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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.

Vietnam part 2: Bao Loc to Phong Nha: 10th – 23rd March 2018   2 comments

This post is the second about my tour to Vietnam. As usual I travelled with Birdquest, my 74th trip with this company. The 25 day (27 with travel to and from included) covered much of the country.

The first post just covered Cat Tien NP, this post covers the central part of Vietnam from Bao Loc to Phong Nha Khe Bang and the final post will detail our travels in the north.

 

Map courtesy of the Birdquest website. See http://www.birdquest-tours.com/Vietnam-birding-tours/2019#topofpage for details of this tour and more photos.

 

Like at Cat Tien a fair bit of our time was spent in makeshift hides. This one at Do Lui San was set up to see Blue Pitta. Unfortunately it was heard but not seen. Here local leader Quang is replenishing the mealworm bait.

 

Our primatologist friend Lucy and Birdquest leader Craig Robson seemed capable of remaining motionless for ages but after about 10 minutes my knees would be killing me and I’d have to move around a bit.

 

No luck with the Blue Pitta, but stunning views of another Orange-headed Ground Thrush, this time a male.

 

Nearby we had great views of a Collared Owlet.

 

Later that day we visited an area of native pine forest on the Da Lat plateau. Our targets were the endemic Vietnamese Greenfinch …

 

… and ‘Vietnamese’ Crossbill. Although an endemic race, this distinctive form, which seems to have a bigger bill than even Parrot Crossbill, is still lumped in Common (or Red) Crossbill. Massively disjunct from other crossbill forms and with a distinctive morphology, it surely more deserving of specific status than our Scottish Crossbill or even the recently split Cassia Crossbill of Idaho.

 

We spent three nights at the town of Da Lat which has some impressive modern architecture in its centre.

 

Again we spent time in hides in the forest of the Da Lat plateau. Here the group reconvene on the pathway after a long session of sitting still.

 

However the rewards for all that discomfort were really great. A White-tailed Robin …

 

… Large Niltava …

 

… Snowy-browed Flycatcher …

 

… and the tiny Pygmy Cupwing. Until recently called Pygmy Wren-babbler, this and three other congeners have been shown to be unrelated to other wren-babblers and so have gained this rather cute moniker.

 

But our main target was the beautiful Collared Laughingthrush.

 

Just one of 17 species of laughingthrush we saw on the tour, Collared Laughingthrush is endemic to the South Annam area of Vietnam.

 

We also visited a rather unusual ornamental park at Ta Nung Valley Resort. Here Craig uses this unusual platform to search for bird flocks.

 

Our main target was the South Annam endemic Grey-crowned Crocias.

 

Also seen in the area was Vietnamese Cutia, a split from the more widespread Himalayan Cutia …

 

… and Kloss’ Leaf Warbler. This species was formerly lumped in White-tailed Leaf Warbler but has, like so many other members of the genus Phylloscopus, been recent split. In fact the leaf warbler genus has increased from something like 50 members to 77 as a result of taxonomic investigations, making it one of the largest genus in the avian world and the family Phylloscopidae the only large family to be composed of a single genus.

 

There are many confusing species of bulbul in South-east Asia, and this, Flavescent Bulbul is one of them.

 

Away from the forest we visited this large lake …

 

… more open country birds like White-throated Kingfisher …

 

… another Flavescent Bulbul …

 

… and Grey Bushchat in the process.

 

We also saw Necklaced Barbet (formerly lumped in Golden-throated Barbet) found only in SE Laos and south Vietnam.

 

Our final location in the Da Lat area was on a hillside above the local cemetery.

 

Here in rank grassland after a bit of scrambling and bush bashing we caught up with the elusive and seldom seen Da Lat Bush Warbler. Now in the genus Locustella, I suppose it should be renamed Da Lat Grasshopper Warbler.

 

On our way north we paid a brief visit to the picturesque Lek Lake.

 

We saw a few typical asian waterbirds like Chinese Pond Heron …

 

… but when I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d seen a male Pintail (somewhere near the far shore of this photo) he didn’t believe until he’d had a look down the scope himself, as this duck, a familiar winter visitor in the UK, had not been recorded in Central Annam before!.

 

We arrived at our hotel at Mang Den rather later in the day after over ten hours of driving.

 

We visited a number of sites in the Mang Den area but by far the most memorable was near Ngoc Linh.

 

Only Lucy, Adrian, Leonardo and I joined Craig on the hike which was on narrow, steep and muddy trails.

 

It took several hours to get there but we were eventually rewarded with views of the Critically Endangered Golden-winged Laughingthrush. Only described in 1999 it is only known from this tiny area and so is in immediate danger of extinction. It has been seen by just a handful of birders and indeed was a lifer for Craig, an acknowledged expert on Vietnamese birds. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, this one is by Nguyen Minh Tuan: see http://birdwatchingvietnam.net/group/golden-winged-laughingthrush-871

 

Another restricted range babbler, although easier to see was Spectacled Barwing which was quite common along the road.

 

Another highlight of the Mang Den area was the critically endangered Grey-shanked Douc Langur of which as few as 500 individuals may remain.

 

Our long journey north continued. I was impressed with the ornamental borders, arches and general tidiness of the Vietnamese towns.

 

Most of our accommodation was good, a few were below par but the Lang Co Beach Resort was superb. Unfortunately the sunny weather that had accompanied us since the start had gone and we found ourselves in thick fog.

 

The hotel grounds had been touted as the place to see Siberian migrants on their way north and the adjacent beach as the place to see interesting waders but it was not to be and after a couple of hours of birding we gave it up as a bad job.

 

We headed up the mountain to BAch Ma NP where our accommodation was far less salubrious but the weather was better.

 

It was nice to see this female Blue Rock Thrush perching on the crumbling accommodation building. The last time I saw this species was also on a building, in a housing estate in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds in December 2016. Buildings seem a perfectly practical substitute for the rocky ledges where they usually feed and I see no reason why some birders dissed the Cotswolds’ record (other than the fact that they had already seen the species in the UK on Scilly and hated being gripped back).

 

There have been claims that the eastern Blue Rock Thrush races (including both red-bellied and blue bellied forms) should be treated as a separate species but this has not been followed, at least not by the IOC.

 

Other good birds in the area included the pretty Silver-eared Mesia (another babbler) …

 

… the charming Chestnut-headed Bee-eater…

 

… and male migrant Narcissus Flycatcher on route to its breeding grounds in Japan, Sakhalin or Ussuriland.

 

Barbets, non-passerines distantly related to woodpeckers, are prominent members of the South-east Asian avifauna but are more often heard than seen. Here are three species: Moustached Barbet which can be found over much of Indochina …

 

… Green-eared Barbet which like the former species is widespread, although less conspicuous …

 

… and the near endemic Necklaced Barbet which we also encountered earlier in this post.

 

The weather had been good during our stay at Bach Ma …

 

… but the next day low cloud we had seen on the coast caught up with us and it started to rain. In fact much of the next week would be plagued by low cloud and fog. It didn’t affect the birding much but certainly spoilt the views. We cut our losses at Bach Ma and headed to Phong Na Khe-Bang NP.

 

There is always plenty to see on Vietnam’s roads from motorbikes with loads three times as wide as they are to women working in paddyfields wearing traditional ‘coolie’ hats.

 

Phong Na Khe-Bang’s beautifully sculptured limestone hills are on the itinerary of most tourists to Vietnam.

 

Although it remained dry the low cloud certainly spoilt the view.

 

One of the key birds at Phong Na Khe-Bang was Sooty Babbler. No photographs were obtained so here is one by James Eaton of Birdtour Asia  https://www.birdtourasia.com/

 

Another speciality of this karst habitat of northern Indochina is Limestone Leaf Warbler, another Phylloscopus. This photo was taken by Nguyen Hao Quang http://birdwatchingvietnam.net

 

Easier to photograph was this charming Asian Emerald Cuckoo.

 

We spent a lot of time in the park walking along the road. Parts of the area had previously been deforested and the remaining vegetation was covered with an invasive creeper. However we saw some good birds ranging from a pair of distant Brown Hornbills to groups of Cook’s Swifts overhead.

 

However only the widespread Crested Serpent Eagle was photographed.

 

To many when Vietnam is mentioned their thoughts turn not to the green verdant land of today but to the civil war fought in the sixties and early seventies which resulted in major involvement of the USA and others. As we approached the former North Vietnam there were more reminders of that war. Circular ponds in the rice fields were the result of carpet bombing by the Americans …

 

… and here a shrine to a group of youth workers who took shelter in a cave during an American bombing raid and were entombed and died by the resultant rockfall.

 

I’ll conclude this post with another of SE Asia’s avian gems -a Silver-breasted Broadbill photographed at Phong Na Khe-Bang.

 

 

 

 

The final locations of Cuc Phuong, Tam Dao and Sa Pa/Fansipar will be shown in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vietnam part 1: Cat Tien National Park: 7th – 10th March 2018   Leave a comment

After a protracted absence I now hope to catch up with reports on my two most recent foreign trips: Vietnam in March and Mongolia in May 2017.

Although I have visited Thailand twice and also birded in China, north-eastern India, Cambodia and Malaysia, Vietnam still offered a very tempting selection of Oriental goodies. Over the course of 23 days I recorded an amazing 414 species (including 47 life birds). There were some excellent mammals as well including some very rare primates and my first ever pangolin.

 

Getting there was not without its problems. A long delay due to technical problems at Heathrow meant that it looked like I would miss my connection to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at Bangkok. On arrival those passengers flying on to Vietnam were met on the gangway taken down steps and driven across the apron to our waiting plane without even entering the airport. So it was a great relief when we landed at Saigon on time. However predictably my luggage didn’t make it. It was quite difficult to explain to the very polite lady on the Thai Airlines desk that I was going onto Cat Tien National Park and not some Saigon hotel but fortunately I was able to contact leader Craig Robson who came to my rescue. I was reunited with my luggage the following evening. The photo shows the plane descending over the many channels of the Mekong Delta.

 

Here we are from the vehicle crossing the Mekong.

 

Right from the outset at Cat Tien we saw top quality birds like this Green Peacock. This magnificent male was feeding close to the road. We saw about 12 during our stay. This was only the second trip I’ve been on where the species was recorded.

 

Unlike it’s relative Indian or Blue Peafowl, this species is endangered with a population of just 10-20,00 birds spread over SE Asia, South China and Java. Still hunted for its feathers it has never been semi-domesticated like its Indian cousin.

 

Bird photography has become big business in SE Asia with many bated hides available. These are not the permanent sort of wooden hides you might find on reserves in Europe but netting with small holes to photograph or observe through and you often have to either squat down or carry a stool with you to sit on. One of first observations wasn’t a bird but a mammal, the cute Cambodian Ground Squirrel.

 

There were a variety of small birds feeding in the clearing in front of the hide – Puff-throated Babblers and …

 

… Buff-throated Babblers showed very well.

 

Smart Siberian Blue Robins here for the winter from their breeding grounds in Siberia and Japan were a real treat …

 

… and were seen alongside resident Magpie Robins.

 

Magpie Robins are common but quite shy throughout SE Asia.

 

Several races of Orange-headed Thrush occur, some migratory others resident differing among other features in their facial marking. The brown hue of the mantle indicates that this is a female.

 

The long-tailed White-rumped Shama was a delight to see …

 

… although currently classified as ‘least concern’ populations of this species along with many others in SE Asia are dropping rapidly due to trapping for the cage bird trade.

 

It’s seldom that you get such stunning views of a pheasant in Asia, this Germain’s Peacock-pheasant performed admirably.

 

The gorgeous endemic Bar-bellied Pitta was perhaps the star of the show. This endemic pitta is only found in Vietnamese lowland forest but thanks to these feeding stations is quite easy to see.

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The endemic Blue-rumped Pitta is quite understated by pitta standards, but it was lovely to watch a pair of these mega-elusive birds feeding in the open.

 

The 32 species of pitta, an exclusively Old World family) not to be confused with the New World antpittas) are some of the most elusive yet beautiful birds in the world.

 

There is a big problem in SE Asia with primates being poached for the pet trade. The cage contains Red-cheeked Gibbons that have been confiscated by authorities and are being rehabilitated for release back into the reserve. Wild gibbons attracted by the sight of these caged individuals come to investigate. The black individual is the male.

 

Other primates included Crab-eating Macaque …

 

… but far rarer and most unexpected was this endangered Black-shanked Douc Langur. Only about 600 individuals may remain in Vietnam, although maybe more in Cambodia. we had a young lady who was a primatologist on the trip and she was absolutely delighted to see this species.

 

A pair of habituated Great Hornbills were often seen hanging round the restaurant area. Tragically one morning one of the pair was found dead, entrapped in electrical cables near the HQ.

 

In the opposite direction the road led into taller, more mature forest.

 

Species included the charming Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher …

 

… the bizarre Dusky Broadbill …

 

… and its cousin the stunning Black-and-Red Broadbill.

 

There are 15 species of broadbill, three in Africa, the rest in Asia. I have seen all but three (two in Philippines and one in Borneo) however I have no plans to go back to either of these localities so I doubt if I’ll ever complete the family.

 

From the HQ and accommodation a drivable track runs in both directions. In this direction the forest is more open and eventually leads to dry paddyfields outside the park.

 

Birds in this area included Orange-breasted Green Pigeon …

 

… Violet Cuckoo …

 

… and an elusive Banded Kingfisher.

 

Wintering birds from Siberian included this Asian Brown Flycatcher.

 

The large and endemic Red-vented Barbet was high on my wish list.

 

Non avian species included this striking Neon-blue Dragon.

 

Eventually we reached some dry paddyfields where we searched for a few open country birds.

 

In the trees there were a small flock of the scarce and appropriately named Plain-backed Sparrows.

 

Red-wattled Lapwings and ….

 

… Oriental Pratincoles were amongst our targets.

 

Dry country passerines included Indochinese Bush Lark ….

 

… and Paddyfield Pipit. This species is largely resident, however we also saw its close relative, the migratory Richard’s Pipit which winters in SE Asia from its Siberian breeding ground. These two species are very similar although the larger Richard’s can be distinguished when they are side by side.

 

We did several night drives and saw a range of mammals including this Red Muntjac …

 

… and Common Palm Civet.

 

But the best mammal sighting, indeed one of the best mammal sightings of all time, was this Sunda Pangolin that was found near our accommodation. Here photographed by the light of the leader’s torch and by flash below.

 

Pangolins are the most traded wild animals in the world. For reasons completely beyond my understanding, the scales (made of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails) is considered of value in traditional oriental medicine. Millions of these charming and harmless animals are killed every year, this amounts to about 20% of the entire global wildlife trade. No wonder its taken me 35 years to see one.

 

After three nights at Cat Tien it was time to catch the ferry across the river and meet up with our vehicles.

 

But let’s end with a photo of one of the most striking bird of Cat Tien’s forest … Great Hornbill.

Guernsey and Sark, Channel Islands: June 11th-13th 2018   2 comments

This is my first post since mid May. Apologies for the absence of updates but there have been two very good reasons.

Without going into details I’ve had a episode of ill health which has changed my priorities, but also I’ve had problems with space allocation on my blog. I purchased a large amount of blog space from WordPress in late August 17 but I didn’t use it carefully, uploading photos at far too high a resolution for the sheer convenience of not having to prepare a second ‘low res’ copy. I found out in May that I had used 99% of the space available and guess what, I can’t purchase anymore until the plan renews itself in about a months time.

I have been on two excellent trips this year, to Vietnam and Mongolia, but the uploading of those photos will have to wait. In the meantime here are a few pictures from a short trip we did in June with our granddaughter Amber.

With Amber’s 21st birthday approaching we offered to treat her to a trip somewhere. Options included a weekend in London with a West End show or a visit to the Channel Islands. She chose the latter, but as she was a bit short of leave we had to restrict it to three days away.

 

Map showing the position of the Channel Islands with respect to France and the UK. Alderney is just above the NN of ‘Channel’ and Sark is just above the ‘se’ of Guernsey. I was taken to Guernsey and possibly Sark as an infant, but remember nothing about it and I visited Jersey in 1989. The Channel Islands form two Crown Dependencies, ie are not part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island and as such I treat a visit there as going abroad. Jersey forms one Crown Dependency and Guernsey and the remaining inhabited islands the other.

 

Of course the great advantage of living in Poole is that it was only a three mile drive to get to the Condor ferry to the Channel Islands. That said, in 40 years of living here this is only my second visit and the one time I wanted to take the boat to Cherbourg the ferry from Poole wasn’t running and I had to drive to Portsmouth. Another advantage of leaving from Poole is that you get spectacular views across Poole Harbour to Brownsea Island and beyond …

 

…. over Studland and the Purbeck hills ….

 

…. and Old Harry Rocks with Swanage and Durlston beyond.

 

The Condor ferry is a fast service, taking only 3 hours 15 to reach Guernsey. As we approached the island of Alderney we passed Les Etacs, a rocky stack home to 8000 pairs of Gannets.

 

In due course we approached Guernsey and entered the harbour of St Peter Port.

 

We had a look around the harbour …

 

… and then drove to the gardens at Saumarez …

 

…. before reaching our hotel in the far south west of the island. We decided it was as cheap and far more convenient to take my car to Guernsey than hire one locally.

 

The view from our hotel room towards the Martello Tower of Fort Grey.

 

Another panoramic view at dusk from the hotel.

 

One of the most charming visitor attractions on Guernsey is the Little Chapel.  Apparently close to total collapse due to the rain damaging its structural integrity it has recently been restored.

 

The following is taken from Wikipedia: The chapel was originally built by Brother Déodat in March 1914 (measuring 9 feet long by 4.5 feet wide). After taking criticism from other brothers, Déodat demolished the chapel. He finished a second chapel in July 1914 (measuring 9 feet by 6 feet). However, when the Bishop of Portsmouth visited in 1923, he could not fit through the door, so Déodat again demolished it. The third and current version of the chapel started soon after the last demolition, and measures 16 feet by 9 feet. Déodat went to France in 1939 and died there, never having seen his chapel finished.

 

Again from Wikipedia: The chapel has been described as “probably the biggest tourist attraction in Guernsey”, and “intricate”. In late 2013, there was major work on the overgrowth which was, in places, hiding parts of the chapel. In November 2015 it was closed to allow some major structural work to be undertaken. The works include underpinning the building, stabilising the foundations and weatherproofing the building, and are estimated to cost £500,000. Fundraising is being undertaken. Fully open again to the public in April 2017, the major works such as stabilising the foundations are complete however additional fundraising is needed to finish the final phase of renovation.

 

We also visited the Occupation Museum. The Channel Islands were the only part of Britain to be occupied by Germany during WW2. The islanders suffered badly especially towards the end of the war when food supplies were in very short supply and starvation seemed imminent.

 

Much of the museum concentrated on the hardware and other memorabilia left over from the war ….

 

…. but also had some reconstructions of what life was like then. Here a man listens to an illegal crystal radio set whilst his wife (not to subtly) watches out for German guards. To Amber this must have seemed like ancient history but both Margaret and I had parents who served in the war and these were the sort of stories we were brought up on.

 

We had a look around the south-east point of the island near Jerbourg. There were great coastal views ….

 

… and you could see the nearby islands of Herm on the left and the more distant island of Sark to the right..

 

It was easy enough to get a day ticket to Sark but hard to find anywhere to park in St Peter Port. Fortunately the company selling the tickets is awarded five parking places on the quay and we were able to purchase the last of these. Of course if you are staying in St Peter Port or could come in by bus then that wouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re not then I’d recommend buying the ticket to Sark well in advance and enquiring about parking on the quay at the same time.

 

We set off mid morning for the 50 minute trip to Sark, passing Castle Cornet in St Peter Port harbour as we departed.

 

On route we passed close to the island of Herm ….

 

…. a few Puffins and ….

 

…. Razorbills enlivened the journey.

 

Fishing boats attracted a lot of gulls ….

 

…. including many enormous Great Black-backed Gulls.

 

Places where a boat can dock are few and far between but on the east side the are two adjacent coves ….

 

…. this cove is used by inflatables and small dinghies ….

 

…. and this one by the ferry from Guernsey. Access to the rest of the island is through the tunnel seen on the left.

 

Famously on Sark all cars and forms of motorised transport other than tractors are banned. Hence tourists can climb to the centre of the island in this contraption pulled tractor.

 

… but we took the path that winds between through the woods.

 

We had a choice of horse and cart, bike or foot to explore the island, we chose bikes! I suspect that as cars are banned that there are rather more tractors on Sark than is strictly necessary to farm the land!

 

We cycled down to the south end of the island enjoying spectacular views of rocky coves …

 

… and eventually arrived at the narrow causeway known as La Coupée which joins the peninsula of rocky Little Sark to the main island. Until the road was built islanders had to crawl over a narrow track to reach Little Sark and there were a number of fatalities during bad weather.

 

Mind you the causeway still strikes terror into the hearts of some. Behind Amber you can see Margaret (in blue) rapidly pushing her bike away from the precipice.

 

Amber and I spent a few moments enjoying the view (and enjoying an ice cream) before heading on …

 

… to the southernmost part of the island.

 

From there we met up with Margaret at a cafe in the islands centre and then cycled all the way to the northern point.

 

For those interested in the magic island of Sark here is the introduction to it’s Wikipedia entry: Sark (French: Sercq; Sercquiais: Sèr or Cerq) is an island in the Channel Islands in the southwestern English Channel, off the coast of Normandy, France. It is a royal fief, which forms part of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, with its own set of laws based on Norman law and its own parliament. It has a population of about 500. Sark (including the nearby island of Brecqhou) has an area of 2.10 square miles (5.44 km2). Sark is one of the few remaining places in the world where cars are banned from roads and only tractors and horse-drawn vehicles are allowed. In 2011, Sark was designated as a Dark Sky Community and the first Dark Sky Island in the world.

 

Soon it was time to leave Sark. Some people come here stay for a while as part of a ‘get away from it all’ type holiday, but that’s not my style and I like to see as much as I can in the time available.

 

On the return we passed rocky outcrops offshore ….

 

… and the island of Becqhou which is a tenement of Sark. Owned by the Barclay brothers (co-owners of the Telegraph) they are in a long-term dispute with Sark as to whether they are subject to Sark’s feudal law, for example they flaunt Sark law by using cars and helicopters. In a separate issue they have built this monstrous mock castle which spoils the views of an otherwise beautiful island.

 

Soon we were back in St Peter Port.

 

Time for some shopping and a meal in St Peter Port’s quaint narrow streets.

 

Far too soon it was time to leave. A group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins put a brief show as we left Guernsey. Three and a bit hours later we were back in Poole after a very enjoyable short break.

April – early May 2018: a few spring migrants   Leave a comment

I returned from Vietnam at the end of March and for the first time in several years I was at home during the peak spring migration period.

That said I didn’t benefit much from it. Cold weather at home and in particular bad weather in Europe and North Africa has delayed or aborted spring migration. Many species, most notably the hirundines (swallows and martins) have arrived in very small numbers and although early arriving migrants like Blackcap and Chiffchaff are here in good numbers, many of the later arriving species are not. Seawatching, at least for me, has been poor. Most of my visits to Portland have been on days when seabird passage was light or I manged to miss the key species like Pomarine Skua by scanning the horizon when they were in fact passing just under my nose!

That said April and early May was not without its benefits. Here are a selection of the most memorable birds I have seen this spring.

 

There has been a Bonaparte’s Gull hanging around Longham Lakes near Poole for some time. I visited on 7th of April when it was in winter plumage. Hearing that it was rapidly moulting into summer plumage and gaining a full black hood, I returned on the 26th and took these shots.

 

Bonaparte’s Gull wasn’t named after Napoleon Bonaparte but his nephew Charles (1803-1857). Born in France, yet raised in Italy Charle Bonaparte later moved to the USA. He is known for discovering Moustached Warbler and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.

 

Superficially like a small Black-headed Gull, Bonaparte’s has blackish rather than chocolate-brown head, all black bill and whiter underwings. The isolated dark mark in the outer primaries indicates that this is in third-summer plumage rather than a full adult. This species seems to have a got a lot commoner in the UK in recent years but whether this is due to one or two wandering individuals I’m not sure.

 

Also at Longham was this lovely Greater Scaup, seen her with two Tufted Duck. This species was once regular on Littlesea at Studland but the (? deliberate) introduction of predatory fish has changed the ecology of the lake and now there are no ducks at all wintering. A few Scaup often winters at Abbotsbury Swannery but views are usually distant. Good views of this drake were therefore greatly appreciated. Photo by my friend Chris’s father Tony Minvalla.

 

I usually find Portland Bill to be the best area in the county to experience spring migration. Sticking seven miles out into the Channel it acts as a magnet for birds flying from the Continent. In autumn larger numbers seem to congregate along the Purbeck coast, eg at our ringing site at Durlston.

 

This spring has been unusually poor for migrants at Portland and elsewhere see https://www.portlandbirdobs.com There was only one large fall and that was on a day when I wrongly judged conditions to be unsuitable for migration and only birded locally rather than go to Portland or Durlston! However I have managed to see a reasonable selection of spring migrants and of course the usual resident species like this Common Kestrel.

 

The highlights of this spring were this Hoopoe that graced the ‘top fields’ and the Crown Estate fields opposite Portland Bird Observatory. Photo by my friend Roger Howell.

 

Hoopoes are common over much of southern Europe, Middle East and North Africa in summer and migrants sometimes ‘overshoot’ and end up on the British south coast in spring. Resident populations in tropical Africa are often treated as a separate species, African Hoopoe based on differences in wing pattern. Photo by Roger Howell.

 

This photo, also by Roger Howell, of the Portland bird shows the typical wing pattern of Eurasian Hoopoe. African Hoopoe’s wing pattern lacks the broad white band in the outer primaries and has much more white on the secondaries and greater coverts.

 

Another highlight of the spring was a pair of Golden Orioles seen in the ‘top fields’. During my visit the female showed very well but the male appeared only briefly. There was a time when it looked like Golden Orioles might colonise parts of the UK with regular breeding occurring in East Anglia. Unfortunately they have ceased to breed in the UK, despite suitable habitat remaining and are now no more than a scarce migrant. The female of the pair was photographed by Chris Minvalla.

 

I have only been on one out-of-county twitch this spring and that was to see a rather dodgy bird that had taken up residence in this small cul-de-sac at East Budleigh in east Devon.

 

Italian Sparrow is a rather dodgy recently evolved species formed by hybridisation of House Sparrow and Spanish Sparrow, but it has been decided that it is valid and has been accepted as a species by the IOC. The question is – is this individual a genuine Italian Sparrow from the core of its Italian range or the  the hybrid offspring of a vagrant Spanish Sparrow that just happens to breed with a British House Sparrow? Add to that the question whether it could have got here on by its own steam or hitched a ride on a ship and the significance of the deformed bill (that could indicate captive origin) and you can see why opinions are highly divided about this bird. Photo from Devon Birds www.devonbirds.org/news/bird_news/devon_bird_sighting

 

I was persuaded to go by my friend Olly but although I didn’t rate the sparrow very highly I enjoyed the trip partly because of the lovely scenery on the nearby Devon coast.

 

Part of the world Heritage Site Jurassic Coast, these sandstone cliffs are actually from the earlier Triassic period when the first dinosaurs were evolving. I have walked the coast from near Beaulieu in the New Forest to Beer in Devon but have yet to walk this section. One day ….

 

The detour to the coast was well worthwhile as we had great views of a male Cirl Bunting. Careful management and a Cornish reintroduction scheme is helping the threatened Cirl Bunting regain territory lost to agricultural ‘improvement’ in recent decades. Apart from a single bird seen in west Dorset a few years ago, all my sightings have been in south Devon, however the species has now crossed the Exe River and is now breeding in the coastal habitat between the Exe and the Dorset border. This photo was taken near Exeter in 2011.

 

There is no good news to report about Turtle Doves though. It has never been common during the 40 years I’ve been birding but there was always a realistic chance of seeing one when out birding, either on its breeding grounds inland or on migration on the coast. Now the triple whammy of habitat destruction at home, desertification in the African wintering grounds and relentless hunting pressure in autumn and spring (especially in Malta) is driving this lovely bird to extinction. I now know of only one location where it can be seen locally, just over the border into Hampshire at Martin Down, where we saw and heard four individuals a few days ago.

 

Of course I’ve carried on with the ringing program at Durlston this spring, but eight visits in April and three in May resulted in the capture of just 137 birds. It was not all bad however, we retrapped birds that ringed in almost every year between 2011 and 2017, including an eight year old Great Tit plus Lesser Whitethroats, Common Whitethroats and Blackcaps that had returned from Africa to breed at Durlston, some for several years in succession. Gathering information like this concerning longevity and natal philopatry (returning to your birth place to breed) is more important than ringing a large number of birds, that will never be heard of again. The commonest migrant was of course Willow Warbler. Willows have a longer and more pointed wing shape than Chiffchaffs but as any trainee ringer soon learns it is the lack of emargination on the 6th primary that is the clincher.

 

Olive-grey coloured Willow like this one may be Scandinavian birds of the race acredula

The movements of Firecrests at Durlston is a bit of a mystery. As can be clearly seen in the above graph, the vast majority occur in late October and November and probably mainly represent post breeding dispersal of British bred birds and birds from the near continent, The very few records in August and early September may be of locally bred birds. There have only been two records in spring on 21st April 2014 and 28th April 2018 – so where might they have come from?

 

This bird was ringed on 28th April this year. It looks in bad condition but it’s not. The black matted feathers around the bill is due to pollen which it has either fed on directly or has picked up whilst feeding on small insects attracted to the pollen. Chiffchaffs often arrive in the UK in spring looking like this and it is a generally held opinion that they pick up the pollen from stop-over sites in Spain (I haven’t got the actual reference so I’m being a bit cautious about the location here). It could be that this female Firecrest, which didn’t have a brood patch so was not yet breeding, had arrived all the way from wintering grounds in Spain.

 

Two Common Whitethroats, a female on the left and a male trapped at Durlston. The female was newly ringed but the male was ringed as a 1st year bird in August 2017.

 

Ringing at our site at Canford Heath was successful throughout March (although I wasn’t around to enjoy it) so it was decided we would continue into April. Three visits in the first half of the month produced the goods but another on the 19th after a spell of fine weather produced little, showing that the birds ringed earlier had migrated elsewhere as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A few Siskins hung around to breed but most departed with the change of the weather.

 

A comparison of the wing pattern of a first year male (age code 5) Siskin (top) and an adult male (age code 6) below with some welly boots included for good measure.

 

But an outstanding feature of the ringing at Canford this spring was the Lesser Redpolls. we catch a few throughout the winter but numbers really built up in  early April with 31 ringed compared to 3 during the rest of the winter. These must have been birds migrating through the area to points further north. Some had the classic red ‘poll’ whilst other had an orange ‘poll’. It’s not clear if these ‘orangepolls’ are all first year birds as some had adult type tails.

 

An adult male Lesser Redpoll in breeding plumage is a bit of a stunner.

 

I have neither the time or space to go through the complex vagaries of redpoll taxonomy except to say that Lesser Redpoll is the form (now usually treated as a species) that breeds in UK, Western Europe and the Alps whilst  Mealy Redpoll breeds all around the northern hemisphere in the temperate zone. Mealy (or Common) Redpoll is a scarce winter visitor the UK (but in some years it is irruptive and occurs in much larger numbers). Here in the south of the UK we get very few Mealies so the bird we caught on 9th April and again on the 11th was the first undisputable Meal;y Redpoll to ringed by our group. Its frosty appearance, pale pink breast and large size (wing of 78 compared to 68-73 of the Lesser Redpolls handled the same day) all confirm it as a Mealy.

 

Ringing of migrants is just about over for the spring. Some ringing of chicks in the nest and an important Nightjar study is about to start but I’ll be taking a break for a little while.