and is the highest point in Indochina. Half the group opted to stay around the summit visitor centre and descend at their convenience, the other half plus the leaders set off on an arduous hike towards the best birding areas.

 

The views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular and I certainly felt that this was the best day of the trip.

 

We dropped a fair way the started climbing again to pass this saddle then descended further on the other side before returning the same way.

 

Some of the rock outcrops were crossed by a series of steps bolted to rock, others required climbing ladders and a good head for heights.

 

I only took my pocket camera, wishing to reduce the weight I had to carry but tour leader Craig Robson got a great photo of one of the targets, ‘Tonkin’ Fulvetta, a potential split from the Chinese and Himalayan White-browed Fulvetta. Other highlights included Bar-winged Wren-Babbler, Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Scaly-breasted Cupwing and Chestnut-headed Tesia. Photo copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

By the time we had returned to the cable car terminus the mist had rolled in.

 

Knackered but happy (though local leader Quang who did the entire hike in sandals is hamming it up a bit).

 

The other end of the cable car might be 6.3 km away but with a modern camera it can seem to be within touching distance.

 

The day on Fansipan mountain was the highlight of the trip, the combination of great birds, great scenery and the sense of achievement when you push your physical abilities to the limit combined to make a day I will never forget.

Since I originally started work on this post I have received the official report from Birdquest and a CD of Craig Robson and local leader Quang Hao Nguyen photos. The majority are better versions of birds that I uploaded in posts 1 and 2 but the following are worth adding. Note all are from locations that were visited in post 2.

 

Black-crowned Fulvetta photographed at Bi Doup Nui Ba NP. Photo copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Stripe-throated Yuhina was seen at Ngoc Linh. Photo copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Pygmy Cupwing at Bi Doup Nui Ba NP. Photo copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Black-headed Sibia of the race kingi which may be split as ‘Brownish-backed Sibia’ at Ngoc Linh. Photo copyright Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush at Mang Cahn. Copyright Quang Hao Nguyen/Birdquest.

 

Silver Pheasant of race annamensis at Bach Ma NP. Copyright Quang Hao Nguyen/Birdquest.

 

I’ll conclude this account of my trip to Vietnam with another photo of the mountain scenery at Fansipan.