Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A few year ticks

At the weekend, I went to Lincoln for a bit of a booze-up, so seeing as I was going out that way, I thought it'd be rude not to drop into Girton to see the White-fronted Geese and Great Northern Diver that had been reported there over the last 2 weeks. Getting to Girton, I had a wander up the track between the A1133 pit and the Sailing lake, stopping to scan from the very limited viewing spots. No diver. I bumped into Nick Crouch, and we went to look for the geese, but any geese we did see were heads down, out of the wind, so had no luck there either. Nick told me about another spot to view the roadside pit from, so I headed back to my car and had another look, and within a few minutes I had fantastic views of the diver only 50m or so out. It showed excellently, and didnt dive once while I was there, just sat there.

The next day, with a bit of a sore head, I headed back to Girton at about 2pm, and headed straight to the sheep fields north of the sailing lake, to have another look at these geese. The large flock of greylags were a lot more visible and very soon I was looking at the group of 7 White-fronted Geese, before they flew off behind a bank in the field, leaving the greylags behind. These were the first white-fronts I've seen since 2012 i think, so long overdue. The Great Northern Diver was still on the roadside pit, and a few birders were there this time round, but it was a lot more elusive, diving constantly and very mobile.

I had a quick look in at Collingham, seeing 7 Curlew and a Green Sand, but couldn't locate the red-head Smew that had been reported. After this I headed down for a quick look at HP before it got dark, bagging a Pheasant for the patch yearlist before getting out the car. Blotts was very quiet, wildfowl numbers were especially low, but there were lots of small gulls and 2 Shelduck, a nice early addition for the year, I hadn't expected these til later in the year on the patch.

Heading back to my car, I noticed a good-sized murmuration of Starlings, so headed to the reedbed in Skylarks NR for a better look and to see them go in to roost in the reeds. It was an awesome display, and I got a cheeky Buzzard and Water rail on the patch yearlist too.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Patchwork Update: January

The first month of my third year doing the 'Patchwork Challenge' down at Holme Pierrepont went pretty well. Out of the 3 years., this has been my best January for number of species so far, with 67 seen. In comparison, I had only seen 63 species in January in 2015 and 65 in 2014. Looking at these numbers it seems that if I'm hitting the mid-60's mark, then I'm doing OK.

With a few more visits, I probably could have notched up a few more, but being limited to weekends and having other responsibilities, I have only been able to hit the main part of the patch ,maybe once a week, but have been able to get to the lesser visited northern end of the patch whilst walking the dog.

Highlights this month are a female Smew at the end of the month, an annual species, but not always easy to catch up with; a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls have been nice additions, again annual visitors but I usually see them later in the year; a flock of 22 Golden Plover was a first for the site for me, it seems a species I should have seen a lot sooner, but for some reason always eluded me; the first returning Oystercatcher was bang on time at the end of the month; and a Treecreeper, a common bird, but again not always easy to catch up with on patch, one I was particularly glad to pick up.

There are still some gaping holes in the list, which should be filled before the spring migrants rock up, including such easy birds as Pheasant, Buzzard and Meadow Pipit, and other which shouldn't take too much finding like Jay, Coal Tit, Water rail and Redshank.

I've ended February on 73 species in the previous two years, so I'll be doing well if i can add around 10 species this month.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Insects of Vietnam August 2015

 As may be noted from my birding trip report, I didn't get many bird photographs, as they were extremely shy and kept well hidden at all times! I did have a little more luck in photographing insects, and I particularly enjoy photographing butterflies. These were still very difficult subjects, as they were constantly flitting around, making it very frustrating when trying to capture them. However when they did eventually sit still, they proved to be amazingly beautiful subjects. I have little knowledge of what these are, and have struggled to find a decent online resource, but enjoy them all the same...

Orange Staff Sergeant Male

Orange Staff Sergeant Female


Blue Glassy Tiger

Southern and Central Vietnam, August 2015

Southern and central Vietnam, August 2015

In August, me and my girlfriend flew to south-east Asia for three weeks to travel around Vietnam. I thought I may as well do a birding report seeing as I did see a few interesting species while we were going round the country. It wasn’t really a birding holiday, although I had my bins with me every day, but there were a few times when we went out specifically to find birds.
I thought it would be best to go through each area we visited, and what I saw there, rather than do a detailed account of everything, as that would take forever! The biggest impression I got from Vietnam was that you really have to work to find the birds. I had read about this before going, but I was still a little surprised to find just how difficult it would be. Unlike other countries I have visited, there are barely any birds in urban areas, which unfortunately stretch far and wide into the countryside, so much so that there are vast tracts of land as you travel along the busy highways, where there is no gap in human habitation, leaving no wonder that there are few birds around. Given that songbirds are routinely trapped for the cage bird trade doesn’t help matters. Even in areas of suitable looking habitat, it could be difficult, but a little perseverance is sometimes rewarded. My complete lack of experience in tropical birding was also a massive hindrance, as I was unfamiliar with both calls and appearance of any of the birds, so anything I did see resulted in me frantically flicking through the pages of my field guide or trying hopelessly to get a record shot with my camera!
We were there in the rainy season, but this only meant short intense showers of rain, mostly in the evenings. Otherwise it was very hot and sunny, usually between 35-40°C, and very humid!

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
This was the first stop on our trip and whilst looking round tourist attractions in the city, and amongst the hubbub and chaos of the city itself, I was actually surprised that there were at least some birds. Tree Sparrows replace the niche of the House sparrow here, and are commonly seen absolutely anywhere there is human habitation, and in the parks of HCMC, they were very common. Spotted doves were also seen here, and again are very numerous across the whole region.
   Aside from these, we did see White-vented Mynas near the river, and there were a few Common Myna seen around the Reunification Palace grounds. The latter area seems worthwhile of the attention of visiting birders, as it is actually quite green and uncrowded here. Thousands of House Swifts filled the skies in the evenings.

Mekong Delta
We took a tourist trip into the Mekong delta from Saigon, but it was so rushed and they tried to squeeze in so much into the 2 day trip, that we didn’t really have much time to search for birds. I had imagined swathes of wetland habitat, but it is very well populated, with habitations crammed into every bit of riverbank and thousands of boats. This results in a polluted looking river and not a lot of wildlife. Some of the areas we visited were very pretty, for example some of the islets, but it would have been nice to be able to explore a bit. There were plenty of birds calling, but that didn’t help me, but I did manage to identify Pied Fantail and Olive-backed Sunbird. Not one water bird was seen, despite being on the water for the whole time, apart from a caged little egret…

Pied Fantail

Da Lat
Da Lat was meant to be a sleepy city tucked in the mountains, but like most other places in Vietnam, it was still mega busy! We lost each other when we rented motorbikes in the crazy traffic! A nice place though and well known as a good area for birding. However, I didn’t really know where to go for the birds, so again didn’t really add much! A guide probably would have been a good idea.
We did a few touristy bits on the first day, including the botanical gardens, which I thought sounded like it might have some birds. There were a lot of Common Mynas, and several Burmese Shrike, the latter of which were very attractive and quite confiding. 

Juv Burmese Shrike
 I followed some advice from various internet sources and decided a visit to Datanla Falls could be worthwhile, as it could apparently be birdy. We got there mid-morning but it was choc-full of tourists, so difficult to find birds, and there was constant awful music playing from tannoys! The only bird I saw here was a Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, a nice bird, but it left me wanting more!!
In the afternoon we headed to get a cablecar up to the Buddhist monastery at Truc Lam, just south of the city. We had to wait til the cablecar opened so had a sit down for an hour and have lunch, overlooking a beautiful pine forest. There were a few Sand Martins and house swifts overhead, but apart from that not a great deal, although a Large Niltava did make an appearance briefly. The cablecar ride was brilliant, and many birds were heard calling as we passed slowly above the tree canopy. The monastery was very tranquil and picturesque and there were a few birds here, including a Streaked Spiderhunter, some Common Iora and quite a lot of Spotted Doves. The area deserved a bit more exploration but we were limited on time. We had a walk down to Tuyen Lam lake but didn’t see anything else apart from a single Grey Wagtail flying overhead. Apparently the forest on the other side of the lake has good birding, but I only found this out afterwards!

Hoi An
This was the best, and hottest place we visited in the country. We enjoyed it so much that we returned 2 times once we’d done some travelling round.
I had read that birding was pretty rubbish here, but I persevered and ended up seeing a fair bit. We stayed in Cua Dai which is a few km outside the town itself, next to the coast. The beach here is beautiful and stretched for several miles. In between the beach and the main road is a load of habitations and resorts, interspersed with scrubby areas and trees. It was in these areas where I concentrated on, visiting in the early mornings and now and again when we were on the beach.
Sooty-headed and Streak-eared Bulbuls were common here. The former were the local subspecies P. aurigaster thais, with yellow undertail coverts. The latter were very indistinct, looking almost like a mix between a sylvia warbler and a thrush. Also in these plantations were small numbers of Scaly-breasted Munia, the odd Long-tailed shrike of the nominate grey-crowned race, and a few White-throated Kingfishers. Just behind the part of the beach we favoured, was a bit of waste ground with some tall broad-leaved trees in it, and these always held a small flock of Blue-tailed bee-eaters, and occasionally Plain Prinia were also seen. A common kingfisher was seen flying over the sea while we were in it one morning, and large flocks of Little Egret were frequently seen over the sea too.
In the old town of Hoi an, birding was mainly restricted to Tree Sparrows, however along the river front there are several large colonies of what I believed to be Germain’s Swiftlets, which flew constantly over the water and amongst the roofs of the larger buildings. One afternoon, while having a beer next to the river, a Black-shouldered Kite was also seen.
Whilst staying in Hoi An, we took a motorcycle ride to the ruins of My Son, about 55km from the town, which situated in some pretty beautiful jungle, but as with a lot of places in Vietnam, it is advised not to go off the beaten track, due to the presence of unexploded ordnance from the war. This was maybe the ‘birdiest’ place we had visited so far, yet once again I only identified a small number of the birds as most were only heard and the majority that did show only gave extremely fleeting views. 2 more Bulbul species were noted here, the commonest being Stripe-throated Bulbul, but Black-crested Bulbul were also present in smaller numbers. The highlight was seeing a Lineated Barbet, which alerted me to its presence with its strange call, and showed in a tree almost right above me. This is probably the best bird I saw during the whole trip. Also seen were Racket-tailed Treepie and a few more Common Iora.

White-throated Kingfisher

Another trip from Hoi an was the Cham Islands, a pain to get to and somewhere we didn’t stay very long, but had a great time staying at a homestay with a local family. Due to a lack of exploring and limited time, we saw virtually no birds, but whilst out on a couple of boat trips, I did see a dark-morph Pacific Reef Egret, which was awesome, and a Bridled Tern. A sunrise boat trip round to the rocky cliffs the other side of the island offered a Common Sandpiper, and the ‘swallow’ caves where thousands of swifts nest, and where their nests are harvested by the locals for selling for food on the mainland.  

Bach Ma
This was the only national park we ended up visiting during our trip, and so I was excited about the prospect of finally getting some proper birding in. It was difficult to organise transport to the park, so we ended up doing a one-day tour, with the aim of getting left at the park to stay at the facilities. It didn’t go exactly as planned, as the tour itself was extremely rushed again, although took us through some amazing jungle. We were hoping to do some birding up at top half of the park, and stay at the guesthouse up here, but we were made to feel pretty unwelcome by the staff who were just trying to rip us off, so we ended up getting a motorcycle ride back down with them for a hefty price, rather than pay an even heftier price to stay up there with no prospect of any dinner. Whilst up at the top we did manage to see Fork-tailed Swifts and Brown-backed Needletails zooming around the observatory at the summit of the park. Silver-eared Mesia were also seen, an amazing colour-palette of a bird! Golden-throated Barbet were heard everywhere, but unfortunately never seen!
The visit to the park was saved however, by the guy that seemed to run the canteen and guesthouse at the bottom of the park, near the visitor centre. He was extremely welcoming, gave us a basic but cheap room, and even went out especially to buy us some food to provide us with some dinner. He took some interest in my field guide, and told us about some of the birds in the park. I wish I’d got his name, he was a legend!
In the morning we got up at dawn and walked up the hill to try and reach the first of the nature trails. This was a lot further than we thought though and within a couple of hours, we were sweating buckets and were out of water, so turned back. The pathways were full of birdlife however, and I managed to identify quite a few. Pin-striped Tit-babblers and Common Tailorbirds were everywhere, and we also got amazing views of a Crimson Sunbird, a proper gem. It was nice to see a few Red-whiskered Bulbuls free-flying, as all the ones we’d seen previously had been in cages.  Other highlights were Blue-winged Leafbird, Little Spiderhunter and a Long-tailed Shrike. The biggest surprise was an Arctic warbler, very few phylloscopus warblers spend summer here, so I presume this must have been a returning wintering bird?
After a sleep and some food, we headed for a waterfall, which is a local swimming spot, hoping for a few more birds on the way. There were Blue-throated Bee-eaters in good numbers down here, as well as a few Black-collared Starling, and a few other bits and bobs. A dip in the swimming pool with the locals was very welcome.

We spent a couple of nights in Hue, which is where we got our trip to Bach Ma from. It was a nice place, with a bit more relaxed atmosphere. I had read the birding was reasonable, especially near the Imperial Palace, so I took by bins with me when we had a Motorbike tour of the tourist sites. At the imperial palace I saw a Red-collared dove, a few Oriental Magpie Robins, as well as more Common Ioras, Olive-backed sunbirds and Scaly-breasted Munia. Another long-tailed shrike was noted at the back of one of the monasteries.

Hoi an (again)
With a couple more days to go, and not enough time to venture further north, we ended up returning to Hoi An for a third time as the guesthouse and beach were so great. I also had some other ideas about where to go birding. Both mornings we were there before flying back to Saigon were spent cycling down to some Paddyfields a mile or so from our guesthouse. These two mornings proved to be the most productive birding of the entire trip!
I saw a fair few birds along the river to the back of our accommodation, including some Plain Prinia and Common Tailorbirds, as well as plenty of Sooty-headed Bulbuls and Common Mynas. A tern sp was noted flying upriver on several occasions but I never got it down to species.
The paddyfields were reached by turning off the main road to Hoi an, just after crossing the river on the Cua Dai bridge. Instantly I was on to birds, White-throated Kingfishers were everywhere and I also noted a singled Pied Kingfisher, a proper giant! I finally go on to some heron species too, with a Cinnamon bittern being flushed from the reeds just next to the path, and many others were seen, along with a good numbers of Yellow Bittern. A Black bittern was also noted. Further up the path, with ponds either side of me, lots more kingfishers and bitterns were noted, and in the middle of the path, a group of around 10 Common Sandpipers. In the fields on the far side of the ponds was a flock of Little and Intermediate Egrets, and there were several waders, a little distant without a scope, but I managed to pick out a few Greenshank and a Red-wattled Lapwing. A few Paddyfield Pipits were flushed along the path and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were seen regularly perching on fences and wires around the buildings. On our last evening there, we were cycling from the town, back to our accommodation, and going over the bridge near the paddies, we noticed the tide was out and had exposed the banks of the river. Egrets were feeding there in good numbers, but also some waders, with several Sanderling seen, as well as a single Marsh Sandpiper.

I really enjoyed Vietnam from a number of different perspectives, a lot of the people were very friendly, and the food was excellent. The scenery could be outstanding, and it was great to see a bit of culture and history. On the other hand, it was very hard to get away from the tourism, and a lot of people involved in that sector seemed to be grumpy and unaccommodating, which put me off a great deal. The birding is very difficult, and if I were to visit again, I think I’d consider getting a guide, as travel around the country is extremely difficult, and you really have to know where the birding hotspots are. Having said that, I am glad I went and we did see some amazing birds, and met some really hospitable people.  We still have the north to return to!

59 species identified confidently (plus many more left unidentified!)
  1. Feral Pigeon
  2. Tree Sparrow
  3. Spotted Dove
  4. White Vented Myna
  5. Common Myna
  6. Pied Fantail
  7. Olive-backed Sunbird
  8. House Swift
  9. Burmese Shrike
  10. Blyth's Leaf Warbler
  11. Sand Martin
  12. Large Niltava
  13. Streaked spiderhunter
  14. Common Iora
  15. Rufescent Prinia
  16. Little Egret
  17. Grey Wagtail
  18. Sooty-headed Bulbul
  19. Asian Palm Swift
  20. White-throated Kingfisher
  21. Black-shouldered Kite
  22. Germain's Swiftlet
  23. Scaly-breasted Munia
  24. Common Kingfisher
  25. Long-tailed Shrike
  26. Streak-eared Bulbul
  27. Lineated Barbet
  28. Black-crested Bulbul
  29. Stripe-throated Bulbul
  30. Pacific Reef Egret
  31. Bridled Tern
  32. Common Sandpiper
  33. Fork-tailed Swift
  34. Brown-rumped Needletail
  35. Silver-eared Mesia
  36. Pin-striped Tit-babbler
  37. Common Tailorbird
  38. Blue-winged Leafbird
  39. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  40. Little Spiderhunter
  41. Crimson Sunbird
  42. Racket-tailed Treepie
  43. Arctic Warbler
  44. Blue-throated Bee-eater
  45. Black-collared Starling
  46. Red-collared Dove
  47. Oriental Magpie-robin
  48. Plain Prinia
  49. Cinnamon Bittern
  50. Pied Kingfisher
  51. Paddyfield Pipit
  52. Intermediate Egret
  53. Red-wattled Lapwing
  54. Blue-tailed Bee-eater
  55. Black Bittern
  56. Yellow Bittern
  57. Greenshank
  58. Marsh Sandpiper
  59. Sanderling