Saturday, 27 February 2010

Break in the weather

From top: Common Buzzard, Red-legged Partridge and Waxwing.

At least in our part of the country, this long, cold winter seems to be turning into a long, wet winter. I was in Norfolk briefly yesterday on a non-birding visit, and it rained almost incessantly from dawn to late afternoon. Sunshine eventually broke out too late for enjoyable viewing of the birds that I encountered en route, which included 100+ European White-fronted, 20+ Greylag and the best part of 1,000 Pink-footed Geese, as well as a Marsh Harrier (with two more harriers together near Ely, Cambridgeshire, on the way home). But unusually, it was threatening to shine again at daybreak this morning, so I made the most of a dryish start and headed to a site on the edge of the London Area.

Red Kite used to be a rarity in the capital, occurring mainly on spring migration, but in more recent years records have increased. Many of these relate to wandering birds from the now-thriving Chiltern population, which has expanded to the point where odd birds regularly stray eastwards to London's borders. This morning, at a private site where I have seen the species before, three birds were present, one of them being constantly harried by a crow; a passing shower duly dispersed them, but subsequently a Common Buzzard shwed well - another large raptor which has spread its range and now breeds close to the city.

More rural in character than most of my London birding haunts, this area can be good for a range of farmland birds too, and as well as Pheasants, Skylarks and assorted corvids the morning's haul included five Red-legged Partridges, Green Woodpecker and a cracking male Yellowhammer.

With the weather deteriorating again, I headed for home but made a short detour northwards to Finchley, where one of the very few Waxwings to appear this winter has taken up temporary residence. Its favoured location made a change from the usual supermarket car parks - this time it was a hawthorn by a Total petrol station. When I arrived the bird was more distant, having already had a good feed on berries, and when it did attempt to return to the tree a Jackdaw drove it away for some reason. Hence these distant shots (below), taken when the bird was in poplars opposite the garage at College Farm.

Waxwing was my 122nd species in London so far this year. Both despite and because of the weather, it has been a productive winterfor birds , and on the penultimate day of the month the first returning Little Ringed Plover has already been reported. Before any more spring migrants reach the country, however, a major storm has been forecast to hit the south coast tomorrow. Things could get interesting, especially on the big reservoirs in south-west London.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

More on the Dusky Warbler

It's interesting to see how educational one rarity can prove as a result of the concentrated attention it receives, in a way that - for most observers - never seems to apply to common species. I am referring, of course, to the London Dusky Warbler, which I noted as showing an olive tone to the secondaries, and about which Roy Woodward has commented on the condition of the tail.

Anyone who thought the Dusky Warblers had brownish upperparts should now be aware that - apparently - it's not as simple as that! Having checked a few references this morning, it's interesting to find that the upperparts of Dusky Warbler are variously described as being from "essentially dull brownish-olive" (Baker 1997) to lacking "the olive tinge above which is shown by many Radde's ..." (Lewington et al 1991). Perhaps more accurately, Svensson (1992) describes them as "(greyish-) brown, with a very slight olive tinge in many birds (1Y only?)", adding that there is "some individual variation in the coloration of the upperparts of this species" (though the latest edition of the Collins Bird Guide - Svensson again - summarises it instead as "rusty-tinged dark grey-brown upperparts"). Clearly, for a Phylloscopus warbler it can be surprisingly variable; the same might also be said about its bill and leg colour (again variously, and occasionally wrongly, described in some of the above references).

Roy was correct to point out the anomalies with the tail, which should have 12 feathers but which appears to have probably only nine - see the new images which I've just uploaded to my Flickr site. The bird fanned its tail often while moving about and feeding, revealing that it had shed some feathers. From Svensson 1992 again, it seems that the moult in this species is variable and not fully understood, with some adults undergoing a complete moult in winter as well as in summer. But with first-years also partially moulting in winter, and in view of the slight olive tone on the secondaries - as well as the fact that most vagrant 'Sibe' passerines tend to be youngsters - I suspect this individual is probably in its first year.

Now, who would honestly have given as much time and consideration to an individual Carrion Crow, or House Sparrow? Even if lack of field experience is partly the reason, it's so often more the rarity 'value' of the species, rather than the bird itself, that piques our curiosity.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Work and pleasure

A female Greater Scaup dozes alongside Pochard, Tufted Duck and Coot at Brent Reservoir.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the editor of a bird magazine might spend a lot of his time birding. If only it were so. During office hours, the great majority of our birding is done vicariously, through reading and editing submissions to the magazine, dealing with contributors and, of course, swapping stories in the office.

In that respect at least I'm sure that editing Birdwatch is no different from being a wildlife TV presenter or an RSPB warden - most of the job has little to do with the subject matter, and it's much more about administration, communication and working as part of a larger team in various ways. Hence when I do take an extended period off work, as over the past couple of weeks, I am keen to maximise any birding opportunity.

Today's plan had been to make an early start at Broxbourne, where Hawfinches have been showing well in recent days - it's a difficult species to connect with in the London Area. However, rain, sleet, snow and more rain made the weather better suited to ducks than finches, so while running various errands, I called in instead at Brent Reservoir, in the shadows of Wembley Stadium (what an ugly building that is), in the hope of seeing the lingering female (Greater) Scaup there.

It wasn't where Brent regular Roy Beddard had recently seen it, on the main reservoir, but extending the search to the Northern Marsh I managed to locate the bird asleep under overhanging willows with other Aythya ducks. The above shot is - for me - a rare digiscoped effort, as my Canon G10 does not marry up well to Swarovski's ATS HD scope. That's something I discovered during a digiscoping workshop that I attended on behalf of the magazine - so the job does, of course, have its benefits.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Done and Dusky

Dusky Warbler at Walthamstow: the first confirmed London record.

Six days after news broke, and having covered more than 1,000 miles in between times on our Scottish trip, I finally had the opportunity to try for the Dusky Warbler at Walthamstow Reservoirs this morning. Last night was bitterly cold, but at least today dawned bright and sunny - a positive sign.

A text from Shaun Harvey and smiling faces in the car park when I arrived on site indicated that the bird was still there, and within minutes of reaching the northern end of Lockwood Reservoir I was at last able to settle an old score with Dusky Warbler in London (see last post).

The bird called constantly as it worked its way along the fenceline brambles, occasionally flycatching or dropping to feed on the ground. The distinct pale supercilium was probably its most obvious feature, though on close inspection its feet appeared strikingly yellow, as did the basal two thirds of the lower mandible. More obvious from images than in the field were its rather rounded wing shape and also a very slight olive tone to the secondaries, something I've not noticed on Dusky Warblers before (could the fact that I usually see this species in autumn account for the difference?).

Winter records of this Asian Phyllosc are rare but not unknown, and presumably this bird has either survived the winter here or moved in recently, perhaps after the latest cold snap on the Continent. It was interesting to have three Common Chiffchaffs in the same area for comparison, too - there is clearly no shortage of insect food here despite the weather.

Among the crowd this morning were Andrew Moon, scoring the bird at his second attempt, Mark Pearson, Roy Woodward, Walthamstow regular Pete Lambert and fellow Rainham birder Priscille Preston, who got a remarkable digiscoped image of the bird. A Slavonian Grebe - my second in London this year - was also conveniently in residence on the Lockwood; by coincidence, it was on this same group of reservoirs where I saw my 'life' Slavonian Grebe 32 years ago.

I set aside the next few hours ambitiously chasing another London tick, Pink-footed Goose, in the hope that the two recent birds in the Rainham/Ingrebourne area would be refound. They weren't, so I had to satisfy myself with distant views of the three White-fronted Geese and a Red-crested Pochard on the reservoir near Berwick Ponds. Still, any day featuring a new London bird can't be bad.

Below, from top: Slavonian Grebe at Walthamstow, and Red-crested Pochard and White-fronted geese (with a single Greylag, right) in the Ingrebourne Valley.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Scotland in brief

I have spent much of the second of my two weeks away from home and Birdwatch in Scotland with the family. This is traditional practice - my Dad lives in Edinburgh, and heading north at half term is always a welcome break for Haze, Ed, Ava and I. Naturally, there are birding opportunities too, and after dozens of visits over the years I feel like I've got to know some of the best sites along the Firth of Forth pretty well.

This time last year I spent a day undertaking a big loop around Dumfriess & Galloway and then southern Ayrshire, largely chasing (and finding) vagrant geese, but family commitments this year meant that I stayed much more local - the Whooper Swans (above) in Fife and Long-tailed Ducks (below) off Longniddry being among the assorted highlights. Longniddry also boasted far more Velvet than Common Scoters this year, something I've noted at Musselburgh before but not here. Scotland in winter boasts a seaduck spectacle of which we birders from the South-East can only dream ...

... and this February, those still in London can also dream about unseasonal Siberian vagrants. While on the long drive up to Edinburgh, I got a text about a rumoured Dusky Warbler being discovered on my old patch at Walthamstow Reservoirs - a first for London if confirmed. Within 24 hours it had indeed been relocated, and finder Lol Bodini has doubtless been celebrating his success. He has triumphed where I failed, yours truly having found but then lost a possible Dusky Warbler on Walthamstow Marsh back on 20 October 1990, at a time when several others appeared on the east coast. It was mentioned briefly in the Ornithological Bulletin of the London Natural History Society at the time, but I didn't get enough on the bird to claim or submit it, and consigned it to history as one that got away.

There hasn't been a sniff of a Dusky in the capital since, so congratulations to Lol for adding it to the London list - I only hope it stays (and survives) until I return at the weekend.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Goodbye Guatemala

Green-throated Mountain-Gem, one of 13 hummingbird species logged during the trip.

All good things must come to an end, and so it was today with Guatemala. We had time to bird in the morning at Cerro Alux, a forested hill in the city where several species were added to the trip list, not least the retiring Blue-throated Motmot and the Blackbird-like Black Thrush. Back at the hotel, while waiting for the shuttle bus to the airport, our final trip tick fell in the form of Azure-crowned Hummingbird, another nice find by Bill.

At this stage in the proceedings everyone is always ready to go home, but dreading the long return trip - especially since we flew south first for one and a half hours to Panama, breaking our journey there for an hour before the 12-plus hours on board as we headed across the Atlantic to Madrid. That gave us some time to begin trying to identify some of the more cryptic flycatchers we had seen - Guatemala is home to at least eight Empidonax species in winter, and not all of the birds we saw were readily identifiable in the field. Analysing images to confirm features is a lengthy process, and it wasn't long before primary projections, wing-bars and eyerings brought pressure on our own eyelids ... another project for another time, maybe on ID-Frontiers.

In the meantime, having shared over 200 species and much more between the three of us during the past week, Bill Oddie and I wished Laurens Steijn all the best in Madrid and headed back to London together, saying our own farewells at Heathrow. In due course I'll be writing a feature on Guatemala for Birdwatch, and will have the chance to relive some of these highlights all over again. But thanks once more to our host for the Sixth International Birdwatching Encounter, Ana Cristina, and also to Omar Méndez for his guiding skill and great company during the trip - it must make a change for him from gigging and signing autographs (see YouTube for more on his band, Viernes Verde - Green Friday in Spanish).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Pink-headed Warbler or bust

Today's highlights included (from top) Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer at (below) Fuentes Georginas.

There was an unhappy sense of déjá vu as the alarm went off at an unfeasibly early hour again this morning. Our senses were jolted awake with a hefty dose of neat Guatemalan coffee and a mouthful of pan a todos, and the bus began its 50-minute rumble down the plantation approach road in pitch black. Our venue for the morning's birding, Fuentes Georginas, was quite close to yesterday's destination, but we were having to make the long commute to and from Las Nubes - much as we've all taken to Mario's place, it would have made more sense to spend the night a lot closer to where we needed to be.

And we needed to be there for Pink-headed Warbler. This was my most-wanted of Guatemalan birds, an outrageously plumaged passerine of legendary reputation. I was not going home without it.

With few distractions en route we arrived in good time at Georginas, and full of expectation. Looking down into the forested 'bowl' between volcanoes, there were birds everywhere - Black-capped Swallows, Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches alongside rank-and-file Western Tanagers and Wilson's and Tennessee Warblers. The backing track was performed admirably, but invisibly, by Highland Guans, Brown-backed Solitaires and a single Mountain Trogon.

We birded the car park environs, but with no luck for our target bird, so began walking back down the approach road. As the minutes ticked away the only new warbler for the trip emerged in the form of Crescent-chested, a welcome addition but not the real deal. Even recordings of Pink-headed failed to elicit a response.

Our spirits lifted briefly by a cracking Unicoloured Jay along the roadside, we headed back to the car park to begin the search all over again. Shrewd move. After a few minutes, pandemonium broke out as the shout "PINK-HEADED WARBLER!" went up. I think it was Bill who got onto it first. Panic continued until we'd all finally set eyes on this superb bird - job done, and then some.

Sated with excellent views, we went on to enjoy two Pink-headed Warblers at very close quarters indeed, and Laurens managed to get far better photos than I did. With Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush and White-winged Tanager among the supporting cast, we left Georginas elated with the morning's result.

Lunch came later than expected, but there was a surprise in store - our birding friends and colleagues from the beginning of the trip were there at the restaurant to greet us. We exchanged news and stories with Keith from Rockjumper, Birding magazine's Ted Floyd and Bryan Bland from Sunbird, among others, before saying our farewells once more and birding the adjacent woods. Here, no fewer than an amazing four more Pink-headed Warblers were keeping company with Olive, Red-faced, Cresent-chested and Hermit Warblers and a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Along with Slate-throated Redstart, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Brown Creeper, Band-tailed Pigeon, Rufous-collared Thrush and Rose-throated Becard, the mix of North and Middle American birds was the perfect end to an excellent day.

Bird of the day, and indeed the trip: Pink-headed Warbler.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Patrocinio and Takalit

White-throated Magpie-Jay (above) and Pacific Parakeets (below).

It was an early start today to head away from Las Nubes, visiting another finca which is also beginning to make its mark on the Guatemalan birding circuit. At Patrocinio visitor facilities include an old water tower which has been converted into a spectacular canopy-viewing platform. Our longish journey meant we arrived after the peak time for activity at the platform, but many birds on and soon after arrival included an all-too-brief White-faced Quail-Dove which I flushed from close to the path near the tower - a great start to the day, but a shame the others couldn't quite get on it.

Fruiting trees nearby were choc full of Clay-coloured and Swainson's Thrushes, as well as Orchard, Altamira and Baltimore Orioles, Turquoise-browed Motmots, White-throated Magpie-Jay and assorted tanagers, vireos and warblers. Yellow-naped Amazon and Orange-chinned, Orange-fronted and Pacific Parakeets were also in evidence, but audible Highland Guans in the nearby forest remained frustratingly elusive.

We logged well over 50 species before departing after late morning to Takalit, which offered more forest trail birding along with Mayan ruins. New or notable trip birds here included Collared Trogon, Common Tody-Flycatcher, White-collared Swift and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and the trees were alive with warblers and other Neotropical migrants, the most notable of which was a single Worm-eating Warbler.

As Mayan sites go Takalit is easily outshone by Tikal, but added a brief cultural interlude which has so far largely been absent this trip. The limited time we had there, however, allowed for little more than passing appreciation as we birded close to the car park, finally getting acceptable views of the noisy but very unobtrusive Spot-breasted Wren.

Mayan statue at Takalit.

Monday, 8 February 2010

In the clouds

From top: Squirrel Cuckoo, Slate-throated Redstart, Elegant Euphonia and Blue-crowned Chlorophonia.

Las Nubes means 'the clouds', and with half of this huge coffee plantation in the Guatemalan highlands still covered in forest, some of it at high altitude, the name is suitably evocative. Having felt rather out of it yesterday I hadn't quite got a grip on exactly where we were - particularly as the journey from the entrance gate to the accommodation took 50 minutes - but with dawn threatening to break and Pauraques flying off the track as our 1959 Land Rover ground its way uphill, that didn't really matter now. All I knew was that we were in birding country.

Our first target was Resplendent Quetzal and, soon after sun up, we struck it lucky with a female overhead and distant but impressive views of a perched, very long-tailed male on the forest edge. There was much else to see along the trails here, too, with Squirrel Cuckoo, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Yellowish Flycatcher, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Redstart and a wealth of wood-warblers moving through the canopy in hyperactive feeding flocks.

After breakfast, we drove up higher still and then walked the undriveable far end of the trail, to an audio backdrop of quetzals and Highland Guans. Rumour has it that Horned Guan occurs much further on up this trail, but that was too far for us to go today so instead we happily made do with the likes of Yellow-throated Brush-Finch, Green-throated Mountain-Gem, Common Bush-Tanager, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo, Elegant Euphonia and, pick of the bunch, Blue-crowned Chlorophonia.

The birdiness of this area, combined with the fact that my phone fell out of the Land Rover as we bumped our way downhill and I had to walk back up to find it, meant that we didn't return for lunch until mid-afternoon. With that and the rain setting in (I thought this was the dry season?), the rest of the day was a bit of a washout.

Over dinner, we learned from Mario that the bulk of his finca's coffee production ends up in a Starbucks' branches. Starbucks often comes in for stick for its business operations, as do many global corporations, but here its coffee-buying practices support a finca which gives over half of its property to forest and wildlife, an undeniably good thing.

From left: Frank, Bill, Mario and Bitty.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Moving on

With another early start on the shores of Lake Atitlan, we said goodbye this morning to Nate and Debbie, both of whom had to depart pre-dawn for Guatemala City to catch their respective flights back home to the States. Our journey was far shorter, taking a boat across the lake to the delightful Laguna Lodge, on whose property we were going to search for the enigmatic Belted Flycatcher.

Still suffering with a knee problem after yesterday's volcano climb, my heart sank at the sight of a steep trail winding its way up the hillside. I took it at my own pace to avoid exacerbating the problem, and thus trailed behind the group for most of the way. Catching up the tail end of the others as the path levelled out on a ridge, I paused alongside Bill to say that, disappointingly, this was as far as I would make it today.

As the group continued on, Bill and I both caught a movement low down to the right of the path. I spun the focus wheel of my ELs as the bird momentarily hopped into the open. BELTED FLYCATCHER! My shout didn't exactly encourage the bird to continue showing confidently, but it was necessary to bring everyone back to see our targe birdt, which thankfully they all eventually did. As a group, Empidonax flycatchers and their allies are somewhat lacking in glamour, but Belted Flycatcher - actually in the genus Xenotriccus - is an exception and a beautifully marked bird. They are skulkers and this one was too quick for my camera, but this image shows you what I mean.

Thereafter, it was downhill all the way. Not just back to the lodge, but in body and spirit. On top of my knee injury, whatever the local equivalent of Montezuma's Revenge is struck with a vengeance, and within two hours I was as white as a sheet and flat out on the bus. I mustered enough energy to say goodbye to most of the group, and our gracious host Ana Cristina, before Bill, Laurens and I, now joined by Frank Gallo, made the 3.5 hour journey to Las Nubes, our base for the next three nights.

Long-haul birding

From top: Rufous-collared Thrush, Band-backed Wren and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo.

Inevitably, I'm playing catch-up on this blog with posts delayed by an almost complete lack of internet access for the rest of my time in Guatemala. For the sake of completeness, however, I'll aim to post at least a couple of images per day and summarise highlights (as time permits) to give you a flavour of birding in this fascinating country - clearly a superb destination with great potential, but one which needs to keep working hard to fully establish itself on the map.

It also has the potential to be one of the most physically demanding for birders, as I found out the hard way. In fact, I can testify that, having ascended and then descended almost 3,500 feet up and down Volcan San Pedro in one day, I have experienced the most challenging birding of my life. Having failed to find Horned Guan I could also claim to be gutted - but I'm not. We saw some great birds, from roving parties of Bushy-crested and Black-throated Jays to Rufous-collared Thrush, Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo and the rare Black-capped Siskin. Never before did a beer at dusk taste so good, even if I could barely walk to the bar.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Dawn in the Neotropics

From top: Black-and-white Owl, Grey Hawk, Violaceous Trogon, Painted Bunting and Orchard Oriole.

Yesterday seems like a long time ago. Two flights, more than 14 hours in the air and the most appalling in-flight food in a long time have been forgotten. Well, almost. Laurens Steijn, Bill Oddie and I arrived late in the afternoon in Guatemala City - later than planned, thanks to the airline, so our first attempt at birding in Central America amounted to no more than watching Great-tailed Grackles go to roost and lucking in on two Lesser Nighthawks hunting insects over the lights at a roadside petrol station.

This morning was different. Something else entirely, in fact. I was up early at 4 am, running on a mixture of adrenaline, anticipation and jetlag, and finally we met for coffee at 6 am as the sun set the sky above the Guatemalan highlands dimly aglow. Waking up in the tropics is a fantastic feeling, and within minutes of going outside birds were on the move. Swelled in numbers by other members of the international brigade attending the country's sixth 'birdwatching encounter', we headed into the private forest reserve at Los Tarrales.

Over the course of the next few hours neck-ache set in as we got to grips with everything from Collared Aracari, Lineated Woodpecker and Yellow-winged Tanager to a wealth of wintering warblers, vireos and flycatchers. There were too many highlights to list here, though a fabulous Black-and-white Owl in broad daylight takes some beating as bird of the day. It retained the title for a whole four hours, until arriving at tonight's hotel, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, when we found a Prevost's Ground Sparrow just outside the restaurant. If you don't know why that wins, punch it in to Google images and see for yourself.

I haven't finished the day list yet, but it's likely to be more than 100 species, all largely in the same upland forest and forest edge habitat - amazing diversity for such a small area. Tomorrow will see another dawn start as we ascent Atitlan Volcano on foot for a chance of that true Neotropic enigma, Horned Guan. Wish us luck.


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