Tuesday 29 September 2015

Galapagos Islands day 3 - San Cristobal

I started so I should finish. So back to the Galapagos diary, and day 3. At first light, we found ourselves anchored in the picturesque bay of Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal. There was the first bit of rain of the trip here, nothing major but enough to mean the ISO had to be increased a bit. First birds when we got ashore were some inquisitive and endemic Chatham Mockingbirds: -
Chatham Mockingbird, San Cristobal August 2015
The lagoon behind the beach held a few Black-necked Stilts but little else, while the beach provided three new waders for the trip - one each of Western and Least Sandpipers and two Semipalmated Plovers.
Western Sandpiper, San Cristobal August 2015
Semipalmated Plover, San Cristobal August 2015
For me though, an obliging Lava Gull stole the show - endemic and vulnerable on a conservation level, this was the first time they showed well and satisfied my photographic needs.

Lava Gull, San Cristobal August 2015
There wasn't too much else bird wise, except a handful of Small Ground Finches and Yellow Warblers, though typically Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Pelicans were offshore. 

One of the main reasons for the visit here was to see the San Cristobal Lava Lizard, which we did, alongside large numbers of Marine Iguanas. However, by late morning it was time to head off along the west side and to the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The journey provided immense views of Galapagos Shearwaters but little else; however, while docked in the harbour, the boat was buzzed by storm-petrels - at least 25 Elliot's but also my first two Wedge-rumped Storm-petrels. Great views too!
Elliot's Storm-petrel, San Cristobal August 2015
The afternoon crater walk in the highlands was curtailed by the weather, although a Warbler Finch singing in the gloom was a new bird. Little else was seen until we headed back to town where, along the harbour, a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron rested alongside a Great Blue Heron. The weather here was much better, and the Yellow Warblers glowed in the evening light while the local Galapagos Sea Lions chilled out on the benches along the marina!
Yellow Warbler, San Cristobal August 2015
Another excellent day full of close up nature, with the knowledge that the next day we'd be sailing to Espanola with the prospect of some albatrosses up close and personal...

Monday 28 September 2015

The pleasures of Dungeness

Well, that's a pretty enjoyable week. A lot has already been said about Dunge's potential first for Britain - which if not already confirmed on features, should be once the analysis of its excrement comes back. I was speaking to the finder Martin Casemore about the gripping discovery yesterday afternoon, and it was great to hear from the horse's mouth how it all unfolded. I'm just eternally grateful the bird decided to pitch up next to him while he was seawatching - just 50 metres on by the next fishing boat, and it probably would never have happened. Here's a couple of photos of the Acadian Flycatcher from later that afternoon: -

Acadian Flycatcher, 1st-winter, Dungeness, Kent September 2015 - note the stocky, slightly decurved bill, greenish tinge to the upperparts, long wings, pale lower mandible and peaked crown
And so it was Sunday came, and with significantly better weather! Breezy and bright - too much wind for the gulls to be able to land on the exposed beach. And so myself, Mick S and Richard S retreated to 'the puddles' in our cars just behind the beach. As usual, Mick S baited the gulls with some fish scraps and the like and despite there being absolutely nothing in the way of Caspian Gulls at Dungeness since April, two appeared in the bright evening light. I picked up this 2nd-winter bird first: -

2nd-winter Caspian Gull, Dungeness, Kent September 2015
And then Dave W and Mick S located a really showy 1st-winter bird that was aggressive, loud and albatross-like i.e. everything you want in a Casp: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull, Dungeness, Kent September 2015
Though there was a paucity of rings, this 1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull was also present: -
1st-winter Yellow-legged Gull, Dungeness, Kent September 2015
Looking forward to next weekend and probably another fun packed time with the gulls at Dunge. Seems like the lack of rain in the forecast will keep passerines to be found pretty thin on the ground. There's always the hope of a mega displacing me too, though with the Acadian Flycatcher, I'd have shaken on just that at the start of this month.

Monday 21 September 2015

Showy Pec saves an Achill weekend

Headed out to Achill for another shot at finding something 'out west'. It's standard these days for me to go out at least once an autumn to this gem of an area that's pretty much untouched birder wise. I have come back empty handed, but more often than not found something of a bit of interest.

This weekend, Josh J and I struggled. There'd not been any obvious weather, and the Saturday was spent checking the usual sites for waders, enjoying the scenery and looking for passerines contemplating where the big one would be in the future... Corrymore House is my bet.

Anyway, after a fitful night's sleep, we did a check of Keel golf course before breakfast. Nada. Then headed up to the area around Doogort. We were heading up the track beyond Achill Rovers FC, when Josh spotted a wader flying about - then in no time at all, it did the decent thing and landed on Lough Nambrack and revealed itself as a lovely juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper: -

juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper Achill Island, County Mayo 20th September 2015
This was a brilliant bird, fresh in and totally fearless of us. It walked past us, feeding totally unobtrusively having evidently not got a clue what humans were. We said we'd shake on a showy yank on Achill this weekend, and that's what we got. One day I'm hoping to live the dream on Achill...

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Galapagos Islands day 2 - Santa Fe and Islas Plaza

The first dawn on the Galapagos Islands broke, and we were anchored in turquoise water overlooking a white sand beach - full of Galapagos Sea Lions of course. This was Santa Fe, the only place in the world where the Santa Fe Land Iguana - similar to the common or garden Land Iguana, but paler with more obvious dorsal spines. They were still just as confiding though!
Santa Fe Land Iguana
Bird wise, there weren't any real colonies of seabirds but star of the show was a ridiculously confiding Galapagos Hawk. There's showing well and showing very well...

Galapagos Hawk
The landing at Santa Fe was a small circular route, taking us up from the beach and around a rocky yet vegetated landscape. Galapagos Doves flew about, there were several Lava Herons and Galapagos Mockingbirds while Darwin's finch of choice here were Small Ground Finches. A nice Wandering Tattler on the beach was a bit skittish but showed fine in the end.
Galapagos Sea Lion
After a bit of pretty good snorkeling, we headed off early afternoon back west to the east coast of Santa Cruz and Islas Plaza. The journey took no more than a couple of hours, but enough time to see two fantastic Galapagos Petrels - the endemic pterodroma of the islands. And a few frigatebirds decided to land on the boat and suss things out.
Magnificent Frigatebird
Once we'd got our panga onto Islas Plaza, as a gull lover, I was in for a real treat. Perhaps the most beautiful gull in the world - Swallow-tailed Gull - was waiting for me in spades. They were as good as I'd expected, possibly better, and with displaying, juveniles of all ages and birds to within a metre or so the camera was hit hard.

Swallow-tailed Gulls (adults (top two) and juveniles (bottom two)
These quality birds weren't all though - hundreds of Galapagos Shearwaters coming in to land, my first Nazca Boobies, a small colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds, my first Cactus Finches plus some of the already usual suspects - Lava Heron, Blue-footed Boobies, Yellow Warbler and Brown Noddies. I also found a bonus Kelp Gull too, though it didn't linger as it flew over.
Blue-footed Booby
And there were also some pretty showy Land Iguanas too!
Land Iguana
The light again was stunning, and once again it had been a fantastic day. One thing I was happy with was having a 300mm lens; even this was too close at times, but anything bigger than this on the Galapagos and you'd be potentially taking steps back on too many occasions.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Galapagos Islands day 1 - Santa Cruz

There are very few places in the world that I've been that have well and truly lived up to all the hype. The Galapagos Islands are regularly featured on the TV or in wildlife magazines; moments of magic where sea lions beg for food in a fish market or you struggle to find your way around Marine Iguanas. I was pretty skeptical about the Galapagos Islands being a real life Spielberg-type place, this reticence enhanced with my now annual use of it as a case study as an environment under threat with my A Level Geographers!

The whole experience was absolutely fantastic though - yep it was nice and dudey a lot of the time, but that's not really a bad thing. Wildlife you had to back away from as it approached you, getting to grips with the seabirds, the finches and just taking it all in. I can't really do the place justice, and as a consequence have decided to split the next few blog posts into a day-by-day type of approach.

We traveled on the Beluga boat (thanks to a recommendation from one of Karen's friends), and lucked out with a relatively sedate group of 12 other people along with a great crew and Juan Tapia as our naturalist guide (fortunately he was a birding guide, leading for Naturetrek the week after we left). We spent 7 lovely days sailing around the islands, and then spent an additional couple of nights in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz just relaxing and taking in the lasts of the critters. So I'll start off with the first day, well the first afternoon (as we arrived late morning)...
Galapagos Penguin
Before we'd even got on our main boat, the panga (dingy) ride produced a massive surprise as I found a young Galapagos Penguin swimming about in Baltra harbour; way out of range for where it should have been and it looked a little weary. It was also time to get used to the abundance of Elliot's Storm-petrels as they just cruised about in the harbour in the midday sun. The first Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans were hard to miss.

And after having the safety briefing and the first of many top lunches, we sailed away along the north coast of Santa Cruz for a couple of hours - reaching Dragon Hill late afternoon. Each boat is strictly controlled by the national park authorities in relation to its route and how long you're given to land. Great for the wildlife, but for somebody like me who wanted to look thoroughly at things while papping away, it took a bit of time to work out the best strategy for each landing point!
Yellow Warbler ssp.aureola
And so at Dragon Hill, after getting used to the umpteen Galapagos Shearwaters, Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddies and Magnificent Frigatebirds I was likely to see each day. We had a walk around the lagoon where 5 American Flamingos glowed in the evening light, while I obviously got most excited with a couple of brief Lava Gulls! 2 White-cheeked Pintails showed nicely and I got my first taster of Galapagos Mockingbirds, Galapagos Flycatchers, Medium Ground Finches and a surprising number of typically sprightly Yellow Warblers.
American Flamingo
White-cheeked Pintail ssp.galapagensis
But, to be honest, the birds played second fiddle - absolutely loads of Marine Iguanas typically spitting their load while the Land Iguanas were pretty cool customers, just lazing about while checking us out.

Land Iguanas
Not a bad first few hours on this wildlife paradise. Perhaps it was worth all the hype after all!

Saturday 5 September 2015

Ecuador part 2 - Sacha Lodge and the Amazon

We spent three nights at Sacha Lodge in the Amazon. It took us two attempts tow get there though, as the first flight we took had to turn back to Quito due to torrential rain at Coca airport. Guess it's not called the rainforest for nothing! Anyway, the way it works is this - you fly to Coca, get picked up and then taken a couple of hours on a motorised boat down the Rio Napo where eventually you reach Sacha Lodge (and other popular lodges). Complete with nice rooms, good food and importantly dry boxes for all your electrical equipment it's a place that caters for tourists wanting their 'rainforest experience'. Piranha fishing, canopy walkways and night walks spotting tarantulas and tree frogs plus toucans, parrots, caiman and monkeys... that's what the punters pay for. And so it started, as on arrival by the lake was a nice showy Hoatzin, a prehistoric looking species I'd always wanted to see since I was a kid: -
Hoatzin at Sacha Lodge
Due to the flight being late in, we were a bit limited daylight wise on the first afternoon, but White-winged Swallows were nice, as were smaller numbers of White-banded Swallows, along with Speckled Chachalaca and Spix's Guan amongst others. A night walk did indeed produce the expected tarantula as well as a few tree frogs.
Tree Frog sp. at Sacha Lodge
The next morning was time for a canopy walk, and we spent a few hours above the trees. In fairness, it was relatively quiet, but I still enjoyed a good number of new birds. Nice to get back into Neotropic birding after a dozen years away, with a Rusty-belted Tapaculo being one of the first birds seen as we headed up towards the canopy walk! White-throated Toucans, Russet-backed Oropendulas, Black-tailed Tityras, White-browed Purpletufts and lots of Cobalt-winged Parakeets were joined by some pretty impressive Red-bellied, Blue-and-yellow and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. Pied Puffbirds seemed pretty confiding, while a handful of tanagers included stunning looking Green-and-golds and Paradise.
Paradise Tanager at Sacha Lodge
Pied Puffbird at Sacha Lodge
On the way back down to the lodge, a couple of Crested Owls were located in their usual roost site and a male Wire-tailed Manakin blinded us briefly with a bit of colour!
Crested Owl at Sacha Lodge
The afternoon was spent in the wet forest and on its waterways. It was significantly quieter than the morning, but that was to be expected, but the target Agami Heron did put in a brief appearance - very satisfying!
Agami Heron at Sacha Lodge
Black-mantled Tamarin at Sacha Lodge
The next day, after a night of rain, dawned predictably gloomy and it wasn't a surprise that the parrot lick (an area of clay bank where parrots come down to take minerals to help their digestion) was pretty disappointing. Just a few Dusky-headed Parakeets. However, the Rio Napo did provide a load of other species such as Large-billed Tern, Oriole Blackbird, Black-fronted Nunbird, Violaceous Jay and Ringed Kingfisher.
Plumbeous Kite at Yasuni NP
We headed into Yasuni NP, where heading up a tower to view the canopy proved really fruitful with loads of species - including some showy Plumbeous Kites for starters, Channel-billed Toucan and Ivory-billed Aracaris, Yellow-tufted and Cream-coloured Woodpeckers, Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak, Purplish Jacamar, Plum-throated Cotinga, several species of tanager and woodcreeper as well as some really nice flyby views of Blue-and-yellow Macaws.

It was up the Kapok Tower back at Sacha Lodge in the afternoon, but not before the boat journey there disturbed a Sungrebe. Birds were a lot closer here than in the morning at Yasuni, and though with not as much about, some nice Gilded Barbets and flocks of tanagers and euphonias entertained until the sun started to go down. That evening, we had a cruise around the lake after dinner and saw a couple of Black Caiman staring back at us.
Gilded Barbet at Sacha Lodge
So that was that, because the next morning we had to start our journey back to Coca for our flight back to Quito. The heavens opened, and the walk (run) back to the boat was pretty grim. But, at the end of the day, without the rain there wouldn't be all the biodiversity we'd experienced. A pleasant trip to the Amazon, though on reflection I think the birding was tougher than I expected and without hummingbird feeders, photography was a bit of a struggle at times.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Ecuador part 1 - Quito's birdlife

This is the first of a few posts on the summer holiday just gone. Karen and I spent just shy of a month in Ecuador and the Galapagos, and while moving around, the central hub for a lot of our travels was Quito. At the start of the holiday, we spent three nights in central Quito - not everyone's birding ideal, but I quite liked it for a bit of South American culture too.

Easing yourself in with a few common species, the best introduction to Quito's birdlife is the botanical gardens in Carolina Park. I made a couple of visits - Great Thrushes and Eared Doves everywhere, and the stars being the first couple of hummingbirds, Sparkling Violetear and Black-tailed Trainbearer, as well as both Black and Masked Flowerpiercers. Standard stuff in the scheme of things, but nice to see first off.
Sparkling Violetear Quito Botanical Gardens July 2015
Great Thrush Quito Botanical Gardens July 2015
Quito's the second highest capital city in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia), so going up on the cable car above it means you're going pretty high up. And to the paramo grassland habitat where, as well as realising that altitude affects my body, a couple of species such as Plumbeous Sierra Finch and Plain-coloured Seedeater seemed common.
Plumbeous Sierra-finch Quito Teleferico July 2015
Between trips to the Amazon, the Galapagos and Cuenca, we kept returning to the Hacienda La Jimenita in Pifo (just 15 minutes from the airport). As well as being one of the most pleasant hotels we've stayed in, the grounds weren't bad for birding either. Hummingbird feeders and extensive trails gave me good opportunities to watch dry forest/lower slope species including Southern Yellow Grosbeak, Rusty Flowerpiercer, Western Emerald, Blue-and-yellow Tanager and Streak-throated Bush-tyrant. And it was a good place to unwind too.
Southern Yellow Grosbeak Hacienda Jimenita August 2015