Saturday, 29 December 2012

Boxing Day walk around the valley

26 December 2012

Stodmarsh and Grove Ferry

After all the Christmas festivities I really needed some fresh air and a long walk. I set off to Stodmarsh to find a near empty car park - great! First stop was the Reedbed Hide where I found a couple of other birders quietly watching. Nothing much to see, but Teal were clearly in good numbers as small flocks kept flying up over the reedbed as Marsh Harriers approached. I walked toward the Lampen Wall then through the boardwalk (a Long-tailed Tit flock and flyover Redpoll and Siskin) then out to Marsh Hide. As I approached a Bittern flew up from cover around the hide and disappeared into the reedbed behind the willows. 

Having read a recent report of good numbers of Water Pipit I was hoping to watch a couple at close range to compare to the recent Buff-bellied Pipit in London. However other than a flock of several hundred Lapwing there was nothing on view so I walked to Harrison's Drove. I flushed a Green Sandpiper from the newly cleared ditch and a couple of separate Water Pipit flew over, but didn't stop. Harrison's pool held just a single Little Egret - no ducks, no waders, no pipits - nothing? Next stop was the David Feast hide  where a shy Snipe sat quietly on the island, three Marsh Harrier gave good views and a Water Rail called. The occasional Bearded Tit was heard from the reeds before a female appeared on some reedmace and gave good views for a few minutes.

I walked to the ramp - there wasn't a single bird on or around the pool? Very odd. I then headed back to Stodmarsh along the river where the water level was extremely high; in places just 30cm below the bank. The water meadows finally provided views of two Water Pipit feeding in the flooded grass, but little else. The main lake at Stodmarsh was most productive with a huge number (maybe more than 1,500) Teal, plus Shoveler, Mallard, Gadwall, Pochard, Tufted Duck and a single rather dapper drake Pintail. I headed back to the car park enjoying further views of the Long-tailed Tit flock and a close Redpoll before heading home for the next round of entertaining. Nice to be out.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Buff-bellied Pipit

Queen Mother Reservoir

23 December 2012

I couldn't resist the chance to see this increasingly regular but still rare American vagrant that had been residing at Queen Mother Reservoir just to the west of London, near Slough in Berkshire. I had previously seen the bird at Farmoor Reservoir back in 2007 and have always had this on my list of target finds, so a good chance to become more familiar with the species. 

American Buff-bellied Pipit
I stupidly assumed that the M25 would be quiet on the Sunday before Christmas Eve and set off at 11:30 after news came through that it was present and showing well again (it had rained hard all day Saturday and the bird had proven quite difficult). I reached Junction 5 and it looked just like rush hour. I then crawled pretty much the whole way (when I wasn't completely stationary) over the next two hours until I eventually reached the M4 junction. I was soon on site and greeted by the local birders who sold me a permit and explained where to go. Within five minutes I was watching this delightfully showy bird feeding right in front of the Sailing Club. It only moved when a Pied Wagtail or a yachtsman approached too close. The light wasn't great but ok and the close views were pleasing. Over the next two hours I managed to get some reasonable shots showing all of the key id features and gained some useful experience with this species. 

Centre of tertials and tail feathers blackish and distinctly contrasting with
upperparts. Upperparts largely unmarked, with just faint streaking to crown
and spotting (rather than streaks) on mantle 
Complete pale eye ring, not broken by loral strip. Upperparts olive toned. Buff-belly and undertail. Supercilium quite indistinct and lores noticeably dark (japonicus shows pale lores). Rump concolorous with rest of upperparts. 
Large white eye-ring, distinct moustachial stripe and white throat

Distinct malar stripe. Whitish/cream tips to greater coverts, whiter on median coverts. Buff, orange-brown flanks.
Broad but short streaking on well marked breast becoming more diffuse on flanks
Quite slender billed, recalling Meadow Pipit
Blackish legs and feet.
T6 largely white, with dark wedge on inner web. T5 with distinct white tip.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Gambia, the last day

Fajara Golf Course

18 December 2012

Our last morning in The Gambia. I awoke early and headed out to the golf course. The Mangroves were undisturbed and quite active. Six Long-tailed Cormorant were feeding in the creek, two Black Heron and four Western Reef Egret were around the mangroves the former engaged in their umbrella displays, 2 Senegal Parrot flew over (my first in Kotu Beach), a Malachite, 3 Blue-breasted and 4 Pied Kingfisher were feeding in the various pools. The biggest surprise was a Fanti Saw-wing that flew around the end of Koto Creek Pool briefly and I was delighted to end my stay with views of the brilliant Abyssinan Roller that I saw on my first morning.

We left for the airport at lunchtime and flew back to the UK through the late evening. An excellent week and introduction to proper African birds. I look forward to a return soon. The Bakotu Hotel is superb for birders or non-birders alike. There are some very good local guides offering trips around the vicinity or further afield (up-country). The birds are very tame and at times spectacular. A brilliant short break.

Abyssinian Roller
Little Bee Eater
Long-tailed Cormorant
Western Grey Plantain Eater
Western Grey Plantain Eater

The Gambia, Day 6

Kotu Beach Resort

17 December 2012

Our last day, and after a long hot day of birding, spent around the pool chilling out and soaking up some sunshine. However even a relaxing day requires a little birding and I took the opportunity to try for some better photos of some of the local birds. Fortunately the birds played ball and an hour on the platform produced some stunning views of Little Bee Eater - and you can't resist a Bee Eater.

Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu
Later in the day we went for a walk around Fajara Golf Course. Over the week I had seen most of the birds here, but somehow had managed to miss the Swallow-tailed Bee Eaters that frequent the area. This time I was determined to find them - I needn't have worried. Within five minutes they were spotted, feeding in a line of trees above the creek - and I can't resist a Bee Eater.

The Blue-breasted Kingfisher was feeding in the Mangroves
A Long-tailed Glossy Starling finally gave good views - fabulous plumage
After another fight with the Grey Kestrel the Blue-bellied Roller gave great views
A Fine-spotted Woodpecker feeds on a Date Palm Tree
I walked back towards the hotel and met Alieu (Alex) Barry, another of the local guides. He asked what I had seen and talked about some nearby pools where he had seen Purple Swamphen. It was getting late and I had no cash on me so casually tried to get directions, hoping to try it in the morning. He gave me the general area and I carried on birding around the last fairway where a pool attracts birds for an evening drink. A Hoopoe was dust bathing on the 'green' and with a little patience I got great views of African Grey and Western Red-billed Hornbill, Senegal Coucal, African Thrush and Yellow-crowned Gonolek. 

African Grey Hornbill
African Thrush
African Yellow-wattled Lapwing 
Cattle Egrets decorating a fruiting tree 
Vinaceous Dove - one of a number of 'collared doves'
Western Red-billed Hornbill
Cattle Egret
As I watched quietly Alex reappeared. He talked agan about the pools and showed me a photo of the Swamphen. We walked up the hill so he could show me where the pools were, but he insisted on taking me there. It was getting late and I had said that I had no cash on me, having left it with Mandy back at the hotel. He said not to worry and that we would not want me to go home without having seen the Purple Swamphen. So off we went, crossing the mangrove pools (I was only wearing sandals), and past the refreshment area, out to the main road and down a lane beside the officers mess. At the end was a ramshackle group of buildings and a lot of rubbish, but down in an old quarry was a big freshwater pool with some massive reeds growing around the edge. We walked down to the edge and quickly found an African Darter, three Moorhen (of two races), a family of White-faced Whistling Ducks and 2 African Jacana. Not bad, but no Swamphen. 

We climbed back up the bank as an elderly man came out of his gate. Alex had a chat and soon enough I was beckoned through the gate and into the compound. The gentleman walked to the wall and pointed down. I joined him and Alex and below was a stunning view of the whole pool complex. I looked down - a single Purple Swamphen was feeding in the open. I scanned left as a Black Crake swam across the pool into the reeds showing its yellow bill and red legs. As it disappeared I noticed another gallinule feeding on a frog in the pool - an adult Allen's Gallinule! A second Black Crake flew out of the reeds, swam across the pool and vanished. Amazing - what a surprise and without anyone asking for a penny! The light was going so I thanked our host and we left back the same way across the golf course and back to the hotel. Alex walked with me and made sure I got back safely. As we walked back I realised I had my wallet (minus the cash) but remembered I had stashed a fiver in one of the pockets - I was delighted to give Alex a token of appreciation following his genuinely honest offer to show this fantastic little spot. Home tomorrow...

The Gambia, Day 5

Lamin Rice Fields, Farasuto Forest Community Nature Reserve, Mandinaba, and Pirang Shrimp Farm

16 December 2012

Pink-backed Pelican and Caspian Tern at Pirang Shrimp Farm
My second full day birding, this time without Mandy who opted for another day of rest in the sunshine instead. Muttar arrived ahead of schedule, just before 07:00. We picked up a bird photographer, Lucy who was originally from Madagascar, from another hotel and headed off to the Lamin Rice Fields. Within five minutes we were stopped beside the road to photograph a Lizard Buzzard typically feeding from roadside wires, then again for some showy Blue-bellied Rollers. As we got back into the car a Black-shouldered Kite flew in and hunted on the opposite side of the road.

Lizard Buzzard
Blue-bellied Roller

Flying back up to the wires showing underwing
And upperwing

A Black-shouldered Kite perches beside the road
Then hunts briefly before disappearing

Our first proper stop was the Lamin Rice fields, an area of subsistence farmland, and rice paddies bordering woodland and mangrove on the shores of the River Gambia. 

Lamin Rice Fields
We encountered a number of the now rather expected birds, Yellow-billed Kites, Hooded Vultures, Senegal Coucal, Village Weavers and various Doves. A smart African Paradise Flycatcher performed briefly beside a path, and several Shikra's flew over. 

Yellow-billed Kite
African Paradise Flycatcher
Senegal Coucal
Skikra (Male)

As Lucy tried to get photos of the Yellow-crowned Gonoleks I used the time to scan the area for anything interesting - and there was plenty to see. Firstly a Mottled Spinetail flew rapidly overhead, showing off its white bar across the undertail. Then several Black-headed Herons came flying in over the rice fields settling in the mangrove trees. I then noticed a Roller flying into some trees in the mid distance. Putting the scope on it I realised it was a Rufous-crowned Roller. We tried to get closer, but were thwarted by the high water level and a broken bund, but as we did so Muttar spotted two Woodland Kingfishers feeding ahead. Good views were obtained through the scope. An African Jacana flew up from the rice field where an Intermediate Egret fed.

Black-headed Heron
Black-headed Heron - distinctive black and white underwing pattern
Cattle Egret

Hooded Vulture
Intermediate Egret

Northern Black Flycatcher

A number of swifts appeared over the mangroves. Mainly Little and African Palm but later a flock of Common Swift went through. I picked up a couple of distant eagles perched in a Baobab tree. Muttar quickly identified them as Wahlberg's Eagle. Later they flew around over the rice fields gaining unwanted attention from several Pied Crows.

Wahlberg's Eagle being chased by three angry Pied Crows
The pursuit continues
With time moving on we headed back to the car. A Short-toed Eagle drifted overhead.

Short-toed Eagle

Next we drove the short distance to the Farasuto Community Nature Reserve, a relict patch of wet evergreen forest, recently protected and improved by a group of locals assisted by John and Peter Tucker. The area is home to a wide variety of birds with over 300 species recorded. We were met by a Spotted Honeyguide that was bathing and drinking at the pools by the visitor centre. We were proudly shown around by a couple of local volunteers. A singing Olivaceous Warbler in the first bushes did not hint at what we were to find in the first large fruiting tree - it was full of birds. A Fine-spotted Woodpecker, a Little Greenbul, 2 Yellow-throated Leaflove, 2 Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, a very local Green Crombec, 2 Grey-backed Camaroptera, a Yellow-breasted Apalis, 2 African Paradise Flycatcher and a male Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, a Common Wattle-eye, 3 Brown Babbler, 2 Yellow-crowned Gonolek, 2 Northern Puffback, a Fork-tailed Drongo, a mixed flock of Village and Black-necked Weaver and a Green-headed Sunbird. 

Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher
We walked out of the woods to a series of man made pools. A flock of Blue-cheeked Bee Eater were sitting distantly in the Mangroves and occasionally hunting overhead, while three Little Bee Eater fed in a close field. A flock of Senegal Thick Knee, Spur-winged Plover and African Yellow-wattled Lapwing were roosting between the pools and a large Nile Crocodile enjoyed the sunshine (until it saw us).

A large Nile Crocodile slips into the pool

Senegal Thick Knee
Senegal Thick Knee in flight

African Yellow-wattled Lapwing in flight
We walked back to the car and wished the guides farewell. A brief stop along the road to check the banks of the RIver Gambia found the tide well in. A few Pink-backed Pelican were distantly visible and a couple of Royal, Caspian and Sandwich Tern fed over the shallows. Western Reef and Grey Herons were common along the shore where a small flock of Turnstone fed with a Bar-tailed Godwit.

Pink-backed Pelican and Sandwich Tern
Royal Tern

It was now very hot and we drove back into town to Muttar's family home where his sister had cooked us a fantastic and rather lavish lunch. We enjoyed a typical Gambian meal of Peanut Soup with chicken and vegetables. After letting lunch go down, with Cordon Bleus, Grey-headed Sparrows and Village Indigobirds feeding in the garden we drove to Mandina Ba to visit another small forest reserve. 

En route a couple of stunning roadside Dark Chanting Goshawk caused stops.

Dark Chanting Goshawk
Note the black and white barred outer tail feathers

The local volunteer warden and 'owl man' had found two species of owl (African Wood and White-faced) at roost yesterday and we hoped he could relocate them for us. We arrived and were informed the Wood Owl was not present, but the reliable White-faced Owls were on view. We were soon enjoying neck-craning views of them roosting in a small tree above a busy track.

White-faced Owl - this one was quite aware of our presence
Its mate was really not interested in us
What you doing?

Time was now running out and after a quick look around the fields - Double-spurred Francolin were calling typically unseen, a flock of Yellow-billed Shrike, a Grey Woodpecker and another Spotted Honeyguide - we set off to the final stop of the day Pirang Shrimp fields.

Piapiac taking a ride

We parked and began scanning from the raised bank. I was surprised to see a goose flying past - my first Spur-winged Goose. Out on the pools in the distance a variety of herons and egrets. African Darter's flew over to the main roost.

Spur-winged Goose
African Darter

The light was now fast disappearing so a rapid yomp along the track ensued, with barely time to stop and view the many Pied and Malachite Kingfishers or the flocks of Western Reef Herons. A juvenile Striated Heron appeared briefly on the track.

Striated Heron
Our objective was to reach the main pool - and it is always the farthest away. We made it with minutes of light left but just enough to enable views of 35 Pink-backed Pelican, 7 Yellow-billed Stork, 9 African and 30 Eurasian Spoonbill and several hundred roosting Caspian Tern. There were also Avocet and other waders around the pool, but the light left us too quickly. Two Palm-nut Vultures flew over to roost and that was it. We walked back to the car where a Long-tailed Nightjar was singing before Muttar safely drove us back to our respective hotels. A great day. 

Yellow-billed Stork, Pink-backed Pelican and Caspian Terns after dusk

Muttar and Lucy were heading up-country for a two day trip the next morning so I wished them farewell and good luck. Muttar is an excellent guide. He knows the birds, the places and is genuinely great company. He has a wicked sense of humour and above all else is a careful and courteous driver. I thoroughly recommend his services. He can be contacted via email at barrymuttar20 (AT)  (replace the (AT) with @) or via the phone at (00220)-7423557.

Muttar Barry