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.
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.
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.
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.
Other NFY moths that appeared over the weekend of 18th/19th October included Yellow-line Quaker and Satellite.
Plus the always stunning Merveille du Jour!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 for two reasons one that would have to wait. Firstly I had been away for 2.5 weeks and had work commitments to fulfil. Secondly I had planned a weekend birding and trapping moths on The Lizard when I took Kat back to university. I was just going to have to sit this one out!
Last seen at St Ives around midday on 31st August this bird was seen again an hour later from Pendeen. Since Pendeen is ca10 miles SW of St Ives it had surely gone. However, in a strange twist a different, first winter, bird turned up in the rocks off Kynance Cove the next day. Just about a mile from the Lizard Youth Hostel I was booked to stay in for the weekend of 6th- 8th September I was just going to have to sit this one out!
A sucessful twitch
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.
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?
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,
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.
I returned to 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.
The next day was clear and still and offered an opportunity to photograph the Brown Booby in good light. First I needed to attend to the trap and have breakfast. I caught about 20 moths, nothing out of the ordinary, although a Frosted Orange offered evidence of the changing seasons. The catch did include Galium Carpet which was new for me and three Delicates. The Delicate is an immigrant, although these have been the progeny of moths that arrived earlier in the year and stayed to breed,
A second bite of the cherry?
After breakfast I headed back up to Kynance Cove. An increase in visitor numbers required parking in an overflow carpark with help from a rather officious NT volunteer! It was hard to know if the Booby was present, but plenty of telescopes were trained on it favoured rock. I headed in the opposite direction to get to the promentory before it started to feed. On the way I was joined by a local photographer who had spent an hour or so on Pentreath beach. He was far from convinced our quarry had not gone. I was just going to have to sit this one out.
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. The consensus from friends I met on the way back to the car park was that it had disappeared 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 very fine chilli con carne which was able to cool and mature whilst I set the traps.
Given the calmer conditions I elected to run both traps on the cliffs just off the SW Coastal Path. I powered up the gennie as the last jogger of the evening pounded their way along the path. Nobody would pass the traps again until I emptied them in the morning.
Eat, sleep, moths…
I returned the hostel to enjoy my chilli and a glass or two of red wine before retiring. In the end I managed as good a night’s sleep as the top bunk bed in a shared dormitary allows. As one of my room mates observed at least the YHA don’t make you do chores any more!
Once again the morning dawned clear and still and I walked down to the trapsnot seeing a soul. Both traps held good numbers of moths with a nice balance between migrants local specialities. The migrants included;Delicate, Dark Sword-grass and Scarce Broad-bordered Straw.
Whilst local coastal specialists were represented by Grass Eggar, Devonshire Wainscot and Mullein Wave.
After breakfast I checked out and headed into Falmouth to help Kat with a supermarket shop. By mid-morning I was on my way to Davidstow. Unfortunately my attempts to photograph a long staying Buff-breasted Sandpiper were thwarted by some over exuberant members of the microlight community. At which point I accepted that I had enjoyed a pretty good weekend and set the Sat Nav for home.
I took a more relaxed approach to birding on my last day in Batumi. Following a late breakfast I caught a mastruka to the city centre. I visited a local barber then walked along the seafront towards Batumi Lighthouse.
The decomissioned lighthouse is at the northern tip of the promontory on which Batumi is built. The lighthouse is dwarfed by many surrounding structures including the distinctive Alphabet Tower and a large ferris wheel. The patch grass known as the “Ferris Wheel Field” is a migrant trap. And despite the blue skies and light winds did not disappoint.
I encountered a nice selection of early migrants including a juvenile Red-backed Shrike
along with several Yellow Wagtails and Whinchats.
Under the shade of a large tree I met a young couple who had birded nearby Batumi Boulevard that morning. For the most part we had seen the same species. But they reported a Booted Warbler and a European Nightjar roosting in a pine tree both of which I was keen to see. Armed with directions I headed off to search for their birds.
Batumi Boulevard runs from the lighthouse down the East side of the promontory. The broad concrete path divides a strip of mature pines on the seaward side from an area of parkland. Both habitats provide excellent cover for tired migrant birds and in poor weather must be absolutly alive with birds. Today I found birding hard work and spent two hours seeing very little before I located the Nightjar. Unfortunately the height of it’s favoured branch did not give the best angle for a photograph. That aside I was excited for my first day roosting European Nightjar in nearly fifty years of birding!
I finally caught up with the candidate Booted Warbler which spent 20 minutes in a dense shrub less than ten metres away. In over an hour it did not show itself well let alone submit to a photograph. Frustrated I opted for a late lunch in a nearby cafe. Feeling better I took a taxi back to my hotel to pack for my return to the UK the following morning.
The Biggest Week in American Birding is a festival organised each May by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio to celebrate peak warbler migration. For Norwich garden moth-trappers the first week of July is the “Biggest Week” for moths. Who could forget the stunning Orache Moth that arrived in James Lowen’s trap in July 2018. I was excited to know what 2019 might bring? But I was not ready for the outstanding week of midsummer week garden moth-trapping that transpired.
I managed only a modest catch on 28th June with six species that were new for the year (NFY). There were also three species of micro-moth that were new to the garden. The adventive Box-tree Moth was long overdue and did not hang around, but was acompanied by two pretty tortix moths. Lozotaeniodes formosana (Orange Pine Tortrix) is a big tent shaped micro with characteristic orange and fawn blotches. In contrast Archips xylosteana (Variegated Golden Tortrix) rests with flat wings that showcase its symetrical golden-brown patterns.
The next day a mid-morning post from Will Soar alerted us to multiple Red-belted Clearwings attending a lure in his garden. Since Will lives just 1.5 miles down the road I put out a lure. Within 10 minutes five Red-belted Clearwings were buzzing around it. It felt like that I was on a roll.
The dam breaks open..
The night of 29th June was very warm and still; just perfect for moths. The flood gates opened and the following morning I found a dazzling array of moths in both traps. Several of these were new to the garden for example an absolutely pristine Alder Kitten.
Also new was a trio of green moths. Both species of Silver-lines (Green and Scarce) along with a slightly faded, but still stunning Green Arches.
Other quality moths included two new for the year; a smart Blue-bordered Carpet and a cryptic Dusky Brocade.
There were a lot of unfamilar micro-moths to sort through. The most glamorous of these was a chocolate and gold Pammene regiana (Regal Piercer). Least common and new to TG20D was the strikingly black and white Parachronistis albiceps (Wood Groundling) with just 75 previous Norfolk records. Othe NFG micros included; Calamoptropha paludella (Bulrush Veneer), Ancylis achatana (Triangle-marked Roller) and Phycitodes binaevella (Ermine Knothorn).
To ensure a manageable catch before work I only ran the small actinic trap on the night of 2nd July. This kept the numbers down, but there was a new micro-moth in the trap; Dichomeris marginella (Juniper Webber). This species is quite localized in Norfolk and uses suburban garden junipers as a foodplant. However it must have been established in Eaton for some time as Dave Hipperson recorded it in the 1980s and 90s.
Tyger Tyger Burning Bright
The final garden trap of the week was on the night of 4th July. The week’s activities curtailed by a weekend away in NW Norfolk to celebrate our 30th Wedding Anniversary. When I opened the trap the following morning I could not believe my eyes. Sitting on top of the first egg box was a pristine Scarlet Tiger. Just the sixth Norfolk record following three in the West of the County the previous weekend!
With the Tiger safely potted I started to sort the rest of the catch when my eye was drawn the wall. A Blackneck. Scarce rather than rare, but another teriffic addition to the TG20D list and just the fourth for TG20. The macro haul was completed with four NFY species that included Tawny Barred Angle.
Apart from the expected seasonal spike in Chrysoteuchia culmella (Garden Grass Veneer) threre were fewer micro-moths than recent nights. These did include Ostrinia nubialis (European Corn Borer) and Argyresthia albistria (Purple Argent) both new for the garden and TG20.
It had been an outstanding few days of moth-trapping. Once all the star turns were photographed and released I was happy to leave for our weekend away. Even so as we drove to North-west Norfolk I could not help but wonder what the Biggest Week for moths in 2020 will bring.
After I returned from Kuwait the garden moth-trap was hard work due to a series of cool nights in the last third of April. But it was not without rewards. The night of 22nd April brought half a dozen species that were new for the year. This included a first garden Lesser Swallow Prominent which I didn’t find time to photograph. A mistake that I didn’t repeat the following weekend when I finally recorded Frosted Green. It was one of just four moths in the trap on a very cold night.
A slow start
A warmer night on 1st May brought an improved catch (23 moths of 13 species). This included seven species that were new for the year (NFY) and a well marked, but unfamiliar pug. With help from the friendly folk on the Norfolk Moths Facebook page I was able to identify this as a Dwarf Pug. This species is usually associated with spruce plantations and most Norfolk records are from the Brecks. But it does seem prone to wander
Numbers were low for the next ten days with catches never reaching double figures. But I did record no less than three species of Hawk-moth; Lime, Poplar and Eyed.
More micro-moths appeared from the middle of the month. The common Cochylis atricapitana (Black-headed Conch) was an expected addition on 18th May. It was accompanied by the new for year Notocelia cynobatella (Yellow-faced Bell).
A brace of Seraphims
One feature of my my garden moth-trap is the number of Light Brocades that I catch each spring. This species is widespread across southern and eastern England, but in Norfolk most records come from around Norwich. This year it appeared on the 22nd May.
Also on the night of the 22nd came the first of two Seraphims. This is a species with a patchy distribution in Norfolk, but again with many records around Norwich. The second individual darker turned up two days.
The 24th May also brought a very fidgety Pale Oak Beauty which didn’t stay for a photograph. Much better behaved was the garden’s first Clouded-bordered Brindle.
The final flourish!
My catches over the last two nights of May were not huge, but the diversity was good. Many more species were appearing for the first time this year. These included two of my favourite macro-moths; Elephant Hawk-moth and Puss Moth.
There was also an increase in the number of micro-moth species including three species that were new to me. The first two species Plutella porrectella (Grey-streaked Diamond-back) and Rhyacionia pinivorana (Spotted Shoot) were expected.
The third Assara terebrella (Dark Spruce Knot-horn) was a surprise and represented the 43rd Norfolk record. Like Dwarf Pug this species is usually associated with spruce plantations and rarely recorded away from Breckland. It is also considered “Nationally Notable”meaning that it has been recorded in 16-100 10 km squares! It was nice to add TG20 to that list.
Despite these successes my garden moth-trap still managed to serve up one mystery. A tortix (a kind of micro-moth) that I caught on the last night of the month. It appears to be a weakly marked example of Hedya pruniana or Hedya nubiferana two closely species I record regularly. Impossible to tell apart without dissection I let it go. It is the kind of mystery that keeps us keen!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The island has a small deep water harbour and we found several traditional Dhows moored offshore. presumably preparing to fish.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.