Saturday, 27 October 2012

Mexican rave

I swore I would never return to an all-inclusive hotel. Well, family politics dictated that I attended a wedding near Cancun in Mexico; the grim prospect of a minimal birding foreign trip loomed.  Luckily the hotel was located in a mosquito and crocodile infested swamp, and you can never knock out the urge to go birding can you?

21 species during a wedding ceremony didn't seem too bad. Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican, Least Sandpiper, Double-crested Cormorant and Royal Tern on the beach. Ospreys drifting overhead. Yellow-throated Warbler and Northern Waterthrush in the nearby bush. The service got under way. “Will you tick this Magnificent Frigatebird?” “I will.”

The hotel golf course was the saviour; plenty of lakes and swampy scrub, if rather over-manicured in the American style. An early morning walk each day soon developed a reasonable list.  Even better, take a buggy around and just get out the 'scope instead of the clubs. The golf going on around me was somewhat lacking in quality. Anything that went vaguely straight and over 20 metres prompted highly enthusiastic shouts of "Gee, good golf" and "Go on Tiger". Therefore, the safest place to stand on the course was somewhere in a straight line between tee and hole.

The bushes held plenty of warblers and a good selection of vireos. Parula, Yellow and Magnolia Warblers were all numerous, as were Waterthrushes, Yellowthroat and Ovenbird. Then add in a few of the local specialities such as Yucatan and Mangrove Vireos, and Black-headed Trogon. Meanwhile, the lakes had Killdeers, Spotted Sandpipers, American Black Terns a selection of herons and numerous technicolour Grey-necked Wood Rails.

By 10.00am the increasingly wayward golfers, and the heat, drive you to the 19th for a margarita. Then on to the beach, more margarita’s, and close study of the American Sandwich Terns and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Could be worse I suppose.  Wedding over, we may be able to escape into the surrounding countryside....

Below: American Sandwich Tern: The bill is slightly shorter and thicker than Sandwich. The moulting adult shows darker unmoulted primaries and some new primaries which have a narrower (1-1.5 mm) white fringe than Sandwich (2-4 mm). The black rear crown and nape feathers are longer, blacker and more greasy looking than Sandwich.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Scilly 1979 – a blast from the past

As usual, we cruised across to the islands on the Scillonian, a reasonably smooth crossing for once, dumped the bags and then tried to find out the latest bird news by the usual methods – the blackboards and semaphore. We quickly joined a stream of birders heading towards Higher Moors where a Subalpine Warbler was on show. Around 250 birders funnelled down a narrow muddy track, jostling and pushing to see the bird, tempers flared, some chap ended up in the ditch on his backside.   A great start.  A Rustic Bunting provided the next stop towards the north of the island and the rest of the day was made up with standard Scilly ‘fillers’ of the time: 2 Short-toed Larks, Pink Stink and a Tawny Pipit.  The following day a quick trot saw us down on Lower Moors looking for a Sibe Stonechat.  Viewing was tricky with the old ‘brass and glass’ scope, I wish they would hurry up and invent the tripod.

Excitement! a putative Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been found on St Agnes.  Unfortunately it was in a small private field.   Queuing for the 300 birders boating over to Aggy was the order of the day, with ten birders in the field for 15 minutes, tough if you don’t see it.  All progressed relatively well and in good humour as the bird performed well.  However, gentle mumbling increased to severe doubt and eventually the Guru of the day, Pete Grant, declared it was just a Marsh Warbler.  Trouble was, nobody knew what a Blyth’s Reed looked like.  My book gave some guidance; Brownish. Difficult to distinguish. See Marsh Warbler.  I checked Marsh Warbler; Brownish. Difficult to distinguish. See Blyth’s Reed Warbler.  Hmmm, crystal.

Stress set in over the next couple of days as we were led a merry dance by a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that would appear in front of birders, then vanish, then appear again in another part of the island.  The grapevine was not quick enough for this sort of thing.  We moped around in obvious places waiting for news and while checking around the airfield, where a Cory’s Shearwater off Giant’s Castle was an unexpected bonus, my eye was attracted to a vibrant orange thing up on Porth Hellick down.  A quick look through bins revealed a birder with striking orange hair jumping up and down waving madly (a standard communication method of the day).  He had the Grosser!  We legged it up there and enjoyed our first tick of the week. Stress subsided, a good bird at last.   ‘Beacon bonce’, as the orange-haired one became known, was our hero. 

A routine check of Aggy again turned up trumps as a Radde’s Warbler was discovered in a garden off the main road as we were passing.  Another tight squeeze ensued as there were few available gaps in the hedge.  An amused local provided some step ladders for personal, if somewhat wobbly, additional viewing.  This was quickly followed back on Mary’s by a proper dash up towards the golf course for a Swainson’s Thrush, another tick!  A trip over to Tesco’s added the regular Black Duck, a Ring-necked Duck and the usual Bob-white Quail.

The week ended quietly with the usual fodder of a Lesser Golden Plover (or American GP as you call them now), Spotted Crake, Little Bunting, another Rustic Bunting, R-b Fly, Yellow-broweds, a couple of Dickie Pips  and the obligatory ‘small dark wheatear’ – yes, it rained one day.  But a 2-tick week was not to be scoffed at and we departed happily enough.

Pics.  Top:  Grosser!, Above: team member Tim Andrews finds a Yellow-browed (note all the 'brass and glass').  Below: Radde's on Aggy, my turn for the steps! (whats that new-fangled metal thing with 3 legs?, Bottom: the best dressed birders today have Swift Audobons and a handbag (Beacon bonce takes a nap).

Friday, 5 October 2012

Scilly enough?

The bloke who used to run the disco on the quay with an Aladdin Sane style painted face was looking past his best. He probably thought the same of me. "You still do the disco on the quay" I enquired. "Blimey, you've been coming here a long while" he replied. But let's hope he now has more than 5 records in his collection, I like Siouxsie and the Banshees but not every 15 minutes.  After visiting the Isles of Scilly every year from 1975 until 1995, we had not been back for 17 years. This was the 'old gits return' tour, one last hurrah. First impressions were that not much had changed other than there were virtually no birders, a few more posh houses had appeared and everything was a lot more expensive. We set out to find birds.

The Aquatic Warbler was typically ground hugging and elusive as it grovelled amongst the iris by Porthloo Pond. A couple of flight views was the best on offer. By contrast, the Ortolan was best mate with the sparrows on Porthcressa beach and behaved in a similarly approachable fashion. A couple of Yellow-browed 'sweeeet'ed and showed briefly in Lower Moors and a Lapland Bunting rattled and rolled over the golf course. Just as I remembered it. Peninnis never seemed that far in the past but it felt like a long slog this time. A scattering of pipits including the Buff-bellied lurked around the lighthouse but the old lookout pole seemed to have gone. I was looking forward to climbing that again.

The fact was, everywhere seemed further than it was before. Did we really walk twice around St Mary's everyday? Anyway, no problem, now they have introduced electric carts for the old gits.  However, there are significant changes; the birders are not only far fewer in number but on average much older and probably only a handful with much experience. Fewer birders out there, fewer birds being found. On one day, we were the only birders on the boat over to Tesco's. Scilly has become like an extended episode of Dad's Army; all the old dodderers holding forth whilst the young guns are away at new frontlines.

Captain Mainwaring is everywhere, pompously standing guard with his radio/CB and spouting. "Don't stand there you stupid boy, I've been coming to Scilly for 6 years now".  Privates Fraser and Godfrey were dipping down at the shy Aquatic. "We are doomed" said Fraser, "there are more birds on Shetland". Godfrey shuffled up, "I had to be excused, but my sister Dolly says there are two Buff-breasts on the airfield now". "No you old duffer" says the Verger "one's a Dotterel". Meanwhile, Private Walker was down the Scillonian Club selling dodgy videos of the glory days.
Corporal Jones came charging up "Don't panic, don't panic. I've looked at the Snipe at Porth Hellick. They're all Wilson's". And so it went on.

We eventually added Pink Stink, R-b Fly, Barred and Bonelli's, with Yellow-broweds everywhere. No modern day mega's, but still a lovely place, and once upon a time that might have seemed like a reasonable haul.

Below: Ortolan, Buff-breast, Dotterel, R-b Fly and old gits twitch-cart.