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.
The warmer weather of the past few days really kick-started activity amongst our group of Norwich based moth enthusiasts. On Tuesday (19/3) I joined a field trip to a private site in South-west Norfolk to search for some late March Breckland specialities. As the sun went down we set up a handful of battery powered actinic traps. Hopes were high that we could repeat the success of a similar trip a few days previously. In the end a full moon and a sharp drop in temperature around 21.00hrs meant that numbers and diversity were not as high as we had anticipated. Nevertheless by the time we packed up at 22.30hrs we had managed to record at least 67 individuals of 17 species. This included five species which were new for me:
I was too busy at work for the next couple of days to even contemplate running a trap. That did not deter others. On Thursday (21/3) news filtered through of no less than five Small Eggars caught across the county. One at Cley and two each at Lyng and Litcham. This beautiful little chocolate coloured moth is declining in the UK. Many moth-ers are more likely to have seen evidence of its larval webs in hedgerows than an adult.
Fortunately the pair of females at Litcham arrived at the light-trap set in the garden of Keith Kerr. Keith is a top entomologist and a leading light of the Norwich moth-ers WhatsApp group. And with typical generosity he invited visitors. I couldn’t make it, but I was based at home the following day to receive a delivery. Consequently I asked if Ian Robinson could bring at one of the Small Eggars back to Norwich along with a Lead-coloured Drab. I collected the three visitors from Ian on Thursday evening. As a result Friday morning saw a near constant ringing of the doorbell. A steady procession of visitors from Norwich and further afield turned up at my front door. Not only to admire the Eggars but also discover how to tell Lead-coloured Drab from its more abundant and infinitely variable Clouded relative.
So far so good! All I had to worry about was when my package would arrive, scheduling a work meeting and returning the moths to Litcham. Except every other visitor told me about a Barred Tooth-striped caught in the Brecks the previous night. It was now on display at the NWT’s Weeting Heath visitor centre.
Luck was on my side; the package arrived on time and my colleague plumped for an early afternoon meeting. This gave me enough time to take the scenic route to Litcham, via Weeting! When I arrived at the VC I found the warden James with two pots on the counter! One contained the BT-s and the other a couple of Dotted Chestnut. This is a species that is expanding its range in Norfolk, although it has not yet reached me. James was happy to see the Small Eggars, which by now were sadly moribund. This was almost certainly due to the exertion of them having fulfilled their biological role of egg-laying prior to capture rather than their excursion to Norwich. James very kindly helped me photograph the moths, both of which were new to me, before I left to meet Keith and return home.
James Lowen has already blogged about the Kindness of Moth-ers a sentiment that I can only reiterate here. None of the above would have been possible without the collaboration of fellow enthusiasts. Organising the field trip, lending portable traps, transporting moths around the county and sharing their finds.
And amongst all this excitement what about my own backyard? I ran my home made MV trap a couple of times over the weekend (21-24/3) and recorded good numbers (44 and 64). The catches were dominated, as expected in late March, by Common Quakers. Quality was offered by a pair of beauties. Brindled Beauty which was new for the year and a couple of latish Oak Beauty. But in truth it feels like the season is just getting started.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….