Managing the Light

My grandmother referred to the days around the winter solstice as “the dark days before Christmas”.  I sometimes think this phrase speaks to her understanding of the powerful impact that limited hours of daylight and grey skies can have on our wellbeing.  Circumstances that combined with the demands of the holiday season make it imperative to make best use of the few sunny days that come along; especially for birder/photographers.  

The first of these was Sunday 15th December and my orginal intention was to head over to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo where an adult male Black-throated Thrush found earlier in the week was holding court.  However mindful of the need to drive to Maidenhead the following weekend, and the fact that I had seen half a dozen Black-throated Thrushes in the UK it seem best to but that one on the back-burner.  Instead I headed South to the RSPB’s Hollesley Marshes reserve in Suffolk where I was able to watch the long-staying Siberian Stonechat happily feeding out of the wind some 200 m away

After an hour or so it was clear that the Stonechat was not coming closer so I made the short journey around the Deben estuary to Felixstowe Ferry where a Black-necked Grebe had taken up residence on a small beach side pool.  

The beachside pool at Felixstowe Ferry

From a photographic perspective this was much more satisfactory.  Lying on the flat rocks with the setting sun behind me the grebe would pop up just 5 metres away.  Unfortuntely for most of my visit it seemed encumbered by some green nylon fishing line that had got wrapped around its lower neck.  Fortunately this did no seem to impair feeding and about half way through my visit the bird appeared to be disentangling itself (upper image).  The lower image shows it to be free of the twine and I know for certain it remained on that pool for a further three days hopefully safe from dog walkers and stone throwers before it made its way back out to sea.

Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019
Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) Felixstowe Ferry, Suffolk, 15th December 2019

As it turned out that a combination of work, assorted Christmas preparations and multiple trips to the dentist meant that it was not possible to make the Maidenhead trip until Sunday 22nd.   Fortunately an early start was not needed as Whipsnade does not open to the public until 10.00 hrs and the forecast was that the ealy rain would not clear until 11.00 hrs.  It is always good when a plan comes together and as I was parking just after 11 the first visiting birders were leaving and the day was brightening. To cap it all a very kind lady walked up to me and gave me a voucher for half price entry.  Over the next hour the bird did not disappoint showing well in and around its favoured cotoneaster bush before moving into a nearby animal pen all in very good light that showed off the nucanced charcoal tones that offset it’s bright yellow bill base.

Black-throated Thrush (Turdus atrogularis) ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire, 22nd Dec 2019

More than happy with my views and photo opportunities completed a leisurely journey across the Chilterns to Maidenhead and spent a pleasent afternoon with my Mother and Sister before an early evening return to Norwich.

In many ways seemed an excellent way  to end the birding year. However as so often is the case, there was a late surprise  in the form of another Eastern Yellow Wagtail found frequenting a West Norfolk dung heap during the afternoon of 23rd December. And this individual was not an esoteric study in greyscale with a funny call, but a handsome first winter male of the nominate subspecies Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis aka Alaskan (Yellow) Wagtail or Blue-headed Eastern Yellow Wagtail.  For a quick refresher on Yellow Wagtail taxonomy see my recent post;  On the Beach.  As for English names of recent splits please! Just don’t get me started!  

The  more immediate problem was that I was finishing at work,  Christmas Eve was going to be spent shopping and making preparations for Christmas Day and Boxing Day guests and the only sunny day in the forseeable future was Christmas Day.  And although I have long since stopped caring about county lists this appeared to be a very pretty bird and worth the effort.

In the event the family kindly made sure this was not a problem – with presents exchanged by 11.30hrs and Christmas Dinner preparations in Hugh’s capable hands I was given an unexpected bonus present in the for of an exeat. Unsurprisingly there were just a couple of observers present and as I unpacked my gear and the wagtail moved from a large roadside muck heap to a stubble field where it fed distantly for about ten minutes before flying off South-East.  Others decided to await its return but I walked down a farm track to the a second pile of sludge and manure where it had fed the previous day. 

Prime habitat for a vagrant wagtail

Creeping around the back of the site to get the low sun behind me I surprised the EYW which flew calling into a nearby copse before returning to feed on the piles of manure and in the slurry pools which appeared full of insects. For the next 45 minutes myself and one other photographer had this confiding beauty to ourselves whilst skeins of Pink-footed Geese called over head and flocks of Fieldfare bounced along the hedgerows.  What was there not to like?

Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019
Eastern Yellow Wagtail of the nominate subspecies (Motacilla tschutschensis tschutschensis), near Sedgeford, Norfolk, 25th December 2019

I eventually tore myself away so that I could drive home on the near empty roads in the light and was back home by 15.30hrs to enjoy the rest of our family Christmas Day including the fine meal served up by Hugh.

The outstanding spread that awaited me later that evening….

Some final thoughts on the EYW.  If we accept the identification of this bird as an EYW on the basis of it’s flight call then maybe it can be ascribed as a candidate ssp tschutschensis on the basis of the blue-grey crown and nape (appears slate grey in some lights), white supercillium that stops short of the bill base and dark grey lores. As for it’s origins despite the “Alaskan” moniker tschutschensis breeds as close as NE Kazhakstan; nearer than many far-eastern species that reach our shores.  Conceivably analysis of DNA extracted from a stray feather or faeces may reveal more.  But for now that can wait as I savour a memorable encounter on a sunny Christmas Day.

Return to Cape Clear

Thirty-two years ago following a successful twitch of the Sullom Voe Harlequin  I encountered Mike Terry on the Aberdeen ferry.  This chance conversation led me to abandon further October trips to the Isles of Scilly.  A sense of adventure and a desire to see transatlantic vagrants away from the Barbour clad hordes led me to Cape Clear.  I  have mended my relationship with Scilly and enjoyed many successful birding and family holidays.   But in 1987 I only had eyes for Cape where my first trip started brightly enough.  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Myrtle Warbler in quick sucession  was followed by two relatively birdless weeks.  The following year’s Sapsucker sealed the deal and I returned to Cape regularly until 1996. Although the returns in American landbirds were poor, the scenary, company and craic was always first rate.

Thursday 10th October

After 23 years it was time to return. This time in the company of Graham who had spent many happy hours on Cape when he lived in Cork City.  Unfortunately the trip started badly when our hold luggage, including waterproofs, did not arrive. 

Lost luggage formalities completed we picked up the hire car. Left to his own devices Graham was easily seduced by the plastic trim and gizmos of a Mini. Despite its drive chain, it got us around.  As for the missing waterproofs,  toiletries  change of clothes etc  Aer Lingus  offered tocover the cost of “necessary replacements”. OK – this was a birding trip to Ireland and the day was decidedly “soft” and we took them at their word.  After 45 minutes we emerged from the excellent  Wildside Sports  in Bandon each €300 lighter kitted out with brand new  ‘proofs and other “essentials” .  I did wonder however if KLM/Aer Lingus might balk at Graham’s €35 pair of merno wool jocks.

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtus) – Toe Head, Co Cork

Back in the game we headed for a very wet and windy Toe Head a less covered headland SW of Skibbereen.  A walk around the outer head offered very little. Instead we tried our luck slightly inland.  A well vegetated garden flanked by a line of trees just screamed rare. Not today unfortunately, but Graham did score a Lesser Whitethroat. But that was not bird of the day. As we left a very late and bedraggled Turtle Dove was walking along the entrance road. 

Onto the quayside at Baltimore.  Here we met Brian Lynch, a friend of Graham’s from his Cork days ,who was joining us for the weekend. It was not the smoothest crossing I have ever had over to Cape. Relieved to set foot on the quay I let Mary Cadogan whisk us away in her taxi to our B&B.  Located up the Lighthouse Road the charming Ard na Gaoithe  is a lovely place to stay. Reinvigorated by a shower and partial change of clothes we walked to Cotter’s Bar to find dinner.

Ard na Gaoithe
Friday 11th October

Our early morning exploration of the Glen failed to turn up either  the Yellow-browed warbler or Firecrest.  Returning to the B&B things looked up with news of a Hippolais warbler and a Wryneck. Even better was the splendid full Irish  and positive news on Graham’s bag.  This was scheduled to arrive in to Cork that morning before being couriered to the ferry in Baltimore.

Full Irish – the poached eggs were our only nod to heatlhy eating

However here was no news on my lugggage so Graham and Brian left me to a futile conversation with Aer Lingus. Forty minutes later I set out on a half-remembered route around Ballyreigh. Following  the Low Road  I caught up with top Irish lister Victor Caschera. I carried on through East Bog and up through the  Wheatear Field up onto Firbrega.  The highlight was a lone Skylark and  a chance to photograph the local Stonechats. 

Over by Lough Errul  I found Graham and Brian. They  had not seen either the warbler or the Wryneck nor a recently discovered Common Rosefinch.  Breakfast was now a distant memory and we stopped for lunch at An Siopa Beag (the island shop) and put our names down for pizza that evening.

Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) – Central Bog, Cape Clear Island

After lunch Graham and I headed up the Glen Road where we caught up with the Firecrest that had been hanging around the Sallows at the entrance to the Post Office.  

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) – Post Office, Cape Clear Island
Nick at the top of the Glen

Graham bailed out at the top of the Glen and headed back to North Harbour to meet the ferry .  Lost in memories I carried on walking through Knockannamaunagh as far as Comillane Bog before turning for home.  Walking down the A1 I was treated to a spectacular Atlantic sunset before retiring to Cotter’s . After 33,000 FitBit steps, I enjoyed a pint of Murphy’s and caught up with Dennis Weir who shared many of my past trips to Cape. 

Sunset over O’Driscoll’s Castle and Mizen Head

We took a short walk across the road to the shop where  25+ resident and visiting birders squeezed in for an impromtu pizza night.  The excellent pizza was followed by a couple more beers before tiredness kicked in.  An early night beckoned and we returned to the B&B. 

Pizza Night in the Cape Clear Island Shop
Saturday 12th October

Blue skies greeted us the next morning along with another monster breakfast.  The boys headed out whilst I checked the status of my bag online.  Good news – located and arriving at Cork Airport that morning!  Huge relief as it  contained my suit which I needed for a work appointment on my return to the UK.   

My joy was short-lived.  Leaving the B&B I turned right up the Lighthouse Road.  Had I turned left towards the Priest’s Garden I might have found the Red-eyed Vireo.  When I did get news of the Vireo it had crossed the road to the Youth Hostel.  Here I saw it briefly before it disappeared.   This was compounded by my schoolboy error of going back to the B&B to finalise arrangements with Aer Lingus.  In my absence the REV reapppeared in front of Graham’s camera (see here) and promptly flew off across South Harbout.  Later it was found along the Low Road and showed well to all comers over the next few days. Except yours truely who never got a sniff.

Interest in the Samoa v Ireland rugby match then ensured a couple of hours with  few birders in the field .  Despite this I had little to show for my efforts. Brief views of the Hippolais warbler suggested a Melodious.  Otherwise a pleasant walk around the Lough Errol pines offered nothing but stunning scenary. 

Looking North from the Lough Errol Pines

Graham and I had no luck with the Rosefinch in Michael Vincent’s (aka the Lough Errol Garden) and headed  towards the Waist.  En route I picked up the Wryneck atop a dead gorse bush.  Walking up the hillside with a drystone wall for cover we managed some rather nice views!

Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) – High Road, Cape Clear Island

Bag recovered and wearing a welcome change of clothes I enjoyed a classic Cape October  evening in Cotter’s.  A hearty meal washed down with  Murphy’s before the entertainment began.  First Jim Fitzharris’s theatrical log call. Then Stuarty McKee’s video compilation of  past Cape trips made by Northern Irish birders in the eighties and nineties.  It was  poignant to see Dennis, Anthony McGeehan and the late Willie McDowall as I remember them during our time on Cape in that era. Happy days!

Vic and Nick in Cotter’s
Sunday 13th October

Another glorious day,  another gut-busting breakfast and another failure on the Vireo!  Never mind the Hippolais finally came out to play and revealed itself as a Melodious.

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polygotta) – Lough Errul, Cape Clear Island

Still no luck with the Rosefinch, but the Wryneck gave a farewell performance.  I spent my last forty minutes on the island not seeing the Vireo and chatting to Dennis in the bright sun.  The return ferry trip was a delight with blue skies and calm seas. Plus plenty to look at; Mediterranean Gulls, Razorbills, Guillimots and Tysties.  Graham and I said our farewells before another look at a birdless Toe Head and overnighting in Cork.  So ended another trip to Cape.  I  sincerely hope it won’t be another 23 years before I return.

Booby Traps on The Lizard

During my last couple of days in Batumi I became aware that a second summer Brown Booby was being seen irregularly near St Ives in Cornwall.  Although Brown Boobies are quite common on a global scale it would be a new species for me, but one that would have to wait.  For two reasons; I had been away for 2.5 weeks and had extensive work commitments on my return and I was going to to West Cornwall on 6th Sept for the weekend when I took Kat back to university.  I was just going to have to sit this one out! 

Remarkably this bird was lasts seen at St Ives around midday on 31st August and was seen about an hour later flying West from Pendeen itself 10 miles SW of St Ives.  Even more remarkably a day later a different, first winter bird, turned up in the rocks off Kynance Cove on The Lizard about a mile from the Youth Hostel I was booked to stay in for the weekend of 6th- 8th Cornwall.  I was just going ot have to sit this one out!

We set off on the evening of 5th September with a fully loaded car – even with the back seats taken out all available space was occupied either by the worldly goods of the student illustrator or mothing paraphanelia.  And why not? As the UK mainland’s most southerly point it is a prime site for migrant moths and a number of species restricted to the rocky shores of SW England and Wales.  After a rubbish journey slowed by mutiple diversions we reached the Okehampton Travelodge just after midnight and pitched in for the night before continuing on to Kynance in the morning.  

A full load for the journey South West

By the time we reached the NT car park at Kynance many happy folk, a number of whom had also made the long trip from East Anglia, were already drifting back to their vehicles. Reassured I headed up to the viewpoint only to find the bird had left its favoured rock.  After a bit of uncertainty the Brown Booby (WP #715) was relocated feeding in Pentreath Beach where I watched it at some considerable distance for about 40 minute performing laps of the bay before it returned to Gull Rock.  I managed on one OK record shot as it flew past about 100 m below me and was very envious of the lone photographer located on a low promentory about 0.5 km to the South who seemed to be going eyeball to eyeball with the sulid – maybe tomorrow?

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Kynance Cove, Cornwall, September 6th 2019

Time now to get Kat moved in.  After a brief stop in Truro to collect the house keys and for me to visit the excellent SouthWest Optics to buy some replacement eye cups for my Swarowski binoculars we headed into Falmouth.  By the time we arrived I was famished and left Kat to get settled and headed to a cafe 100m down the road which turned out to be the highly recommended Provedore with a fine choice of SE Asian fusion dishes and excellent coffee,

The excellent fragrant sweet potao and roasted cauliflower curry served with toated rosti and poached egg – Provadore, Falmouth Cornwall

After leaving Kat to unpack and catch up with friends I picked up some groceries and decided to take another look at the Booby which was now settled back on its offshore rock.  But not the usual spot – it had moved to the West face of the rock which meant a hike of about 1.5 km beyond Kynance Cove to look back and view it..  Compared with the morning this was less than satisfactory with the distant Booby shuffling uncomfortably in a crevice and never really looking settled it did cross my mind something was amiss.  

The Brown Booby was last seen on the right hand slope of the furthest rock
The walk back to the car park via the famous cafe at Kyanace Cove.

I returned ot the car and drove the short distance to the YHA’s Lizard Point Hostel.  This very comfortable four star hostel is located close ot the tip of the pennninsular and was a hotel in the Victorian time. Facilities are good, albeit a bit basic, but with the added bonus of otstanding Atlantic views and extensive sheltered gardens. As it was quite breezy I set one trap in the garden before walking into the village to enjoy a pint and a supper of locally sourced seafood at The Witchball mainland Britains’s most southerly pub.

LIzard Point Hostel
Trapsite the night of 6th/7th September

The next day was clear and still and offered an opportunity to photograph the Brown Booby in good light,  but first I needed to attend to the trap and have breakfast.  I caught about 20 moths in the trap, nothing too out of the ordinary, with a Frosted Orange offering evidence the changing seasons.  But the catch did include Galium Carpet which was new for me and 3 Delicates a species usually regarded as an immigrant although these may have been the progeny of moths that arrived earleir in the year and stayed to breed, 

Galium Carpet (Epirrhoe galiata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019. Note the characteristic concave forewing.
The Delicate (Mythimna vitellina) – Lizard, Cornwall September 7th 2019.

After breakfast I headed back up to Kynance Cove where an increase in the visitor numbers required parking in an overflow carpark with the help of a rather officious NT volunteer! It was hard to know if the Booby was present but plenty of telescopes were trained on the rock so I headed in the opposite direction to get to the promentory before it started feeding.  On the way I was joined by a local photographer who had spent an hour or so on Pentreath beach and was far from  convinced our quarry had not gone.  I was just going to have to sit this one out..

The view looking North over Penreath Beach towards Kynance Cove

And I did for a couple of hours in the company of a steady stream of hirundines and the occassional passing Mediterranean Gull. But no sign of the Booby and the consensus from friends I met on the way back to the car park was that it appeared to have disappered overnight.  

The afternoon was spent retreiving more of Kat’s possessions from storage in Truro and moving them to Falmouth.  Job done I returned to the hostel to cook myself dinner – a fine chilli con carne which was allowed to cool and mature whilst I set the traps.

Dinner on the YH kitchem hob

Given the calmer conditions I elected to run both traps on the cliffs just off the SW Coastal Path.  As I powered up the gennie the last jogger of the evening pounded their way along the path and I sensed nobody woud pass the traps until I returned to empty them in the morning. 

Trapsite – 7th/8th September 2019

All that remained was to enjoy the chilli and a glass or two of  red wine before retiring toget the best possible night’s sleep in the top bunk bed in a shared dormitary- as one of my room mates observed at least the YHA don’t make you do chores any more!

The next morning again dawned clear and still and when I headed down to the traps I didn’t see a soul.  Both traps held a good number of moths with a nice balance between migrants (Delicate, Dark Sword-grass and Scarce Broad-bordered Straw) 

Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Scarce-bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

and local specialities; Grass Eggar, Devonshire Wainscot and Mullein Wave.

Grass Eggar (Lasiocampa trifolii) Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Devonshire Wainscot (Leucania putrescens) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.
Mullein Wave (Scopula marginepunctata) – Lizard, Cornwall September 8th 2019.

After breakfast I checked out and headed into Falmouth to help Kat with a supermarket shop.  By mid-morning I wa on my way to Davidstowe where my attempts to photograph the long staying Buff-breasted Sandpiper werrer thwarted by some over exuberant members of the microlight community.  At whihc point I accepted that I had enjoyed a pretty good weekend and set the Sat Nav for home.

The Persian Gulf – Islands and Seabirds

Never play cards with with Graham! Day five saw an earlier than usual start and it was my turn at the wheel for the long drive South to the port  of Al Khiran; the starting point for our boat trip into the Persian Gulf.  The main highway South to Saudi Arabia had levels of construction that made semi-permenant roadworks on the UK motorway system look like minor maintenance.  The result being that we couldn’t find anywhere that was open for coffee and AbdulRahman got ever so slightly lost.  As we reorientated before hitting the Saudi border by making a U-turn  I was overtaken on the inside at about 120 mph by a SUV that came from nowhere and scared the living daylights out of Graham in the passenger seat.

Post breakfast gathering on the quay

Which meant that by the time we got to the harbour we were more than ready for a quiet cup of coffee and a cracking open our packed breakfasts.  On the quay we met up with a group of four Danish birders who were travelling independently, but joining us for the day trip. As we ate our skipper took the opportunity to refuel and on his return we were ready to board. This proved a little tricky on the very low tide, but was quickly done and we were soon steaming towards the calm blue waters of the Gulf.

Our boat for the day – the awnings were essential in the unremitting sun

Barely 20 minutes out of the harbour we encountered a mixed group of terns; mainly Lesser Crested and Bridled with the odd Greater Crested and Little thrown in.  Because they were actively feeding it was not easy for the skipper to keep up with them and keep the sun in best position for viewing/photography.  And after a very enjoyable twenty minutes we moved  on.

Lesser Crested Tern

Thereafter our strategy was to locate a series of navigational buoys each of which held a gang of loafing terns.  Without exception  these took off as we approached, flew around the boat offering excellent photographic opportunities and returned to their station when we moved on.  This was a real treat as before this trip I had seen just a single Bridled Tern, on Angelsey in 1988,  and one Lesser Crested – “Elsie” (the returning Farne Islands Bird),  who I squeezed into one hectic week in July 1989 when I returned from Colorado for my PhD graduation and to get married.

A Kuwaiti tern raft!

Lesser Crested and Bridled Terns (click on an image to view it at full size)

After exploring several buoys we headed for Umm Al-Maradim Island a small island (0.5 x 0.5 km) lying in deep water on the southern edge of Kuwaiti territorial waters – several mobile phones switched to Saudi networks.  It is home to a lighthouse and a police station and is notable for being the second piece of Kuwaiti territory to be liberated in the Gulf War on 29th January 1991 when it was captured by a task force of US Marines.

Umm Al-Maradim from the East

The island has a small deep water harbour and we found several traditional Dhows moored offshore. presumably preparing to fish.

The characteristic shape of a Dhow moored off Umm Al-Maradim.

The low tide allowed us to disembark on the sandy West side of the island via a set of stepladders that AbdulRaham had brought for the purpose.  There were good numbers of Redstarts and other chats along with four species of shrike including the only “Steppe” Great Grey we saw all week.  A link to our eBird checklist is here. After about an hour on land we got back on the boat and headed North.

Turkestan was one of four species of shrike encountered on Umm Al-Maradim

Our next destination was Kubbar Island which compared to Umm Al-Maradim is much bigger, lower lying and surrounded by clean sandy beaches.  Again there is a lighthouse and plenty of cover for migrants and we were hopeful of turning up something unusual.

White-cheeked (left-hand two birds and flying), Lesser Crested and Bridled Terns

En route we rendezvoused  with possibly the best buoy of the day – a bright red creation that was dripping with “splash” and absolutely lifting with terns including a 3 or 4  White-cheeked Terns (WP #712).  These dainty pale grey terns were a major target for most of the participants and were well received as they proved to be  the only ones we saw well all day.

Kubbar Island – unlike Umm Al-Maradim it is ringed by clean sandy beaches

We were in good spirits by the time we arrived at Kubbar whose idyllic beaches seemed to be popular with day-trippers on private yachts who could enjoy a swim and a picnic free from the constraints of Kuwaiti dress codes. Although good numbers of terns were gathering offshore none had returned to nest so we were free to roam the island in search of migrants.  Despite it’s  relatively small size birds moved quickly through the waist high vegetation and were very hard to pin down.  Graham elected to stake out an open area in the hope of some Isabelline Wheatear shots whilst I explored, simply enjoying the migrants but finding little new.  I eventually bumped into Paul and Marc who kindly put me on to a relatively obliging White-throated Robin near the phone mast compound.  The bird hopped up onto an irrigation pipe and posed – I fired off a series of shots – bird flue – I checked the back of my camera – overexposed due to wrong settings – air turns blue.  Fortunately the bird reappeared around the corner on a rather more natural perch and my equilibrium was restored.

Finally a White-throated Robin that perched in the open!

The sequence of events over the next thirty minutes is a little bit hazy which is probably just as well given the mounting levels of frustration I experienced!  Having summoned Graham with the promise of a WT Robin under some sort of control I noticed that the rest of the group was converging on a spot about 200m away.  It transpired that Daniel had found a flava wagtail of the form leucocephala “White-headed” (Western Yellow) Wagtail which breeds in Mongolia, winters in India and is as beautiful as it is rare in the WP. And whilst searching for the wagtail the group had found a “Lesser” Whitethroat that AbdulRahman identified as a Hume’s Whitethroat equally as rare, hard to identify and a full fat WP lifer for everybody on the tour.  By the time I got there the wagtail had disappeared and the warbler had melted away into the vegetation giving very brief and tantalising partial views.  After a few minutes it appeared very for a few seconds in from of Jim and and Graham  only to disappear again as the group moved to join them.  At which point most folk seemed satisfied and moved off whilst I stayed to try and relocate both birds without success although a very smart Syke’s (Western Yellow) Wagtail was some compensation. 

Western Yellow Wagtail ssp beema (Syke’s Wagtail)

Whilst not seeing the Hume’s Whitethroat was frustrating – missing a drop dead gorgeous male White-headed Wagtail would be absolutely criminal and things almost got worse  Unknown to me, as Graham had the radio, the others had relocated the wagtail – as I ambled over  towards the group I met Graham who casually passed on the news as he headed back to look for the WT Robin  In the event the wagtail flock had not gone far and Anders and Jim were at hand to help relocate the leucocephala before leaving me in peace to enjoy it- which I did and for the second time in an hour calm was restored.  A link to our eBird list for Kubbar Isand can be found here.

Western Yellow Wagtail (ssp leucocephala) – White-headed Wagtail my new favourite race of this lovely species

In truth I got a bit carried away with the wagtail and lost track of time, then got distracted by a “Lesser” Whitethroat playing hide and seek and was last back to the boat.  Apologies were in order as it was getting late and everyone was eager to depart as we had one more target on the way back to port.  Socotra Cormorant is endemic to the Persian Gulf and whilst it is relatively easy to see in the UAE and Oman, Kuwait is the only place it regularly seen in the Western Palearctic and even then it is no means certain.  As we got closer to shore we started checking a series of fixed navigational features – the third one we approached had two cormorants perched on the whitewashed railings – one Great with pale underparts and a yellow chin contrasted markedly with an all black bird with a thin bill and very kinked neck; Socotra Cormorant (WP #713).  As we manoeuvred closer the birds took off and the Socotra did a couple of laps of the boat allowing us to take in its distinctive flight silhouette.

Great Cormorant (left) and Socotra Cormorant (right)
The sunset accentuated the plume of brown nitrogen oxide emissions heading out over the Gulf from the local oil refinary

The sun was going down as we approached the harbour and everybody was getting very tired after an epic day of rare seabirds and hunting scarce migrants – I somehow managed the long drive home in heavy traffic, but it was almost 8pm by the time we reached the hotel and I was absolutely knackered and ravenous.  We decided to give the Egyptians a miss and order a takeaways to be delivered to our rooms ASAP and I am still amazed that I managed to finish mine before falling asleep ahead of another 5.30am start- but oh well – at least Graham would be driving!  

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.

Dutch Day Out

Work took me to Amsterdam for a couple of days in late January and it did not take to convince me to stay an extra day to try and photograph a Nutcracker that had taken up residence in a Wageningen suburb. Setting off in the dark under cold clear skies I travelled by East by train across a flat hoar frosted landscape past fields full of grey geese. Arriving in Ede I transferred to a local bus service and half an hour later I disembarked at Wageningen bus station.

The well integrated Dutch public transport makes twitching without a car very easy.

Guided by Google Maps I took a short walk past a parade of shops and at the first junction I looked up to cross the road and did a double take . There was the Nutcracker! In the driveway opposite exploring a large bag of peanuts closely monitored by the donors – a small group of birders on a day trip from the UK.

Totally fearless the Nutcracker (front left in the driveway) investigates a bag of unshelled nuts provided by his British admirers

The bird is of the Siberian “Slender-billed” form (subspecies macrorhyncus) which is prone to vagrancy and even periodic irruptions (for example in 1968), rather than a bird of the nominate race from the Alps. Being from so far East and with no prior experience of humans it is totally fearless seeing it’s admirers only as a benign source of free food and artificial perches. Such behaviour is not unprecedented as anybody, like me, who made the journey to Cocknage Wood in Staffordshire in the autumn of 1991 to see the last twitchable individual in the UK will testify. Being so trusting of humans could have been the downfall of the Wageningen bird which abandoned the area in which it was originally found (1-2 km away) due to New Year’s Eve fireworks, before being rediscovered a couple of days later in its current network of gardens.

Wherever it came from it is an entrancing bird to watch. I enjoyed spending time in its company observing the dexterous way it employed feet and bill to break open nuts and extract the nutritious kernel. More often than not was buried for future consumption as insurance against leaner times.

A rare opportunity to take a head and shoulders portrait.

Nutcracker Gallery – click on the thumbnail to view a larger image

After spending a couple of hours with this most engaging and charismatic of crows I retraced my steps and returned to Amsterdam Central Station. From there I made my a way to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam Zuid which has a reputation for being a reliable for site for a naturalised and self-sustaining population of Alexandrine Parakeets.

Amsterdam Central Station

As might be expected of a city centre park on a Saturday afternoon it was very busy; full of families, cyclists and joggers enjoying the winter sun. Like some of the London parks Vondelpark is built around a series of artificial ponds that hold a range of very approachable water birds; Cormorant, Moorhen, Coot, Egyptian Goose and a few duck.

Tufted Duck

Finding parakeets in the park is not exactly difficult. Not only are they noisy and obvious, but the population of the commoner Ring-necked Parakeet in Amsterdam is enormous. And unfortunately for the first 40 minutes or so every bird that I looked at was exactly that – RNP!

Ring-necked Parakeet

Fearing failure I took some time out to listen to the calming sounds of a lakeside Handpan player. This is a percussion instrument that I had not come across previously, but one which seemed totally in keeping with the chilled atmosphere of this city centre oasis in the tranquility of the late afternoon sun.


Turning around from the Handpan player I noticed two parakeets higher in the trees than most of the birds I had seen thus far. Craning my neck to view through binoculars I could see the extensive pink rear nape and shoulder patch that characterise Alexandrine Parakeet (WP#702).

By now the light was starting to go and more than happy with how the day had worked out I headed back to my hotel in Amstelveen for a hot shower and early dinner mindful of my 6am start the following morning to make my flight back to Norwich.

Gran Canaria Weekend

Ingrid and I had planned a post-Christmas long weekend in Gran Canaria to unwind, grab some winter sun and give me the opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest birds <500 individuals); the recently split Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch.  We flew from a cold grey Stansted on the afternoon of Friday 11thJanuary (Ryanair FR8132 ) and four hours later arrived in Canarian air space as the sun was setting.

The view of Mount Tiede on Tenerife from the plane as we approached Gran Canaria

Collection of the pre-booked car from the highly recommended, an inexpensive, Autoreisen was straightforward and we were soon speeding south on GC1 towards Maspalomas before climbing the twisting, but well surfaced road `(GC60) to the small mountain village of Fataga where the charming and well appointed Finca Tassomio would be our base for the next three nights.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast I spent some time in the Finca garden enjoying the local village birds (eBird list here) before we headed to higher elevations and the remaining extensive areas of Canarian Pines where GC Blue Chaffinch can be found.  There are essentially two areas in which birds are seen without too much difficulty. The first is the NE section of Inagua forest and the other a more fragmented area of pines around the tourist attraction of Rocque Nublo. More information about the recovery plan for the GC Blue Chaffinch can be found here.

Ingrid enjoying the Finca Tassomio garden
African Blue Tit of the race hedwigii are regular visitors to the Finca garden

We headed to the former by carrying on up GC-60 from Fataga as far as the junction with GC-606 and turning immediately on to GC-661 which we took to the settlement of El Juncal de Tejeda and followed the road through the village and over the baranco until the pavement runs out.  The dirt road which continues through the Inagua forest to GC-605 is perfectly drivable, but in deference to Ingrid I chose not to walk and walked the road as far as the point at which the WP Big Year team saw GC Blue Chaffinch in 2017.  Apart from the many vocal Canary Island Chiffchaffs birding was hard work (eBird list here) although there were impressive views across the west of the island towards Tenerife. Interestingly as I gained altitude the amount of broom, on which the Blue Chaffinches forage, in the understory increased and I suspect if I had carried on I would have found more and better habitat.

Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Looking towards Mount Tiede

After a couple of hours we had had enough and we headed back down GC-60 towards Fataga stopping en route for a late and leisurely lunch at one of the many roadside eateries. By the time we got back to the Finca it was too late to head back up to try a different area and I decided to leave another attempt until the morning reassured by a message from Phil Abbott who had seen Blue Chaffinches around the picnic site at Llanos de la Pez.

Sunday morning saw me having breakfast at 8.30 am sharp whilst Ingrid enjoyed a lie in. Again I took GC 60 but this time turned off onto GC 600 (signposted for Roque Nublo). After gaining more altitude and driving for about 2.5km beyond the Roque Nublo car park I  unfortunately mistook a camping area on the right for the picnic site and parked there about 800 m short of the picnic site itself! This caused me some problems especially when I found myself more than 1km from Phil’s coordinates and the batteries in my GPS device getting very low. As I reorientated I flushed a pair of RL Partridges and started to see more African Blue Tits and CI Chiffchaffs. I hit the S51 circular trail and headed South, away from the picnic site, and at the t-junction turned East and followed the trail for about 300 m along the edge of broom filled gully where I tracked down an unfamiliar high-pitched tick to the endemic sub-species (or possibly species) of Robin.

European robin (ssp marionae)

After getting some images I followed the trail back to the picnic area which was by now filling up with visitors and their sound systems and worked my way across the hillside to Phil’s coordinates, an area of pines with extensive broom understory, which gave an excellent view of the canopy. Lots of the local race (ssp canariensis) of Chaffinch and a Buzzard flew over head, but still no sign of my target bird and my morning pass was rapidly running out. Resigned to failure I dropped down the hillside and walked along the edge of the picnic area just 50m or so from the road where I disturbed a small flock of Atlantic Canaries foraging in the broom.

Atlantic Canary

I stopped to photograph a reasonably obliging male and turned to see more finches in the next patch of broom one of which gave the call that I had familiarised myself with over breakfast. The perpetrator flew up into a nearby pine and revealed himself as a GC Blue Chaffinch (WP#701). This was one of three birds in a loose mixed flock of finches which with some patience and despite the clock having turned red came close enough for me to get some images.

Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch – the colour rings may indicate a bird introduced from the captive breeding project.
Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch
The letter G marks the approximate location of my Robin and GC Blue Chaffinch sightings

More than content I returned to the car adding Raven and Great-spotted Woodpecker (ssp thanneri ) on the way to complete my eBird checklist. The traffic on GC 60 was not too bad and I arrived back in Fataga less than half an hour late and in good time to enjoy a lazy lunch on the terrace of one of the village restaurants.

Sunday lunch Fataga style

The rest of the trip was uneventful and relaxing and we returned to Stansted (as cold and grey as when we left) the following day (Ryanair FR8133) having thoroughly enjoyed the sun, scenery and food of interior Gran Canaria.

Golden Duck and Penalty Try

I don’t need to delve too deeply into my limited repertoire of sporting metaphors to sum up our final day in Western Sahara.  Easter Sunday saw us make another early morning start with Nico and Sidi saw us back on the road at Oued Jenna for 06.50 after slowing for a Cape Hare and a very brief stop for a Desert Hedgehog.  Conditions were again perfect to listen for nightjars and at 07.10 the first bird began to sing South of the road, followed by a second and possibly a third North of the road.  We walked out into the wadi, but as was the case the previous evening the birds sang intermittently and we were not able to locate any of them.  And the same rules as applied to Scops Owl – you have to see the species for it to count! A cricketer when I was younger I know only too well the feeling of deflation at getting out first ball; a golden duck. It is the same painful feeling I had as we headed back to the house in silence knowing that we had achieved a golden double dip; no nightjar or sparrow.  And some of our target species were not yet realised.

The house in Assouerd

We packed for our return journey to Dakhla and enjoyed another fine breakfast and whilst Nico and Sidi loaded up the car we had a brief look around the surrounding waste ground.  No sign of any Rock Martins and  fly by large falcon with powder blue upper parts was frustrating but we  managed WC Black Wheatear, a pair of Desert Sparrows, 3 Black Kite and a Desert Lark before it was time to go.  It was with mixed feelings that we sped past Oued Jenna, but we were keen to have another crack at African Desert Warbler before it got too hot.  We had a very brief stop to look at a Long-legged Buzzard we flushed from some road kill before pressing on.

Long-legged Buzzard of the small pale North African form cirtensis, Assouerd Road

After about an hour we got close to the coordinates that had been given to me before leaving which was where where the Dutch guys had scored a couple of days previously.  Graham and I walked out to the precise spot. planted our camera gear there and worked a circle of about 200m radius for about 40 minutes but with no success. We were both getting hotter and progressively more frustrated – again we had worked hard and felt that we deserved to get the rub of the green.

N23.018967, W14.843226 – No African Desert Warblers here!

We returned to the car and relocated a km back up the road where the Wise Birding Tour had seen the birds a few days previously.  Within five minutes of stopping Graham had located a singing male who we followed around for the next fifteen minutes –  a tiny sandy scrub warbler with a subtly rufous tail and a quiet melodic song that offered us good views.  Unfortunately his constant movement through the low scrub and the harsh light made photography very challenging. But frankly we didn’t care; by the skin of our teeth we had  African Desert Warbler (WP#696) under our belts and we were back in the game.

Record shot of African Desert Warbler, Assouerd Road

Feeling better we pressed on to Tachaktant where we stopped for lunch.  There were far fewer migrants in the bushes and on the pools, but a Chameleon on the ground was a good spot.

(Mediterranean) Chameleon, Tachaktant

After lunch a couple of Thick-billed Larks came into drink, but only for long enough for Graham to rattle off a few frames before they disappeared back into the desert.  As we returned to the car Nico told us that he had a WhatsApp message from the Dutch crew to say that they had 10 Royal Terns and a Western Reef Heron at Km 19 just North of Dakhla.  There was no question to our next destination!

As we drove North on the East side of the bay the effect of the high tide was obvious, and our hopes were up.  In spite of the check points and some slow-moving Sunday traffic we made it to the site to find the bay transformed the high water had pushed an excellent selection of waders and herons, including a Western Reef Heron, right up to the cliffs and there was even a group of Pintail on the shore.  But we were more interested in a mixed flock of gulls that contained about 10 Slender-billed Gulls and two red/orange billed terns; one was a Caspian, but on a second look the other, to my considerable relief, was two thirds the size with and had an unmarked slightly decurved orange bill – Royal Tern (WP#697)!   There is an old birding expression to the effect “that you only need one” – but this had been a close run thing especially as we could not locate any more in a brief search of the area West of the Tomato Farm.

Caspian (left) and Royal Tern (right), Dakhla Bay; inset Royal Tern in profile

Back to the sporting analogies – we had secured our final two target species, but it felt like we had scored a penalty try.  That is to say we had worked hard and battered the line, but simply could not cross because of persistent foul play by the opposition – under these circumstances rugby union referees can award a penalty try in which the attacking team gets the points but feels little of the sense of achievement of dotting the ball down to score a try and converting it with a kick.  In birding terms seeing the bird well (try) and obtaining a good image (conversion).

Another successful trip celebrated with another local beer

It was now late in the afternoon and Nico returned us to our hotels where we said our farewells and headed to our rooms to shower and pack before heading out for a last early evening meal at the Villa Dakhla.  Over dinner, and a couple of beers, we reflected on an enjoyable, if at times hard, trip which despite the golden failures was, in the end, very successful.  Our total of 101 species included all my other avian targets, plus Eurasian Scops Owl which added six species to my Western Palearctic list.  And if that was not enough I had seen and photographed Sand Cat.  Having counted the many positives we returned to our hotels, organised a taxi to take us to the airport in the following morning and headed for our beds.

 

Oued Jenna

The iPhone alarms went off at 6am and we were soon up and on the road back to Oued Jenna full of enthusiasm after the success of our previous evening’s spotlighting.  Unfortunately the wind had got up overnight and conditions were not optimal for listening for nightjars and by the time it got light we had not heard or seen anything.  To make matters worse we met the Dutch guys who had camped overnight in the wadi.  They not only thanked us for the African Desert Warbler gen, they had scored within five minutes of reaching the coordinates, but also told us they had heard and seen Golden Nightjar the previous evening!

We had arranged for a late breakfast back at the house so that we could explore Oued Jenna in the cool of the morning.  It is perhaps worth emphasising that the wadi is substantial and extends in a narrow ribbon several km either side of the road with a similar mixture of large acacias and long grass and that the Sudan Golden Sparrows hang out in nomadic mixed flocks with Desert Sparrows. Nico and Sidi drove us about 2 km into the Northern arm so that we could bird our way back to the road.  As soon as we got out the car we found the Dutch team engrossed in trees that were leaping with Sylvia and Western Olivaceous Warblers.  I will add a quick caveat here – the Iduna warblers we saw here mostly appeared to be identical with a similar call to the Western Ollies we had seen at Mijk farm and Tachektent the previous day.  However both Graham and I independently noted at least one bird tail dipping in a manner usually associated with Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and we later learnt that Saharan Eastern Olivaceous (ssp reiseri), a form that we saw five years ago near Rissani, breed in Oued Jenna.

The Dutch team in action in Oued Jenna

The dominant species of Sylvia was Western Subalpine Warbler with several Western Orphean  (WP#695) with the odd Sardinan Warbler and Common Whitethroat thrown in for good measure.

Western Subalpine Warbler (the only female type we saw in five days), Oued Jenna

Western Orphean Warbler, Oued Jenna

Having spent some quality time with the Sylvias we started making our way through the wadi picking up more Cricket Longtails, Fulvous Babblers and Black-crowned Sparrow Larks.  After about 0.5 km we found three of the Dutch guys again who had flushed an owl that they thought might have been Long-eared. When it flew again it appeared too bulky with languid wing beats.  On the small screen on the back of my camera the long range shots I took revealed the bulk, but no plumage details.  However, when it flew once more the underparts and underwing confirmed its identity as Pharaoh Eagle Owl.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Oued Jenna – even partly obscured the bulky shape and faint bars on the breast are characteristic of this species. A Long-eared Owl would be slimmer more erect and have vertical streaks on the breast.

A little further down the wadi I finally got close to a Great Grey Shrike that was not perched on top of an acacia in direct sunlight, other wise it was more of the same in the final half kilometre.

Great Grey Shrike, Oued Jenna; all the birds we saw appeared to be of the interior NW African form elegans.

We headed back to Assouerd stopping a couple of time to search patches of acacia where Nico had previously seen flock of sparrows, but only managed to find a single male Desert Sparrow

Desert Sparrow,near Assouerd

A little further down the road we stopped to admire a Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx sp). Based on distribution I understand is likely to be one of he dark forms of Uromastyx dispar flavifaciata that has been previously reported near Assouerd.

“Spiny-tailed Lizard” Uromastyx sp, near Assouerd

As we got close to town we stopped, very briefly, to look at a gang of Brown-necked Ravens feed in on a goat carcass and a pair of Lanners flew over, but given that our proximity to the military camp it was time to put the cameras away!  The Dutch who had also been watching the falcons were also heading into town to try and secure better images of a Seebohm’s Wheatear they had seen the previous day feeding on a pile of garbage outside the town shop.  Sadly it had moved on so we said our farewells and headed for brunch.

After a well earned rest during the heat of the day we ventured out again in the late afternoon and walked the Northern arm of Oued Jenna again and saw nothing new until we were almost back at the road when Graham came across a small mixed flock of Black-crowned Sparrow Larks and Desert Sparrows and that was it.  Hot, tired and more than a little frustrated we asked Nico and Sidi to take us a couple of km into the Southern arm so that we could try our luck there.  There was at least a bit more activity with small numbers of Bee-eaters and a male Marsh Harrier moving though the wadi.

Marsh Harrier migrating over Oued Jenna

Apart from getting some nice looks at Cricket Longtail and Fulvous Babbler we had little to show for our efforts and we still had a couple of hours to go until it got dark.  That said the full moon was rising and there was no wind so despite rising levels of frustration and incipient grumpiness we tried to remain positive.

Cricket Longtail, Oued Jenna

Fulvous Babbler, Oued Jenna

As the light started to go a Melodious Warbler showed around the car park but a last walk around the lower part of the wadi didn’t produce anything else new.

Melodious Warbler, Oued Jenna. In right profile this looks a fairly typical individual, However the left wing showed six exposed primaries which made us consider Icterine Warbler. However Yoav Perlman has kindly pointed out that the longest terrial in the left wing is missing (inset) exposing more of the primary projection. We should have, as Harry Hussey has observed, focused on the leg colour (brown) and wing length of the primary projection (ca 60% of exposed tertials).

Dusk at Oued Jenna

We positioned ourselves on the South side of the road where the Wise Birding tour had seen nightjars a few days before but to our surprise the singing came from the North side of the road. This was problematic as the south side (see the image above the title) is relatively open and grassy whereas to the North one has to pass, noisily, through a belt of acacias to get to the open areas.  This we did with the inevitable consequence of disturbing the bird and not seeing it.  Back at the road we briefly heard another bird on the South side before they shut up for the evening and we returned to the house disappointed but philosophical and more than ready for the superb tagine that awaited us – after all there was always the morning….