Friday, 29 November 2013

In Search of the Invisible Nuthatch

Part I

By Tim Harris

The summit of Doi Chiang Dao makes a rare appearance through the clouds.

The vehicle slewed across the muddy slope like a duck landing on a frozen pond, then ground to a halt, its wheels spinning without traction. We were stuck. No doubt influenced by the fact that it was still dark and we were miles from the nearest habitation, I was beginning to think it had been a mistake to set out up one of Thailand’s highest peaks after a night of rain. But doubt had to be banished, since we were on a mission to find Giant Nuthatch if we could. This species is found over a large area of south-west China, a slice of eastern Myanmar and a corner of northern Thailand. Yet, according to BirdLife International its population falls in the range 1,000–2,500 individuals. In other words, it is extremely thinly spread and very fragmented, surviving in open mixed pine and oak forest above 1,000 metres. It is endangered and its population is still in decline. The shoulder of Doi Chiang Dao is one of just seven known sites for the species in that country.

I managed to reverse the four-wheel drive vehicle out of the deepest mud, activated the diff-lock and tried again. We inched forward through the mudbath, and eventually reached an area of better traction. The process was repeated several times but after almost two hours we reached the end of the track, where there was a small area of – thankfully flat – open grassland surrounded by pines, 1,400 metres above sea level. Although most of the journey up had been in darkness, sunrise had us turning a bend to see three Mrs Hume’s Pheasants close to the track. Neither of my companions, piciphile Gerard Gorman and lensman Neil Bowman, were able to get shots of these birds but all three of us were happy to get our bins on this near-threatened species, whose numbers have fallen as a result of habitat degradation and hunting. After dawn and away from the track, the chances of seeing it are virtually non-existent.

For the rest of the day we walked back and forth along the top kilometre of the track and around the grassy area, listening for tell-tale taps on wood or sharp calls, and watching for any movements up or down pine trunks. The area was certainly not bereft of birdlife: a White-browed Scimitar-Babbler pulled bits of bark from a fallen tree in its quest for spiders. Several Grey Bushchats and a male Daurian Redstart flitted after insects in the grassy area. Mrs Gould’s Sunbirds fed on a patch of yellow flowers. But nuthatches there were none.

The descent down the mountain was certainly easier than the morning’s climb, not least because it was light, but it was done in the knowledge that we would have to repeat the journey the following day …

Seconds out, round two

And so we did, although the reprise was not quite as treacherous. Gerard, disappointed with the lack of woodpeckers the previous day, had gone off elsewhere, so the responsibility for finding Sitta magna fell to Neil and myself. There wasn’t another birder anywhere in the vicinity. Our hopes were lifted mid-morning when a series of calls announced the arrival of a bird wave, moving through the pines just in advance of a bank of low cloud. After staring at empty trees for hours we suddenly had to identify dozens of small birds simultaneously: phyllosc, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, phyllosc, phyllosc, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, phyllosc, phyllosc, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, phyllosc … nuthatch! Bullseye? Sadly not, it was Velvet-fronted, the wrong kind of nuthatch, though still a nice bird. Another Stripe-breasted Woodpecker and the wave had passed over. Back to empty trees. Of course, inevitably in these waves you miss as many birds as you identify. That was our consoling thought, anyway; maybe we’d get our quarry if the birds returned …

We walked down the track, up the track, down the track again. Eventually I heard what I thought was a Giant Nuthatch, but the call stopped and we couldn’t set eyes on the bird responsible. Anyway, I couldn’t be 100% sure that the single notes weren’t being delivered by another species. Again, there were other good birds, including Blue-throated Barbet, Mountain Imperial-Pigeons, Streaked Spiderhunter and Grey-backed Shrike … but not the one we really wanted. An hour before sunset we accepted the inevitable and began the long, slow drive down the mountain, knowing full well that we didn’t have time to repeat the venture a third time. Tomorrow we had to move on to Doi Ang Khang, another of the seven sites.

A Grey Bushchat near Doi Chiang Dao.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Ticks at last!

More dippage. Thursday: news of not only Bewick Swans apparently roosting at Rainham, but also Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser on the river. They wont be there in the morning.

Just to make sure they weren't there in the morning I was. Early! It was cold, and with the centre not opening till 09:30 it remained cold. Right enough none of the birds were there so I had to make do with a brief glimpse of the Merlin again as it scooted up over the tip, and a couple of Avocets in Aveley Bay. A quick sprint around the reserve fortified by a cup of the strong brew and then work.

Saturday and after a breeze round the patch I resolved to get the Black-throated Diver at the KGV. I phoned Mr Fisher and asked him if he wanted a look-see. He did, so after meeting up with him at Blackhorse Road, we wandered up the Lea Navigation towards Ponders End. Always fun with Mr F and today was no exception. A couple of Kingfisher on the river and a female Goosander flushed from the flood relief channel passed the time quickly. Before we took up the challenge of the gate to the reservoir, we had a pit stop at Maccy D's. Food is always good if you know in your heart your going to meet disappointment in a short while.

 The gate puzzle overcome, disappointment followed. No sign of the diver, however Goosander and a heap of Goldeneye sort of made up for it. We checked the south basin then trod carefully on all available sheep pooh and checked the north basin. Could it have moved on to the Girling to avoid the Saturday sailors? Only one way to find out and as the sun set over Tottenham we managed to climb up Mansfield park on a hiding to nothing. The light wasn't that bad, but all we could see looking distantly at the most restricted reservoir in London, were gulls, thousands of them with more streaming through. Bugger!

Sunday and its 3:00 AM and I am round Jono's house to meet up with Monkey and Mr Howard for a little jaunt down to Pembroke, again! Luckily I fell asleep and woke up near Bristol not only missing the tedium of the motorway, but a good hour an half of country and western music. Probably!

First light sees us drawing up in the makeshift car park, already fairly full, and join the queue for the Orphean Warbler that had taken a liking to someone's back garden and in particular their apple trees, and more precisely their rotting apples. With only 40 or so allowed in the garden at one time it was like getting on a bus. The polite, like yours truly, getting the worst position. Saw the bird, but not enough to get the camera to focus on anything bar the guys head in front. So a "Lesser Whitethroat" with murder in its eyes; in no large part down to its diet of fermenting apples. Anyway while we waited for another view I had a chance to look around.

Thanks to Mr Lethbridge for the pic

 This really is a beautiful part of the country. Large hedgerows, wooded valleys and copses, a reed bed down to the estuary (heard Cetti's which apparently are new arrivals here as they spread across the country - bar Wanstead). Pembrokeshire is now in the running as a retirement destination. After another viewing we thanked those involved in organising it, left our donation (apparently they have raised over a grand for the Skolkholm Island fund) and left.

A quick visit to where we had seen the wheatear a few weeks back; Howard wanted to see Chough and we did, and he also found a Dartford Warbler while we were stalking the crows back by the car park. Then on Jono's suggestion we went homeward via the Forest of Dean for the Two-barred Crossbill that had been frequenting the place. I would have advised him against this purely on the certainty of failure as these are my current dipping nemesis.

This part of the journey was an improvisation and while we got to the Forest of Dean easily enough, Monkey's map reading skills couldn't find us the right spot. Never dipped a location before. Oh, I have! many times. A great trip, thanks lads and very fortuitous as the cider soaked warbler staggered off during the night, either that or it's liver succumbed.

Tuesday. FFS the diver is back, or probably never went away. This time...

The guy I met at the gate was not hopeful. It had been claimed, but he had seen nothing. Well since I am here! The reservoir was a still as a proverbial mill pond, with everything bar a diver showing well. A couple of other birders were making their ways round the ressie in different directions to I stayed put. Finally one of them got to me. "So no sign then?", I says. "Oh yes, somewhere between the boats..." He helps me look and a few minutes later picks it up floating to the west in front of 3 large chimney. Tricky buggers divers!

Welcome to my London List you tardy bastard.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The (bitterest) PLL

I got a reply to one of my tweets at the weekend in which I mentioned a dodgy Merlin at Rainham (#190).  I spent the whole day looking for the bugger only to have it fly over mine and Mike Messenger's head as the dark was getting darker.  We saw enough for me to say "that was probably it then!".  He concurred it had very short wings, a stiff flight action and was small. I got a bit of a short tail, compared with Kestrel.  Lucky I don't have to write a report on it! It did, however, remind me how pointless this whole thing is really.  I've seen four or five Merlin this year, but spent a whole day looking for this particular one.  I wouldn't say the day was completely wasted, but...  ... and there was a Dartford Warbler over the other side of town, which would have been a, relatively, better bird, which then bunked over night.

The Harringay Birder asked "Why pointless?".

Basically all personal lists are pointless (I have lots). Other bloggers have alluded to this better than I can, so I won't try.  With the exception of a patch list, and here, in my case at least, it's part of a collective effort. It's the one I feel most proud about, and the only one I can put one over on Jono, or anyone who works Wanstead, but it's not taken too seriously. On the plus side The Pointless London List was to encourage me to visit places in the recording area I hadn't been to, and add a few to my London list.  It's probably a moot point that I would have gone for virtually all of the new birds I have seen anyway. It's when you come to scraping the barrel for those extra birds, you've seen elsewhere.  You stop and think, do I really want to go all that way just for, say a Merlin, and spend the whole day looking for that Merlin.  Well I did this time.

Last year my pointless listing effort was to hit the 300 mark, which I did by mid November, then I gave up. The thought of travelling to Devon, Cornwall, where ever, was just too costly and perverse to action.  No doubt I would have enjoyed myself immensely, but I couldn't be arsed.  Probably when I look back at all in a few years I will think: that money could have been better put to use protecting the environment in one way or another. I am not saying I haven't enjoyed the twitching and those who put in all the effort to drive me there–I can't thank them enough.

Yesterday there was a report of Black-throated Diver at the KGV, another Harry Lacey find, and it's still there today. I was going to go this morning, but that was my idea yesterday. Today the gloom, rain and the cold meant I managed to get up the road, then found myself going round the block and coming home. Then back into bed.  Too tired and maudlin to think how best to get the few miles (but several trains, tubes, buses and then walking, then get to work) to go and see it.  My depressions are usually short-lived and perhaps with the extra couple of hours sleep today I might get motivated to hoof it down there tomorrow. 

Now this makes me smile

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Shetland omnibus: wrapping it all up

Day 5.

Up early: We've got boats to catch, Unstwards.  Back in my old stomping grounds of the last two years and, because of my fantastic local knowledge I am dictating where we go.  Oooh er! Bradder's decides to hit the north end of the island first and work our way back.  What I would have said exactly.

Skaw is first on the road trip.  The most northerly farm house in Britain and, historically, a great place for megas.  I never seen anything much there and today was quite in keeping with that desultory record.  While the others charged up the burn I stayed on the rickety old footbridge ingesting my first nicotine for a few hours. The radio crackled into life: "Water Rail just below the bridge".  It was me, I seen it!

Not quite the Skaw draw I had wished for, but a new bird for Shetland.

Back in Northwick after a quick detour at Lamba Ness and more Snow Bunting (probably the same ones we had just seen at Skaw), and great views.  Did I say it was sunny, no?  For Shetland is was a peach of a day.

A Bonxie harried a gull and we hurried on.

The weed patch, that last year had held a Pechora, had been cut to the ground probably as a result of them pesky birdwatchers. Here Matt finds another Water Rail in the Dunes, DB scores a Hawfinch and I fall over a fence and lose my phone and more importantly my lighter.  Both retrieved we shoot off to Burrafirth and failing to find anything more than a flock of Redpoll there, down to Haroldswick and the quarry, which was quite good last year for cover.  They've taken out the cover, but a large flock of Snow Bunting still found a few plants around its edge to feed on.

Halligarth followed and the most Chiffchaff in one place we found the whole trip.  Always worth the visit, but the best bird was a Yellow-browed. Now if only the Baltimore Oriole had stayed on a another week or so...

With the day quickly turning a bit damp and only an hour or so of light we hoofed it down to Ulyasound where the lake sometimes hold interesting ducks like Scaup, like the one we found.  A family of Whooper made like they were interested in landing but flew south, as we must do to catch the ferry and a dip of  the Bearded Seal on Yell.

Day 6

Finally the promised winds were heading in the right direction, if not somewhat fiercely.  Now if only it would stop raining for a minute...

It didn't.  It was so crap that I kept my camera in the bag most of the time. Jono did re-affirm the magical properties of Double Deckers by stepping on a pipit, later identified as an Olive-backed Pipit. A lot of miles, a lot of new and re-visited sites and a lot of rain and not a lot to show for our efforts.

Day 7

Went very much like Day 6, windy, rainy and hard work. We made it to a hundred species with the White-rumped Sandpiper at Boddam after we had returned Jono to the airport, but of course the birds we had searched high and low now started appearing elsewhere.  Red-flanked Bluetail at Voe...

None of us were looking forward to the crossing back to Aberdeen, it looked like it could be a bit nasty, but bar one set of shuddering, which had all the optics rattling, as we left the shelter of Lerwick Harbour, it wasn't too bad. We docked before first light and were heading south as the sun rose over the North Sea. We had time pencilled in for a rather pretty warbler down Borders way, who knows we might even get it.

Oh we did.  Yay!

Another great Shetland trip, 3 lifers, some Shetland lifers and a few year ticks. Thanks to David for organising it and, along with Matt, Jono and Marco, for being great company. Can't wait to go back.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Shetland day 4: Citrine showing smartly in Shetland shit heap

Don't worry, not many more to come.

Now with an added Lethbridge things were getting tight in the back seat of the car, and extra pressure was needed in the tyres. We chose to keep close to the south of mainland, just in case Jono's bags managed to make it on to the island. First up was Maywick and the big gardens there.  The wind had gone up a notch or two, so what ever was about was not for showing too well.

Next Geosetter, where I contributed Garden Warbler to the burgeoning trip list, which was getting more like Wanstead in September by the day.  A quick excursion round by Loch Spiggie: Slav Grebes, Black-tailed Godwit, a group of Whooper and a Pink-footed Goose, which I managed to flush in putting my scope up.

Then back to Quendale for the reported Little Bunting (can't go to Shetland without seeing one of these, just not done!) and, when we got round to the far side of the crop field that appeared to hold most of the birds on Shetland, we scored. Yay! A quick jaunt up the valley produced nothing more than a few Redwing and more Blackcap, hooray!

Then it all went a bit quiet. Of course there were Blackcap.  Always Blackcap. We ended up wandering around Scalloway for some reason, and just as that was getting really boring, Marco got a message on his phone: Citrine Wagtail, Boddam. Game on!

A bit of a run around that was too.  The directions given were not the best and so it took us longer than it should to track down the farm where it was showing well and when we did arrive it's first act of showing well was to fly off into a cow field, calling. Not good. Even worse it was milking time and the herd was being brought in by the farmer, and the chances were that this would either flush the bird miles or stop it from coming back to its favourite slurry pit.

The cows collected and happily the bird came back too.  What a little stunner, and showing ridiculously well.  A lifer for myself, Marco and Matt, and so much better for all that, though now I want to see an adult male in summer plumage.  There too were the most birders we had seen in our travels, including one Hugh Harrop (who told Marco to stop "fucking" scraping his feet, as he tried to clean some cow by-product of his boots): his usual pleasant and welcoming self.

So while the wind wasn't quite living up to the expectations we had placed on it, Shetland had delivered for us at the last knockings again.