Archive for the ‘BirdQuest’ Tag

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 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 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

 

We followed the flocks down and tried to observe them on the ground. ©PM/BQ

 

The beautiful Little Bustards showed well in flight but were too elusive to photograph on the ground … ©PM/BQ

 

… however at least a few of the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse posed for photos. ©PM/BQ

 

Even more elusive were the Great Bustards. These magnificent birds still occur in good numbers of the Spanish steppes. ©PM/BQ

 

An adult male Great Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing in at up to 5.8kg. For the last 15 years or more a reintroduction program has being trying to produce a viable population of these magnificent birds on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and in 2019 it was announced that they had succeeded in establishing a self-sustaining population of over 100 birds. I have been to Salisbury Plain a number of times to see them and the odd bird has reached Dorset in winter. Some birders are opposed to this reintroduction, something I don’t understand at all. Mankind was responsible for their destruction, the last Wiltshire bird was shot in 1832, and mankind should, if possible, be responsible for correcting past mistakes. ©PM/BQ

 

There are few more thrilling sites in European birding than seeing a Great Bustard in flight. ©PM/BQ

 

The following day we were back in the Sierra de Andújar where we saw more Iberian Lynx, including a very close female with cubs that were almost invisible in deep vegetation (I never did see the cubs) and explored some damp meadows where Hoopoes and Mistle Thrushes could be found.

 

In the late afternoon we explored the river around Encinarejo. ©PM/BQ

 

A few birds were seen around the river, such as this Common Kingfisher but I missed the flyover Goshawk … ©PM/BQ

 

However we did well for herps seeing a Horseshoe Whip Snake hiding in a rock crevice (I actually flushed it and saw it enter the crevice), this Vaucher’s Wall Lizard. ©PM/BQ …

 

… and this Stripeless Tree Frog (which seems to have a fairly obvious stripe down it’s side!) ©PM/BQ

 

We stayed by the river until sun set in the hope of seeing Tawny Owl, which we heard but didn’t see despite putting a lot of effort in. Views of the moon reflected in the water made it all worthwhile.

 

The following day we packed up and left Sierra de Andújar and headed for Laguna de Navaseca not that far from Cuidad Real. The commonest bird was Greylag Goose, not the feral ones that we see in Dorset but wild birds from central Europe here for the winter.

 

Half a dozen scruffy immature Greater Flamingos were also seen … ©PM/BQ

 

… along with a few Western Swamphens (once lumped in with Grey-headed Swamphen shown in my recent posts about India) … ©PM/BQ

 

… the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilt …

 

… and a few Black-necked Grebes. In the UK, although a few pairs breed we usually only see this species offshore where they occur regularly around Poole and Weymouth. ©PM/BQ

 

There were two ‘sort after’ ducks on the lagoon, a Ferruginous Duck which although visible never lifted its head up and several White-headed Ducks. ©PM/BQ

 

White-headed Ducks (WHD) has an interesting history. Although the eastern populations seemed secure, the Spanish population was under severe threat from hunting and by 1977 only 22 remained. Action by Spanish conservationists has seen their numbers rise to 2,500. Then a threat from the UK was realised. The related North American species Ruddy Duck had formed a feral population in England, originally from a few birds that escaped from Slimbridge and were now wintering in Spain and hybridising with WHD. It was clear that if nothing was done then the western population of WHDs would disappear into a hybrid swarm. Then feral Ruddy Ducks were found with WHDs in Turkey so even the eastern population was under threat. Under EU legislation the UK had no option but to cull our Ruddy Ducks. Yes, I miss seeing the delightful Ruddy Duck back home and regret they had to be killed, but prefer to see the bigger picture – that the global conservation of a threatened species (WHD) takes precedence over the enjoyment of a few UK birders who want to see a bird (Ruddy Duck) that is after all abundant in its native America. See here As an aside this brings up an interesting question, WHDs in the UK have always been considered escapes and indeed some of them are, I’ve posted images on this blog of one from St James Park, London that clearly falls into that category. Now when Ruddy Ducks were common there were a number of apparently wild WHDs discovered with them in England. The logical explanation isn’t that there was a mass break out of captive birds but the two species had paired up in Spain and the WHDs had migrated north with their Ruddy mates in spring. As soon as Ruddy Ducks were culled then WHD occurrences stopped. A strange co-incidence or should WHD be added to the British List as truly wild bird? ©PM/BQ

 

The margins of the lagoon yielded three top-class passerines – Bluethroat which Pete managed to photograph … ©PM/BQ

 

…plus Penduline Tit (photo by Martin Mecnarowski) …

 

… and Moustached Warbler – which neither of us did. (Photo by Marco Valentini)

 

Nearby we saw large flocks, possibly totalling over a thousand, of wintering Common Cranes. ©PM/BQ

 

A couple of Marsh Harriers may have spooked … ©PM/BQ

 

… as some of them soon took to the air.

 

Later we visited an area where White Storks were already building their nests. I was of the understanding that wild populations (as opposed to some of the northern European reintroduction schemes) were totally migratory and the only birds to remain in Europe throughout the winter were birds too sick to make the long journey to tropical Africa. I was clearly wrong. ©PM/BQ

 

Having dipped on Eurasian Eagle Owl at the start of the trip we were keen to visit Pete’s back up site. There was no sign of it until it was almost dark and then it appeared on the top of the crags and gave great views in the fading light. ©PM/BQ

 

We were still enjoying the deep hoots of the Eagle Owl when the moon rose above the cliff. We then headed for our hotel in Daimiel, a short distance from Cuidad Real where we were two days earlier. You may wonder why the trip wasn’t arranged around four consecutive nights in the Sierra de Andújar. and two in the Cuidad Real area. The answer was simple, the main purpose of the tour was to see the lynx and if weather or other circumstances had prevented us from doing so earlier in the week then then the itinerary would have to flexible enough to accommodate an extented stay at La Lancha.

 

On the last morning of the trip we spent several hours driving to Pinares de Peguerinos, an area of mountainous forests north-west of Madrid.

 

Here we expanded our list with birds like Common Crossbill … ©PM/BQ

 

… and the lovely European Crested Tit. ©PM/BQ

 

This species has a strange distribution occurring in coniferous forests from Spain, through the Alps, the Balkans, and northern and eastern  Europe with an outpost in the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. Thus to an English birder it seems strange to see them as far south as Spain. As you can see from the photo, the beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed all week remained until the last day. ©PM/BQ

 

But the bird we most wanted to see in these forests was Citril Finch. I saw this species in the mid 80s in the Austrian Alps but views were brief, then again in Andorra in 2006 but have never seen it as well as this. ©PM/BQ

 

Well all that remained was to drive back to Madrid airport. There Margaret and I said our goodbyes to the group and got a taxi to our hotel for the cultural part of the trip. The BirdQuest group at Pinares de Peguerinos, Far left co-leader Dave Farrow, Margaret is in the middle dressed in black and I’m on the far-right (my location, not my politics!). ©PM/BQ

 

But it would only be fair to end with the best sighting of the trip – the superb Iberian Lynx. ©PM/BQ

 

It had been an unusual trip, the first of the many BirdQuests I’ve done without a life-bird. But I had three new mammals including one that falls into ‘mega category’. In addition I had my best ever views of a number of Spanish specialities. We both thought it was a most enjoyable trip.

The next post will deal with our three-day extension; our visit to Madrid and Toledo.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Nearby we had great views of a Collared Owlet.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

… Large Niltava …

 

… Snowy-browed Flycatcher …

 

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

 

But our main target was the beautiful Collared Laughingthrush.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Away from the forest we visited this large lake …

 

… more open country birds like White-throated Kingfisher …

 

… another Flavescent Bulbul …

 

… and Grey Bushchat in the process.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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