14 July 2018

Bearly Started…ALASKA (9 June 2018)

Under a lit sky, I had arrived in Alaska, sometimes known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun”, the night before. These were my very first steps in the state. On this day I was to lift my binoculars for the first time in Alaska, at which point I feel I can truly “count” the state as visited! Also, in the middle of the un-darkened night, friends Iain Campbell and Nick Athanas had also jetted in to start a tour of their own. However, before, we divvied up into our groups, Nick, Iain and I scouted around the wider Anchorage area. We started out with woodpeckers on our brains, at Eagle River Nature Center, supposedly a hotspot for them. On checking in at the center and getting the lowdown, it was clear we should be focusing on something bigger there, as a family of Black Bears were being encountered regularly that morning and were showing not far away. This was a no brainer for me, having seen but one Black Bear in my life (at Yellowstone National Park in Montana), I was keen to see one properly; moments later we were. Up high in the trees were a mother and two bear cubs. Being high in the trees, the photography conditions were frustrating, as the mother used leaves for a screen to good effect, and the cubs just slumbered without a care in the world, turning them into nothing more than ill-defined, furry shapes. However, suddenly, the adult bear was on its paws and making its way down the trees. We rapidly backed away, knowing that to confront a mother bear with cubs in the vicinity is not just folly, but potentially perilous. She seemed unconcerned by our small group standing back, but what was alarming was how impressively she would disappear in seemingly only sparse cover below; at times only her ears gave her position away, but for longer periods not a piece of fur was visible, and her exact location unknown. Her position on the ground though did cause the cubs to stir too, who seemingly reluctantly, rather gingerly, shinned their way down the large cottonwood trunk, which made for great photo moments. The cubs and mother were soon reunited, and quickly melted into the forest behind, where they were soon visible no more.

The woodpeckers were far from cooperative, but my main target there was clearly to be Varied Thrush, a common Alaskan native, but one I had never seen, with only limited time spent birding in the western US. This thrush throws off the usual pigments of other American thrushes, browns not being sufficient for this northern breeder, preferring a mix of blue-gray and bunt orange. It was this reason that made me want to see it with such gusto. What I had not realised would add to its considerable allure, was its haunting song, a series of downward slurs that rang out of the tall spruce trees at Eagle River. It was haunting, beautiful and evocative, but, frankly, where was it!? I had been warned by Iain they like nothing better than calling from the densest, highest canopies when possible, and the first few heard were frustrating testament to that. However, moving into a stand of smaller, younger spruces we tracked one down by following its haunting marker, and it was everything it was cracked up to be (perhaps immortalised best by Sibley’s famous Western Birds cover to his popular guides, which featured a flying impression of this species).
After enjoying the views of Grey Jays and the jaw-dropping scenery, it was decided we check out a couple of sites closer to Anchorage. Potter Marsh came first, with its abundance of breeding Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns being very conspicuous there. However, we also saw some singing Orange-crowned Warblers singing on a bright and sunny day that felt somewhat like a European spring day, with cerulean skies and wisps of clouds only, and an unexpected warmth in a state known for its proximity to the Arctic. A few Lincoln’s Sparrows were in song too, as were several Alder Flycatchers, but the prize bird that was probably a Short-billed Dowitcher, which was happy to sleep in the open within inches of parked cars.
Our final stop of the day was a popular Westchester Lagoon, which with the extraordinarily warm weather seemed to have brought out every jogger, cyclist, skater and fitness enthusiast out of the woodwork. We weaved our way through these active groups, at a somewhat slower pace, as we admired gatherings of scaup, and mainly the dozens of Red-necked Grebes congregated on the lake, Westchester’s star avian attraction. A small group of Sandhill Cranes was also seen closeby, before we returned to our Anchorage hotel to connect with our corresponding groups, and plot our plans for moving into the Arctic Circle the next day, for a vastly different experience indeed.

 Next up, the Ice and Snow of Barrow, at the very Top of the World…

08 February 2018

An Indian Parliament (India) Feb. 9, 2018

We came coursing through the area just 2 weeks before with a singular vision to photograph Indian Courser and quietly add the utterly drab Sind Sparrow to my personal life list. Today’s focus, within almost the same hectares of Haryana state, was entirely different however. It was about owls. India can rightly claim to be one of the best nightbird sites, by day. And this day proved just that, by twilight we had seen 11 individual owls, of 4 species, our very own parliament.

Top target was Indian Eagle Owl, which in spite of its large nest betraying recent breeding activity there, neither adult or pair of chicks were evident during an extensive search near Dighal. While searching there though, the easiest owl for the day put in an appearance, with a feisty 'fivesome' of Spotted Owlets battling each other for vocal supremacy. Another eagle-owl had a nest along the very same river too. A huge swarm of wasps clustered immediately beneath that sticky structure did not bode well for the nest’s potential within my thoughts, but Sanjay swept such pessimism aside, when he calmly gestured towards a Dusky Eagle-Owl quietly sitting alongside both nest and ominous looking swarm. 
By this point, and a dead camera battery later, (following relentless shooting of wetland birds like Indian Spot-billed Duck, Painted StorkBar-headed Goose, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Black-necked Stilt), pre-owl hunt, lunch was looming large in all of our stomachs. Particularly for our driver, who rather belatedly revealed he had skipped breakfast. India is so bustling with birds, and bird photography opportunities, that the scheduled lunchtime kept shifting later, not least when a pair of Red-naped Ibis stood calling from a white-washed snag bathed in gorgeous light for wielders of cameras. The heavy white staining indicating this was not the first time they had sat there.
After a tasty local lunch in a worrisome looking truck stop (‘Delhi belly’ is, after all, a rather too well-used phrase for my liking in these parts), we were back in the field, and back on the trail of owls. Sanjay, smarting from our earlier ‘dip’ (i.e. miss) of the Indian Eagle-Owl instructed the driver on a new destination. I dozed in the middle of the day heat, intermittently waking to see Indian Rollers and other avian brethren adorning dicey looking roadside cablery. We arrived at Bhindawas, more known for species getting themselves wet than tree-dwelling birds, but struck out along a bund in pursuit of our pointy-eared quarry. As we walked the dyke to a given point we passed a party of peacocks, and enjoyed the omnipresent White-throated Kingfisher for about the dozenth time that day. 
Having struck out on the bund, we reached the ill-defined turnaround spot having struck out on the owl too. We swiftly backtracked, with our minds stridently conscious we had another owl opp. to fit in before the onset of darkness over Delhi. As I casually soaked in a young Shikra perched in a tall tree, Sanjay gestured in a very understated fashion to a gnarly tree beside us. On lifting my binoculars, carefully hidden behind a dark tangle of twigs sat a bird with two prominent plumed horns on its crown: Indian Eagle-Owl. Evidently, we had both walked right past them without us either noticing them, and a pair of them not flinching at our previous close passage. However, once cryptic birds know the game is up, following a direct glare in their eyes; their behaviour changes suddenly, and soon both of them were aloft in the air on broad, silent wings, and glided their way across the river, but stopped suddenly, and starkly, in the open. My new camera battery was tested to the limit in this momentary lapse of bad fortune with the species.
One final, and fourth, owl remained on our agenda, and for that we needed to return to Sanjay’s home turf, Sultanpur. The Delhi day was waning, and arguably we were too, but a milky, sweet Masala Chai soon fixed us, and we were soon bumping our way through the Sultanpur Flats, which are not perfectly-flat after all. We directed ourselves at one specific tree, but needed to go neck-deep in a mustard seed field to reach it. We had not even got in close range of the tree, and were indeed further away than a pair of local farmers working the crop, when a Short-eared Owl lifted out of the dense cover provided by said tree, and flew into another one bereft of any cover, where it remained for some time. Two incredibly inconspicuous others remained within the sanctuary of the original tree until after we left. 
With dusk now imminent, we attempted to leave for the mega metropolis of Delhi, conscious of the likely heavy traffic that would try everything it could to impede our return. However, this country is Hindu country, where birds are left to roam freely and unhindered, and so they are there in numbers, and famously tame on this part of the subcontinent, and so we were also impeded by them in our attempts to bring the curtain down on a wonderful ‘Delhi Day’; first a party of Yellow-wattled Lapwings stalked around the car, and then an absurdly confiding Hoopoe virtually begged us to take its photo!

The day had felt like an Indian Summer right in the depth of the country’s winter.