Not Just Bird Migration

Despite the rigours of our first day and less than six hours sleep there was still just enough adrenaline in my system to make sure, with a little help from the local mullah, that I was awake at 4.30am and in the lobby by 5.30am to meet the rest of the tour group. In addition to myself, Daniel and Graham there are three Danish birders, Anders, Jim and Paul who had already been in Kuwait for two days and two others more recently arrived; Marc a Belgian photographer and birding vacation connoisseur Gordon Cox who was returning to Kuwait after a successful tour with AbdulRahman in November 2018.

All of us were eager to get into the field and our first destination was Jarah Farms to allow the Danes to catch up with Bank Mynah. There was just one small problem – the hotel had not provided the promised packed breakfasts which necessitated a drive around Jarah to find the Kuwaiti equivalent of a greasy spoon that was open at 6am. Once fed we set about exploring the farms where we found a few new migrants including a showy Lesser Whitethroat a slightly less obliging Grasshopper Warbler.

Moving to a block of fields we had not found the previous day we were detained by a female Semi-collared Flycatcher which appeared better marked than the previous day’s bird and allowed closer approach with the longer lens.

Female Semi-collared Flycatcher – a different bird based to the previous day based on the strength of the median covert bar?

Graham and I spent some time with the flycatcher and became detached from the rest of the group. As we continued through the fields Graham spotted an Isabelline Shrike on a chain-link fence which after a brief showing melted into some nearby bushes was not seen again. At which point we were summoned by walkie-talkie to join the rest of the group who had scored Bank Mynah and were ready to move to the next site Mutla’a Ranch.

Our collective eBird checklist can be found here.

Isabelline Shrike – my first adult note the mantle colour, warm wash to the underparts and restricted mask compared to the Turkestan Shrike we saw in Al-Shaheed Park the previous day.

Mutla’a Ranch is reached by driving North on Highway 80 which leads from Kuwait City to Basra in Southern Iraq. The section immediately North of Jarah was one of the notorious Highways of Death in the 1991 Gulf War where coalition warplanes repeatedly attacked a static convoy of Iraqi vehicles fleeing Kuwait ahead of the advance of ground forces. These days there is no evidence of the events of 30 years ago other than a sign at the turn off to Mutla’a Ranch reading “God Bless US Troops”.

The ranch itself is an isolated area of irrigated oil palms in the desert about 35 km NW of Kuwait City that is home to about half a dozen resident species including Namaqua Dove, as well as serving as an effective migrant trap.

Namaqua Dove

There were certainly more migrants here than at Jarah Farms, with Blackcaps, Phylloscs and Redstart being the most numerous with quality in the form of Masked Shrike, Great Reed Warbler a singing Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and more Semi-collared Flycatchers, including a couple of males. Sadly this was the only site at which we saw Turtle Dove during the entire week.

Our eBird checklist for Mutla’a Ranch can be found here.

The next destination was the Northern section of the Al-Liyah Reserve an experimental station owned by the Kuwaiti Institure for Scientific Research (KISR). Access is restricted, but had been organised in advance by AbduRahman who led the way on the dirt roads calling us on the radio to alert us to any roadside birds they had seen from the lead vehicle.

AbdulRahman leads the charge across the plains of the Al-Liyah Reserve

Singles of Cattle Egret and Wryneck might not be expected in this unforgiving environment, where we also found 4 species of lark; Desert, Bar-tailed, Crested and Greater Hoopoe.

Cattle Egret – no livestock anywhere in sight!

Eventually we reached an area of low bushes next to a man-made reservoir that held Wood and Common Sandpipers along with a very smart Black-headed Wagtail. The bushes were full of migrants including a number of Pied Wheatears including one singing male that allowed very close approach. Also notable were the numbers Striped Hawk-moths nectaring on the small white flowers. Interestingly none were present when we visited this site later in the week, but like Painted Lady butterflies (which were also very obvious at many sites we visited) Striped Hawk-moths migrate from Africa to Europe and what we witnessed was a collective pitstop to refuel on their incredible journey.

Striped-hawk Moth – tens of these striking insects were present during our visit.
Pied Wheatear

What was almost certainly a Ménétries’s Warbler eluded me and there were several male White-throated Robins who favoured the bases of the small bushes. Their MO is not unlike a Bluethroat and the best bet seemed to be to sit down at a sensible distance from a bush and wait for the bird to hop out to feed in the open. Sadly not all of our colleagues were signed up to this approach and as such the our only views were of birds in deep cover or in flight!

A typical view of White-throated Robin

Just as the group broke for lunch a flock of pale long-winged sparrows alighted on some nearby rocks – my initial thought was Yellow-throated, but closer inspection of the birds and review of revealed them to be Pale Rockfinches another species I had not seen for 30+ years. As we enjoyed our sandwiches, fruit and cold drinks a young Steppe Eagle passed overhead.

eBird checklist from Al-Liyah is here.

Steppe Eagle (2cy)

After lunch AbdulRahman was keen to crack on and move to Doha on the North side of Sulaibikhat Bay to coincide with high tide which concentrates waders, herons, gulls and terns onto a sandy spit. Whilst this site does not offer great photographic opportunities it is an outstanding birding spectacle especially for Western European birders with the wader flock dominated by Terek Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers coming into breeding plumage along with a good smattering of Broad-billed Sandpipers and Lesser Sandplovers – needless to say we spent more than an hour glued to our telescopes.

The tour group, under the watchful eye of AbdulRahman, enjoying the number and diversity of shorebirds on Doha spit
Even Graham had forsaken his camera to enjoys the waderfest

eBird checklist with our sightings from Doha spit can be found here

Relocating to the Sulaibikhat Sports Club Promontory on the South side of Sulaibikhat Bay allowed us slightly closer views in better light of a smaller number of waders including Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers. Crucially for the success of the tour a single Crab Plover (WP #708) stood tall at the grassy edge of the shore – the only one we would see all week. A summary of our sightings on eBird is here

The day’s final birding location was on the University of Kuwait campus on the Eastern edge of the bay. There was no evidence of the 200+ Hypocolius that had used the shrubs here as a roost site a month previously, but we were treated to a spectacular sunset over Sulaibikhat Bay before returning to the hotel.

Black-headed Gulls at Sunset

After a much needed a shower Graham and I explored the local neighbourhood to find somewhere to eat. Kuwait has significant immigrant communities both from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in the Arab world including Egypt. Certainly an Egyptian league match on TV was proving a significant draw at the local cafe.

Saturday night football in Farwaniya

We had all but given up on finding somewhere other than the Continental’s fast food outlet when we chanced across a spotlessly clean cafe, the Prince Embaba which was run by – yes a bunch of Egyptians. Despite the menu being Arabic we muddled though on the basis of some images and one of the staff who spoke some English. The soup, salad, freshly cooked lamb’s liver and flatbread was delicious and inexpensive which combined with the warm welcome was enough to cause us to return several times during the course of week.

Gank and the City

Having enjoyed a trip to Western Sahara last April Graham Clarke and myself were keen to extend our experiences of desert birding during spring migration. This time our destination was Kuwait; the tiny oil rich Gulf state that lies on the Eastern edge of the Western Palearctic where we had arranged to participate in a seven day tour organised and led by local birder AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan.

Although I had not visited Kuwait before it had featured in my birding past. In August 1990 when I was working in Denver Colorado the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was scheduled to speak at the Aspen Insitute. Her visit was being covered for the Mirror newspaper by David Bradshaw who had arranged to meet up with me for a couple of days birding in the Rockies after the conference. On August 2nd Sadaam Hussain invaded Kuwait, Bush and Thatcher’s initial response to this act of aggression came at a news conference in Aspen. When the conference finished David was understandably required to follow the leaders back to Washington and report on the emerging chain of events which led to the Gulf War put an end to our birding plans. Naturally I never imagined that 30 years later I would be visiting the site of this tragedy on a birding trip.

All day breakfast at 7pm – the obvious choice of an Irishman who is going to be deprived of pork products for a week!

We drove down to Maidenhead on the afternoon of 11th April and left the car with my sister before taking a cab to Heathrow Terminal 5. Baggage drop and security were straight forward and gave us plenty of time to sit down and have a meal before boarding our overnight flight to Kuwait City. I managed to sleep through most of the six hour flight, Graham was not so fortunate. Approaching the airport overnight cloud and rain were clearing from Kuwait City conditions that looked good for seeing grounded migrants. Despite limited/lack of sleep we were eager to get started although a short frustrating delay to process our e-visas followed before we met AbdulRahman who took us to the Continental Inn in nearby Farwaniya; a very serviceable business class hotel that was to be our base for the next eight days.

After taking luggage to our rooms there was time for a quick shower and breakfast before we joined French WP birder and photographer Daniel Mauras for a day of independent birding around Kuwait City helped by a driver and packed lunch very kindly organised by AbdulRahman at no additional cost to the tour which was to start the following day.

Laughing Dive – a common bird in Al-Shaheed Park and most tother sites we visited

Our first destination was Al-Shaheed Park which is the largest urban park in Kuwait that combines well tended and watered gardens with a celebration of Kuwaiti heritage. Our driver left us in the underground car park and arranged to collect us 3 hours later which gave us an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the common birds of Kuwait, a number of which have been introduced and have established self sustaining populations. It is absolutely fine to count these Category C species on your WP list (for guidance see Paul Chapman’s guest blog “Last Chance to C” on the WP Big Year site). That didn’t stop Graham reminding me that these exotic species with zero vagrancy potential are referred to by Irish birders as “gank”. It turned out that in addition to the very common House Sparrows and Collared & Laughing Doves Al-Shaheed park was home to three species of gank; all of which were new for my WP list!

White-eared Bulbul (WP #703)
Common Myna (WP #704)
Indian Silverbill (WP #705) – we only saw this species once away from Al-Shaheed park where they thrive on the seedheads of ornamental grasses.

As we walked the park perimeter, separated from a busy six lane highway by a narrow metal fence, we picked up our first migrants, Rufous Bush Robin, Masked Shrike and Lesser Whitethroat, amongst the manicured tree and shrubs. Against the backdrop of the imposing skyscrapers the local Pallid Swifts swooped low and a Mon/Pal harrier passed overhead. At this point I became separated from Graham and Daniel who found a Turkestan Shrike – fortunately it did not take me long to catch up either with them or with this much wanted and long anticipated lifer (WP #706). Further interest came in the form of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler hopping around a rock garden.

Turkestan (Red-tailed) Shrike – very definitely not gank!
Al-Shaheed Park – a curious juxtaposition of skyscrapers and meticulously maintained gardens

By late morning it was getting rather hot, we were tired from the overnight journey and as a consequence not finding many new birds. However towards the end of our stay we did flush a male White-throated Robin from the base of some shrubs. He was very nervous and regularly disturbed by joggers and other park users so we were never able to get close. A real shame as this was not only one of Graham’s most wanted birds, but also the first I had seen since I was in SE Turkey in 1986; we hoped that it would not be our only sighting of the week!

A summary of the morning’s observations can bCe found here.

Frustrating views of White-throated Robin – distant and in strong sunlight
Crimson Speckled – this attractive micro-moth is a very rare (and sought after) immigrant to the UK but is common in dry open areas across North Africa, the Near East and Central Asia and an unexpected bonus of our morning in Al-Shaheed Park

We met our driver as planned and enjoyed the air-conditioned car and a packed lunch as we relocated to Jahra farms; an extensive area of small holdings next to a shopping centre in the small town of Jahra on the northern edge of the Kuwait City conurbation. The farms, which are irrigated from a single well, are worked by hand to provide fresh herbs and salad leaves for local businesses. Arriving around 1pm we agreed with the driver that he would pick us up at 6pm and although five hours seemed a long time to devote to the area bird activity was low in the intense heat, something we hoped might change by late afternoon.

Jarah Farms – the mosaic of small plots, overgrown ditches, palm tees and bushes provides diverse feeding for tired migrants

There were a few migrants, Willow Warblers and Redstart, in the first area of plots we looked at. Moving to the second block of fields we found that a couple of plots had been deliberately flooded in preparation for sowing and were proving very attractive to the local Mynas – mainly Common, but also a few Bank Myna (WP #707).

Common Myna
Bank Myna – slightly better looking gank?

Migrant wise we continued to struggled in the heat of the day adding only Blackcaps, another Redstart and a very jumpy Wryneck whose nerve were not helped ny the temporary appearance of a couple of hunters. A few Swallows flew through and the local Smyrna (White-breasted) Kingfisher made itself known, but it was hard work and both of us eventually succumbed to the need for a nap.

The previous 24 hours finally caught up with Graham

As the heat finally started to abate Graham picked up a female Ficedula flycatcher near the farm entrance. Date and location suggested Semi-collared a species I had only seen twice before and each time a single adult male. We were not disappointed although securing a decent image proved challenging in the strong light as the bird did not allow close approach and we both had elected to bring our more portable 100-400mm zoom lenses for this first day.

Female Semi-collared Flycatcher; note the long primary projection, two wing bars (the median covert bar is very faint), white bases to the primary coverts and narrow tertial edges.

Satisfied we returned to the original block of fields but added no new migrants save for a couple of Tree Pipits – although the Smyrna gave us a somewhat better view before it was time to rendezvous with the driver and bring a successful day’s birding to a close. A summary of our sightings from the afternoon can be found here.

White-breasted (Smyrna) Kingfisher

After returning to the hotel we just had time to freshen before meeting AbdulRahman to revisit the airport and collect the two 4WD hire vehicles that we were going to use for the tour. Eight participants plus AbdulRahman required two cars and Graham and I had agreed to drive the second vehicle for the duration of the trip. I drew the short straw and got to drive our Landcruiser Prado back to the hotel in the evening traffic; very different rules apply on Kuwait’s congested roads to those in the UK. Having survived this baptism of fire it was time to get something to eat in a local Indian restaurant before turning in ahead of our 05.30 start the following morning.

Early Season Norfolk Moths

The warmer weather of the past few days really kick-started activity amongst our group of Norwich based moth enthusiasts. On Tuesday (19/3) I was invited to join a field trip to a private site in the South-west of the county to search for some early spring Breckland specialities. As the sun went down and we set up a handful of battery powered actinic traps hopes were high that we could repeat the success of a similar trip a few days previously. In the end a full moon and a sharp drop in temperature around 21.00hrs meant that numbers and diversity were not quite as high as we had anticipated. Nevertheless by the time we packed up at 22.30hrs we had managed to record at least 67 individuals of 17 species including the following five species all of which were new for me:

The birch specialist Yellow-horned showing how it got its name!
The understated Mottled Grey was new for many of the participants.
Water Carpet
Broom-tip – quite an early date for this heathland species.
For me the moth of the night was this majestic and subtly toned Scarce Tissue

I was too busy at work for the next couple of days to even contemplate running a trap but that did not deter others. On Thursday (21/3) news filtered through of no less than five Small Eggars being caught across the county. One at Cley and two each at Lyng and Litcham. This beautiful little chocolate coloured moth is declining in the UK and many moth-ers are more likely to have seen evidence of its larval webs in hedgerows than an adult.

Fortunately the pair of females at Litcham arrived at the light-trap set in the garden of Keith Kerr, top entomologist and leading light of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group who with typical generosity invited visitors. I couldn’t make it, but because I was based at home the following day to receive a delivery I asked if Ian Robinson could bring at one of the Small Eggars back to Norwich along with a Lead-coloured Drab. I collected the three visitors from Ian on Thursday evening and as a result Friday morning saw a near constant ringing of the doorbell as a steady procession of visitors from Norwich and further afield turned up at my front door to admire the Eggars and discover how to tell Lead-coloured Drab from its more abundant and infinitely variable Clouded relative.

One of the two female Small Eggars.
Female Lead-coloured Drab – males have nice feathery antennae which makes them easier to tell apart from grey forms of the closely related and much commoner Clouded Drab

So far so good – all I had to worry about was when my package would arrive, scheduling a work meeting and returning the moths to Litcham. Except that visitor after visitor was telling me that a Barred Tooth-striped, caught in the Brecks the previous night, was on display at the NWT’s Weeting Heath visitor centre. Luck was on my side; the package arrived on time and my colleague plumped for an early afternoon meeting which allowed me enough time to take the scenic route to Litcham, via Weeting! When I arrived at the VC I found the warden James with two pots on the counter – one containing the BT-s and the other a couple of Dotted Chestnut, a species that is expanding its range in Norfolk. Although it has not yet reached me. James was pleased to see the Small Eggars, which by now were rather sadly moribund. This was almost certainly due to the exertion of them having fulfilled their biological role of egg-laying prior to capture than their excursion to Norwich. He then very kindly helped me photograph the moths, both of which were new to me, before I headed to meet Keith and return home.

Barred Tooth-striped: The Breckland population discovered in 1980 is completely isolated from others in the UK.
Dotted Chestnut

James Lowen has already blogged about the Kindness of Moth-ers a sentiment that I can only reiterate here. None of the above would have been possible without the collaboration of fellow enthusiasts; organising the field trip, lending portable traps, transporting moths around the county and sharing their finds.

And amongst all this excitement what about my own backyard? I ran my home made MV trap a couple of times over the weekend (21-24/3) recording good numbers (44 and 64) in catches dominated, as is expected in late March, by Common Quakers. Quality was offered by a pair of beauties – Brindled Beauty which was new for the year and a couple of latish Oak Beauty. But in truth it feels like the season is just getting started.

Oak Beauty from the garden trap.

Getting better every day

On Friday a female Snowy Owl was found on Scolt Head Island  where it could be viewed at considerable distance from the coastal footpath near Burnham Deepdale. Since this represented only the second record of a Snowy Owl in Norfolk in the past 100 years the news caused quite a stir among county listers few of whom had seen the male that wandered North Norfolk for a few days in late March 1991.   Try as I might I simply can’t get too worked up about Norfolk listing. Moreover since I was working the next day I had already made plans to leave work early to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri at Norwich’s excellent Cinema City.  I enjoyed the movie which lived up to its excellent reviews, and although incredibly funny in places it is a tough watch. Had I made he right decision?  I think so!  Not only had I seen the 1991 bird in Lincolnshire but also birds on Fetlar, Shetland in the mid eighties. And judging by the pixilated white blobs appearing on social media this bird could only be seen at great distance before it flew off West at dusk.

By Saturday morning, and in keeping with its direction of travel, the owl had relocated to Thornham Point where it could be viewed from Titchwell RSPB reserve.  Possibly a second bite of the cherry? A distinct maybe as I was committed all morning. First of all to my daughter Kat who along with her colleagues on the City College Foundation Year was exhibiting her art in Norwich and secondly to helping with an applicant visit day at work.

My mid-morning appointment

However by early afternoon I was free and a quick phone call to Kat confirmed her interest in seeing the owl. After collecting Kat from town and a quick stop at home to pick up our wellies and to jump online to order some flowers that might reach my mother in Maidenhead by the following day.

Parking at Titchwell was straight forward and we immediately set off for the beach and soon encountered many very happy friends making the return trip.  On reaching the beach we discovered that the tide was out and as we headed west towards the bird we found the tide line littered with the debris of the previous week’s storms including many dead starfish.  As we approached the crowd of admirers at the edge of the dunes we found that the owl was close to the shoreline ca 400m distant. Given the reports of some less than ideal behaviour by 2-3 rogue photographers earlier in the day and with the bird’s welfare paramount, everybody was keeping a very respectful distance. Nevertheless views  through the telescope of this iconic arctic predator were very good indeed and having missed one on Scilly by just one day a few years back Kat, who is a bit of an owl fan, was delighted to to catch up with one so close to home.  Equally delighted was my mother who phoned me while we were watching the owl to say how pleased she was with her flowers – result x2!

The best that I could manage with a DLSR given the distance

More than content we headed back to the car park and drove home arriving in time for me to set the moth trap before making Ingrid dinner.

The following morning there were only a couple of Chestnuts  in the trap with a Hebrew Character (NFY – new for the year) resting on a nearby wall.  Interestingly there was also a single brightly coloured tortrix moth, that with the help of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group,  I identified as Aclaris cristana which turns out to be quite scarce in TG20 with just 15 previous records and a new species for the garden and for me.

Acleris cristana – the English name is Tufted Button which refers to the two raised matches of scales half way down the inner edge of the wing which give the impression of fins.

Whilst I was sorting this out news emerged that the owl had moved again this time to an area of rough grassland behind one of the hides on Snettisham RSPB reserve and, according to the news services was “showing well“.   Since Kat and Ingrid had gone out for Mother’s Day brunch and a movie temptation was too much.  After a brief exchange of messages Graham picked me up  half an hour later and we set off for Snettisham. When we arrived in the car park early in the afternoon we still had a 30 minute walk to the bird but to our delight she was still there, hunkered down in a grassy hollow a mere 80 m distant and appeared to be unfazed by the crowd of admirers that had assembled behind the fence on the adjacent boardwalk. After about twenty minutes  she coughed up some pellets of undigested prey and shortly after flew to a slightly more distant fence post affording us the most wonderful views and providing good photographic opportunities.

Just look at those eyes

And the dense feathering on her legs!

We could have stayed all afternoon, but time was moving on and Graham needed to be back in Norwich.  Again I was back in before it got dark and with the promise of another mildish night set the moth trap again.  Late evening I was rewarded with my third Pale Brindled Beauty of the winter a very fresh individual and almost three months after the first on 21st December suggesting an extended flight period.

Pale Brindled Beauty – click on an image to view the gallery.

The following morning there were again just two moths in the trap; Chestnut and Common Quaker (NFY) but on the wall was a Dotted Border which was a welcome, if not unexpected addition to the garden list and a fine end to a weekend that just got better and better.

Male Dotted Border

Beauty and the Ibis

I had arranged a day off on Monday and used it to drive Ingrid, my wife, to a work appointment in Great Yarmouth.  After leaving her for a couple of hours  I went to look for the Glossy Ibis that has been frequenting the flooded grass in Bure Park.  It turned out to be quite confiding and with a bit of patience posed nicely for the camera when the winter sun finally broke through.

Glossy Ibis, Bure Park Great Yarmouth Feb 5th 2018

Meanwhile at home in Eaton the extended run of cold nights have not been conducive to moth trapping.  However, 28th Jan was an exception and I managed to attract a single male Pale Brindled Beauty (females are wingless) which I then needed to keep in the fridge for a couple days until a day with good enough light for photography.

Pale Brindled Beauty, West Norwich, 1st Feb 2018

There are a number of late winter/early spring moths currently being caught in small numbers by Norfolk recorders that I have yet to see – hopefully there will be a few warmer nights before their flight season is over.