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March 2020 to May 2021 – what’s been going on during the pandemic?   Leave a comment

My most recent post was about my trip to Suriname in March 2020. I returned home on 13th and the first lockdown was imposed within a week. That was in force until early June when some restrictions were lifted, but not all. For the rest of the year there was (or at least seems to have been) a never ending re-imposing and then lifting of restrictions until just after Christmas when major restrictions were once again in force. Most of these are now eased but we are still not free to travel abroad.

I’m not criticising the restrictions, indeed I feel they should have been imposed earlier, but clearly they have had a major effect on my life, just like everyone else in the country (and the world).

We’ve been very lucky, relatives and friends have caught this awful disease but no-one we know has died from it, although one friend is unable to work due to the affects of ‘long Covid’.

Being retired our income has not been affected and although foreign travel has been out of the question, we have been able to go for walks locally, go birding and see other aspects of the natural world close to home, which is one of the great advantages of having an interest in wildlife – it can be found anywhere.

I’ve now slept in my own bed every night for 15 months, the longest such period in my entire life. I’m itching to go somewhere where I can see some life birds. I’ve had a never-ending series (possibly up to ten) booked foreign trips that have either had to be cancelled or rebooked for a future year. We will be going to Scotland in the near-future but but my real joy, birding in some far-flung part of the world, remains unfulfilled.

Here are a few photos from the last fifteen months. I’ve largely given up carrying a ‘proper’ camera at home, I damaged my shoulder last year and can’t manage both a camera and a scope + tripod and as a result quite a few of these photos have been taken by others.

 

So from mid March to the start of June we were restricted to a daily exercise walk (ie bit of birding) close to home. Fortunately I have three good areas within walking distance of home, Lytchett Bay, Holes Bay/Upton Park and Upton Heath. In addition I watched a lot of birds in the garden such as this male Common Starling.

 

Initially the Ringing Office of the BTO said we could not ring birds away from our own property, they later rescinded this providing we gathered in suitably small numbers, socially distanced and checked that landowners did not object. However we were requested to ring birds in our gardens wherever possible to allow the flow of data about our common birds to continue. Some people consider that ringing is all about studying migration routes and now that data loggers can gather so much information from a very few birds captured, large scale ringing is redundant. However by recording the fat and muscle state, weight, size, moult condition and age much is discovered about the birds by continuing to ring on a large scale. Trackers/data loggers are expensive and can only give data on a tiny percent of the population. Here my mist net is set up in the garden. You can clearly see the pole that holds the net on the left but to all intents and purposes on a still day, the net is invisible if viewed again a dark background. In spring 2020 I ringed over 150 Starlings in the garden and was able to study the progress of the complete post-juvenile moult (a moult strategy which only occurs in a handful of species in the UK). Quite a number have been retrapped this spring whilst others have been recovered elsewhere in Dorset.

 

With the very cold spring and lack of invertebrates, the number of Starlings are far smaller this year. However I did get a major surprise (and a nasty nip) when I found this juvenile Carrion Crow in my net recently. Like many crows it shows evidence of partial albinism which may be caused by a lack of the correct nutrients at a critical stage of development.

 

At the start of June 2020 some restrictions were lifted and we were able to ring outside our property again.

 

My favourite site, Durlston isn’t very good at this time of year so I made quite a few attempts at Lytchett Heath, a part of Lytchett Bay.

 

At this time of year we were able to ring a number of breeding Reed and Cetti’s Warblers, Reed Buntings and Stonechats.

 

We caught a Jay here this spring, quite a stunner but also quite a noisy and aggressive bird in the hand.

 

One aspect of ringing that I particularly enjoy is training new ringers. This is Joe who works for the charity Bird of Poole Harbour holding a Kestrel we trapped at Durlston. During the summer of 2020 he was always up for ringing at Lytchett and although numbers ringed were small (at least early in the summer before return migration started) it aided his training and provide information on local breeding birds. Joe has since obtained his ringing licence and is fitting in as much ringing as he possibly can.

 

One of the best birds we regularly catch at Lytchett Bay are Bearded Reedlings (or Bearded Tits) which breed in the wet and very muddy reedbeds. This is an adult male.

 

The bird we are most interested in ringing at Lytchett Bay is the Aquatic Warbler. I once wrote a blog post just about this species see see here . We have now ringed 99 Aquatic Warblers over the years (not just at Lytchett Bay) and ringing often reveals the presence of this species in areas where birders just can’t reach such as dense reed and sedge beds, In 2020 we were lucky to catch this bird on 12th August. Unlike the vast majority of the Aquatics we’ve ringed, it was an adult and could be sexed as a female due to the remnants of a brood patch. Even more amazingly the same bird was retrapped in Palencia, central Spain 16 days and 983km later. In truth I wasn’t there when it was trapped (I was having a much needed rest from ringing due to multiple early starts) but I received a phone call as soon as it was found and as the site is less than a mile from my house, I was there before they had finished processing it.

 

For much of the autumn I spent as much time as I could at the beautiful Durlston Country Park, just south of Swanage. It takes me less than 30 minutes to drive the 18 miles from home pre-dawn but once the ‘grockles’ are about in the summer it can take an hour to get back.

 

Our ringing site is in a fenced off area at the highest point of the park. Migrants tend to move towards this area during the first few hours but unfortunately being the highest point its not that sheltered and wind can disrupt our ringing. From July to November I was able to visit 50 times and we ringed over 3800 birds of 47 species. I have written up all the data, with multiple charts and graphs and presented it to the park managers and county bird recorder.

 

Of course the main reason to ring birds at Durlston is to study common birds, which at this site during peak migration is Willow Warbler in August and Chiffchaff and Blackcap in September and October. These three species make up the bulk of the birds processed. This Willow Warbler is unusually grey and might be of the Scandinavian race acredula.

 

In August lots of Tree Pipits fly overhead and we manage to ring quite a few but after the first week of September they are replaced by Meadow Pipits (shown above), there is surprisingly little overlap between these two similar species. Surprisingly we have had more recoveries of Tree Pipit (one in Wales and one in Scotland) than we have had the commoner Meadow Pipits.

 

By mid October most warblers have moved through but its a good time to ring finches and Goldcrests and if you’re lucky a few Firecrests (shown above) as well.

 

Scarcer birds, particularly in August include Pied Flycatcher …

 

… and Spotted Flycatcher, both seem to have declined in recent years, particularly Spotted of which are annual totals have varied from one to eight over the last ten years.

 

Sparrowhawks are such magnificent birds in the hand that the occasional capture of one delights the newer ringers. Before you ring one you have to determine the sex and males take a smaller ring size than females. The grey head and mantle indicates a male but wing length is the deciding factor.

 

We were lucky enough to catch a female Sparrowhawk this spring, the brown mantle and larger size made it easy to sex.

 

There is one aspect of ringing that isn’t appreciated by most (who think its all about studying migration) and that is recording moult. This male Stonechat was ringed at the end of May. It can be aged as a 1st year ie hatched in 2020 by the very worn flight feathers. Adults will have undergone a complete moult a month or so after the juveniles grow their feathers and the feathers are usually of a better quality, so are less worn by the following spring. In addition it can be seen that this bird has moulted the greater covers, tertials and some tail feathers as well as the body feathers. The primaries, primary coverts, secondaries and the central and outer pair of tail feathers have not been moulted. Studies of moult not only identifies what the bird is doing at each stage of its lifecycle but also may indicate its level of fitness, the hypothesis being that those juveniles that have a more extensive post-juvenile moult than average are the fittest individuals and are so more likely to survive the winter.

 

This spring we caught a lovely adult male Whinchat, the migratory cousin of the Stonechat. This is only the 4th Whinchat to be ringed at Durlston and the first in spring.

 

I was hoping we might catch a Whinchat this spring, but this bird was not on my radar at all. I had wondered if we would ever catch one of the dull-brown and quite unremarkable 1st year Common Rosefinches in autumn, as they are rare but regular especially in the Northern Isles and on Scilly, but a stonking adult male was beyond my expectations. There was just myself and new trainee present when we found it on the 28th May although two members of park staff were nearby and able to pop in. In the UK I’ve seen twelve Common Rosefinches; nine juveniles on Shetland or Scilly, an adult female on Shetland in the autumn, a male on Portland in spring years ago and this one. I have to say this was the most richly coloured one I’ve even seen (probably including the 150+ I’ve seen all across Eurasia).

 

With a range from Eastern Europe right across Siberia, this isn’t a rare bird within its range but it migrates south-east to India to winter and so the regular migration route avoids western Europe. For a while it expanded its range into western Europe and a few pairs even bred in the UK but they have since retreated. The presence of reddish tips to the greater and median coverts confirms that this is an age code 6 ie hatched in 2019 or before.

 

As well as ringing on Canford Heath in the winter our group also has a major study of Nightjars there and on other heathlands in East Dorset. It is magical being out there a the light fades and Nightjar’s rhythmical churring starts. Due to Covid I didn’t join the Nightjar researchers this year …

 

… but I was able to catch and ring eleven migrants pre-dawn as they passed through Durlston in later summer. This does require a very early start though!

 

A feeding station in a remote area of Canford Heath has proven to attract many birds and in late autumn and through the winter this site has been covered at least once a week. It does however sit in a frost pocket and can be very cold especially on misty mornings like this one.

 

One of the species we have caught there regularly is Greenfinch. The population of this species has dropped recently due to Trichomoniosis, a parasitic disease, however numbers may have started to recover, there are still plenty on Canford Heath.

 

During the spring and summer we also started ringing at a site in Wareham Forest. This is close to admin buildings, so we are only allowed access at weekends when the staff are absent. We caught a good number of Siskins, there and are amassing some interesting retrap data.

 

In 2020 I restarted mothing, something I tried in the ‘naughties’ but had let slip. This is my moth trap outside the conservatory door. I have already written a post about this in 2020 see here for the link.

 

In 2021 I started mothing again in late February. I wasn’t expecting much but thought it would pick up by late March. It didn’t, and April and nearly all of May went by with virtually no moths. Some nights the trap was empty, sometimes there were just one or two. I wasn’t alone, the dreadful weather of April and May has had a huge effect on invertebrate population and this is turn has affected the brood size and success of early nesting birds. A very few tit boxes that I’ve examined have either been empty or contain just three or four chicks. This is a Pale Tussock caught in early June.

 

There are 880 species illustrated in the ‘macro moth’ field guide but this is only one third of the total. The remainder are considered ‘micro moths’ (although there is some overlap in size between members of both groups). I find these far harder to identify, photograph and in some cases even see than the ‘macros’. Adding to the confusion is the fact that almost all micros in the field guide lack an English name. Recently English names have been introduced but as they’re not in the book, no-one uses them. I’m finding it very hard to remember all the names and since the weather and hence catches have improved I’m finding that its taking me all day to identify photograph and record all the species. This is a Epinotia bilunana which has recently acquired the name of ‘Crescent Bell’.

 

Although I wasn’t able to see as many birds as I usually do in 2020, especially in spring when we were advised to stay within walking distance of home, but during the summer and autumn and into 2021 I did get to see a few goodies. Each summer a number of the critically endangered Balearic Shearwaters arrive off Portland Bill from the western Mediterranean. This photo was taken off Mallorca in 2016.

 

In 2020 they were joined by a single Yelkouan (or Levantine) Shearwater from the eastern Mediterranean. Superficially similar, separating it from the commoner Balearics as they ‘sheared’ past the Bill was a bit of a challenge, but I eventually got good views. This was only the second record for the UK. This photo was taken off Tunisia in 2019.

 

We had a few days grace in early January 2021 before lockdown three came into place. During that time I visited the Avon valley on the Dorset/Hants border. One of the many birds I saw that day included a flock of five Ruddy Shelduck. This species is currently officially categorised as an escape from captivity in the UK which is ludicrous. I accept that most probably don’t come all the way from their breeding grounds in Central Asia (but probably did in 1994 when there was a Europewide influx) but there is now a substantial feral population in Europe involving many hundreds of birds which is surely the origin of most of our records. It’s doubtful that any wildfowl collection would allow five of their Ruddy Shelducks to escape simultaneously. Photo © Chris Minvalla taken at Radipole, Weymouth. Although the Weymouth bird could have been an escape (as it was quite tame) I consider the Avon valley flock to be of European origin if not genuinely wild..

 

Great Egrets were once very rare in the UK, now several pairs breed most notably on the Somerset Levels. Near us three or four can be seen at Longham Lakes. This is my photo, but I haven’t recorded where I took it, and as the species is almost cosmopolitan, it could be anywhere.

 

This Whiskered Tern, initially seen at Abbotsbury in west Dorset this spring conveniently moved to Longham Lakes a mere 15 minute drive away. Photo © Chris Minvalla.

 

A big surprise was the occurrence of a Red-billed Chough at Portland Bill in spring 2021. I have seen this species previously in Cornwall, Wales, western Scotland and Eire but only once before once before in Dorset at St Aldheim’s Head in 2003. Photo © Roger Howell.

 

Up to the end of May I had only left Dorset or West Hampshire once since mid March 2020 and that was just before Easter this year. A Northern Mockingbird (3rd record for the UK) had been in Exmouth, Devon for about a month but it wasn’t until  Eastertime that travel restrictions were lifted. Viewing conditions weren’t great, you had to scope across a busy road, over a number of gardens and wait until it flew up into a tree or a telegraph pole. Many birders ignored lockdown restrictions to twitch it but we remained ‘legal’ and waited until they were eased. This is only the third Northern Mockingbird record in the UK and the first twitchable one. The bird left Exmouth just a few days after we saw it but remarkably was then re-found in gardens in Sussex and then after a short gap again in Northumberland. Photo © Chris Minvalla.

 

Vagrants come and vagrants go but hopefully these birds are here to stay, well at least during the summer months. The biggest ornithological event of the year wasn’t any vagrant but the pairing up of two Ospreys in Poole Harbour. They are part of a reintroduction program started in 2017 and organised by the Birds of Poole Harbour and the Roy Dennis Foundation. The female CJ7 returned in 2019 and paired up with a male from the reintroduction program in early summer, but it was too late for them to breed. Hopes were high for 2020, however the male didn’t return but the female stayed around the nest and laid infertile eggs. The same happened this year but eventually another male O22 turned up, but again it looks like he arrived too late to breed. The reintroductions had to be halted last year because of Covid but will resume this summer. This was the first nesting attempt in southern England for 200 years! It will be a few years before we have a viable Osprey population in Poole Harbour but I’m sure it will happen.  Although I saw the female several times last year, I’ve yet to catch up with either of them this year. This nest camera from which this shot was taken can be seen on the Birds of Poole Harbour website by clicking this link

 

Of course the hardest thing about lockdown has being not seeing your friends and family. I haven’t seen my brother and his family since Christmas 2019 but have managed to see some of Margaret’s side of the family. We see her daughter Janis fairly regularly and a few months ago her granddaughter Kara moved from London to Bournemouth because she could do almost of all of her work online. This was taken on the Bournemouth seafront. Kara had shaved off all her hair for charity a few days earlier and had raised £1100 for Action Aid. In addition to the Osprey reintroductions, White-tailed Eagles are being reintroduced to the Isle of Wight and several of them have strayed to Dorset. I was sitting here having lunch with Margaret and Kara when a friend called to say a White-tailed Eagle had just gone over his house and was heading for mine!

 

I’ve been able to meet up with my friends from the ringing group as we are allowed to meet in small numbers for the purpose of volunteer research, but social meetings with other birders has been restricted to the weekly online ‘virtual pub’. Towards the end of May as restrictions eased a group of us were invited to my friend’s lovely old property just outside Wareham, our first face-to-face social event since Christmas 2019.

 

he and his wife are MDs of a major international cosmetic company, well known for its environmental credentials.

 

Within the grounds is this lovely walled garden, where various plants are being trialled for use in their products …

 

… along with methods for sustainable environmentally friendly production.

 

Much of the rest of the site is being managed as a nature reserve and includes a river floodplain, woodland and grassland. It has not been intensively managed in the past and the biodiversity is already high. The future looks bright for nature in this part of Dorset.

 

Our activities from June 2021 onwards will be the subject of our next post.

Suriname: 7th – 12th March 2020   Leave a comment

A major hitch occurred in our otherwise successful Guyana and Suriname tour when tour leader Eustace Barnes was denied boarding to the flight from Georgetown in Guyana to Paramaribo in Suriname due to the fact that his Yellow Fever certificate wasn’t in order (for further details see part 3 of my Guyana blog posts). Fortunately for the group local tour leader Sean (pronounced ‘seen’ not ‘shorn’) Dilrosun was there to meet us at the airport.

The role of a second bird tour leader can vary, sometimes they are excellent birders on a par with the advertised leaders but with the advantage of up-to-date local knowledge, but sometimes they have a more administrative role ensuring that complex local arrangements run smoothly. Fortunately Sean was in the former category. That’s not to say the tour wouldn’t be better with Eustace along, two expert birders leading a tour is bound to be better than one, but the trip extension was a great success thanks to Sean’s local knowledge and skill in finding the local birds.

One area that did cause minor difficulties was that Sean didn’t have a copy of the BirdQuest Guyana/Suriname checklist and the birds on list that he used were in a different sequence to ours. In the end I supervised the checklist sessions (not that easy when one of the participants was very hard of hearing) and I wrote an account of the extension for Eustace (which unfortunately had to be severely edited due to space considerations) before the final report was published.

The flight didn’t arrive until 2300 but in true Birdquest style we stopped to see if we could spotlight a Striped Owl near the airport. No luck there, but Little Tinamou, Common Potoo and Paraque were heard, not the usual species that you record on the run between the airport and the first hotel!

Paramaribo is a fair way from the international airport so it was well after 0100 when we got to bed, indeed our ‘goodnights’ and ‘good mornings’ almost overlapped. We set off early, but not bright, to a forested area near the city where we soon scored with Suriname’s only endemic bird, Arrowhead Piculet, which we saw without difficulty.

 

 

Suriname’s only endemic, Arrowhead Piculet, is a diminutive woodpecker. As it was high above me I failed to get a decent shot and so have used one taken by my friend Martin Reid see www.martinreid.com

 

Even more impressive was the ‘drop dead-gorgeous’ male Crimson-hooded Manakin seen nearby and the Mangos (hummingbirds) in the tall trees were examined until we were sure that the males had green throats rather than black ones. Photo by Nich Athanas from GrrlScientist hosted by the Guardian

 

Our Suriname tour guide – Sean Dilrosun

 

Moving on, we stopped briefly to admire a roadside Slender-billed Kite, thanking a local family for letting use their garden to get the best photo angle …

 

Our next stop was an area of white sand forest, a low woodland growing on nutrient poor soil. On route we passed the perimeter of the airfield where we saw a White-tailed Hawk drop onto prey …

 

as well as the widespread (southern USA to Argentina) Burrowing Owl …

 

This one was probably keeping its eye on the White-tailed Hawk.

 

As well as some passerine targets we found a roosting Lesser Nighthawk …

 

… and the lovely Tropical Screech-owl in both the grey …

 

… and rufous phases.

 

We continued on to the town of Brownsweg where we swopped buses to this rugged four-wheel drive variety complete with reinforced roll bars.

 

We were heading for the Brownsberg reserve where because of a recent drought had completely run out of water so we had to bring enough for cooking, washing and loo flushing!

 

We slowly climbed up the the reserve birding on route.

 

We had driven down from Paramaribo to Brownsweg and then taken the dirt road south-east to the elevated reserve of Brownsberg at the north-west corner of Brokopondo Reservoir, the largest area of fresh water in the country. After two nights here we descended back down to Brownsweg and drove south on the highway and then west to a location in the lowland rainforest known as Fred’s Place where we stayed for a further two nights.

 

The accommodation at Brownsberg was pretty basic especially as we had to take turns to ‘shower’ using a bucket and a ladle but the views over the reservoir at dawn were spectacular.

 

Around the lodge where a number of Red Howler Monkeys …

 

… the adult males in particular were impressive.

 

Less impressive but far rarer and far more elusive where the White-faced Saki Monkeys. However as they were so retiring, keeping to the shadows, it was hard to get a decent photo.

 

In part three of the Guyana write up I posted a poor photo of the elusive Grey-winged Trumpeter …

 

… here in Brownsberg a group have been habituated at a feeding station allowing for excellent views …

 

… they even bring their chicks along with them. Note how the light catches the iridescent feathers on their breasts.

 

Among the many other ‘golden’ goodies at the site were – Golden-headed Manakin …

 

… and Golden-green Woodpecker.

 

Although only seen in deep cover we had a great listen to the song of the Musician Wren, one of the best songsters in the world. Click on the link below to hear recordings on Xeno-canto.

Song of Musician Wren from Xeno-canto

 

Another mega was the beautiful Collared Puffbird, a lifer for me and I think all of the group (photo by ‘thibaudaronson’ via Wiki Commons).

 

Another treat was seeing Lined Forest-falcon. Forest-falcons are a group of seven elusive falcons of dense neotropical forests that seldom show well and seldom if ever appear above the canopy. I had previously seen this species in Venezuela but it was a particular target for one participant who had repeatedly dipped on it in the past. It took some time but we eventually got great views. (Photo by Tony Castro via Wiki Commons).

 

But one of the best of all was the beautiful Crested Owl, found at its daytime roost. I have seen this bird before in Colombia but only at night so it was great to study every nuance of the plumage.

 

There are 256 species of owls in the world. Many are small lookalike scops or pygmy owls that are best separated by voice, some are medium-sized Strix and Ninox owls and then of course there’s the big eagle-owls and ‘megas’ like Great Grey and Snowy of the far north. But I challenge anyone to find a more impressive owl than Crested.

 

This snake shot across our path but as yet I’ve been unable to find anyone who can identify it for me. Can any ‘herpers’ out there help?

 

After a final morning’s birding at Brownsberg we descended to the main road and headed south …

 

… turning off westwards onto this dirt road for the long drive to ‘Fred’s Place’.

 

Fred, an indigenous Suramimese, once saw a remote inselberg from a plane. He was able to locate the site on the ground after days of trekking through virgin forest. He obtained permission to build a lodge beside the river which now caters for naturalists and trekkers. The accommodation consists of a series of huts along the bank with a central cooking and dining area. It was a lovely place to stay and much comfortable than Brownsberg.

 

We could watch Long-tailed Hermits and other hummers whilst eating our meals.

 

Among the many birds we saw was this White Hawk …

 

… White-throated Toucan …

 

… Channel-billed Toucan …

 

… and this Paradise Jacama swallowing its prey.

 

Two other Jacama species posed for photos, Yellow-billed …

 

… and Brown.

 

Another of those Neotropical ‘near-passerine’ Families are the Puffbirds. Some members of the puffbird Family like the Collared Puffbird above can be hard to see but these Black Nunbirds certainly weren’t.

 

Another conspicuous bird (in its choice of perch – if not in its numbers) is Long-tailed Tyrant which was seen occasionally on dead snags along the roads.

 

There weren’t as many cotinga species in Suriname as in Guyana but we did get good views of Purple-throated Cotingas but unfortunately not the elusive Dusky Purpletuft.

 

We came across this stand in the forest, was it a strangely located beverage stand? Apparently drinks are left by locals as a gift to the spirits of the forest.

 

There was good birding to be had along the river as well.

 

Sean took us to a spot near the lodge where the tiny and very elusive Zig-zag Heron occurs, we got some reasonable views but no photos.

 

Damp areas where good for the delightful (yet poisonous) poison-arrow frogs.

 

On one part of the river we found a colony of White-banded Swallows …

 

… here are two adults and a juvenile.

 

But the most exciting moment occurred on our last morning, setting off on yet another failed Dusky Purpletuft search we came across this Harpy Eagle sat in a tree. This is (well at at least the females are) the largest of all the eagles, adapted to snatch monkeys and sloths out of the trees. The legs are so powerful that the tarsus is as thick as a man’s wrist.

 

It was only there for a few seconds but I managed to get this flight shot. Most encounters are of birds at known nests and just coming across a one randomly by a trail is a rare event indeed.

 

So that was it, we left Joe’s place and returned to Paramaribo for the overnight flight to Amsterdam and then onto Heathrow. I had been away for nearly a month and the world had changed in that time.

What had been a problem in just one city in China when I left had become an epidemic in Europe and now we were flying back to it. I was quite shocked that we had (quite rightly) our temperatures checked before we left Paramaribo but not on arrival at Amsterdam or Heathrow.

Of course from mid March 2020 until now I’ve not been able to go anywhere and indeed I’ve spent the last 450+ nights sleeping at home. During periods of relaxation of lockdown rules I’ve been able to do some birding outside the immediate area, but there’s been no UK holidays, let alone foreign ones and of course there have been no additions to my life list.

I can’t complain, Coronavirus has affected me far less than many people who have had to endure real tragedy and hardship but I’m really looking forward birding in some remote location once again.

So my blog is now up to date apart from perhaps posting photos of a few of things I’ve seen in the last year. In addition there are a few foreign trip over the last decade where I’ve either only posted a summary or not posted anything at all. I’ll probably start sorting out some photos from those.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guyana part three: the northern rainforest and the coastal region. 1st – 7th March 2020   Leave a comment

In this post I cover the final part of our visit to Guyana where we stopped at three lodges in the northern rainforest zone and then in the capital Georgetown.

 

This had been a great tour for raptors and as we left the savannah behind of course we encountered a new set of species. The familiar Black and Turkey Vultures were replaced with the much rarer and seldom seen Greater Yellow-headed Vulture …

 

… and the impressive King Vulture, both rainforest species.

 

We stayed overnight at Sumara lodge which was undergoing some reconstruction.

 

There was a Yellow-rumped Cacique colony in the clearing …

 

… and Ruddy Pigeons on the forest floor but the Harpy Eagles weren’t breeding this year so no amount of hiking in the forest could turn up one of the most sought after raptors in the world. We did however see a good range of cotingas, tyrannulets, tanagers and other forest species.

 

Then it was on to Atta Lodge, one of the best locations on the trip and definitely the best rainforest location of the trip. In the clearing around the lodge there were a group of Black Currasows wandering about like domestic turkeys and when I got to my chalet I found the shutters on both sides open and hummingbirds zipping through the room and over my bed to reach a hummingbird feeders just outside the window.

 

This Red-fan Parrot was extraordinarily tame and was presumably a rehabilitated bird.

 

… but there was no doubting the credentials of this Red-and-green Macaw.

 

Admittedly not the best of photos, but it was pleasing to see this pair of Paradise Jacamas …

 

… and the extraordinary antics of Spider Monkeys.

 

In a river bed we came across a pair of Sunbitterns …

 

… but the best sightings was this rare Black-faced hawk, a life bird for me …

 

… and the extraordinary Rufous Potoo, seen at a day time roost. There are seven species of Potoos, a nightbird related to the nightjars, all in the Neotropics. I have now seen six of the seven; the seventh Andean Potoo was a heard only in Ecuador. Rufous Potoo is probably the hardest of all to find. Common and White-winged Potoo were also seen on the trip, three species in one trip is almost an overdose of luck.

 

We also visited the canopy walkway …

 

… it was a a bit of squeeze getting everybody onto the platform.

 

Eustace wrote in his trip report: We then made a quick late afternoon visit to the afternoon visit to the canopy walkway where we worked through Todd’s and Spot-tailed Antwrens, Buff-cheeked and Lemon-chested Greenlets, Red-legged, Purple and Green Honeycreepers and a number of Flame-crested, Paradise, Bay-headed and Spotted Tanagers etc etc. We also found Green Aracari, our first Waved Woodpeckers and a pair of Golden-sided Euphonias. I should also report that we encountered no sweat bees. (The latter being an unwelcome visitor at many such canopy platforms).

 

But a lot of our time was spent in the clearing by the chalets. Here Denzel, Mike Karin and Eustace scan the treetops for cotingas. Purple-breasted Cotinga, Purple-throated Fruitcrow were regular, but the main targets, Dusky Purpletuft and Crimson Fruitcrow proved elusive. Some got a glimpse of the latter but it always disappeared before I could get anyone on to it.

 

Finally on the last morning the Crimson Fruitcrow stayed long enough for everyone to get views. I didn’t get a photo so I have used one by © Alan Lewis (no relation!) taken from the Surfbirds website.

 

For most of our time in the clearing we were accompanied by Black Curassows …

 

… certainly a lot tamer than their ‘crestless cousins’ that we saw earlier in the tour.

 

We travelled on to our next lodge at Iwokrama and stopped on route to admire some Blue-and-yellow Macaws.

 

These are some of the most beautiful of all macaws, indeed of all parrots …

 

… perhaps our familiarity of them at home from bird parks and zoos means they don’t get quite the recognition they deserve.

 

Iwokrama River Lodge is located by the Essequibo River. Our time here was divided between birding on the tracks and taking boat trips on the river.

 

One such boat trip took us to trail that led to Turtle Mountain (named after it’s resemblance to an upside down turtle shell, not because it had a surfeit of turtles on the summit).

 

On route we saw a flock of seven Capped Herons (together with a Cocoi Heron on the left), four on the bank …

 

… and three in the trees.

 

I’ve posted a number of photos of Great Black Hawk, which seemed unusually abundant on this tour, but this is the first photo I’ve posted of one in juvenile plumage.

 

The hike up to Turtle Mountain was a little arduous, but we saw some great birds like Spotted Antpitta, but the much sought after Rufous-winged Ground Cuckoo was a heard only.

 

Eustace at the lookout at Turtle Mountain. The main target was the rare Orange-breasted Falcon which we failed to see (but I have seen in in Peru with Eustace on a previous trip), we did see a White Hawk which was some compensation.

 

We also took a late afternoon boat trip in the opposite direction …

 

… arriving at some rapids where we found a feeding Large-billed Tern …

 

… a species with a wing pattern like a Sabine’s Gull.

 

A few minutes at the rapids …

 

… gave us views of common species like Great Egret …

 

… as well as the range restricted Black-collared Swallow. These two seem to be ignoring each other …

 

… but that was soon to change. Guess it was a case of making hay whilst the sun shines …

 

… which wasn’t going to be for long as there was a big storm approaching from down stream.

 

Fortunately the storm largely missed us and it was dry by the time we got back to the dock- where the biggest Black Caiman I’ve ever seen was hanging around in the hope of scraps.

 

The next day we crossed the Iwokrama River on a very dodgy ferry and started the long drive north to Georgetown.

 

Just over the other side we stopped at a site where we found some Grey-winged Trumpeters. There are three species of Trumpeter in the world, but this is the only one I’ve seen (although I did hear Dark-winged Trumpeter in Brazil).

 

The road north was unpaved and potholed and progress was slow. There have been plans to create a modern highway, which sounds great, but would open up the interior of Guyana to mining, logging and habitat destruction. I was worried that this guy had been in an accident until I saw his bike was parked on its stand. He was just having a kip on the roadside. Earlier in the trip there was a major dip on this same road when Eustace and one of the clients saw a large Jaguar on the side of the road. It might have stayed until the other two vehicles arrived but for the arrival of a motorbike coming in the opposite direction. So near yet so far. I’ve been to the best site in the world for Jaguars, the Pantanal in Brazil, but before Jaguar tourism was really sorted out and hence we dipped. I’ve always hoped since then that I would just chance on one – well maybe one day.

 

Eventually we entered the industrial heart of Guyana just to the south of Georgetown and returned to the hotel we stopped at for the first night.

 

Our time in Georgetown was divided between areas along the coast and Georgetown Botanical gardens (above). I like that the car on the right is parked on the lawn right under the ‘do not park on the lawn’ sign.

 

Our main target was the range-restricted Festive Amazon …

 

… and wild Red-fan Parrots (unlike the tame one at Atta) …

 

… and the little Blood-coloured Woodpecker, confined to coastal regions of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

 

Open areas held Tropical Mockingbirds …

 

… and the widespread Great Kiskadee.

 

Whilst an overgrown ditch gave good views of juvenile Wattled Jacanas …

 

… and adults too …

 

… some showing off their vivid yellow underwings.

 

Other species included the strange Greater Ani …

 

… and the pretty Bat Flacon.

 

Along the coast we passed the small settlement of Glazier’s Lust, surprisingly the next settlement was called Rebecca’s Lust. I guess there is some sort of romantic story involved there!

 

Recent storms had piled the debris up along the shoreline …

 

… but in the few remaining coastal forest patches we found Common Tody-flycatcher …

 

… Black-crested Antshrike …

 

… and Pied Water Tyrant …

 

… and just like I did in Florida, Yellow-crowned Night Heron …

 

… and Limpkin.

 

Two New World waders that occasionally occur in the UK were seen side by side Solitary Sandpiper …

 

… and a summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper (these are the ecological replacements of Green and Common Sandpiper respectively).

 

There were a few raptors as well, Grey-lined Hawk (a split from Grey Hawk of the southern USA and Mexico) …

 

… Black-collared Hawk …

 

… and most notably the rare, declining Rufous Crab Hawk which is only found along the coast from eastern Venezuela to northern Brazil.

 

 

Our final stop was a creek where Scarlet Ibis come into roost but we had to leave before dusk when the majority would arrive because we had to head to the airport and our flight to Suriname.

 

 

So then it was the hour-long journey back to the international airport and our short flight to Suriname, but this was not without it’s problems. I have carried a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate with me on trips for years but have never been asked to show it. Yellow Fever isn’t the problem it once was, indeed the closely related Dengue Fever is far more widespread worldwide. We were warned to bring Yellow Fever vaccination certificates with us but Eustace’s was out of date and they wouldn’t let him board the plane.

To try and convince them that his old certificate was OK (after three injections ten years apart, you are considered immune for life) he borrowed mine. I was caught between one official saying ‘get on the plane now its about to depart’ and another stopping me getting to the room ‘out back’ where they were quizzing Eustace. Eventually I got my certificate back, ran for the plane which took off the moment I was seated.

So we were heading to Suriname without our designated leader – what happened will be the subject of the next post.

Eustace did get a repeat vaccination and certificate in Georgetown and over the next few days made his way overland to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. He wrote the following in the trip report about his overland journey.

The entire trip, but perhaps especially the journey from the border to Paramaribo, could have been the subject of a Tarantino movie. It involved a minibus packed with fifteen or so Haitians, Venezuelans, an assortment of illegal Guyanans and me. Off we set, crammed in to a tiny van together with a Chestnut-bellied Seedeater in a cage lodged on the console between myself and the driver. Along the narrow uneven surface called Highway 1, the speed crept up to about 140km per hour, while the driver, using a couple of mobiles was arranging the next run. I got the impression business was good with Venezuelans and Haitians fleeing to Brazil. The Guyanans started kicking off, smoking joints and drinking a few beers adding to my discomfort. On arrival at the city limits, the various passengers were dropped off at their pre-arranged safe houses on the outskirts of the city. The stuff of novels!

This was one journey I was glad I didn’t have to make.

Guyana part two: central Guyanan gallery forests and savannahs: 26th February to 1st March 2020   Leave a comment

In the last post I detailed our journey around the Rupununi savanna and the gallery forest near the Brazilian border. In this second instalment I’m posting photos taken in the central part of Guyana especially around the Karanambu ranch and Rock View Lodge.

 

 

In this, the second post on my visit to Guyana we concentrate on the gallery forest and savannahs on the central part of the country.

 

We arrived at Karanambu ranch late in the day, the next morning our first target was a wonderful cotinga known as Capuchinbird (as the bald head reminded it’s discoverers of Capuchin monks). Two or three birds were present at a lek. They would puff themselves up and emit a bovine-like lowing to attract the ladies, hence an alternative English name is ‘calf-bird’. See below for recording on xeno-canto. I have seen this rare species once before in eastern Venezuela but it was as big a treat the second time as it was the first.

Recordings of Capuchinbird from xeno-canto

 

The ranch sits on the Rupununi River and quite a lot of our time here was spent on the river looking for specialities, especially the Crestless Currasow which is seldom seen anywhere else than here these days.

 

… Lesser Kiskadee, just one of a number of lookalike kiskadee species, but one that favours riverine habitats …

 

… Cocoi Heron, the South American equivalent of Great Blue Heron …

 

… and the powerful Black Caiman.

 

There were a number of raptors along the river, the impressive Great Black Hawk …

 

… the beautiful and elegant Swallow-tailed Kite (one of which has recently turned up in the Azores) …

 

… and a wintering bird from North America, an Osprey with lunch.

 

There are three species of stork in the Americas, Wood Stork which occurs in South & Central America plus the southernmost parts of the USA (see my account on my short visit to Florida prior to arriving in Guyana), Maguari Stork (see below) and perhaps the most impressive of all the enormous Jabiru (above).

 

Standing up to 1.5m tall, in South America it has a wingspan second only to the Andean Condor and some of the albatrosses seen offshore. It is the tallest and heaviest of the world’s 19 species of stork.

 

Drier areas held Green-tailed Jacamas.

 

Related to jacamas are the kingfishers. The New World has been rather short-changed when it comes to kingfishers with a mere six species over the two continents. I saw four species in Guyana, plus had a ‘heard only’ American Pygmy Kingfisher in Suriname and saw the more northerly Belted Kingfisher in Florida. This is a female Ringed Kingfisher, a super-sized version of Belted, and one of the world’s largest kingfishers.

 

The commonest kingfisher was Amazon. This, without the red band on the breast, is a female …

 

… whilst this stonker is the male

 

The size sequence of the six species (large to small) is Ringed, Belted, Amazon, Green-and-rufous, Green and American Pygmy. This is a female Green-and-rufous. Green Kingfishers were seen here but not photographed and one Pygmy was only seen, but only by a select few.

 

But our main target was the shy, rarely seen and elusive Crestless Curassow. This huge cracid has a wide range and has a IUCN status of ‘Near Threatened’ but Eustace said that it is seldom recorded away from Karanambu these days. Whether the IUCN threat level is now inaccurate or whether it has just become super-elusive elsewhere, I don’t know.

 

I have seen Giant River Otter on several South American trips but never in the numbers we encountered on this trip. We had already recorded half a dozen further south and then encountered up to 20 on at Karanambu. In addition there were some orphaned otters raised at the ranch for eventual release.

 

Nearly 2m long these are truly ‘giant otters’ and communicate with each other with a series of penetrating whistles.

 

Not everyone likes Giant River Otters and sometimes the adults are killed by fishermen and hunters. The late conservationist Diane McTurk used to take in orphaned otters at the lodge, something that still continues to this day.

 

This and the otter in the photo above are of these orphaned youngsters which will be released back into the wild in due course.

 

On our second afternoon we returned to the river, disembarked then walked through the forest to this secluded lagoon.

 

This Wattled Jacana was living up to its alternative name of ‘Lily-trotter’, running around on these giant Amazonian water lilies.

 

A Rufescent Tiger-heron stood guard …

 

… and Spectacled Caiman swam between the giant lily pads …

 

… and guess what, there were more Giant River Otters.

 

Also seen was the eponymous Tiny Tyrant-manakin, looking not only diminutive but also looking more like a tyrannulet than a manakin. In spite of 25 or so visits to the Neotropics I’m still in awe of those tour leaders who can take one glance at this type of minute sub-oscines and can recognise them immediately.

 

We returned down the river at dusk seeing good numbers of Band-tailed Nighthawks and huge numbers of Greater Fishing Bats.

 

Near the river we found this Common Potoo …

 

… we also went nightbirding in more open areas, illuminated by the inevitable savannah fires …

 

… but did reward us with great views of Least Nighthawk.

 

Other nocturnal denizens of the night (photographed at roost in the day) included Lesser Bulldog Bat …

 

… and the little Proboscis Bat.

 

We also spent time exploring the nearby savannah regions. Unfortunately it has become custom for the locals to burn the grassland in the belief that the new grass is more nutritious for the horses. Very occasional burning may prevent the grassland turning into scrub but at this frequency wildlife cannot prosper …

 

… especially when it leaves the ground looking like this.

 

Around some of the marshy areas we found White-headed Marsh Tyrant …

 

… the seldom seen White-naped Xenopsaris …

 

… but our main target was the rare and fast disappearing Crested Doradito, a bird whose name sounds more like a Mexican snack than a tyrant-flycatcher.

 

Although I’d seen it before (indeed I’d seen all of these four enigmatic tyrant-flycatchers before) my favourite was the evocatively named Bearded Tachuri, a tiny gem of a bird.

 

Its main range is from south-east Brazil south through the pampas of Paraguay and eastern Argentina but it does have an outpost in the llanos and savannahs of the north.

 

We also saw a few Maguari Storks, the Neotropical equivalent to the Old World White Stork.

 

But perhaps the highlight of the savannah marshes was these views of Pinnated Bittern. In the same genus as American Bittern, Australasian Bittern and our Eurasian (or Great) Bittern, it can be a tough bird to find. I must have spent 35 years looking for the gem in the Neotropics before finally coming across one in Costa Rica in 2017 so seeing six in Guyana, and getting such stunning views of this one as it tried to hide in very short reeds, was one of the highlights of the trip.

 

So it was goodbye to Karanambu and a return to dodgy bridges, potholes …

 

… and the never ending dust as we made our way north to Rock View Lodge.

 

We saw big flocks of Orange-winged Parrots on route …

 

Birds seen included Black-tailed Tityra …

 

… and Green-backed Trogon (although in my photos the back looks more blue than green).

 

Our next location was the Rock View Lodge at Annai, run by an eccentric Englishman called Colin. Our main target was a cock-of-the-rock lek but we also managed to see a lek of Long-tailed Hermit (hermits being one group of hummingbirds that have a communal display).

 

Even better was the seldom seen Guianan Red Cotinga. I was very lucky to see this on the old ‘Guianan trail’ in Venezuela in 1988, but it is a hard bird to see anywhere.

 

Our destination was this rocky outcrop where the gorgeous Guianan Cock-of-the Rock breeds, indeed we saw a female nesting on one of the rock ledges but due to poor light conditions the photos aren’t very good.

 

The same fortunately wasn’t true for the gorgeous males which were lekking in an area below the caves. There are two species of cock-of-the-rock, the deep red one in the Andes and this beautiful one on the Guianan Shield.

 

Like many of the key species on this trip I’d seen it before on my visits to eastern Venezuela but seeing them lekking was one of the trips highlights.

 

From here we continued on to to two more lodges further north before we ended the Guianan section of the tour back in the Georgetown area. That will be the subject of the next post.

Guyana part one: the southern savannahs: 22nd – 26th February 2020   Leave a comment

In the last post I explained how and why I stopped off for a few days in Florida on my way to Guyana in February 2020, here is the first of several posts on the Guyana part of the trip.

Although I had been to neighbouring Venezuela twice before, including its south-eastern border with Guyana, there were still plenty of new birds in Guyana for me including two particular goals, Sun Parakeet and Red Siskin. Although Birdquest had offered tours to Suriname before, now the first time they offered a trip there as an optional extension to Guyana, making this tour combination an irresistible attraction.

As the considerable avian attractions of Venezuela are now out of bounds to all but the most foolhardy of birders, then interest in Guyana, which shares many of its avian wonders, can only increase in the future.

 

I arrived in Guyana well after dark to find that the international airport was an hour’s drive south of Georgetown, so it was quite late when the taxi dropped me off a the hotel. Georgetown is situated by of the mouth of the Essequibo River, just under the ‘I’ in Wakenaam Island in the map above. Guyana was previously under French and then Dutch administration but the British took control in 1796, it gained independence from Britain in 1966. The capital Georgetown was named after King George III in 1812 and it is the only South American country where English is the national language. Initially we flew down to the Rupununi Savanna in the south-west, from here we drove slowly back to Georgetown over the next ten days.

 

Flying in from Miami we passed the Bahamas, an island group that I’ve never visited despite having a nice range of endemic birds (one for future perhaps).

 

As I said above, I arrived late that evening with time only for a quick chat with tour leader Eustace Barnes. The following morning I met the rest of the group and we departed for the nearby Ogle domestic airport where we caught a flight to Letham in the far south.

 

Here’s the view from the light aircraft as we left Georgetown with the Caribbean in the distance …

 

… and here the view of Letham and the Rupunui River as we came into land. On route we saw the large extent of rainforest and savannah that still exists in Guyana, as befits a country with the second lowest population in South America (about 790,000) however we did see a lot a clearing made by illegal gold miners who, as well as felling trees, use toxic chemicals like mercury to extract the gold.

 

Letham airport didn’t have much going for it, but soon we met our drivers and set of in three 4x4s to the 1700 square mile Dadanawa ranch tucked away in the vast expanses of the Rupununi.

 

With an avifauna not that dissimilar to the Venezuelan llanos we had plenty to see on route.

 

Eventually we arrived at the pleasant Wichabai lodge. These savannas can flood in the rainy season hence building it on stilts.

 

Of course we saw the ubiquitous Palm Tanager around the building …

 

.. but from the upper deck we saw Long-winged Harrier (above) and more importantly four Sharp-tailed Ibis, a declining species that I haven’t seen since my first trip to Venezuela in 1988! Unfortunately, although we got good scope views, they were too distant for photos.

 

Like the llanos, the Rupunui savannahs were excellent for raptors with species like the impressive Laughing Falcon …

 

… Savannah Hawk …

 

… Black-collared Hawk …

 

… and White-tailed Hawk.

 

So it was off early the next day, driving on rough tracks to a remote part of the ranch and a very good bird indeed.

 

Red Siskins were were once widespread across northern South America are now restricted to tiny areas of Venezuela and southern Guyana.

 

 

In captivity they can be made to mate with domestic canaries to produce red variants and so are in high demand for the pet bird trade. Relentless trapping has reduced the population to a few thousand but even at this highly protected site the current situation doesn’t bode well. Our leader Eustace has commented as follows: Unfortunately, aviculturists have not only discovered this population but also discovered a loop hole in the law regarding ‘natural resource’ exploitation in native communities. It goes like this – native people (as they live in tune with nature) are allowed to carry on using resources as they have done for countless millennia [including] controlled’ burns, taking fish, hunting and it seems, now trapping Red Siskins for pets! These are then sold to the avicultural community quite legally. Can you believe it?

 

Given their rarity I didn’t attempt a close approach so I’ve supplemented my photos with (an uncredited one) from Wikipedia.

 

The road back was equally bumpy …

 

… whilst negotiating the rocks we saw our first Great Black Hawk and then  noticed some Giant Otters in the river – but more about them in the next post.

 

… and after some lunch we departed and head off to our next stay at Manari.

 

Raptors seen on route included more Long-winged Harriers.

 

We went on a drive into the savannah that evening but for some reason had to use vehicles provided by the lodge, which were some of the worse I’ve ever been in, having to be pushed to start them and basically just falling apart.

 

We carried on the following day passing open savannah and gallery woodland.

 

We checked a number of spots along the Iring River, a tributary of the Rio Branco that forms the border between Brazil and Guyana (yes, that’s Brazil on the far bank). We found the localised Hoary-throated Spinetail but despite trying over and over again there was no sign of the Rio Branco Antbird which can only be seen along the banks of this one rive system.

 

Parrots were quite common and sightings of Red-and-green Macaws occurred regularly.

I guess this cyclist was used to seeing flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks flying overhead …

 

… but we aren’t, so a stop at this small pool was in order.

 

This area has numerous wetlands and small lakes and we enjoyed the sight of many waterbirds including the enormous Jabiru (Stork).

 

I mentioned in the Florida write-up that this is no longer Northern Caracara. Although split from Southern Caracara for a few decades the split hasn’t stood up to scrutiny and the populations north and south of the Amazon rainforest have been reunited as Crested Caracara.

 

Among the great birds we saw that afternoon were this lovely Chestnut Woodpecker …

 

… Painted Parakeets …

 

.. and Double-striped Thick-knee – a close relative of the Stone Curlews we get in the UK.

 

With both birds facing in opposite directions you can see how the ‘double stripes’ formed by the supercillium and coronal stripe wrap around the head and almost meet on the nape.

 

That evening we stayed at Karasabani, this small village of indigenous Guyanans is the focal point of efforts to save the the endangered Sun Parakeet.

 

That said they weren’t all that welcoming. In spite of the fact that we had booked the whole guest house we found we were double booked. Eventually some sort of accommodation was sorted out for some of the group elsewhere.

 

It was a noisy and fairly uncomfortable night, with some unusual co-inhabitants, but well worth it for what we were to see the next day.

 

The next morning saw us birding along the road in the forest and it didn’t take long for us to find a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl.

 

Calling in the daytime and with a range from south Texas to Argentina, this is one of the most frequently encountered owls in the Neotropics.

 

Many other species were seen including Green-backed Trogon …

 

… and a species of puffbird known as Swallow-wing.

 

It didn’t take all that long before we came across of flock of the exquisitely beautiful Sun Parakeets.

 

Very popular with the pet trade Sun Parakeets (or Sun Conures) were once being trapped at the rate of 800,000 a year. There are now more in captivity than in the wild (from Wikipedia).

 

Once seen throughout the northern part of the Brazilian state of Roraima and southern Guyana, this species can now only be seen with any regularity in this tiny area around Karasabani, perhaps a couple of thousand wild birds survive.

 

From Karasabani we continued north to Karanambu ranch where we stayed for three nights, this and other areas in central and northen Guyana will be illustrated in the next post.

 

 

 

Southern Florida part two: 20th-22nd February 2020   Leave a comment

In my last post I explained that I was visiting Florida on my way to a trip to Guyana and Suriname with the primary intention of seeing my lifer Florida Scrub-jay and Manatee. The secondary purpose (apart from having an enjoyable time birding) was to add a number of species to my American Birding Association (ABA) list.

On the 19th I visited Jonathon Dickinson State Park where I saw the jay and Lake Kissimmee where I saw a wide range of species including a few that were additions to my ABA list.

Heading back south to West Palm Beach I stopped at Fort Pierce due to tiredness but heard at the motel that manatees could be seen nearby.

Whereas I wish to see as many of the world’s birds as possible, for the mammals I set my sights somewhat lower. In general I’m happy to see just one (or a few) of the different ‘types’ of mammal rather than every species, so at least one pangolin, racoon, genet or lemming for example, but one whole ‘type’ of mammals that I had failed to see anywhere were the Sirenians. The Order Sirenia comprises of two Families: Dugonidae (two species – Dugong and the extinct Steller’s Sea Cow) and Trichechidae (three species – West Indian Manatee, Amazonian Manatee and West African Manatee) in spite of spending quite a bit of time within the range of all five extant species I had never seen any.

 

I was out early and down at the marina at Fort Pierce looking for the sirenians. There was a Manatee centre, which opened at 10:00, signs saying ‘don’t feed the Manatees’ but no actual Manatees. Local dog walkers, fishermen and boatmen all said the same ‘they’re normally here but I haven’t seen any for a couple of days, probably too hot for them’.

 

One guy said the best place was at the pier on the outer banks, so I returned to Seaway Drive and crossed the bridge to the barrier islands, seeing a fairly tame Great Egret in the process.

 

Here I was at the actual ocean rather than the intracoastal waterway but there were no Manatees, just a lot of very tame Turnstones. The open ocean is in fact behind me (but there were no Turnstones in that direction).

 

Known in America as Ruddy Turnstone (because there is another species Black Turnstone on the Pacific coast), Turnstones are a bit of an enigma, found along shorelines and familiar to birders all over the world in the non-breeding season, they breed only in small areas of the high arctic, places that few people ever get to.

 

I pulled in as I re-crossed the bridge as I had seen two dots in the distance. They proved to be Magnificent Frigatebirds, another ABA area tick.

 

Not taken on this trip, but here’s a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds taken in the Caribbean in 2017.

 

By the time I got back to the Manatee centre it was 10:00 and it was open. The lady there said that because it was so hot the Manatees would have moved out into the intracoastal waterway and the best way to see them was to join a boat trip which departed at 10:30.

 

Nice boat trip, lots of cormorants, a few shorebirds, White Ibis (above) and herons …

 

… and of course lots of Brown Pelicans.

 

I hadn’t realised that pelicans were that dangerous!

 

We had good views of Bottle-nosed Dolphins but no Manatees.

 

So now it was time to head down to West Palm Beach where I found Manatee Lagoon sheltering behind the local power station.

 

The warm water outflow from the power station attracts hundreds of them during the winter, but not today due to the unseasonal high temperatures which were being measured in 80s F not the expected mid 60s (that an increase from 18 C to 28 C for everybody who doesn’t live in the USA, Palau, Cayman Is, Belize or the Bahamas).  Apparently there were four there yesterday, which explains why I said earlier that I regretted my decision to head north after seeing the scrub-jays yesterday as there would have been time to drive south to West Palm Beach see the Manatees and get to Lake Kissimmee in time for the boat trip.

 

I did get to see a number of Barracuda and Tarpon, huge fish that were clearly visible from the observation deck, I was told Manatees might swim by just off the viewing platform, but I was there for a couple of hours and saw nothing. I left and crossed the bridge to the outer banks and headed for John D McArthur Beach State Park (that’s a hell of a long name for a park). I’d hoped to find vantage points where I could scan the lagoon but it was all dense mangroves with few gaps. I managed to see a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher but little else. I returned to Manatee Lagoon in the hope that as the day cooled they might return but I arrived at 1605 to find they had closed five minutes earlier.

 

I had to be in Miami the following morning, so with a profound sense of disappointment I joined the I-95 and headed south. Soon the traffic built up and the traffic slowed. In spite of there being six lanes progress alternated between fast and very slow. I have driven in twenty-four of the fifty states, including in the cities of New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but have never seen such driving in the USA as I as encountered that afternoon. There were regular heavy showers but that didn’t deter some from driving at 80mph weaving in and out of the six lanes to gain a slight advantage. My guide the following day said ‘you have to realise that in Miami you’re not in the USA, you’re in Latin America’! (this photo is of the highways around Miami Airport taken from the plane as I left Miami and not necessarily of the I-95).

 

Rather than try and find target species by navigating the complex intersections of Miami’s highways I had booked a tour with Nature is Awesome guide Angel Abreu, Miami is full of introduced species and probably has (along with Hawaii) the highest number of introduced species in the world. One I was interested in seeing was Spot-breasted Oriole, a species I saw in Costa Rica in 2017 but not of course within the ABA area. This species at least looks like it belongs in the USA …

 

… unlike the Mitred Parakeet of southern South America. I suppose the UK equivalent would be comparing Little Owl to Rose-ringed Parakeet the former looks like it belongs but the latter doesn’t, even if both were introduced.

 

A bird that occurs in the northern Caribbean but in the States can only be found in parts of Miami and through the Florida Keys is White-crowned Pigeon. I thought we would have to search mangrove forests for them but here were a few sitting on wires in a suburban area.

 

The immature bird on the left can be identified by its grey not white cap.

 

Speaking of mangroves we went on to an area of dense mangroves where we tried but failed to see Mangrove Cuckoo (but I have seen quite a few in the Caribbean and Yucatan Mexico).

 

One bird we did see in the mangroves was Eastern Phoebe, either an early migrant or a wintering bird.

 

We did come across quite a few Yellow-crowned Night Herons.

 

We get Black-crowned Night Herons in Europe and they occasionally occur in the UK but Yellow-crowned but as far as I know has not been recorded in the Western Palearctic except for once or twice in the Azores.

 

1st year Yellow-crowned Night Herons are quite unlike the adults but of course have a similar dumpy shape.

 

We passed a rubbish tip on the way to the coast with a huge cloud of Turkey Vultures above it. It was clear that there was a continuous stream of them arriving from the south, migrating up from their wintering grounds via the Caribbean islands.

 

There were plenty of Turkey Vultures in the trees as well.

 

Once we reached Biscayne Bay we took a walk along the shore but soon we had to retreat back to the cars due to rain associated with a fast moving cold front. The sky quickly turned dark and a number of large columns of migrating Turkey Vultures appeared, their migration no doubt interrupted by the weather.

 

By using a wider field of view you can see how huge these columns or ‘kettles’ were.

 

Once the heavy rain had stopped we visited some lakes where we saw the introduced Green Iguana …

 

… and the native American Crocodile.

 

Other lakes held Wood Storks, Blue-winged Teal and American Coot. There is a single drake Green-winged Teal in the background.

 

Most of these ducks are Green-winged Teal. They are treated as a separate species in the UK from our abundant Eurasian Teal, but not so in the ABA area because they follow the Clements Checklist rather than the one produced by the IOC. Thing is they are, at least in males quite distinctive and although a number are seen each winter in the UK and they often remain into the spring there is been little or no evidence of hybridisation. On the far right of the photo is a Mottled Duck, a close relative of Mallard but with both sexes looking (almost) the same.

 

This pair of Wood Storks were a fine sight, seen close by due to the shielding provided by the vegetation. I could watch them probing in the mud with bills open ready to snap shut on some unsuspecting prey.

 

I’ve no idea what this beautiful dragonfly is, so if anyone can enlighten me contact me directly or via the comments below.

 

We finally returned to suburbia and beautiful big houses along the Miami’s many canals, we failed to see the target munias and parrots …

 

… but we did see the localised Bronzed Cowbird in a supermarket carpark. This species is only found in the Gulf States and along the Mexican border in the ABA area, although is common further south.

 

The dark clouds of the storm soon passed and blue skies returned. There were plenty of widespread Nearctic birds around, as well as the Florida specials, like this Loggerhead Shrike. The trip had been a great success for the birds but it still looked that I would be leaving Florida without my second lifer – the Manatee. However it was Angel to the rescue as he took me to a place where there was a fresh water outflow out into the salt water channels …

 

… and there to my delight were a couple of Manatees. Ok, perhaps I’d have got a better view of them at West Palm Beach Manatee Centre where you can look straight down on them, but beggars can’t be choosers.

 

In fact if I play with another image and remove the green glare by reducing the colour saturation to zero then the image isn’t too bad. Of course I was delighted to get this last minute reprieve.

 

I had a few hours on the 22nd before I flew to Georgetown in Guyana and Angel suggested I visit Key Biscayne, an island to the south-east of Miami at the north of Biscayne Bay connected to the mainland by a bridge.  When I arrived at dawn it was raining but that soon cleared. This early in the year I hadn’t expected passerine migration but that’s just what I got, it was classic ‘fall’ conditions after all (I mean classic conditions for a fall-out of migrants, not that it was like autumn!). The bird in the photo is an introduced Egyptian Goose. I hadn’t realised that they and domestic type Muscovy Ducks would be common all over the city.

 

Most of the warblers I had seen so far could be considered winter visitors, but as the rain eased the park was full of passage warblers daring about from tree to tree and steadily making their way north. As is always the case in a ‘fall’ of migrants they had all gone within the hour. Palm Warblers were the commonest with perhaps 200 seen …

 

… I also saw about 100 of the delightful Parula Warbler (above) and small numbers of Myrtle Warbler (formerly Yellow-rumped Warbler until it was re-split into Myrtle, Audubon’s and Goldman’s), the lovely Black-and-white Warbler (nicknamed the ‘humbug warbler’ back home), Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart and perhaps best of all – the stonking Yellow-throated Warbler.

 

With the migrants moving on I headed for the nearby beach. looking for shorebirds, gulls and terns.

 

One of the first birds I saw was this Fish Crow. I had seen many crows whilst driving over the last few days but I was unsure if they were the largely coastal Fish Crow or the very widespread American Crow. This bird was making the characteristic nasal ‘cah’ so there was no doubt of its identity.

 

There were quite a few waders/shorebirds on the beach, (Brits say waders, Americans shorebirds, but there are waders that don’t wade and plenty of other birds that aren’t waders that do, similarly not all shorebirds are found on the shore and plenty of birds that aren’t shorebirds are). This is a winter plumaged Sanderling, like Turnstone it can be found on the shorelines of most of the world during the non-breeding season but only breeds in a small area in the very far north.

 

The commonest wader on the beach was Semi-palmated Plover, a close relative of our Ringed Plover. Differences in face pattern and the small ‘semi-palmations between just two of the toes are hard to pick out and as far as I know all UK records of this species have been first located by its very different call.

 

With the Semi-P Plovers were a small numbers of the delightful and much rarer Piping Plover.

 

Also with the plovers was this ‘peep’. In the field the legs looked greenish and due to that and the very small size, I presumed it was a Least Sandpiper, although the legs were nowhere near as yellow as the ones I saw on Lake Kissimmee. If I’ve got this wrong please let me know in the comments.

 

Also seen were was a number of Wilson’s Plovers (foreground), their large bills making them easy to identify.

 

In the ABA area this species is confined largely to shorelines from the Carolinas to Texas.

 

Of course there were gulls on the beach. Always tricky to age and identify this was a good opportunity to photograph some of the American species starting with a 1st winter American Herring Gull, the diagnostic all-black tail can be seen clearly …

 

… and can also be seen in this photo. This species is most easily identified in first year plumage and nearly all the UK records are of first years. I’m surprised the AOU continues to lump this with European Herring Gull when genetic analysis clearly shows it to be more closely related (and possibly conspecific with) Vega Gull of eastern Siberia, rather than European Herring Gull.

 

A bigger surprise was the numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. A common breeder and wintering species in northern Europe (a lake near us has at least 2000 coming to roost in winter). I knew that a few, perhaps Greenland breeders, wintered in eastern North America but I hadn’t expected to see five or more in one place. This of course is in full adult plumage.

 

This appears to be a 3rd winter Lesser Black-backed (right) with an 1st winter American Herring Gull.

 

Another 3rd winter with two 1st winter American Herring Gulls showing the lack white tips to the primaries in some birds of this age.

 

Ring-billed Gull, (a Common Gull sized species) was common as well. This species wasn’t recorded in the UK until 1973, once ID criteria were widely known the number recorded annually exploded and it was soon dropped of the official rarity list. However by the start of the ‘naughties’ UK numbers sharply decreased and you’re no longer likely to just bump into one in the course of routine birding

 

In this phot there is (right to left at the back) an adult LBBG, two Laughing Gulls, an abundant species along the east coast, adult American Herring Gull and a rather small ‘large gull’ who’s identity I’m not sure of but could be a 2nd winter LBBG. In the foreground are a flock of Royal Terns, recently split from their African counterpart (which has now been renamed West African Crested Tern).

 

Among the Royal Terns was one that was colour ringed (thanks to Martin Reid of Texas who noticed the colour ring) and I sent the details off to the USGS who administer the bird ringing/banding scheme. I got this rather nice ‘certificate of achievement’ which showed that it was ringed as a pullus in Virginia in 2018. I’m afraid I couldn’t find a way of converting the pdf they sent me to a jpg for this post so I ended up doing it the old fashioned way – printing it and then photographing the print, hence the slightly lopsided and unevenly lit appearance).

 

Well that was the end of a very enjoyable few days in Florida with almost all targets under the belt. I caught the flight to Georgetown, Guyana in the afternoon and arrived that evening.

 

So let’s end the photos with a one of the best birds seen on that final morning, a lovely breeding plumage male Piping Plover.

 

However I have one final comment, this is taken from my notes written at the time:

 Miami has the reputation as one of the least friendly airports in the world. Having taken off your belt and shoes, emptied your pockets, placed all your stuff on the scanner conveyer, to be shouted at ‘did I give you permission to move?’ is downright rude and unnecessary. I’ve travelled through many hundred airports in something like 130 countries and have only seen that low level of service in the most remote parts of Russia.

Although I’ve only birded in Florida twice, I’ve passed through Miami airport a number of times on route to or from the Neotropics and have always felt that customer service is rock bottom. I have said that this aggressive attitude wouldn’t stop me visiting Florida, but it certainly means that I would route a visit to the Neotropics via some other hub like Madrid.

 

Southern Florida – part one: 18th-19th February 2020.   2 comments

Back in late 2019 I had no idea of the impending storm brewing in China and couldn’t imagine that within five months international travel and indeed most travel, would be banned for a year or more.

I was looking for a bird tour in late February/March and whittled down the possibilities to two; either remote and little visited areas of Borneo or Guyana and Suriname in northern South America. In the end I went for the latter which was a good idea, because as far as I can tell the Borneo trip didn’t go, whether that was from lack of bookings or cancellation due to the pandemic I don’t know.

So what’s this to do with Florida? I have paid a number of visits to the USA but my only time in Florida was limited to a few hours on the way to and way back from my first trip to Costa Rica in 1981. Florida has a number of bird species found nowhere else in the ABA area (USA, Canada and Greenland as defined by the American Birding Association) but all but one, the Florida Scrub-jay can be easily found in the Neotropics. But although I don’t make a habit of visiting the ABA area just to up my ABA list, whilst I was there I thought I might as well target the ABA ticks as well.

But the question was when to go, there were two bird species and one mammal, the bizarre Manatee, that I really wanted to see. If I went in the summer I could see Antillean Nighthawk, a bird that I have missed on all my trips to the Caribbean (as it doesn’t arrive on the breeding grounds until late April) and the Scrub-jay – but the Manatees would be well offshore in the warmer weather. If I went in the winter I could see Manatees and the Scrub-jay but not the Nighthawk. Margaret had no interest in going as she had lived in Florida for several years in her previous life, so I couldn’t turn it into a family holiday.

In the end I decided the best thing to do was to visit Florida for a few days on my way to Guyana this February and hope I could see the Nighthawk on a future visit to the Caribbean, so I planned for three and a half days birding in southern Florida.

 

The direct flight from Heathrow arrived in the late afternoon, which was of course, late evening UK time. All of the eastern cost of Florida encloses the Intracoastal Waterway. In fact this sheltered waterway can be navigated from Brownsville in Texas all the way up to Baltimore. When Margaret first visited the USA she lived on a 33ft yacht in which she journeyed all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Baltimore.

 

Accommodation on these islands and on the outer banks of the lagoon is reserved for the ultra-rich. Initial driving in the USA is always problematic as you adjust to driving on the right (or is it wrong?) side of the road. But exiting the airport at dusk into a multilane highway system in the rush hour was always going to be a bit of a nightmare, but I soon found my rather shabby motel. I was later told this was the type of motel that you could book by the hour for whatever nefarious deeds that you had in mind, but that didn’t matter, it was a convenient place to rest. Due to the time difference it was only 2030 when I went to bed but I was away by 0430 the next day and on the road north.

I drove 88 miles north to Jonathon Dickinson State Park, which I had been told was a good site for the jay, but I arrived far too early. Whilst waiting for it to open I birded along the road seeing species like Palm Warbler (above), Pine Warbler and Myrtle Warbler – a species I’ve seen on Scilly in the UK in the distant past.

 

Another common species was Northern Mockingbird. Amazingly one of these turned up in Devon in the UK this February but we were in the middle of a Covid lockdown at the time. Some chose to break the rules but I stayed put until they were relaxed and visited just before Easter. This was the third British record of this species (almost certainly ship-assisted) but the other two weren’t twitchable and so it has generated a lot of interest. Unlike the individual in the photo the one in Devon had a normal shaped upper mandible! Postscript – after writing this earlier today I heard that the Mockingbird has left Devon and has been relocated an equal distance to the east of me in West Sussex!

 

Once in the park it only took about 30 minutes to find a pair of Florida Scrub-jays.

 

Originally considered one species the ‘Scrub Jay’, it has now been split into four with Island Scrub-jay only on Santa Cruz Island off California, California Scrub-jay in the westernmost Lower 48 and Baja California, Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay in interior western USA and central Mexico and this species which is confined to south-central Florida. Clearly there is a research program going on here as both birds were colour-ringed.

 

I spent some time looking around the rest of the park hoping to see a variety of birds, I had some success eg with this Anhinga but I was later to regret that I didn’t drive back south and go for the Manatees at West Palm Beach.

 

I had booked a boat ride on Lake Kissimmee, a few hours drive to the north, for 1500 so to allow plenty of time I set off early. I arrived with loads of time to spare and birded along the access road and around the dock for a couple of hours.

 

Eastern Meadowlarks and …

 

… Loggerhead Shrikes were easily seen along the access road …

 

… and lots of American Kestrels.

 

Along the shore of Kissimmee Swamp I saw …

 

… Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Wood Stork bathing in the hot sunshine. The former of these two birds is common throughout the Nearctic region but the Wood Stork is (outside of Florida and southernmost California) almost entirely Neotropical. However I already had the species on my ABA list as many years ago, circling over Miami after a trip to the Caribbean, I saw a flock out of the plane window!

 

It wasn’t just the herons and storks that were sunbathing in the hot temperatures, a flock of Ring-billed Gulls had all turned to face the sun and were panting in the high temperatures, either that or I had chanced on a Ring-billed Gull choral group! This species has turned up so regularly in the UK in recent years that it has been dropped as an official rarity. I’ve seen 22 in the UK and it could have been a lot more if I’d have put the effort in.

 

A Forster’s Tern perched on sign, another species I’ve seen in the UK but only four times.

 

White Ibis fed around the margins of the lake.

 

This is a widespread species in Central America and Mexico, the Caribbean and northern South America but in the ABA area its confined to the Gulf Coast, Florida and the coast north to the Carolinas.

 

The related Glossy Ibis is more widespread being found in many parts of the Old World from Europe to Australia, including these days, occasionally in the UK.

 

However in the Americas it is largely confined to a narrow strip from Maine to eastern Texas. As there is another closely related species, White-faced Ibis further west then it may be that Glossy Ibis is a relatively recent colonist of the New World.

 

Ubiquitous throughout the whole of the Americas is the rather ugly Turkey Vulture.

 

One of my first big twitches in the UK occurred in 1979 when I went down to Cornwall to see the UK’s first Belted Kingfisher which over wintered on the River Camel. This species can be sexed by presence (female) or absence (male) on a chestnut belt on the breast, which isn’t much help here as the breast is hidden.

 

There are four species in the family Anhingidae, the ones in Africa, the Orient and Australasia use those geographic terms along with the name Darter, however the one in the Americas takes its name from Brazilian Amerindian for ‘snake-bird’ – Anhinga. This group of birds differs from cormorants by their long necks which can be shot forwards at great speed to spear rather than grab fish.

 

Soon it was time to head out onto the water …

 

… earlier there had been a question as to whether the boat would go or not as I was the only person interested, but another couple had booked, so it was ok. The boat, a sort of hovercraft with a huge fan at the rear, could skim over all the marsh vegetation in a way no normal boat could, but it was mega-noisy hence the ear protection.

 

With my lifer (the jay) under-the-belt it was time to look for some of the species that makes visiting Florida essential for ABA birders, starting with Purple Gallinule.

 

Not to be confused with what used to be called ‘purple gallinule’ in the Old World and which is now treated as six species of ‘swamphen’, this bird is a colourful cousin of our Common Moorhen. I’ve seen it before in Texas and many times in the Neotropics but these were the best views I’ve ever had of it.

 

Another widespread bird that is only found in Florida outside of the Neotropics is the Limpkin. Limpkins have an unusual flight style in which the wing is usually held above the horizontal and the up-stroke is faster than the down-stroke.

 

Perhaps one of Florida’s most iconic birds is the Snail Kite, (once known in the States as Everglades Kite, but as it occurs as far south as Argentina it’s not a very appropriate name).

 

The kites were visible almost constantly whilst I was at the lake.

 

Males have this slate grey plumage – note the thin and highly curved bill …

 

… that has evolved to winkle apple snails out of their shells.

 

This Snail Kite with a very broad supercillium and spotted breast is a juvenile. Females are similar but with a narrower supercillium and heavily streaked breast.

 

Other species commonly seen included Great Blue Heron …

 

… and Snowy Egret which differs from our Little Egret by its bright yellow iris and lores, yellow on the feet extending up the tarsus and even (as can be seen here) the tibia and more but shorter plumes on the head. There has been one record of the species in the UK, in Scotland in 2002, whilst there has been two records of Great Blue Heron both on Scilly (2007 and 2015) …

 

… however a most unexpected fact is that the ‘type specimen’ of American Bittern (ie the first one to be collected for scientific reasons) was shot in 1804 at Puddletown in Dorset, UK,  just 15 miles from where I live.

 

I had the most wonderful views of American Bittern from the boat, I have seen this species before in the ABA area and the UK but never this close.

 

Another heron seen from the boat was Little Blue Heron, again this has been seen in Britain and Ireland, just the once in Co Galway in 2008. Of all the five American heron species seen in the UK and Ireland I’ve only seen two back home; Green Heron and American Bittern.

 

There were also a good number of Great Egrets on the lake. Whilst widespread throughout much of the world its only been the last 15 or so years that they have become regular in the UK. So far there’s no evidence that a New World Great Egret has made it to Britain but they are separable on bare part colouration and plumes during the breeding season and are probably a different species from the Old World ones (with the Australasian ones being a third species.)

 

There were other raptors around the lake, I usually have difficulty in identifying all the mid-sized American raptors because I mainly see them briefly when driving but here in the south the commonest species is Red-shouldered Hawk. This is an immature.

 

But there was no difficulty identifying this magnificent bird …

 

… I tend to associate Bald Eagles with boreal forests, so it was a bit of a surprise seeing two breeding pairs just a few degrees north of the tropics. I have previously seen them on the Oklahoma/Texas border but that was in winter.

 

I saw lots of other species from the boat from the ubiquitous Boat-tailed Grackle …

 

… to a terrapin with the wonderful name of Florida Red-bellied Cooter.

 

Of course no visit to a Florida wetland would be complete without views of Alligators, big ones …

 

… baby ones …

 

… and some very close views indeed.

 

There were a number of small waders out in the marsh. When I pointed them out to the boatman he replied that he ‘didn’t do peeps’ but closer views revealed them as Least Sandpipers mainly on account of the yellow legs.

 

One of the highlights of the boat trip was really close views of a nesting Sandhill Crane. This species is migratory over most of its range, wintering in southern USA and Mexico and breeding in the north from eastern Canada to eastern Siberia. However there is a resident population in Florida and Cuba.

 

The boatman convinced me that this sitting bird was used to the boats and didn’t move at all as we passed by.

 

Back on dry land there were a couple of Limpkin in a paddock close to the dock.

 

This ibis-like bird isn’t related to the ibises at all but to the cranes, rails and gallinules, thus its taxonomically closer to the Purple Gallinule above that to the White Ibis and Glossy Ibis shown earlier in this post.

 

After leaving the lake I stopped a few times along the access road seeing a range of species, Eastern Phoebe …

 

… Savannah Sparrow (I once saw an ‘Ipswich Sparrow’ a localised race of Savannah Sparrow, at Portland Bill in Dorset – first record for the UK) …

 

There were also a good number of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the fields.

 

Back in 2015 we went to Kearney in Nebraska to see the huge gathering of migrating Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River. In Florida I saw about 40 Sandhills, in Nebraska we saw 150,000!

 

From time to time I mention that this bird or the other has been ‘split’ ie is now treated as a full species when formerly it was treated as a subspecies. Of course the opposite happens, sometimes two species are found out to be a single species and are merged or ‘lumped’. This has happened since I went to Florida with the Northern and Southern Caracaras being lumped into Crested Caracara. The two former species were separated by the Amazon rainforest but as deforestation continues the two ‘species’ met and interbred. It’s likely this is a case of incomplete speciation, given another few tens of thousand years of continuous separation perhaps the speciation of the two forms would have been complete.

 

I headed back south, I didn’t find any motels in the area, indeed the one I had planned to stay at was in ruins after having been hit by a truck a few months earlier. I asked about motels at a gas station but was told I was ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and not to expect such things. I continued back south on the turnpike until tiredness and hunger took over so I stopped just outside Fort Pierce. The first motel I tried was mind-numbingly expensive but I found another at a more reasonable cost. Whilst checking in I told the receptionist I was heading down to West Palm Beach the following day to look for manatees when a guy queuing behind me said ‘no need to go all that way, there’s some just down the road from here, I saw them this morning’.

So what happened the next day and the two days after that will be the subject of my next post.

 

 

 

 

Madrid and Toledo, Spain: 11th-14th January 2020.   Leave a comment

Following our successful trip to Southern Spain to see the Iberian Lynx and lots of birds (see previous post) Margaret and I decided to stay for in Madrid for a further three nights so we could visit some of the tourist sites.

 

So we would be close to the start point for our bus tour the following day we stayed at a hotel near the bullring, a little way out of the centre. We caught the metro to ‘Sol’ and walked the short distance via Plaza Mayor (above) to the Sunday Market at El Rastro.

 

Margaret had asked to visit this market, which was fine, only problem that it was bitterly cold, probably under -5 C and as we were going to spend the rest of the day indoors we didn’t take all our warm clothes.

 

Margaret managed ok but I just shivered for the duration and was so happy to find a shaft of sunlight between the building where I could thaw out a bit.

 

I needed a pair of woollen gloves not woollen cacti!.

 

With the temperature rising above freezing we set off for the Paseo del Prado, one of Madrid’s main and most attractive boulevards.

 

We continued on to the Reina Sofia art gallery which specialises in 20thC art where we were delighted to find that admission was free for seniors. We found most of the exhibits difficult to appreciate, being mainly abstract but there were a few exceptions (and it was because of these exceptions that we there) including several Salvador Dali paintings including ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking’. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

and ‘Face of the Great Masturbator’. I am not a great fan of abstract modern art but I make an exception for Salvador Dali whose surrealistic masterpieces I really admire. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

However the most impressive of all was Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ – I hadn’t realised the painting was so big, it filled the whole gallery in both physical and emotional sense. I love the (possibly apocryphal) quote that Picasso, under house arrest in Paris in WWII, was asked by a Gestapo officer who had seen a print of his masterpiece ‘did you do this?’ to which Picasso replied ‘no you did’. Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

From Wikipedia: Guernica (from the old Spanish name for the city of Gernika) is a large 1937 oil painting on canvas by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. It is one of his best known works, regarded by many art critics as the most moving and powerful anti-war painting in history. It is exhibited in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. The grey, black, and white painting, which is 3.49 meters tall and 7.76 meters across, portrays the suffering of people and animals wrought by violence and chaos. Prominent in the composition are a gored horse, a bull, screaming women, death, dismemberment, and flames. Picasso painted Guernica at his home in Paris in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists. Upon completion, Guernica was exhibited at the Spanish display at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, and then at other venues around the world. The touring exhibition was used to raise funds for Spanish war relief. The painting soon became famous and widely acclaimed, and it helped bring worldwide attention to the Spanish Civil War.

 

We only spent an hour or so in Reina Sofia as we weren’t that interested in 20th century art. We returned to road name and continued on to the Museo del Prado. Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

The Prado dealt with pre-20th century art and so almost every single exhibit was worthy of study and contemplation. There were works by El Greco, Goya, Raphael, Rembrandt, Ruben’s and Titian along with hundreds of other artists that I had hardly heard of.  Photo from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

However if I had to pick a single painting out of the whole collection it would be ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ an incredibly detailed triptych painted from 1490 onwards by Hieronymus Bosch. My late friend John had a book about the artist when we were at University together and I remember admiring it all those years ago. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

WE continued up the Paseo del Prado to the Plaza de la Cibeles …

 

… and continued on to the Puerto de la Alcala …

 

… and from there we caught the metro back to our hotel.

 

Today was the day of our bus trip to Segovia and Toledo. Segovia, dominated by the imposing Roman aqueduct, had long been on my wish list and Toledo sounded pretty good too. We had booked the tour in the autumn on the internet and discovering that the pick-up point was Las Ventas (the Bullring – see above), had stayed at the nearest hotel. The departure was at 0800 so we were there at 0750 and tried to board the waiting bus. However the guide said that this was the wrong company and our bus had departed at 0730. We rechecked the ticket, it clearly said 0800. Back in the hotel, we asked about car-hire, they directed us to a nearby place which opened at 0830 but it looked more like a repair shop to me and they looked mystified when we asked about hiring a car. We returned to the hotel but then at 0850 saw a bus outside with the correct logo. The guide apologised and said we should have been told about the change of time. Her bus was only going to Toledo, but after photographing our ticket and forwarding it to her boss we were allowed to board the Toledo only tour so at least we saw something and didn’t waste the day. Actually the Toledo only tour was really good, with quaint squares, interesting shops, a wonderful cathedral, a fascinating Jewish quarter with an old synagogue turned into a church, all set within a walled city high above a bend in the Tagus River. Back home, we made a written complaint and got a full refund, so we got a full day’s tour of Toledo for free.

 

On arrival at Toledo we climbed up the road on the other side of the Tagus River so we could get this panoramic view over the city. On the skyline right of centre is the fortress of the ALcazar of Toledo. To the left is the City Hall and behind it the cathedral.

 

We were taken down a series of narrow streets to see a series of beautiful churches, some markets and the Jewish Quarter.

 

Unfortunately as a year has passed since we did this tour (and I wasn’t taking a notes) a lot of details have slipped my mind. If anyone reading this can identify this church or spot any errors in the following then let me know in a comment.

 

This church had some beautiful detailed carvings …

 

We were shown shady courtyards with fruiting trees …

 

… quiet cloisters …

 

… with elaborately carved ceilings …

 

… as shown in detail here …

 

… and here.

 

Santa María la Blanca, the oldest synagogue building in Europe still standing, is now owned by the Catholic Church.

 

When the catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors in 1492 they also acted to convert or expel Spain’s Jewish population. From Wikipedia (again): Following the Alhambra Decree in 1492, to eliminate their influence on Spain’s large converso population and to ensure its members did not revert to Judaism, many Jews in Spain either converted or were expelled. Over half of Spain’s Jews had converted to Catholicism as a result of the religious persecution and pogroms in 1391. Due to continuing attacks, around 50,000 more had converted by 1415. Those who remained decided to convert to avoid expulsion. As a result of the Alhambra decree and the prior persecution, over 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism and between 40,000 and 100,000 were expelled. An unknown number returned to Spain in the following years. The resulting expulsion led to mass migration of Jews from Spain to Italy, Greece and the Mediterranean Basin. This can be seen with Jewish surnames as they began to show up in Italy and Greece at this time, like Faraggi, Farag and Farachi a surname which originates from the Spanish city of Fraga. The edict was formally and symbolically revoked on 16 December 1968, following the Second Vatican Council. This occurred a full century after Jews had openly begun to practice their religion in Spain and synagogues were once more legal places of worship under Spain’s Laws of Religious Freedom.

 

So this former synagogue is now a functioning catholic church.

 

We paid a brief visit to some Roman ruins.

 

… before heading to the cathedral.

 

The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo (or Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo to give it its full name in Spanish), is a truly magnificent building for more details see here

 

From Wikipedia: The retable of the Cathedral of Toledo is an extremely florid Gothic altarpiece; it is one of the last examples of this artistic style, which was disappearing as the Renaissance began to take hold in Spain. Commissioned by Cardinal Cisneros, the work was begun in 1497 and finished in 1504. Among the architects, painters and sculptors who collaborated in this collective masterwork were: Enrique Egas and Pedro Gumiel (design), Francisco de Amberes and Juan de Borgoña (estofado: the technique of finishing sculpture of wood with gilding and punched patterns, and polychromy), Rodrigo Alemán, Felipe Vigarny, Diego Copín de Holanda y Sebastián de Almonacid (religious images), and Joan Peti (carving and filigree). The retable rises to a great height above the altar; it includes an important statuary and a magnificent, delicate filigree of balusters, spires, small dossals, and chambranles, all done by Joan Peti. It consists of five continuous panels, the center panel being the widest; it is five storeys tall, and the lines of separation are stair-stepped. The themes of the central panel from bottom to top are: the figure of a seated Virgin and Child plated in silver on the predella, above this the tabernacle and a Gothic monstrance carved in wood, then a depiction of the Nativity, and above that, the Ascension. The whole culminates in a monumental scene of Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary. Further themes of the life and passion of Jesus are represented on the other panels.

 

Again from Wikipedia: One of the most outstanding features of the Cathedral is the Baroque altarpiece called El Transparente. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory behind the high altar, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, so that they are seeing through its transparency, so to speak. The work was commissioned by Diego de Astorga y Céspedes, Archbishop of Toledo, who wished to mark the presence of the Holy Sacrament with a glorious monument. El Transparente is several storeys high and is extraordinarily well-executed with fantastic figures done in stucco, painting, bronze castings, and multiple colors of marble; it is a masterpiece of Baroque mixed media by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The illumination is enhanced when the Mass is being said in the mornings and the sun shines from the east, shafts of sunlight from the appropriately oriented skylight striking the tabernacle through the hole in the back of the retable, giving the impression that the whole altar is rising to heaven. The fully Baroque display contrasts strongly with the predominant Gothic style of the cathedral. The cathedral is also illuminated through more than 750 stained glass windows from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the work of some of the greatest masters of the times.

 

More magnificent sculptures, …

 

… and ceilings.

 

The choir must sit in these sumptuous surroundings …

 

… shown in detail here …

 

… and here.

 

Chapterhouse of the Cathedral of Toledo …

 

… plus, of course the cloisters, were admired in their turn.

 

There was time to admire the shops and get something to eat …

 

… and to admire the city’s ancient skyline …

 

… and enjoy the panoramic view …

 

… before returning to our bus for the drive back to Madrid.

 

On our final morning we had time to stroll in the Parque del Retiro …

 

… enjoying the lakes, statues …

 

… and fountains …

 

… some of which were rather bigger than others!

 

We had a look at the impressive Palace de Cristal …

 

… which seemed to be used to house exhibitions …

 

… but all we saw were these coloured banners.

 

Of course I took my binoculars with me and was able to add two species to the trip list, both introduced, Monk Parakeets from South America, a bird that has been introduced to the UK, but fortunately hasn’t become established …

 

… and the familiar Egyptian Goose from Africa, which is established and spreading rapidly in the UK.

 

 

The ornamental parts of the park were a bit bare being as it was still early January, but we enjoyed our brisk walk on a chilly morning. Later we returned to the hotel and got a taxi to the airport.

Our few extra days in Madrid and Toledo worked out very well. We really enjoyed the two art galleries in Madrid and the tour of Toledo. Of course it was a shame we didn’t get to Segovia but if we had our time in Toledo would have been much less. I still hope that one day we can fit in a tour of Segovia but with the current travel restrictions nothing is certain.

Southern Spain – Lynx special: 5th-11th January 2020.   Leave a comment

Spain is my most visited country outside of the UK. Previously have made 14 trips there: two to Mallorca, three to the Canaries, two to the north and north-east and two to the south or south-east. In addition I’ve made five visits to Bilbao, return boat trips from Portsmouth, mainly for seawatching and cetaceans in the Bay of Biscay.

However I’d never been there in winter and although I had seen the ‘avian specials’ there were a few that I wanted better views of or ones I had only seen before they were split from other more widespread forms. But most importantly, there was a mammal that I really wanted to see, the endangered Iberian Lynx.

Although my other trips to Spain were arranged by myself, on this occasion we opted to go with BirdQuest. Some of my friends had tried to see the lynx, sometimes with success, sometimes without, but I knew the BirdQuest leader Pete Morris well and he has an excellent record of finding the target species, so joining him seemed the best plan. Margaret was keen to come as well, and we decided to add on a number of days on our own at the end to explore Madrid (which will be the subject of the next post).

Pete is also an excellent photographer and uses 1st class equipment. He provided a CD of photos to the clients, so with permission I’ve used many of them in this post as they are superior to mine. All his photos are marked ‘©PM/BQ’ ie ‘copyright Pete Morris/BirdQuest’. The remainder, unless marked otherwise are mine.

 

After meeting at Madrid airport we drove south, stopping at Castillo de Calatrava la Nueva, from where we had this great view and saw species like … ©PM/BQ

 

this rapidly disappearing Black-winged Kite … ©PM/BQ

 

… the common (and truly wild, unlike in the UK) Red-legged Partridge … ©PM/BQ

 

… the widespread Black Redstart (this one’s a female) … ©PM/BQ

 

… gorgeous Black Wheatears … ©PM/BQ

 

… Thekla’s Lark, which can be told from the similar Crested Lark by its preference for rocky habitat, different song and a shorter bill with a curved culmen. ©PM/BQ

 

The big surprise though was finding an Alpine Accentor which usually winters at higher altitudes. My first Alpine Accentor was an even bigger surprise, I was at Portland in April 1978 on one of my first ever visits when someone said ‘have you see the accentor?’. I had no idea what he was talking about but he directed me to a point on the the cliff edge where Dorset’s first Alpine Accentor was feeding – my first UK rarity and there was no body else watching it but me! ©PM/BQ

 

After dark we arrived at our rural hostel in the Sierra de Andújar, so it was the following day before we discovered what it looked like. ©PM/BQ

 

Our next couple of days were spent along the La Lancha road in the Sierra de Andújar.

 

There were plenty of Red Deer visible along with some Fallow Deer (of true wild origin here unlike in the UK) … ©PM/BQ

 

… and I was delighted to see some Mouflon, a species of wild sheep that was a lifer for me. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course many of the species we saw were familiar from home like Dartford Warbler (that breeds just up the road from my house), one of the few Sylvia warblers that doesn’t migrate south in winter.

 

Also present were Long-tailed Tits, here of the rather different race irbil. ©PM/BQ

 

Firecrests have become quite common in the south of the UK in recent years, no doubt as a result of global warming. We had fantastic views of several along the road. ©PM/BQ

 

Along with the closely related Goldcrest, Firecrests are the smallest European birds. ©PM/BQ

 

Overhead we saw good numbers of Common Ravens. ©PM/BQ

 

Of course there were Spanish specialities too. Mainland Spain (away from the Canaries and Balearics) has no endemic birds, but there are four that are endemic, or nearly so, to the Iberian Peninsula. The first is Iberian Grey Shrike.

 

Pete’s photo shows the pinkish tinge to the flanks well. Originally a race of Great Grey Shrike, the southern group of races (from Iberia and the Canaries across N Africa and the Middle East to Central Asia) were split off as ‘Southern Grey Shrike’, but this did not agree with DNA findings. More recently the Iberian form has been split as a ‘stand alone’ species and the other southern forms lumped back into Great Grey Shrike – although I doubt if this is the last word on the subject. See my posts on India and Mongolia for more. ©PM/BQ

 

The second Iberian endemic is Iberian Magpie. Birds very similar to this are found in Japan, eastern Russia and eastern China. It used to be thought that Portuguese navigators returned from the Far East with these birds which then escaped and established a population in Iberia. That idea was quashed with the discovery of 40,000 year old bones in a cave in southern Spain. DNA evidence has shown that the two populations diverged long enough ago to be considered separate species. ©PM/BQ

 

However I would query if Iberian Magpie is the best English name. Several of the clients thought that when Iberian Magpie was called they were referring to this bird above. Having heard something about Eurasian Magpie being split (that’s the Maghreb population not the Iberian one, although a different race these are decidedly the same species as the one we get in the UK) they thought this was the bird being discussed Wouldn’t it be better to call Iberian Magpie, Iberian Azure-winged Magpie and the other species Asian Azure-winged Magpie. OK, its a bit of a mouthful but the Iberian/Asian bit would be dropped for field use and there would be no confusion. ©PM/BQ

 

Picus viridis sharpei 033.jpg

The third Iberian endemic is Iberian Green Woodpecker. I have seen this species on all my visits to southern Spain but this is the first time I’ve seen it since it was split from our familiar European Green Woodpecker. Neither Pete or I got a decent photo of this bird so I’ve taken one from Wikipedia by Luis García

 

But the fourth endemic was the one I most wanted to see, Spanish Imperial Eagle. Back in 1984, before it was split from Eastern Imperial Eagle, I saw it twice – distantly in Monfragüe and close, but briefly though the trees in Doñana National Park. There is no doubt I’d seen the species but I wanted better views and that’s what we got, we could watch this individual for ages until … ©PM/BQ

 

… it took off and flew right over head. We saw this species several times over three days but it’s not clear just how many individuals we saw. ©PM/BQ

 

Also seen were a number of Eurasian Crag Martins … ©PM/BQ

 

… and as the weather warmed up so the vultures appeared. Up to 40 Eurasian Griffon Vultures put in an appearance (anyone whose read my account of our trip to India will know there has been a catastrophic decline in vulture numbers in Asia, but as yet Spain seems unaffected) … ©PM/BQ

 

… as well as a number of Cinereous Vultures.

 

Originally known as Black Vulture, this species isn’t as Pete’s photo shows, black but rather a greyish-brown. The name Black Vulture is also occupied by a quite unrelated, but mega-common New World species. There was a misguided attempt to change the name to ‘Monk Vulture’ but a change to Cinereous seems a good idea all round. ©PM/BQ

 

We’d had a great first day in La Lancha but no luck with lynx. So it was a cold, early start the next day.

 

As the sun came out there were great views over the wooded hills …

 

… as the early morning mist cleared.

 

Eventually we had a distant view of the Iberian Lynx. Although too far for decent photos we could a watch a pair for an extended period through the scope.

 

We also had good views of a closer pair wandering through the scrub but all the photos ended up being rear-end shots. The reason that the period from Christmas to early in January is the best to see the lynx is because the females are on-heat and the males follow them around wherever they go and as such they are (unlike other times of year) visible in daylight.

 

The group was pretty strung out along when Pete found a pair right by the road. Just about everyone got there in time before they skulked off into cover. From Wikipedia: The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus) is a wild cat species endemic to the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In the 20th century, the Iberian Lynx population had declined because of overhunting and poaching, fragmentation of suitable habitats, as well as the decline in population of its main prey species, the European rabbit caused by myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. Fortunately, with protection the lynx seems to be making a slow recovery. ©PM/BQ

 

We also visited the nearby Jándula Reservoir. On the rocky scree above the dam we saw some Iberian Ibex, my third new mammal of the trip.

 

Whilst we were eating our picnic lunch a Black Stork flew over, a most unexpected find in January when they are supposed to be in Africa. ©PM/BQ

 

Next to the dam there were a couple of tunnels, one for the road, the other it would appear, as an overflow conduit in case of flooding.

 

In the roof of the tunnel we could see a number of roosting bats inside crevices. This is a Daubenton’s Myotis. ©PM/BQ

 

On the fourth day of the trip we left early (well not that early, about 0700 as it didn’t get light until well after 0800) and headed north to the plains south of Cuidad Real. There was still a frost on the ground when we arrived and it was bitterly cold, but there was no sign of rain, on the plain or elsewhere. ©PM/BQ

 

This is the sort of habitat loved by bustards and sandgrouse, open fields without hedges and only the occasional tree visible.

 

Soon we located flocks of Little Bustards and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. ©PM/BQ