Saturday, 6 December 2014

Argentina: Part 3

Although it may seem strange to think, there are things here worth looking at other than birds..... We visited Los Arrayanes national park, a 12km long peninsula full of beautiful flowers and some very old (300-600 years old) Arrayan Trees. With lonely planet, a bird book and butterfly book, we ran out of space for a flower book, so for now some species remain unidentified by us, but it in no way detracts from how delicately beautiful they are.

Lady´s Slipper spp.

Unsure as yet.... Wow though

Dog Orchid

Arrayan trees

Heading further south we visited the beautiful Los Alerces national park, home to some incredibly beautiful and some very old Alerces trees and where we added our first of many Andean Condor to the trip list. On the drive south on Ruta 40 we had a mad raptor fest, within an hour being treated to more Condors, Black-chested Buzzard Eagle, Aplomado Falcon and Cinerous Harrier (the later escaped the camera, but not for long)!

Soaring Barn Door

On a fresh kill. For size, that is a large Hare that bird is on.

What a little stunner!

As we left the lush forests on the Eastern slopes of the Andes and headed south again, the landscape changed and Patagonian Steppe became the dominant feature. We started easily spotting species like Tawny-throated Dotteral and Gray-headed Sierra Finch. Roaming Guanacos have also become and almost permanent fixture.

Tawny-throated Dotteral, common by the road.

Gray-hooded Sierra Finch

Cute!! Mother and baby Guanaco

That´s another round up completed. It tells a small fraction of the story behind this beautiful country, and a small fraction of the now 152 bird species we´ve seen so far. We are now down in El Calafate, and hiking is taking a front seat. However, it won´t be long until we head north, where an entirely new set of spcies and landscapes await us. 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Argentina: Part 2

A complete change of scenery greeted us in Bariloche; beautiful blue lakes, vast mountain ranges and lots of greenery, making a nice change from the hauntingly beautiful but somewhat desolate Patagonian Steppe. We managed a few new birds in and around Bariloche, and my favourite and a bird that I was very keen to see before we came was a Burrowing Parrot. We found a small and very noisy flock on the edge of a dirt track and they were just as pretty as I´d imagined. We were able to watch these two below as they courted, which ended in success!

Burrowing Parrots wooing
Chimango Caracara nearby. In the running for most common bird of the trip
We slowly started winding our way North through mile upon mile of breathtaking scenery as we explored Nahuel Huapi National Park. The almost empty dirt roads proved an excellent source of birds, and as we drove we spotted some cracking birds including Ashy-headed Goose, Chilean Flicker, and California Quail (introduced I know, but splendid none-the-less).

I do love geese!

Chilean Flicker digging for worms!

Very HandsomeCalifornia Quail

We hit our 100th species just outside our hotel in Villa La Angostura, in the form of a pair of Franklin Gulls. Strange to think that a few weeks previous we were at Blashford Lakes hoping to catch a glimpse of the individual there. I love Blashford, but this location just about piped it.

Franklins Gull - the big 100!

The view from our hotel!

Thats all for now. I have many more stories but the internet cafe is about to shut for lunch and we have a trip to Cueva de los Manos awaiting us!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Argentina: Part 1

A week has flown by, and what an incredible week it has been. We have seen so much wildlife and fallen in love with this country already. My accounts here will have to be brief; a sort of best-of if you like. So we started in Buenos Aries, a hot, bustling but very pleasant city (coming from somebody who normally avoids cities like the plague), and explored Costanera Sur nature reserve on the Eastern edge of the city which turned out to be a real oasis. We struggled to find any water so missed out potential ducks and migrating waders, but there were plenty of other birds around. Many of them were tricky to photograph, but we logged around 40 species in 3 hours, not bad for an urban location full of unkown birds!! The highlights here and around the city itself were the raptors, most notably the Southern Crested Caracara. If anybody thinks that raptors have a negative effect on songbirds, they need to visit Argentina, as there is an abundance of both laying waste to that flimsy argument. I was also extatic to finally catch up with a Hummingbird, and what incredible creatures they are!

Southern Crested Caracara

Glittering-bellied Emerald (Phwaaar)

Green-barred Woodpecker

After BA, we took a long coach jounrey to Peninsula Valdes on the Atlantic coast and rented a car for a few days to explore. I can honestly say this is the greatest place (from a naturalists point of view) that I have ever been. As soon as we arrived we went on a sunset whale tour, and spent 2 hours in the company of Southern Right Whales and their calves. We were then lucky enough to catch up with a pod of Orca just after a kill and watched them for half an hour as they drifted slowly past. These two experiences would have been enough, but we also walked amongst a Magellanic Penguin colony, got to visit both Sea Lion and Elephant Seal Colonies and saw some top quality birds. It was great sadness that we had to say goodbye to this beautiful place, and I must admit that I am already trying to work out how I can get back as soon as possible. The land is barron with low scrub and lots of wind to go with it, but we still encountered some wonderful birds. The endearing Elegant-crested Tinamou were everywhere, as were the splendid Long-tailed Meadowlark and Darwin's Rhea. Also on the list were Lesser Shrike Tyrant, Mourning Sierra-finch, Plain-mantled Tit-spinetail, Olrogs Gull, Snowy Sheathbill, Blue-eyed Cormorant and Giant Southern Petrel.

Enjoying the sunset with a Southern Right Whale 

Orcas cruising past

Splendid male Sea Lion

Long-tailed Meadowlark in all its glory!

Darwin's Rhea; she had no less than 13 young with her

Just like the Farnes!! Rock Shags and chicks

We are now on the other side of Argentina in Bariloche, amongst lakes, mountains and lots of greenery again, and it is stunning! The next leg of our jounrey sees us drive south along the spine of the Andes. It promises to be long but incredibly rewarding, and I can't wait! And hopefully there will be lots more amazing wildlife along the way!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Big things a'come!

Well today it finally happened. After a long day yesterday watching the news services going mad, it was with relief and excitement that a Grey Phalarope was found just off the South end of Inner Farne, where it showed very well as it fed in the swell not far offshore. These delightful little birds are always a thrill to see, and the Hove bird last year is and always will be one of my most memorable birds. As I was without my camera today, I'll include a picture of said Hove bird.

Lovely lovely lovely

After that things went pretty quiet, until mid afternoon when a call from Brownsman alerted us to the presence of an Olive-back Pipit. The boat was quickly in the water and we crossed. It didn't take long to find and it showed wonderfully in the afternoon sun. It's always nice to get a lifer, and this was a cracker. This medium sized Pipit breeds in Asia and North-eastern Europe and winters in South-east Asia, and the arrival of this bird marks the the 5th consecutive year one has arrived on the Farnes; quite a record.

Very smart Olive-backed Pipit

Monday, 13 October 2014

Big things a'coming!

It's blowing a gale outside as I write this entry, an EASTERLY GALE!! Excitement is rife on the islands this evening as the next few days look rather special in birding terms. With Norfolk already reaping some rewards (RF Bluetail), hopefully we will be recalling some magical birds come the weekend. There have been a few goings on the past week though, perhaps the most notable of which is the arrival of our first Grey Seal pup. Excuse me for getting a bit mushy, but these little guys really are adorable; cute and extremely fluffy. With one of the largest Grey Seal colonies in the UK, we can expect to see around 1500 pups before the season is out, although by that time Lana and I will be chasing birds somewhere in Argentina! The pup below is only a few days old, and it will take around 3 weeks before he is weaned and ready to fend for himself. During this time it will put on a whopping 2 kg a day.

Grey Seal pup.

While we have been welcoming new life every day, we have also been saving lives as well. A Gannet was reported on a small outcrop off Staple Island, appearing to have fishing line wrapped around it. Rangers were instantly dispatched, and before long the Gannet was caught and the net removed. It was an off-cut of what would have been a much larger net, and for such a tiny amount of rubbish to bin, a Gannet (this one at least 5 years old) would have been lost. Putting rubbish in a bin really is a simple process, and it baffles me why human beings continue to struggle with the concept. Needless to say that if I were in charge, the penalty for such a heinous crime would be very severe.

Simply stunning adult Gannet with net

On a lighter note, Lana and I were out early on Sunday ringing. Birds were numerous and there were a few highlights, including 5 Tree Sparrows, and even better I was lucky enough to ring one. They are gorgeous birds, and in the hand even more so. I would be so bold as to say they easily make it into my top 5 favourite British Passerines. I was extremely happy afterwards, and the lovely coffee and home-made cake afterwards rounded things off nicely.

Absolute cracker of a Tree Sparrow

And finally, today we were treated to an amazing wildlife spectacle on the islands, the sort that makes you appreciate how lucky one is to be working and living in this special place (especially when we have the islands to ourselves). A pre-lunch bird round burst into action when a Merlin shot in front of us, and immediately started chasing a Rock Pipit. For 15 seconds the two birds put on a most impressive acrobatic display. Shearing, diving, banking and all manor of other flight related manoeuvres occurred, before the Merlin finally caught its prey. It then proceeded to find a spot on the boardwalk, no more than 25 metres away from us and devour its quarry. We watched for half an hour as the Rock Pipit was meticulously plucked and eaten, before the Merlin walked off into the Orache to digest its meal. It was quite something to be able to witness.

The Merlin keeping a look out

And firstly plucking its prey....

Before devouring it!


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Fea-tastic return!

So the eternal optimism was partially rewarded when we returned to the Farnes yesterday. There was a big clear out overnight, but still lingering were some nice migrants including a long-overdue addition to my life list; Red-breasted Flycatcher. It was supported by a single Yellow-browed Warbler, numerous Goldcrests, and 2 Lesser and Common Whitethroat. Not quite the mega haul present on the islands the day before, but a lovely selection of birds none-the-less.

Red-Breasted Flycatcher from the living room window!

Yellow-browed Warbler showing well

And again showing faint crown stripe

Pair of Goldcrest trapped and ringed in the afternoon

This morning it was even quieter, but there was much excitement when news broke of a Fea's Type Petrel heading north from Flamborough at 8.25. We knew it would be a while before it hit the Farnes, but we kept an eye all day and saw 33 Manx Shearwater,  49 Sooty Shearwater and 9 Arctic Skua. As news broke of the Fea's passing Newbiggin we all took our seats and waited. And boy was it worth it!!
Almost exactly two hours later, it was picked up going through Staple Sound, and we were able to watch it for a good minute as it passed, banking heavily and showing its dark underwing contrasting with light belly in near perfect light. What a bird, and what a view! Needless to say we were very very happy afterwards. That was the bird that we really wanted!  

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Troubles of Being a Birder

When I find myself cursing about being on the Farnes (a very very rare occasion), it quickly turns into a sense of being totally unreasonable and I tell myself that I should be ashamed for it is the highest privilege to work and live in such an incredible place. However, on this occasion I found it somewhat more justifiable. The story begins with a broken zodiac engine, happening at a risky time of year. It rendered us boatless for a few days, and clearly the "weather gods" got wind of this (no pun intended) and the winds promptly swung easterly. With no rain, it means that the Outer group is perfectly placed to attract rares, and the Inner group perfectly placed to allow jealous observation. And this is what happened, and within a two day period on Brownsman the team had been joined by two Red Breasted Flys, a Red Backed Shrike, Little and Rustic Bunting and a host of other lovely migrants, while we were blessed with some Scandinavian Robins.... A Corncrake on the West Wides offered some light relief, but it was with some anxiety that we waited for a visitor boat to get out and catch a glimpse of what was a lovely Rustic Bunting on Tuesday. These lovely buntings breed in Northern Europe and Asia and winter down in South East Asia, and this represents the second Farnes record in two years.

Rustic Bunting (Thanks to David Kinchen-Smith for the photo)

I should also mention that on Inner Farne we did have some nice highlights, including a Pied Flycatcher that needed some hair-dryer treatment and a young Redstart trapped and ringed during the day. 

Soggy Pied Fly. Really perked up after a warming blow dry

Look at that tail!! Juvenile Redstart

So feeling very satisfied Lana and I headed for the West coast of Scotland for some lovely family time. Knowing that easterlies were still a-blowing but with things looking like they would be calming down, we thought the risk was minimal... We were wrong. News broke this afternoon of two new arrivals, one a Common Rosefinch, but the other... a Golden Oriole. Now I have seen a few in the UK but to see one on the Farnes would be an amazing experience. And to share a tiny island with a RB Shrike, Little Bunting, Rustic Bunting, Common Rosefinch and Golden Oriole... Need I say more. 

However, this is the way of birding, and something that we all need to learn to deal with at some point. So as I sit here having soaked up some lovely Scottish Sun. with my newly acquired Yellow Fever vaccination certificate for Argentina sitting next to me, looking forward to two more days of luxury running water, I feel very happy, for myself and also for the team enjoying some wonderful birds. I must also add that my eternal optimism (be it good or bad) allows me to believe that when we return on Saturday, all those lovely birds will be there waiting with open arms (or wings)!