22 August 2013

The Spanish Inquisition...SPAIN (22 Aug)

Today I left before the extreme Spanish heat picked up, and might dissuade me from birding. I spent the morning with local guide Mick Richardson of Granada Wildlife, an expert on all things natural history, whether it be the birds, the bees, or dragonflies or butterflies for that matter. Armed with his intimate knowledge of the area, but both well aware that we were out at arguably the worst time of year, we set about seeing what we could see. That might sound like there was no definite plan, but that was not the case. Mick knew that I had not seen many classic Spanish birds in many a year, and so had a plan hatched in his head for putting that record straight. We headed for the Cacin Valley, an area that I had never birded before, but is a favourite stomping ground of Mick’s, being near his home, close to the town of Loja in the province of Granada, (within the region of Andalucia).
The morning kicked off nicely with a butch Calandra Lark hiding in an agricultural field, and with the first of several Hoopoes foraging along the track, inevitably taking off all too soon, and bounding away on broad, black-and-white wings, flicking their crests up with nervous energy on landing. However, Mick was hoping for more. His eyes were fixed on the surrounding stubble fields, where he hoped to find a very special quarry indeed. The first few fields drew a blank, before we both locked onto some suspicious, sandy-looking shapes in a more distant field. Manoeuvring the car closer, we soon confirmed our suspicions; a party of three Black-bellied Sandgrouse was hunkered down in the field. This was the scarce target that Mick had been hoping for, and I was equally pleased to see them. Many other species that I had not seen for way too long followed, like Southern Grey and Woodchat Shrikes; a Peregrine powered over clutching a large prey item (Turtle Dove?) in its talons; a female Black-eared Wheatear flitted from field to field; both Crested and Thekla Larks provided the ID conundrum of the morning; and a pair of Little Owls standing sentry like Meerkats did their best impression of the American Burrowing Owl in doing so. In between all this bird fare we even had time for the odd insect, with this Bath White perched beside us. We continued to search fields, which paid off when Mick spied a distant Little Bustard beyond the almond groves, which morphed into three bustards on closer inspection. One of the wonderfully surprising things of birding in this area was the abundance of Turtle Doves, which recent reports have shown to have undergone a 93% decline in the UK in very recent times.
Moving on to a wooded river, we soon picked up the churring sounds of Sardinian Warblers, and watched a handful of Spotted Flycatchers hawking for insects conspicuously on the wing. A migrant, female-type Pied Flycatcher was far less conspicuous, preferring the shady cover of the trees, rather than landing on the open perches. European Bee-eaters were out in force-never a bad thing-with one flock holding 40+ birds, and seemed to adorn every available wire. Moving on to “Raptor Road” as Mick called it, it quickly lived up to the billing (which I understand is even better during winter), which produced flights of Booted EaglesMontagu’s Harrier and several Short-toed Eagles to justify its nickname, even in the supposed slow raptor season.

 It had been a fruitful morning, and I look forward to birding with Mick, in his Spanish backyard, again someday!

21 August 2013

Iberian Diversion...SPAIN (21 Aug)

I will get back to my Indonesia adventure in Sulawesi and Halmahera shortly, but for now, here is something completely different. I am currently visiting my mother in Andalucia in Spain, and snuck in several hours of birding in the early, cooler hours today. I took a walk along the Rio Genil in Loja, and enjoyed a great couple of hours birding. The songs of Cetti's Warblers exploded from the banks of the river; and Blackcaps were out in conspicuous numbers, shuffling through the creeping hillside vegetation; while several parties of European Bee-eaters "prewked" softly overhead, making acrobatic aerial displays in pursuit of insects on the wing. I saw my first Spotted Flycatchers for years, several of which were haunting the riverside snags. 
At one point a roost of Night-Herons must have been disturbed as five or six birds took to the air, and nearby a Common Sandpiper took a low flight on typically bowed wings, as it disappeared downstream. In the underbrush Eurasian Serins foraged along with European Goldfinch. In the skies above several Red-rumped Swallows were significantly outnumbered by the more common Barn Swallows. The surrounding hills were alive with the songs of Crested Larks, regularly given in flight, as they made short ground to air forays. Other birds in the near sierras included a couple of Hoopoes bouncing along in flight on conspicuous pied wings, while small marauding troops of Iberian (Azure-winged) Magpies moved through the olive groves, which held a fair number of churring Sardinian Warblers, giving their staccato calls at regular intervals.
Another half day of birding beckons tomorrow in Andalucia...

10 August 2013

Dollarbirding...INDONESIA (27th July)

Our birding adventure in the Spice Island of Halmahera continued, as we made our way south towards a fancy diving resort (quite the relief after several days in squalor in Sidangoli). As we journeyed towards our next destination the cloves for which this island is famous for were seen being dried out along the roadsides. After admiring our new surroundings at check-in, we were out in the field again, this time checking the first dead snags we saw for our main quarry, the endemic Purple Dollarbird, which remarkably was found on this first snag-check! A beautiful bird of the deepest purple, in contrast to its most striking feature: a bright carrot orange bill. Dollarbirds are named as such for their wings have markings within them that are said to resemble a dollar shape (although you might require a lot of faith and some significant imagination for this!). With the dollarbird in the bag we continued finding two Oriental Dollarbirds too, and a further Purple Dollarbird also, as well as our first Goliath Coucals feeding, rather clumsily, in a large palm, and with their immense size making us feel a little David-like below! Other notable finds were Moluccan (Spectacled) Imperial-Pigeon and (yet) another Sombre Kingfisher.

More spectacular finds to come from Halmahera yet…

08 August 2013

Creatures of the Night…(Indonesia) 26th July

Any participants on a trip to this Wallacean part of Indonesia naturally suffer from sleep deprivation; after all some 10% of the endemic birds are nightbirds! And so our trip was taking this turn with late nights and early mornings in pursuit of these. In an ideal world we would have found all three of Halmahera’s specialty nightbirds in one sitting the night before, but alas no. So before the first cock had crowed we were back in the field, in hot pursuit of Halmahera’s most odd “creature-of-the-night”, the Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar. Although one of its calls is described intriguingly as a “blood curdling scream”, we did not hear this one unfortunately, but heard some of its ore regular, and less dramatic calls. It toyed with us for a while and required a scramble in to the forest to see it, but it was well worth it. The bird was quickly elevated to “Bird-of-the-trip” status by virtue of the showing and this particularly wonderfully marked individual.

Our daytime birding adventures were no less dramatic though with first a Common Paradise-Kingfisher showing well (nothing common or ordinary about this one though!), several of the endemic Blue-and-white Kingfisher decorating the wires along the highway.

And then the ultimate “quest bird” of the trip seen, as it sang back at us from the forest canopy – the stunning Ivory-breasted Pitta, the so-called “Pitta maxima”, which lives up to its name; it’s big, very big and spectacular with its clean “Persil” white breast, deep crimson vent, dark upperside and electric blue shoulder epaulets.  The rest of our day on Halmahera may have been fairly quiet, but after this haul we were not complaining. Day of the trip…so far!

More to come from deepest, darkest Halmahera soon…

07 August 2013

Hornbills & Halmahera…(Indonesia) 25th July

The Spice Islands, or Moluccas, and their delectable set of endemics awaited; and so after a short time in Tangkoko around our lodge adding the endemic Sulawesi Babbler, and then en-route to Manado a superb pair of Knobbed Hornbills, we boarded a plane, then a speedboat to take us from Manado in Sulawesi to the often explosively volcanic island of Ternate, from where we sped to the island of Halmahera in the northern Moluccas. There was no rest for the wicked though, and we were keen to get stuck into the endemics of the Moluccas that afternoon, which we did in fine style: So
mbre Kingfisher behaved well, as did several Blue-and-white Kingfishers which adorned the roadside wires, White Cockatoo followed, and a bounty of Blyth’s Hornbills provided a heady supporting cast. 

The day ended like our first in Indonesia, with a scops-owl, though this time the Moluccan Scops-Owl staring down at us with those impressive eyes that only owls possess.
 A very special avian encounter on Halmahera to follow…

04 August 2013

Kingfishers “on Special” at Tangkoko!…(Sulawesi) 24th July

With two lifer kingfishers, plus a nighttime Ruddy the day before quickly proving what a great place for kingfishers Tangkoko National Park is you’d think we were done with this group? Far from it. A gaping hole remained on our kingfisher quest, where the endemic Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher should sit, so we set about in earnest to find this on this morning. However, before we scoured the forest for that beauty we spent the early hours of the morning racking up lifers at a scenic lookout over the forest. Lifebirds came thick and fast, with the endemic Spot-tailed Goshawk and 2 species of Hanging-parrots (Large Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot and Small Sulawesi Hanging-Parrots) being standouts. Then, after picking up a Pale-blue Monarch, we finally tracked down a Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher sitting quietly in the forest understory.
The rest of the morning was fairly quiet, although we did have the surreal experience of birding from within a troop of macaques, and an impressive one at that, the endemic Celebes Crested Macaque; which were all around us (including babies), for some time. However, we were gutted to find that, again, the Ochre-bellied Boobooks (an endemic owl), were not at their regular daytime roost site.

In the afternoon we took a side trip into the mangroves for yet another lifer kingfisher, and although the tide made us wait impatiently before we could enter their favored creek, we managed to track down three separate Great-billed Kingfishers as hoped, along with the scarce White-rumped Cuckooshrike too, and an ever so obliging Great-billed Heron perched on an offshore boat. The evening closed with us watching a pair of Sulawesi Nightjars hawking overhead.

 Next up: the Spice Island of Halmahera…

03 August 2013

Entering "Wallace's Lab"...INDONESIA (23rd July)

I have yearned to go to Indonesia, and especially the “Wallacean” islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera for years. Eastern Indonesia was where the great biologist Alfred Russell Wallace*1 came up with his theories of evolution that were later made famous by Charles Darwin; and these islands are packed with endemic birds and mammals of the highest order. After my epic journey to the Far East from Ecuador in South America, I had undertaken 5 flights and spent more than 30 hours getting there. So yes, I arrived exhausted, but that did not stop me from birding on that first afternoon. I met fellow “Tropical Birder” Keith Barnes at the airport in Manado, and our experienced local guide, Nurlin. And after changing up enough local currency to be able to call myself a millionaire, we headed west to Tangkoko National Park, on Sulawesi’s northern, Minahasa Peninsula. Bar a Eurasian Tree Sparrow that unceremoniously stole the title of my first bird in Sulawesi, almost the first bird I saw was a super Green-backed Kingfisher shortly after entering the national park. 

Tangkoko is a kingfisher’s paradise, and this was highlighted further when another lifebird showed up in the form of a Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher, then later, at night, when Keith found his lifer Ruddy Kingfisher sleeping in a large palm. 

Other highlights included a spritely group of Sulawesi Dwarf-Hornbill, and then we closed the afternoon/evening by watching the famous “Tarsier Emergence” whereby a team of Spectral Tarsiers emerged from their daytime roost in a massive ficus tree within the park, posing at eye-level, and mere feet away; an intimate and unforgettable encounter indeed. 

We were not done just then though, as on the way out of the park we chalked up our first owl of the trip with the endemic Sulawesi Scops-Owl glaring impressively into our spotlight. I had longed to visit this place indeed, and I was quickly coming to realize that it might just live up to all the hype!

*1 See Alfred Russell Wallace’s acclaimed publication “The Malay Archipelago”

More to come from “Wallacea”, and Tangkoko, soon…