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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Migration Magic 2: Spurn & Flamborough

Strong winds blowing in from the East last week made a trip out to the East coast a must, so I got up early and got myself out to Spurn again. I was hopeful of picking up some good birds and at first light the sight of hundreds of common migrants at my first port of call, Easington caravan park, filled me with hope for the day ahead. Scores of Robins, Redwings, Fieldfares and Goldcrests perched on, around and sheltering underneath the static caravans was a true sign of a 'fall'.

There are some sad people in the world ... spotting something different in a bush on the caravan park I walked towards and lifted the bins only to be greeted by a gruff  'Oy, you shouldn't be on 'ere, f***ing birdwatchers' - occupational hazzard for me but I bet this geezer (who looked about as static and square as his caravan) was just waiting for someone to step onto his precious piece of trailer park grass!

Ring Ouzel (courtesy of Wikepedia)
It got better as I walked around the fields to the north of the point and I bagged a couple of Ring Ouzels in amongst the hundreds of winter thrushes flying in off the sea. Ring Ouzels are the mountain equivelant of our common or garden Blackbird and breed in the upland regions of central and western europe including (numbers are declining in the UK but Scotland & Wales still hold reasonable breeding pairs).  Almost every bush seemed to hold either a Goldcrest, Chiff Chaff, Robin, Redwing or Fieldfare and there were plenty Meadow Pipits and Skylarks constantly flying in off the sea. Plenty of finches on the move too, mainly Chaffinches but also 30 or so Brambling and although it was a poor view and they had to be pointed out to me by another birder a couple of Twite (a new Yorkshire for me). I love to see visible bird migration!

Sadly that was about as good as it got as a wet mist settled over the point which quickly turned to a steady drizzle and made birding all but impossible. I sat in the car for a while trying to get some decent shots of Fieldfares and Redwings but then the battery pack on the camera died so it was time to call it a day.

Flamborough Headland
Camera battery and body recharged, brighter weather forecast but importantly winds still from the east I decided to try my luck at another Yorkshire hotspot and old birdwatching haunt of mine from childhood - Flamborough Head.

Much better day, it always is when the sun is shining! I saw just about everything that was at Spurn and more plus it was dry and at times even warm.

Again hundreds of winter thrushes flying in off the sea and populating the many fields and hedges on the headland which in itself has got so much better as a birding location since I was last there - there's something of a rivalry between Flamborough and Spurn for who can get the best birds (its a man thing) and I suspect some conservation minded twitchers here have been reading their 'how to make your hedgrows look good and attract rare birds manual'. Seems to have worked -  thanks to a couple of local birders I was on to a Dusky Warbler within an hour of being there, not much to look at and the briefest of views but a true vagrant to these shores. They're an Asian warbler but somehow a few turn up on the east coast nearly every year.

Just like at Spurn there were small birds everywhere, in the hedges and bushes and overhead, blown in by the wind. Some on course for winter in the UK, like most of the winter thrushes and some blown off course like the aforementioned warbler. I watched one small bird coming in off the sea and into a bush and it turned out to be a female Redstart, little wonder the twitchers are out in force this time of the year!

I had at least 7 Ring Ouzels on the headland but annoyingly none hung around long enough for me to photograph. A flock of 7 Twite on flitting around the cliff were equally evasive and so was a single Black Redstart. This Brambling was a bit more confiding though, one of about 25 on the headland and I also got some good shots of Goldcrests - they were everywhere. The UK's smallest bird, our breeding population is swelled every year by thousands of wintering visitors from northern europe. I got a fair few pics of these tiny birds and I've selected a couple with a migration feel. Normally you'll see Goldcrests in coniferous woods but after been blown in across the sea you can see them anywhere - the first one was feeding up on grain in a stubble field and the second was on the steps of the lighthouse!

In amongst what was probably something like 500 Goldcrests on the headland there were maybe 20 or so Chiff Chaffs and although slightly marred by the wire fencing, this was more than a useful shot of one (pic left)

 It was a bright and breezy day and sea watching was tricky in the gusty winds but there was a bit happening out there with plenty of Gannets and Kittiwakes passing offshore, maybe 200 or so Common Scoter and the most photogenic were these Eider (7 males to 1 female but notice she's the one on top!), one of many passing flocks of these trult sea going ducks.

..... and I'll finish on this Grey Seal that seemed to keeping a close eye on me whilst I was photographing the Eider Ducks, he seemed to begging me to take his picture!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Migration magic: Autumn passage on the Yorkshire Coast

So many things I missed about the UK when I was in France and apart from the obvious one of being closer to my nearest n dearest I'd have to rank being able to visit the East coast of England in Sept / Oct to witness the annual spectacle of bird migration that us birders call 'autumn passage'. Yes it was an awesome experience to see thousands of Common Cranes pass overhead in France but for the sheer variety of birds and a more than even chance of seeing something rare or unusual you just can't beat a misty October morning at Spurn Point or Flamborough Head, especially if the wind has been blowing in from the East.

I can remember viewing many a TV weather forecast and thinking 'oh to be on the east coast in the morning' - but of course, as sod's law often dictates, this usually happened midweek when I had to be stationed in the office in the morning instead of on a beach somewhere at first light ... but now I'm retired, hurragh .. I can be anywhere, and this year, although I wouldn't go so far as saying I've filled my boots, I've certainly been able to take advantage of my new found freedom and get out and about on 'green light birding' weather days!

Spurn Point
My first foray out to the coast was on Sept 26th and I made the long trip out to Spurn Point. This is a slightly curious place, not least because of it's geography - it's a 3 mile long narrow peninsular that juts out into the North Sea along the Holderness coastline, in some places it is very narrow (50yards) and although its land mass is constantly being added to by sandy debris that drifts sown the coast, it is also prone to erosion in severe weather, so its shape is ever changing. Its a designated nature reserve that attracts many migrant birds in Spring and Autumn and is owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. You can read more and catch up on the latest sightings here - Spurn Point Observatory

On the day I was there there were plenty of common migrants about including several Redstarts, Wheaters, Stonechats, Willow Warblers and Chiff Chaffs, plus a few Whitethroats, Blackcaps, a single Yellow Wagtail and a late Sedge Warbler.

I also had a brief glimpse of a Red Breasted Flycatcher from the car as it dived back into the many gorse and buckthorn bushes so no joy with the camera on that one but I did manage a fairly decent shot of the single Red Backed Shrike (pic right) that had been present on the point for a few days.

It's always good to catch an Osprey on migration, they can turn up on almost any decent sized piece of water in Sept as they head South for their wintering grounds in West Africa. Looking for all the world like a big gull (it's quite likely that many get overlooked in this way) I nearly missed this one (pic left) hence this rather rushed and out of focus shot.

It was a bit early for winter thrushes but there were plenty of Song Thrushes about and although I didn't see any I found out later that there were some Ring Ouzels in amongst them so on reflection maybe I should have scanned a bit more diligently!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Safari at Wilpattu, Sri Lanka day trip

Towards the end of our holiday in Sri Lanka me n Gabz decided to drag our tanned bodies off the beach and head in the opposite direction from the hotel bar towards a bit of wild Sri Lanka. Wilpattu National Park was to be our destination and after a bit of haggling by Baggins himself we got a good deal from a Sri Lankan guy outside of the hotel, locally renown for giving a good deal and at the equivalent price of £40 each for a full day including transport and jeep safari, we were more than happy to venture forth!

Wilpattu is the largest of 22 national parks in Sri Lanka and famous mainly for its population of endangered mammals such as Indian Elephants and Leopards. Comprising some 132,000 hectares (that's massive - 12 times the size of Minsmere!) its also notable for its large number of natural lakes. Situated in the North of island it turned out to be 3 hrs by train and taxi but the journey itself through the countryside was memorable in itself - it was good to see a bit of the real Sri Lanka.

On arrival we climbed abroad one of these .....

......along with some German folk and with binocs and camera in hand set off on a 4 hour jeep safari. I have to say from the outset that lady luck, locally known as 'bountiful Buddha', was not very bountiful as far as elephants and leopards were concerned, we saw neither, but it didn't matter for we had a splendid time and were treated to some awesome views of the mammals and birds that did decide to come out and play.

Monitor Lizards are fairly common in Sri Lanka but like most of the animals in the park they were much more confiding and it was great to be able get some close up shots

This is a Ruddy Mongoose, skulking off but again hung around long enough for me to get this nice shot.

For me there was some slight frustration in that as we passed through lots of great habitat, some of it teeming with small birds and waders, the tour party was definitely more interested in the bigger animals and any birds worthy of a stop were predictably the bigger, more eye catching ones such as this splendid Peacock

... and this rather ungainly looking monster of a bird, its one of the Hornbill family of birds and in this case a Malabar Pied Hornbill.

By the way if you're at all interested in going to Sri Lanka and want to know more about going on safari at Wilpattu, this is their home page -
Wilpattu National Park and for hotels and more info the site Tripadvisor is a useful start - here's the relevant link - Sri Lanka hotels and deals

Rounding a bend we noticed that our convoy of 3 jeeps had ground to a halt and no wonder because laid right across the road was a giant Indian Python, it was so long and so close I couldn't get it all in using the the lens I had attached. Indian Rock Pythons to give it it's proper name are the longest snakes in the world with the biggest ever recorded being 4.6 metres (15ft) and this was no tiddler - I reckoned about 8 - 10 feet and by the giant bulge in its midriff and sluggish behaviour had just eaten, anyway here's my best shot (pic left)

Not all the animals presented themselves at such close quarters, we were aware of monkeys crashing through the trees and caught a few fleeting glimpses but the only decent shot I managed was of a distant Grey Langur bounding across the grassy plain.

A tad foolhardy to get any closer our next Wilpattu speciality, looking for all the world like a floating log, this is a Mugger or Marsh Crocodile and not sure if Grey Herons form part of its diet but this one looks in grave peril of having it's leg pulled!

Much less sinister and affording great views throughout the reserve are these beautiful Ceylon Spotted Deer, they're endemic to the island and very photogenic.

We were treated to many views like this across the natural lakes and lagoons on the reserve and that was great but, and at the risk of sounding a little ungrateful, as a birder I just wanted to get out and explore. Thrilled as I was to see birds like Painted Storks and Lesser Adjutants previously only seen on David Attenborough documentaries I could have done to have got to grips with the many smaller waders, some of which you can see here in the blurry foreground.

Still I mustn't complain, there was plainly no scope for venturing out and about and getting your feet dirty, and I was treated to some pretty decent 'jeep side' views, especially of perched raptors like this majestic Crested Serpent Eagle sheltering from a brief monsoon downpour
... and this looks like it should be penned a 'crested' something but is in fact a Changeable Hawk Eagle

By far the best bird shot of the day for me was this portrait of a Blue Tailed Bee-eater. There were lots of these vividly coloured birds about, darting around all over the place and this one stayed put just long enough for me to capture it in all its glory.

All in all a good day, not sure about the 2 Germans sat behind us (they hardly uttered a sound the whole trip!) but we certainly enjoyed. It is very possible to see Elephants and sometimes Leopard and Black Bear, it might have been the frequent downpours that kept them hidden, and for the price this experience comes highly recommended if you're holidaying here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Baggins in Sri Lanka pt1

 One of many gorgeous sunsets over the Indian Ocean we've been privy to over the past couple of weeks.... nice eh? All change for Baggins once again folks, - never one for beating around the bush (unless the bushes concerned are at some migration hot spot like Spurn Point and said bushes are full of migrants!), and certainly not prone to going round the houses when a few simple words will do, so, in a nutshell ….I’ve left the Vienne and via protracted stops in Brittany and the UK, I’m currently on holiday in Sri Lanka with my fiancee Gabrielle. We were originally going to get married over here but decided a few weeks ago to put the brakes on and hold out for a year or two - for several reasons and all the right ones!

Seems like ages since I last posted on here and it’s doubtful whether there’s any ‘blog mileage’ in the travels of my mind over the past couple of months but I may do a bit of back tracking in future posts if things become mundane but since ‘mundane’ is  a rare and unwelcome dimension in my life I suspect both the devil and the detail will remain untold …. in truth it’s not that interesting anyway.

Sri Lanka is one mad place! You either love or hate the sub continent so they say but as we’re kinda hotel based it’s tricky for either of us to say. We’re about 18k north of Colombo, in a good hotel complex next to the ocean and here it’s all sand, sea and sun but take a tuk tuk (cheap taxi that resembles a dodgem car) into town and it’s just mayhem! Gabz has suggested I post a video of street life whilst riding in a tuk tuk which I may do, but for now here’s the first salvo of a series of  Sri Lankan shots to date… no particular order or theme, though it goes without saying that the local bird life looms large!
 This is the view that greets us every morning out of our luxury beach chalet ... not that we sleep under these date palms but you get the morning feeling yes?
and these are what we see as the last rays of the sun go down ... giant fruit bats that fly in, eerie as hell, the size of herons and surely the inspiration behind the batman icon!
We're close to a river and associated mangroves so tons of water birds about, this is a White Throated Kingfisher that strayed from its usual haunt by the river and perched very kindly in front of our beach side bungalow .... look at that beak and thank god you're not a local fish!
These cute little varmints are all over the place in and around the bushes here ... they're called 3 striped squirrels and they come right up to you (especially if you have a handful of bombay mix!)
Not totally sure until I check some kind of Sri Lankan bird guide but reckon this is a Pied Kingfisher, caught in mid flight and 'let's stab a fish' mode!

Ok, time for bed now because internet time is limited here and charged by the hour and guessing I'm nearly at my limit ... this is how they make up the bed in this country, different floral design every day and very quaint ... my guess is that the more you tip the more flowers you get on your bed!
Night night folks...... more Sri Lankan magic to come!