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Finland & Arctic Norway - June 2015
- Two week birding trip June 2015; through Finland into Arctic Norway’s Varanger Peninsula, using Dave Gosney’s site-guides, ‘South Finland’ and ‘Lapland’ - our final trip-list totalled 177 species, 39 with nests.
Day one, three of us flew Gatwick to Helsinki. Took charge of a shiny six-gear Toyota Auris and headed north towards Oulu, on the west coast. Numerous Fieldfares carrying worms for growing broods - constantly bumped into pairs noisily defending nest sites. Occasional sighting of dark fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gulls. My earlier decision to not have a beer on the flight over proved useful - thirty minutes into the trip we were invited to a police ‘stop-and-blow’ breathalyser party!
Overnight stop Jyvaskyla, up 04.00 day two listening for Blythe’s Reed Warbler, without success though we did find the first of many broods of newly hatched Common Goldeneye. Numerous pairs of Common Crane and Whooper Swan obvious from the road, the occasional lake-side stop producing the expected water birds, e.g. Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Crested Grebe, plus the first of many White-tailed Eagles. Waders though were still thin on the ground, and a female Elk was one of only two such sightings.
Day three up at 01.00, our Finnature guide showing us a Great Grey Owl nest, the male confidently delivering kills to three newly-fledged young. Next was a Three-toed Woodpecker nest, before another Strix nest, this time Ural Owl. This female was unusually cooperative and it would have been nice staying and listening to the Greenshank displaying over the same wood, but for some really serious mosquito activity! Breakfast stop produced Red-backed Shrike, Wryneck and our only Stock Dove of the trip, followed by Slavonian Grebe on eggs nearby. Bird of the day for some, though, was a breeding male Pallid Harrier, plus Hen and Marsh Harriers. Waders too were kicking in, with 12 species for the day - local birders seeming more excited by a Gull-billed Tern, the same site providing Garganey, Osprey and Hobby. Last stop of the morning involved Eurasian Pygmy Owl, again in a nest box with young.
Next was a long drive northeast through unbroken conifer forest to Kuusamo, over on the Russian border, the next two days producing further Three-toed Woodpeckers plus singing Red-flanked Bluetail and Greenish Warbler, up on Valtavaara Ridge. Followed by Golden Eagle, Rustic Bunting and another Greenish Warbler at Livaara, then breeding Hawk Owl back near Valtavaara.
We next headed north, crossing the Arctic Circle near Kemijarvi heading for Ivalo, with 24-hour daylight now plus displaying Broad-billed Sandpiper, breeding Smew and two further Hawk Owl sightings on route (one with newly-fledged young right beside the road).
Friday was another a busy day, with singing Little Bunting north of Ivalo and nesting Siberian Tits. A truly memorable coffee stop involved the now well-known Neljan Tuulen Tupa café, north of Inari and with permanent bird feeders outside the window. Despite the late date, we still had stunning views of Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Tit, plus numerous (mostly male) Bramblings, Siskins and Common Redpolls. Later we crossed the mighty Tana River into Arctic Norway, heading for Varanger, via Tana Bru.
Week two in a cabin on Ekkeroy Island (Ekkeroy Holiday House – www.varanger.com), with views east across the fjord into Russia, plus a typically aggressive Arctic Tern colony, though White-tailed Eagle trying to catch breeding Kittiwakes in flight also rated highly.
Our second week’s activities mostly involved the area east of Ekkeroy, north onto higher (often snow-covered) ground in search of Tundra species. Highlights included active nests of Red-necked Phalarope, Turnstone, Common Snipe, Dunlin, Red-throated Pipit and Bean Goose, plus newly-hatched broods of Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruff, with Snow and Lapland Buntings feeding nests of young. Other nests found included Merlin, Raven and Rough-legged Buzzard.Some species seemed less evident than on our 2010 visit, particularly Arctic Redpoll and Long-tailed Skua.
There was little if anything to cause us concern. The Finnish and Norwegian people were as friendly and helpful as ever, the car performed faultlessly, accommodation was clean and comfortable and the scenery memorable. The weather too played its part, with sunny days (and nights) almost throughout.
Bird Watching, Northern Norway
- Heathrow, Oslo, Alta 3rd June with fellow birder to meet his father touring Arctic Norway in own vehicle. Returned Kirkenes, Oslo, Heathrow 15th; combination of Youth Hostels and cabin on Varanger Fjord’s north shore. Primary objective species difficult to see elsewhere in Europe, e.g. Steller’s Eider, or elsewhere in those numbers, e.g. Long-tailed Skua. Itinerary: Alta, Stabbersdalen, Varanger Peninsular via Tana Bru, then south around Varanger Fjord to Kirkenes and Svanvik.
Tinned and other food out from UK in car – loaf of bread £3. Main unplanned event my two kidney stone attacks on Russian border, second involving ambulance to Kirkenes hospital. Perhaps low point of trip was failure to get south as far as the Ovre Pasvik National Park and see Siberian Tit. By our arrival most lower snows melted, but wherever roads climbed to around 150m we were back into it; over following week this too mostly gone, though up to 50% of central Varanger Peninsular still appeared snow covered. Melting snow accounted for volume of water flowing off higher ground, but as most bogs could be crossed in boots, ground below may still have been frozen.
Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas on eggs; Long-tailed on tundra, most Arctics lower down. Wood Sandpipers displaying all over and Whimbrel similar on Tundra. Lots of Purple Sandpipers on shoreline seemed way off breeding and Turnstones kept us guessing, though a nest of four eggs found on tundra. Among passerines, Red-throated Pipits on eggs, sometimes amongst Meadow Pipits with displaying Lapland Buntings everywhere but no nests found; fewer singing Bluethroats. Two pairs of Snow Buntings not breeding yet.
Redolls widespread, with dark ones recorded as Common (Mealy) and pale ones as Arctic; some of the later were stunning. No Swallows until 11th, then all over. Fieldfare and Redwing breeding in low willows on Varanger and Waxwings carrying nest material near Stabbersdalen. Owls limited to Short-eared, plus brief Hawk Owl calling near Svanvik. Rough-legged Buzzard widespread.
Kittiwake most numerous gull encountered, with breeding Common Gulls well spaced. Island of Hornoy could not be reached (allegedly has largest gull colony in Europe), but feeding Brunnich’s Guillemot viewable off Vardo, and Black Guillemots in various harbours, plus 5-6 Glaucous Gulls. Small Eider flocks off Vardo contained both Common and 5-6 sub-adult male Kings. Slightly smaller, dark brown eiders with obvious bill angle and feint blue speculums went down as sub-adult Steller’s - perhaps up to 30. In coastal duck flocks males predominated e.g. Goosander; on tundra loafing Long-tailed males presumably had females nearby. Breeding Slavonian Grebes at just one site, in contrast to divers, which were well distributed. Two to three pairs only of Bean Geese, though Whooper Swans more numerous.
Highlights of the trip included 100+ Red-necked Phalaropes on a small lake opposite Vadso, plus Tree Sparrow on Vadso beach. Whereas White-tailed Sea Eagles were all around the coast and Siberian Jay at just one woodland site.
Bird Watching, Australia
(Outback South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, coastal South Australia)
- 4886 miles in 21 days, my sixth Australian birding trip; 9 days in outback South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, then 12 days around coastal South Australia, my son Andrew as co-driver. Mostly camping, in usually comfortable camp sites.
Notable trip features included; friendliness of almost everyone, superb weather, stunning scenery, the surprisingly thrilling feeling of being absolutely alone in The Outback, endless hot coffee and well stocked bottle shops. Adversely, the threat of some serious snakes limited movement and a dawn chorus of parrots and honeyeaters made lay-ins pointless.
Arrived Adelaide via Singapore 09.00 14th October - raining gently. Collected Nisan 4x4 then Woolworths for supplies and north to Port Augusta’s Acacia Ridge Motor Inn; Slender-billed Thornbill and ‘Adelaide Parrot’. Arid Lands Botanic Gardens then north to Stirling Ranges and Stoke’s Hill Lookout (2,500 feet); failed search for Short-tailed Grasswren, then on to Lyndhurst via Brachina Gorge. Rough camping at Chestnut-breasted Whiteface site, 29km up Strzelecki Track; Thick-billed Grasswren and White-backed Swallow.
16th up Strzelecki Track for Cameron Corner and New South Wales. Track better than expected; occasional roadtrain and sections of tarmac. Yellow Chat, Zebra Finch and Little Corella at Monte Colima Bore; Grey Falcon over track. East at 315km along track for Cameron Corner; probably the most attractive and most interesting area encountered - Banded Whiteface and Cinnamon Quail-thrush. Overnight Cameron Corner Roadhouse, good company and plenty of 'cold ones'; two Grey Falcons roosting on yard radio mast.
Through ‘Dog Fence’ into New South Wales and Sturt NP, extremely remote; flock of Budgerigars at desert waterhole, plus numerous Emus. Left NP at Tibooburra for coffee at roadhouse complete with caged Little Corella (‘give us a kiss’). Then back through dog fence at remote Wompah Gate into Queensland and Pyampa cattle station. Grey Grasswren after long (hot) walk and then up track to Tibooburra and Noccundra. Noccundra Roadhouse after dark then slowly through Channel Country for Eromanga, avoiding night-time vehicular wildlife encounters. Fried breakfast then Quilpie and Windorah in vain search for Hall’s Babbler, then back to Quilpie for ATM and on to Thargomindah – good camp site, hot showers, bottle shop.
19th another long day in paradise; breakfast then back to Noccundra and Tibooburra. Ten k south of latter small group of Hall’s Babblers crossed road in front of Nissan, moving faster than I could run so only brief views, plus flock of Bourke’s Parrots, and small Thornbills proved to be Slaty-backed. Back through Dog Fence into New South Wales and down Silver City Highway to Broken Hill and on to Victoria; camped after dark beside Darling River. Up early to Red-rumped Parrots, Yellow Rosella and singing Clamorous (Australian) Reed Warbler; then south through vineyards to Hattah-Kulkyne NP. Down Norwingi Track through endless Mallee in search of two more key birds; both of which appeared on Andrews’s side - shout of ‘chickeny goose thing’ could only mean Mallee Fowl and ‘big pigeon’ proved to be Chestnut Quail-thrush. Good camp site beside Lake Hattah; local store had cold beers, hot burgers, and Striped Honeyeater in car park.
Dawn chorus of parrots and honeyeaters meant early morning walk and Freckled Duck. Headed west towards Glue Pot Reserve. Only new bird here was Gilbert’s Whistler; main target (Black-eared Miner) not seen - most birds reportedly moved elsewhere owing to localized drought. Adelaide next - handed back Nissan and upgraded to 3.6 litre V6 Holden automatic. Then north to Port Augusta and long drive down Eyre Peninsula to Port Lincoln.
24th awoke to sea views. Shopping and checking emails, but still managed Sooty Oystercatcher; PM to Lincoln NP. Main target Western Whipbird but clearly going to be difficult; stunning Blue-breasted Fairywren. Further fruitless search for Whipbird then to Coffin Bay NP, with beaches to die for and amenable café come oyster restaurant. Main target the much sought after (by me) Rock Parrot, which allegedly roosts on nearby Golden Island.
Early start and two hours watching for parrots on exposed headland in obvious gale; Sooty Shearwaters and Royal Albatross. Anticipation of failure, then two small parrots over car! Quick stop found at least six Rock Parrots enjoying life in sheltered little bay. Life again looked good. Monstrous fried breakfast as locals arrived for Sunday lunch. Another long drive, up Eyre peninsular to Port Augusta and now familiar Acacia Ridge Motor Inn, plus super market, use of motel washing machine and swimming pool.
26th back to Arid Lands Botanic Gardens; Redthroat and Chirruping Wedgebill, plus Black and Pied Honeyeaters, then north again through Stirling Ranges to Willow Springs Cattle Station. Good breakfast and back to Stoke’s Lookout in further search for Short-tailed Grasswren, armed with additional information from station manager; Andrew first to spot grasswrens, after searching for an hour. When they see you they run away through Spinifex clumps, which hides them on level ground; so trick seems to be search across gullies to opposing hillsides, where grasswrens remain in view whatever they do. We found three birds at 31.27.36 S - 138.43.52 E. Amidst further rejoicing withdrew to Wilpena Pound for coffee, muffins and German tourists. Then back to Port Augusta and on all the way down Yorke Peninsular to Innes NP.
28th up at dawn and climbed large sand dune to ‘guaranteed’ Western Whipbird site, no sign; fourteen k back to popular Rhino’s Tavern, unexpected views of Rufous Fieldwren. Commented on numbers of snakes seen and advised to ‘keep tents zipped up’. Recent hot weather apparently brought snakes out of hibernation and they were said to be extremely dangerous at that time – mainly Western Brown and Tiger Snakes. Evening in Rhino’s Tavern experimenting with local brews. Up early to Whipbird site and eventually had two very fleeting glimpses, then equally fleeting glimpses of Southern Scrub-robin and Purple-gaped Honeyeater; Marion Bay for hot showers at caravan site ($5 each well spent). Followed by extremely long but enjoyable drive back up Yorke Peninsular and south through Adelaide, over Loft Range and down to Naracoorte; tents up in pleasant campsite, with Kiwi sheep shearers.
30th Bool Lagoon early; extremely hot with breeding Ibis. Then south to Mount Gambier and back north along coast opposite Younghusband Peninsular and Coorong National Park to another well kept campsite, in Meningie on shores of Lake Albert. Sunday morning local fete so time off for hot dogs and vintage cars! Tents up in another camp site before into town for a bottle or two with locals. Thunder and lightening during the night and few spots of rain.
2nd November to Cape Jervis, where ferry crosses to Kangaroo Island and found particularly attractive Newland Head Conservation Park; stunningly blue sea and long white beach with resting Crested Terns. Sign said to keep an eye open for whales but none visible. Tents up for last time in high winds at Aldinga Beach, 40 k from Adelaide and discovered my tend made excellent kite. Kangaroo steaks and cold six-pack before windy night.
3rd, Melbourne Cup Day. Glenelge west of Adelaide to comfortable Best Western Ensenada Motor Inn; packed for flight to Singapore. On 4th said good by to a very nice car and boarded plane to Singapore – four hours of looking down on apparently endless outback Australia. Overnight in Singapore doing the sights, including Raffles Hotel; thunder and lightening followed by much rain, but in those temperatures rain a relief. Heathrow next evening.
Bird Ringing, Masai Steppe, Tanzania
- Four-week ringing and recording expedition to Tanzania’s high level Masai Steppe in March, aimed at catching, ringing and data gathering amongst returning Palearctic migrants, with usual ‘by-catch’ of African species. Party of 12 included six Europeans (two Hungarian, three Brits and one Tanzanian resident Brit) and six native Tanzanians, including one Masai guide and guard. Transport was via two land rovers, moving sites frequently and setting up new camps; sleeping in small tents.
Memorable features included general lack of expected seasonal rains, with resultant water shortage throughout the Steppe and serious problems for the Masai, their numerous cattle, and us; but also fleeting distant views of Mount Kilimanjaro, Elephants that forced us from our tents in middle of the night, and a male Lion that tried similar - in impressive and memorable fashion!
Palearctic bird species caught included the anticipated European Roller, Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Rock Thrush, Thrush Nightingale, plus of course the various warblers, e.g. Barred, Garden and Willow. However, White-throated Robin and Upcher’s Warbler, both with restricted Eurasian summer ranges, were unexpected, at least for some of us.
Local bird species caught and ringed were broadly separable into three groups. The first two involved those that came either in large numbers e.g. weavers and doves, or in fewer numbers but worth the wait e.g. various sunbirds, Orange-bellied Parrot, Little Sparrowhawk, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike, Red-billed Hornbill, African Broadbill, Pygmy Batis and Rufous Chatterer. The third were even more interesting, including as they did species either recently or not yet split e.g. the polished metallic Tsavo Sunbird N. tsavoensis, or the still-to-be-properly-sorted Grey-headed Sparrows Passer griseus (probably separable mainly on bill size).
Birds seen but not caught included a range of classic African species and one or two additionals, including Ostrich, Verreaux’s Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, Amur Falcon, Caspian Plover, Golden Pipit, Pink-breasted Lark, three Guineafowl species, various woodpeckers, Lesser Honeyguide, Golden-breasted Starling, Red-shouldered and Black Cuckoo-shrikes, various shrikes and helmet-shrikes.
All sightings and ringing records contributed to the ongoing Tanzanian Bird Atlas Project.
Bird Watching, Wadi Rum, Jordan
(Migrant Raptor & Sooty Falcon Survey)
- Primary purpose was monitoring numbers and frequency of migrant raptors passing through this still near pristine piece of desert country, and to pass on such information as might enable local park staff to continue this work in future years. But as luck would have it (or not have it) few birds were observed moving during much of this period, consequently the three of us Brits and two Park staff found ourselves with time on our hands. Which was fortuitous because although Sooty Falcon was already known to breed locally we very soon began to suspect substantially more pairs might be involved than was previously suspected.
Deciding distances between sites is difficult in this habitat, mainly because light conditions make any visual assessment of distances next to useless. In addition to which although many Sooty Falcons seemed to be present, apparently mostly in pairs, few appeared to be breeding. However we did spend a great deal of time beneath one nest containing two rapidly growing young. No words can do justice to the experience of sitting in such a beautiful, but eerily silent place sipping extremely sweet Bedouin tea, whilst watching the male Sooty Falcon appear almost miraculously overhead and hear his excited screams as he summonsed the female to accept his latest hard won offering. Most of the time we were unable to identify prey involved but on at least one occasion he was seen (and photographed) bringing in a Corn Crake, though with obvious difficulty!
In total, 20 or so pairs of Sooty Falcons may have been present within the protected area at that time. If these are in fact breeding, or potentially breeding pairs, then this would appear to be an important site (and the most northerly among important sites) for this species; though Wadi Rum’s position on the border with neighbouring Saudi Arabia means this is perhaps hardly surprising. The difficulty in coming to terms with this population is at least partly explained by the fact that getting around the Protected Area is far from easy and relies for the most part on the cooperation of the Park staff – the sand is deep and difficult to drive in and the whole area is extremely hot.
A total of 66 bird species were seen in and around the Protected Area, best of which, probably, were Sinai Rosefinch (often encountered) and a female Cinereous Bunting that seemed quite settled and remained at least until I left, plus the occasionally encountered Hooded Wheatear and a single record of Red-rumped Wheatear. Most bizarre record of the trip by far, however, involved a single feather found well within the main desert area, which we were confidently able to accept as a blue and white upper wing covert from Eurasian Jay.
Bird Ringing, Coto Donana, Spain
- A two week trip to this world-famous area, at the invitation of and working with local ringers. Special birds handled included Red-necked Nightjar, Iberian Chiffchaff, Zitting Cisticola - better know to some of us still as Fan-tailed Warbler, Orphean Warbler and Bonelli’s Warbler, with larger numbers of Pied Flycatcher (far larger numbers), Sardinian Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Savi’s Warbler and Cetti’s Warbler, plus some really ‘macho’ looking male Redstarts.
Ringing this far south in Europe you get the opportunity to handle first-year individuals that have undergone a full moult, unlike their more northern counterparts which will normally have undergone only a partial renewal. Included in this are most of the Carduelis finches plus Blue and Great Tits, whilst by the time they have traveled that far south some migrant species, e.g. Pied Flycatcher, have advanced their moult beyond what we are used to seeing in the UK.
Meanwhile, other species were doing their best to distract from the main purpose, not least the local group of Azure-winged Magpies (none of which were trapped) and a seemingly endless passing sequence of surprisingly vociferous Booted Eagles, of both colour phases. However, bird of the trip perhaps was an adult Spanish Imperial Eagle flying low over the ringing site two days before I left.
I took the car down to the Coto, leaving Calais around 10am and sleeping in the vehicle for a couple of hours that night on the French side of the Pyrenees, before pushing on down past Madrid and arriving in El Rocio around 5pm. The drive back seemed even easier. I left El Rocio around 5.30 am and slept overnight in a surprisingly comfortable transport hotel in the mid-Pyrenees, where I arrived around 4pm. By 7.00 next morning I had crossed into France and was on the quayside at Calais by 7pm. I kept well to the west of Paris, via Bordeaux, Tours, Le Man and Rouen – the only non-dual carriageway section now from Calais all the way to the Spanish border is the short section around Rouen’s suburbs, which is surprisingly straightforward, if hardly scenic!
Bird Watching, Australia
(Northern Territory and Cape York)
- This was my fifth visit to Australia, bringing my total time there to five months, though my first experience of the Top End and Cape York. As England had knocked Australia out of the Rugby World Cup a week beforehand we made a conscious effort not to mention rugby, but it was not easy!
Northern Territory - Flew into Darwin and hire car south and west via Pine Creek, Katherine and Victoria River Crossing, as far west as Timber Creek. Best new birds for me included Hooded Parrot, Northern Rosella, Black-breasted Buzzard, Oriental Plover, Purple-crowned Fairy-wren, Masked and Star Finches, plus Gouldian Finch; the latter difficult to find so late in the ‘dry’, or that was my experience. Hooded Parrot was found at both Pine Creek and Chinaman Creek, though more at latter. Good views of Freshwater Crocodile at Katherine Sewage Works. Mangrove Grey Fantail at Palmerston Sewage Works, south of Darwin with Mangrove Robin on nearby river bank with Rainbow Pitta at Howard Springs; latter surprisingly easy if you go quietly. While up in this part of Australia it’s important to bear in mind some authorities now split White-browed Robin Poecilodryas superciliosa, birds in the Northern Territory and northwest Queensland being known now as Buff-sided Robin Poecilodryas cerviniventris. Within the Top End almost the only finches seen - other than Double-barred and Crimson - were at Timber Creek; Masked and Star Finches on the road down to Policeman’s Point. Again I assumed this was linked to it being late in the dry.
Returned to Darwin via Kakadu and Fog Dam areas. Highlights of this section included Banded Fruit Dove, at Nourlangie, and White-browed Crake, at Fog Dam, plus the whole Yellow Waters experience, including the Saltwater Crocodiles. Disappointments included the fact that the road out to Waterfall Creek and the escarpment were said to be too bad for non-4x4’s at that time, so we missed Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, having already failed to find White-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush at Victoria River.
Cape York – Flew Darwin to Cairns early morning and two nights thereabouts before being picked up by Ben Blewitt of Cassowary Tours (www.cassowarytours.com.au) for the trip up Cape York, as far as Iron Range National Park; two days driving up and five in the rainforest, before flying back to Cairns. The 10k luggage limit on the light aircraft meant we left surplus luggage with friends in (expensive) Port Douglas beforehand, but could not camp on their lawn because of Saltwater Crocodiles in garden. Australia is always interesting!
Two nights at Musgrove and a day in the Lakefield National Park added the first of the Cape York specials, including Golden-shouldered Parrot and Black-backed Butcherbird, plus Square-tailed Kite on the way up and fantastic view of breeding Red Goshawk. Black-throated Finch was surprisingly numerous. Our Iron Range accommodation was close to the rainforest and coast, with Fawn-breasted Bowerbird and Noisy Pitta in garden and Frigatebirds from window. Main highlights of this part of the trip included Palm Cockatoo, Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots, Black-winged Monarch, Magnificent Riflebird, Trumpet Manucode, Green-backed Honeyeater, Rufous Owl, the easy-to-hear but hard-to-see Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo and the stunning Yellow-billed Kingfisher. Also of interest was the red-faced marshalli race of Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, which I was later able to compare with the less well marked macleayana race in Cairns.
Although not my first time in rainforest it had lost none of its fascination, plus the very real threat of some serious snakes, both there and in the nearby dry country, added a sense of occasion; those snakes we saw dead on the road were an impressive size. As always, getting there was a major part of the overall experience, which was made all the better by Ben’s intimate knowledge of both the habitat and the bird species involved. But even without the birds any trip up Cape York is an experience in its own right.
Back in Cairns we fitted in a day’s trip to the Great Barrier Reef, opting for the further-out Michaelmas Cay where I picked up breeding Brown Booby, Sooty Tern, Black-naped Tern and Common Noddy, plus a single Black Noddy, having already had breeding Bridled Tern close inshore up Cape York. All of which was topped off by a male Southern Cassowary accompanied by three small young up at Kuranda and all of which took my Australian bird list just past 500.