Birding The Silk Road

Leaving Areni

Today was the day to say goodbye to the Areni Wine Cellar B&B. After breakfast on the terrace we packed up and paid our bills to Anna. It is an excellent base for exploring both the immediate area and the Vedi/Armah region. You can find my review, along with other positive comments on Trip Advisor.

Much of our route to the Dilijan region would be along the Silk Road. Initally we would head for the Selim pass then drop down to the western shore of Lake Seven. The at north-west we would diverge from the Silk Road (which carries on to Yerevan) and drive in the direction of Dilijan.

Selim Pass

Just over an hour after leaving Areni we reached the top of the Selim Pass. We parked just north of the Caravanserai, the traditional resting place for medieval travellers. Walking out onto the mountain pasture under grey skies we were serenaded by Skylarks. Meadow Pipits and Whinchats were also very much in evidence.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Overhead a few Long-legged Buzzards patrolled and a late party of Honey Buzzards hurried north.

In these open expanses there was no habitat that would favour our target species – Radde’s Accentor. We drove about 1 km further north and explored another area of pasture criss-crossed by ditches. Here at >2000 m we kicked out a Great Snipe. Our disbelief meant that we didn’t really notice where it landed and after 20 minuted abandoned our search.

Continuing along the road we dropped into a wide valley and could see a settlement to our right. The farm building and dry stone walls tallied with the descriptions from some trip reports.

A Good Deed

Meeting Duncan LSE Requestf or Help

After this excitement we said our goodbyes to Duncan who naturally was keen to press on Noravank. Not least as he already had seen Radde’s Accentor on Mount Aragat. We drove a short distance upstream and parked. First bird we saw on a dry stone wall on the far side of the stream was a Bluethroat of teh Caucasian subspecies luristanica. Crossing the stream we asked the owner if he minded us birding his property and he waved us on.

If Armash was the fantasy fish pond then Selim was a surreal sweetieshop stocked with desirable WP taxa.

An Unexpected Journey

A breeding plumage Bar-tailed Godwit on a local marsh in late April is one of the species inland birdwatchers dream about.  Not a rarity, but scarce away from the coast a few turn up each spring as they cross the country en-route from West Africa to the high Arctic.  One recently graced West Earlham marsh just a couple of miles from my house in Norwich.  Normally I would never have to force myself to leave the house to see such a special bird.  The morning of Sunday 18th April was diferent. It was less than 48 hours after I had undergone a diagnostic procedure under general anaesthetic. I needed to go for the Godwit as my next tentative step on an unwanted and unexpected journey. One that began nearly four years ago.

Episode One – July 2017

I had booked a few days leave to go on a wildlife watching trip to Scotland with James Lowen, Will Soar and Ian Robinson. Two days before departure my pee turned strawberry red! The need for urgent medical attention caused me to withdraw from what was a spectacularly successful trip. The gross hematuria (visable blood in urine) cleared up after six days. Less than two weeks after referral by my GP I attended the Hematuria Clinic at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Despite exhaustive investigation, the consultant urologist could not find the cause and discharged me. After the investigation Ingrid and I relaxed with a trip to North Norfolk. Restored by coffee and cake at the Artemis cafe in Cley we moved to Holt Country Park. Here we enjoyed a fine range of butterflies and both Hummingbird and my first Broad-bordered Bee Hawk Moth.

Broad-bordered Bee Hawk Moth (Hemaris fuciformis. – Holt County Park, Norfolk August 2017
Episode Two – April 2018

Nine months later I was recently returned from a successful trip to Western Sahara with Graham Clarke.  Most days I was travelling to Carleton Marshes SWT reserve trying to see the American Bittern.  I experienced exactly the same symptoms, was again referred to the two week pathway and discharged without diagnosis.  The consultant explained that I might be one of those rare individuals who bled episodically. Much in the same way that some folk are prone to nosebleeds.  Hmm… – next time how do I know if that is true or it is something sinister? 

American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) – Carlton Marshes SWT Suffolk, April 2018
Episode Three – December 2020

Ingrid had accepted a job offer in Truro and I had made the decision to leave UEA and move to Cornwall. In early December 2020 and despite the complexities of the tier system we visited Truro. After a good look around and viewing a couple of properties we brought Kat back from University for Xmas. We both felt all set for our next adventure. Except just before Xmas the hematuria came back. Same presentation – six days of bright red pee and it cleared up. What should I do? Stick or twist? Am I just one of those unlucky individuals with unexplained episodic bleeding? My rational head ruled and I phoned the GP. They quickly excluded a UTI and sought guidance from the NNUH urologists. The urologists did not hesitate–my last investigation was 2.5 years old and they wanted me back PDQ.

Next Steps

A telephone consultation advised, within the constraints of a post-Xmas Covid surge, another CT scan and a blood test.  Both were completed by late-February just before I left UEA after 30 years and moved Ingrid to Truro. Two weeks after I returned from Cornwall I received an unexpected phone call to arrange a date for a urological day procedure. “Yes sure but I don’t know anything about this”.  The consultant’s letter arrived an hour later.  The CT scan had revealed an abnormal area in my renal pelvis (where the urinary tract joins the kidney) The consultant wanted to perform a diagnostic uretoscopy +/- biopsy for 16th April at the James Paget Hospital in Great Yarmouth.

I  put the investigation out of my mind when I went back down to Cornwall at the end of March.  I brought Ingrid back to Norwich for the Easter weekend and her second Covid jab.   It was a short lived period of calm. On Easter Monday I drove Ingrid to Reading Station and we stopped off to see my Mother and explain the situation.

A diversionary yomp around Happisburgh with Graham on Saturday 10th April brought my first Wheatears of the Spring.  The next day further distraction came in the form of a charming Little Ringed Plover on West Earlham.

Outcome of the Investigation

I was back out East on Tuesday 13th for pre-operative observations and a covid swab.  After this I self-isolated for three days until John Geeson kindly drove me out to the James Paget on 16th for my 7am admission.  The procedure, done under general anaesthetic, was successful. When I came around the surgeon came to speak to me. He was able to inspect my bladdder/left urether – all clear.  However when he reached the renal pelvis he found a tumour. This appeared to be a Transitional Cell Carcinoma (TCC) which he biopsied for the purpose of grading. The treatment – radical nephroureterectomy.  This is the removal of the kidney, entire ureter, and a small piece of bladder where the ureter and bladder connect.

John collected me that afternoon and took me home where my son Hugh was waiting for me.  That evening I shared my cancer diagnosis with my family and some via video calls.  Although difficult I was grateful for modern technology so that I could see the love and support in their faces.  

TCC in the renal pelvis (also called upper tract urothelial carcinoma – UTUC) accounts for ca 5% of kidney cancers.  The incidence is about 2:100,000. It affects twice as many males as females and the average age of diagnosis is late sixties.  For anybody wishing to understand a little more please look at the pages produced by Macmillan.

Hello I’m still here!

The next day is a bit of a blur as the anasthetic wore off and I got used to the discomfort of a urethal stent.  After 24 hours I could remove the compression socks and have a shower.  News of the Godwit broke that evening and when it was present early the next day there was no stopping me.  The bird showed well close to the bund.  As I photographed it in the warm sun I chatted to many passing dog walkers who showed an interest.  Most importantly it reaffirmed to me that whatever the future holds I will not become Nick the cancer patient.  I am Nick the academic/biochemist/birder/moth-er/photographer, Ingrid’s husband and Hugh & Kat’s father.

The pace quickens..

On discharge the surgeon told me that the pathology report would be 10-14 days.  This indicative timeline was confirmed when the stent was removed on Tuesday 20th.  Much more comfortable I received a call from or estate agent. An acceptable offer for our house was progress but represented more uncertainty.  Never mind we had a holiday on Scilly to look forward to and the pathology results would be available on my return?

In fact the pathology report was with the consultant within a week.  A treatment plan was agreed on Monday 26th and I met the consultant on Wednesday 28th.  His feedback was a low-grade tumour (TCC) confined to the renal pelvis. Treatment would be laproscopic (keyhole) nephrouterectomy that would take place asap after two further tests. Blood was taken there and then by a nurse.  A CT scan, we agreed, would wait until after Scilly. Also huge kudos to my GP who got me a second Covid jab at very short notice.

I drove to Truro the next day (29/4) and the day after (30/4) I had a phone call with one of the specialist nurses.  She was very reassuring and walked me through the diagnosis, surgical procedure and recovery.  The NNUH called at the end of our holiday (7/5) to give me the date for surgery (18/5).  Since returning to Norwich I have been busy with appointments.  I have also caught up with friends and former colleagues whose perspective, humour and support has been invaluable.  


You couldn’t make this up, but as I write this (16/5) there is a Caspian Tern on UEA Broad. An impressive find by Dave Andrews and far rarer in the UK than the Godwit. Nick the birder wants to drive 2km and see it hawk over the lake that was part of my life for 30 years. However I am in strict, post covid-swab, self-isolation. Breaking this could endanger the surgical team  and/or risk cancellation.  So Nick the cancer patient must stay put and enjoy it vicariously.  Severely gripped off Nick the birder is frustrated he did not see it from the bedroom when it flew to Whitlingham and back! 

The Eagles are Coming!

The title deliberately references the sub-title of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  A framed print of the original book cover hangs in our bedroom.  A memento of a awesome Oxford weekend in 2018 shortly after Episode Two, when Ingrid and I saw David Byrne’s remarkable American Utopia.  Like the hobbit Bilbo I find myself on an unexpected journey. 

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the great eagles intervene to rescue the main protagonists when all appears lost. In real life there are no such miracles. Surgery is intended to be curative – we shall see.  Whatever the outcome, I must recover from and adapt to life with one kidney.  Other challenges may lie ahead, but what Tolkien’s eagles do symbolise is strength and hope.  Qualities that I will need in abundance in the coming weeks. 

My plan for my first post work autumn was to split my time between Batumi and Scilly.  The first looks unlikely and the second in the balance.  However, if Nick the birder returns to Georgia one future September when the eagles are coming through something will have gone right.  And that is something to hold on to.

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) – Batumi, Georgia, August 2019

A Scilly Spring Week

Despite the fact that I first went to Scilly in October 1983, I only ever spent one day on the islands in the Spring. A hugely enjoyable Great Blue Heron twitch to Bryher with James Lowen, David Bradnum and Yoav Perlman in April 2015.  So when Ingrid and I had an option on our usual cottage on St Mary’s for the first week in May we grabbed it.  As May approached and my need for urgent medical treatment became apparent we were grateful for our first Scilly spring.

The week started well.  I stepped off the quay at lunchtime on 1st May and one of two long-staying Iceland Gulls flew over my head.  After a cup of coffee and a pasty at our digs in Thomas Porth I set forth.  Crossing Lower Moors the recently arrived Purple Heron flew from town in the direction of Porthellick.  Two Scilly “ticks” in 90 minutes was just what I needed. And when I reached the pumping station the Woodchat Shrike found that morning was showing well although too distant for photos.  After the shrike I carried on with one my favourite walks. The coastal path from Old Town to Porthhellick via Giants Castle and Salakee Down was simply glorious.

Looking towards Porthellick from Salakee Down

I spent too long on the East side of Porthellick not seeing the Red-throated Pipit. Predictably I left 10 mins before it turned up.  I was more succesful the following afternoon after a lovely lunch at Juliets.  The pipit came with the added bonus of a long conversation with Bob Flood.

After the wash out that was Bank Holiday Monday the rest of the week followed a predictable pattern.  I walked 10+ miles each day in the cold northerly winds seeing very few migrants. All very frustrating, but not without interest.  For instance the pair of Blackcap that breed in the scrub around Watermill Cove but feed on the wrack.  And the huge summer breeding population of Linnets that is gone by the time I turn up in October.

Mid-week Ingrid and I took a trip to Bryher and enjoyed a nice walk around Samson Hill before lunch at Fraggle Rock. En route I turned up a rather smart, but nervous Blue-headed Wagtail on the pool.

Blue-headed Wagtail, Bryher

One thing that surprised me was the number of Whimbrel still staging in the islands.  I assume their northward progress was impeded by the constant northerlies.  Their choice of habitat appeared quite catholic – fields, rocky shore, beaches and freshwater pools

Whimbrel, Porthminnack, St Mary’s

Our Scilly spring week was over all too soon and we left on Friday 7th ahead of another storm.   Yet once again the islands had offered healing and my head was in a much better place to deal with my diagnosis and planned treatment.

Sunset over Samson from Little Avalon

Autumn Moths in the Garden

After returning from Georgia at the end of August opportunities to run a  trap in my West Norwich garden were limited by work, weekend trips away and the weather.  This post is a summary of the autumn moths in the garden that I caught between September and the beginning of December.


As expected numbers dwindled from mid-September onwards and diversity was never great.  However in keeping with the rest of the year I recorded a steady trickle of species that were new to the site.  For example the night of 3rd Sept yielded  137 moths of 22 species, 99 0f which were just five common species. But there was also a NFY (new for year) Maiden’s Blush and a micro-moth Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing). There are just 3 previous records of the Lance-wing for the TG20 10 km square. And it was another new species for the TG20D tetrad.

autumn moths in the garden, Epermenia falciformis, Large Lance-wing, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing) – 3rd September 2019

A trip to Cornwall meant that I didn’t trap again in the garden until 11-12th September. By this time the catch had a very definite autumn feel to it with Herald, Centre-barred Sallow, Angle Shades and Black Rustic all NFY.

autumn moths in the garden, Angle Shades, Phlogophora meticulosa, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) – 11th September 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Black Rustic, Aporophyla nigra, 11th September 2019, Norwich
Black Rustic (Aporophyla nigra) – 11th September 2019

Again the standout moth was a wandering micro-moth; Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume). This was also new for  TG20D and there are only four prior TG20 records.  Another micro-moth species Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) was NFY and expected around this date.

autumn moths in the garden, Oxyptilus distans, Breckland Plume, 12th September 2019, Norwich
Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume) – 12th September 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Eudonia angustea, Narrow-winged Grey, 12th September  2019, Norwich
Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) – 12th September 2019

Moths were a bit thin through the rest of September. Notable species on 21st included a  Barred Sallow (NFY) and a couple of smart Box-tree Moths. A rather battered Frosted Orange on 29th was new for the garden and Lunar Underwings peaked at 12.


I only ran four traps in October. However I still managed to record two new moths for the garden; Mallow 5th and Brick 19th.

autumn moths in the garden, Brick, Agrochola circellaris, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Brick (Agrochola circellaris)- 19th October 2019

Other NFY moths that appeared over the weekend of 18th/19th October included Yellow-line Quaker and Satellite.   

autumn moths in the garden, Yellow-line Quaker, Agrochola macilenta, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Yellow-line Quaker (Agrochola macilenta) – 19th October 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Satellite, Eupsilia transversa, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Satellite (Eupsilia transversa) – 19th October 2019

Plus the always stunning Merveille du Jour!

autumn moths in the garden, Merveille du Jour, Griposia aprilina, 19th October 2019, Norwich
Merveille du Jour (Griposia aprilina) – 19th October 2019

November began with a near perfect night for moth-trapping. The traps contained 28 individual of 14 species including a late migrant Silver-Y. There was also a splash of late autumn colour in the form of three recently emerged Red-green Carpets.  Feathered Thorn and Acleris sparsana (Ashy Button) were both NFY.  But pride of place was went to the slim and unobtrusive Blair’s Shoulder Knot  which was a new species for me.

autumn moths in the garden, Feathered Thorn, Colotois pennaria, 1st November 2019, Norwich
Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria) – 1st Nov 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Blair's Shoulder Knot, Lithophane leautieri, 1st November 2019, Norwich
Blair’s Shoulder Knot (Lithophane leautieri) – 1st Nov 2019

A mild, and mercifully dry night, towards the end of the month persuaded me to switch on the trap.  I was rewarded with four furry chocolate December Moths (NFY).  In addition a beautifully marked Mottled Umber which was new to the garden.  A final trap in early December made the expected Winter Moth the last of teh autumn moths in the garden.  It was time to wind things up until the first mild nights in February.

autumn moths in the garden, December Moth, Poecilocampa populi, 23rd November 2019, Norwich
December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) – 23rd November 2019
autumn moths in the garden, Mottled Umber, Erannis defoliaria, 23rd November 2019, Norwich
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) – 23rd November 2019

On the Beach

In recent years taxonomy, the branch of the life sciences concerned with the classification of living organisms,  has been revolutionised by the ability to rapidly, and inexpensively, read genetic material.  Whereas once upon time classification of species was  based largely on measurements and morphology (in the case of birds – structure and plumage) of museum specimens now differences in genetic make up provides important evidence as to the validity of a species.  In the case of birds an ability to turn a digital recording of songs and call into a sonogram – a graph of the frequency (pitch) of bird’s sound versus time that can act as a digital fingerprint has also become a valuable tool in the toolkit of both the professional taxonomist and field birder. This last technique has been pioneered and used to great effect by the Sound Approach team

Any birder who has travelled widely in Europe and Asia knows our familiar Yellow Wagtail is just one of about a dozen different forms with more or less defined breeding areas.  An encounter with a flock of migrating “yellow” wagtails in spring is always an exciting affair; sorting through the identifiable forms and guessing  their final destination.  The gallery below has a selection of images from Georgia (2014), Western Sahara (2018) and Kuwait (2019).

Recent work by Sander Bot and colleagues (Dutch Birding (2014) 36: 295-311 ) used a combination of genetics and sound recordings to assign nine western forms of yellow wagtail (including all of the above) to a species now known as Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) with the remaining four forms that breed in East Asia to a genetically and vocally distinct species – Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis).  Elevation of Eastern YW to a full species and greater awareness of both the different call  and the  monochrome look of typical first winter birds has led to an upturn in the number of records in recent autumn especially from the UK and Netherlands -although in most cases identification has been aided by sequencing of DNA extracted from faecal samples.  

As a consequence it was just a matter of time before a Eastern YW turned up in striking distance of home  – or to be precise Walberswick on the Suffolk coast where a first winter bird had been hanging about with a couple of lingering Western YWs during the first half of November.  

Fortunately I chose a fine, if cold, Saturday morning for my visit to its favoured beachside pool. I parked the car at Hoist Covert (52.310110, 1.638246) before striking out East across the marsh to the shingle beach.  There were plenty of showy Bearded Reedlings to slow my progress and by the time I got to the pools the bird had already shown itself to the assembled group  As I set up my camera and tripod I heard a loud and unfamiliar buzzing call and the Eastern YW flew directly towards us, landed briefly on the beach before flying strongly South! “Not to worry” I was told “all part of its daily routine”. Fortunately, whilst I waited for it to return, there was a delightful and confiding flock of 20 Snow Buntings playing hide and seek in the shingle in between visits to some seed that had been put down for them.

After about an hour and a half a “yellow” wagtail appeared in the vegetation at the edge of the favoured pool.  After a short wait it revealed itself to be one of the Western YWs. Unfortunately when the bird relocated onto the beach the entire group of observers  noisily moved  in order to get a better view As they did I heard a now familiar call overhead; its Eastern cousin had returned but took one look at the human activity and flew off South again!

Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) note the pale lores (area between the base of he bill and the eye) – Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

By now it was lunchtime, noticeably cooler and the light was deteriorating.  I decided to give it a further hour before trying to salvage something from the day.  Luck was with me and after a further 15 minutes the Eastern YW returned and posed rather distantly on a shingle ridge.   Although I was  grateful for the 2x teleconverter on my 600mm lens it made focusing challenging in the dull light. That said the gloom accentuated the birds dark olive upper parts, dark lores and crisp white feather edgings.  Eastern Yellow Wagtail it most certainly was and #716 for my Western Palearctic list.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

The following day I was back on the shingle in pursuit of a rare bird.  After an early morning walk around Happisburgh with Graham which yielded a late Yellow-browed Warbler and a Woodcock we enjoyed breakfast in Walcott before heading up to the North Norfolk coast to catch up with an Isabelline Wheatear found by Mark Golley earlier in the week.  Despite a diet supplemented by meal worms the bird appeared to be struggling spending long periods almost motionless on its favoured fence posts.  A sombre reminder that despite the joy we get from finding and seeing vagrants for many  ending up hundreds or thousands of miles from home may be the beginning of he end. 

Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina) Cley NWT Reserve, Norfolk 18th Nov 2018

We made a quick stop on the way home to see a rather distant Rough-legged Buzzard near Wells  which in many ways felt an appropriate way to end an autumn that had started 3 months earlier in Batumi.