Suffolk’s birding community is still reeling following the sudden loss of our great friend and WBC member Ernie Lucking. I knew Ernie since the early 1990s when we used to meet each morning whilst the team were ringing birds at Fagbury Cliff at Trimley. Ernie walked his little dog, Monty, daily and as he passed our ringing table would stop to have a friendly chat and to see what birds had been trapped that day.
In more recent years, it was always a joy to meet Ernie at Landguard. Several birders gather at the Obs each morning to log the birds that frequent the point and those seen flying offshore. As we gaze into the rising sun, it’s always tough work and anything remotely unusual is shouted out. “Fulmar soouff” in Ernie’s soft London accent always raised a chuckle! However, Ernie’s “Directionlexia” was rarely spot-on and he often muddled noorf and soouff. Fellow watchers would be thrown by Ernie enquiring about the identity of a bird flying souff past the green buoy! “Do you mean the one flying north” you would hear someone say. Ernie was never fazed and with a wry smile accompanied by a giggle, he would reply "Oh yeah that’s wot I meant". Ernie was nearly always accompanied by his long-suffering birding companion Dave Langlois. Ernie, with his impish sense of humour, would never miss a chance to goad Dave, whose hearing is somewhat restricted, especially when the pair was seeking out species such as Grasshopper Warbler. This would always bring out the mischievous side of Ernie and he would ask Dave "Can't you hear it Dave" bringing the response "You know I bloody well can't" again evoking that giggling smile which we all knew and loved. During our walks around the reserve, Ernie would always carry a huge fertiliser bag, to collect litter as we went, and he was party to many rare bird finds.
It was a real privilege to accompany him on three amazing WBC tours - to Georgia/Armenia, Kazakhstan and, last year, to north-east India. Ernie had a kind word for everyone and these trips were not without humorous incidents. Tour members will never forget going through customs on the Armenian/Georgian border. On the Armenian side our passports were checked, but on the Georgian side we had to get out of the minibus and then carry our luggage through the customs office where it was checked for contraband. But where was Ernie? He was not to be seen. Had he popped into the loo – no one knew! We waited but Ernie failed to appear, so the only option was for his travel companions to carry his luggage through and pretend that it belonged to one of us and hope to find Ernie later. As we re-boarded the bus ready for the off, Ernie appeared. He had decided, entirely innocently no doubt, to have a wander through no-man’s-land to admire the view - a wander that was of course unauthorised and very much frowned upon by the grim-faced border guards!
Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick, Carol Elliott, Ali Risborough and Ernie on the right Buddhist monastery, Thupsung Dharge Ling, in NE India on April 1st 2019
Another incident that will live long in our memories happened during our 2019 tour of north-east India. It was a tough, full-on tour as we walked many miles each day along mountain passes and jungle trails. Ernie was having ankle trouble so hobbled has way round without complaint. We birdwatched the Sela Pass (a high-altitude mountain pass at an elevation 4,200m) on one of our days and, like me, Ernie suffered altitude sickness, so both of us remained in the minibus without a care about what the others were seeing!
There were lots of key species that we all wanted to see but a real prize was the stunning pheasant-like Blyth’s Tragopan. It is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful birds, showing vivid colours of crimsons with pale greyish spots, a yellow face and throat and a pale grey lower breast and belly. For days we searched in vain along jungle trails, but this elusive bird remained hidden in dense undergrowth – somewhere!
After a third day of searching, our tour guide heard its distant far-carrying call. It was some way off down a steep and heavily-wooded ravine, but we were determined. Our leader began playing a voice lure and after several minutes we were in no doubt that its call was getting louder. The bird was getting closer, slowly making its way up the slope towards us! We were told to take up position on the opposite side of the road and remain silent. The idea was that we would coax the bird across the road directly in front of us as it was attracted by the tape. Its call got louder and louder and the tension mounted amongst our group. It was now very close but then suddenly it stopped responding. What was happening? Was it still coming?
After a minute of extreme anxiety, we heard Ernie’s quiet voice. “What’s that bird standing in the road behind us?” It was the tragopan and with that we all swung round in unison. Our sudden movement and burst of excitement was too much for the bird and it immediately flew up the slope and was never seen again. Those who had occupied the front line of our group, but were now at the back, had their views blocked by a mass of human bodies so missed the bird (sorry Will Brame). But thank you Ernie as several of us were blessed with a great, albeit brief, view, and we owe this amazing sighting to you.
Ernie was loved and respected by everyone who knew him and his infectious smile will never be forgotten. He will be missed by birdwatchers throughout Suffolk and elsewhere.
Birders Big Brother House (Casa Monte da Eira) Portugal
20 - 25 September 2018
Tour Group: Alison Joseph, Brian Buffery, Carol Elliott, David Hovell, Fiona Smith, Jane Watkins, John Garbutt, Kathy Piotrowski, Keith Watkins, Les Cuthbert, Mervyn Jones, Paddy Shaw, Steve Piotrowski and Stevie Howell.
Birding Location: We were based in the village of Giões, roughly an hour’s-drive from Faro Airport. Giões is a freguesia (civil parish) in the municipality of Alcoutim (Algarve, Portugal) and hosts a population of about 250 people. It is an ideal birding location being relatively close to the bird-rich coastal saltpans and centered in an amazing wildlife area. It is within four km of Lavadoura (Riberim-do-Vascao) Nature Reserve and close to huge expanses of Montados, an area of Mediterranean woodland of Holm and Cork Oak, which is exceptionally good for wildlife.
Accommodation: We hired a self-contained villa, Casa Monte da Eira, which was situated on the edge of the town in beautiful countryside. It had all the facilities that were needed, including a very large kitchen and dining area, six bedrooms (all but one air-conditioned), spacious lawns and a swimming pool for sunbathing, a games room with a pool and table-tennis table.
Thursday 20th September
Casa Monte da Eira
Ten of us (Alison, Stevie, Jane, Keith, David, Lez, Brian, Paddy, Kathy and me) from East Anglia landed at Faro following an uneventful flight from Stansted and were united with Mervyn and Fiona who flew in from Liverpool. Our trip list was already underway before the plane landed with Yellow-legged Gulls and Greater Flamingos seen clearly as we flew low over the saltpans on the approach to Faro Airport’s runway. This was certainly a sign of things to come!
After collecting our hire vehicles, we made our way along picturesque back roads (N124), via Sao Bras de Alportel and Barranco do Velho, to our villa. We took in a few birding stops between Barranco and Cachopo in the Algarve Hills, along with a trolley dash at a local supermarket to collect provisions. Those who stayed with the minibus (whilst Kathy led the trolley dash) located a small colony of Lang’s Short-tailed Blue butterflies feeding on a lavender patch. A superb Goshawk took pride of place in the bird stakes, but the wooded slopes also hosted Nuthatches and there were plenty of Red-rumped Swallows around. As we negotiated the endless windy roads, Kathy spotted a Common Cuckoo flying alongside the bus and we then received news that John and Carol had arrived and were enjoying a welcome glass of chilled Sangria with the proprietors Ana and Jose. We were all hoping that there would be some left for the rest of us! John and Carol had taken a ferry crossing from Portsmouth to San Malo in France and then driven from there through Spain and Portugal to our villa, Casa Monte da Eira, in the village Giões.
We all met up at our villa and were shown to our living quarters. As we off-loaded our cases, our attention was drawn to a small pond in the courtyard in front of the villa that was hosting two spectacular dragonflies. One was bright red and immediately identified as a Broad Scarlet, but we were puzzled as to the identification of a similar-sized blue one! Brian took a series of photographs, and after a good thumb through the books, we found that this was an Epaulette Skimmer – a new dragonfly for most of the party. We then made our way to Mertola for some late-afternoon’s birdwatching and a further supermarket stop. Huge flocks of Spotless Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies together with two Spotted Flycatchers were in the grounds of the villa and we were able to scope an Iberian Shrike, our first of many for the trip. On our way to Mertola, several Red-legged Partridges, Wheatears, Crested Larks and more Iberian Grey Shrikes were noted. We scanned the castle and bridge area from outside the town but, unfortunately, the Lesser Kestrels that breed in nestboxes fixed under the bridge had already left Portugal for their African wintering grounds. We did see a Kingfisher perched beside the river and flocks of House Martins overhead.
Once back at Casa Monte da Eira, Kathy had cooked us a superb dinner, which we enjoyed with a few beers or glasses of wine and were serenaded by the calling of Little Owls. It was a clear night and the stars were amazing and through our ‘scopes we looked in amazement at the planets with Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter all showing clearly.
Lang's Short-tailed Blue
Friday 21st September
Castro Verde Plains
Most of us awoke before first light to explore the villa grounds and we then enjoyed a hearty breakfast before setting off to the Castro Verde area to look for Great Bustards, one of our main targets for the trip. At the villa, we enjoyed excellent views of singing Woodlarks, Hoopoe and several Corn Buntings and then the debate started as to whether the larks present and singing everywhere were Crested or Theklas!
We probably stayed too long at Casa Monte da Eira as the sun was beating down as we left and it was getting rather hot. Missing the turn off for the N123 didn’t help much either as this almost doubled our journey time but, as we negotiated the N122 in the direction Beja, we had a pleasant surprise. We pulled off the road onto a side track, at a site north of Alfarrobeira de Cima, as someone had spotted a raptor from the minibus. Almost immediately three fury mammals trotted across the track in tandem and these were identified as Egyptian Mongoose that have become well established in South Portugal in the past 35 years. We searched the area and noted Sardinian Warbler beside the road and then Jane spotted an eagle perched on a telegraph pole. It was a superb Short-toed eagle.
We did a circuit around Castro Verde and watched a Booted Eagle soaring and then five Griffon Vultures at a bridge south of village of Geraldos. As we were watching the Booted Eagle, Alison drew our attention to some Iberian Hares that were sitting in the shade under a tree. There were a number of trip ticks by the bridge including Crag Martin, Little Grebe, Common and Green Sandpipers and Cetti’s Warbler. The bridge gave the dragonfly enthusiasts a chance to search for insects and Lesser Emperor, Western Willow Emerald, Blue-tailed Damselfly and more Broad Scarlets were logged.
Moving on, there were several flocks of Cattle Egrets amongst herds of cows alongside the road. We stopped for lunch by the water tower close to the village of Santa Barbara de Padroes and scanned the plains for Great Bustard. Most of us had just about given up when Mervyn spotted two magnificent Great Bustards slowly walking through grassland close by. We were all delighted with our scope views and now one of our key targets was in the bag. Alison suggested that we should have a celebratory coffee stop in the next village, which is unheard of judging from previous WBC tours, but we stopped at Guerreiro where it was ice-creams all round! On leaving the village we located another three Great Bustards and we then scanned prime steppe habitat from the minibus with the hope of finding sandgrouse and perhaps more bustards. The heat of the day was now beginning to become unbearable with the minibus thermometer now reading 33 degrees C., so we decided to abandon ship at Figueirinha crossroads and return to Casa Monte da Eira.
We had a bit more shopping to do, so we stopped at a supermarket in Castro Verde on our way back. Again, Kathy had cooked us a scrumptious meal, which we enjoyed al fresco style around a long table under moonlight skies. The evening’s entertainment concluded with the chocolate cup competition, which involved drinking local cherry liquor from a cup made entirely from dark Belgian chocolate. If you didn’t want another drink, you ate your cup and the competition was to see who was the last man or women standing! A melted or damaged cup resulted in immediate disqualification, and after several rounds and quite a few retirements, most realised that Paddy was going to win come what may, so the remaining contestants ate their cups to allow him to be crowned as champion with none of us too worse for wear!
Saturday 22nd September
Castro Marim saltpans and Tavira lagoons and beach
With some of us still suffering from the effects of yesterday afternoon’s blistering hot sun; we decided to look at coastal saltpans where it was hoped that a light and soothing sea breeze would refresh us! We started at Castro Marim Reserva National Visitors Centre. This was a pitiful place as a very plush VC had been abandoned and was closed to the public and the trees that surround the complex had grown up to block the view of the reserve. We ventured along a wide track which led to the reserve and managed to scan the saltpans form a vantage point on top of a bank. From here, the distant sea of pink was huge flocks of Greater Flamingos and there were groups of European Spoonbills on display. There was a good selection of waders included: Grey and Ringed Plovers, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstones, a single (colour-ringed) Ruff, Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank and Common Redshank. There were also compact flocks of Pied Avocets (105) and more scattered groups of Black-winged Stilts (75). Several Mediterranean Gulls were picked out and there was a huge feeding flock of Slender-billed Gulls. We were all pleased to see our first White Storks, nine in total, as most had already left Iberia and were on their way to African wintering grounds and we noted at least four Western Marsh Harriers quartering the lagoons. Viewing the saltpans was quite difficult, so we retraced our steps and headed back to the minibus. We all enjoyed excellent views of a very obliging Red-backed Shrike near the car park and as we drove out, we watched two Yellow Wagtails feeding in a boggy pool.
Our next stop was Cerro de Bufo saltpans, which involved an 800-metre walk down a track in the heat of the day. Some of us decided to seek shade under a tree rather than do the walk as our expected light and soothing sea breeze was non-existent. We noted Sandwich and Little Terns during our walk to the saltpans and, once there, we scanned through the waders and noted good numbers of Grey Plovers, Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers. There were more Mediterranean and Slender-billed Gulls and then Stevie picked out a lone adult Audouin’s Gull. This was a tick for most of us in the party so, whilst most stayed to watch the bird, Carol and Steve returned to those sheltering to take them back by minibus along the lumpy track to the bird. We scanned the saltpans for some time noting many distant waders against the light and through shimmering sunshine, but we also picked up our first Osprey of the trip.
We took lunch at the beach area around the Hotel Albacora in Tavira and the plan was to walk the beach to view a set of lagoons. However, it was a hot Saturday afternoon and it appeared that the whole population of South Portugal had made for the beach. The area was packed with sun-bathers and due to the scorching heat we decided to cut our losses and return to Casa Monte da Eira. As we again passed over the Forte do Rato saltpans, a group of very close waders were seen feeding on one of the shallow lagoons. These were scanned from the roadway and we manged to get exceptionally good views of Kentish Plovers, Dunlin, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Common Redshank and Common Greenshanks. As we were leaving the complex, a raptor flew across the road and began to hover; this was our first Black-shouldered Kite of the trip.
Once back at Casa Monte da Eira, we were relieved to dip in the swimming pool to cool off. As the villa had a pool table, the Portuguese Open Championship was declared and Steve was confident of winning following last year’s championship win in the Grantown-on-Spey Open. The draw was made and Steve was paired against Fiona. Things started well for Steve as he swiftly pocketed his balls leaving only one to pot with Fiona’s balls remaining on the table! There was much hilarity and cheering as Fiona clawed her way back into the game with one spectacular long pot after another. Steve eventually avoided embarrassment by scraping through on a black-ball game.
Salt pans, Sta Luzia
Slender-billed Gull, Audouin's Gull and Sandwich Tern
Sunday 23rd September
Pulo do Lobo (Vale do Guadiana Natural Park) and Lavadouro Nature Reserve
It was time to change tactics if we were to avoid the heat of the day, so we got up at six a.m., had a light breakfast and left Casa Monte da Eira at seven in the half-light. Our destination was Pulo do Lobo where we walked a track from Corte Gafo de Baixo towards Ribeiro do Guardiana. This early-morning birding was invigorating and we located a number of birds that had so far eluded us including: Spectacled, Dartford and Subalpine Warblers, European Pied Flycatcher and Long-tailed Tit. A Cleopatra butterfly was the insect of the day. A small pool by a farm produced two Little Ringed Plover and both Common and Green Sandpiper. There were several larks perched alongside the track that gave us the chance to study them carefully. We walked a good mile along the track, before deciding to retrace our steps, so we didn’t get caught in the heat as had happened the previous two days.
We returned to the villa for brunch and then chilled out by the swimming pool during the heat of the day. A Common Redstart was watched as it made repeated forays from the shelter of a tree to a fence. The temperature soared and reached 39 degrees that afternoon and was still high at five o’clock. However, it was time to go birding again, so we visited the bridge over Ribeira do Vascao at the Lavadouro Nature Reserve, about four km north of Giões, the river forming the border between Algarve and Alentejo districts. The riverbed was almost dry, but there were a few pools that had become very attractive to birds and dragonflies alike. We spent quite a long time admiring the beauty of Violet Dropwing dragonflies that persistently returned to their favourite perches and then there was a shout of large eagle overhead. Stevie was certain it was an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle and this was confirmed as we systematically went through salient features. Wow – what a bird and another key species on our list. We then followed a track that led further down river where we added Great Spotted Woodpecker, Stock Dove and Grey Wagtail to our trip list.
Back at Casa Monte da Eira, Kathy was having troubles with the electrics as she tried to cook dinner and come what may we couldn’t get the power back on. We contacted Ana and she came quickly and soon had things working again. There was a bigger disaster approaching though as we had all but run out of beer and the supermarkets were closed on a Sunday! A rationing programme was discussed. Kathy again was getting on with dinner when bang the power failed again, on this occasion Jose simply arrived somehow aware that we again had a problem, but Kathy also told him about our dilemma with our beer and wine stocks and with smiley eyes he said “I think I can fix this”. Jose had a mate in Mertola who agreed to open his shop especially for us, so off went Jose to fetch two crates of beer and eight bottles of wine. Relief all round and obviously a big tip was given to Jose for helping us out in our hour of need! The pool competition concluded with the grand final between Keith and Steve with Steve easily winning to add the Portuguese Open to his long list of titles! As we still had a set of chocolate cups and another bottle of cherry liquor, Round Two of the chocolate cup competition was declared. This time Paddy succumbed early and other contestants quickly dropped away leaving Brian, Carol and Alison in the final showdown. Brian was determined to win, but was completely outflanked by the two ladies who declared themselves joint winners. Brian was most certainly the worse for wear but magnanimous in defeat and he soon slumped back in his chair and didn’t wake up till the morning!
Dragonfly fever at Gioes bridge
Monday 24th September
Santa Luzia saltpans
This was to be our last full day in Portugal, so votes were cast as to where we should go birding. The choices were an 80-km drive inland to look over more montados or another look over saltpans this time at Santa Luzia, west of Tavira. Most chose the latter so again we left early and, after negotiating the back streets of Santa Luzia, soon found the saltpans. Splendid Greater Flamingo and Eurasian Spoonbills flocks were watched from one of the main tracks and there was an impressive array of waders. However, the most notable birds were a flock of 94 Audouin’s Gulls that were roosting on banks of the saltpans. After our lone bird earlier in the week, we now had the chance to study the species in its various ages and plumages. Several of the birds were sporting blue inscribed colour rings, of which eight were read. It is likely that these birds originate from the Bay of Roses Nature Reserve in NE Spain, but time will tell? The Audouin’s Gull was once Europe’s rarest breeding gull, but it has increased in recent years to around 13-14,000 pairs. Nevertheless, it is still vulnerable as 80% of the world’s population breed in two Mediterranean colonies!
The waders present were much the same as those we saw earlier in the week, although we were able to get exceptionally good views of species such as Kentish Plover, and Whimbrel was a new bird to our list. A small flock of Shelducks were the first for the trip and sparrow-like twittering along the fence line revealed a group of six Common Waxbills. All were able to scope a distant raptor perched on the boom of a crane, which was our second Black-shouldered Kite of the trip. On the butterfly front, we were able to identify a compact colony of tiny blues as African Grass Blues after comparing Brian’s photographs with plates in the book.
We stopped for coffee in Tavira and returned to Casa Monte da Eira to chill by the pool and see out the heat of the day.
We undoubtedly owed Kathy a night off from cooking after she had provided some wonderful meals during our stay, so we booked a table for all at the highly-recommended O Brasileiro restaurant in Mertola that specialises in Portuguese traditional food. All enjoyed a wonderful meal and there was an unexpected bonus on our way home. As we neared Casa Monte da Eira, a nightjar that was resting in the middle of the road flew in front of the minibus headlights and then alongside us eventually disappearing into the scrub. It appeared much larger than the European Nightjars that breed in the UK and we concluded that it was a Red-necked Nightjar that nests in Iberia and NW Africa.
John G. is an accomplished singer and guitarist and, as he and Carol had completed most of their journey here by road, they had been able to bring his guitar along with them. So our final evening together ended with a singsong, the highlight being “Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel as a thank you to Kathy for looking after us all so well. A most memorable occasion!
Salt pans towards Tavira
African Grass Blue
Tuesday 25th September
Lavadouro Nature Reserve, Faro Airport and home
This was our last morning in Portugal but, as our plane didn’t take off until the evening, we had a chance for some final early-morning birding before heading to the airport. We again visited the nearby Lavadouro Nature Reserve at Giões, but this time ventured further downstream. We noted a number of new species to our trip list including Blue Rock Thrush, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Wren and a nice flock of about seven European Serins. There were also a couple of Pied Flycatchers and John G. noted a family party of five Moorhens. However, the highlight of the morning, and perhaps of the whole trip, were two immature Golden Eagles that flew over so low that you could see every detail and we watched them as they turned their heads from side to side as they watched us! Keith and Jane noted an adult Golden Eagle further down the valley.
Dragonflies were abundant on the small shallow pools that had formed in the dry and stony riverbed with good numbers of Western Willow Emeralds, Broad Scarlets, Violet Dropwings and Lesser Emperors being noted. However, Blue Emperor and Common Blue Damselfly were new to our dragonfly list. Bath White, Brown Argus and Clouded Yellow were the butterfly highlights and Mervyn and Steve independently saw medium-sized lizards, Large Psammodromus, which are native to this area, scurrying through ground vegetation. A crayfish noted at the edge of one of the pools was identified as the introduced Red Swamp or Louisiana Crayfish. Its fast-flowing river location made us think that it could have been the White-clawed Crayfish, but sadly this was not the case as Iberia is also suffering from highly invasive colonists from North America that are depleting natural populations as we are in the UK. Another spectacular insect seen was a Mole Cricket, which had become engulfed in a swarm of ants. A debate ensued as to whether we should rescue the stricken animal from its captures, but we decided against. Would we take a Zebra from a Lion – we think not!
We returned to Casa Monte da Eira mid-morning for final packing and Kathy had bought some custard tarts and some teabags from the local café to go with our final breakfast. Then came the final swimming shorts debate! Someone had left a pair of rather fetching shorts on the linen line and no one wanted to claim them. Steve spoke to everyone and even threatened to remove every gent’s trousers to see who they fitted. With no one claiming them we left them at the villa, said our goodbyes to Ana and Jose and were off to Faro Airport.
The ladies had voted to leave the villa a bit early to allow for a shopping spree in Faro before we took our plane journey home. This they did leaving the boys in a lovely café in the old town. They eventually returned with armfuls of touristy stuff. By now we had all but switched off from birding and we were contemplating our trip home. Except Stevie Howell that is who still had his eyes peeled and managed to find a flock of five Chaffinches in the town – our last trip tick of the tour! It was then the final leg to the airport and, on our way, Steve remembered that the swimming shorts were none other than his new ones that Kathy had bought for him just before we left the UK. No wonder that no one wanted them nor had Steve recognised his own clothing!
This was to be WBC’s 10th international tour and the first outside of the Western Palearctic. On previous tours, we have employed our own ground agents and organised the itinerary ourselves. However, the planning for Kazakhstan was more complex involving a requirement for permits to enter national parks and to cross checkpoints near the country’s borders. Therefore, for the first time, we employed the services of a UK tour company, in this case Birdfinders, who have a vast experience in Kazakhstan and run tours there. Their brief was to overcome any hurdles on our behalf and supply a bird guide, who was familiar with the sites, a driver and interpreter that would accompany us on the tour. However, we stressed that the bird guide didn’t need to find the birds as our party would include some good birders that could find the birds if taken to the correct sites.
However, all was not plain sailing with Birdfinders as their communications between their own ground agent and themselves was less than desirable. We had no one to meet and greet us at Almaty Airport as promised and we were given the wrong time for our flight home. Furthermore, the bird guide couldn’t speak English and was totally unaware of some of the bird sites that were mentioned in the trip notes. Would we use Birdfinders again……. well it has to be a maybe!
Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, bigger than Western Europe, and hosts a diversity of habitats including: steppe-deserts, high mountains and deep gorges populated by an amazingly diverse flora and fauna, an ideal location for birdwatchers. The WBC party of 13 included: Steve Piotrowski (leader), Chris McIntyre, Roger Walsh, Rob and Helen Gooderham, Ali Riseborough, Dick Walden, Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick (recorder), Tony Butler, John Garbutt, Carol Elliott, Will Brame and Ernie Lucking.
Many thanks to Dick Waldren, Will Brame and Roger Walsh for the photographs on this page. You can click on all images to enlarge.
Wednesday 24th May– D’Weasel incarcerated
Rob and Helen Gooderham
Our journey started in Suffolk at noon on 23rd May and we arrived at Almaty, after a long overnight flight via Astana, the next day at about 8.40 am local time as planned. However, our tour was not to start smoothly as there was no one holding a yellow “Birdfinders” board as was promised by our tour guide and no minibus was to be seen! We suspected that our tour rep could have become confused as we had taken an internal flight for the last leg and we were waiting outside the Domestic Arrivals, so some of us hurried over to International Arrivals! There was no sign of Birdfinders representative, so Steve made a couple of phone calls to the emergency number. Whilst Steve and others were trying to find sort out the mess, the rest of us took the opportunity to birdwatch. The first birds were Hooded Crow, Masked Wagtail and a Common Mynah, which was nesting in the hollow corner of a window. We were eventually picked up one and half hours late, changed currency, bought water and were then on our way to drop off our bags at the hotel.
The weather was warm and the spectacular, snowcapped peaks of the Tien Shan could be seen in the distance. Almaty takes its name from the native apples that are grown in this region. We set off through the hellish traffic on the outer semi-industrial pot-holed roads with their degenerating ubiquitous Soviet housing blocks and snaking over-ground gas pipes. Unsurprisingly, we saw no apple orchards! After an hour, we arrived at the rather solemn Hotel Kazayka and, after dragging our luggage up three floors, we sat down for a very late breakfast or perhaps ‘brunch’. No doubt the following reports will discuss the Kazak food, but this morning we experienced our first bowl of thin milky porridge (or was it rice pudding?) of the many to come. Azure tits and Brimstones butterflies were seen from the hotel, with the Tien Shan Mountains on the Kyrgyzstani border forming a distant backdrop. Once connected with our guide, interpreter, driver and sub-driver, we gathered ourselves together and set off into the mountain foothills in search of Meadow Bunting. Our guide’s name was Valery, a man who Steve would get to know very intimately in the desert later on the tour, and our interpreter Medina (we call her Dina), a young lady who proves to be a stalwart companion throughout the trip. The driver proved to be equally stalwart and accommodated all our demanding stops, starts and long-driving days. The sub-driver carried our large baggage in a smaller vehicle, like a ghost who silently follows behind us the whole trip with little communication. We were fortunate to have such a strong and tolerant team.
Several Rollers and Bee-eaters were noted on telephone wires on route to our first birding stop. We passed through the controlled entrance to the Ile-Alatau National Park, and (as elsewhere in Kazakstan) this is a nature reserve on a vast scale, probably several times the size of a small country. We parked close to a gushing river, swollen with snow melt, and spread out to explore the area. A pair of hyperactive, nesting Blue Whistling Thrushes was watched gathering food for their young and a Siberian Stonechat and Black-eared Kites give us much enjoyment. We continued our stay with Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick prancing around the hillside trying to catch butterflies. He nets one, which on examination in the observation container, was confirmed as a Chapman’s Blue just as uniformed, National Park Rangers arrived to observe our activities. D’Weasel kindly showed them his Chapman’s Blue, but this generous act proved to be the beginning of a long and perplexing episode in our trip.
It was not clear what was happening, but there was much pacing about with mobile phones by the Rangers. We were detained for a couple of hours whilst the Rangers, Police and Border Guards, at one time as many as 13 wearing various uniforms and in seven vehicles, discussed the implications of this innocent act. The ever present Medina attempted to resolve the deadlock. Our bus was blocked by state vehicles and incongruously in this idyllic setting a rising sense of unease developed. The butterfly net, along with the collection tube complete with the Chapman’s Blue, was confiscated. Passports were demanded and we learnt that foreign visitors must carry passports at all times. Only about half our number had passports with them that compounded the growing conflict. Those with passports were asked to sign papers written in Russian. There was talk of fines, arrest and detention.
Meanwhile, we noted Turkestan Tit, Common Rosefinch, Rufous Turtle Dove, Rock Buntings, Cinereous Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Kestrel and we admired the wild peonies and roses. Two very small children galloped past on horses.
After much discussion amongst themselves, photographs and videos taken and many more mobile phone calls, most of the uniformed officers departed, the passport issue dropped and the signed papers conspicuously torn up. We thought that was an end to our ideal, but no, the Park Rangers were still unhappy about D’Weasel catching butterflies without a permit. Medina suggested that we took a picnic lunch whilst discussions continued and eventually it was decided that D’Weasel would have to visit the local Police Station for his fate to be decided there! We drove back to Almaty and waited outside the Police Station while D’Weasel and Medina were interviewed. Time passes slowly whilst we were waiting in the dusty street outside. Eventually, Helen went into the Police Station to enquire as to what is going on, which appeared very little as the powers that be were also awaiting the arrival of a more senior officer to determine the outcome. At this point, Medina suggested that we returned to the hotel leaving her and D’Weasel with the police.
We glumly ate our evening meal and awaited news. Chris Mc even had to forgo his G and T! There was still no D’Weasel – until about 9.30 pm when he suddenly burst into the dining room accompanied by Medina. It appeared that more time was needed to decide his fate, so for the time being we were back on course! Despite the loss of the confiscated net, we are all relieved but it appears we were far more concerned than the feisty and incorrigible D’Weasel!
Ringlet, Erebia turanica
Scene of the crime...
Thursday 25th May– Our journey to the desert
John Garbutt and Carol Elliott
We awoke in the Hotel Kazayka – named after a nearby fast-flowing river that is fed by rain and snow melt flowing from the mountainous backdrop – which was situated just inside a national park. Noisy garish Common Mynahs, pretty Azure and familiar Great Tits were easily found in its grounds and a pair of Brown Dippers patrolled the river. The immediate area was very hilly, but the nearby large former capital city of Almaty is situated on a wide plain in the south-east corner of Kazakhstan, with mountains on the south side that form the border with Kyrgyzstan just 100 km away. China is about 400 km to the east.
Our room was functional with a wonderful distant view towards Almaty, but our day started with shower problems – a blocked drain and a detached shower door. The drain problem was solved by simply pushing the plug downwards thus allowing it to spring up and the door was re-hung on its runners in the upper channel.
At 7:00 am, our cases were packed and ready as we were leaving the hotel that morning for the long drive to Konchengil Camp for a two-night stay in the Taukum Desert. Heading down for breakfast we saw that (as was normal) some of our party had already been out bird-watching. Medina, our translator, arrived at 7:30 am and we set off with a new driver and coach for a short journey of about 18 km to search for Pelicans and waders. We drove past the long wall and railings that enclose the Presidential Park in Almaty with its ostentatious entrance gateway on a “T” junction with a busy major road. A lorry was stationary on this road in the third lane of four, while its driver tried to remove a wheel with a punctured tyre. This was perhaps less dangerous than in the UK because in Kazakhstan, one method of merging a third and fourth lane into one is for the vehicles in the third lane to stop and give priority to those in the fourth!
Another quirk is that the gas supply pipes, instead of being buried as they would be in the UK, are normally fitted above ground (even throughout the cities) and therefore need to be raised over gateways and roads, so that they do not cause obstructions. The result is a continuous line of yellow pipes along most roads in urban areas. And, it seemed a shame that the picturesque view from the hotel was marred by an enormous one-metre, over-ground water pipe that supplied the nearby city of Almaty from a reservoir in the mountains. Both the gas and water pipes would be unacceptable in the UK, but seemed commonplace in Kazakhstan.
Another feature of the roads is the large numbers of hitch-hikers – even young girls are commonly seen hitching lifts and perhaps we should envy the safety that they feel. Beside the road we saw a shop sign that caused much merriment and conjecture about what business “FART” would be in ....
Tonight, we would be staying in the desert and had been warned about the lack of facilities that we would have. Therefore, in order to maintain normal civilised standards, a priority was to stop at the last supermarket before entering the largely uninhabited Steppes, to buy sufficient beer to get us through two nights of anticipated trauma. A half-litre bottle of lager costs about 50p, so we bought every bottle in the supermarket and felt lucky that there was another source within short walking distance further back along the road. Our concerns about the Yurts were largely unfounded (see later).
While waiting for the beer purchase, we noted a herd of camels – introduced of course, but also Black-eared Kite, Long-tailed Shrike and an elegant Masked Wagtail (Motacilla alba personata), a race of the nominate White Wagtail (M. a. alba). We stopped where a railway line crossed the road and waited while a train pulling 44 carriages of freight went past. Rollers scanned their surroundings from wires, some unidentified corvids were noted, but also Rooks and Magpies. We then left the city and began to cross the wide plain.
Arriving at Sorbulak Lake, the most noticeable feature of this vast reservoir were the very large Carp that constantly breached the lake's surface. Here we logged Dalmatian Pelican, Red-crested Pochard, Lesser Grey Shrike, Hoopoe, Tree Sparrow, Mallard, Shoveler, Eurasian Jackdaw, Black-headed and Caspian Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Terek Sandpiper, Common Tern, Grey Heron and Great Egret. Our guide told us that he had worked at the lake for ten years ringing thousands of wading birds.
After a short drive, and on the opposite side of the same road, we found Red-crested and Common Pochard, Tufted, Ferruginous and White-headed Ducks, Garganey, a Black-winged Stilt, Black-headed Gull, Rook, Eurasian Jackdaw, Common Coot, Eurasian Hobby, a small flock of breeding plumage Rosy Starlings (aka Rose-coloured Starlings) and many dragonflies.
We logged numerous European Rollers, European Bee-eaters, Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Grey Shrikes and Common Cuckoos on the drive and, further along the road, we saw large flocks of Rosy Starlings and a perched Common Kestrel. We stopped for petrol – essential before we disappeared further into the desert for two days – and around the petrol station were European Bee-eaters, perched Rosy Starlings, Crested Lark and Pied Wheatear. Petrol costs around 40p a litre, which emphasised how highly taxed we are in the UK! The people of Kazakhstan suffer from restricted civil rights and their electoral results may be more predictable than in the UK, but a larger majority vote than they do in our unique, outdated and fundamentally undemocratic electoral system. Next, lunch was served at “Mama's” restaurant near Topar, but we were slow to enter the building due to Blyth's Reed, Hume's Leaf and Greenish Warblers, and Pied Wheatear in the adjacent bushes. Before leaving, we saw distant non-native Bactrian Camels, Barn Swallows and House Martins.
The road was surrounded by the sparsely vegetated Steppe as far as the eye could see. We stopped near a very rare plant in this habitat – a lone tree. Actually a rather poor specimen of a tree but so rare in The Steppe that it has a name: “The Wish Tree” – an attribution due to the brightly coloured scarves and other artefacts that were attached to its branches, presumably whilst making a wish? Of course, many bird species are attracted to trees so a surprising number were occupying this rare Steppe habitat with a pool of water nearby, including Greenish, Willow and Barred Warblers, Chiffchaff and Turkestan Shrike. Calandra and Short-toed Larks were nearby plus Little Ringed Plover. A large bird was seen flying towards us and soon recognised as a crane and, as it drew closer, we could see the long dark stripe of feathers down its throat and breast thus identifying it as the rare Demoiselle Crane. It landed out of sight a short distance away and we would have immediately set off to locate it except that some other excitement made a short delay necessary. There were two other trees on the opposite side of the road and one contained a cooperative Black-throated Thrush. Nearby, were Feral Pigeons, Blyth's Reed Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, Tawny Pipits, Turtle Doves, European Bee-eaters, Rollers, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears and a Black-headed Bunting plus some large “Scarab” dung beetles.
Continuing on our journey across the Steppe, the road passed through many miles of poppy flowers that gave the vegetation redness in every direction. After a day in the desert, it became traditional to stop late in the afternoon for a beer. On this occasion, it was bought by our translator Medina as a small gesture of regret for yesterday's events related to D’Weasel’s arrest and our encounter with the National Park Wardens, Border Guards and local police.
A sudden stop occurred to view a Saker Falcon, but this was a false alarm caused by a Long-legged Buzzard. Some of our party spread themselves across the desert and located the distinctive migratory race of House Sparrow known as 'Bactrian' Sparrow or Indian Sparrow, several Tawny Pipits, including some fledglings and two Tolia Hares. A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron and breeding Little Ringed Plovers frequented one of the artesian wells and a party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse came in to drink. Medina caught an Agama lizard, so that we could have a close look at it and take some photographs.
The last part of our day's journey was towards the Yurts and, due to the flat terrain; these were visible from a considerable distance. There were nine Yurts in all – seven with twin beds and two larger ones for food preparation and dining. In addition, there were two earth toilets and a cubicle containing a pumped shower, powered by a petrol-driven generator. The generator also provided a single light in each of the Yurts plus charging sockets for phone and camera batteries. So our concerns about the quality of life in the Yurts were largely unfounded except in relation to the earth toilets, one of which had a visible colony of large Scarab beetles to efficiently perform the recycling process. Perhaps it was better not to look down? Roommates were sorted for all and Steve was to share with our intrepid guide Valery!
Of course, even in the middle of the desert, standards of chivalry must be maintained. So the ladies were first to use the shower although they had to tolerate (or did they enjoy?) the wolf whistles as they exited. Next it was Ali's turn and we could all see that he was determined to maintain standards with his dark, sartorially elegant dressing gown – his attire marred only by a pair of cheap looking flip-flops! Clearly, the event needed to be recorded for posterity, but the photos of Ali were gate-crashed by the chef thus causing rumours about some other non-culinary services that might be available. Most obviously our chef had pulled!
So there we were in the middle of the desert of Saryesik Atyrau with probably 100 miles of Steppe between us and the nearest town in every direction. It stretches for about 400 km south of Lake Balkhash. Inexplicably, two girls appeared from nowhere and introduced their dog “Erica” (who we could see had considerably better manners than a certain male namesake that was known to us). One of the girls was studying reptiles and we noticed the following day that they were occupying a 4x4 that was parked near our Yurt village.
We drank some beers around some stones in the middle of the Yurt corral and watched an exquisite desert sunset at about 8:30 pm before entering the Mess Yurt for dinner. It was a very dark, moonless night and those that needed to use the facilities in the early hours spoke of the spectacular night sky due to the lack of light pollution. At other times, there was torrential rain and very powerful winds that caused us to wonder whether the Yurts would survive. But they did, and we slept well.
Birding at the ‘Wishing tree’
Demoiselle Crane in flight
Friday May 26th – Desert Life
Our first night in Yurt camp at Konchengil was an experience that on its own should have been enough, but nature had something special in store for us. So, it was around 4 am and still in darkness that the Waveney 13 thought they were up with the larks, but not a bit of it as we experienced the most enjoyable dawn chorus that you could only dream of as we watched the sun slowly rise over flat Artemisia-covered desert. Already our group had endured the electrical storm of all electrical storms that had crashed and lit up the desert, accompanied by a tempestuous downpour that threatened to float our Yurts along with their occupants away in the night! So compared to the said storm the songs of so many Larks, mostly short-toed, Asian short-toed along with Calandra Larks all bubbling, twittering and rattling around us, was nothing more than sheer delight.
Drawing ourselves away we once more boarded the minibus (all aboard the “Skylark”) to head out into the nearby desert for the day, hopefully to find our target birds including: Macqueen’s Bustard, Pallas's Sandgrouse and possibly White Winged Lark. Such a vast expanse of low vegetated desert that slowly rose to shrubby sand dunes was going to take some scanning: first up were two Greater Sand Plovers, a distant Long-legged Buzzard followed by small flocks of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse. Sharp eyes picked out two Goitered Gazelles adding to our mammal list, quickly followed by even more luck with two Caspian Plovers picked out in flight that landed close-by allowing crippling scope views as one was an adult male!!!! Not to be outdone on the wader front was a group of 12 Greater Sand Plovers with a Lesser Sand Plover in their midst that seemed totally incongruous in this dry desert setting. As most eyes were scanning the dune complex a call went out for White-Winged Lark sitting on a twelve-inch high “bush” which showed extremely well for everyone as it displayed to a second bird in the air as well as on the ground, a trip lifer for all. Yet more flocks of Black-Bellied Sandgrouse, a few Long-Legged Buzzards along with numerous larks kept us entertained as we made our way towards our next stop, an Artesian well that formed a cattle drinking place. The watery overspill made a very attractive draw to all the desert birds for miles around. On route at least 18 Common Ravens were encountered, three Demoiselle Cranes were found striding amongst the low desert herbage and a fly-by Marsh Harrier and at least two Montagu’s Harriers were seen. The next watering hole produced a Black-Winged Stilt and five Little Ringed Plovers. Whilst the group scanned roadside wires, four Bee-Eaters, a single Roller several Tawny Pipits were seen. Two Oriental Turtle Doves, flanking a Eurasian Turtle Dove, gave us a nice comparison on size and plumage. Nearby dwellings held two Little Owls (one of which was of the “Lilith” desert form); a Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail gave us a familiar feel to this region. Whilst searching a dryer area, one of our more intrepid members located two Bimaculated Larks but unfortunately not re-located by the rest of the party, so it was a return to the Yurts having a had very successful day in the desert, but sadly no Macqueen’s Bustards or Pallas's Sandgrouse. However, the day was not done yet as we set about downing much-needed, refreshing beers and queuing for the single shower, with a repeat of Ali's moves in his kimono before relaxing in his smoking jacket and cravat (joke, Ali!). There was to be an incident that would put Jerome K Jerome's tale “Three Men in a Boat” to shame as I can reveal the story of “Two men in a shower” (names withheld - Evets and Yont!): what occurred will be exposed in my hoped-to-be best seller. Following this event, someone turned off the shower water as D’Weasel entered for his ablutions that caused another hoot of laughter, oldies on tour ..eh! The log followed another blow-out meal in the Mess Yurt and then most turned in. The few that stayed up ventured into the desert armed with torches on the hunt for small mammals, but no luck apart from an all-too brief-sighting of a small Gerbil type rodent – and so for tomorrow.
Yurt camp, Taukum desert
Saturday May 27th – Desert Exodus
It was exultation with a difference at 5.00 am as every lark in the neighbourhood made an individual contribution to the dawn chorus. The cacophony made it difficult to separate the species, but there was undoubtedly several hundred Calandra’s and many Greater Short-toed Larks. The minibus was soon bumping along desert tracks until we arrived at our first destination, an artesian water hole where a handily-placed concrete tank was used as a vantage point. The artesian wells near our camp attract migrants and flocks of Black-bellied Sandgrouse, but as there were still plenty of puddles in the desert, sandgrouse weren’t really expected! Two distant Goitered Gazelles caused the first shout of the day and then it was down to work scrutinising passerines as they came in for their early-morning drink. There were many Calandras and Greater Short-toed Larks, but also several Bimaculated Larks that allowed identification features to be discussed. Other highlights included a pair of Desert Finches, a single Grey Wagtail and both Tree and Richard’s Pipit; the last seen only by D’Weasel. A couple of Montagu’s Harriers were watched as they quartered grassy-desert areas and several Long-legged Buzzards were perched on boulders watching intently for gerbils and other prey. A party of Black-bellied Sandgrouse arrived to take on water just before we left for breakfast.
Brown-necked Ravens, Oriental Turtle Doves and a singing Whitethroat were noted back at camp and, soon after breakfast, we gathered our belongings and after a quick team photo with the camp team we were on our way north towards Lake Balkhash.
As we passed through the Muyunkum Desert (kum – meaning sand), a Steppe Tortoise in the road provided an impromptu stop, but this unfortunate creature was a victim of road traffic, so no photographs this time! There was another stop as another tortoise was spotted, this one alive and well and whilst cameras snapped, the first Steppe Shrike of the tour was spotted along with a pair of Turkestan Tits. Our next stop was an area of scrubby dune-lands known as the Haloxylon Forest, Haloxylon persicum being Latin for the Central Asian tall shrub White Saxaul, where we had hoped to find Saxaul Sparrow. There was a Black Kite’s nest, hosting enormous chicks, close to where the bus was parked, but our search of an area of extensive dunes revealed only a Red-headed Bunting and a Red-tailed Shrike with no sign of the sparrow.
We passed numerous smaller lakes where Black-necked Grebes, Ferruginous and White-tailed Ducks were spotted and at one stop where our guide promised Shikra, we at last caught up with White-winged Woodpecker. A bird singing from a patch of phragmites turned out to be a Paddyfield Warbler. An area of remnant poplar forest, known as Turanga woodland, was to be our picnic lunch stop, but we couldn’t sit still for long with Pale-backed Pigeon, several White-winged Woodpeckers, Shikra, Lesser Whitethroat of the race halimodendri and Turkestan Tit in the offing. Our guide said that he had seen Saxaul Sparrow here on every previous trip, but the habitat looked unsuitable and unsurprisingly there was no sign despite an exhaustive search. Our driver was getting rather anxious as we still had a 200 km drive to Kapshagai where we were due to stay overnight. We asked about an old cemetery that was mentioned in the trip notes, but our guide had no knowledge of this site. We had passed a cemetery as we approached the Turanga Forest, so went back to have a quick look! At least four Common Nightingales were singing there. but no sign of any Saxaul Sparrows.
A comfort break and beer stop at a garage on the long drive to Kapshagai was interesting. Carol who went into the garage to use the loo came out saying she would save it as the loo was a disaster zone with a slatted door that customers could see through as they queued up to pay for petrol. D’Weasel, who is always full of suggestions in these situations, said it would be best if Carol squatted down the other way so that she wouldn’t have to look at the door! This comment was met with hilarity but Carol still opted to save it! We continued on our way and noted huge flocks of Rosy Starlings coming to roost over the plains and eventually arrived at our Hotel Anma-ATA at 9.20 pm.
Sunday May 28th – Saxaul Lady
An early start for some of us allowed a bit of birding from the balcony of Kashagai Hotel – but nothing really of note. One of the best breakfasts we had followed with lovely porridge, ‘hot’ fried eggs and chai. We boarded the bus and headed off for a drive around the lake with our guide having planned another magical mystery tour for us all. It was a pleasure to travel along an exceptionally good road, more like a motorway, as we skirted Lake Kapasagai. Roller was the best bird to note on this section of the trip. Eventually, we came off the motorway and joined the more typical pot-holed, bumpy roads that we had become used to whilst being driven around the country. We sped through rolling Steppes with the occasional shepherd on horseback meandering through endless stretches of bright red poppies highlighted by distant mountain ridges. Tall spires of Hoary Mullien stood proud and invited the ever-present larks to perch awhile. This landscape was broken very occasionally by a ploughed field or make-do shipping container house.
First stop was Arharly where we failed to find some distinctive wild sheep. We did, however, watch three Golden Eagles, a Hobby, Red-headed Buntings galore, Tawny Pipit and a pair of Pied Wheatears with a nest near the top of a small mountain we climbed. On the way up, we had the immense pleasure of wandering through a mobile flock of over a 100 Rose-Coloured Starlings feeding on the herb-rich grassy slopes. European Bee-Eaters flew over our heads and more distant Hoopoes and Red-rumped Swallows circled the nearby farm. Once everyone was herded back into the bus, we set off again passing Saryozek with its distinct derelict industrial tower blocks and disused army base, giving us a stark reminder of Kazkhstan’s Russian past.
We stopped on the col of a ridge called Altym Emel where we immediately found a superb male Rock Thrush and Northern Wheatear, before heading to the top of a small hill that gave us great views of the nearby mountain tops. Black Vulture flew by as a prize for the first to reach the top, Chukars were calling from down below and a pair of Central Asian Horned Larks (showing characteristics of the race Brandti) flew on the nearby slopes to give excellent scope views. This was the less-expected of the two races that occur here. Siberian Stonechats were calling from the prominent rocky perches and Rock Buntings and Linnets were also logged. We drove a short distance down the valley and then stopped at a roadside café for lunch. Borsch was again on the menu, this time with a difference - as those who ordered ‘soup without meat’ got soup with meat and vice versa! Soup without meat came with a very neat section of lamb vertebrae taking up the majority of the centre of the dish!
We drove on again from here, experiencing one of very few heavy downpours as we reached the Eastern end of the lake and turned off to head west/south-west back towards Almaty with the moody Tian Shan mountains on our left. With dark, angry clouds and distant rain they certainly did not live up to their name of the ‘Mountains of Heaven’.
Driving on from here through Koktani, we ended up back in the lowlands and started seeing more birds from the bus including four Cuckoos appearing one after another. Then our beloved guide raised his hand to call the driver to a stop. This site – Aydarly – was apparently THE site for Saxaul Sparrow, a bird that was now high on our ‘wanted’ list. We had already missed this species earlier in the trip so this was our last chance saloon. It has to be said that we were not convinced of seeing it here either! However, within minutes, our very own top bird finder, Helen Gooderham, aka ‘The Saxual Lady’, had pulled one out of thin air. Once the excitement had died down a bit and we began to study a very showy male, it became clear that there was a little sparrow colony going on here. At least three males and one female were whizzing in and out of a hole at the top of a telegraph post. A male Tree Sparrow was also trying to get in on the act as well. We could have watched these for ages but Steve and D’Weasel found a singing Sykes’ Warbler and we happily left the sparrows to their own devices and eventually got great views of a generally secretive Sykes’. Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Turkestan Shrike, Masked Wagtail and Kestrel completed the best of the rest
The bus then took us onto the Bridge over the River Ili, an amazing new structure over a massive river. Looking at the water levels, our guide was concerned that perhaps the Chinese had built a dam upstream of this – the border being less than 50km away. Whatever the reasons for the low water levels, we tried in suitably damp habitats to find any of the Penduline Tits we were hoping for. None were to be found – but an ever-more obliging Sykes’ Warbler was great compensation. Gadwall, Black Winged Stilt and a Pheasant made for the last birds of the day. We then drove past another derelict factory on unmade roads to arrive at the Hotel Miras, Chilik. This was described to us as being ‘basic’ but turned out to be at least as good, if not better than any other place we stayed in. No beer in the hotel though – so I was sent out to hunt some down with Medina. It wasn’t far away - but what amazed me most was that the young girl who was looking after the shop used an abacus to calculate the cost of the 15 beers we purchased. Throughout all my years in education I have seen them used in schools, frequently, but never in real life. Another first!
Looking for wild sheep...
Saxual Sparrow site
Horned Lark site
Abacus & beers
Monday May 29th – Canyons of Charyn
Fifty six bird species was my personal tally for today as we begin our journey back to Almaty after our stay at the Hotel Miras. The day’s highlights were as follows:
D’Weasel already had his scope trained on a Long-tailed Shrike by the time I popped outside for some pre-breakfast birding. My roommate Dick Walden had missed the one earlier in the week, so I called him and he quickly scurried down to join us! The bird was nicely perched on top of a nearby tree and remained for all to see – a nice “grip back” for Dick! We also noted a pair of Laughing Doves, the only ones for the trip. At breakfast, we enjoyed our best bowl of porridge so far and then were off to Charyn to visit an area of woodland known as Ashgrove Forest. This area is an amazing desert oasis consisting of a wide belt of riverine ash trees that lies adjacent to Ashgrove Lodge – a former Russian hunting retreat. Here we heard and saw Indian Golden Oriole by the entrance gate, more Azure Tits, four Mistle Thrushes of the race Bonapartei and a Great Spotted Woodpecker. There were several nestboxes on our walk through the woods, which were specifically fixed for Scops Owls but, unfortunately, none popped their heads out during our presence.
Moving on, we staked out a water hole in the valley of the Bojuty Mountains where Pallas's Sandgrouse often come to drink and, although unsuccessful with this species, we did manage spectacular views of around 40 Mongolian Finches, 15 amazing Crimson-winged Finch, several Grey-necked Buntings, Rock Petronias and Eurasian Skylarks. We were then off for a bit of sight-seeing at the exceedingly scenic red and yellow Canyons of Charyn. The canyon is an 80-90-km long tributary of the Ili River and a major tourist attraction. The spectacular scenery of the River Ili with the foothills of the Dzungarian Alatau Mountains in the distance was awesome.
There were no big targets, but from the viewpoints we did manage to pick up Steppe and Booted Eagles and a pair of Egyptian Vultures. The vultures appeared to be nesting in the canyon and caused chaos amongst the local Eurasian Crag Martin as they flew to and from their nesting ledge. There were several Alpine Swifts and many Isabelline Wheatears, the latter being the most numerous bird species in desert areas.
We arrived at our next birding stop in the Kokpek Mountains late morning where we climbed a steep ravine in the hope of finding White-capped Bunting. We noted a very close Golden Eagle, two Chukars, Eurasian Crag Martins and Rock Doves on the way up the gorge and then a sudden burst of song from a protruding bolder higher up led us to our quarry and we all obtained great views of this beautiful bunting through the scope.
Lunch was at a very rustic roadside café and very good bowl of soup too – with or without noodles was the choice as always! It was then on to Malovodnoe Fishing Farm to look for Penduline Tits. We were expecting to find White-crowned Penduline Tit, but Valery pointed out Black-headed Penduline Tits in the book saying that was the species that was here. We could hear Pendulines calling from lakeside willows, although it took a little time for all to get good views. Eventually, we got clear views of a Black-headed Penduline Tit and further searching revealed a pair of birds but this time they were White-crowned Penduline Tits. We couldn’t believe our eyes, surely not both species inhabiting a single site, but, yes, that’s clearly what we saw. Black-headed Penduline Tits are red-listed and endangered due to hybridisation with Eurasian Penduline Tit, so this was an excellent find. Also, the trip notes report that the species had vacated its usual site due to their habitat being trashed and burnt for grazing!
The trip notes said that we would be stopping en route to visit a Pale Sand Martin colony on our way back to Almaty but our guide hadn’t a clue as to whereabouts of this site. In rush hour traffic, it took a long time before we reached the Kazayka Hotel in the Amaarasan Canyon for our three night stay. Halfway through our evening meal, a big storm knocked out the electric supply and we completed the day’s log under candlelight. Going to bed in the dark was quite a challenge too, but it ended another fantastic day birding in a wonderful country.
Mongolian Finch drinking pool
Tuesday 30th May – Mountain birds in mountain weather
This was to be the group’s first day birding in Tien Shan Mountains, but we awoke to lowering grey clouds and persistent rain. The rain eased just before breakfast and a few ventured out for some birding. A pair of Brown Dippers was seen well on the nearby river, small groups of Common Mynahs flew over the hotel, a male Blue Whistling Thrush sang his lilting song and a Grey-headed Goldfinch was seen in the hotel grounds.
After breakfast, we boarded the minibus for our journey up into the Ili Alatau Mountains, part of the Tien Shan range, but sadly the light rain turned torrential as we made our ascent. Our bus stopped by our first birding site, which was near the dam on the Big Almaty Lake (altitude of 2400m). A pair of Spotted Great Rosefinches was observed feeding beside the bus and we all debunked for better views: then a flock of finches alighted in the trees above us and were quickly identified as Plain Mountain Finches accompanied by two or three Brandt's Mountain Finches. These high-mountain birds were undoubtedly forced down to lower elevations by the severe weather – it was snowing persistently higher up. Soon the rain drove us back into the shelter of our vehicle followed by a two to three-hour wait. As we patiently waited in the bus for the rain to cease, the staccato of rain on the roof, accompanied by the gentle snoring of some catching up on their sleep, was certainly a chorus with a difference!
When the rain eventually eased, to allow birding to recommence, a singing Black-throated Accentor was quickly added to the list, then a shout of 'Redstart!' sent us scurrying across the road for brief flight views of our first Eversmann's Redstart – this was closely followed by a small flock of very smart Red-fronted Serins. Moving forward towards the Great Almaty Lake, we were startled to see what appeared to be a Cyberman approaching us along the rim of the dam. Upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a policeman in a strange silver raincoat, with a hood so large that it could accommodate his enormous dinner-plate, peaked hat. He was most obviously coming over to check us out. We stood staring at each other face-to-face before Medina, scurrying from the minibus, broke that standoff by handing over papers for the policemen to scrutinise.
Crossing the dam wall was forbidden, so we took a circular route back to the village and onto a track to overlook the lake. We soon added Greenish and Hume's Warblers, Tree Pipit and Lammergeier to the day list before stopping to admire a rather obliging Long-tailed Marmot beside the track. Some of us saw another, all too brief, Eversmann's Redstart. On reaching a spot that afforded some amazing panoramic views over the lake, our main quarry species was discovered, a single Ibisbill sporting its decurved bill and plumage that had been perfectly evolved to match its preferred habitat of stone-strewn gushing rivers and mountain lake edges. We stopped for some time admiring this great bird, but all the while we could hear the distant whistling curlew-like calls echoing around the mountainside – this was to be our next target! Moving back up the track eagle-eyed D’Weasel quickly located the source of these eerie calls – a clear silhouette of a Himalayan Snowcock! A single individual of this denizen of the high mountain slopes was scoped distantly but well – two great birds in rapid succession after the disappointment of the rain, this was more like it! Retiring back towards the bus a pair of Azure Tits were discovered carrying food into a nest in the “Cyberman's” hut but, remembering the problems we had with the authorities on our first day, we felt it best not stare for too long.
Back at the bus the decision was made to drive higher up the mountain. This involved negotiating 'Checkpoint Charlie' (the Kazakhstani Army's border stop) where permits and passports were checked and double-checked before we were allowed access to the higher mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan. We parked near the astronomical observatory and started on foot across the plateau. Unfortunately, at this point the rain returned with a vengeance and we were forced to abandon any hopes of more birding.
Despite having lost a large part of the day’s birding to the weather some memorable birds were seen – who will ever forget the quirky Ibisbill or the enigmatic Snowcock!
Ibisbill site, Almaty lake
Spotted Great Rosefinch
Wednesday 31st May
Cloudless skies at sunrise gave great optimism that we were in for a good day’s birding as our plan was to ascend to the highest navigable point on the road (3,300m) at the Cosmos Station near the summit of the mountain. Following some pre-breakfast birding by some, who reported that the Brown Dippers and Blue Whistling Thrushes were still showing well, and the usual slop for breakfast, we were on our way. Before we departed, however, D’Weasel met a young lad in reception who had retrieved the confiscated butterfly net from the police station. He said that he had to wait two hours! There was no sign of D’Weasel’s specimen tube or the captured Chapman Blue butterfly though!
No one had any idea why we made an unscheduled stop halfway up the mountain, but Vivian later confirmed that it was for Brown and White-bellied Dippers. There were a few moans and groans as most of us wanted to press on and get to the mountain tops. There was the usual rigmarole at the checkpoint as paperwork was again scrutinised and documents checked. Passports were called for and also our immigration visas. Unfortunately, my visa was back at the hotel, so I bit my tongue and hoped that they wouldn’t match everything up! Needless to say they didn’t and we were soon on our way. We were soon driving through thick snow, which in places was so deep that our driver had to resort to snow chains. A makeshift snowplough was busily clearing the snowdrifts from the roadside ahead of us. A few shouts of “stop” on the way up resulted in further views of Plain Mountain Finch, but little else was seen.
On reaching the entrance to the Cosmos Station, we were greeted by a man who told us that we could visit the area by foot, but the bus had to be parked further down the mountain. We searched the dilapidated buildings and were surprised that our first bird was a Northern Wheatear followed by a flock of ten Red-billed Choughs. A pair of the latter was feeding chicks in one of the buildings. We soon located two of our main targets: Güldenstädt's Redstart and Brown Accentor (five in all), but there was no sign of Altai Accentor. We decided to walk slowly down the mountain road for two to three kilometres to search further with the bus following behind. More Northern Wheatears and some Water Pipits were located, but our walk was brought to a sudden stop when D’Weasel located some large footprints that most obviously belonged to a Tien Shan Brown Bear! The bear’s presence was further confirmed by the snowplough driver who told Vivian that he had seen the bear scurrying down the slope a few minutes previously. We quickly followed the footprints over to a crevasse where stones could be heard rolling down the slopes ahead of us, but whatever was causing the disturbance was on our near side and out of sight. We hoped that we would locate the animal at the next corner of the road, but alas we didn’t – so near but so far!
We then returned to the astronomical observatory where we were rained off yesterday. Here were found a stunning male Himalayan Rubythroat (recently split from Chinese Rubythroat), several Red-mantled Rosefinches and amazing views of Eversmann's Redstart feeding young. The last bird was particularly rewarding bearing in mind the fleeting views the previous day. Helen excelled again by spotting a White-browed Tit-warbler, but unfortunately most of the group couldn’t get onto it. As yesterday, we could hear the haunting calls of Himalayan Snowcocks all around us, but we failed to make any further sightings.
We stopped at a very popular, local picnic site as we descended further down the mountain still hoping for Altai Accentor and further views of White-browed Tit-warbler, but although we managed more sightings of Greenish and Hume's warblers our target species weren’t forthcoming.
The group decided to split up with roughly half walking down the slope towards the Big Almaty Lake and the others through the beautiful Tien Shan Spruce and Turkestan Juniper forests in search of woodland birds. Although further views of Ibisbill at the lake were enjoyed by some, the latter group were more successful with a fantastic display from a Blue-capped Redstart and brief views of a Willow (Songar) Tit. The woodland group had somehow got locked behind a metal gate and were late returning to the bus which was waiting and ready to return to the hotel. Thankfully, Vivian knew the landowner and he summoned him to fetch a key to let us out. Another birding group reported that they had just seen Spotted Nutcracker but, after searching all day, they too had missed Altai Accentor which made us all feel a whole lot better! We finished our day’s birding by returning to the Blue-capped Redstart site and we together watched the spectacle of its feeding forays – our last tick of the trip!
Birding at Kosmostancia
Thursday 1st June – Homeward Bound
Our last day in Kazakhstan had arrived. Only a couple of people made it out prior to breakfast and birds seen included: Brown Dipper, Blue Whistling Thrush, Common Mynah and Azure Tits. Breakfast was at 6 am and the usual standard was maintained, consisting of lukewarm, watered-down porridge, fried eggs on cold plates, bread that appeared to have been hung on a washing line for a week and, to cap it all, cold cooked spam. The spam was a special treat and delivered ceremoniously after the meal and greeted to the accompaniment of Monty Python’s song SPAM SPAM SPAM, which left the proprietor more than a little bemused! At 6.30 a.m. hours, we duly boarded our minibus for the journey to the airport. For once the roads round Almaty were empty of traffic and we arrived at the Airport with plenty of time to spare for our 9.50 am flight to Astana. The flight was uneventful and we landed at 11.14 am. The next few hours was spent trying to spend our remaining Tenges (local currency) on beer and other goodies in the airport cafes. Boarding was called at 2.25 pm and take off at 2 50 pm. The best part of the flight was the approach to London with good low views of all the major city’s attractions. We landed at 4.24 pm and were on the coach by 5.15 pm. On boarding our bus for our final stage of our journey home, a goody bag full of sandwiches and drinks arrived (thank you Kathy), plus a pair of handcuffs for the D'Weasel, (pity the keys were also with them) and a children’s butterfly net for Steve. The only bird mentioned on the journey back to Ipswich was a Red Kite, where three of us from south Suffolk, duly left the coach in Ipswich. Thank you to all for making this a most enjoyable and eventful trip.
This was to be Waveney Bird Club’s eighth foreign tour and undoubtedly our most adventurous yetvbearing in mind that we were charting unknown territory and visiting two former Soviet-bloc countries that no one in the party had been to before. An itinerary was drawn up and put to our ground agents Giorgi Rajebashvili (Ecotours Georgia) and Zhanna Galyan (Armenia) who subsequently organised our transport, accommodation and meals throughout the tour. Paul Harvey of Shetland Bird Club was recruited to help me lead the trip. Eric (D’Weasel) Patrick would take on the task of Tour Recorder, a role that he had completed admirably on WBC’s previous seven tours.
In true WBC tradition, names were put in the hat and those drawn would each be responsible for writing one day of this blog.
Monday 2nd May: Departure
After months of planning, we boarded our coach to Gatwick for our early-morning flight to Tbilisi, gathering in the team at pick-up points en route. There was an early hitch as our driver received news that the A12 was closed south of Colchester due to an accident, so we were forced to divert to Cambridge and then onto the M11. Nevertheless, we arrived at the airport in good time and were suitably refreshed, having consumed our packed breakfasts, which had been prepared by “mission control” or, in other words, Kathy Piotrowski! Our flight took off on time and we headed for Istanbul where we would transfer to a flight to Tbilisi.
We arrived in Istanbul late afternoon and searched for the first birds of our tour. We craned our necks to see out of the airport windows and were rewarded with squadrons of Alpine Swifts over the city, some Hooded Crows feeding in the airport gardens and a distinct northerly movement of Grey Herons.
On arrival at Tbilisi, we were greeted by our guides Nika and Jimi and were soon on our bus to the Hotel Eurolux in the city centre.
Tbilisi, Roger Walsh
Tuesday 3rd May: Tbilisi to Kazbegi
We woke early in downtown Tbilisi and most of us gathered outside the Hotel Eurolux to start our trip list. The best of the bunch was a male eastern Common Redstart of the race “Samamiscus”; with a startling white wing bar, although crumbling Russian factories and old army trucks also proved to be an interesting distraction.
After breakfast we were reunited with our two guides – Nika and Jimi, who would be looking after us for the next four days. They would prove to be a great asset to our trip with their local knowledge and birding skills.
The first stop was to look for Semi-collared Flycatcher on the broad-leafed, woodland slopes at Ananuki. We failed to hit our main target but picked up a flock of Bee-Eaters and added Great Spotted Woodpecker and Nuthatch to the trip list. The road rose steeply into the mountains thereafter and our next stop was to nip into the supermarket for a little lunch at the ski resort at Guardori. An impressive list of birds was gained here as 23 sets of eyes searched in all directions.
We noted the first of hundreds of Water Pipits, Black Redstart, two Steppe Buzzards, a White Wagtail and a Red-Backed Shrike. A passing kite caused quite a lot of discussion with some thinking it was a Black and others a Red Kite – the latter very rare in Georgia.
We made our next stop on the Jdavi Pass at an altitude of 2,300m. There were stunning views down into the deep gorge below and up onto the snow-capped mountains. Paul Harvey found a very distant Caucasian Black Grouse on a scree-slope and we all managed views through the scope. Both Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Golden Eagle, Crag Martins, Alpine Accentor, Rock Thrush, Ring Ouzel and two Griffon Vultures were also noted. We left the colourful stalls and Russian tourists behind to drive over the pass and make a further stop where we enjoyed a little raptor migration, which included: 16 Honey Buzzards, a Montagu’s Harrier and a possible Levant Sparrowhawk. We also enjoyed some confiding Twite, a Horned Lark and a Northern Wheatear.
The next stop was an impressive basalt cliff at Kobi, which yielded our first Red-fronted Serins of the trip and a stunning Wallcreeper. There was another display of raptors, both migrating and hunting on the nearby mountains: 50+ Honey Buzzards, Golden Eagle, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Lammergeier and Peregrine. Amongst the incredible array of abandoned houses a few Black Redstarts flicked their tails and chased insects, Dunnocks sang from rubble heaps and Wheatears and Grey Wagtails frolicked on the floral meadows.
We moved on to Stepantsminda and endeavoured to find our hotel. Our guides were totally confused about its location, expecting us to be staying at the basic-quality hostelry in the centre of town. Eventually, they realised that we were staying in the up-market Kazbegi Hotel (or ‘Rooms Hotel’) halfway up the mountain!
This amazing hotel sat high above the main village and afforded stunning views of Mount Kazbeg (5,345m) and other snow-capped Caucasian peaks. A Mistle Thrush sitting on a nest was found before we headed off for showers in our luxurious rooms. Our first real taste of Georgian food and wine was much appreciated and the endless buffet spread was repeatedly visited by all.
Tbilisi trucks, Roger Walsh
Pass to Tbilisi, Roger Walsh
Stepantsminda, Mark Riley
Rooms Hotel (Kasbegi) - Roger Walsh
Wed 4th May: Kazbegi – the challenge for the “Caucasus Big 5”!
We emerged from the palatial splendour of the imaginatively-named ‘Rooms Hotel’ in Stepantsminda into a dawn of potentially changeable weather (which all weather is in the mountains) and outstanding scenery of looming, snow-capped peaks and heights and distances impossible to scale.
This was the home of the ‘Caucasus Big 5’ consisting of Caucasian Black Grouse and Snowcock, Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Mountain Chiffchaff and Great Rosefinch (Caspian Snowcock would be a target for later in Armenia).
Leaving the gated, guarded entrance to the hotel reveals another world of rough tracks and tumbledown homesteads, with barking but timid dogs, all setting each other off as we moved uphill to the slopes below the peaks. The hotel was perfectly situated for scanning the snowline, and was around a 15 minute walk from a range of suitable habitat for all five species.
The Caucasian Black Grouse were found quite quickly, with good views of a male performing hisv‘leaping’ display. However, the business of slope-scanning demonstrated the difficulty of computing distance/size of target – while the scope may suggest you are looking at a bunch of stones, these might be rocks the size of a Cadillac. Until you have sight of a bird, there is really little point of reference, and for us Suffolk folk, the notion of looking uphill is pretty alien anyway!
Other birders were about (one of the few times we ran into any others on the whole trip) as the weather deteriorated on the peaks and cloud descended. As if on cue, we heard the wild, eerie arpeggiated calls of snowcock, with the characteristic ‘roll-off’ at the end which differentiates Caucasian from Caspian, tonally rather like Curlew and equally as atmospheric and haunting. And then we had it/them: well-camouflaged against the boulder-strewn home, and – for a while – motionless. The context of distance suddenly becomes very obvious.
So, how long should you stare at such a range-restricted bird – one of the main targets of the whole adventure, and perhaps a once-in- a-lifetime view? As long as it takes to hear a report of a female Great Rosefinch, seen by the other party of birders, down the slope in the meadow below us, that’s how long……
Recent trip reports had shown the rosefinch to be potentially the most difficult of the “big 5” to find; not for us though, as the female was feeding in an area of short grass close to us and was soon joined by others, including a splendid cock, looking like a large, dark-eyed, plump strawberry, and easily within binocular range.
So, with three of the five under our belts, we headed back for breakfast. It’s a rare couple of species that can mean you haven’t mentioned hearing Mountain Chiffchaff singing, or the Griffon Vulture, Peregrine, Rock Thrush, Common Rosefinch and the Tur (Caucasian mountain goat), of which there was a small herd high on the rocks. Again, a creature perfectly toned for the landscape and despite the size, still difficult to pick out.
After a quick cultural shift, in and out of luxury, we headed to the Chkheri Valley on the other side of the village. The gullies were rich in sea buckthorn and under the famous Gergeti Trinity Church and Mt Kazbegi. We searched for Guldenstadt’s Redstart, which we didn’t find. Spoilt brats that we are, we had to put up with Lammergeyer and rufous Black Kite as the notable species.
Cutting our losses, we returned to ‘our side’ on the east slopes, moving further along the track from the pre-breakfast spot, and slightly further uphill, where buckthorn cut into the lower gullies, around St Elias the Prophet Church.
Here, we struck gold again! As we approached, a stunning, huge, flat-winged Black Vulture sailed over our heads and up and over the peaks and we noted another Rock Thrush, further Caucasian Black Grouse and Water Pipit almost everywhere. Moving into the scrub, Ring Ouzel and Mountain Chiffchaff were joined by a pair of the target – Guldenstadt’s Redstarts. The male is a real ‘take your breath away’ bird, and – while hardly ‘confiding’ – they hung around long enough for everyone to get a good look. A ‘worldie’ for me: but so many birds on this trip were, I must be in the running for ‘Tart of the Caucasus.’
Pressure off! The “Georgian Big Five” clocked up, we took a trip back along the Georgian Military Road (which runs north-south from Vladikavhaz in Russia to Tblisi) to the Jvadi Pass (2379 metres above sea level), to look for White-winged Snowfinch. Although we didn’t find any, our position near the side of the road attracted plenty of attention. Cars slow down, honk their horns or even stop to see what you’re up to, all in an atmosphere of friendly curiosity in a region where birding is definitely not the norm.
This was the site of a small spring, and cars and trucks stopped to fill water bottles, with more casual visitors taking photo opportunities on the limestone rock formations.
During this stop, we witnessed a huge migration of Honey Buzzard, taking their chances between swinging weather conditions to get a few miles under the wing, plus an overflight by a Booted Eagle. It can get a bit nippy up here, even in May, and where the road runs under steep slopes round bends, tunnels have been built into the mountainside, allowing this important trade route to at least attempt to stay open; the road diverts through the tunnels at times of high snowfall. Rain storms were now whipping through in a speedy and unpredictable manner, and we headed back towards Stepantsminda, stopping at the village of Kobi, where a sheer rock face held the promise of Wallcreeper.
Kobi is typical of the changing face of this area of Georgia. Small, stone houses, falling into ruin, the previous occupants driven out by the harshness of a mountain existence towards the streets paved with gold of Tblisi and other centres. While the poverty and hardship of rural life de-populates, ski hotels are being built in the more accessible towns along the Military Road, preparing for fat times catering for the Caucasian bourgeoisie and visitors from Russia and China. The Rooms Hotel had plenty of expensive 4-wheel drives with Russian plates outside. Both Georgia and Armenia, with their unparalleled history as the oldest Christian nations, attract attention from ‘cultural tourists.’
While part of the group – successfully, apparently – went off in search of Wallcreeper, I searched the ruins for the ghosts of Kobi; some evidence suggested folks had left taking very little. Below the rock face was a small round table and two chairs, grown through with weeds – perhaps where a couple of former inhabitants planned their retreat to less harsh conditions. One house – and a rather grand one – was obviously well-cared for, if not permanently occupied, with two stone lions atop the gateway – proclaiming the occupants’ prosperity to no-one in particular. Two Red-billed Choughs preened each other on a ledge above the village, perhaps as the patio table-owners had done below some years earlier.
Anyway, that’s enough musing! A big fly-though of hirundines prompted our departure, to the riverside habitat just south of Stepantsminda. Rain was threatening big time now, and we had just enough time to grab a view of a Red Fox and spend 10 minutes being serenaded by Corncrakes (perhaps 3?) giving the old two-stroke call invisibly from the undergrowth.
And then the rain came – seriously. So, we blew up for full-time on what had been a very memorable day and headed back to the alpine splendour of the hotel, sitting up on the eastern slopes, with its huge wooden-decked veranda facing the ever-changing colours on the peaks of Mount Kazbeg.
Great Rosefinch, Eddie Marsh
Great Rosefinch Eddie Marsh
Thursday 5th May: Kazbegi and the military road back to Tbilisi
(Rob and Helen Gooderham)
We made another early start and set off on foot to the steep base of the mountains immediately east of our hotel. The sky was blue and a bitterly cold wind blew off the snow fields. There were fabulous views of snow-clad Mount Kazbegi to the west lit by the early morning sun, with pasque flowers and gentians on the meadows.
We were searching for further views of Caucasian Grouse and Caucasian Snowcock, which we could hear calling and eventually found after a lot of scanning. We located another brilliantly-coloured male Great Rosefinch and then a number of Red-throated Pipits, a Short-toed Lark, Ortolan Buntings and Whinchats. Clearly, last night’s bad weather had forced down some passage migrants. Frozen, we returned to our hotel for a wonderful breakfast which set us up for the day and reflected on our two-hour pre-breakfast walk that had been far from disappointing.
It was time to leave this fantastic building designed in the Scandi-modern style. Timber dominates inside and out with bespoke furniture and vast glass windows displaying fantastic views over the mighty Great Caucuses.
We returned to the Georgian Military Highway, which is the primary road link between the Russian Federation and Armenia and the Middle East to the south. Despite the importance of this route, the road often degenerates into an unsurfaced track. Vehicles weaved erratically to find a level route around the potholes. We headed north some 15 km along the Dariali Gorge to take a look at the Russian border. The road is narrow in places and follows the river Terek flowing north deep in the ravine, to the Caspian Sea. We stopped briefly at the border, but were careful not to brandish our cameras as the disputed area of Chechnya lies beyond. The whole area appears to be a vast chaotic building site populated by trucks. We noted luxury 4 x 4s sweeping past occupied by fashionably skinny Russians in designer clothing! No visas are required for Russians to enter Georgia, but this is not reciprocated! We turned the mini-buses round and headed south with a brief and unsuccessful stop for Rock Buntings. Nika, our guide, handed round small tumblers of red wine made by his father in celebration of the moment (again!).
Along our route, immense anonymous trucks were parked up in line to be taken through the border in ‘trains’ controlled by the police. The road south climbed through the Tergi Valley between impressive snow-covered mountains as we approached the bleak Jvari Pass (2,379m) where we stopped to search for White-winged Snowfinch. Although we were unsuccessful this was a wonderful position for the visible migration of raptors. Water Pipits were in profusion on the mountain sides and a dead Willow Warbler was found. There were indications of massive snowfall over the winter and eventually a cold rain stopped play. We continued south alongside the River Aragri that flows south to the Black Sea.
We stopped at the Kvisheti viewpoint, but still no luck with Snowfinch, although Alpine and Red-billed Choughs provided great entertainment. Snowdrops carpeted the slopes. Another dead Willow Warbler was found and indicating that that a fall of passage migrants had occurred during the night. This is a popular tourist place where Chechnyan women sell vodka, honey and fluffy hats!
We left the mountains and descended towards Tbilisi. Frequent monasteries and stone defensive towers appeared on distant outcrops overlooking the ravine. North of the vast reservoir of Zhinali, we stopped again at the steeply-sloping beech and birch forest at Ananuki and after some persistence were rewarded with Spotted Flycatcher and a pair of Semi-collared Flycatchers that were attending their nest.
We stopped again south of the reservoir at a meadow area with spectacular sandstone rock formations. The meadows were rich in wild flowers, orchids and butterflies and Crag Martins patrolled the rock faces. This was a known site for Green Warbler but unfortunately not today.
We arrived at central Tbilisi and checked into our hotel, six floors directly above the rail station! From our balcony we enjoyed extensive views of the city with screeching swifts overhead. Our guide and driver joined us for a meal in the city centre and took us via the Tbilisi metro. The railway network was extremely deep as are most Soviet metros and was opened in 1966. It had been designed in the Stalinist style with impressive marble facings to walls, but had clearly seen better days! We ate in a restaurant decorated with lovely trompe l’oeil street scenes in the old town and as usual the Georgian food was very good: salads, BBQ meat, cheese, breads and good Georgian beer and wine.
Semicollared Fly, Eddie Marsh
Friday 6th May: Tbilisi to Vayk
Our guides Jovanas and Arra and two drivers met us outside our hotel and we were soon on the road to the Armenian border crossing where we were greeted by stern-faced border guards who wore bottle-green military uniforms, faintly ridiculous “dinner-plate” hats and expressions befitting of a funeral. They hardly exuded a welcome to Armenia, but here we were nevertheless. What was far more welcoming was the super-charged Nightingale blasting out his staccato song near the border crossing – the first of a truly wondrous array of Armenian delights that were to captivate us for the next few days.
A squadron of about 20 Honey Buzzards soared overhead, freely crossing the border. No passports, no solemn document stamping and no fuss – a poignant reminder that birds know no international boundaries, their travel is unrestricted save for the impediments we put in their way.
We had left traffic-choked Tbilisi a few hours before, mercifully emerging into a zone of rather featureless flatness, but cultivated at nothing like the intensity of our own Suffolk prairielands. The city we had left behind was something of a curiosity. The drab, down-at- heel and decades-old housing and office blocks was a stark reminder of Georgia’s Soviet links. In vivid contrast, bizarre, ultra-modern and often garish, glitzy architecture shocked as it came into view. It was as if the architects were casting off their Soviet shackles and letting their imagination run riot. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the way the country felt, a symbol of Georgia standing on its own feet at last and assuming its own identity.
We were fast heading towards the idyllic village of Dilijan for a much-anticipated lunchtime meet-up with our Armenian agent, the ultra-efficient Zhanna. But it was a pleasure we had to wait for as one of our buses stopped us in our tracks. A puncture was quickly sorted, but we all took the chance to stretch our legs for a while and scan some rather dramatic crags that rose up high above the road.
Sure enough, raptors featured strongly – two Lesser Spotted Eagles and an Egyptian Vulture being the highlights – with a supporting cast of European Bee-eaters over-heard and overhead and an exquisite Aescalaphid, a dragonfly-like insect that had the cameras clicking in overdrive.
Lunch was a sumptuous spread in a peaceful backwater of a restaurant, with the always helpful Zhanna holding court. A Booted Eagle drifted over and several of us enjoyed the trip’s first Green Warbler.
On the road again, we had a first, tantalizing taste of what birding was to be like amid the upland lakes. A brief stop at an ephemeral wetland produced Ruddy Shelducks, Wood Sandpiper and a Mountain Chiffchaff. Further on we skirted the vast Lake Sevan, to which we would return a few days hence, and were beguiled by dazzling White-winged Terns and the first of many smart Armenian Gulls among many other delights. The taster gave way to a full-on feast further on as we viewed a body of water set amid grassland and with a backdrop of snow-topped mountains. Against such a background the lone Black-winged Stilt and Gull-billed Tern looked somehow incongruous, as did the scores of White-winged Terns, but the stars of the show here were a lone Baltic Gull, a Garganey, two dazzling and confiding White-winged Snowfinches and a small number of slightly less dazzling Rock Sparrows. The snowfinches were soon joined by a group of Rock Sparrows and, whilst the attention of most of was focussed on this rather confiding flock of birds, a splinter group from our party had wandered off and located a Siberian Stonechat further down the road. An immature Steppe Eagle was spotted at our next stop, but this magnificent bird wasn’t on show for long as it glided gracefully over the hillside before disappearing into a gulley and out of sight.
The culture vultures among us were not to be disappointed either. Further towards our destination of Vayk we encountered a fascinating Silk Road “hotel” – the Orbelyan Caravanserai. This remarkably well-preserved trading post and rest stop for Silk Road travellers was built in 1332. Once bustling and filled with traders and their livestock, now it was empty, dark and strangely atmospheric.
In the rather cold light of day outside, birding, of course, continued apace, with the highlights being a fine male Rock Thrush and several Ortolan Buntings, one of which mesmerised its admirers by shuffling around at their feet.
At last we ascended the winding road to the Hotel Amrots, perched high up, fortress-like, above the pleasant little town of Vayk. European Scops Owls were to lure us with their odd, monotonous calls after a hearty meal in a nearby restaurant and as we trudged wearily through the darkness back up the slope to our hotel some of us could not resist the comparison between the warm welcome we received at the charming Amrots establishment and the cold, surly attitude of those border men in their “dinner-plate” hats who stared at us with steely gaze a few hours previously.
Ortolan Bunting Arrmenia - R Weale
Saturday 7th May: Vayk to Agarak
Some of the group were up early and birded from around the hotel. Birding was brilliant as the hotel was situated high above the town of Vayk, overlooking mountain slopes and gardens. From our superb vantage point, we managed to locate a good selection of birds before breakfast which included: European Bee-eaters, Syrian Woodpeckers, Black-eared Wheatear, Western Rock Nuthatch, White Stork, Lesser Grey Shrike, Rock Thrush, Hoopoe and Rock Bunting to name a few.
After breakfast, we left the Hotel Amorots (Castle Hotel – there were false turrets on the walls around the hotel to give the building a castle effect) and got rolling by 9am. After a short distance, we were birdwatching along the minor road to Zedea. The two mini-buses parked up and we ventured into an area of rocky scrub, with a fast-running river under a road bridge and rolling hills, habitat that was teaming with birds.
The group split up to explore different areas along this quiet dirt road. We spent nearly two hours here with some good species seen. Highlights included: Eastern Rock Nuthatch, White-throated Robin, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Barred Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear, Woodchat Shrike, Black-headed Bunting, Woodlark, Crag Martins, Rock Bunting, Rosy Starlings, Alpine Swift and Long-legged Buzzard to name but a few.
We left this site around 11am and headed for Agarak with stops on the way and some of the journey following the famous Silk Road. The next stop was at Spandarian at 12.15pm, an area with rolling hills one topped by a communications establishment. This was a known Lesser Kestrel breeding site where they nest on the buildings. Highlights included: Lesser Kestrels, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Twite and Tree Pipit, an enjoyable stop with plenty of action going on.
We were back on the road again at 12.40pm and stopped again at 1.10pm at a historical site called Zorats Qarer (Mighty Stones) a Stonehenge look-alike! We searched in vain here for Bimaculated Lark but the highlights were: Lesser Kestrels, Corn Buntings and Skylarks with very little else seen, so we were on the move again at 2.10pm.
We travelled for an hour and twenty minutes before stopping for lunch in a hotel in Goris. This was a superb lunch stop with the tables laid out banquet-style although it did consume another hour of birding time. Griffon Vultures and Ravens were spotted on the next stage of our journey and we were treated to a huge thunderstorm.
It was now 16.30pm and still some distance to travel to our final destination of Agarak. Back on the buses and on the move again, “Steve P” was on good form telling few interesting stories from his travelling experiences, it was very entertaining with plenty of banter for good measure. It was a very scenic journey as we travelled through three stunning wooded gorges. A brief comfort stop produced little on the bird front, but did produce two stunning Man Orchids.
We had to traverse the highest mountain pass in the old Soviet bloc at 2,535m (8,316 feet) to reach our next destination – Meghri, which runs through the Arevik National Park. It was stunning. Adrian was feeling the strain as he was rather fearful of the sheer drops below unguarded mountain roads.
We arrived in Meghri at 8.30 pm when it was almost dark! We had a brief stop so the guides could buy wine and beer for our evening meal and, whilst we waited, Ali declared that it was far too late to eat as, when he is at home at this time of night, his wife Pam would be bringing him his cup of cocoa and taking his slippers off ready for bedtime! The rest of the group were intrigued and enquired as to what time he got up in the morning! He said 6.30 a.m., so when challenged about his Rip Van Winkle type (ten hours per night) sleep pattern; he said that he did have to get up in the night several times!
The final leg of our journey to Agarak took us past the fenced border with Iran. The group then split into two as we had to stay in two hotels to accommodate us all, the Marishok and the LM. Luckily, the hotels were just a short walk across the town square from each other.
Dinner had been arranged in the Marishok for 9 pm and it was a special day for Dick Walden as he was celebrating his birthday. He had been trying to keep this event secret, but “mission control” had been tipped off by Dick’s wife Mandy, so tonight became a big celebratory dinner. Granty opened proceedings by announcing that it was Dick’s birthday followed by a rather tasteful (by his standards) speech. Dick was then presented with a card that had been secretly signed by everyone else on the trip, and a very large birthday cake with “Happy Birthday Dick” inscribed on top. Our drivers and guides also gave him a presentation case of a cigarette box, a lighter and a hip flask. We all sang “Happy birthday” and, thankfully, Ali stayed awake throughout the proceedings despite consuming huge quantities of wine including the dregs from the tables throughout the restaurant!
It had been a long day, but with some fantastic birds, a good meal, Birthday Celebrations and all washed down with a few beers and wine – what a great day.
Western Rock Nuthatch juv - Eddie Marsh
Long-legged Buzzard - Eddie Marsh
Orchid sp - Eddie Marsh
Sunday 8th May: Valley and mountains east of Vank near Meghri
(John Garbutt and Carol Elliott)
We had spent the night in Agarak’s Hotel ML and it was time for breakfast, so we made our way through the hotel’s reception area to find that some of our group had already been out birdwatching just a short walk away. Among other birds, they had found a target species in this area: Ménétries’s Warbler named after a Frenchman, Édouard Ménétries, who first described it in 1832 – thus the
bird’s name should be pronounced “May-nay- trees-es”. We would have a look ourselves the following morning.
After breakfast, including tea with no milk (surely a flavour improvement?) and while waiting for the day’s transport to arrive, we saw Laughing Dove and House and Tree Sparrows sitting on and around the adjacent buildings. We were met by three 4x4 vehicles that would enable us to achieve the day’s excursion by driving up into the mountains. Which vehicle should we choose: the one with the broken side window or the one with the cracked windscreen? We chose the third one and were joined by Rob and Helen Gooderham. The other half of our party soon arrived from the Hotel Marishok with three more 4x4s. Our drivers (park rangers) were dressed in smart military fatigues that seemed to be connected with the Armenian army. Indeed, our driver (who we nicknamed “Jensen” for reasons that will become apparent) had the word “Armenia” velcroed onto his shoulder band and saluted another man when he arrived. As three of the drivers looked like grandfather, father and son, we suspected some nepotism in the Armenian forces.
The convoy of 4x4s set off from Agarak dodging numerous potholes towards a “T” junction where we joined the M2 road, marked by the kind of blue signs that would denote motorways in the UK. However, this M2 had just one lane each way, its condition was rather poor and there was no hard shoulder. We turned left alongside a high barbed wire fence that protects the border with Iran.
Over the fence is some no-mans’- land then the River Aras which forms the boundary at this point between Armenia and Iran. On the other side we could see a road with lorries driving on it and an Iranian town.
Although the Armenian people in Agarak and Meghri live alongside the border with Iran, there was no sign of tension. Indeed, there is clearly some regular interchange between the two countries because we saw lorries with Iranian registration plates driving to and from the border. At another “T” junction, the road sign told us that straight ahead would take us into Iran and it did cross our minds that we could easily have been kidnapped by our drivers. However, we turned left on the M2 towards the large Armenian town of Meghri with the river of the same name on our right.
Armenia is a very mountainous country so there is usually just one main road between the larger towns and the topography demands that the roads run beside the fast flowing rivers at the bottom of the gorges. Because there is only one road, open-sided tunnels have been constructed at vulnerable points so that the roads can be kept open when snowfall and avalanches would make them impassable. These open-sided tunnels only seem to be used when the roads would otherwise be closed and on this particular road, they were sited on an old road surface close to the hillside. On another day, we did drive through one of these tunnels – it had no metalled road surface and two large vehicles could not pass one another so we had to reverse out to let an oncoming lorry pass.
After driving several kilometres along the M2, we turned left over a small bridge and then onto a single track road that would take us up these particular mountains that are situated within a “Natural Park”. The road surface started off as deplorable but then deteriorated. And, of course, you can’t drive directly up a mountain but need to navigate numerous “hairpin” bends and short “straights”. We were re-assured that someone would have carried out a full Risk Assessment and expected that this could be found alongside the Accident Book.
Jensen had failed to take “pole position” on the starting grid and clearly wanted to move to the front. Once in the lead (yes, Jensen did manage to overtake on this mountain track), it was clear that he did not want his turbo-charged 4x4 to be overtaken until we crossed the finishing line. Some unavoidable deep potholes were taken slowly and we avoided numerous rock falls, including one very large rock that caused Jensen to utter what we assumed to be an Armenian expletive. With just one metre of road surface to the side of our vehicles wheels and certain death if we slipped over the adjacent precipice, even Jensen thought it necessary to reduce his speed.
Along the road, we passed a building that was used as a base for the Natural Park. Jensen proudly told us that it was his office and that he was the Director. We were relieved that he would be familiar with the road. A few minutes later, we passed through a small village high up in the mountains and wondered whether the occupants lived there all year or just in the less cold months.
Most people will never encounter a road surface as bad as this but eventually it was deep snow, rather than the road’s poor condition, that made it impossible to proceed further. So we exited the 4x4s, bruised mentally and physically, but WHAT A FANTASTIC PLACE TO BE. Our elevation was close to the mountains’ summits and we could enjoy distant views towards the valleys below.
A target bird was the Caspian Snowcock that frequents this lofty habitat and, as its name suggests,
survives on the snow line. One was soon found close to a mountain peak but eventually there were perhaps three, silhouetted against the sky. We also found Whinchats and, perhaps surprisingly at this high level, Common Cuckoo. Wolf tracks were found in the snow and we believe that one of our guides actually saw one disappearing out of view.
Next we walked part way down the mountain and were collected by the vehicles that drove us to our lunch point beside a fast-running stream and waterfall. It would have been a picturesque spot apart from various iron objects that had been placed across the stream to enable the other bank to be reached. There were also plastic bottles placed on branches as some crude form of decoration.
Packed lunches (including vegetarian) arrived somehow and we seemed unaffected by the thousands of insects that swarmed exactly over the water itself. Over a leisurely lunch, we saw a Golden Eagle above, Mountain Chiffchaff singing in the scrub around us and had perfect views of a target bird: Green Warbler.
After lunch, we set off down the mountain and were perhaps relieved when Jensen reached the “less bad” road surface of the M2 that took us back alongside the border with Iran. At a “T” junction we could either turn right towards our hotel town of Agarak, but we turned left towards Iran. Soon afterwards, Jensen uttered another Armenian expletive then, in English, “problem”. His much- abused, turbo-charged 4x4 had stuttered to a halt. The other drivers soon arrived, the vehicle’s bonnet was opened, there was much disconnection of parts but the engine would only splutter and backfire through the turbocharger. Soon another car arrived with a young driver who we called “Lewis” because he had clearly been taught to drive by the same instructor as Jensen, who we left forlornly looking at his injured pride and joy. We started in the direction of the Iranian border but immediately turned left onto a dirt road that took us about one kilometre into a narrow gorge.
Almost immediately a target species appeared: both male and female Persian Wheatears, now a separate species having been split with the Kurdish Wheatear from the Red-rumped Wheatear in recent years. Eastern Orphean Warblers were nesting in the gorge’s scrub where Black-headed Buntings were also visible, a Blue Rock Thrush appeared on the horizon, a Griffon Vulture soared lazily overhead, two Chukars announced their appearance, and some further Ménétries’s Warblers were easy to locate.
Other birds noted included: Grey Partridge, Egyptian Vulture, Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Feral Pigeon or Rock Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Common Swift, European Bee-eater, Common Skylark, Eurasian Crag Martin, Water Pipit, White Wagtail, Common Nightingale, Northern Wheatear, Western Black-eared Wheatear, Common Blackbird, Ring Ouzel, Upcher’s Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Eastern Rock Nuthatch, Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough, Hooded Crow, and Common Linnet.
We then headed back to our hotels which gave Lewis the opportunity to drive very fast with his radio at full volume. Fortunately the drive was fairly short!
Back at the hotel, and after a shower, I was sitting in the reception area when I was approached by Susie – a slim and very attractive girl who had served us with breakfast many hours before. Her English was only slightly better than my Armenian, but I was able to understand that at school she had learned only two foreign languages – German and Russian. She needed to learn English and therefore just wanted to talk.
Next, those of us in the Hotel ML were driven the short distance across Agarak’s main square for dinner at the hotel occupied by the other half of our party. We were tired but happy and slept soundly in anticipation of tomorrow’s early start to find the local Ménétries’s Warblers.
Menetriess Warbler, Eddie Marsh
Eastern Orphean Warbler - Eddie Marsh
Monday 9th May: Agarak – Vayk
The day dawned fine and sunny around the town of Agarak, and the early birders amongst us had a pre-breakfast wander, finding Menetries Warblers, Hoopoe and Syrian Woodpeckers. This was followed by a short drive to Meghri – along the fortified wire border fencing that separated us from Iran – where we were to be shown a special place for birds. Along the route, three Rollers showed on tree tops whilst those that cared to registered themselves a few Iranian "ticks".
Arriving at our destination we duly alighted from our minibuses and split into small groups to give the area a good grilling. Soon news of a male Levant Sparrowhawk perched in a tree crackled over the radios and thus we discovered the reason for the "special" tag given to our visit – breeding Levant Sparrowhawks! As everyone enjoyed good views of the male and female, a nest was found delighting one and all still further! A few Common Rosefinches also showed themselves in the rather allotment-like surroundings and indeed we were invited into one such smallholding by a very friendly Armenian. As we passed through the gardens, we noted a plethora of insect life at every level of vegetation, something sorely missing back home.
Back then to Agarak for breakfast with a few Rosy Starlings and Crag Martins being viewed as we again passed the border with Iran before starting our journey back to Vayk.
Leaving Agarak, we travelled along winding roads that snaked up and down following Armenia’s ancient Silk Road, roads that at times were lined with familiar species of trees such as Oak, Elm, Maple, Beech and Sorbus. As this was going to be a long day’s drive for our Armenian hosts’ frequent pit stops/nicotine breaks were needed for all: it was during one such break near Karajan overlooking a deep valley that a close encounter with an adult Lammergeyer gave us one of best views that we had of this species all trip. Passing a medieval fortress (13th Century), built high up on the steep cliff sides, was a statue of a bear holding a ring of keys in its mouth. Checking with the guide book we learned that this is the symbol of the region of Syunik. Stopping alongside for a photo opportunity, birds noted were both Grey and White Wagtails with a smart male Blue Rock Thrush all alongside a torrent of a river – very picturesque! As we travelled towards Voroyan, a superb adult Egyptian Vulture hung over one of the numerous deep valleys. Stopping to look over another such valley, keen eyes picked out a well camouflaged Praying Mantis, Queen of Spain Fritillary, Green-winged Orchid, Lady and Man type Orchids with Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and a Short-toed Eagle seen in the area. On to Goris and we were surprised to find the town full of people, not to welcome our party but in celebration of the victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War on the 9th May 1945 – an event which is still maintained to this day.
After another exceedingly fine lunch that was exceedingly large as well, Ara (our guide) was keen for us to visit the Volatan River Gorge at the Wings of Tatev. This site has gained an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as it has the longest reversible cable car in the world, an impressive feat of engineering to say the least. This area was where Ara had seen four Eagles stacked atop one another. It was not for us today although we did note Rock Thrush, Red-backed Shrike, Long-legged Buzzard and an unexpected Striped Hawkmoth.
We travelled higher along our route and as a consequence colder, stonier fields, near Sarnakunk, looked good for Bimaculated Lark, so searches were made either side of the road. No Bimacs were found, but if only fields back home held such avian numbers as these four fields. There were hundreds of Skylarks, Water Pipits, five Lesser Grey Shrikes a few Whinchats and, amazingly, over a hundred Common Rosefinches in just one field. As we descended once more towards Vayk a herd of cattle, known simply in Armenian as "Kov" (no breed name), was being driven off the roadside hills.
It was one silly "Kov" that decided to put our minibus brakes to the test. The brakes performed admirably and we stopped with a few millimetres to spare, affording no injuries in or out of the vehicle. The rest of our journey remained uneventful and we arrived at the excellent Amrots (Castle)
Hotel in Vayk once again.
Menetries's Warbler - Eddie Marsh xxx
Striped Hawkmoth - Will Brame
Tuesday 10th May: The amazing Armash Fish Ponds
Most of us were up again for pre-breakfast birding at the Castle Hotel. The birds seemed quite comparable to when we were overnighted here three days earlier with our only highlight being two young White Storks, their heads just peeping above the nest, whilst their parent stood guard.
By 7.40 a.m., we were all packed up and in the minibuses, heading towards Surevan, losing height with every metre travelled. D’Weasel led the way by shouting the names of the birds seen from the bus.
We arrived at the Armash Fish Ponds at 9 05 a.m. and whilst waiting for the gates to open, we noted Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters on the wires, plus Pygmy Cormorants and Night Herons flying over.
The Armash Fish Ponds are one of the Caucasus’ richest ornithological hot spots, boasting the largest concentration of bird life in Armenia, with an impressive species list of 220.
It is overlooked on the western side by the Twin Mountains of Mount Ararat and on the southern side it runs up to the Turkish border. Mount Ararat in currently in the Republic of Turkey, but was formerly part of Armenia’s historic homeland until the 1915 Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman Government systematically exterminated around 1.5 million of its minority Armenian subjects. The Bible says that Mount Ararat was the final resting place of Noah’s Ark after 150 days, but so far this has not been proven.
We walked around the first pond with Great Reed, Paddyfield, Eastern Olivaceous, Reed and Menetries Warblers plus Rufus Bushchats and Bearded Tits. On the ponds, two Red-necked Phalaropes, 150 Little Stints, 100 Ruff, two Kentish Plovers, 70 Ringed Plover, a Little Ringed Plover, 20 Curlew Sandpiper, six Spotted Redshanks, a Greenshank, a Green Sandpiper, three Common Sandpipers, 150 Wood Sandpipers, two Greater Sand Plovers, single Temminck’s Stint, Terek and Marsh Sandpipers, five Broad-billed Sandpipers, two Turnstone, seven Grey Plover, three Dunlin, 30 Black-winged Stilts, four Avocets and four Oystercatchers. A scan through the gull flock revealed 2 Pallas’, 60 Slender-billed, one Mediterranean and 100 Armenian Gulls and the terns included three Little, ten Gull-billed, ten Whiskered, 1,000 White-winged and three Common Terns. A total of 12 White-tailed Lapwings were holding territory and other species of note included: six Lapwings, 40 Collared Pratincoles, 12 Grey Herons, 20 Purple Herons, 100 Glossy Ibis, 80 Black-crowned Night Heron, three Squacco Herons, 20 Little Egrets and 30 Marsh Harriers. A migrating flock of 35 White Pelicans and 13 Dalmatian Pelicans was certainly worthy of note.
Watching around the first pool had taken us well into lunch time, but our “Meals on Wheels Lady” surprised us with a superb lunch of Spaghetti Bolognese plus the usual goodies.
After lunch, we scanned a few pools that contained 13 White-headed Ducks, 100 Red-crested Pochard, 40 Pochard, 40 Ferruginous Ducks, five Tufted Ducks, 12 Gadwall, ten Teal and two Mallard. Two Savi’s Warblers were reeling from deep in the reedbed and six Lesser Short-toed Larks were seen on the tracks.
This day had been by far the hottest of the trip, and by the time we got to the transits at 5.40pm, I just felt about done in, but everyone agreed that this had been the best day’s birding they had ever had anywhere. As I looked around the minibus on the way back to Yerevan, all I could see were happy souls sleeping. We arrived at the Capitol Hotel, Yerevan, at 7pm and all went to find a cashpoint and get some snacks at a supermarket. We finished off our once-in- a-lifetime day with drinks and snacks at the Silk Road Hotel.
Armash Fish Ponds - Eddie Marsh
Wednesday 11th May: Mount Aragats
(John and Becky Bedwell)
We drove up the rounded slopes of Mt Aragats on a paved road and, on reaching an area of juniper, we found our target species, Radde’s Accentor, with little difficulty. Superb views were had of several birds. Unfortunately, no Bluethroats were found, but White-throated Robin, Ring Ouzel and Ortolan Bunting were some compensation.
[Insert image 21]We continued to the 10 th -13 th Century Amberd Castle and a nearby track yielded Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, three Lammergeyers, Short-toed Eagle, three Cuckoos together with further White-throated Robin, Ring Ouzel and Ortolan Bunting. A few moments of controversy came with distant view of a large lark which was thought by some to be a Bimaculated Lark! The bird was clearly singing, but was far too distant for any notes to be heard. A small party clambered up the hillside in the hope of obtaining better but to no avail.[Insert image 10][Insert image 22]A superb lunch was delivered by 4-wheel drive before we continued higher up the mountain in an effort to locate Crimson-winged Finch. We reached the snow-line and could go no further and spread out in our search – but to no avail. However, there was compensation in the form of Skylarks, Horned Larks, Water Pipits, Twite and a magnificent display of pink crocus carpeting the mountainside. It felt like you were on top of the world with the mountains all around you. Stunning!
Rain stopped play for the rest of the day so we returned to our hotel to get ready for the evening entertainment at the Silk Road Hotel.
Dinner that night was a feast held at the adjacent Silk Road Hotel accompanied by a local band and preceded by a demonstration of traditional lavash bread- making. Two women made an efficient production line, one woman rolling out pieces of dough on a floured baking board and a second skilfully stretching the dough into thin sheets by throwing it to and fro in the air and laying it on a special padded implement, a batat. The dough was swiftly and firmly applied by means of the batat to the wall of the sunken oven or tonir to cook. This only took a brief time and was removed with a hook and added to a pile of lavash that we promptly consumed together with numerous delicious nibbles and local red wine.
Over dinner, our band played traditional Armenian musical instruments: duduk (a flute-like instrument), kanon (a plucked instrument similar to a Zither), dhol (a big drum), oud (type of flute), tar (a long-necked, Persian, stringed instrument) and vocal. The young musicians were all members of the conservatoire in Yerevan, their music amazing and thoroughly enjoyed by us all.
It was another great day of the tour and, to cap it all, we went to bed with the news that Norwich City had been relegated from the Premier League. Icing on the cake or what!
Radde’s Accentor, Eddie Marsh
Local Band in Yerevan SteveP
Thursday 12th May: Vedi
As the haunting melodies of the Armenian musicians faded and the lullabies of Brahms and List took hold a new performance by the Yerevan Canine Choir started with renditions of Bach and Woofgang Mozart. These too faded as the dawn turned into a pink hue and the first birds awoke to sing.
Blackbird was first, joined shortly by many other songsters. Swifts, in their countless legions, were screaming past balconies and windows in pursuit of food. Going upstairs to breakfast was different but the view was great. Boarding the mini-buses at 0800 the journey to Vedi was hampered by major road works and the diversion of traffic through small tracks and unsuitable roads. The “rush hour” did not help. Clearing the traffic, a stop for water was next. This provided an interesting observation of armed military personnel getting out of private cars and shopping in the “supermarket”.
Passing through the town of Vedi and heading North a rubbish tip was negotiated to get to the birding site, or so we thought. We bounced over very rough arid ground, which all the trip reports state is only suitable for four wheel drives. Our mini-buses coped very well (must have been all the weight in them!). A swimming pool was found, minus water and bikini-clad clientele in the middle of nowhere; it did have a couple of wrecked cars and a lot of rubbish around it though. There was no sign of any buildings – very strange. As we piled out of the vans, a penetrating, high-pitched song alerted us to the presence of Pale Rock Sparrow, then a male Finsch’s and a pair of Isabelline Wheatears feeding young. A Red Fox was seen watching us from a ridge above where Long-legged Buzzards were soaring. We continued walking along the dry wadi for some way, but there was no sign of any Grey-necked Buntings, one of our target birds. However, a couple of birds in some scrub demanded attention. These turned out to be Desert Finches, outside of their normal range so quite a find. Nika rushed past and informed us that we were in the wrong wadi, there should have been a water source crossing the track. Back to the vehicles and transferring to the correct wadi, a trek up this one soon produced another Isabelline Wheatear pair and an Eastern Rock Nuthatch all within sight of the buses. Continuing on we came across the water that we had been looking for. A call came back from further up the wadi that a singing Grey-necked Bunting had been located. Whilst watching this bird a large bird of prey was found close behind us. This Long-legged Buzzard was displaying and calling and was soon joined by its mate. Very good views were had by all. Returning to the water source several birds were coming down to drink: Goldfinches were in evidence, mainly by their calls but several Trumpeter Finches were drinking and bathing. Walking back towards the vehicles a Lammergeyer was seen soaring over the ridges of the surrounding mountains with distant views of Stock Dove on a rock pinnacle a bonus. We were back into the vehicles for a short ride to a rendezvous point for lunch. Yet again the mobile caterers had packed up a hot meal for us all and transported it to the middle of nowhere. There was a shelter which seated a number of people with a table and a roof to keep off the sun. These seem to be all over the place in Armenia. We had been using them for the last couple of days for shelter as we ate our food. The meal was delicious, as usual, and consumed with bread and hot drinks. Whilst eating, a flock of 22 Rose-coloured Starling flew over, among the many we had seen on the trip. Tree Sparrow was present around the picnic site as was a Little Ringed Plover.
During the afternoon the group split to allow most to return to the fish ponds and a small group (John and Rebecca Bedwell and Rob and Helen Gooderham) to attend a cultural tour of Yerevan.
Aras acted as the guide and he was very happy to show us some of the places of interest with the help of our expert driver. It turned out that we were in good company as Aras’s grandfather, Alexander Tamanyan was an Armenian architect living and working in Moscow and in 1924 was commissioned to plan the design and development of the city of Yerevan. Alexander incorporated national traditions into the building designs, took account of siting industrial parts downwind of the city, exploiting views of Mount Ararat and creating grand squares and boulevards with extensive tree planting to moderate the summer temperatures.
Our first stop is a book shop with a glass floor with a two-storey drop below. There is an exhibition of maps that feature Armenia. We are given a helpful and interesting tour of the exhibits in a variety of languages. The second stop was the Museum of Alexander Tamanyan, which is directed by Aras’s brother. We are given a most hospitable welcome and an exhaustive guide to the works of Alexander by an enthusiastic female curator. Aras later took us to the central square and buildings that were built as designed by his grandfather.
Third stop was the Mother of Armenia Monument. This is a stature and pedestal over 50m high installed in 1962 representing ‘peace through strength’ which replaced a stature of Stalin.
Fourth stop was the Genocide Memorial to the genocide around 1915 of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, now the Turkish Republic – an impressive contemporary spiked monument with an underground eternal flame. These are located above the city with panoramic views. Many tributes in the form of planted trees from nation states and individuals are located around the monument.
For the birders, the journey continued onto the Armash Fishponds. No booking had been made so much talking was done by the guides to get permission to enter. Finally in, the plan was to walk the pool where two days ago there had been so many waders and gulls. A clockwise circuit was taken in very hot, sunny conditions. Having been ill a few days previously I walked up to the meeting point and sat under a shady tree. I passed the time watching a pair of Kingfisher in a bank side nest going about their chores feeding young. I also had the company of several Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and a couple of Eurasian Bee-eaters. Many Purple and Night Heron were flying about whilst in the distance, towards the river that marks the boundary with Turkey, flew myriads of Sand Martins.
These were being harassed by the Marsh Harriers and a couple of Hobbies. Another good selection of waders was noted around the fishponds including: 20 Black-winged Stilts, 37 Wood Sandpipers, another Little Ringed Plover, 18 Grey, 30 Ringed and 15 Kentish Plovers, 58 Black-tailed Godwits, 14 Broad-billed Sandpipers, 150 Curlew Sandpipers, five Terek Sandpipers, three Red-necked Phalaropes, a Snipe and with two Temminck’s Stints amongst 200 Little Stints. The roosting gull flock was slightly larger than it was two days ago with 100 Armenian, 80 Slender-billed, six Caspian and a single Pallas’s Gull. There was another good showing of White-winged Black Terns plus seven Little and a single Black Tern.
At the allotted time to meet, the sky was looking very ominous. Rain could be seen falling in the distance from very black clouds. These were heading in our direction. Back into the bus and moving to the crossroads where we had lunch two days ago it was decided to split into four groups and take a path per group. A Paddyfield Warbler had been heard close to the cross-roads so this was sought, with reasonable views. The rain started but was fairly light. Many of the photographers were attempting to take pictures of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. The clouds were building over Mount Ararat and light was getting bad by now. Eventually the groups returned having had varied success.
We left the fish ponds and had an easier return to Yerevan. The speed of the traffic in the city, even when it is nose-to- tail is amazing and there appears to be a free-for- all and no speed limits on roundabouts. However, everything keeps moving and cars in Armenia and Georgia seem to last a forever with numerous mechanics’ lock-ups along every street, even in the smallest of hamlets. When vehicles finally “die” they are left in the countryside or used as fences for livestock. Arriving back at the Hotel we were greeted by roadworks outside the Hotel with the ensuing chaos.
Going into the hotel to get ready for the evening meal, which was again in the Silk Road Hotel, next door, was accomplished with care. On coming back out to go to dinner the road works had turned into a long trench with the tarmac taken off and no warning signs at all. Cyclists beware, although we saw very few in the city. I wonder why?
The meal was again superb, the wine and beer flowed freely and everyone was content until The Log! This was done in customary fashion with much banter and to the bemusement of the Hotel staff, who kept appearing to try to clear the tables of the dishes. Retiring to bed with thoughts of the days past and the few days left of the trip any choir was forgotten.
Vedi-Hills, I Levett
Desert Finch, R. Weale
Grey-necked Bunting, R. Weale
Slender-billed Gulls, R. Weale
Friday 13th May: Gedi Gorge and Sevan Lake
After an early breakfast we left the Hotel Capital in Yerevan at 9.15am. As we drove out of the city our guides pointed out a large imposing statue on top of a hill which seemed to dominate the skyline. The figure we were told was Mesrop Mashtots who created the original Armenian alphabet of 36 characters.
After leaving the city we drove north to our first stop of the day the Geghand Monastery. To reach it we drove into a deep-sided valley. The car park by the monastery entrance was lined with several stalls all manned by elderly ladies dressed in black and all selling the same wares: – “Gata” an almond flavoured sponge/pastry pie. These appeared to be the size of manhole covers and could be purchased by the slice and “Sujukh” a salami-sized confection of nuts and fruit juices. Rebecca and Helen bought some of these and allowed us all to try them later. The surrounding cliffs contained a Crag Martin colony and above it several Alpine Swifts were spotted as was a displaying Goshawk, with a few other raptors also seen.
After 15 minutes we left the tourist spot only to arrive at another – the Gedi Gorge. The car park here was also lined with the same stalls and the same wares. We quickly walked passed these and entered the gorge. Several Syrian Woodpeckers were seen well by the edge. Most of the party walked down into the Gorge. Those of us that stayed behind were treated to a Western Rock Nuthatch which posed close by several times. A male Levant Sparrowhawk also showed well below us. It was hoped that the Bimaculated Lark might be present here, but sadly none were found. We left at 12.30 and our drivers then took us north to Lake Sevan, arriving at 1.45pm. After a short drive along the lake edge we arrived at our lunch stop at the Bashinjaghian Tea House and Restaurant. As we drove in an enormous tea pot on a pole marked the entrance. It was coloured crimson with white spots like a fly-agaric toadstool. The restaurant décor was extremely rustic but the windows allowed us to view the lake, which had very clear blue water, but most importantly we were able to see the numerous Armenian Gulls well. The lunch consisted of fresh breads and salads; we were also served Sig – a fish that was caught in the lake.
After lunch we were driven further along the lake until we stopped at an open grassy area a short distance from the shore. There were also a few belts of planted pine. It was quite sunny but a brisk breeze was blowing. We spotted a Clouded Yellow which Steve managed tried to catch. It was a very bright pristine individual, but we still couldn’t identify it with certainty. To the right up a path several Yellow Wagtails were spotted and it soon became apparent that a large number of several different races were present. A stunning yellow-headed (lutea) was a real star, along with grey-headed (thunbergi), Sykes (beema) and the now familiar black-headed (feldegg).
A Red-Throated Pipit with a rusty read throat and three Short-toed Larks were also among this flock and a Woodchat Shrike put in a late appearance. The Shrike was of the race niloticus and it flew to some nearby bushes. Leaving Eddie behind to photograph the Shrike, we walked towards the lake.
At the shore, several hundred White-winged Black Terns were in the air – a magnificent sight.
Skulking in a strip of reeds in the open water were several ducks. Shoveler, Garganey, Gadwall and 2 Ferruginous Ducks were all present. Some of our party had explored the nearby pine belt and had seen several Green Warblers and Redstarts.
We left Lake Sevan at 5.30pm and headed for the Dilijan National Park. The park was thickly forested and verdant compared to most of Armenia. Our hotel, the Villarest, was situated on a steep slope overlooking the valley. The hotel was faced with grey stones and had exposed beams a number of chalets at the rear were in the same style. We had arrived at 6.30pm and in the hour before dinner several diehards were out exploring the hotel grounds. The surrounding trees soon gave up Semi-collared Flycatcher, Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker and several Middle-Spotted Woodpeckers.
Dinner was at 7.30pm in a large downstairs hall: a splendid buffet was laid out and the wine flowed freely. Everybody reflected on what had been another memorable day and then it was time for bed!
Red-throated Pipit, Eddie Marsh
Middle-spotted Woodpecker, R. Weale
Saturday 14th May: Back to Tbilisi
Primarily a travelling day, but we were up before breakfast birdwatching individually in the woods and trees around Villa Rest, Dilijan. Notable species observed included Wryneck, Semi-collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers and Black and Middle-spotted Woodpeckers. We were away by 11am heading for the Georgian border and Tbilisi.
En route, a short pause by the roadside yielded Long-legged Buzzard, Stonechat, Lammergeyer and Lesser Grey Shrike, as well as a number of butterflies, which included a Green-underside Blue. A subsequent pre-lunch stop by a monastery gave Honey Buzzard and Griffon Vulture. Some of the party followed a narrow mountain path up towards the monastery which wandered through gardens of houses. As we plodded up the narrow trail, a Dahl’s Whip Snake was accidently trodden on and killed. It was taken back to D’Weasel for formal identification! A family in one of the houses was selling honey and invited Helen, Rob and me in for some cake – Helen bought some honey. The rest of the party stayed close to the bus and looked for insects. A Spotted Sulphur moth and several Orange Tips were noted, but the butterfly of the trip was a Hungarian Glider, which gave an amazing display as it glided up and down a railway track. The heavens then opened and most took refuge in the bus whilst those up high scampered down the hill. The rain soon passed and the sun was out again but there was no sign of the glider, which was much to Steve’s disgust and D’Weasel’s amusement – Hungarian glider would have been new to Steve’s list and D’Weasel had now got it on his! An Amenian Rock Lizard was photographed as it rested beside an old hut.
We had a superb lunch at the Aqefilyan hotel in Haghpat and then we looked for further butterflies on the slopes. We watched Caucasian Agamas sunbathing on the rocks, Scarce Swallowtail butterflies flitting around the hillside and another Redstart of the race Samamisicus. A breeding colony of Griffon Vultures on the opposite side of the gorge was scanned and a large chick could be seen in one of the nests.
The border crossing didn’t go without incident as Ernie (lucky) Lucking decided to break from the crowd and sneak over the border on his own leaving his fellow travellers to take his cases full of contraband through customs! He was gone for some time and we began to wonder whether he had been picked up by the espionage authorities having attempted his single-man crossing incognito!
We eventually found him on the Georgian side of the border when he nonchalantly asked what had kept us!
At the border crossing we saw House Sparrows, Swallows, Goldfinches and a second Hungarian Glider butterfly (Steve missed this one too!). Later, from the bus in Georgia, we saw a flock of around 20 Rose-coloured Starlings.
Red-breasted Flycatcher, R. Weale
Hungarian Glider, Will Brame
Sunday 15th May: Homeward Bound
Not too much to report for final day other than commenting that all twenty two who left returned home safe and sound.
As we waited for our transport we listened to the sound of two nightingales making their presence felt in the heart of Tbilisi centre. Maybe they did sing in Barclay Square all those years ago! At 4.30 a.m. our 22- seat maximum minibus arrived but there was no internal storage space! This was confirmed when, much to everyone’s amazement, our luggage was piled onto vehicle roof rack. With no bungees or rope available, it was tied down and secured with flimsy makeshift nylon string. Once the luggage was loaded our bus looked like an overburdened and uncared for Donkey. On our way to the airport, all eyes were glued to the road behind to make sure no baggage was left in our wake. Some of us made space for others by hiring a couple of taxis. Ten minutes into journey and after going through numerous red traffic lights and down one way streets the wrong direction, the driver assistant turned to our translator D’Weasel and in Georgian uttered a few words that only D’Weasel would understand. It was believed that he asking whether we were heading in the right direction for the airport! Thankfully, we arrived at airport with no lost luggage.
Our overall perception of Armenia is of the mountainous terrain and the profusion of birds and species. This is largely due to the low population density of three million, so that much of the country seems unaffected by human intervention. In the UK, the two primary environmental statistics are that 60% of our native wildlife species are in decline and 70% of our land is farmland. On our way home to Rumburgh we saw that the hedge-free yellow prairies of oilseed rape were being sprayed. Is there a connection with the fact that this year, our small House Martin colony seems to be just three birds whereas ten left last year and 16 the year before? We hope Armenia’s wildlife will never suffer similar adversity – John Garbutt.
The distinct difference between birding in Georgia and Armenia, where flocks of thousands of birds were to be seen, was apparent on the journey from Gatwick home, where on close scrutiny the odd Crow was to be observed! – Roger Buxton.
For the second successive year, WBC entered a team in the Santa Hell Run at Heveningham Hall. It is without doubt a “Hell of a Fun Run”, but the route took in some of the best countryside Suffolk has to offer.
Proceedings started with a 3.3km multi-terrain race for all of Santa’s Little Helpers who were encouraged to dress up in their “Elf” or “Fairy” outfit with a prize for the “Best Dressed Elf” and “Best Dressed Fairy”. All runners in the Santa’s Little Helper Race received a medal that doubles as a Christmas Tree Decoration and, after the race, Santa was there to welcome all the Little Helpers into his Grotto.
It was adults only for the main event and all runners had to be dressed in full Santa attire, which included a Santa Suit (hat, heard, coat, trousers and belt), which could be kept as a souvenir of the day. From a spectator’s point of view, the weather was far from ideal with frequent heavy showers, but the runners must have loved it! They were soon off at a gallop and they slid and slithered their way around the 10-km course. WBC supporters waited nervously for their runners to appear and soon realised that the course was more challenging this year than last as last year’s winning time came and went without a sign of a runner in sight! Soon the front-runner appeared and then a few more and then WBC’s first runner, Steve Rendell-Read in a respectable time and in the first 20 to cross the line. Sue-Rendell-Read was next in, then Matthew Dean and then Ann Pocknell and Inis Hoffmann more or less together. I should add that the last two aforementioned ladies were not last and what a superb effort by all our runners? Ann said that “after a long hot bath and a hefty dose of chocolate and mulled wine, I’m now fully recovered!” Well done to you all.
If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day then there was a Christmas Market, which was open to all. There were stalls selling fantastic Christmas gifts as well as hot meals, mince pies, tea, coffee and mulled wine all around the large Christmas tree and open fire situated in the courtyard of the hall. WBC had a stand selling “birdy Christmas hampers” made especially by Kathy Piotrowski and Helen Gooderham for our avian friends. Jon Evans also brought along a display of his superb wildlife photographs. Thank you to Jon, Kathy, Helen and Rob Gooderham and Maureen for helping man the stand.
At the end of proceedings, WBC invited people to join Steve Piotrowski and Andrew Green for a bird walk around the Estate. The weather undoubtedly played its part in deterring people and only one very keen customer turned up for the walk. We carried on regardless and our highlights included a Kingfisher, two Snipe and two Goosanders, the last record constituted a new species for the Wilderness Reserve.
This eagerly awaited 12-day tour of the mountains and deserts of Morocco was to be Waveney Bird Club’s sixth foreign trip. Our party consisted of 15 members and was led by Steve Piotrowski and Andrew Green supplemented by a local guide in the desert regions. Attendees included: Steve Piotrowski (leader); Andrew Green (co-leader); Eric Patrick (Tour Recorder); Robert and Helen Gooderham; Will Brame; Ali Riseborough; Richard Walden; Richard Weale; John and Rebecca Bedwell; John Garbutt; Carol Elliott; Ivan Levett and Brenda Sullivan.
Photo Gallery One – (mostly) bird photos (click images to enlarge)
Wednesday 23rd April Fly (EasyJet) from Stansted at 16.45 p.m. to arrive at Marrakech at 20.50 p.m. and transfer to hotel Golden Tulip Rawabi, Marrakech where will stay overnight.
We arrived late in the evening and were met at the airport by our trusty drivers Mohammed and Mahund who took us the short drive to our palatial hotel, ‘The Golden Tulip’ at Rawabi, which is located on the outskirts of Marrakech. The buses (one 9-seater and one 12-seater) were more than adequate for the needs of our party with a lot of leg room to allow people to spread out. However, the smaller bus had tinted windows that restricted views, so there would be a gradual transfer of people to the larger bus over the following few days. In addition, those on the larger vehicle were able enjoy a full commentary (when he was awake!) of birds seen from the bus windows by the “Tour Recorder” Eric Patrick. We soon arrived at The Golden Tulip where hotel porters eagerly grabbed our bags and distributed them to our rooms. Although a new hotel complex, a lively cockroach was kindly provided in our bathroom and this was to be our first close encounter with Moroccan wildlife. We ate a late but delicious meal then off to bed. Rob and Helen Gooderham
Thursday 24th April Take an early breakfast and then drive to Ourika Valley (1 hour 30 mins) to ‘bird’ a valley path and then take lunch at the beautiful Chez Larbi Restaurant. In the afternoon, ‘bird’ the lower reaches alongside the mountain road that leads to Oukaimeden and overnight at Hotel Ourika.
Following an early breakfast, the hotel gardens were found to be alive with House Buntings, Common Bulbuls and Spotless Starlings whilst several Red-rumped Swallows wheeled around in the skies overhead amongst groups of Little Swifts. As we made our way through the suburbs of Marrakech, we admired the beautifully manicured gardens that lined the King’s route into town. We needed to stock up with bottled water for the day, but it was still very early so were forced to wait until the water shop opened for business. This urban area was scanned for birds as we didn’t want to waste a minute and a number of species were added to the trip list. The sky was filled with Pallid Swifts. It was pleasantly hot and the streets were busy with a display of astonishing driving techniques to which we were soon to become accustomed. Now we are off and this is to be full-on wall-to-wall birding!
Today, we would be based in the lower Ourika Valley, so we took the mountain road out of Marrakech that led to the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, one of only two passes that crosses the High Atlas Mountains. As our two minibuses trundled through the villages, our trip list grew rapidly with a number of birds claimed from the windows. All species would be encountered many times later in the tour except for Maghreb Magpie, a single noted beside the road being the one logged for the whole trip! We climbed for several miles and stopped at ‘camel corner’, which was our marker for the start of a short walk up a narrow river valley. This was our first experience of persistent sellers of fossils and necklaces. It was still only 9.00 a.m., so we had plenty of time to explore the valley and familiarise ourselves with Moroccan birds. The path took us above the almost dry river that showed signs of massive deluges of water off the Atlas in the spring. This area was very bird rich with the ubiquitous Atlas Chaffinch, Nightingale, Common Redstart, Western Olivaceous and Sardinian Warblers, Woodchat Shrike, African Blue Tit, Serin and Cirl Bunting. The walk culminated in an impressive rubbish tip, glistening with plastic bottles, but which also hosted Stripe-necked Terrapin and the impressive Mauritanian (or Berber) Toad. The walk back provided Barbary Partridge, a party of 10 soaring Griffon Vultures and several Barbary Ground Squirrels. We had been told that Barbary Partridges would be difficult, but in fact one called from the top of a crag, a pair ambled along the dry river bed and an enthusiastic camel driver near the bus got into the spirit of birding by running up the mountain side in an attempt to catch one for us! The day warmed up and lunch called!
We were driven further up the valley to the delightful Chez Larbi Restaurant where we sat on the roof terrace shaded by oak and walnut trees above the gardens of flowering shrubs and fruit trees and enjoyed the views, cool breeze and birdlife surrounding us. Water rushed along a stream below and we were treated to fly-pasts of Golden Orioles, Red-rumped Swallows and Cattle Egrets. A herdsman was watched tending his goats as they slowly streamed across the rocky mountainside opposite the restaurant.
After lunch, we travelled further up the steep-sided, winding mountain road with simple villages and small agricultural fields and orchards on either side. A birdwatching stop produced good sightings of Coal Tit, Moussier’s Redstart and Alpine Chough and a few of us saw or heard a small group of Atlas Crossbills. We worked hard to eventually get distant views of Levaillant’s Woodpecker. There were many migrating eagles and buzzards and we had good views of a Booted Eagle carrying sticks for nest building across the valley. It was extraordinary to see singing resident birds alongside more familiar species on migration making their long passage to central and northern Europe. Our return journey took us down the valley road and we enjoyed seeing the local population promenading in the cool of the early evening. We returned to the Hotel Ourika where we were to stay overnight. Little Swifts nested over the projecting balconies and Dick Walden declared that he had obtained blistering views of Levaillant’s Woodpecker in the hotel gardens whilst the rest of the party was at the bar! There were a few groans! A late log accompanied by a cool beer took us through the day’s events, which was compiled by our always diligent Recorder, Eric Patrick.
Our travels across Morocco took us mainly into rural and natural areas showing us the gritty lives of country people. The buildings are extraordinarily timeless in their form and construction. At higher altitudes they are built with stone rubble, but elsewhere overwhelmingly of earth and straw, flat roofed with thatched tops to walls to protect them during the short wet season. Buildings of all sizes from animal enclosures to fortified Kasbahs were constructed in this manner and painted with mud slurry in subtle hues of reds and greys blending softly into the landscape. This form of construction is called pisé, similar to the construction used in vernacular buildings in East Anglia, which we know as ‘clay lump’! Rob and Helen Gooderham
Friday 25th April Drive from Ourika Valley to Oukaimeden (1 hour 30 mins to top). Locate the furthermost car park by ski-lift and then walk up a gentle slope for about a mile. Lunch at Chez Juju Restaurant then walk down to the lake and follow steam down valley. Return to furthermost car park late afternoon if we hadn’t located African Crimson-winged Finch!
We woke up to a very different dawn-morning chorus with Bulbuls certainly making their presence known. A wander around the hotel’s small garden yielded good views of a pair of Hawfinches, Spotted Flycatchers, Turtle Doves and Greenfinches. Dick had made friends with the resident donkey! We set off from the Ourika Hotel and took the long and winding mountain road to Oukaimeden, a winter skiing resort famous amongst birders as a wintering and breeding spot for African Crimson-winged Finch. Winter flocks are regularly encountered in early spring, but as our tour was running much later in the season and the birds would have by now paired up to breed deep in the mountains, we knew that we would have to work hard and finding them was by no means a certainty! Our first stop was in a deep gorge where we were able to tick off Alpine Chough, Northern Raven, Kestrel, House Martin, Crag Martin and Rock Sparrow. A leisurely walk along a track beyond the furthermost car park produced Atlas Horned Lark, Seebohm’s Wheatear (both male and female) and several Black Redstarts. I took advantage and stayed low, whilst everyone else hiked up the valley in the hope of finding the elusive quarry. I managed to make lots of new Moroccan friends, most of them trying to sell me necklaces or fossils! The main party returned with grim faces, they hadn’t had a sniff of African Crimson-winged Finch, but had seen many more Seebohm’s Wheatears, a Western Black-eared Wheatear and flocks of Rock Sparrows. When walking back to the village for lunch, our attention was drawn to a very familiar song that we immediately recognized as that of a Woodlark. We eventually located the bird as it descended to sing from a mountainside boulder.
We lunched at the Chez Juju Restaurant watching three-figure flocks of both Alpine and Red-billed Chough circling overhead and feeding on the ground. The service in the restaurant was poor to say the least and the food wasn’t up to much either, but the views were spectacular. Several birds whizzed about overhead (most of which I missed), but nothing that we hadn’t logged already. Two Booted Eagles glided over the valley signalling perhaps that their northward migration was still ongoing. The afternoon was spent by the lake, which was bubbling with frogs and we spotted two Black-winged Stilts feeding in the shallows on the far side. We were joined by another birding party at the lake, a group of Americans, all sporting expensive cameras and enormous lenses, being led by Brahim Mezane. Their leader was reputed to be the best bird guide in Morocco and it had been previously agreed that our group could tag along when we reached the desert resort of Auberge Derkaoua later in the trip. We had a brief discussion with the Americans about the planned reunion before they sped off in their four-wheel drive to an Alpine Accentor site (a bird that we didn’t see) further up the mountain slopes.
One or two of our party had glimpsed at least one White-throated Dipper as it zipped downstream ahead of them. This sparked a mad “dipper-hunt” as we tried to catch up with the bird as it descended along the fast-flowing stream. Most of us eventually glimpsed the bird (some of us had good views), but we also logged Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Grey-headed Wagtail, Western Olivaceous Warbler and Black Redstarts, along with a Mistle Thrush that was heard singing. I enjoyed the scurrying Barbary Ground Squirrel, a tick for me! As evening approached, it was time to return to the furthermost car park to search again for African Crimson-winged Finch, our target bird that had managed to elude us throughout the day. We waited and we waited and we waited some more, all the time trying to pretend that we were really interested in all the other birds that blessed us with their presence. We must have scanned every boulder and, by doing so, did manage to locate at least three Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes, whilst a Peregrine dashed across mountain slopes in front of us. As dusk approached, anxiety increased and we became more-or-less resigned to the fact that we weren’t going to see this bird! We watched the Americans returning in their four-wheel drive, but they stopped to search an area further down the valley. Brahim left the vehicle and looked around. Had they found the Alpine Accentor or do they know a secret stake-out for African Crimson-winged Finch? Their vehicle then came towards our group as we waited in the car park, so we would soon know we thought! But no, they sped straight passed us, not a wave, a nod, or any acknowledgment of our presence – strange indeed we thought!
With darkness approaching and after a final period of searching, Steve declared “OK, that’s it, we give up, let’s get back on the buses.” And then a sudden cry from Eric “STOP, I’ve got it!” and there was the little ****er immediately in front of us, perched on a wire that led to the ski-lift tower! Not only did our bird put in a special appearance (over an hour late by all accounts as we were told they/it turned up at the same site every day at 5.00 pm), but a most confiding Atlas Horned Lark joined it and gave spectacular views, both species within a few feet from our group. Now Steve was happy and we all went to bed with a smile on our face – well nearly all of us as Ali probably grumbled about the meal! Brenda Sullivan (The Lesser Spotting Birder)
Saturday 26th April We will take the long but slow drive (nine hours including stops) through the Tizi-n-Tichka pass over the Atlas Mountains and down the valley to Ouarzazate. There will be stops whenever bushy-type habitat is encountered, lunch will be taken at Argan Tichka Restaurant and we’ll ‘bird’ along dry river bed for birds and butterflies. During late-afternoon we will visit a desert site near Amerzgane and overnight at Hotel Perle du Sud in Ouarzazate.
The initial part of our long journey took us across vast expanses of agricultural land, where we made frequent stops to tick off Corn Bunting and Crested Lark. Several Desert Grey Shrikes were noted perched on distant bushes. As we began to climb into the mountains, one of our party from the trailing bus spotted a European Roller perched on a television aerial. We were quickly on to the walkie-talkies suggesting that the leading bus should turn around. We watched this magnificent bird for several minutes; hardly daring to move a muscle in case we flushed it before the leading bus returned. Camera shutters were clicking furiously, but the rest of the party were missing! We tried again on the walkie-talkies, but this time we couldn’t make contact, which suggested that they were out of range? After what seemed like an endless wait, we managed to make contact again and the bus returned. Needless to say, just as they arrived our bird flew away deep into the valley, but we did manage to relocate it albeit more distantly. Another European Roller appeared from our right flying at great speed across the road in front of us and as it plunged down into the trees it performed its characteristic and very acrobatic half roll, hence its name.
Onwards and upwards! We continued climbing the steep mountain road and stopped in a layby next to a small café at Taddert where some of our number couldn’t resist popping in to top up their breakfast! Opposite the café was an area of thick scrub growing on a steep slope that seemed ideal for breeding Tristram’s Warbler. Most of the party gingerly manoeuvred their way up the slope and quickly located several singing Western Subalpine Warblers. Eric then claimed a Tristram’s Warbler, which started an exhaustive but fruitless search by the rest of the party. The breakfast crew had by this time caught up but, with time pressing, we decided to move on and everyone was summoned to make a swift return to the minibuses. However, our exodus would not go without further incident as a loud rumbling signified the arrival of a gigantic boulder, which suddenly crashed out of the undergrowth, rolling speedily down the slope and smashing onto the track in front of us, to be quickly followed by a tumbling Andrew Green. Somehow, Andrew managed to land on his feet, but the comment was made that the timing of his spectacular descent occurred in the right order with Andrew chasing the boulder rather than the other way round! We continued our journey looking for further opportunities to search suitable Tristram’s Warbler habitat, but none were forthcoming or at least none where it was safe to park the minibuses. Our next stop was at the roadside Argan Tichka Restaurant, it was now noon and we were in the heat of the day, but we weren’t quite ready for lunch, especially those who had a double breakfast! It was decided that the dried up wadi immediately opposite the restaurant should be explored and it was found to be full of migrant birds. Melodious Warbler, Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were soon added to the trip list and a pair of Barbary Partridges was watched feeding on the slopes. Some of the party spotted a rufous-brown bird skulking under some bushes. It showed all the characteristics of a Rufous Bush Robin but, by the time the main party arrived, it had disappeared into dense vegetation. We watched intently for some time, each of us occasionally getting fleeting views. Eventually, a similarly coloured bird hopped out, but this one was a Nightingale! Was it the same bird? No way, the “two-bird theory” was put into operation to save any further embarrassment! The wadi led to a delightful village where shepherdesses were herding cattle and sheep and we enjoyed amazing views of Woodchat Shrikes, Western Olivaceous Warblers and a Western Orphean Warbler – another first for the trip.
In the hot midday sun, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the balcony of the Argan Tichka Restaurant that overlooked the pass. Although the views were amazing, it was hardly peaceful as juggernauts continuously trundled up and down the hill with frequent gear changes and excessive revving of engines. Eric spotted a wolf breaking the skyline on a distant ridge, but realised that it was a sheepdog when it started to bark! As we departed, the girls decided it was time for a bit of shopping, but they first went to watch the Berber women skilfully grinding argan nuts to make argan oil, hence the name of the restaurant! Argan oil is plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree (Argania spinosa) that is endemic to Morocco. The oil is used to dip bread in at breakfast or to drizzle on couscous or pasta. Worldwide, it’s gaining a reputation both as an ingredient at the high-end of personal-care commodities and as a heart-healthy gourmet product. The argan fruits are first dried in the open air and then the fleshy pulp of the fruit is removed and usually fed to livestock. The next stage involves cracking the argan nut to obtain the argan kernels. One of our party suggested in a factual manner that the argan oil becomes more palatable if the kernels have passed through the digestive system of goats! Was somebody kidding me here? The boys were becoming increasingly impatient with the girls’ absenteeism, but there was a bonus as amongst a sparrow flock in a small bush below us was a flock of three Spanish Sparrows. Eventually, the girls were rounded up and we were on our way once again. The next part of the journey was really uneventful. There was little to report as we rounded the summit, but Nightingales seemed to be singing from every bush as we made our descent. We were anxious that we made the desert in good time to give ourselves a good opportunity to find Maghreb Wheatear, a speciality of this region and a species that is sometimes notoriously difficult to pin down. As we crossed a shallow river on the minor road to the south of Amerzgane, a small group of European Bee-eaters were noted hawking from the banks.
It was then onward into the desert to find a lone tree, which was to be our marker for our main quarry. We scanned the area intently from the bus to ensure that we didn’t inadvertently flush the birds as Maghreb Wheatears do have the habit of flying long distances when disturbed. There were a few false alarms, the first being a creature that kept appearing and then disappearing in the shimmer and constantly nodding its head. What was it? We were struggling to get any definition as the light was most definitely against us! Someone said that it had an orange head and then another claimed a vivid blue body. What on earth could it be? The mystery creature turned out to be a large desert lizard called a Changeable Agama and it wasn’t long before more were found. There were more false alarms, first a White-crowned Wheatear and then Desert Wheatears, both trip ticks and lifers for some, but not what we were looking for! We had another encounter with Brahim and our American friends and it became obvious that we were completing parallel tours. In my experience, birdwatching is a social experience throughout the world and normally American birders are a friendly bunch, but this lot certainly were not and there seemed to be some resentment to the idea that our largish party could be joining them later in the tour. As we were talking to them, a male Maghreb Wheatear zoomed in to our right, chased a female Desert Wheatear and sped off northwards again and disappeared. There was some grumblings from the Americans, so we decided to leave them to it. We tried to hunt this bird down but to no avail, although we did manage to locate a female some distance away which was watched for some time. We spent the rest of the day trying to hunt down the male, but as darkness approached we were forced to give up.
There was lots of hustle and bustle when we reached the Hotel Perle du Sud, which was on the main street in Ouarzazate, but we were all knackered, so it was a quick wash and brush up, back down for dinner and then bed. However, a few stayed up to watch a local band with dancers and Brenda, in particular, really got into the Moroccan spirit of things. Saturday night in downtown Ouarzazate was one to remember! Steve Piotrowski
Sunday 27th April This should be a relaxing day! We will make an 8.00 a.m. start and ‘bird’ a gulley known as Oued Ouarzazate and then on to Barrage El-Mansour-Eddahbi. At midday, we will drive to Boumalne (two hours from Ouarzazate), lunch at Hotel Rosa Damaskina and should reach our hotel (Hotel Xaluca) at around 3.00-4.00 p.m. After checking in, we’ll explore the Tagdilt Track (10 minutes from hotel) until dusk and then return for dinner and the log. We had been pre-warned that alcohol wouldn’t be available, so carry-outs from the nearby very posh tourist hotel would be desirable!
As the Moroccan drummers chanted and beat their way around the Hotel the previous evening, somebody said “we should be alright we are on the third floor!” How wrong they were! Once the drummers ceased, the nightclub next door seemed to disgorge hordes of people at regular intervals up to 4.00 a.m. At 5.00 a.m., the call to prayer was heard. At 6.20 a.m. the local population drove past the front of our Hotel sounding their horns for 15 minutes. So much for sleep! Down to breakfast, a buffet laid out with various delights, none more so than the lady chef making fresh ‘pancakes’. It was a pity about the lack of orange juice in the dispenser, which was replenished after we had finished eating. After breakfast, the minibuses were reloaded with suitcases, ‘scopes and people and set off through the streets of Ouarzazate, replenishing water supplies on the way. As the houses and shops faded away, an area of scrub and water was encountered. This was the Oued Ouarzazate, which flows into the Barrage El-Mansour-Eddahbi. More of this later!
As we disembarked the minibuses, the group was greeted by a Desert Little Owl perched on a large mud wall. Walking down to the water a plethora of waders was found including a single Green, ten Wood and eight Common Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, seven Collared Pratincoles and a small group of Little Ringed Plovers. They were accompanied by 12 Long-billed Crested Larks and a Moroccan White Wagtail. Overhead, a Western Marsh Harrier was noted, just like being back home! On the alluvial soil around the water tamarisk was growing and in these bushes were Saharan Olivaceous Warblers, Melodious Warblers and a Whinchat. Flying high above us was a flock of Honey Buzzards, which found a thermal and spiralled higher and higher. A lovely sight! The local people were cultivating this flood plain soil in an ingenious way. They had cut out holes in the track in which a cereal crop was sown. The next hole, smaller, was planted with a piece of tamarisk and the next some sort of gourd or squash. This continued all along the flood plain area. The assumption was that the tamarisk was planted to shelter the food crops from desert sandstorms? Many locals were working this fertile soil amongst a background of sand. Whilst scanning this area, some of us found a small flock of Cream-coloured Coursers feeding just beyond the cultivations. Others were far more interested in comings and goings of a Fat Sand Rat (according to Eric!), which kept scurrying around by its burrow. Eric was adamant that he had correctly identified the species, although Will Brame considered it to be a Moroccan Jird (Meriones grandis), a species of rodent from the family Muridae, which is endemic to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Walking back towards the buses, we were treated to amazing views of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters as they hawked over the water and more warblers were found in the scrub. A Black Kite flew low over the reed bed, whilst a distant Long-legged Buzzard was watched and admired.
Moving a little way east and driving down a very sandy bumpy road the main reservoir came into view. The minibuses parked on a raised area overlooking the water where good but distant view of many of the birds on and around the reservoir was possible. Lots of Great-crested Grebes, Little Egrets, Eurasian Coots, Purple, Squacco and Grey Herons, Greenshanks and Little Stints were seen. Several terns were flying up and down hunting and included Gull-billed, Whiskered and Black. The group split up with some walking the shoreline to the east, whilst others searched for migrants in the bushes and trees around the minibuses. A good selection of birds was found including Western Orphean, Western Olivaceous, and Western Subalpine Warblers. A Rufous Bush Robin was seen very well posing atop a wire fence. The shore party split and Dick Walden carried on a lot further east. He came across eight Marbled Duck, but by the time the rest of the group had caught up with him the birds had disappeared behind a very large island, again shades of Minsmere.
Time was now getting on and we should have had lunch by now, so getting back on the buses we continued along the edge of the reservoir. One of the vehicles went down into a gulley in the road to help a car which had become stuck in the sand only to also get stuck. Most of the group went to its rescue and it was finally freed from the sand’s grip. The second bus had to now navigate the same area, but apart from one small wheel spin got through without incident. Back onto tarmac, we headed for our lunch stop at El Kelaa and the Hotel Rosa Damaskina. We were led onto a terrace overlooking a fairly wide shallow river. Hoopoes were flying around and Little Ringed Plovers were on the shingle, Bulbuls were constantly calling from the trees to the side of the terrace with African Blue Tit, House Sparrow, Nightingale and Blackbird all singing for attention. Upstream from the hotel, the locals were washing their rugs and other laundry in the river. This seemed to be achieved by beating the article on the rocks and then laying it over the rocks to dry. There were masses of people using this natural “launderette”, but in a land where water is a scarce resource needs must. A large lorry was driven into the river and it was thought that it too was going to be washed but it seemed it was only taking a short cut!
Our meals seemed to take an age to arrive, but the birds kept us entertained and in one of the back rooms a few locals (one sporting a Chelsea top) and our drivers were watching Liverpool versus Chelsea live on TV. This proved to be a major distraction with Brenda and other football fanatics disappearing at regular intervals, returning to give the rest of the party updates on the score. Chelsea won 2:0 which more less ended Liverpool’s Championship title challenge. After the meal, more tarmac and we slowly progressed to Boumalne, arriving at Hotel Xaluca later than expected. We quickly checked in, dumped our bags and returned to the minibuses, hoping for a productive birding session at the Tagdilt Track before dusk. The essential stop for alcohol carry-outs was made en route.
Most of the group were not prepared for the sight that greeted them as progress was made down this track. Tons of rubbish (most of it in blue plastic bags) was strewn over a vast area of what should have been beautiful desert landscape, its distribution no doubt aided by the desert winds. It hardly bothered the birds though as ten Temminck’s, two Thick-billed and nine Thekla Larks along with 20 Red-rumped, a White-crowned and three Desert Wheatears were busy feeding amongst the bags. Swallows, swifts and a distant Long-legged Buzzard were seen flying over. A very surreal sight was a Cream-coloured Courser feeding on flies around these bags, the bird taking on the blue hue. As it was getting quite dark and clouds were building, a move back to the hotel was thought desirable. A quick wash and brush up in short time and down for a meal, which was a very nice chicken (or was it beef?) tagine.
After the meal the customary log was presided over by Eric. The day’s sightings were scrutinised, queried and entered onto the official spreadsheet. However, the proceedings were brought to an unscheduled halt by the strains of the Archer’s theme tune coming from a tablet which the owner could not shut off! The log meeting descended into hilarity and was closed. Wandering back to the rooms the night sky was a mass of stars, a fitting end to a very eventful day. Ivan Levett
Monday 28th April 2014 An optional pre-breakfast visit to the Tagdilt Track before we start today’s long drive (4 hrs 30 mins including stops) to the remote Auberge Derkaoua Hotel. We’ll check suitable areas of scrub en route to our lunch stop at Ar-Rachidia from where we will proceed southwards (2 hrs 30 mins) along the Ziz valley.
The hardy birdwatchers amongst the group got up for a dawn exploration of the Tagdilt Trail. Birds of note around the rubbish-strewn area were ten Thick-billed larks, five Cream-coloured Coursers and a Greater Hoopoe Lark plus a good number of Desert and Red-rumped Wheatears and Temminck’s and Thekla Larks. Retuning for breakfast, we left the hotel at around 9.10 a.m. for our long drive towards the desert. There was nothing of note from our back seat birdwatcher Eric and after a couple of hours we passed through the town of Goulmima.
We stopped at an area east of here, (Gosney Morocco: the deserts, Page 16, site 3) to look for Scrub Warbler. Ali and Dick found it quite quickly and called us all over. We had very good views of it flicking its tail and running around through the bushes and perching for some photos. Four Greater Hoopoe Larks were also seen in the area plus, among other things, a Red-throated Pipit, a Melodious Warbler, one Spotted and two Pied Flycatchers and a Whinchat. A flock of six Desert Larks were flushed from the plain. No sooner had we located the Scrub Warbler, when a four-wheel drive came across the desert with Brahim and the obnoxious yanks. Steve went over to tell them that we had located the Scrub Warbler to which they replied that they would rather find their own thank you very much and commanded Brahim to find another one! He quietly proclaimed that this was the only one he knew to which their ‘leader’ retorted loudly “well we haven’t got much choice then” and their group proceeded to the spot where we had last seen the bird. We left them to it, boarded the minibuses and headed for our lunch stop at the Kenzi Rissani hotel in Ar-Rachidia.
A very nice lunch in a hotel and a bit of shopping for some of us! Back on board, we drove along the Ziz valley, through Erfoud and on to the area around Rissani where we looked for the site for Pharaoh Eagle Owl. After retreating from a dead end in a village watched by bemused locals, we found what was thought to be the right area. A close examination of the hillside and all likely crevasses produced nothing, but we did have good views of three Brown-necked Ravens flying against the hills and the brown neck was clearly visible. During our wait to find the owl, our driver entertained us with owl songs, mountain climbing, arm flapping and what became a refrain if things went wrong “Whaley Whaley Whaley” (when he thought he had broken someone’s scope). Needless to say with all these activities the owl was nowhere to be seen. We then moved to another site to look for sandgrouse. The minibuses eventually could go no further on the dirt track so we stopped and piled out. In the very far distance, sandgrouse were seen and we trekked out onto the plain to get a better look. The birds were still very distant and it was nearly dusk, but when they flew off the eyes of the experts declared that there were about 400 Spotted Sandgrouse. On our return to the bus, a most unconfiding lark was seen spending most of its time hiding behind the low bushes. It was identified as a Desert Lark, but no one had good views.
By the time we set off towards our hotel in the desert the light was fading quickly. In the darkness, we took a turn off the main road onto a gravel road crossing what appeared to be featureless desert but, eventually, lo and behold, we arrived at the Auberge Derkaoua. A quick freshen up, the evening log, chicken tagine, followed by lemon tart and ice-cream!! A perfect end to a great day’s birding. There were some last minute adjustments to tomorrow’s itinerary concerning our four-wheel drive trip into the desert. We learnt that our American friends were not happy about us joining them on the trip (surprise, surprise!), so Brahim would not be available. Instead, we would be led by a local Moroccan guide Lahcen Oucha who, by sheer coincidence, we had been trying to contact earlier that day to help us find the Pharaoh Eagle Owl! Rebecca Bedwell
Tuesday 29th April A very early breakfast and then transfer to 4WDrives and head towards the gateway settlement of Merzouga being guided by local guide. Overnight again in Auberge Derkaoua.
Our 6.00 a.m. breakfast was what promised to be the start of an exciting day in the true desert regions of South-east Morocco taking in the areas around Erfoud, Merzouga and Rissani. Lahcen, together with our four-wheel drive vehicle drivers, were found waiting outside the hotel. Our mode of transport was the only way to negotiate the rough tracks and sandy terrain that we would encounter. Telescopes and equipment were loaded and we set off on a track and soon encountered our first bird of the day, a Marsh Harrier flying over the desert. Brown-necked Ravens were also seen and before long we stopped to look at two Bar-tailed Larks that showed well alongside the track. Hoopoe Larks and White-crowned Wheatears were also seen. We followed a desert track that led onto a tarmac road that took us through Moroccan villages with all the early morning hustle and bustle of children cycling to school and traders preparing for the day ahead.
We then travelled through an area lush with palms and vegetation on the edge of the village, soon to take a right turn and stop where Lahcen pointed to some bushes 50 metres from the road. Within minutes, two Fulvous Babblers appeared carrying food to feed nestlings within the bush. These thrush-sized, long-tailed, sandy-brown birds continued to entertain along with a supporting cast of Palm Dove, Turtle Dove, Crested Lark and Cuckoo. Back in the four-wheel drives, we continued to the next stop, pulling off the tarmac road and bouncing over the desert to a range of sandstone cliffs. It was exactly the same spot as we had visited yesterday without success! Lahcen started searching cracks, holes and fissures in the rock face where we were parked before setting off across the desert to another line of cliffs where he quickly found a Pharaoh Eagle Owl roosting in a hole near the top of the cliff. Good scope views were enjoyed by all. The desert floor and the cliffs here were full of fossils of sea shells and corals indicating that the area was once the bed of a shallow tropical sea – difficult to imagine looking at the arid desert it is now. Before leaving, a Desert Red Fox was seen on the cliff face entering a fissure in the rock. Unfortunately, it did not re-appear.
We were on the move again to another cliff face, where a large falcon flew in from the left and showed well for all observers. Some controversy here as Lahcen identified it as a Barbary Falcon, but it appeared to lack the rufous nape and underparts associated with that species. As many consider Barbary Falcon to be conspecific with Peregrine Falcon, the exact identity of this bird may remain in doubt. Sandgrouse were also seen flying over the cliffs with hirundines always trickling past. Back to the four-wheel drives and a short drive later, another Pharaoh Eagle Owl was located, again in a hole in the cliff face. A few hundred metres further along, we stopped again, this time for a Lanner Falcon perched up on a ledge. This stunning bird was bigger than a Peregrine and it continued to sit on its perch, giving excellent scope views for everyone. Ivan Levett, our fox-finder extraordinaire, unbelievably found another with its eyes, muzzle and ears showing above a rock? This time good views were enjoyed by all. A flock of 46 Brown-necked Ravens were seen flying further down the ridge.
We set off for a longer drive deeper in to the desert, the temperatures now in the mid-thirties and rising. Our drivers most obviously were enjoying the drive and showed a competitive edge, bouncing and crashing across the desert leaving a trail of dust in their wake. After several kilometres, we stopped to discover our vehicle had a totally flat rear tyre, the wheel rim looking as though it had sustained one bash too many! We spread ourselves out amongst the other vehicles and set off leaving the driver to sort the puncture. Arriving at a Berber Nomad camp we were greeted by a tall thin gentleman in flowing robes who spoke little but had a great presence. He led us from his camp and through his ‘garden’ for several hundred metres to a sandy rise overlooking some low bushes. In the shade at the base of one of the bushes, two Egyptian Nightjars, one either side, were noted. These sandy-coloured mottled birds, eyes tight shut were perfectly camouflaged and would easily be overlooked. They were fabulous birds, which we were to see flying at another site later in the trip.
We returned to the Berber camp and were invited into a circular dome shaped building constructed from mud and straw. Sitting on mats we were served traditional tea in small glasses with sprigs of mint. Superb hospitality and gratefully received by all. Around the camp were small areas of cultivation where many migrants were feeding including Melodious Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Saharan Olivaceous Warbler. The repaired four-wheel drive had re-joined us, so we set off again to another Nomad camp where we had great views of Desert Sparrow in trees around the buildings. We were led into an area of scrub deep in the desert to search for Desert Warbler, but this time without success. We scoured the area in the scorching sun and some of us were stationed next to shrubby bush, which (according to Lahen) was where a pair had been feeding chicks a few days earlier, whilst he searched an area further afield. Whilst he was away, Eric poked his head in the bush and declared that the chicks had flown, so it was time to give up.
On our return to the camp, more migrants were present with a steady stream of hirundines moving across the desert. It was late afternoon with the temperature approaching 40oC when only mad dogs and birders would venture out, so we set off for a very late lunch before continuing to the Auberge Yasmina (or Café Yasmina). An extensive area of tamarisk and scrub can be found at the rear of this hotel, which acts as a magnet for birds migrating through the desert. The area was alive with quality birds including Rufous Bush Robin, Bonelli’s Warbler, Desert Grey Shrike, Saharan Olivaceous Warbler, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Golden Oriole, Common Redstart, a probable Atlas Flycatcher (identification confirmed later from photographs) and many more. Every bush had a good bird in it – top class birding. With dusk approaching, we set off back to our hotel where Woodchat Shrike, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher and Common Redstart were showing in the grounds. The end of an amazing day in the desert – one of the most memorable birding days I have ever had. Richard Weale
Wednesday 30th April Another long drive over Atlas Mountains to Midelt. Initially we’ll search desert wadis for migrants and then the scrubby areas as we descend the northern slopes. Overnight at Hotel Kasbah Asmaa at Midelt.
The explosive bubbling song from the many Common Bulbuls that breed in the hotel gardens awoke most of us from our slumbers, so it was out for some pre-breakfast birding for some of the group. The well-vegetated grounds of the excellent Hotel Auberge Derkaoua act as a magnet for passage migrants and this morning’s search would yield good rewards. A walk along the track a few hundred metres from the hotel revealed a good fall of birds and included: Common Redstart, Woodchat Shrike, Melodious Warbler, Rufous Bush Robin, Turtle Dove, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Sand Martin and Swallow. Parties of Brown-necked Ravens were noted in the distance and White-crowned Wheatears were much in evidence. After breakfast, the minibuses were loaded ready for our long drive to Midelt, but the group first returned to the area where the migrants had been found and added six European Bee-eaters, Whinchat, Common Whitethroat, Common Swift and a calling Greater Hoopoe Lark to the day list. There were so many birds that it was difficult to drag ourselves away, but onward was a must. It was going to be a slow journey with frequent stops whenever suitable habitat was located.
Our first stop was at Kasbah Said for another crack at African Desert Warbler, again unsuccessful, but we did see a Greater Hoopoe Lark displaying while Will found a second pair of Egyptian Nightjars. The four “walkie-talkies” that we were using proved invaluable here as the news was spread quickly for everyone to get close views of these magnificent birds again. Our second stop was at the Fossil shop at 11.00 a.m. and it was now 92 degrees. This proved very productive for birds in a relatively small area with loads of Yellow Wagtails mainly of the Grey-headed and Spanish forms, two Rufous Bush Robins, lots of Common Redstarts, Northern Wheatears, Bar-tailed Desert Larks, to name but a few.
We made a short stop at Erfoud to load up with more water before heading to Ar-Rachidia for lunch at the Kenzi Rissani hotel where Dick had the remarkable sight of 11 European Turtle Doves gathered together in the hotel garden, whilst the rest of us were eating lunch or sipping mint tea. The day-total for this species reached 25, a count now unlikely to be achieved in UK! It was then on to Tizi-n-Tahlrent Pass for the Tristram’s Warbler site and it wasn’t long before a singing male was located, eventually perching and singing in the trees above our heads. It was soon joined by a second male close by competing for territory. A splendid male Pied Flycatcher was also seen and just as we were about to leave Rebecca found two superb Moussier’s Redstarts. What stunners these birds are? We then completed our long journey to Midelt staying at the Hotel Kasbah Ashaa for one night ready for a big day tomorrow. “Atlas Flycatcher” perhaps? Ali Riseborough
Thursday 1st May An optional, pre-breakfast visit to Zeida Plain and then drive from Midelt to Ifrane. Stop for Barbary Macaques and forest birding on the approach to Ifrane and then walk the shores of Lake Dayat Aoua late-afternoon. Overnight at Perce Neige, Ifrane.
As our blurry-eyed team gathered in the pre-dawn darkness outside the Hotel Kasbah Asmaa in Midelt, they would have had little idea of the exciting day that lay ahead of them. The early start was necessary to give us the best chance of seeing the elusive Dupontʼs Lark, our first target of the day. Most sources claim that it ceases singing at daybreak and becomes extremely difficult to observe. Dawn, therefore, found the group walking a track on the Zeida plain where at least two Dupontʼs could be heard singing from the low vegetation. There then followed some anxious minutes scanning the plain where several larks were seen causing excitement, but these proved to be mainly Lesser Short-toed with a few Thekla Larks. Eventually a Dupontʼs was located and the tension eased and, as the minutes passed, more were located somewhat dispelling this bird’s elusive reputation! The group estimated that they had seen at least six birds. We started to drift away towards the minibuses with breakfast on our minds. However, the Zeida plain had one more surprise for us as a pair of Black-bellied Sandgrouse flew in and landed a hundred metres from the group giving good views over the next 15 minutes.
Driving back through Midelt, one bus made a fortuitous stop to check out some Kestrels. This allowed some members of the group to have close encounters with Cattle Egrets (c.700 in total) and White Storks (88), both species nesting in trees a few feet above the town centre pavements. After a very late breakfast, we continued our long drive from Midelt through the Atlas Mountains to the ski resort town of Ifrane. The first stop of the day was at a lake five kilometres south of Timahdite where we had close encounters with nesting Red-knobbed Coots. The second stop was in the Cedar forest, amusement provided by a group of Barbary Macaques taking proffered nuts from people’s hands. Short-toed Treecreeper was also added to the list at this stop and a female flycatcher was most likely to have been an Atlas Flycatcher.
Lunch was taken in a pavement restaurant in the town of Azrou where Cattle Egrets, White Storks, Lesser Kestrels and Pallid and Alpine Swifts provided a welcome distraction to the restaurant owner’s lack of sartorial elegance and hygiene! We made our way through the modern town of Ifrane destined to Lake Dayat Aoua a few kilometres further on, but we stopped briefly by the roadside to view a group of up to 16 European Rollers perched on wires and rocks. Despite the hordes of people on the lake shore enjoying a Moroccan bank holiday the area teemed with birds. The lake is 1,460 metres above sea-level and submerged and emergent flora is abundant. It is surrounded by a mosaic of grazed wet meadows and holm oak and cedar forests. An estimated 2,000 each of Black-necked Grebes and European Coots and 150 Red-knobbed Coots provided the bulk. Flocks of wildfowl were also present amongst floating vegetation including 72 Ferruginous Ducks. However, eyes also turned to the skies as Egyptian Vulture, Bonelliʼs Eagle and Northern Goshawk were quickly added to the trip list. A Black-crowned Night Heron perched in a dead tree was to be the only record of the trip for this species. Seven Hawfinches were seen in lakeside trees and as the afternoon progressed a small passage of European Honey Buzzards was noted involving some 42 birds.
As the sun dipped below the surrounding hills, the weary team retired to their hotel in Ifrane, reminiscing over another bird-filled day in this wonderful country. Dick Walden
Photo Gallery Two – people and places photos (click images to enlarge)
Friday 2nd May 2014 Search the forests south of Ifrane and again visit Dayat Aoua in the afternoon. Overnight in Perce Neige, Ifrane.
Today was the day to seek out the Atlas Flycatcher. Minibuses were boarded by 7.40 a.m. and we headed in the direction of Azrou on the N5, passing the airport where a large number of Lesser Kestrels were seen, before arriving at a site recommended by Gosney, (see note 3, page 32 of his Morocco: Coasts and Mountains). We fanned out either side of the road in this forest of magnificent oak trees and the first Atlas Flycatcher was found at 08.05 a.m.! It looked exactly like the bird seen two days earlier at Café Yasmina. Altogether, 12 birds were noted, including two at a nest site, together with Mistle Thrush, Nuthatch, Firecrest, Short-toed Treecreeper, African Blue Tit, Eurasian Jay, Great Tit, Coal Tit, European Robin, Blackcap, Honey Buzzard and Rock Sparrow – this last nesting in a tree. So, with the target bird in the bag, it was decided to return to Dayat Aoua.
We parked at the dam end and a leisurely stroll ensued. Birds on the lake were pretty much as yesterday, although wildfowl numbers were down. This time there was more emphasis on butterflies and dragonflies than birds, but Golden Orioles in the poplars by the dam were a highlight. An impressive total of 16 species of butterfly and 11 species of dragonfly were noted; the latter included a number of species that few of us had seen before. These included Iberian, Small, Desert and Mediterranean Damselflies (or Bluets), Broad Scarlet, Dainty Damselfly, Goblet-marked Blue-eye and Violet Dropwing. A return was made to Ifrane for lunch at the Hotel Le Chamonix where the set lunch was excellent value. The hotel’s name is a reminder that Ifrane is a ski resort and is well known for having the coldest temperature ever recorded in Africa and the Arab World, having recorded as low as −24 °C (−11 °F) on 11th February 1935.
After lunch, another visit was made to Dayat Aoua preceded by a stop at a small lake visible from the N8. Another leisurely stroll resumed from where we finished at lunchtime and that was the pattern for the rest of the day, a somewhat relaxed pace after the intensity of the previous days. Raptors seen included Black Kite, Booted Eagle, Honey Buzzard and a pair of displaying Bonelli’s Eagles, there was a quantity of European Rollers and the huge number of birds on the water ensured continual interest. Stumps were drawn at 7.15 p.m. and the return to Ifrane was followed by the log and evening meal plus packing in anticipation of tomorrow’s early start for our long journey to the coast. John Bedwell
Saturday 3rd May An early breakfast at 6.00 a.m. and then a long drive to the coast at Merdja Zerda. We were hopeful of finding Hassan (“Ali the Nomad”) who would take us by boat to explore the estuary and then to the marshes at dusk. We will then take the long and arduous drive back to Fez where we will overnight at Hotel Sofia ready for tomorrow’s early-morning flight.
Our penultimate day began early under a cloudless sky, but there was crispness to the air reflecting our altitude of over five thousand feet. By 7.15 a.m. we were on the road north from Ifrane on what was to become a long and arduous descent to sea level. Once we had descended from the Middle Atlas, the landscape gave way to extensive cereal fields and, nearing Meknes, vineyards. We did manage to add two species to the trip list, Stonechat and a hovering Black-shouldered Kite, but otherwise the journey proved largely uneventful along poorly maintained roads and through endless seemingly chaotic villages. Finally, after over five hours on the road, we arrived at our destination, the seaside resort of Moulay Bousselham.
The arrival of two tourist minibuses seemed to cause pandemonium amongst the local boat operators as they actively touted for potential business, but miraculously from the hubbub we were approached by Hassan, the local bird guide we were seeking. After some quick negotiations, we headed for the beach, passing through a hectic fish market, to board three small boats for a tour of Merdja Zerda, a vast tidal lagoon. It wasn’t long before our three boats closed in on an area of mudflats and we were treated to stunning views of Ringed Plover of the northern race tundrae, Kentish Plover, Dunlin and Grey Plover in the strong midday light. Careful scanning located a few Whimbrels, a summer-plumaged Knot and the first of several Curlew Sandpipers, many again in striking summer plumage. As we proceeded further into the lagoon, other waders were added to the species list, including Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Avocet, Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwit. Waders aside, we encountered a sizeable gathering of Eurasian Spoonbills feeding in the shallow waters, the odd Grey Heron and a small flock of Little Terns. Near the mouth of the lagoon a roosting flock of gulls included some 24 Audouin’s Gulls amongst the numerous Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a small group of Sandwich Terns.
Back ashore, Hassan suggested that we took lunch and he would return to guide our party to the Marsh Owl site within an hour. As we walked from the harbour, he further suggested that if we spoke to the fishermen that were unloading their catch and purchsed about five kilos of fish, the restaurant would be happy to cook is for us. Now this caused a great deal of consternation amongst our party – what buy fish that aren’t in packets! Realising that this simple task was quite beyond us, he then told us to go to the restaurant and order something from the menu! We all sat down in the FISH restaurant when Ali (Ali Riseborough not Ali the Nomad) declared that he didn’t like fish and then enquired as to what sort of fish was being served and whether they were the ones with a head at one end and a tail at the other! By this time, we were all quite tired so there was a suggestion (in two words) that Ali should take his custom elsewhere as this was, after all, a FISH restaurant! Ali trudged off only to return ten minutes later. After pondering over the menu and moaning intently, he called the proprietor over and suggested that his menu should be more varied to cater for a culinary connoisseur like himself. Eventually the staff served him an omelette, whilst the rest of us enjoyed an amazing fish lunch.
When birding recommenced, we were joined by a party of Danish birders keen for Hassan to guide them too to the main quarry of the day, views of the breeding Marsh Owls for which Merdja Zerda is world-renowned. We stopped after a short distance to view the lagoon from an area of higher ground. From here a group of Greater Flamingos were distantly visible, a stunning male Montagu’s Harrier made a fly past and Lapwing was added to the species list. With time rapidly pushing on, we proceeded in convoy along very rough roads and finally along even rougher tracks out into potato fields. Once parked up, we were joined by the ‘guardian of the marsh’ and quietly we followed him and Hassan out onto the edges of the marsh, accompanied by the sound of numerous Zitting Cisticolas. We stopped by an extensive area of five-foot high juncus and waited while Hassan and his assistant continued forward. It wasn’t long before they flushed our quarry. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes or so we were treated to superb views of two magnificent Marsh Owls, including times when one of the owls perched on a nearby post and the brown un-streaked upperparts, dark face mask and dark eyes were strikingly obvious.
With the sun setting we made our way back to the minibuses excited by the magical experience. After dropping off Hassan and thanking him for a wonderful afternoon’s birding, we were on our way and contemplating the four-hour drive to Fes, along surely some of the worst roads Morocco could throw at us and our final night in Morocco. An argument ensued amongst our two drivers as one was religiously following his Satnav and the other had wanted to take a quicker albeit less-direct route. We eventually arrived in Fes and, after completing several circuits of the town centre, found the Hotel Sofia and checked in. It was by now 10.30 p.m. and the restaurant was closed, so no final celebratory dinner in fact nothing to eat at all! The hotel staff had no intention of helping us with anything and even organising an early breakfast for our 07.35 a.m. flight was most nearly impossible. Perhaps a large tip would have helped? After some rigorous negotiating, the manager did promise that a breakfast of coffee and rolls would be laid out for us, so at least we would have something at the start of our long journey home. Andrew Green
Sunday 4th May Early rise to get to Fez airport by 06.00 to depart at 07.35 hrs (Ryanair), arriving Stansted 11.00 hrs.
Our promised early breakfast hardly lived up to expectations, the coffee being stone cold with the man on duty having little or no intension of rectifying the matter. So, without further ado we piled into the minibuses and headed for the airport. Needless to say the Hotel Sofia in Fez is not one that we would recommend! It was dark so there was no chance of spotting any birds on the journey, so our “Last bird in Morocco competition” was abandoned. We said our goodbyes to our excellent drivers who were overwhelmed with their tip and dragged our suitcases into the airport. As the sun began to rise, some of us gazed out from the airport lounge to see if we could add a few species to the day list. In gloomy light, we managed ten all told with a Western Marsh Harrier being the best of the bunch. We boarded the plane just after daybreak and the last birds of the trip was a pair of Spotless Starlings, which were watched from our seats as they frantically took nesting material into the wheel housing on the wing of our plane. Thankfully, the plane took off on time, so the birds didn’t have time to complete their nest!
This was truly a dream tour and the team notched up just over 200 species of birds, five mammals, 12 dragonflies, 26 butterflies and 13 reptiles/amphibians. It was all down to lots of planning and we are grateful to WBC member Jon Warnes who visited Morocco with Richard Smith and Peter Napthine three weeks before our tour and forwarded up-to-date information.
Our greatest thanks go to David Walsh who inspired us with his talk to WBC members on birding in the Moroccan deserts in January 2014 and helped enormously, not only with the whereabouts of key species, but also the logistics, e.g. when to tip and not to tip, payments for bottled water, travel length in time and distance between sites and how long to stay at each site. David leads several tours for Ornitholidays to a number of worldwide destinations each year, including annual spring and autumn trips to Morocco (see www.ornitholidays.co.uk). He is undoubtedly one of the best tour leaders for birders visiting this wonderful country. Steve Piotrowski
Redgrave & Lopham Fen is an internationally important lowland valley fen with a unique landscape of spring-fed sedge beds, rush and grass meadows, wet and dry heath, woodland and pools. Enjoying views across the fen, the classroom is large and airy with a picnic area, toilets and viewing platform.
Seagulls – well you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em! If you were a warden of a nature reserve, hoping to attract ground nesting birds like lapwings, then large gulls certainly wouldn’t be a friend as they are notorious predators. If you were a manger of a warehouse on which the gulls had chosen to nest, then the gulls wouldn’t be a friend as gulls’ nests would block your drainpipes and birds would defecate over your customer’s and employee’s cars (and maybe even your own!). If you were a resident, living close to an urban gullery then the gulls would hardly be a friend as you would be woken at 4 a.m. each morning by the eerie cries of squabbling birds. But lesser black-backed gulls, in particular, are a bird on the move. They are not only expanding their range, but also their nesting preferences from coastal cliffs and beaches to industrial and residential areas.
For centuries gulls have scavenged around seaside resorts and fishing harbours being accepted as part of everyday life, but when they nest at inland towns like Beccles, it’s a different story! Lesser black-backed gulls with some herring gulls have continued their relentless march across East Anglia and now it’s Beccles that is in the frontline of a pitch battle to deter the scavenging hoards. They have formerly colonised Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Felixstowe, Ipswich and pioneering birds are already in Mendlesham, Bungay and Aldeby. They have reached the northern outskirts of Ipswich and they will soon make their next leap to colonise the towns of Needham Market and Stowmarket.
Herring and lesser black-backed gulls have traditionally bred at coastal beaches and sea cliffs away from urban areas, but due to recent predation by foxes, they have been forced to find alternatives. So how about the roofs and wastelands in Beccles residential and industrial areas? To the gull’s eye, the huge, flat-topped warehouses give similar benefits to that of sea cliffs – they’re high, safe and there’s plenty of food in the surrounding area. In some instances, shingle roofs have been provided that very much resembles a beach. Unlike natural sites, the virtually predator-free inner sanctuary of a town like Beccles is ideal for nesting gulls Attracted by discarded fast-food – a plentiful bi-product of today’s literally “throwaway” society – and the vast and seemingly ever-increasing acreage of rooftop nesting space on the town’s commercial premises, the gulls have arrived in force.
In these balmy summer days, the gulls leave their homes early in the morning. At the crack of dawn, they take to the skies and their eerie cry echo over Beccles residential estates. The gulls squabble for territory and youngsters pursue beleaguered parents. Although Lowestoft’s roof-nesting gull population has reached a staggering 4,500 pairs, for Beccles this is just the start as around 150 pairs have taken up residence. They nest on wasteland beside Rainbow Stores, on Tesco’s roof, on top of workshops and warehouses in George Westward Way and on the roofs of Beccles townhouses. Businesses have gone to extraordinary lengths to deter this “airborne army”. They see the gulls as a public health hazard – a view disputed by many scientists. They see them as a safety hazard – despite “attacks” on humans being exceptionally rare. And they see them as a noise nuisance – despite some of the alleged “gull noise” actually being produced by klaxons installed in often unsuccessful attempts to frighten the gulls away.
The principal species involved is the lesser black-backed gull and herring gull. From a wildlife prospective, the herring gull is endangered and appears on the amber list of “Birds of Conservation Concern”, the same status as RSPB’s flagship bird, the avocet and Britain’s best-loved bird, the barn owl. Unlike these two species, however, both lesser black-backed and herring gulls have few friends and they would be an unwelcome nester on Suffolk Wildlife Trust nature reserves such as Carlton and Castle Marshes due to its habit of preying on the small chicks of wading birds.
Where have they come from?
WBC Project Officer, Steve Piotrowski, has been monitoring the gulls on Orfordness since 1968 and had watched the colony grow from a handful of pairs to its peak in 1998 of 26,000 pairs. Since then the colony has dwindled mainly due to predation by foxes. From the total of over 12,000 gulls ringed on Orfordness, nearly half have been colour-ringed. In recent years, the colony’s dramatic downturn in fortunes has culminated in total failure in recent years and the colony now hosts less than 4,000 nesting pairs. This is not good news for people living at coastal resorts as the gulls will be seeking safer breeding sites and the roofs will become even more attractive.
WBC members have been heavily involved in monitoring the movements of larger gulls and teams have been to both Havergate Island and the Beccles site this summer to fit bright red, inscribed rings. In past winters, Steve, Andrew Green (WBC Recorder) and Mike Marsh have made almost annual pilgrimages to the gull’s wintering grounds in Southern Morocco, Portugal and Spain. There they scour the beaches, harbours and fishing ports for colour-ringed birds and Andrew spends a considerable amount of his time looking at the legs of gulls that forage on Aldeby Tip and Earsham pig fields.
Beccles is not the only town to suffer from exodus of gulls from Orfordness. Some have moved to natural sites in The Netherlands with many in Rotterdam area and several in the Zeeland region. One was reported as probably breeding on the island of Schiermonnikoog in 2001. In Belgium, several are breeding around Zeebrugge and in France two Orfordness-reared birds are at Le Clipon (nr Dunkerque) and another at Calais. It is in England where dispersing gulls are nesting on roofs. In Suffolk, several are on port roofs at Felixstowe and on industrial estate roofs in Ipswich. At Great Yarmouth, there are one or two Orfordness protégées on industrial estate roofs and there are others in Worcester, Harlow, Greater London and East Sussex.
Assessing the situation with a hope of bringing about a solution acceptable to the town – and the gulls, Steve said “The total nesting population in the Waveney Valley is staggering and has rocketed quickly. It is now about 5,000 pairs and the length to which some residents and businesses have gone to deter them is quite astonishing. Some have shrouded their buildings with netting and fixed anti-perching spikes to the perimeter edges. Plastic eagle owls have been erected and, in some instances, loud-hailers have been installed which transmit gulls’ alarm calls. Falcons have been flown. Whether any of these measures are effective is open to question and I would be extremely interested to find out. I am anxious to learn from local business in Lowestoft whether the methods used have had any noticeable effect as part of the feedback for this study. My knowledge to date suggests that gulls have not been deterred by any of the methods. Herring gulls are nesting immediately alongside one loud-hailer and gulls have used the anti-perching spikes that surround chimneys as added protection against airborne predators, their chicks sitting snugly amongst the prongs. Netting is an expensive and high-maintenance strategy and may only act as a deterrent for a few years. Weathering may soon cause it to sag and the gulls will then nest on top of it. Gulls are often seen perched on the plastic eagle owls. Even if firms manage to get rid of their nesting gulls, Steve fears they may simply be moving the “problem” on. Some of the methods used by commercial companies to deter gulls from breeding may well be successful, but displaced birds may then choose to breed more in residential areas, where ordinary people may either lack the funds to deter the birds or may even encourage them to nest,” he said.
As for the future, the Waveney Bird Club and Steve hope to be peacemakers.
“We think there has to be a co-ordinated approach. It may be that there should be some areas in which there has to be some form of control because of perceived health and safety issues and some areas where control is not necessary because there are no health and safety issues,” Steve said.
General advice to residents:
All wild birds and their eggs and nests are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Under this Act, birds cannot be taken or killed or their eggs or nests (when in use or being built) taken or destroyed except under license. Please see the full details set out in Rural Development Services Technical Advice Note 13 “Birds and their control in non-agricultural environments”. Please see:
However, it is recognised that a number of common “pest” species (e.g. feral pigeons, starlings, house sparrows, herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls) may frequently cause problems. Defra issues a number of general licenses which allow authorised persons (e.g. an owner or occupier) to kill or take these “pest” species using certain specified methods (e.g. shooting or cage trapping). The licenses also allow the removal or destruction of these species’ eggs (e.g. using egg oiling) or nests. Nests not being built or not in use are not protected under the 1981 Act and may be removed or destroyed at any time. Action is permitted under these general licenses to prevent the spread of disease and for the purpose of preserving public health or public or air safety.
The 1981 Act does not allow action against birds or their eggs or nests for the purposes of preventing damage to property or preventing nuisance problems; such problems include noise, smells and the triggering of intruder alarms by birds flying within buildings. These can only be tackled by using non-lethal methods of control, for example, scaring and proofing.
Herring and lesser black-backed gulls are listed in Part II of Schedule 2 of the Act. This means that these species can be controlled by authorised persons at all times. However, it is dependent upon a “good reason” for taking action, the onus of proof lies with the licensee should opposition to such action occur. Management options
Before deciding on a specific course of action, the extent and nature of the problem should be carefully considered. The aspects that need to be addressed include:
the species and number of birds involved;
the level and type of damage or problem being caused;
the buildings, structures or areas which are affected;
any specific limiting or influencing factors that may affect the action proposed.
Environmental management: A build-up of bird numbers in urban environments is normally a result of the presence of a readily accessible food supply and/or the availability of attractive habitats where they can roost or breed. Effective long-term management is normally dependent on the ability to eliminate or reduce these aspects. In urban areas, this can be difficult because numerous occupiers and individuals may have some degree of responsibility for the cause of the problem or may be affected by it. The single most important factor is the ability of the birds to gain access to a regular supply of nutritious food. If this can be denied, then problems may be resolved without recourse to other measures.
Consider the possibilities for:
avoiding the spillage of foodstuffs
keeping food storage areas secure and bird-proof
ensuring that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy
limiting or preventing the deliberate feeding of birds by the public or site staff
The chicks are flightless when small, but they grow quickly and residents may become alarmed if they find them wandering from their nesting area into their gardens and even onto the road. Others nesting on roofs may be blown off. Waveney Bird Club advise that no attempt is made to move the birds, as gulls make good parents, will recognise their own chicks call and find them to feed them.
Origins of Lesser Black-backed Gulls breeding beside Rainbow Store in Beccles
Just in case there is any doubt about the origins of the birds breeding in Beccles, two adults were found bearing red colour rings that were ringed as chicks in the Orfordness colony. Details of the movements of both birds are as follows:
13/07/2002 Orfordness, Suffolk – ringed as pullus/chick
05/02/2005 El Musel, Gijon, Asturias, SPAIN (43.33N 05.41W)
21/06/2006 Aldeby, Norfolk
27/06/2006 Earsham, Norfolk – seen again 28/06/2006
13/07/2006 Aldeby, Norfolk
25/02/2007 Orfordness, Suffolk – seen again 10/03/2007
26/08/2007 Earsham, Norfolk
22/07/2009 Beccles, Suffolk
red RDH (metal ring GG77327)
23/02/2008 Pinto, Madrid, SPAIN (40.15N 03.42W)
02/04/2008 Gloucester Landfill Site, Hempsted, Gloucester
26/04/2008 Orfordness, Suffolk – seen on 7 more dates to 19/07/2008
14/03/2009 Orfordness, Suffolk – seen on 12 more dates to 19/07/2009
22/07/2009 Beccles, Suffolk (TM4290) England 52.27N
Waveney Bird Club helps to halt Tree Sparrow extinctions in the Waveney catchment area
Thirty years ago, the Tree Sparrow was a very familiar sight in the East Anglian countryside and no one would have dreamt that it would ever become threatened. However, at the turn of this Millennium it was on the verge of extinction, both as a breeding and wintering species and local ornithologists feared the worst. They formerly nested in holes in trees, thatched buildings and old orchards and readily took to nest boxes. The Tree Sparrow’s former abundance along with the county’s strategic importance can be seen in the maps depicted in the “1988-1881 Breeding Atlas”. Undoubtedly, the species extinction from Suffolk would have national implications.
Nationally, the Tree Sparrow population crashed between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. There was a decline of 93% on farmland between 1968 and 1999 with the UK range undergoing marked change between the two Atlas periods, with a contraction in the west and south of England. This has continued subsequently with many local extinctions occurring during the 1990s and the current population level is still only about 3% of that of the 1970s. Components of agricultural intensification, such as reductions in winter stubble availability, are likely to be implicated in the decline. Breeding performance has improved substantially as population sizes have decreased, suggesting that decreases in productivity were not responsible for the decline. Following declines across western and northwestern Europe during the 1990s, the European status of this species is no longer considered ‘secure’ and it is now classified as a BAP species Red Listed.
Status in Norfolk and Suffolk
This national decline has been mirrored locally and the Tree Sparrow is now absent from most of East Anglia. Large flocks formerly gathered on stubbles and weedy fields during winter and large movements were logged at coastal watch-points.
Tree Sparrows are fairly sedentary, so the magnitude of wintering flocks can be used as a “health check” for the breeding population. Flocks of 100-150 were regularly recorded up to the mid-1980s and, occasionally, there were four-figure gatherings. Between 1985 and 2005 flocks of 30 or more were very rare indeed, but three-figure flocks have been noted during consecutive winters of 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 perhaps indicating a partial recovery. The current breeding population for both counties is likely to be less than 100 pairs.
Status in the Waveney Catchment
There are only two known colonies in the Waveney Valley catchment, at Thorndon and Flixton both on the Suffolk side of the valley. There have been a few winter records from Mutford, Somerleyton and Burgh St Peter in the past three winters, but otherwise the species is more-or-less absent. No colonies were found in south Norfolk during fieldwork for the Norfolk Atlas during 2002 to 2007.
Overview of the decline
The recent decline of the Tree Sparrow has occurred at the same time as decreases in the numbers and/or range of other farmland birds which share its diet of grass, wildflower seeds and some cereal grains. It is likely that the decline in Tree Sparrow may be due to changes in agricultural practice, both in the UK and in their wintering grounds in south-west Europe. These include the increased use of herbicides and fertilisers, the switch from spring-sown to autumn-sown crops and the consequent loss of winter stubble fields. The general reduction in farmland habitat diversity due to the loss of mixed farming, increased specialisation and habitat fragmentation has also had an effect. Breeding performance has improved substantially as population sizes have decreased, suggesting that decreases in productivity were not responsible for the decline.
Tree sparrows tend to form loose local colonies and, where these are supported with nest boxes and ample seed supplies, local populations can be stable and increasing.
Current actions and advisory work to date
The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has identified key sites as part of their work with Natural England’s Countdown 2010 Project. Landowners have been encouraged to retain the availability of wild birdseed strips (they were often ploughed up in February) to prolong the stay of the Tree Sparrow flocks. Breeding pairs have been located and nest boxes provided and erected in and around the wintering and known breeding areas. Waveney Bird Club volunteers will assist with the project by liaising with landowners, suggesting sites for nest boxes, monitoring nests and ringing chicks. WBC ringers will also target Tree Sparrows as part of their ringing efforts and coordinate work with other ringing groups elsewhere in East Anglia.
Our remaining Tree Sparrow colonies tend to be concentrated in mixed farming areas with access to at least small wetland patches and artificial nest sites or old/pollard trees. However, there are others which thrive in isolated gardens in the middle of arable deserts and survive solely on supplementary feeding. Several of theses sites have been identified and new sites are being sought. Once identified it is important that favourable management is maintained and if possible enhanced using all possible means, both within and beyond the scope of agri-environment schemes. During the breeding season of 2008, significant breeding colonies were identified in the Waveney catchment area and these are to be further enhanced and protected. Current BTO Atlas fieldwork may well locate further colonies, so swift action will be necessary if these are to survive.
Key to success is the plentiful supply of seeds throughout the year and this should include supplementary feeding to ensure overwinter survival and maintain the condition of adults during the breeding season. There should be supplementary provision of nest sites to allow colonies to expand. New boxes should be in place by the end of the breeding season rather than in early spring, as new nest sites are partially established at the end of the breeding season.
The large wintering Tree Sparrow flocks in and around Lackford and Benacre are noteworthy and it is important to support them during the winter and encourage them to stay to breed. The continued provision of wild-bird strips is the mainstay, but supplementary feeding will prolong their stay until the time comes for breeding. Availability of insect food for the young, and a good supply of nesting holes are essential for successful breeding. Nest boxes will provide nest-sites in selected areas. The agreement of the landowners is essential to this proposal.
It is pleasing to note that Tree Sparrows appear to be making a recovery with three-figure flocks being noted in coastal districts and in Breckland in the past two winters. The flocks are attracted to the seed heads of millet and other flowering plants sown by farmers in strips as part of the Government’s Environmental Stewardship Scheme. This is a clear sign that this policy is working which is good news for birds and birdwatchers alike.
If we do nothing, it is likely that the Tree Sparrow will decline further and will soon become extinct as a Suffolk breeding species. Act now or pay the price!
Most of you will already know that BBC Springwatch is based at Minsmere this year. At the media launch, Minsmere Site Manager, Adam Rowlands, talked about the exceptional range of wildlife, both widespread and rare, found here due to the wide variety of habitats available including sea, beach and dunes, reedbeds, ditches, open shallow waters, woodland, heath and grassland.
Chris Packham spoke about some of the technical challenges involved in getting cameras and cables into place in reedbeds and the huge amount of preparation involved in producing the programme. The BBC ‘Village’ at Minsmere is home to around 100 people involved in all aspects of the production.
Springwatch returns to BBC Two at 8pm on Monday to Thursday from 26 May to 12 June.
Carlton & Oulton Marshes lies in the Waveney Valley at the southern tip of the Norfolk Broads and is part of the Suffolk Broads. It comprises a jigsaw of grazing marsh, fens, peat pools, short fen meadow, tall litter fen, dykes, pools and scrub. Mostly man-made, these habitats have developed over hundreds of years of traditional management and now host specialised wildlife.
The reserve is one of the best sites in East Anglia to see grasshopper warblers. The reed and sedge beds along the river wall make ideal nesting cover for reed and sedge warblers, bearded tit, Cetti’s warbler and marsh harrier. The marshes are also ideal for wintering wildfowl and breeding waders with large numbers of wigeon, teal and snipe.
Location: Burnt Hill Lane, Carlton Colville, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR33 8HU
Project Profile: Foraging ranges and favoured food of four farmland bird species (Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting) that winter on Suffolk Farms
There has been much written about the declines in range and abundance of a host of farmland bird species since the early 1970s. Many species that were formerly abundant have become vulnerable to agricultural intensification and are now in steep decline. In an attempt to reverse these declines, Government-backed, voluntary schemes have introduced measures that would provide for the ‘Big 3’, i.e. nesting habitat, chick food and winter food for birds that favour farmland. Countryside Stewardship (CSS) was the forerunner of Entry Level, Organic Entry Level Stewardship and High Level Stewardship (ELS, OELS and HLS), which are the schemes available to farmers today.
In Britain at least, farmland is the single most important habitat for the four species listed below and, in recent winters, they have become increasingly reliant on seed-bearing crops. Therefore, the wild birdseed plot option, available as part of Environmental Stewardship, is becoming more and more important to the survival of wintering seed-eating species. Many farmers supplement this food source by supplying seed to fill the hungry gap in late winter and early spring. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the habits of farmland birds, Waveney Bird Club (WBC), in partnership with Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT), will lead a local study on 19 Suffolk farms focussing on the foraging ranges of four species: Tree Sparrow, Linnet, Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting. WBC will act as the lead organisation for the research work working under the umbrella of SWT’s farmland bird advisory work.
On completion of the research project WBC will seek funding to employ the BTO to professionally analyse the results. This might result in a paper for publication in a national journal.
Aims and objectives:
The aims and objectives of the project are to determine:
Foraging ranges of target species
Food preference between spring and autumn sown crops (Westhorpe only)
Flock sizes and species mix of birds using wild birdseed cover plots
Weight gain and/or weight loss throughout the winter
Supplementary feeding (tonnage and grain type) to bridge hungry gap
Record any net immigration to or emigration e.g. as a result of cold snaps as well as any large-scale exchanges of individuals between farmland and other habitats
Map areas of wild birdseed mix for each farm and determine area (ha) of each plot
Number/name each plot
Determine seed mix and dominant plants from that mix (which plants have done well that year?)
Set up net lanes within the cover plots and capture birds that are exploiting the food source between 1st December and 31st March
Note specific area where birds are caught (plot number, etc.)
Take full biometrics and weights of each bird and record all recaptures (even if caught that day), noting time, date, etc. (perhaps collect faecal samples?)
Estimate flock size and species range for each plot
Record other features on the farm that would encourage wintering seed-eating birds (e.g. overwinter stubbles)
Note: methodology may be further tweaked once we have received direction from BTO and a joint programme of work agreed.
Funding to be sourced from various outlets with initial expenditure attributed to the WBC BAP fund, which is being administered by SWT (Action – Chris McIntyre/Patrick Barker). WBC will consider bids for the cost of rings from ringing teams outside the lead organisation’s umbrella. Funding for professional analytical input will be sourced jointly with BTO.
Project Officer – Waveney Bird Club
Farmland Advisor – Suffolk Wildlife Trust
Waveney Bird Club (WBC) is championing a community-based project that will attempt to reverse a worrying trend that shows a drastic decline in Spotted Flycatcher populations. The project will be run under a partnership arrangement with the diocese of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. The idea is to supply open-fronted nest boxes and fix these in churchyards in the Waveney Valley and northeast Suffolk. The project will draw attention to the plight of this much-loved bird, get people involved and provide nesting sites that would allow easy monitoring. Subsequently, WBC will monitor the nest sites and the data collected will make a valuable contribution to the national database at British Trust for Ornithology. The success of the project could then be evaluated and further contribute to scientific studies on breeding success as well as determining the requirements of Spotted Flycatchers locally.
Once known in Suffolk as the “wall bird” the Spotted Flycatcher is indeed in danger of “going to the wall” in the most tragic of senses. Its habit of nesting on walls self-evidently puts it in close proximity to humans and for centuries the two species lived in harmony. Now, however, with the onslaught of a host of environmental difficulties the flycatcher has to face, the balance has been well and truly disrupted. It is a summer migrant to Britain, returning in late may or early June as one of the last to arrive, having spent “our” winter in sub-Saharan Africa. The scourge of pesticides in Britain has caused a well-documented decline in the bird’s insect prey – but in recent years the scourge has spread to its African wintering grounds where agriculture is fast becoming as intensified as it is here, with devastating droughts and habitat loss making matters even worse.
British farmland and woodland-edge breeding populations have suffered badly. Now conservationists say the more benign habitats of gardens and churchyards – not usually affected so adversely by pesticides – can play a major role in the bird’s survival.
A Suffolk Ornithologists Group/Suffolk Wildlife Trust survey, completed in 2007, gave an estimated population of about 200 breeding pairs in the county. In common with the broader British picture, the survey found the species was generally confined to the vicinity of human settlements with few pairs in farmland and woodland. The majority of records (84%) came from village and town gardens, although observer-bias could not be discounted. Otherwise, the distribution was churchyards and similar (9%), copses and orchards (4%) and farms (3%).
The British picture is so grim that the spotted flycatcher is now a Red List Species of Conservation Concern as well as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species. In addition to the effects of pesticides, various factors have been cited for its decline – cool weather during the early part of its nesting period, heavier nest predation by grey squirrels, cats and crow species, especially jays, and the deterioration of woodland quality due to lack of management.
Monitoring work by WBC members this summer resulted in a number of Spotted Flycatcher territories being located, most of them within the vicinity of churchyards. In consequence, meetings have been held with representatives of the diocese with a view to installing nest boxes. An article highlighting the project has been published in The Church’s own East Anglican Times. Marion Welham, Church Buildings and Tourism Officer for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said: “Not only are churchyards important places for archaeology and history, they provide essential food, water, shelter and breeding places for an abundance of wildlife to flourish. Taken together, Suffolk churchyards add up to an important acreage of land that has been largely untouched by chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Churches and communities are privileged to be guardians of their natural and historic heritage and are increasingly managing their churchyards sensitively, often with the help of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Churchyards are traditionally known as God’s Acre, an ancient Saxon phrase that doesn’t literally mean acre but God’s Field. They are beautiful and meaningful places and often within walking distance of communities so they can be a focus for learning. With their stonework and boundary walls, ivy and veteran trees, churchyards make ideal nesting sites for the flycatcher and the Diocese is delighted to be part of a project that will help it.” The Rt Revd Nigel Stock, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, added: “I am delighted that the Church of England in Suffolk is able to be part of this important community project. Working together with conservation bodies and HM Prison and Young Offenders Institution Hollesley Bay, I hope we can give this little summer visitor a helping hand.”
This enthusiastic response has encouraged the club to order one hundred boxes and these have been fixed in churchyards to celebrate National Nest Box Day on 14th February 2011. A total of 130 nest boxes have been made by the citizens of Hollesley Bay Prison, one for each member of the club. Pat Carter, project support officer at Hollesley Bay, said prisoners had been carrying out the work alongside making barn owl boxes for the Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project. “Producing the boxes gives the prisoners a feeling of self-worth because they are creating something which will help enhance the natural world,” she said. “This acts as part of a resettlement programme for offenders, working in the community on various projects. Prisoners work throughout the local area in charity shops, local churchyards and on prison based projects as part of their preparation for release at the end of their sentence.”
Waveney Bird Club ~ The Rhodope Mountains and the Black Sea, Bulgaria May 2013
Bulgaria was a new destination for many on the trip. The country has Greece and Turkey to the south and the Black Sea to the east. The climate is extremely cold in winter with deep snowfall for months on end in mountainous districts. Spring is pretty swiftly dispatched and replaced with blazing summers. Grass was already yellowing in some areas while we were there. The central Thracian Plain on which we travelled back to Sofia from Burgas is flat farmland but very different from the prairies of East Anglia. Small tractors or horse-drawn vehicles were in evidence and newly ploughed fields already had a variety of wild plants growing through because of lack of sprays. Small rice paddy fields were flooded and ‘field margins’ were often very large with many trees and bushes giving the impression farming was still being carved from the countryside.As we began our journey traveling south-east then south and through the Rhodope Mountains, tobacco growing became very evident. Seedlings were being raised in gardens and transplanted to fields by hand by crouching women while their menfolk gently walked along holding the hose to water in the little plants. Self-sufficiency was evident in all the splendid vegetable gardens with goats and beehives, but so too was the evidence of poverty. The burgeoning wildlife, wonderful wild flowers, woodland and forest we saw was a direct result of the continuation of a simple way of life (obviously very hard) and no use of pesticides. It was a demonstration of just how much has been lost in Britain in the last sixty years.
Day 1: Monday 13 May 2013 ~ Roger Buxton
With a departure from Gatwick of 06.00 an early start to the day was necessary, with the bulk of the group staying in the airport Premier Inn overnight, nevertheless this still required a 4.00 a.m. start to the day! Thankfully, all group members whether they traveled down on the morning or day before were found at varying positions in the extremely congested and crowded queue waiting to book in. Due to the large numbers of passengers for Easyjet early-morning flights, the chaos caused some members a little consternation and we only just made it in time through passport control, etc.
Take-off was on time at 6.00 a.m. with no delays en route with an arrival in Sofia of 11.10 a.m. where the party was met by our delightful guide Minko and we transferred to a bus. Weather on arrival in Bulgaria was cloudy with spells of sunshine, considerably warmer than back home in England.
We left Sofia on the E80 dual carriage way travelling firstly in an easterly direction towards our first scheduled stop of two nights in the Trigrad region in the Western Rhodopes a journey of approximately 300 km. Initially, bird observation from the bus was very limited; however the high numbers of Red-backed Shrike observed on roadside fence posts and bushes was very noticeable. At Galapica, we turned off the E80 and headed in a southerly direction taking the 868 onto Stambolijski where we noted a massive White Stork nest sitting atop of the church roof. This huge mass of twigs and grasses was also home to many Spanish Sparrows and looked as though it was as ancient as the church itself. From Stombol we followed the Valley Vacha road to Devin and onto the village of Buynovo and Hotel Popini, situated in the Trigrad zone of the Western Rhodope Mountains just seven kilometres, as the Raven flies, from the Bulgarian/Greek border, where we would be staying for two nights. The Valley Vacha road took us through deep gorges, spectacular mountain scenery and alpine meadows high up into the Western Rhodopes. Always below was the turbulent Vacha River dammed in three places for hydro-electric and water reserves. The weather changed in late afternoon with a fine drizzle and by the evening we had heavy rain.
Two finds of the day other than birds were Lady Orchid and Fire Salamander. Sadly, the salamander was accidentally stood on when it was being viewed and photographed. With a medical inspection and assessment by our first aider, Marky P., it was declared fit and well enough to be released with no obvious injuries except for a tremendous headache. To save any further embarrassment and humiliation, the heavy-footed person concerned will remain completely anonymous in this article, but was given the nickname of ‘Crusher’. Further discussions continued afterwards theorizing about Darwin’s theory of natural evolution and the possibility that all future generations of salamander could possibly develop crash helmets.
With Montagu’s Harrier, Pallid and Alpine Swift, both Black and White Stork, Crag Martin and Black-headed Bunting plus 42 other different species observed on Day One with limited opportunities for bird observation due to travel and rain, nevertheless it was already evident at this early stage that this was going to be one of those very special trips.
Day 2: Tuesday 14 May 2013 ~ Paddy Shaw
Western Rhodope – ‘Deliberates and Accidentals’
For many, the pursuit of the ‘Gorge Bird of the Trigrad’ would be top billing of the whole trip and – for me at least – a close encounter with the wild mountain music of the Western Rhodope and the fabled, ‘range-restricted’ Kaba Gaida a ‘life tick.’ Journeys in this region of torrents, conifers and crags can be tortuous, with twisting, pot-holed roads, steep gorges, sliced overhangs pitifully contained by what looked like chicken wire, all accompanied by rushing water, Dippers and Wagtails.
Trigrad Gorge is an immense piece of geology, with the Trigradska River disappearing into the Devil’s Throat cave system, only to emerge 300 metres further down the valley. However, it had been noticed that no detritus from the rushing water emerged with it, leading to suspicions that the lower watercourse wasn’t the same river. Tests with dye revealed that it was though, even though the dye took 2.5 hours to re-appear. To try and solve this mystery, two divers entered the cave system to explore the labyrinth – never to surface again: their bodies were never found. This fuelled local superstitions that the Devil’s Throat was actually the portal used by Orpheus in his descent to the underworld and led to the plethora of restaurants and hotels in the area called ‘The Orpheus.’
Hunkering down in a perilous lay-by at the end of a tunnel cut through the sheer edge of the gorge, we waited below what was believed to be the nest site: a T-shaped slash in the rocks with the two entrances required by our quarry, the elusive and downright weird Wallcreeper. And we waited…and waited. Minko’s face was beginning to look serious, like it did when his target didn’t appear at other times on the trip. Ravens and Peregrines provided warm-up entertainment – but where was Elvis? Had the nest site been rejected as too close to the parties of Euro eco-tourists, which must continually stop here?
Then a shout – ‘up there!’ Bins shot up to the peak of the opposite rock face, with trees somehow finding a foothold in the sheer rock. Some saw it, some didn’t! But perhaps this bird knew the ropes – keep them waiting, build the tension, then – with flits of moth-like wings – give them a glimpse, before bouncing from face to face, finally to step into the spotlight, right opposite our viewpoint. More Alice Cooper than Elvis really. Scopes, bins and cameras – just what he wanted! Flashes of crimson wings, a curved beak – across he came, before rounding an edge. Priceless views of the top bird of the trip.
We played it for as long as possible, before it was suggested the nest site was his target and we were starting to overstay our welcome, and his potentially-brooding mate would be giving him a right-old whistling. Minko was smiling now – he told us later of the pleasure he gets from seeing others’ pleasure in the target bird. The pressures of being a guide….. We walked through the tunnel to the bus, with the feeling of a football crowd leaving a stadium, their team having stuffed the opposition 6-0.
So, off to lunch at the – yup – Orpheus Restaurant in nearby Teshel, briefly jumping off the bus for a glimpse of three Serin in a field and then re-mounting only to find the restaurant to be only 100 metres further on!
The oily chicken soup (previously experienced in Turkey) was accompanied by encounters with iridescent and very large beetles, an overflying Black Stork, Red-rumped Swallows and butterflies, including a ‘snouty skipper’ (thanks Eric!). Another bonus was the damp shade-loving Haberlea Rodopensis, which apparently occurs only in Bulgaria.
Back on the bus, for more low-gear, pot-hole avoiding adventures, until a roadside stop to pick up water (and beer!) brought Goshawk, Pallid Swift, Honey Buzzard, Red-rumped Swallow. You daren’t take your bins off for a second in this place! I won’t mention who nearly jammed an ice cream in their eye in the adrenalin bins-rush to catch sight of the Goshawk, but they know who they are…..
And so to an almost alpine meadow site, catching Whinchat and Ortolan Bunting (the Beethoven bird as far as I’m concerned, as I’m sure it gave him the opening to the 5th Symphony, him being a keen bird watcher an’ all), before going on to a two-hour uphill stroll through mixed woodland in search of Firecrest, Crested Tit and Black Woodpecker – two out of three ain’t bad, as the pecker never appeared! The Crested Tit however was delightful – like a Coal Tit on a 1960s day-trip to Brighton – all quiff and attitude. If the trip was a month long, it would have been too short at this rate – I could have spent 30 minutes at least absorbing each new find, not having earned any bars on international birding, but…onwards and back to the hotel.
If you’re expecting bird talk now, skip the rest of this section.
This hotel, set in an isolated meadow deep in a Rhodopian valley at the end of 30 minutes of little more than dirt track, was the right location for the next bit.
The Western Rhodope is home to a music as revered and rare and unusual as the Wallcreeper, and particularly, a giant bagpipe, only found in these mountains – the Kaba Gaida.
‘Gaida’ is a generic word for bagpipe throughout Eastern Europe, and variations on the name are found closer to home, in the ‘Gaita’ of Spain (particularly Asturias and Gallicia). ‘Kaba,’ however, means ‘bass,’ and the music, with its complex time-signatures, requirement for virtuosity in the player and almost martial arts-like traditions of ‘aural learning’ from a master is respected enough to have been represented on the disc accompanying the Voyager spacecraft, (the piece ‘Izleial e Delio Haidutin’, translated as ‘Delyo became a Gypsy’) containing selected examples of human achievement.
Thanks to the folks from Neophron and the hotel owner, we were visited by Emil Todorov Cholakov (Kaba) and Nadezhda Dimitrova (vocals) from Devin. The Kaba Gaida sobs in a minor key, and the complex, ‘free-time’ songs require visual cues for unison, heavily-ornamented verses, interspersed with semi-improvised bagpipe phrases: the open-throated style of singing acting as a foil for the sonorous, deep tones of the Gaida.
With its bag made from an entire goatskin, the long drone pipe draped below the player’s right arm and the heavily-ornamented chanter (including its secret ‘flea hole’ – a small hole placed at the top of the chanter, responsible for much of the ‘pip-pop’ inflexions in the music), it is a mighty instrument, and Emil was a master of it. He leads a band of 33 Gaidas, the players including his 77-year-old master, and 7-year-old children, reflecting the passing of tradition from one generation to another so vital to national culture (and so casually dispensed with in our own country, with traditional musicians having to act as museum curators). The first half ended with an enthusiastic Hora (circle dance).
fter the log (our own tradition) and Eric’s comment that it was amazing what you could do with a goat (further questioning on this didn’t seem appropriate at the time), there was a second set, ending with a superb virtuoso performance from Emil (who let me have a go on it!). I was amazed that – after inflating a whole goat – it took very gentle pressure to keep the instrument regulated (you found that as well, didn’t you Steve?).
Well, no apologies, but after that, I needed beer… and rakia….. and another beer!
Wallcreepers and Gaidas – not a bad day really?
Day 3: Wednesday 15 May 2013 ~ Carol Elliott and John Garbutt
As we opened our curtains and looked out over the steep-sided, tree-lined valley, with an unusually large area of meadow flanking the fast flowing river, we looked forward to the day ahead. Some (Eurasian) Crag and (Common) House Martins were nesting on the hotel and demonstrated their acrobatic feeding flights – or were they just having fun? The Red-backed Shrikes were again visible close to the hotel.
After breakfast, we checked out and our coach returned down the 15 km cul-de-sac, a largely un-surfaced road in the bottom of steep-sided gorges beside fast-flowing, rocky rivers – ideal for the (White-throated) Dippers and Grey Wagtails that were frequently seen there and also for the occasional small hydro-electric power plant. Although it was a bright sunny day, our coach was usually shaded by the steep sides of the gorges, but occasionally we were in the sun as the road meandered along the valley floor. Eventually, the gorge widened and there were signs of small-scale, non-invasive agriculture – hand tools, horse power and certainly no shooting estates or farming monocultures, fertilizers and insecticides that have done so much harm to our Suffolk bird populations.
Continuing on the way to our first stop, we saw a Red Squirrel, and some Alpine Swifts wheeling high above were identified when their white undersides became visible as they banked in the sun. We passed through some small towns and at 9:00 parked outside a derelict former ski-centre hotel in Rozhen. The location enabled our first distant view for some days and we were now 75 km from Greece. The main reason for the stop was to view Pallid Swifts, but we also saw a Lesser Grey Shrike plus Sombre and Coal Tits that were nesting in holes in the concrete electricity pylons. We also noted Yellowhammer, Chaffinch, Honey Buzzard, Whinchat, Black Redstart, (Common) Starling, Hooded Crow, a singing Mistle Thrush, and a shepherd with his flock and two bear-like Bulgarian sheep dogs that probably wanted to round us up with their sheep.
On the way to our lunch venue, the coach stopped suddenly to enable the rescue of a tortoise that was crossing the road. The coach emptied to look at it and another was found nearby. Although similar in appearance, they were of different species – Hermann’s and Spur-thighed.
At 13:30, we arrived in the town of Ardino to buy our lunches in a small supermarket. Numerous Marsh Frogs were calling loudly from the River Arda and we also saw various damselflies and butterflies plus Feral Pigeons and House Sparrows in the town centre.
On our way to the next stop, we noted Jackdaws, a Black Kite and White Storks on their massive nests of twigs that provide high-rise accommodation for various sparrow species. Our next stop was at Dolna Kula above the River Krumovitz where a (Western) Rock Nuthatch had nested. This species builds a nest entrance of mud and, in this case, it was sited below an overhang on a cliff face. Although only visible from a narrow viewpoint some distance away, we saw the bird appear but it seemed nervous of our presence so we soon left. We also saw Black-headed Bunting, Black-eared Wheatear, (European) Bee-eater, Grey Heron, Little Ringed Plover, Common Buzzard, Woodchat Shrike and heard (Common) Nightingales.
A second stop nearby produced (Eurasian) Crag Martin, Black-headed and Corn Buntings, (European) Roller, (Common) Cuckoo and more singing (Common) Nightingales.
At 18:00, we stopped in Rabovo village where there were (Eurasian) Hoopoe, (Common) Blackbird, (Eurasian) Collared Dove, Grey Heron, (Common) House Martin, a light morph Booted Eagle, a White Stork’s nest with Spanish Sparrows lodging below, a (European) Turtle Dove and some us saw a Little Owl before it nervously disappeared.
Our next stop at Sarukaya (meaning Yellow Rock in Turkish) produced Golden Eagle, (Eurasian) Crag Martin, (Common) Kestrel, (Eurasian) Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, Cirl Bunting, Sombre Tit and Subalpine Warbler.
Next, we made a brief stop so that our guide Minko could arrange food for the following day. Across a long high bridge, the arrival of a goat-herder was announced by the neck bells of his animals.
At 19:45, we arrived at The Hotel Ray (meaning Paradise in Bulgarian) in the town of Madzharovo situated in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains just 20 km from the border with Greece. The hotel was well-equipped, but the bathroom was of the wet-room type. This would be alright except that the toilet was fitted exactly where you would stand under the powerful shower and everything in the room, including the towels and toilet rolls were soaked when the shower was used. No doubt, numerous replacements are provided every time the occupancy changes.
The town of Madzharovo has suffered “boom and bust” in recent years. Copper, minerals and a small quantity of gold ore had been discovered nearby and the development of the mines led to a population of 7,000 people. To provide housing, numerous blocks of flats were built to a very poor structural standard so that many now have collapsed roofs and chimneys. The mines have now closed and these buildings are not needed as the population has dropped to just 500. However, one consequence of this dereliction is that it provides plenty of usable wildlife habitats. Thus, after dinner, our tireless guide was able to find us Tawny, Barn, Little and (Eurasian) Scops Owls.
After a long, but very varied and enjoyable day – it was easy to sleep well.
Day 4: Thursday 16 May 2013 ~ Ivan Levitt
Although I couldn’t remember ordering a five o’clock wake-up call on our first morning in the Hotel Pau, I certainly got one as two cockerels next to the hotel competed with the local dogs! From my window, a glimmer of light was just showing over the mountains and, sticking my head out, I soon became aware of the dawn chorus. Nightingale was at the forefront as it was just across the road from the hotel. As it got lighter, more birds joined in the cacophony with Cuckoo, Golden Oriole, Blackbird and Starling being prominent. A Little Owl was on the roof of a derelict building whilst a Tawny called in the distance. When the sun came up over the mountain everything was bathed in a red-yellow glow, a magical moment.
There was no time for reflection though as a six o’clock rendezvous with the coach was next on the agenda. Most of the group, well 16, climbed aboard and headed out, over the bridge and onto a stretch of road that we would get to know well during our stay in this area. We were dropped near a viewpoint above the River Arda at the foot of towering cliffs that overlooked Madzharovo. This area is known as Kovan Kaya, a protected reserve. An exhaustive search for Chukar began but, after scanning countless rocky outcrops and gulleys above us, there was no sign. We did however, locate some pretty good birds: Ortolan Bunting, Rock Bunting, Black-eared Wheatear, Blue Rock Thrush, Peregrine, Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Woodchat Shrike and Black Stork to name a few. Whilst watching the cliffs of a lot of shouting and bells clanging was coming from the river meadows below. Soon we were in the middle of a cattle drive as the local cowman moved them to higher pastures. The cows were very skittish and did not like all the tripods and people on their mountain, some almost coming to grief on the tarmac surface – and all this before breakfast?
Suitably refreshed we set out again with almost a full compliment over the bridge, but instead of driving up the road we got out and walked through meadows alongside the river and up to the viewpoint where we were earlier that morning. These meadows and hedgerows were alive with birds, butterflies and insects. Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were proving to be elusive as usual, whilst Black-headed Buntings were singing from the treetops. Part of the group took the riverside path and the rest the meadow. Griffon and Egyptian Vultures were spiraling overhead and a Long-legged Buzzard drifted lazily over us quite low. The sun was getting warm and the walk was accompanied by the buzz of insects and the song of Nightingale, Golden Oriole and Woodlark. Reaching the road we started to gain height and walking between two hedgerows made the sun seem hotter. Marky P was catching a lot with his net amongst the vegetation, but a large lizard scurrying across the road was too quick even for him! Coming out of the trees and onto the rocks the temperature rose, so an old mineshaft entrance in the side of the mountain that was expelling cold air from within was a welcome relief. More searching of the rock buttresses and cliff faces produced much the same as earlier as well as Honey Buzzard, Booted Eagle, Alpine Swift and Sombre Tit. A Spoonwing Lacewing Nemoptera sinuata sunning itself further along the road from the viewpoint caused everybody to abandon tripods and ‘scopes and go off to see this insect. I decided to stay and guard the equipment. In a moment a Southern White Admiral descended on the tripod of Steve’s scope and began feeding on the salts left by sweat. It then moved to the ‘scope itself and went over every surface that had been touched. It moved around the gathered tripods but only went on ‘scopes with no covers. I took quite a few pictures! I did get to see the lacewing when everybody had come back.
Walking back down the road and across the bridge the group was very spread out, therefore many sightings were missed by all. Converging on the Vulture Centre a very nice lunch, in shady trees, was taken at a leisurely pace. A walk up the hill behind the centre produced Short-toed Treecreeper, but there was very little bird life noted in the heat of this very hot day. There were some impressive information panels beside the trail, the text in Bulgarian that Minko interpreted.
Our afternoon destination was a little village named Borislavsti, but not before a stop for jars of local honey. Leaving the coach, we walked a track heading towards the Arda River, turning alongside fields and areas of scrub that gave up Nightingale, Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove and Cuckoo. Further along the scrub, overlooking another turn of the river, held several singing Olive-tree Warblers. Most of the group stayed around this scrub with some venturing deep into the thickets for views of the birds. Olive-tree, like Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, was very elusive! A couple of Black Kites came up from the water’s edge and started circling over the river and were joined by a White-tailed Sea Eagle, a stunning sight. A small group started back, but loitered in area where a Barred Warbler had been spotted earlier. The bird could be heard singing but few had obtained tickable views! I stood some way away photographing a Red-backed Shrike when I became aware of a movement in the bush alongside of me. The Barred Warbler then began to sing, very loudly but it was too close for a picture. The rest of the group caught up and returned to the coach gaining good views of a White Stork flying over the field on the way. Back at the coach a stork’s nest nearby was also home to a colony of Spanish Sparrow. The village buildings, just like most encountered on the trip, seemed to be half finished. Windows were missing and bricks seemed to be laid without mortar. Only one thickness of bricks was apparent that, given the bad winters, seems odd?
Heading back towards Madzharovo we took a detour to look for Yellow-bellied Toads. Parking up and walking down a track some people came across a vision out of a Chelsea Flower Show garden. A series of rock pools trickled water ever lower to the path and in the bottom pool were Mark, Minko and Eric chasing around catching these amphibians. Several smooth newts were also found. We returned to our hotel with just enough time for a shower before dinner. As with all meals encountered on this trip there was little difference. The food was good, wholesome fare, but had little variety. The evening ended with the usual Log exchange, much hilarity and frivolity, just another day with the Bird Club?
Day 5: Friday 17 May 2013 ~ Chris McIntyre
This morning we remained in the Eastern Rhodopes and ventured off to the main vulture feeding location in the area. Birds encountered en-route were Hoopoe, Cuckoo, White Stork (three) and a Roller.
We arrived at Studen Kladenets Reservoir, the second largest in Bulgaria. It is situated on the River Arda and created behind the Studen Kladenets dam. The dam is part of the Arda energy cascade and was first put into operation in 1957. All the rivers in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in South Bulgaria currently have a critically high water level after heavy rains in the region.
The temperature had already reached 28 Celsius as we arrived at the village of Potochnitsa where we collected snacks for lunch. We left the coach to see Whitethroat, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Woodchat Shrike, Woodlark and a White Stork’s nest with two chicks and heard the usual songs of Nightingales and Golden Orioles. After a short walk, we arrived at the vulture viewing area. Being so close to the Greek border, a target bird for the day was Black Vulture, which we were told often ventures over from Greece, but unfortunately on this occasion it failed to show. However, we witnessed the spectacle of 85 Griffon and four Egyptian vultures diligently preying on entrails. Also playing their part were three Black Kites and eight Hooded Crows. A local dog was also chancing his luck. Other birds seen at this location were; Short-toed and Booted Eagles, four Long-legged, Common and single Honey Buzzards, Peregrine Falcon, Hobby and two Levant Sparrowhawks, 32 Bee-eaters, Cuckoo, Red-rumped Swallow, Alpine Swift, two Ravens, Black-eared Wheatear, Red-backed Shrike, Ortolan and Cirl Buntings, Sombre tit, four Hawfinches and two Linnets.After lunch, we stayed in the area of Potochnitsa to find a new location where we had a tremendous birding feast. Whilst looking at Eastern Olivaceous Warbler someone cried out “Sardinian” and we were all treated to tremendous views of a very obliging Sardinian Warbler as well as Olive Tree Warbler and two Eastern Orphean Warblers. A Barred Warbler was not so obliging as it went from bush to bush. Corn and Black-headed Buntings and Lesser Whitethroat were also in the proximity.
We then moved on to the Krumovitsa River that flows through deep canyons and open valleys, with the vegetation along the riverbanks dominated by Alnus, Salix, Populus, Rubus, Rosa and Tamarix. Dry grassland, scrub and broad-leafed forests cover the neighbouring hills. Land uses are extensive rearing of sheep and cattle, hunting and forestry, but the area is becoming progressively depopulated due to local emigration to the cities.The Krumovitsa River valley is one of the most important areas in Bulgaria for breeding Black Storks, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Eurasian Eagle Owl and Olive Tree Warbler.From the bridge we saw three Little-ringed Plovers, a Turtle Dove, two Rollers, two Black Storks, three Yellow-legged Gulls and a Black-headed Wagtail. Whilst the main party scanned for birds from the bridge, Marky P thrashed around adjacent scrub area for insects. He located two special dragonflies for the trip: Southern Skimmer and Small Pincertail, the latter subsequently admired by most of our party.
Studen Kladenets Protected Area was our last location of the day where we had fabulous views of Subalpine Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear, Raven, Green Woodpecker, Middle-spotted Woodpecker and two Syrian Woodpeckers.
Bulgaria, what a wonderful country, nice people, great birding and bloody good company - wow! Thanks Waveney Bird Club.
Day 6: Saturday 18 May 2013 ~ John Grant
There’s a British bloke in Bourgas who’d better watch his back. And if you think that’s a lot of alliteration here’s another letter b – he’s a b*****d.
He’s been collared in Bulgaria on one of his illegal jaunts and found to be one of the worst egg-collectors ever apprehended. The Bulgarian and British authorities, including the RSPB, which sent an investigator out to the Bourgas and Rhodope Mountains areas to gather evidence against him, are on his case. He’s stuck in Bourgas with watchful eyes on his every movement and he knows that if he ever sets foot in Britain again he’ll be hauled before the courts quicker than he could ever “rope” any nest tree to steal yet another clutch. The book will be thrown at him and he will pay the price for his vile kleptomania that has seen him deprive an astonishing 2,000-or-so species of eggs.
This chilling story was recounted by our guide Minko as we marvelled at an adult Eastern Imperial Eagle soaring high in the wide blue skies somewhere above the rolling Sakar Hills. I say somewhere for obvious security reasons. To give away the exact site would be to give a useful hint to any other egg-collector as to the whereabouts of what is one of the rarest, as well as one of the most impressive, of all Europe’s raptors.
We had made our way to this vast, sweltering, landscape of wide horizons, this noisy soundscape of black-headed buntings, corn buntings and turtle doves, from Madzhavoro – via one of the most magical stops of our entire time in this bird-filled country. After brief roadside looks at a pair of Stonechats we had spent a memorable hour or so beside the River Maritsa, between the seemingly impoverished border town of Svilengrad - which was nestling in a state of apparent suspended animation near the conjunction of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey - and the village of Momkovo.
Here Minko’s “possibility” of Masked Shrike was converted into a glorious reality, yet another contender for bird of the trip. A superb male was the black, white and subtle orange vision that rounded off a delightful stroll in which Spotted Flycatcher was added to the ever-growing trip list and we were accompanied along the way by such species as Roller, Bee-eater, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Turtle Dove, Black-headed Bunting, Nightingale, Hobby, Black Stork and Spanish Sparrow. Some of the party also saw a female Masked Shrike. All of us had a surprise. A Scops Owl called in the bright, burning, heat of broad daylight – a reminder of those cool strolls around Madzhavoro under cover of darkness.
The lure of the eagles proved irresistible and we were on the road again, with brief coach views of Calandra Lark, Crested Lark, Lesser Grey Shrike, our first of many Isabelline Wheatears and, for one observer, a Wryneck.
We were under the scorching Sakar Hills sun for an energy-sapping two hours before the eagle entertainment had us spellbound for a few magical minutes. Time to study the supporting cast. Actually, that does not do justice – or anything like it - to the plentiful Isabelline Wheatears, for example. They were virtually everywhere and, without sounding too anorak, there was a fascinating new angle to take while watching them. Several appeared to be of a darker hue, a dusky “morph”, and we were left to wonder what sort of controversy would blow up if one of these strange-looking creatures ever made it to Britain.
When the raptors started appearing, at least three Booted Eagles and a few Common Buzzards were the forerunners. Then came the big one. A mighty Eastern Imperial, was etched against a wide, vivid blue, sky. For many a lifer, for all an absolute thrill and privilege.
As seems so often to be the case in Bulgaria, another bird thrill was waiting just a few miles down the road – our first Lesser Spotted Eagle lazily circled a roadside field en route to a Calandra Lark stake-out near the village of Topolovgrad. Alas, amid all the Short-toed Larks, Crested Larks and Skylarks, none of the big Calandras could be found. We were, however, treated to even better, more prolonged, views of a second Eastern Imperial Eagle and were transfixed by the endearing little Susliks that distracted us from the wealth of Isabelline Wheatears - with a few Northern Wheatears for good comparison - Woodchat and Red-backed Shrikes and a Hoopoe for good measure.
Minko was not to be defeated in his Calandra quest though. The dusky under wings with clean white trailing edges of a large lark seen from the coach a few miles down the road caused him to shout in triumph and after a quick decant we were all watching this bulky character carrying food for its nearby young.
The daylight was fading fast as we reached the Black Sea coast, heading for our hotel at Sarafovo, on the outskirts of the sprawling, less-than-attractive, port city of Bourgas. But as dusk gathered there were tantalising hints of what was to come….wetland species abounded. Our first White Pelicans gleamed in the gloaming, night herons were silhouetted against the darkening skies. Gulls, Great Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Little Egrets – what else was lurking in these water lands that we were to explore tomorrow?
We knew one human who was lurking nearby, however – although to describe him as human is stretching the definition rather too far. The egger. Somewhere in the back streets of Bourgas this fugitive was furtively hiding out, playing a futile waiting game. This British b*****d. When he finally faces justice back in Britain I know what sentence he should be given. He should be strung up by his b******s.
Day 7: Sunday 19 May 2013 ~Tony Butler
Sunday 19 May saw us staying on the south-east Black Sea coast in Sarafovo our intention being to spend Days Seven and Eight of the trip exploring some of the major wetlands and coastal sites around Bourgas.
Before breakfast, some members of the group took a stroll along the seafront and this proved quite productive, furnishing ten Avocet, Little, Common and Sandwich Terns (first of the trip), Yellow-legged Gull, Little Ringed Plover, three Shelduck, Mallard, Jay, Cetti’s and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Lesser Grey Shrike, Syrian Woodpecker, Northern Wheatear and Marsh Harrier. A pair of Common Dolphins was also seen.
After breakfast, we headed for Vaya Lake (seeing a Spoonbill en-route) in the hope of seeing the fabled pelicans and we were not to be disappointed, being greeted by 300+ White Pelicans and around 30 Dalmatian Pelicans. What an extraordinary sight. Many of the group had never laid eyes on either species before. Other species enjoyed included two species of marsh tern - Whiskered and Black – Common Tern, Squacco and Grey Heron, Night Heron, Little Bittern, Little Egrets, Moorhen and Coot, large numbers of Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Gadwall and Pochard, Great Reed Warbler and Bearded Tit. Marsh Frogs provided the vocal backing to this superb birding extravaganza.
After Vaya, we then made our way to the Izvorska river mouth with Black-winged Stilt and Glossy Ibis being seen en-route. Izvorska proved to be a beautiful lagoon surrounded by woodland and reedbed widening out into the mouth of the river. The highlights here included four Purple Heron, three Squacco Heron, Night Heron, two Grey Heron, Little Bittern, male Marsh Harrier, two Ferruginous Duck, two Lapwing, at least two Cuckoos, Lesser-spotted Eagle, Yellow-legged Gulls, Lesser Grey Shrike, several singing Great Reed Warblers, Black Headed Bunting. Two Penduline Tits, including one at the nest, were also seen, as was a single Pygmy Cormorant, which was a life tick for some. Finally, masses and masses of House Martins, viewed from the road bridge, made an amazing spectacle as they dived and weaved for insects (being copied by Bee-eaters overhead). Four Pond Terrapins were also seen.After Izvorska, we then travelled to the Poda Lagoon reserve for a well earned lunch in the shade of a wooden pagoda. By now it was early afternoon and very hot. The reserve also boasted a visitor centre where it was possible to bird from the roof and two hides. The reserve also adjoined the Black Sea coast thus giving us the opportunity to look for shore and sea birds. Heading into the reserve after lunch, a most surreal sight greeted us - hundred upon hundreds of Great Cormorants nesting on redundant electricity pylons which appeared to stretch for miles. Apparently, this surreal sight is unique to Bulgaria. The other main bird species encountered here were a colony of Common Terns nesting on purpose-made platforms, breeding Black-winged Stilts, Oystercatchers, two Common Sandpipers, ten Collared Pratincoles, three Purple Herons, a Squacco Heron, four Spoonbills, at least three Marsh Harriers, our second White-tailed Eagle of the trip, two further Pygmy Cormorants, single Mediterranean Gull, Yellow-legged gulls, two Ferruginous Ducks, five Black-necked Grebes on the sea and 15 Sand Martins. Some of ur group also watched two Otters fishing near the tern platforms.On the way back to the hotel, our final stop was the Bourgas Salt Pans mainly in the hope of connecting with further waders. Highlights here were several roosting Mediterranean Gulls and single Little and Black-headed Gulls (the latter quite scarce in Bulgaria), Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, 50 Curlew Sandpipers, two Kentish Plovers, a Little Ringed Plover, six Little Stints, several Ruffs, five Turnstones, 20+ Spoonbills, a Ruddy Shelduck, two Marsh Harriers, a Penduline Tit and a Black-headed Wagtail.All in all, another superb day, with a good number of new species added to the growing list.
Day 8: Monday 20 May 2013 ~ Andrew Green
Our second morning on the Black Sea coast dawned under blue skies and the promise of another hot day ahead, as we prepared to continue our exploration of the Burgas Lakes. Birding got off to a promising start before we’d even boarded the coach, when a male Golden Oriole showed well in a small area of scrubby woodland between the hotel patio and the beach.
A tip-off from a colleague of Minko determined our first port of call, and we headed off to some salt pans on the north-west side of Lake Pomorie. Resident Avocets and Black-winged Stilts were soon noted and, thanks to Minko’s sharpness in the strong heat haze, it wasn’t too long before our quarry, a Broad-billed Sandpiper, was located amongst a flock of some 100 Curlew Sandpipers, 85 Little Stints, two Ringed Plovers and a single Dunlin. This rare wader was a good addition to our trip list, as clearly by the third week of May most of the northern-breeding waders had already passed through the Black Sea.
Our next destination was the southern shore of Lake Pomorie by the salt museum. We were now in the town and seaside resort of Pomorie itself and construction work was much in evidence. The lake is a Ramsar site, but in reality how much protection this offers from development in the European Union’s poorest member country is of concern. Birding interest here was unfortunately limited, but the patio outside the visitor centre did provide some welcome shade from the midday sun, and those of a certain persuasion had ample opportunity to study the finer points of structure and plumage of a local Yellow-legged Gull. Further stops a short distance further west did yield good views of Whiskered Terns and, more distantly, White-winged Black Terns, as well as views of one of the largest Sandwich Tern colonies in Europe, numbering some 1,500 pairs breeding on artificial islands.
With such a wealth of natural history experience, knowledge and interest within the party, eyes were constantly on the lookout for animals and plants besides birds. Today these eyes were well rewarded when at least four snakes were spotted on the bed of a freshwater stream near the shore of Lake Pomorie. Mark ‘Deadly 60’ Piotrowski wasted no time in removing boots, socks and trousers and wading into the water. One of the snakes was soon netted and its identity confirmed as a Dice Snake, which, luckily for Marky P, is not venomous.
Following further local information, Minko next took us to a spot at the western end of Lake Vaya, west of the village of Dolno Ezerovo. Here, an area of shallow and well-vegetated freshwater pools was simply alive with birds. The most obvious were stunning summer-plumaged Squacco Herons and Glossy Ibises (some 50 of each), but Great White Egrets, Purple Herons, a Pygmy Cormorant, Ruff, a Wood Sandpiper, Garganey, Penduline Tits and a fly-over Honey Buzzard provided an excellent support cast.
To end our two-day tour of the Burgas Lakes we decided to attempt one final look at the roosting pelicans. However, numbers at the eastern end of Lake Vaya, where we had been so successful the previous morning, were much-reduced and distant, and a final stop at the south-western shore of Lake Atanasovo did produce 200 Mediterranean Gulls, but unfortunately no pelicans.
There was however one final treat in store, especially for the entomologists in the party, when Paddy Shaw found a mole cricket on the pavement outside our hotel.
Day 9: Tuesday 21 May 2013 ~ Ali Riseborough
The last of a three-night stay at the family-run hotel Lazuran Briag at Sarafovo, a neighbourhood of Burgas across the road from the Black sea coast. Pre-breakfast, several of us watched Syrian Woodpecker, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrike, Olivaceous Warbler and Spanish Sparrow from the outside dining area, while a Golden Oriole called continuously before perching on a dead snag for all to enjoy. Louis was particularly pleased as it was her first – a stunning male.
Breakfast was at 7.00 am then our excellent driver Nikolia loaded our cases on the bus before the long drive back to Sofia. Leaving Sarafovo it was noticeable there were thousands upon thousands of Common Swifts hawking around the many high-rise flats. We did take a short stop at the excellent Lake Vaya where we took our last look at Dalmatian and White Pelicans. Minko told us that the White Pelicans are migrants on their way to breeding grounds on the Danube Delta, while Dalmatian Pelicans are resident but no longer breed. However, breeding platforms are being built on Mandra Lake to encourage them. We also logged Night Heron, Little Bittern, 400 Great Crested Grebes, 1,000 Common Cormorants and the usual calling Great Reed Warblers and Marsh Frogs.
We then crossed the central Thracian Plain on our return journey to Sofia. Many birds were seen from the coach including White and Black Storks, Hoopoe, Bee-Eaters, Roller, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Black-headed Bunting, Montagu's Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard to name but a few. After a five-hour drive stopping once for a leg stretch and the usual ice creams we arrived on the outskirts of Sofia. We then took the long climb to the ski resort of Vitosha National Park at 1,680m. Our target birds were: Spotted Nutcracker and Ring Ouzel. We found the Ring Ouzel relatively easily with male and female seen plus several Black Redstarts. Two Golden Eagles gave prolonged views. However, Nutcracker was proving quite difficult with most people catching only brief flight views. We had returned to the car park with everyone tired after a long day and ready to leave for our hotel, when Eric announced that he found a Nutcracker nearby. After a long wait the bird was found perched on the top of a pine. It sat there for ten minutes allowing everyone scope views.
After our evening meal and log call, Chris thanked Nikolia for his excellent driving and Minko for showing us some wonderful birds in Bulgaria and presented them both with a collection on behalf of Waveney Bird Club. Steve also presented Minko with a polo shirt as he was now an honorary member of WBC. Minko replied that leading our group was great fun and not like work. We retired with the task of choosing our top ten birds of the trip with the results to be announced in the morning.
Day 10: Wednesday 22 May 2013 ~ Steve Piotrowski
This was to be our final morning in Bulgaria and the pitter-patter on the windows, the first sign of rain since our first day, wasn’t going to dampen our enthusiasm! The early birders had been out for their pre-breakfast stroll and had seen Syrian Woodpecker whilst others had watched a Red Squirrel from their windows.
The bags were loaded onto our coach soon after breakfast and traffic had to be halted in the middle of town whilst our driver (Nicolia) prepared us all for the group photo.
Whilst we were waiting for our flight, each of us prepared our personal “Top 10” birds to contribute to the Group’s “Top 20”. The lists consisted of the ten birds that gave each individual the most enjoyment, so not necessary the rarest. Some may have chosen the rarest, but others those that gave the best views or the splendid iridescence of say Rollers and Bee-eaters. Ten points were awarded to the number one bird and so on! The lists were gathered and collated and no fewer than 55 species contributed to the final list. The Top 20 was as follows (no of votes in brackets):
• Wallcreeper (189)
• Masked Shrike (113)
• Rock Nuthatch (68)
• Little Bittern (54)
• Nutcracker (54)
• Squacco Heron (52)
• Eastern Imperial Eagle (47)
• Griffin Vulture (43)
• Dalmatian Pelican (41)
• Roller (36)
• Golden Oriole (33)
• Golden Eagle (24)
• Sardinian Warbler (22)
• Blue Rock Thrush (20)
• White-winged Black Tern (20)
• Black-headed Bunting (19)
• Broad-billed Sandpiper (18)
• Black-winged Stilt (17)
• Long-legged Buzzard (17)
• White Pelican (17)
Our flight home was uneventful, although there were a couple snags as we battled through airport security. Firstly, an over-zealous Bulgarian Customs Officer confiscated Louise’s special Bulgarian honey from her hand luggage – well I suppose honey can loosely be described as a liquid and, once we reached Gatwick Airport, Ali’s baggage failed to arrive! The latter was much to the relief of Ali’s wife Pam, although she was only temporarily spared the task of sorting through his smalls when he was reunited with his baggage some 48 hours later!
All-in-all, it was a fantastic trip, undoubtedly one of the best that WBC has run. It was superbly organised (thanks Kathy), our guide Minko superb and our driver as safe as houses. Looking forward to the next one!
What more can be said? Neophron provided a well-planned itinerary and Minko and the driver received top accolades. Kathy as usual was kind and thoughtful and provided us with drinks and snacks on our English legs of the coach journey besides having planned all else perfectly. Steve didn’t lose his vital folder and the travelers bonded. There were bagpipes and beer, village shops and cafes greatly depleted of snacks and ice creams, ‘scopes and expertise freely shared and I’m sure some almost shed a few tears at the end because it was all over.
We can only hope that the Bulgarians can look wisely at what other countries have lost as they have increased in wealth, and make provision as they develop, to protect the wonderful resources they possess. We wish Minko and other conservationists well in successfully enthusing their own people. We were told that Bulgarians were mystified as to why we would wish to visit their country when we have London. Yes, we do have London, but cities are just not enough to satisfy the soul!
Checklist of birds, mammals and insects identified