Sunday, 24 February 2013

Played for and got

As I predicted in the last persecution of prose, I went back to Rainham today.  A little matter of a black Redstart and a male Hen Harrier that avoided my top notch fieldcraft yesterday.

Met Mr Messenger on the train and he was easily persuaded to take a little detour behind the warehouses (ooh er!) and have a gander at the old ferry quay. Five minutes later and I've picked up the stonking male Black Redstart those nice people told me about yesterday.

Then Mike found another along the rocks to the east, a female, and as we wandered towards the new bird a third became apparent.  Blimey! I think that doubles my London Black Redstart count.  They were obviously doing rather well down here on the foreshore, finding huge bugs in amongst the tumble of rocks.  A Grey Wagtail too was enjoying the shelter from the bitter wind, and yesterday's Common Sandpiper, though that buggered off west pretty sharpish.

So, for the next target. Mike suggested the tip side of the car park at the barges.  Perching precariously on some concrete blocks we could see virtually all the silt lagoons, albeit distantly.  While I was describing the movement of a Marsh Harrier, he had latched on to the Hen, needless to say the Marsh was dropped like a hot spud. Even from this distance and through bins you could see it was a smart bird. I suggested trying the bank by the security post. A tad disappointing and very much colder. We then tried the Serin mound, and while I managed to pick it up once more through the scope, Mike couldn't follow my instructions. Fearing frost bite, I graciously gave up and left Mike to persevere.

We returned, accompanied by Mr Bradders, Prof Whiteman and  Mr Hobson, to get some pretty decent scoped views of the magnificent bird as it quartered the silts, never close, but absolutely stunning.  The three Marsh Harriers weren't too shabby either. Ticks # 116 and #117, Staines will have to wait.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Back to London listing

After a couple of days away, which has boosted the year list somewhat, I was back on the London lookout (well off the pace for my target) at Rainham.  Yesterday Dom Mitchell had picked up a male Hen Harrier quartering Wennington, and I thought, that would be nice. Full of high spirits and coffee I walked with a spring in my step.  Half way to the station I remembered my tripod.

Down to the concrete barges, and I was even looking forward to seeing some big ugly gulls, only to be told by (I believe) Bilbo and Baggins (who were not short and bare-footed), that gulls were not viewable from the path.  Oh dear!  Some were quite obviously visible, but obviously not the big ugly, interesting ones. The ones that were there had their faces into the wind so all I got were gulls arse, though I did pick one with ridiculously long legs, standing next to a stumpy legged Herring Gull, mmm! Never mind.  On the plus side a Common Sandpiper jinked out from the shore.  Didn't get one of those last year here, but I was never here either.  A quick scan of the floating larid mass and a Med swam into view.  Ding dong!

There were Snipe everywhere, so a Jack had to be on the cards.  Local gen from Bradder's suggested the best way to catch up with them was to go on to the salt marsh.  So I did, and after another dozen or so Commons a couple of Jacks spun away from my feet. Job done, now more coffee.

A couple I'd met on the bridge at Rainham had picked up a male Black Redstart on the foreshore at the end of Ferry Lane, now you can find these in the city, but since I don't work there anymore and don't envisage going on the off-chance, I thought I'd rush round and have a butcher's.

Never works the way you plan.  First a Barn Owl stopped my progress hunting along the sea wall, then viewing from the Serin mound I picked up 2 Short-ears over the silts. Rushing on I espied Hawky on the silts.  He kindly let me informing me I had just missed the male Hen Harrier by about 5 minutes.  He offered me a picture of it's arse to tick.   I am slightly better than that.  At the moment.

A quick rush along the waterfront but I was beaten again by the oncoming night. I might have to come back tomorrow...

Friday, 22 February 2013

Bradders' Birding Safaris

An implausibly silly idea.

Twitch a bird on an island 750 miles away, for the day!  And if all goes pants have a little trip round the Scottish mountains.  Sounds great, count me in.

With so much on the itinerary it was bound to go pear shaped, but what transpired was declared by one and all as one of the best little trips we've ever had.  Does help if some good planning goes into the idea, so I wasn't needed for that.

First an overnight stop in Carlisle and then after a hearty, artery lining, Scottish breakfast we tackled a likely Black Grouse haunt somewhere north of Perth. Plenty of stoopid Red Grouse and somewhat surprisingly a Grey Partridge, but none of their more enigmatic black cousins, so we headed north and higher to Glen Shee for Ptarmigan. The visibility was hopeless, down to a few 10s of metres at intervals, so trying to  pick something white on a white background in a white out at times, proved slightly too much.  We did get some native Snow Bunting, a few Mountain Hare, and a pile of Red Deer and cold.

On the other side of the mountains things became slightly more hospitable and, as we drove towards Aberdeen, the ever alert Bradders picked up a Red Kite as it soared across the road. Lovely scenery but not much time to enjoy it as we had a ferry to catch.  No room for silly school boy errors like missing it!

While the others got outside a few of the local brews in the bar, ever the birder I was having a sneaky one out the back of the boat, hoping for something.  Dunno what, but got Eider, Red-breasted Merg and a rather strange looking gull that decided to take advantage of hitching a lift.

A small crowd of birders, booze and a load of anecdotes meant the evening passed quickly then it was back to the dungeon of our berth, which smelled like the inside of an oil tanker.  Four large men, one small room - not the best night sleep I've ever had. Bring on the finch!

Monday, 4 February 2013

Of Rice, People and Ibises

Another day, another pitch-black pre-dawn on the Northern Plains of Cambodia. It was 05:45 as we walked through an area of open-canopy forest near the village of Prey Veng. We were here for one reason: hoping to see one of the world’s rarest birds at roost. The guide from the local village and Sophoan, who had accompanied us from Siem Reap, stopped ahead of us. No words were necessary. We knew we had arrived. Now it was just a question of waiting silently for first light – and hoping for the best.

In time, the silhouette of a distant tree became imprinted on the lightening eastern sky, and on its upper branches were two Giant Ibis. It was impossible to make out many features apart from their long decurved bills and huge size, but we were treated to a tremendously evocative experience as they began to call, initiating a response from a third (unseen) bird. After a few minutes all three flew off for a day’s feeding. Although we were to have better views a couple of days later it is this memory that will remain with me forever. 

Giant Ibis is Cambodia’s national bird. Now extinct in most of its former range, it has been reduced to two core areas on the Northern Plains of Cambodia. Recent surveys put its breeding population at just 115 pairs, with a world population of maybe 345 individuals. It has suffered from hunting (it is a very big bird!), deforestation and disturbance. In the dry season it feeds in the mud of waterholes, which in the past were maintained by large wild mammals. The dramatic reduction of the mammalian megafauna has seen many of these feeding places dry out, so creating another problem. But there is hope ...


Engaging local communities 

Among a number of creative conservation initiatives undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodian partner the Sam Veasna Centre, is the Ibis Rice project. This rice is grown by farmers in the forests where Giant Ibis and its critically endangered near-relative White-shouldered Ibis breed and feed. In exchange for not hunting ibis and not clearing the forest, village farmers are offered training on increasing rice yields organically, their rice is marketed and they receive a premium price for it. Additionally, visitors pay to see and photograph the birds, with their cash going directly to village committees for projects ranging from wells to schools. Villagers are also trained to become wildlife guides. With a growing human population in the dry dipterocarp forest where the ibis live, there are still huge land-use pressures, but more families are signing up to the Ibis Rice project and there are signs that ibis numbers are on the up. 

There are other reasons for ensuring Cambodia’s dry dipterocarp forest is conserved. There is, of course, that other critically endangered ibis, the White-shouldered, whose population is a little larger than that of its big cousin – but not by very much. The easiest place to see this species is Tmatboey, another community that is actively engaged in conservation.

Then there is an amazing diversity of woodpeckers, including White-bellied, Streak-throated, Great Slaty and Black-headed. Birds as varied as Rufous-winged Buzzard, prinias, cuckooshrikes, bee-eaters and babblers can be found with ease, while ultra-graceful Crested Treeswifts glide over the canopy. Rare, and stunning, White-rumped Falcons require more effort. The forest also provides a home for Asian Elephants, wild cattle (Banteng and Gaur) and Leopards. Surely all worth saving for future generations?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the rice is very good, too!  

Tim Harris

For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see 

Photos: Neil Bowman

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dartford Slav Grebe was a mechanical hoax, shock!

I am sitting here typing this and it's still light, something must have gone wrong, I don't usually creep home until well after dark. I am now warming up, and here lies the answer.  I got a bit cold. Colder than when it was snowy and icy last week, down to the bones cold.  Twice in 2 days and and although I should have prepared for that, I got pissed off with it.

With the Slav Grebe's reappearance yesterday, and plans I had needed to adapt.  I've seen many slavs, but this one apparently shows down to the side of your feet, and I like those kind of odds.  However it did impress on me the stupidity of this London listing thing.  Charging across the river for a bird I've seen a fair number of and that I might easily see in Walthamstan, although distantly. Very distantly.  Since I came back for Rainham with nothing to show but a few Rainham ticks - a Ring-necked Parakeet ffs - today I needed to be more pro-active.  The plan was to tick and run the grebe and then belt up the Lee Valley and end at Amwell for a certain large ugly gull, Caspian be thy name. On the other hand I thought to explore a bit of the Dartford Marshes, as I would not probably go there otherwise. Or I got lost coming out of the station.

The marshes here remind me of the Shorne Marshes further east rather than Rainham, and I quite like Shorne.  Since I had gone out of my way I fancied having a look at the barrier and creek that always looks so more interesting than things on the northern side.  The lie of the land didn't help that and I come away none the wiser and have a niggling feeling that you actually get better views of it from Rainham. Not a lot of bird action on the way up to the river wall (they have two on this side), at least I have found the source of the constant gun fire, which I assumed naively was some local gang war: it's a clay pigeon shoot, rather large and rather popular with drivers of 4x4s.

Tiring of not seeing anything I decided enough was enough and found my way to the lakes at Littlebrook.  No one else was there apart from dog walkers, who have guessed, so I wandered around find only the wrong type of grebe.  On my way back to the first lake the Slav showed as it moved away from the bus stop where it was obviously checking times for buses out of here.  It appeared slightly embarrassed not knowing what to do, so I sat and waited for it come and check out my boot straps.

seen checking the bus timetable 

As I waited Dave Darrell-Lambert appeared behind me and while we chatted the bird disappeared to the left of us. We picked it up again, which meant I had to get up from my prone position, in an even smaller bit of water, and yes it got pretty close.  The damage had been done though, and here is the photographic evidence: seen to wobble in the wake of overly large Coot the grebe gives its secret away - a propeller!

Mr DDL kindly offered me a lift north of the river and while we are at it a quick drop in for the Avocets on Grays river front, courtesy of Mr. Parus. Yay tick #, eeeuggh!

Oh go on then have another pic of the rather smart duck...

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Down at the dump again

A tick and run raid on saaf London had been inked in for today, but thanks to some canoearst the bird in question had bolted, which left me with Rainham again. I will endeavour to go somewhere not Rainham tomorrow.  This of course meant another soul-destroying effort at the tip with nothing bar an adult and not adult Yellow-legged Gull (thanks entirely to two gullage geeks).  The wind had done a wrong-un and so even when I could clear the tears out of my eyes the scope wouldn't hold still long-enough to get the full glory of larid-world.  I gave up before my blood froze.

 A little bit of lunch left on the beak

Past the centre I was getting a bit desperate. A Kingfisher flashed by one of the ditches down by the woodland, the first for over 12 months for me here.  Soon after I picked up crow action against a Buzzard over towards Aveley, another first for a long time and that was about the highlight. Missed the brents, the Waxwing and the Bittern and my train -  nearly having a heart attack in the process. Scotland got beaten so all in all, a tad disappointing.  Bloody canoeists!