17 August 2011

London Calling...ENGLAND (17 August)

Today I went "back to my roots", visiting Beddington Farmlands with Beddington "native" Peter Alfrey, where I spent much of my early birding life learning birds. On top of that I also saw some of the very species that turned me into a birder. I remember well being in Richmond Park in London at the tender age of 11 (clearly, a long, long time ago) and seeing my first Great and Blue Tit sharing a tree, and being stunned that my birding friend, Lee Dingain could tell them apart. That was the moment that turned me into a birder who never looked back from there, and those were the birds responsible: Blue Tit and Great Tit, both of which I saw today and brought those landmark memories flooding back.

Other sightings at Beddington today included a superb Long-tailed Tit dangling in front of me and just begging me to photograph it (how could I not under the circumstances!) A number of warblers were also present, including a few Willow Warblers, and a Common Whitethroat.

A Eurasian Hobby scythed through the air at one point overhead. However, one of the flagship birds at Beddington is the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, a bird that is in serious trouble in Britain in general but has a thriving population at Beddington (being one of the two main sites in the UK for the species). This year Peter informed me some 600 young birds were fledged on "the farm" (as Beddington is often affectionately known), and so this appears to have been a bumper one for them, at Beddington at least.

Indeed, the Tree Sparrows, among many other things, are one of the principal reasons that Beddington may one day be made into the largest nature reserve in London, something that Peter is working tirelessly towards, and of course one I wish him all success in. No matter which country you consider there are simply never enough nature reserves, and this one in the heart of an urban area has served to create many a birder in the past, and can continue to bring people into vital contact with nature. In this way, it might create birders of people (or conservationists), as it did for Peter and I. I look back on the years in the 80s when you could go over there in the winter and see regular wintering Short-eared Owls and wish those days were not now long gone. It would be sad for what birds remain there to end up gone too (here endeth my "lecture" !)

If you wish to see more on Beddington, and understand why this would make a fantastic addition to the London urban nature reserve network, then check out Peter's blog here http://peteralfreybirdingnotebook.blogspot.com/
Justify Full

Another day, another woodchat...SPAIN (14 August)

I once again braved the intense heat of southern Spain (nearly 40 degrees celsius), and so kept my birding to a minimum. Woodchat Shrikes were again evident with an adult bird posing on a wire and this young bird in the scrub below. A Hoopoe bounded away with its characteristic undulating flight and bold pied wing pattern. Sardinian Warblers churred from the scrub, and small groups of tits moved through the olive groves. Finally, a wire played host to a deep cobalt Blue Rock-Thrush singing its heart out in the early morning sun.

At the end of the day I boarded a flight back to the UK, where the British Birdfair is coming very soon...

16 August 2011

Spanish lessons...SPAIN (12 August)

Visiting my mothers villa near Loja in Spain was to be a good opportunity for me to get re-aquainted with the amazing Hoopoe, a pair of which feed near the villa regularly. Sadly though they are a little camera shy and masters at turning up when you have left your camera behind. So there was only one thing to do: carry it always! So on the way out to dinner one night I was ready for the little critter as it casually fed in the middle of the dirt track..these were the results. These were not as good as I'd hoped, and several further days effort revealed no other opportunities, just some frustrating flight views obtained and nothing more. This for me is one of Eurasia's most strange and impressive birds. They occur into Asia and are a regular feature of our tours in northern India. As I am set to go there in January 2012, I hope to see one again then, and re-ignite my photo "feud" with them again then!

15 August 2011

Iberian Getaway...SPAIN (11 August)

I traveled to the United Kingdom in order to attend the Britith Birdfair, a massive birding event that regularly attracts more than 20,000 birders from around the UK and the World (that will be running 19-21 August). Anyhow, this gave me a chance to catch up with my family and to do this I needed to take a side trip to Spain where my mother has retired to. This gave me the opportunity to wander into the hills/sierras near the Andalucian town of Loja and check out some Iberian birds that I have not seen for some time. One of the most (pleasantly) numerous birds in the area were Woodchat Shrikes with both red-capped adults and some scaly juveniles too.

Several tit flocks roamed the pine trees on the upper slope which contained Great, Blue and Long-tailed Tits. The pines were bustling with birds, mostly Red Crossbills feasting on the harvest of large cones available. Climbing higher still the pines gave way to scrub where many Sardinian Warblers shared this habitat with a lone Dartford Warbler. The rocky crags and cliffs provided feeding grounds for several Black Wheatears and Blue Rock-Thrushes.

On the return journey I dropped out of the hills and into the olive groves below where Azure-winged (Iberian) Magpies dominated the avian communities, while on the overhead wires flocks of European Bee-eaters brought more than a little color to proceedings.

More from Spain to come...

13 August 2011

Ecuador Firsts...ECUADOR (1 August)

Having enjoyed a thrilling day with the very best of what the Chical Road has to offer we reluctantly had to bid farewell to this hot birding site and turn the car towards Quito for the end of our long weekend in the Choco. However, on our way out Andrew and I had some unfinished business with a couple of species which we were both looking to add to our increasingly important Ecuador lists. Both species are widespread birds with large ranges, although in Ecuador have very limited distributions.

First off we stopped in a tiny village nearer the start of the road to look for seedeaters in a good looking patch of grassland. Not long later(and after both Variable Seedeater, Yellow-bellied Seedeater and Yellow-faced Grassquit had given us a scare) up popped a richly-colored male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater (in the very same garden I had seen it or another 6 months or so earlier).

This was the one that Andrew wanted and was new to his substantial Ecuador list, now onto what I was searching for. For this we needed to be right near the start of the road and again our efforts were focused on a village. Not the ideal birding venue but a great venue for the recently moved in pair of Tropical Mockingbirds that appeared on an overhead wire right on cue, and were added to my Ecuador list immediately.

We then sadly had to give up the ghost and return to Quito, after a weekend of 5 lifers (for me), some Ecuador lifers (for my list anyway), and whole swathe of quality Choco birds. Here are photos of some plus a poor photo of the Semicollared Hawk-rarely seen and downright difficult to photograph!

12 August 2011

Another day, another tanager...ECUADOR (1 August)

For our final day of our long weekend in the Choco, Andrew Spencer and I headed up the "new' Chical Road (that heads straight north into Colombia from the town of Gualchan). Our plan was almost foiled by a lack of hotels willing to take guests late the night before in Gualchan. However, Andrew somehow managed to persuade them (albeit begrudgingly) to accept us, and our plan was back on track, with a night in a tiny, tiny car called a "Spark" avoided in the process. We were here for several reasons. Mine was clear, having only visited the site once before I was keen to nail down another tanager lifer (which would be my third in three days): Purplish-mantled Tanager. Furthermore, as this site was only discovered in 2010, with few people having visited it since we were both keen to see what else could be found there. The site rose to prominence due to the patches of Choco foothill forest along there having been found to hold Star-chested Treerunner and the Purplish-mantled Tanager, both normally rare and difficult birds to find in Ecuador.

Our first forays on the near side of the pass were quiet except for a rowdy mob of Beautiful Jays, a pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, and an immaculate White-rumped Hawk perched by the roadside. Still tanager-less, we decided to change our focus to the forest patches beyond the pass. We had barely crossed the low mountain pass when the high-pitched song of the Purplish-mantled Tanager drifted into our ears, and we soon lined up our first pair of these gorgeous birds, (by the end of the day we had racked up another 3 of them). Soon after, we hit a flock of half a dozen or so Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, before we descended further down the other side. We then bumped into an awesome flock that yielded a close Star-chested Treerunner, a pair of Pacific Tuftedcheeks, a pair of Glistening-green Tanagers and a party of Handsome Flycatchers (distinctly rare and local in the northwest of Ecuador) among others. Later bird parties led us to a pair of Indigo Flowerpiercers, and we also found the scarce White-tailed Hillstar perched by a rushing Andean river. Heading back towards Gualchan we found the White-rumped Hawk of the morning had now been replaced by an adult Semicollared Hawk a very rare find indeed (and only my fourth Ecuador sighting)....

More from the Chical area to come, including some country firsts for Andrew and I...

11 August 2011

Exploring the Choco: World First! ECUADOR (31 July)

On our return journey to the car we bumped into a feisty flock of Yellow-green Bush-Tanagers. A group of three of this rare and inconspicuous tanagers were found on the periphery of yet another tanager flock. Unlike many bush-tanagers these ones feed up high in the canopy making them extremely hard to photograph as these very poor photos will attest. However, while Andrew recorded their sweet song and I took these dodgy photos we knew that these may be the first photos and first recordings of their songs ever to be documented. So poor or not, it might just be a world first! You can find Andrew Spencer's recording of the song on Xeno Canto here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/XCspeciesprofiles.php?species_nr2=3414.00

We ended the day with the local Choco form of Lesser Elaenia, a scarce and local bird, that may well be given full species status in the future (which would then make it another Choco endemic).

Next up the lively Chical Road, another newish site in the Choco region, brimming with rare and cool Choco birds...

10 August 2011

Choco in Macro...ECUADOR (31 July)

Here are some images of the other widlife Andrew and I shared the weekend with recently, and also an image of this exciting new birding site that I am sure I will see more of...

Exploring the Choco...PART II ECUADOR (31 July)

What a day this turned out to be. After being thrilled with this super-tame pair of Tufted Flycatchers we slowly worked our way through the thick mud of the road and surveyed the forest for flocks. Various flocks came our way with double figures of the super-bright, super-gaudy Scarlet-and-white Tanager. A loud double wrap drew us to a spectacular Crimson-bellied Woodpecker hugging the trunk of a large rainforest tree, and a later loose flock brought me another lifer-the rare and endemic Choco Woodpecker that called and led Andrew to get only the second ever recordings of this scarce forest bird (to add to the first ones that he had got only last year). A singing Gray-mantled Wren was another highlight, which was pulled out of a flock that also held a striking Lita Woodpecker. These various flocks also frequently held Golden-chested Tanagers and were welcomed every time, often picked up by their regularly given, high-pitched, calls. In between the flocks we tried for some understorey birds, such as this male Stub-tailed Antbird, (the spot-breasted female was also seen closeby), and chatted to a large battalion of the Ecuadorian army who came by, and clearly had experienced as much mud as we had judging by their attire!

More from the Choco of Ecuador to come...including some further "firsts"

04 August 2011

Exploring the Choco...ECUADOR (31 July)

The evening before Andrew Spencer received a call from Roger Ahlman who gave us a hot tip: there was a newly built road in Esmeraldas that cut straight into a rich patch of lowland Choco forest. In just a morning on site Roger had picked up some rare Choco species that left us in no doubt this was well, well, worth exploring. The chance of being only the second birders ever to visit this site was impossible to resist, and so we were there at the crack of dawn full of anticipation. Pretty soon we found the first indication of success coming our way: the first of a number of Northern Tufted Flycatchers seen that day included a very confiding pair that sat right in front of us and called away (a scarce species in Ecuador), making me happy for the photos, and Andrew happy for the rich sound recordings he could get. While Andrew went off in pursuit of a calling Choco Tapaculo, I stuck with the Tufted Flycatchers...

This day was one of the most enjoyable and productive days in the Choco I have ever had and so it deserves several posts all of its own.

More from this exciting new birding road to come...

02 August 2011


Well after way too long out of the field I went on an "exploratory weekend" with Andrew Spencer into the heart of the Choco region (Esmeraldas province), seeking rare birds and chasing Choco endemics. Checking in to a "shady" hotel in Lita we were set for a Saturday onslaught on the "Awa Trail", a known haunt for a much-wanted lifer for me: GOLDEN-CHESTED TANAGER. I had tried this trail years before but ending up abandoning the trail due to unbearable muddy conditions. So I prepared for the worst (wore a pair of trousers I was prepared to lose!) and we headed through the boggy pasture and into the forest. We enjoyed a cracking day on this trail with a number of cool Choco endemics sprinkled on the list,(including some ten or so Scarlet-and-white Tanagers that included more than a few jaw dropping males). We had barely got into the forest when Andrew (who was in the front) gestured to an Indigo-crowned Quail-Dove bobbing along the trail. Not long later Andrew was a little more excited when he clapped eyes on my lifer Golden-chested Tanager (the bird pictured above and the "Bangsia" of the title, its genus). I hurried back through the mud (which was by no means swift or subtle), and amazingly this gorgeous tanager remained there and stared down at us with little sign of shyness at all. By the end of the day we managed to bump into at least three more groups of this super bird, along with a very co-operative White-tipped Sicklebill, an unusally showy Choco Tapaculo and a whole bunch of other cool species. An exhausting though thoroughly exhilarating day in the foothills of the Andes.

We could not resist a late afternoon check of nearby Yalare-to see if any forest (or birds remained)...