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Oued Jenna

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

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

The Dutch team in action in Oued Jenna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Sparrow,near Assouerd

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

“Spiny-tailed Lizard” Uromastyx sp, near Assouerd

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

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

Marsh Harrier migrating over Oued Jenna

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

Cricket Longtail, Oued Jenna
Fulvous Babbler, Oued Jenna

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

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

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

 

 

Day and Night on the Aousserd Road

Nico and his colleagues picked us up at 08.30 from outside our hotels and once we had packed our gear for our three days in the desert we set off.  Before we left Dakhla we drove around a number of spots on the Atlantic and bay side of the peninsular where he regularly encountered Royal Terns with zero success.  Wishing to see Royal Tern before we headed out to Assouerd we took a short detour South to a site on the East side of the bay where terns are known to gather.  It was a lovely spot and there were certainly good numbers of Spoonbills, Caspian Terns and waders, but none of the hoped for Royals and after half an hour we pressed on.

Our next stop was a private farm (Mijk) that Dakhla Rovers have permission to visit with their clients – the principle business is growing tomatoes and melons in huge polythene and canvas greenhouses. However, when the farm was established around a borehole the owner planted trees and constructed some pools which given the location in the middle of the Sahara makes for a very potent migrant trap. For example the second Great Bittern for the Western Sahara had been recorded here three days previously.  As soon as we got out of the car it was apparent that the trees and bushes were alive with birds to the extent that it was hard to know where to start.

Picnic Lunch at Mijk Farm

After walking around to get a feel for what was about we decided to sit quietly in the shade and allow the birds to come to us – Graham stationed himself in a small irrigated orchard and I elected for some reed fringed pools under the shade of the canopy.  After an hour or so we broke for a picnic lunch under a makeshift awning and then opted to for different stations.

Mijk Farm Migrants – click on a thumbnail to enlarge

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Mijk farm has pretty much everything a migration enthusiast and photographer could ask for and it was hard to drag ourselves away, but we needed to head East.  Before we hit the Assouerd road proper we stopped briefly at Tachaktant, but found very little that had not been there the previous day apart from a rather showy Western Olivaceous Warbler.

Western Olivaceous Warbler, Tachaktant

Since the early visits by the Punkbirders in the mid-noughties the Assouerd Road has established itself as a Western Palearctic hotspot and the place to visit for a number of regionally scarce species – but before we got to look for the first of these;  Dunn’s Lark we had to drive an hour or so along the tarmac road with the car thermometer reporting 35oC we stopped only once for a party of Cream Coloured Coursers.

Cream Coloured Coursers, Assouerd Road

Many years ago, I saw “Dunn’s Lark” in Israel, but with every likelihood that the Asian form will be split as a separate species, Arabian Lark,  it was one I was keen to see.  When we arrived at the coordinates we split up to search the tufts of long grass under which the larks shelter to get what shade they can in the unforgiving environment.  After ten minutes or so Graham located a couple of birds and we settled down to photograph them which was easier said than done in the intense light and heat as it was 2 pm and the sand was so hot that it burnt our knees.

(African) Dunn’s Lark, Assouerd Road
(African) Dunn’s Lark, Assouerd Road

After re-hydrating and a brief rest we drove a few km further East to a site at which the Wise Birding group had seen African Desert Warbler a few days previously and only ca 800 m from the GPS coordinates where  Martin Casemore had seen them a couple of weeks earlier.  Given the uniformity of the dwarf scrub habitat we were clearly in the right area and did not expect too many problems – but after searching assiduously for the best part of an hour we had nothing to show for our efforts.   After a further hour of driving we reached Oued Jenna which is a wide wadi full of large acacias that runs NW-SE across the road and the site for the golden duo; Nightjar and Sparrow.  Given that it was now early evening and we wished to eat before going spotlighting for mammals we could only spend an hour in part of the NW section of the wadi close to the road, but that was long enough for us to find our first Fulvous Babblers and Cricket Longtails (WP #693).

Cricket Longtail, Oued Jenna

A further 20 minutes drive East is Assouerd a settlement of 120 people that is also home to a brutal looking basic training camp for recruits to the Moroccan military, at least they get single tents, and a UN Mission (MINURSO)  involved in an ongoing project to clear land mines.  Dakhla Rovers have access to a large house in the town with hot and cold running water where clients can sleep on mattresses and eat breakfast and dinner which is a very positive alternative to rough camping in Oued Jenna. After a long day in the field we were more than happy to shower and rest for an hour or two before our evening session, although not before I was woken up by Desert Sparrow (WP #694) calling outside my bedroom window.

Our plan was to go out spotlighting for 2-3 hours getting back in sufficient time to grab 6 hrs sleep before trying for the nightjar which were reported to be singing only in the morning. After dinner we headed back West for an hour or so before slowly driving back home using the spotlights.  On the way out we were lucky enough to encounter a Saharan Sand Viper crossing the road.

Saharan Sand Viper, Assouerd Road

I had not spotlighted before – for those unfamiliar with this technique it involves shining a powerful light into the vegetation either site of the road in the hope of picking up the reflected light from the eyes (eyeshine) of a nocturnal animal.  Nico’s 4X4 is well set up for this activity with two front mounted LED spots on the front of the car and two handheld spots to play on the vegetation at 90o to the moving vehicle.  I was i/c of one of the hand-held spots and a touch anxious that I would stuff it up.  I need not have been and after 20 mins my spot made contact with a stationary animal about 250 m off the road. Nico swung his spot around and confirmed and fixed the animal and the three of us set off with headlamps and a hand-held spot to investigate – as we got closer our lights became sufficient to dimly illuminate the beast and confirm its identity – SAND CAT!  Prior to departure this and Golden Nightjar were my two most wanted species from this trip – suppressing my excitement, I dialled the flash gun to max and hoped that the extender was enough to reach the cat – not quite so we edged closer and I had another go and got very lucky.

Sand Cat, Assouerd Road

There are certainly better photos of Sand Cat than this, but I will always have a strong personal affinity with this Sand Cat which I spotlighted and photographed under a starry Saharan sky in a truly memorable encounter.  Everything after that was a bit of an anti-climax and our spotlighting efforts lacked its earlier intensity. After a further 20 minutes, and a couple of stops for some roadside geckos, we called it a night and headed back to the house where a Ringed Wall Gecko under the security light bid us goodnight and brought our nocturnal adventure to an end.

Ringed Wall Gecko, Assouerd

Otus Falls!

After failing to see Royal Tern on the first day we were keen to make amends and in the absence of any recent information decided to head to the exposed sand flats in the NW corner of the bay where we had seen Sandwich Terns and Slender-billed Gulls the previous day in the hope of finding an early morning gathering.  After picking up water, bread, cheese and halal pate,  very pink and with the consistency of dry spam, from the petrol station we headed up the road and decided to scan from the kite surfing lodge and eat our breakfast with the sun behind us.  With nothing bar a couple of Caspian Terns on the sand flats we turned our attention to the scrub which held a few Willow warblers and the getting some images of the very obliging Thekla Larks and Black Wheatears that were hanging around the car park.

Upper: Black Wheatear Lower: Thekla Lark, Dakhla Bay

Just as we were about to pack up and move on a male Marsh Harrier drifted across the bay and appeared behind us where it startled a large falcon – after a brief bout of handbags the harrier disappeared and what turned out to be a Lanner shot out in front of us carrying a recently killed  House Sparrow and landed ca 250 m away on the sand flats to consume its mid-morning snack.

Lanner of the NW African subspecies erlangeri, Dakhla Bay

The scrub around the car park held a few Willow Warblers and a Grasshopper Warbler whilst on the way out what would turn out to be the first of many male Western Subalpine Warblers disgraced itself in front of Graham’s camera.  We headed North West to the roundabout/checkpoint at the entrance to the peninsular and after resolving a misunderstanding about missing a stop sign, which in our defence was in Arabic, headed North a few km to a Scrub Warbler site.  The directions were fine, but the habitat did not appear to be very different from the surrounding desert and I was not surprised we did not see Scrub Warbler.  We did to our surprise flush a Short-eared Owl which was one of the week’s less expected birds.

Graham contemplating the status of Short-eared Owl in the Western Sahara

We returned to the roundabout, navigated the check point and drove down the Bir Azerane road.  We had directions to a water source at Km 57 – since we unsure if this was from Dakhla or Bir Azerane we decided to see if it was the former and if not head back rather than spend the rest of the morning driving; which is how it turned out. All we found was a single White Stork in a herd of goats.  We had driven past a wadi that contained a few bigger trees that looked as if it might support a few migrants, so on the way back we stopped for a look.  As we entered the vegetation I flushed a Desert Wheatear with a a strong exhibitionist streak.

Desert Wheatear, Bir Azerane Road

As we progressed through the wadi we found just a few migrants and a Great Grey Shrike. I was on the track of a Sylvia warbler which turned out to be a Common Whitethroat when Graham called to me to say that he had flushed a bird which  appeared to be a small owl.  He tracked it down to a large acacia and suggested I stopped wasting time on the warbler as he thought his bird was “Otus” Otus scops, Eurasian Scops Owl, has been my absolute Western Palearctic bogey bird – I have heard loads all around the Mediterranean basin, but never clapped eyes on which means it has never made it onto my list.  But birding never ceases to surprise and here in the middle of the Sahara was a migrant Eurasian Scops Owl that became number 692 on my Western Palearctic list (WP#692).

Eurasian Scops Owl, Bir Azerane Road

We still had a desire to find somewhere with water so headed back to the check point again and headed for the start of the Assouerd Road which we drove for twenty minutes until we found the famous water tower known to birders as Gleb Jeblaine, but which should correctly be called Tachaktant (Gleb Jeblaine is actually the settlement 4 km to the West).  The well that fills the tower has a permanent leak that fills a series of small muddy pools surrounded by vegetation where desert species (including, Thick-billed Lark and Crowned Sandgrouse) come to drink and migrants come to rest.  Consequently there was a much greater diversity of species that we had encountered previously including Spotted Crake, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, Bluethroat and Sedge, Grasshopper, Willow and Western Subalpine Warblers.

Some Tachaktant migrants (click on the thumbnail to enlarge)

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As well as giving birds the opportunity to drink the pools offer the opportunity for a wash and brush up and towards the end of our visit we were entertained by a Tree Pipit that was taking full advantage.

Bathing Tree Pipit, Tachaktant

Whilst we were a Tachaktant we ran into two other groups of birders, one French the other Dutch, who had already been out East to Assouerd; neither had seen Golden Nightjar and both reported that Sudan Golden Sparrow was difficult.  Both were heading back to Dakhla for some R&R before another attempt.  The Dutch team had not seen African Desert Warbler either. but were more than happy to exchange for GPS coordinates for gen on where Royal Tern had been seen regularly near Dakhla.  Armed with this new information on Royal Tern we sped back towards Dakhla and the Royal Tern site which we had driven past the previous afternoon. No Royal Terns, although several flocks of Sandwich flew past, but a Western Bonelli’s Warbler was feeding along the cliff edge and a Black-crowned Night Heron in a rock pool making short work of a shoal of fish.

Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Dakhla Bay
Black-crowned Night Heron, Dakhla Bay

Back at the the hotel and with WiFi I picked up a couple of messages from Martina asking that we meet with Nico to finalise plans for the trip. We were more than happy to do so, but it delayed our trip to the Villa Dakhla for dinner and beer where we found our Dutch colleagues and caught up on the rest of their day’s birding.

 

Dakhla Peninsular

Formally the territory of Western Sahara remains disputed between Morocco and the Polisaro Front who ceased hostilities in 1991.  Since 2000 the security situation in the areas administered by Morocco have gradually improved which coupled with an extensive programme of mine clearance have allowed the development of tourism, especially kite surfing, in the Dakhla Bay area.  As a result an increasing number of birders have made the long drive south from Agadir or flown into Dakhla to explore the Dakhla Peninsular and the road to Assouerd ca 250km to the South-East to see a number of species that are hard to see elsewhere in the Western Palearctic region along with some top reptiles and desert mammals.   Graham Clarke and I were keen to join the fun and organised a five day trip over the Easter weekend.

After a rainy drive from Norwich to Gatwick on 27th March we flew to Dakhla , via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc arriving around midnight where we met by Martina Milanese from Dakhla Rovers who were going to be taking us into the desert for three days.  After picking up the car we were renting for the two days prior to our organised trip, we changed some money, found our hotels and went straight to bed.

The following morning dawned hazy with limited visibility across Dakhla Bay as we fueled the car and found a mini-mart that supplied fresh bread and cheese for breakfast and plenty of water before setting off to explore the road that runs South from the city along the rocky Atlantic Coast.  As we drove we encountered small groups of gulls on the dry hard clifftops; mainly Lesser Black-backed and Audouin’s with a few Yellow-legged mixed in.  Some groups were accompanied by a couple of Caspian Terns but, in what was to become a theme, no sign of the hoped for Royal Terns!

Audouin’s Gull, Dakhla Peninsula
Audouin’s Gull, Dakhla Peninsular
Caspian Tern, Dakhla Peninsular

Also along these flat stony clifftops were Kentish Plovers, plenty of migrant Northern Wheatears and  a pair of very obliging Greater Hoopoe Larks.

Greater Hoopoe Lark, Dakhla Peninsular

When we reached the fishing village of Lassarga the road ran out in a scrap yard which we entered with the blessing of local gendarme, who five minutes later was pushing us out of the sand.  We never did find the access point to the tidal pool that we had come to check and later learnt that this may have been for the best as the locals were no longer keen on visitors birdwatching there.  Having learnt our lesson about soft sand we decided to head North and found a small inlet called Bouthala that looked interesting on Google maps.

The inlet at Bouthala

As we parked we were greeted by a very friendly Thekla Lark whilst a couple of Common Pratincoles hawked insects overhead all of which seemed very promising.

Thekla Lark, Bouthala

The inlet had a good cross section of the common waders of Dakhla Bay including Redshank, Greenshank, Dunlin, Grey and Ringed Plovers and Whimbrel along with Grey Heron, Little Egret and Marsh Harrier whilst the resident pair of Black Whesatears patrooled the cliff edges.  The few bushes surrounding the inlet held a small number of migrant passerines including Bluethroat, Tree Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Western Subalpine Warbler and Willow Warbler – all species that we  encounter again over the next few days.

Western Subalpine Warbler
Willow Warbler, Boutala

We carried on North and found a couple of places where the road came close to big sand flats one of which held a party of terns; all Sandwich mixed in with some Black-headed Gulls and some lovely pink flushed Slender-billed Gulls.  We lunched at a bayside restaurant L’aquilla about 25 km North of Dakhla where we continued to be entertained by migrants; Willow and Subalpine Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, Tree Pipit and Nightingale that occupied every patch of vegetation.  After lunch we decided to try working a farm called Taourta 2 on the Atlantic side of the peninsular, but not before I had taken a good look at the local “White breasted” Cormorants which I take to be Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo)  of the race marocus rather than White-breasted Cormorants (Phalacrocorax lucidus).

Great Cormorant (ssp marocus), Dakhla Bay

 

The right hand patch of vegetation is Taourta 2 – it is not hard to see why these farms are attractive to migrants!
On the ground the farm’s small dry fields were attractive to pipits and wagtails

We parked by a small cafe and asked a couple of the local lads if it was OK to walk around the farm which they were happy to agree to for the price of a packet of cigarettes (2 euro).  There were constantly Bee-eaters over head and the commonest species was Tree Pipit with over 20 individuals in 2-3 allotment sized fields.  Other migrants included Nightingale, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler and Blue-headed Wagtail.

Tree Pipit, Taourta 2
Blue-headed Wagtail, Taourta 2
White Wagtail, Taourta 2

By comparison the large public park by the main North/South road a kilometre or so to the East was very quiet with just a Redstart to show for our efforts.  The long day and lack of sleep was catching up with us and we called it a day.  After a shower and a change of clothes we walked into town to find something to eat and elected for the bayside terrace of the Villa Dakhla which offered very nice menu and a selection of cold beers.

 

 

Getting better every day

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

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

My mid-morning appointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just look at those eyes
And the dense feathering on her legs!

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

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

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

Male Dotted Border

Fuerteventura Day Two

When we got up the forecast rain was already in the air. After grabbing a quick breakfast in a Tindaya bar we headed out onto the plains to make the most of the early morning light.  A Berthelot’s Pipit was feeding alongside the first rough track we explored, but we saw nothing else and returned to the tarmac when the track petered out.

Berthelot’s Pipit

A Great Grey  Shrike on a roadside post was typically nervous so we moved on until after a further 500 m we literally tripped over a party of 4 Houbaras; two of which walked across the road in front of us.  Taking Robin Chittenden’ s advice we parked the car, used it as a hide and simply allowed one individual to walk towards us until it was quietly feeding  just 50m away.

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Houbara Bustard of the

After 30 minutes spent feeding our memory cards we reluctantly moved on picked up some provisions and returned to the Barranco de Rio Cabreas for another go at the Dwarf Bittern. Perched up on the side of the gorge we waited for just 40 mins in deteriorating conditions when two recently arrived birders further down the ravine gestured that they could see our quarry.  After further gesturing and some frantic triangulation we located the bird and managed a couple of record shots before the heavens opened and we had to retreat to the car.

Possibly the worst photograph taken this winter of this WP rarity!

In an attempt to outrun the rain we decided to head South to the wood at Costa Calma and search for wintering passerines,  The car heater was  turned up to maximum in an attempt to dry outbut when we arrived in Costa Calma about an hour later we were still a touch damp.  The “wood” is in fact two strips of parkland each about 1 km long and neither more than 100 m wide that run parallel to the beachside hotels.  As we walked through the western strip we found a motley collection of refugees from the European winter including 15 Song Thrushes, 2 Siskin, a  Redwing and a Brambling (a Canarian rarity)  before encountering one of our target species; a group of 3 Little Buntings feeding on some dry under story.

Little Bunting

Walking to end of the strip we found a few more Song Thrushes and Chiffchaffs before turning back and bumping into a visiting birder from Gran Canaria who had seen a Yellow-browed Warbler and gave us directions to the Olive-backed Pipits which had relocated to the other strip.

Olive-backed Pipit

Following his directions we soon located a party of three OBPs which gave nice views despite the footfall through that section of the park.  By now the sun was out and with our mission accomplished we set off back off to the North West of the island.

Embalse de los Molinos

The Embalse de los Molinos is probably the largest stretch of fresh water on Fuerteventura and as such is something of a magnet for visiting birders.  As we got out of the car there were swifts, this time Pallid, overhead and a departing birder mentioned a Marbled Teal.  We eventually caught up with this duck at the far end of the reservoir along with ca 20 Common Teal, a couple of Mallard and a female Tufted Duck, but it was quitter hard work without in the strong wind and without a telescope.  Amongst the other common water birds, Coot, Little Egret and Spoonbill, were a few Greenshank, a couple of Common Sandpipers and a Black-headed Gull.  After an hour or so the sun was going down behind the mountains, it was noticeably cooler and time to go.  On the way home we chanced upon the very pleasant La Cancela Restaurante in the small town of Tefia where we enjoyed some local specialities.  Feeling better for something to eat will stocked up on supplies for the next day at a supermarket between La Oliva and Villaverde before heading back to the apartment for the night.

Fuerteventura Day One

Family commitments had made it impossible for me to join the steady stream of Western Palearctic listers who, since December, had made the trip to Fuetereventura to twitch a Dwarf Bittern (a tiny African heron that is incredibly rare in our region) and enjoy some Macronesian endemic and scarce wintering species in the sun.  The first weekend in March was my best chance and despite the efforts of the “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma to derail the plan I had a straightforward, if bitterly cold, journey down to Barton Mills in the early hours of 2nd March to rendezvous with  Sue Bryan and then on to Stansted. Our Ryanair flight, reassuringly dripping with antifreeze, departed more or less on time and by midday we were in the warm Canarian sun collecting a hire car, which was a definite upgrade on the requested Ford Fiesta.

Definitely not a Fiesta!

After a brief stop for fuel and water we headed North-West to the segment of the Baranco de Rio Cabrea that had hosted the Dwarf Bittern for almost three months.  The car was parked by the entrance to a land fill site that was swarming with Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a supporting cast of Common Ravens Common Buzzards, Egyptian Vultures and Grey Herons.

Egyptian Vulture of the Canary Islands race majorensis

We tramped 300m across a stony plain flushing a pair of Lesser Short-toed Larks as we went before locating the breeze block cairn that marked the path down to the bottom of the barranco.   As we descended into the gorge there were Ruddy Shelducks in the stream below and Trumpeter Finches calling everywhere..

The vegetated floor of barranco was very birdy; Hoopoe, Green Sandpiper, Little Ringed Plover, and a pair of indigenous Fuerteventura Chats  that were actively collecting food for their brood.

Male Fuerteventura Chat

After a couple of hours I picked up a tiny heron flying towards us that had been flushed by two birders working the upper part of the Barranco. The Dwarf Bittern carried on past us and dived into a thick clump of tamarisks.  We relocated to the opposite side of the gorge. As we waited we noted African Blue Tit, Spectacled Warbler and a noticeably green and yellow Phylloscopus warbler with contrasting white underparts and yellow supercilium that appeared a good candidate for Iberian Chiffchaff. This species is not on the Canary Islands list and unfortunately it was silent and I got no images.  Even more unfortunately the Dwarf Bittern didn’t emerge until the couple who had originally disturbed it  approached our vantage point and inadvertently flushed it again this time out of view from us and none of other three observers were able to see where it landed.  By now it was now late afternoon and after one more brief search overseen by a party of Plain Swifts we decided to cut our losses and head over to the Tindaya Plains to search for Houbaras.

Shortly after leaving the village of Tindaya we located a single very distant male Houbara displaying in the rapidly dimming light. As we continued further down the track four Black-bellied Sandgrouse crossed in front of us offering close views.

Male Black-bellied Sandgrouse

Content we pressed on a further a 200 m or so when Sue picked a Cream Coloured Courser in the gloaming which turned out to be one of three birds. Repositioning the car allowed for a short high ISO photography session with the closest individual before the light packed up it was time to go and find our digs in nearby La Oliva.

Cream-coloured Courser – for the technically minded this image was taken at ISO 5000 and is a tribute to the low-light capabilities of the Canon 5Dmk4.

After checking into our accommodation we walked into time to find something to eat only to find the local pizzeria was shut.  A local bar doubled as a greasy spoon and although the food was indifferent there was cold beer to toast an excellent first afternoon! Feeling better for something to eat and drink we returned to the apartment where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow impervious to the sound of Stone Curlews in the surrounding fields.

 

Crown and Coues’s

After a pretty brutal few weeks and with Valentine’s Day on the horizon Ingrid and I had planned a weekend getaway.  These days our destinations need to be dog friendly to meet the needs of Dexter, our three year old yorkie-poo. The Crown at Westleton, as well as being handy for the birding hotspots of the Suffolk Coast  lived up to its reputation as one of the UK’s 25 most dog friendly pubs; doggie treats in the rooms, hot dog showers for mucky pups and a warm welcome in the bar for your four-legged friend as you enjoy an excellent evening meal.  Plus they have a great wine list – what’s not to like!

Dexter enjoying the change of scenery

Fortunately Ingrid has known me a very long time didn’t insist on my company for the entire weekend and allowed me an early breakfast and a couple of hours on Saturday morning to revisit Hazelwood Common and attempt better views/images of the Coues’s Arctic Redpoll than Graham and I had managed on New Year’s Eve.

Arriving just after 9 am there were a handful of birders present plus a couple of photographers in full cammo and with no bins.  Over the course of the next hour the small skittish flock of redpolls were either airborne, out of view in the recently ploughed field or hiding in a nearby thicket.  Eventually most folk managed to piece together satisfactory views through their scopes or in flight a left content, except for the two rather dour photographers who were content to wait quietly at the edge of the field.

Eventually the flock returned to the field with the Coues’s feeding in a furrow on the crest of a ridge ca 50 m away; too far for photography, but close enough  to show to a recently arrived couple who were more than happy and quickly moved on.  Just as I was thinking of leaving – the birds flew directly over my head into some nearby small trees, but frustratingly against the light!  The Coues’s then flew 30m up the lane and landed in a hedge at eye level <10m behind the two photographers who were still looking into the field.  Yelling directions I picked up my tripod quickly moved  next to them only to see the bird drop down to avoid a passer by – but before I could let out a frustrated FFS – it popped back up and stayed in view for a couple of minutes whilst all three of us reeled of multiple exposures – job done and time to head back to Westleton!

Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Suffolk, February 2018
Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Hazelwood Common, Suffolk, February 2018

Now you would have thought that a smile and a nod of thanks might have come my way from the two taciturn togs – not a bit of it.  However given the stick that so many long lens photographers get from birders perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But fair play to these guys they showed exemplary patience, no lapses in  fieldcraft, didn’t bother anybody else and gave no reason to believe the photographers and birders can’t enjoy birds together.

 

Beauty and the Ibis

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

Glossy Ibis, Bure Park Great Yarmouth Feb 5th 2018

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

Pale Brindled Beauty, West Norwich, 1st Feb 2018

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

HOLA Staines

Not many admirers for such a rarity

I had to visit my Mother and Sister in Maidenhead on Saturday 27th Jan which gave me the chance to pay a brief visit Staines Reservoir in Surrey to see an American Horned Lark which was found in late November, disappeared after a few days, but re-emerged in the early part of the previous week.  Staines lies pretty much at one end of Heathrow’s runways and is essentially an enormous water-filled concrete bowl bisected by a raised causeway whose weedy slopes have provided food and shelter for this vagrant lark.  I arrived mid-morning, parked the car by the ramp to the causeway, settled my doggie travelling companion in the back seat and set off.  The bird was feeding on the south slope below the furthest viewing bay separated from its observers by a 1.5m barred metal fence that made photography challenging, but not impossible and with patience it was possible to get some decent images.

North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018

Horned Lark, (aka Shore Lark)  is a species that is widely distributed across the Northern Hemisphere with some forty different races described on the basis of variations in plumage and biometrics.  It has been proposed that the  Old World forms should be treated as five different species and the North American forms, of which there are >20, as a sixth   There is useful summary and discussion of this work on the Birding Frontiers site.  The main question for anybody going to see the Staines bird are whether on the basis of plumage it can be assigned to one of the of the North American forms rather than the familiar yellow faced form Eremophila alpestris flava which winters in small numbers around the UK coast and currently the only one on the British List. A secondary issue, is whether in he fullness of time the North American forms might be split as a separate species and allow our British and WP lists to advance by one!

Shore Lark (E. a. flava), East Norfolk, October 2013

All Horned larks share the same basic facial pattern of a black mask and choker with supercillium, forehead, cheeks and chin being yellow and/or white depending on race. Clues from the plumage to the Staines bird having a Nearctic origin come from the heavily streaked mantle,  pinky-rufous flanks that contrast with the white belly, the heavy striking on the lower breast and the strong pinkish component to the shawl (rear nape, upper mantle – this coloration should extend onto the lesser and median coverts, but this was hard to see on as the bird stayed hunched as it shuffled around in the strong breeze and never stood upright and alert. These pinkish tones are even more pronounced  in some other North American races for instance Eremophila alpestris leucolaema; the non migratory race of the interior West that I know from my time in Colorado

Horned lark of the central interior subspecies E. a. leucolaema; Pawnee National Grasslands CO, USA April 2008
Horned lark of the central interior subspecies E. a. leucolaema; Pawnee National Grasslands CO, USA April 2008

Candidate Horned Larks in  the Western Palearctic have previously been reported in Iceland (Birding World (1999) 12: 375-376.), in Northern Ireland (Birding World (1999 ) 12: 152-154) and on Scilly in Oct 2001 (Birding World (2002) 15: 111-119 and Surfbirds).  All of these were tentatively attributed to the large, long-winged, migratory NE race E. a. alpestris  and images of the Iceland and Ulster birds in the BW articles suggest that the yellow parts of the head to be deeper in tone that flava as indicated by Nils van Duivendijk in his Advanced Bird ID Guide.  The images of the Scilly bird are less compelling in that regard; that bird having a white rear supercilium and pale ear coverts.  Needless to say that whilst writing this I am regretting not making the effort to go over to St Agnes and see it for myself when I had the opportunity during a Scilly long weekend in October 2001!  Nevertheless, for what it is worth, the yellow in the face of the St Agnes bird the is more intense and extensive than on the Staines individual.

So where does this leave us?  In his comprehensive Birding World and Surfbirds articles Brian Small discusses another large and highly migratory race known as Hoyt’s Lark (E. a. hoyti) that breeds in the high arctic to the West of  E. a. alpestris. Brian’s description and painting suggests that hoyti is quite similar to alpestris with the major difference being he intensity of streaking on the lower breast.  It was therefore with some considerable interest that I came across this short article by John Ruddy on his Eastern Ontario Birding website with some images of a candidate Hoyt’s that he had seen among wintering alpestris  and some comparative images of museum skins of the three forms that occur in Eastern Ontario;  alpestris, hoyti and praticola plus an additional reference to an article written by Ron Pittaway in Ontario Birds from 1994.

North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018
North American Horned Lark, Staines, January 2018

These Canadian articles suggest that hoyti is a rather distinctive pale race with a white supercillium and just a daffodil blush on the throat – very much in keeping the facial pattern of the Staines bird.  But neither  article mentions the extensive lower breast streaking that the Staines individual clearly exhibits.

This left me wondering to what extent appearance is is related to age and/or sex.  The ID  Guide to North American Passerines by Pyle an others suggest that it is a female (white admixed with black in the mask, no black forehead) but it would have completed its annual moult by Sept if a first calendar year bird and earlier if an adult.  It is hard to see that heavy streaking just disappearing by feather wear.  So whilst there is no doubt of a North American origin for the Staines Horned Lark assigning it to race, even with biometrics, may not be possible.  I suspect that obtaining a DNA sample may not help given that one of the commentators on Ruddy’s article  reports seeing many intergrades between alpestris and hoyti in the Hudson Bay area of Central Canada. Hopefully with ever more observers going to see this smart little bird there will be further discussion and perhaps more information will come to light.

As a footnote this was only my second ever visit to Staines Reservoir.  The first 35 years ago was to see my first Baird’s Sandpiper that had overwintered on the muddy edges to one of the drained basins. Like Horned Lark Baird’s Sandpiper is a species that I would got to know well when I lived in Colorado where it is by far and away the commonest Calidrid during autumn migration.

Baird’s Sandpiper, SE Colorado, April 2008