Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Namibia - Kulala Desert Lodge and the famous red dunes

Pied Crow at Sossuvlei
It took a little longer than expected to reach the area around Sesriem from Buellsport on 4th August. Though as we turned in to Kulala Desert Lodge, with the entrance track being upwards of 10km through stony and sandy desert, the birding and mammal watching began. This area was great, and I drove it a couple of times during our couple of days' stay, with the bird highlights being fantastic views of both Ludwig's Bustard and Ruppell's Korhaan as well as some more distant views of Temminck's Courser one morning: -
Ludwig's Bustard at Kulala Desert Lodge
Ruppell's Korhaans at Kulala Desert Lodge
Mammals too showed well on our entry with a small group of fairly cute looking Bat-eared Foxes swaggering across the road, as well as a couple of Black-backed Jackals along with the more common Oryx and Springboks.
Bat-eared Fox at Kulala Desert Lodge
Around the camp, birdlife was relatively sparse with just the odd White-backed Mousebird, Pale-winged Starling and Red-eyed Bulbul; having Ostriches mooch past was fairly novel though!
Ostrich at Kulala Desert Lodge
The first evening drive was pleasant, if not fantastic for wildlife. Though with plenty of Ostriches, Oryx and Springboks in the evening light I was happy enough: -
Springboks at Kulala Desert Lodge
Oryx at Kulala Desert Lodge
The following morning we'd booked a balloon ride over the dunes for first thing. It was really great, and one of those experiences that was worth shelling out for and we even got a champagne breakfast sitting in the dunes afterwards. Truly dudey and touristy, but there was a plan - Dune Lark! This is the only true Namibian endemic, and is restricted to the sandy desert in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. I didn't realise how easy they would be, and was extremely happy to find a handful of birds pecking about on the periphery of our breakfast area. Really nice birds too; skittish when approached quickly but they soon settled down to be nicely papped...

Dune Lark at Sossuvlei
Pied Crows enjoyed the action too, pecking at what they could get in this otherwise extremely arid environment.
Pied Crow at Sossuvlei
After chilling out during the middle of the day, I ventured out again for the evening into the same area I'd been the previous day. The undoubted highlight was this African Wild Cat: -
African Wild Cat at Kulala Desert Lodge
Our final morning here, August 6th, was all about the red dunes. We set off in the dark and into the Sossuvlei National Park where we had a climb of Dune 45 and then onto the somewhat eerie Deadvlei, where dead trees populate the sand. Predictably, the birdlife was limited here although Ruppell's Korhaans, Cape Sparrows, Familiar Chats, Pied Crows and a Pale Chanting Goshawk all showed rather nicely.
Cape Sparrow at Sossuvlei
We got back to Kulala Desert Lodge at around 11am, and after collecting our bags, we were on the road north towards the coast at Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. The whole Sesriem and Sossusvlei area was filled to the brim with incredible desert scenery - the best I've seen (and I've seen the Sahara in Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara), and would recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Namibia - from Windhoek to the dunes

After visiting Avis Dam early morning, and then having the first of many great Namibian breakfasts, we set off south from Windhoek and then headed west and into the Namib desert. The destination for the afternoon/night was Buellsport which, although on the map as a place, was literally the farm and guesthouse where we were staying! This was obviously our first full day, and was an introduction into how sparsely populated the country is.

Anyway, Karen had booked some horse riding for the afternoon so while she did that, I went for a long walk in the stony desert on a quest for Hartmann's Mountain Zebra. Predictably, I took the 6 mile long Zebra trail and thankfully it delivered: -
Hartmann's Mountain Zebra
In total, I saw a dozen of these vulnerable, range restricted beasts - a couple on the mountain ridge and then a group of ten grazing distantly. There was a bit of birdlife too, with White-tailed Shrike, Brubru, Sabota Lark, Karoo Chat, Black-chested Snake Eagle and a load of Sociable Weavers seen. Back at the guesthouse Pririt Batis and Yellow-bellied Eremomelas were common by our chalet. I also had to sort out a puncture that evening too, as driving on gravel/dirt roads for miles and non-off road tyres aren't an ideal combination.
Pririt Batis
The next day, before heading off west again, we had an early morning walk for a couple of miles where in the stony desert, I was able to eek out a bit of birdlife - a couple of Cape Buntings were nice, as was a group of Cape Penduline Tits and some more Crimson-breasted Shrikes. Monteiro's Hornbill and Common Scimitarbill were present in the woodland along the dry riverbed. Pale-winged Starlings were really common around the guesthouse too.
Cape Bunting
Pale-winged Starling
A small (and I mean small) area of water held a single South African Shelduck; miles from any other water, and in the middle of nowhere, I felt a bit sorry for this bad boy: -
South African Shelduck
After breakfast on 4th August, we set off towards Sesrium and Sossuvlei - Namibia's iconic red dune system. A short while down the road, a couple more Hartmann's Zebras were seen while as we neared our destination there was a bit of commotion by the roadside...
Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures on Zebra kill
These Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures were lapping up this zebra kill, and was a great African wildlife scene to watch for a while. I noticed a couple of the Lappet-faced Vultures were yellow wing-tagged, so hopefully should find out where they're from sooner or later. Other than that, the drive was filled by nice views of my first Springboks, Oryx and Ostrich. All good stuff!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Introduction to Namibia - Windhoek and Avis Dam

After an overnight flight on Monday 1st August, we arrived late morning in Namibia and went straight into Windhoek city centre - not much cultural bits to see thankfully. Bird wise there was just the odd White-backed Mousebird, so by late afternoon I'd convinced Karen to head to Avis Dam 'for an evening walk to keep us awake'. Anyway, she evidently knew it was a birdy place and so I set about my business...
Southern Fiscal Avis Dam
As I started picking up my first Namibian birds - stuff like Blue Waxbills, Cape Wagtails, Pale-winged Starlings and Fiscal Shrikes - the sun was going down all too quickly, and I had a lot less time than I had expected. Though the African Palm Swifts and Rock Martins were busy whizzing about, all the other passerines had shut up shop.
Blue Waxbill Avis Dam
So, after a great meal that (somewhat hypocritically) involved Kudu, Springbok and Oryx that night, I headed back to Avis Dam the next morning and experienced loads more birds during the first African sunrise of the trip! I think I woke up this sleepy Rock Kestrel: -
Rock Kestrel Avis Dam
Avis Dam is just a couple of km outside Windhoek, and from reading tour reports, seems to be where most groups/visitors go to first. And there is a reason why with the gaudy looking Crimson-breasted Shrike being common, lots of Yellow and Black-throated Canaries, Cape Glossy Starlings, Monteiro's and African Grey Hornbills, smart looking Kalahari Scrub Robins with loads of Short-toed Rock Thrushes, White-browed Sparrow Weavers, Marico Flycatchers, Familiar Chats and Mountain Wheatears. Though Avis Dam is a site for Rockrunner, I didn't really try too hard for it - knowing I would have a site where it was easy later in the trip. Just nice to get a feel of the common birds for starters.
Kalahari Scrub Robin Avis Dam
Crimson-breasted Shrike Avis Dam
White-browed Sparrow Weaver Avis Dam
Black-throated Canary Avis Dam
Marico Flycatcher Avis Dam
The dam itself was dry, with a solitary Egyptian Goose the only waterbird. This was to be the start of a trip full of aridity, surface water shortages but a country still full of birds and great birding. One of my most enjoyable trips to date - with the combination of some good mammals too. So after Avis Dam, we left Windhoek and drove south and then west to Buellsport where we stayed for the night of 3rd August...

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The day I flew to Namibia...

Admittedly old news now, but on Sunday 31st July I was sat in the London Guildhall celebrating my mate's wedding. Pretty safe season birding wise, although these days the big birds seem to drop whenever (usually when I have prior commitments!). Anyway, there was news of a Purple Swamphen at Minsmere RSPB - potentially a new British bird?

To be honest, I reckon a fair few people were stung recently with the acceptance of the Chinese Pond Heron. What this meant was a more 'glass half full approach' to this bird, with little skepticism about the bird's origins from the birding fraternity - with a recent scattering of birds in France, with one recently in the extreme northwest and nine extralimital records since April, there was also decent circumstantial evidence for wild origin. Added to this, the overall bluish toned plumage meant it was of the nominate Iberian/European race too; unlike the usual escaped poliocephalus 'Grey-headed' birds.

Despite flying to Namibia early evening, I decided to dawn raid Minsmere on 1st August and look what was plonking about in the early morning haze...
Purple Swamphen Minsmere RSPB, Suffolk 1st August 2016
Nice bird, great to be up and about at one of Britain's best wildlife reserves at the crack of dawn. I had actually seen a Purple Swamphen in Britain previously - in Cumbria in 1997; it cost me an Ivory Gull (which I still needed at the time) and I must admit that the origins (and race) of this bird were never properly determined. With the new breed of BOU decision making - a combination of pseudo-science and mere opinion - I doubt it'll be more than a couple of years before this Suffolk record gets the green light. Happy days!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Namibia quick update

Just a quick update on the first week here in Namibia. We've been here since Tuesday, travelling south and west from Windhoek into the Namib Desert and then up onto the coast to the Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area - so far a night in Windhoek, a night in Bullsport then two nights at Kulala Desert Lodge and then here in Swakopmund. If you like aridity, deserts, wide landscapes and a distinct lack of people then this is a decent place to come. The South Atlantic midwinter rollers aren't too shoddy either. This isn't a hardcore birding trip, but I have managed to squeeze a bit in along with some mammal viewing: -
Dune Lark - Namibia's only truly endemic species
Ruppell's Korhaan
Pied Crow
Kalahari Scrub Robin
Hartmann's Mountain Zebra
Black-backed Jackal
African Wild Cat
And of course what trip of mine wouldn't be complete without some of these: -
adult Kelp Gull

Saturday, 30 July 2016

midsummer in London - Yellow-legged Gulls and more

juvenile Mediterranean Gull Greenwich, London 30th July 2016
 I got back from a few days in Romania late on Tuesday, and since then it has been a combination of work sandwiched around the tides for Central London gulling. This time of year is always decent, with juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls taking pride of place - they're always nice and crisp, and going to the right places you're able to get some really nice photos. Add to that a few rings (mainly local ones) and the first juvenile Mediterranean Gull today, and so London isn't necessarily the birding desert many of you think it is. There are two places that I tend to focus on locally...

Within 50 metres of my flat lies the River Thames. Lucky I know, but one of the main reasons for moving and staying here for so long. Anyway, there are three gull sites here - with all three blowing hot and cold. At the moment the best place is immediately east of Greenland Pier where just the other side of the lock gates, throwing a bit of bread out (at high and low tide) is likely to get the odd juvenile Yellow-legged Gull coming in. At low tide it's fine to get onto the foreshore so you can get eyeball views. Few other sites where views are consistently so good!
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 29th July 2016
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 29th July 2016
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Rotherhithe, London 30th July 2016
The two other places where I watch gulls in Rotherhithe are the jetties by the Surrey Docks Watersports Centre on Greenland Dock and then further west around the peninsular, at low tide, the beach adjacent to the Hilton Doubletree Hotel.

Greenwich by the O2
At this time of year, the whole place is full of tourists but as soon as you head along the Thames adjacent to the O2, the crowds thin out and the gulls begin. Vital to be here a couple of hours either side of low tide, otherwise you'll be wasting your time. But it's always got a decent gathering (low 100s) of gulls and I've been regularly getting a handful of Yellow-legged Gulls here since early July. The place to watch is along the Thames Path, at the head of the peninsular where there are some obvious trees with the beach below it. Better numbers here than Rotherhithe but the views aren't always as good.
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich, London 30th July 2016
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich, London 30th July 2016
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich, London 30th July 2016
juvenile Yellow-legged Gull Greenwich, London 27th July 2016
There is also a bit more variety here too, and in spring I found a juvenile Iceland Gull here. Though today I had to make do with this white-winged gull: -
leucistic adult Herring Gull Greenwich, London 30th July 2016

Canada - Algonquin 31st May & 1st June

I meant to do this post a lot sooner after I got back but busy life takes its toll on blogging. Anyway, Mark L and I spent our final couple of days of our holiday in Algonquin National Park; a relative wilderness area three hours north of Toronto. It's a really special area with lovely boreal scenery and just a couple of roads traversing an otherwise vast area of forest and spruce bog. Also, importantly, it holds a lot of breeding species with some tricky to find elsewhere - main targets here are usually Black-backed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee and Grey (Gray?) Jay. Click here for a decent birding map that we used for our visit.

The Mizzy Lake Trail was where we focused our efforts; firstly driving along the Arowhon Road where we quickly saw our first target - Boreal Chickadee - while singing Ovenbirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Red-breasted Nuthatches were to become familiar sights and sounds.
Red-breasted Nuthatch Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
The plan for our first day was to just walk, walk and walk until we felt we'd had enough and/or the birding activity died down. Thankfully it didn't get amazingly warm as we walked along the trail to Wolf Howl Pond, West Rose Lake and 'Flycatcher Bog' for several km. The mosquitoes were present here, though never a real annoyance. The birds started flowing within just a couple of hundred metres of leaving the car, with this female Spruce Grouse staying pretty chilled by the path as we admired her: -
female Spruce Grouse Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
Swainson's Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows and Ovenbirds continued to sing/skulk from the undergrowth while Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were seen with some regularity.
Ovenbird Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
One of the things that was most frustrating were the singing Nearctic wood-warblers - for colourful birds when singing they remained pretty static so they were pretty tricky to locate as they had a tendency to throw their tunes a bit. Blackburnian and Yellow-rumped were the most numerous, while Canada, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue and Black-and-white Warblers were also seen (and heard) along the walk.
Myrtle Warbler Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
On the open water, a handful of Hooded Mergansers were noted along with a couple of Great Blue Herons. Another couple of Boreal Chickadees were located too, in small flocks with their commoner Black-capped cousin: -
Boreal Chickadee Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
Up until this trip, for one reason or another, Grey Jay was a species I'd missed out on - always visiting periperal sites and/or at the wrong time of the year. So when a fluttery group of birds came to investigate us along a remote path, I was all for giving them a bit of attention. What is it though with yanks, jays and rings - these guys were 'banded' as were the Florida Scrub Jays (understandably) and the Mexican Jays I saw in Texas.

Grey Jays Algonquin, Ontario 31st May 2016
A load of Cedar Waxwings buzzed about in the trees and Red-eyed Vireos were common, and I found a cracking male Spruce Grouse munching away in a trackside spruce; Alder Flycatchers were present in a couple of the boggy areas and a single Least Flycatcher was located too. In these swampy areas, Swamp and Lincoln's Sparrows were seen along with a fair few Common Yellowthroats - all good stuff! However, by mid afternoon (having been out since dawn) we felt as though we'd exhausted the place despite having failed to locate Black-backed Woodpecker. And so we headed east within the National Park boundary to the Lake of Two Rivers area and the adjacent abandoned airstrip; the gen promised so much (including Black-backed Woodpecker) but delivered so little - a nice Pileated Woodpecker, a few Chipping Sparrows and Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers being the highlights.

As it got towards dusk, we had another failed Eastern Whip-poor-will and American Woodcock attempt. For some reason too, I declined rapidly and spent the rest of the night either sleeping or feeling distinctly ill. And as the next day dawned, I was slow to rise still feeling grim - though Mark L was great by getting me going but realising he was going to have to do everything! Though I started off by finding this big boy on the Mizzy Lake trail - a nice Moose (the first of three): -
Moose Algonquin, Ontario 1st June 2016
Having retraced our steps along the Mizzy Lake trail, we got to West Rose Lake and in the bare trees by the lakeside there was our final Algonquin target - a nice female Black-backed Woodpecker! It showed well for half an hour or so before becoming more distant, and was thankfully nice and easy given how grim I was feeling.
Black-backed Woodpecker Algonquin, Ontario 1st June 2016
With time ticking on before the need to go back to Toronto for our flight home, we had a quick walk around the Spruce Bog trail (at the east end of the park) where things were quiet, except for a Moose and this cracking male Chestnut-sided Warbler: -
Chestnut-sided Warbler Algonquin, Ontario 1st June 2016
And so that was that, another successful US trip with decent company and plenty of birds. Highlights for me being displaying Upland Sandpipers, singing Kirtland's Warblers and Bobolinks galore, Henslow's and Le Conte's Sparrows, lekking Sharp-tailed Grouse plus obliging Spruce Grouse and Grey Jays in Algonquin. Not bad for 5 days of birding!