Friday, 20 February 2015

Birding All Around

It's been a strange few weeks, applying for jobs and not knowing quite what the future holds. It is all resolved now, and we are back to The Farnes for another season. Along the way, we have managed some top quality birds.
A while back now, we took our annual pilgrimage to Dungeness to catch up with the winter wonders that inhabit the wilderness of the peninsula. All the usual suspects were present, with Great Egret, Smew, Bearded Tit, Marsh Harrier and Tree Sparrow showing off nicely. Undoubtedly the highlight was sitting in the Scott Hide and watching a Kingfisher and sublime Male Smew fishing within metres of us. It was great to be able to catch up with the two Cattle Egret that have been resident all winter and the local Tundra Bean Geese at Scotney and Lesser Yellowlegs at Rye Harbour.

It's always a treat to observe these birds properly! Splendid Kingfisher

The most handsome duck of all? Smew

Cattle Egret, without cattle this time.

Having been able to also catch the Greater Yellowlegs at Titchfield a few weeks before, I believe I am now in real contention for the two worst record shots of Yellowlegs in the country this year. A prestigious title that I have long wanted to add to my collection.... Luckily the scope views of these smart American waders were much much better than the photographs suggest.

Greater Yellowlegs....

And Lesser Yellowlegs... Honest Guv
And now to fast forward a tad, and a trip to Northumberland for the Farnes interview via Devon to visit friends. What a beautiful part of the world, and we had a wonderful guided tour of the coastline, adding some more top quality birds along the way. Our first stop was Darts Farm RSPB, where you could be forgiven for thinking that the three Penduline Tit there were escapees and not bothered by human presence. Certainly the most enjoyable life tick I have had in a long while. These smart little birds are becoming increasingly regular, and they are certainly a contender for the next species to establish themselves as British breeders.

Cracking little Penduline Tit
Another target species for us both was Cirl Bunting, a bird I had never seen before due in part to the fact I had never visited that part of the Devon coastline before. This is a species that represents both the tragedy of our relentless drive to destroy as much of our countryside as possible for profit (mainly animal products), and also what can happen if conservationists and local landowners take action. Watching two males happily singing away was a strange experience, appreciating the beauty of these now rare (in British terms) Buntings and also wondering which species will be next to suffer in this way. When will people listen.....

Cirl Bunting, unaware of its own plight?
Along the way, we were also treated to spectacular views of this rugged coastline. This photo was taken in very windy conditions from Prawle Point, the most southerly point of Devon. Despite the wind, a cracking male Stonechat was clinging on to a piece of Gorse. We also stopped by the very obliging Snow Bunting that has been present for some time now on the sea wall at Turf in the Exe Estuary.

Delightful. Snow Bunting

Not a bad place to live!

And last but not least, two winter stunners that are much easier to catch up with on the East Coast than down in Sussex where I reside at this time of year. As we were in Newcastle, it would have been very rude not to make the most of seeing both Waxwing and Shore Lark, two birds that attract me for their beauty more than anything else (as I'm sure is the case for most people). Both were showy, the Waxwing at The Lea's in South Shields and the Shore Lark on Hartlepool Headland. The Shore Lark was in a particularly grotty area; obviously the food was good and the constant stream of dog walkers and the view were not enough to put if off!

Yet another gorgeous bird! Waxwing

And another... Shore Lark
So after a whirlwind few weeks its off to explore La Palma and its endemic subspecies for us next week! And then its back to the mayhem of the Farnes for another season. Could be worse.....

Friday, 23 January 2015

Argentina: Part 6 - Iguazu National Park

It's the final instalment... Having survived our slightly nerve-racking journey North, we arrived in Iguazu National Park. It was beautiful (and almost certainly still is!), don't get me wrong, but we were a bit unlucky with the weather. It didn't rain, it wasn't windy, it was far far too hot, both for us and seemingly the birds. We did spend a very enjoyable 3 days exploring both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides of the falls, but it was hard work.

We crossed into the Brazilian side the first day, which when coming from Argentina was rather expensive. We took a trek into the rainforest accompanied by a guide, and we didn't see a single bird as we walked. What we did see though, were butterflies; heaps and heaps of stunning butterflies. Giant Blue Morpho, easily mistaken for small birds were loafing along the trails. We found Many-banded Daggerwing resting in sunny patches along with The Malachite and on almost every bush as we approached the Iguazu river there were resting Diaethria (88) species.

Pyrrhogyra neaerea, common name possibly Banded Banner!

"88" butterfly, Diaethria eluina

Many-banded Daggerwing, Marpesia chiron
Broad-banded Swallowtail, Papilio astyalus

Along with Butterflies, we also found this impressive beast.... whatever it is.

We were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a troop of Black Capuchin Monkeys as we made our way along the trails. Apparently they are named after an order of Catholic Friars from the 16th century. Upon reaching the Americas and discovering Capuchin Monkeys, the explorers are said to have thought they bore a remarkable resemblance to said Friars! Having never met a Capuchin Friar, I am in no position to comment! This particularly obliging individual sat in a tree right above us and enjoyed some foliage! There were numerous signs around warning that they have a nasty bite, and you can see from this photo how they get that reputation. However, what we couldn't understand was how you would ever get into a situation where one would need to bite you! But there you go....

Black Capuchin

Aside from all the fantastic wildlife, the main attraction for most in this part of the world are the Iguazu Falls. I feel like I lack the eloquence to describe just how breathtaking these falls are; all I can say is that you must visit. I have been to Niagara, and I hate to say it but they just don't compare to these. There can be anything up to 300 separate waterfalls along the 2.7km edge depending on the water level, some up to 80 metres in height and all contributing to an overwhelming assault on the senses. Add to that hundreds of Black and Turkey Vulture soaring above the cascades and Great Dusky Swifts darting in and out from underneath them, and you have one hell of an experience.    

The Garganta del Diablo, complete with soaring vulture

Panoramic from the Brazilian side of the falls

The following day we stuck to the Argentinian side. Both sides are well worth a visit, and I would suggest the Brazilian side first to get a feel for the falls as a whole, then the Argentinian side for a slightly less busy and more involved experience. We arrived early both days to miss the rush and to try and beat the heat, although there really wasn't any beating it at all, as we easily managed to spend a full day on each side. We managed our best views of the Dusky Swift this side, and it was quite remarkable to see them clinging to the side of the rock as the water tumbled down beside them.

Achingly picturesque. Can you spot the Swift?

A true marvel of the natural world - Great Dusky Swift

We also took a couple of trips on the river, marketed as ecological tours. They were very pleasant, but perhaps due to the heat there wasn't much wildlife around. We did, however, get cracking views of Greater Ani, with its honking bill and unusual reproductive behaviour (not that we observed that). Unable to recognise their own eggs or nestling's, chicks are raised communally.

Greater Ani

Aside from the vast array of butterflies also on offer on the Argentinian side, the two wildlife highlights came in the form of Coatis and a very special dragonfly! The Coatis were common on both sides, and also very tame. Related to the Racoon, they spend a lot of their time in large groups, foraging in the undergrowth using their wonderfully designed snouts to locate food. As they do this, they make a wonderful array of squeaks and grunts, especially the young. According to the signs, they also have a nasty bite! And as for the Dragonfly, well before I saw this I would have probably laughed if you'd told me that there is a PINK Dragonfly out there. Needless to say we were both amazed by this beautiful little insect, and it posed wonderfully for us as well!

Splendid. Carmine Skimmer, Orthemis discolor
Coati mother and baby - look at those teeth!

If you insist. One more of the stunning Iguazu Falls

In order to ease our woes at having missed out on some splendid tropical bird species, we decided to visit the Jardin de los Picaflores (Hummingbird Garden) located in the middle of Puerto Iguazu. We'd read good things, but were not expecting what we found. Upon performing the customary clap to alert the home-owner, we were let into the little garden. It was like a mecca for Hummingbirds, we were blown away. We sat on a little bench and for half an hour (before it shut for lunch) sat and watched no less than six species of Hummingbird including Swallow-tailed and Planalto Hermit, Bananaquit, Sayaca Tanager, Epaulet Oriole, Blue Dacnis and many others.

Violaceous Euphonia

Planalto Hermit

Female Black-throated Mango
Glittering-bellied Emerald

It was one of the highlights of the entire trip for both of us, and a perfect way to end our first South American journey. Until next time.....

Monday, 12 January 2015

Argentina: Part 5 - Esteros del Ibera

Ibera, north of Buenos Aries near Mercedes, to put it simply, gave Peninsula Valdes a run for its money as the best wildlife spot we'd been to in Argentina. In the local Guarani language, the name translates simply as "Bright Water" and upon arrival we could understand why. This roughly 20,000 km2 wetland is the second largest in the world, and an untouched, undeveloped paradise for wildlife lovers. Lana and I spent 4 nights at Aguape lodge (which I can't recommend enough) and we comprised one third of all the tourists we encountered during our stay.....
Unfortunately we lost a day to some torrential rain which made going out for dinner good fun; a job for wellies and wading through the sandy streets with lightning striking slightly too close for comfort. Even when the evenings were warm and sunny we were still the only people enjoying good food as Nacunda Nighthawks hunted around the street lamps outside the restaurant. The Giant Wood Rail below took full advantage of having the pool to itself during the storm.

A typical scene in this wetland paradise

Giant Wood Rail relaxing by the pool

During our stay we took a couple of boat trips out onto the lagoon and got up close to some incredible wildlife. Capybara (in Latin, Water Pig), Marsh Deer and Black Caiman were commonplace. All three of these species were once heavily poached for their various lovely characteristics, but now luckily there is a team of dedicated rangers that in Ibera at least are working on stamping out the vile practice all together. Habitat destruction is also a major threat, especially to the Marsh Deer. Again Ibera provides some vital protection for this stunning species. Capybara are considered less vulnerable as they have the ability to reproduce fairly rapidly (being rodents and all) and a much larger range. Interestingly, they also only ever mate in water.

Capybara family huddling during the storm

Prehistoric and intricately beautiful, Black Caiman

Marsh Deer being marshy

Alongside the aquatic wildlife was a cast of truly stunning birds. Out on the wetland Striated, White-necked and Rufescent Tiger Heron, Snowy and Great Egret, Wattled Jacana, Brazilian and White-faced Whistling Duck and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture were common. We were also lucky to see Large-billed and Yellow-billed Tern, Ringed, Amazon and Green Kingfisher, Scarlet-headed Blackbird, White-headed Marsh Tyrant,  and Black-capped Donacobious, with the later still proving a bit of a headache for ornithologists as to where it belongs taxonomically.

Beautiful female Green Kingfisher

Just as Redshanks in the UK are "sentinels of the marsh," Southern Screamers keep watch over the marshes of South America

Black-capped Donacobious
Our excellent guide Horatio spotted this hiding in the floating vegetation....

A Wattled Jacana chick

On land the selection of bird life was also unbelievable. We had come very much hoping to be able to see Yellow Cardinal, and ended up seeing two, which I rather tragically worked out constitutes of roughly 0.1% of the entire world population of this endangered and simply stunning bird. This bird has suffered for its beauty, and its chronic exploitation for the caged bird trade has lead to a catastrophic decline, and habitat loss and fragmentation is ensuring this species faces an even more challenging recovery. We experienced first hand the vulnerability of this species while in Ibera. As it is highly territorial, it is easily lured to investigate the calls of other individuals, While we didn't use a tape at all, it was clear that someone had been, as this bird came and sat on the wing mirror of our truck.

One of those special birding moments. Yellow Cardinal

And still present when the truck was empty.

Common species around our lodge and the surrounding dirt roads included Red-crested and Yellow-billed Cardinal, Masked Gnatcatcher, Black-capped Warbling finch, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, White Monjita, Field Flicker, Great Kiskadee and Guira Cuckoo. There are far too many pictures to upload, so I thought I'd stick with my favourites. Firstly, a couple of spectacular Vermilion Flycatchers were present around the village and were always very showy.

Outrageously red (or vermilion) Vermilion Flycatcher

Another species which is classified as vulnerable and still declining is the Black and White Monjita, and it is an uncommon bird to see in Ibera, so to find this pair by the road was a real treat.

Black and White Monjita

Also around were the much more common but equally as beautiful White Monjita. It was very strange seeing virtually all-white passerines which do occur but are rare in Britain (breeding plumage male Snow Bunting is the only one I could think of that comes close).

As I said above, Masked Gnatcatcher were common, however they were lovely little birds. We thought they were the like the South American equivalent of Long-tailed Tit.

Masked Gnatcatcher
And finally, as we made our way North out of the wetlands towards Iguazu Falls, which was one of the most exciting and terrifying road journeys of my life, we were lucky enough to come across a Roseate Spoonbill feeding in a newly created pool. There had been so much rain that the dirt roads had been turned to sludge and there was plenty of flooding. Some "puddles" were so deep we had to remove our seat belts in case the car rolled and we had to make a quick escape.

Roseate Spoonbill enjoying all the rain

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Argentina: Part 4 - Parc Nacional Los Glaciares

I am now writing from home having finished our trip: a computer became difficult to come by as we traveled north which was a wonderful thing. Our final stop on our route south was Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, most famous for Glaciar Perito Moreno, but so much more than that. Don't get me wrong, it was stunning, however El Calafate (the base town for it) was not, and El Chalten in the North of the park was infinitely better. However, the Laguna Nimez reserve on the Northern edge of Calafate was a hidden gem, and we spent 3 hours in this tiny reserve, which had much to offer. It consists of a few small lagoons filled with wildfowl and Flamingos, access to the shore of Lago Argentino (Argentina's largest lake) and plenty of scrub too. We were afforded fantastic views of South American Snipe, Plumbeous Rail, Chilean Flamingo, Grass Wren Red Shoveler, Crested Duck and many more. A group of Oxyura spp. ducks also caused much confusion.

South American Snipe

Plumbeous Rail, incredibly showy
Chilean Flamingo, wonderful to see them in the wild

Grass Wren singing his heart out.

Southern Lapwing

Just a quick note about the Southern Lapwing above. This species really is absolutely everywhere. Nature reserves, parks, roadsides, town centres.... There wasn't a single place we visited where they weren't present. I imagine that this is what it was once like in Britain for our Northern Lapwing, now a distant dream, but not one that is out of reach....

Also, an obligatory photo of the glacier. It was rather spectacular. Stretching for 2.5km in either direction, this photo shows only the central leading face of it. It advances at a lightning quick 2 meters a day, and is over 14km long and 180 meters deep (of which around 55 metres are above the water).

Perito Moreno glacier

Also competing for attention was this young Rufous-collared Sparrow....


On to El Chalten, which had a much more relaxed and wild vibe to it, nestled in the mountains in the shadow of the simply breathtaking Cerro Fitz Roy. It is truly astonishing to think that some Human Beings have the skills and physical capability to ascend this peak. I spent a lot of time staring at it in admiration of them. Luckily this didn't distract form the birds for too long. Some wonderful hiking was accompanied by two much sought after species. The first came on a what could just about get away with being called a lake, but in truth was more like a large pond, surrounded by Pine trees on a short but steep trail up to a viewpoint over El Chalten. It was with a slightly sarcastic tone that we suggested a look just in case, and not long after "there was much rejoicing". Only a family of BRONZE-WINGED DUCK!!!! What absolute stunners. These scarce Andean breeders were tricky to come by, and to find a family of them in what seemed like the least likely of places was very satisfying indeed. While we watched them we were also joined by a family of 5 Chilean Flickers.

Bronze-winged Duck, showing the iridescent speculum looking bronze here...

And green here.

The next day saw us hiking out into the national park, and we managed to time it so that we were virtually alone along most of the trails. Whenever the tree canopy thinned out we had amazing views of the Cerro Fitz Roy and its neighboring peaks flanking us, and in the forest we managed to find not one but two pairs of Magellanic Woodpeckers, showing down to a couple of feet at times. These are splendid, not just for the elaborate plumage of both sexes, but also the size; they are big birds! If fears are realised and the Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpecker are indeed extinct, the larger individuals of the species can rank themselves in the top five largest woodpecker species in the world. We were lucky enough to observe them feeding for a good 10 minutes, and a male even decided to have a quick drum while we were there.

Male Magellanic Woodpecker, one smart bird

Female Magellanic Woodpecker, less colour more crest.

Standing at 3405m, the Cerro Fitz Roy

To round this post off, a quick mention for a place we stayed before we arrived in Calafate, Estancia El Condor. 4 hours from Ruta 40, this was a complete haven from everything modern, and here we enjoyed our first and only encounter with Austral Parakeet, the southern most species of Parrot in the Americas. If visiting anywhere within 200 miles of El Condor, it is an absolute must. A taste of what life in the Andes and southern Argentina used to be like it was by far and away the best location we visited in Patagonia. It was also the location for my first (and probably last as I survived completely intact and don't want to push my luck) horse ride, for six hours into the mountains. What an incredible experience it was.

A pair of Austral Parakeet

Proof - that is me on that horse there!