Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday birding - 28/02/10

We all went to the beach at Eskilstorpstrand this morning. Snow covered the beach thickly and ice stretched out into the sea for 50 metres. Surprisingly little evidence of the scoter flock which is usually a feature here, just one male velvet bobbing about. Likewise no sign of any scaup either, although 46 tufted duck and a single pochard were present. Birds are moving though, three lapwing flew in from the west as we watched and then the kids feet started chilling down and we moved on.

Later in the day we stopped off to check the track at Klarningen, it was still impassable, but a new shiny windpump has materialised in site in my recent absence. Two small flocks of skylark (14) migrated low north-east in the short time we were here. Driving back over the top, we saw plenty of snowy landscapes but no birds of note.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

...and having writ, moves on...

With the kids in the safe hands of both grandmothers, Mrs B and I took our grief outdoors and went for walk. Birding has always been a great comfort to me at difficult times and I am lucky that Mrs B shares this. It felt good to get out of the house and breathe some fresh air.

We spent an hour at Ripagården first. As we arrived we noticed a small group of mistle thrushes feeding along the shoreline. Out on the sea-ice a couple of miserable-looking ringed plovers were the first of the year and looked very out of place. We trudged about in the deep snow hearing a black woodpecker, offshore were at least 8 goosander and two coot and out on the farthest tip of Gröthögarna, a big goshawk sat around before drifting south.

A quick look at Torekov also produced a few good birds. The harbour held at least three goosander and a female smew. Offshore black guillemot numbers continue to rise with at least six recorded, also here a Slavonian grebe and three great crested grebes. No sign of any shags in the roost here though and also no sign of any purple sandpipers.

Life goes on...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nelly 'Boppan' Benstead - 24/03/08 to 21/02/10

Team Benstead lost its youngest member unexpectedly this week. I may be offline for a while.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Garden tick - white-tailed eagle!

Ten centimetres of snow overnight combined with jetlag saw me out the door at 0600 to shovel snow off the drive and paths. Will have to do the roof soon if this carries on! Looked up whilst digging my way out to the feeders around 0700 to see a 2K white-tailed eagle fly by. A long-anticipated garden tick - what a monster! Where's that goldie?

Spent the day looking after sick children and then had half an hour at Torekov. The rev looked pretty bleak under a blanket of snow, huge ice buildup on the rocks offshore and tiny bergs floating about on the sea. Five male goosander looked superb against this backdrop. Male smew would be hard to spot! Not much doing on the bird front otherwise, although seven goldfinch at Flytermossen looked rather out of place given the conditions. Nearby at the harbour had two adult shag on offshore rocks as well as a nice summer plumage black guillemot and a single coot. More snow forecast tonight...

Torekov rev - unrecognisable.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back home - 18/02/10

It will not stop snowing, there must be 50cm lying in the garden. Nice and cool after the tropics though. Not been out birding yet, but had a single waxwing in the garden from the office window today. A few brambling and chaffinch still at the feeder.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding forest owlet

We found the forest owlets quite high in trees as they caught rays on a sunny but cool morning. They feed diurnally, mostly on reptiles apparently, but we saw no action in half an hour of watching.

Just spent two days searching out forest owlet:

14/2 Melghat TR, Maharashtra

A weird day, arrived late in the night at Chikaldara, the hotel was noisy and very dirty and I was grumpy. Sorted out new bedding eventually. A morning walk around the grounds of the hotel produced some new birds including red-whiskered bulbul, tawny-bellied babbler, black-lored tit and Tickell’s leaf warbler. The guide was arriving at 0930 apparently, was there something I didn't know about hunting for forest owlets? No, it transpired that the guide was a random muppet. He tried hard to find me an owl in a three-hour walk through rough terrain in the heat of the day, but I could tell he was not a birdman. So in the afternoon I used him to help find the right guide, and eventually we tracked down a far more likely looking candidate to use at dawn tomorrow.

The walk was not without its interest, though I was in a foul mood after the events of yesterday evening [a driver had dropped my scope]. Some good birds; more tawny-bellied babblers, orange-headed ground-thrush, verditer flycatcher, Alpine swift and dusky crag martin. The riverbeds were mostly dry but on pools in some stretches Anax immaculifrons was flying – monster! Tailed jay (Graphium agamemnon) was also on the wing.

In the evening had a brief flight view of an Oriental scops-owl as it fled the beam of my spotlight. Others calling nearby.

15/2 Melghat TR, Maharashtra

Today had a much better feel to it and I was confident of the usual Indian happy ending. The driver and I got out the door at 0530, picking up rufous-naped hare and a superb jet-black common palm civet en route. Arriving at Semadoh just after first light we rustled up Bhola (our guide) and discovered that I was also to be accompanied by two Indian tiger researchers, a charming young couple (Sandeep Sharma and Trishna Dutta). We rattled off in the research jeep, an aging Maruti jeep that had a top speed of about 40 km/h and rather eccentric steering. En route we had fantastic views of two groups of grey junglefowl and had a single wild boar.

After 45 minutes driving Bhola guided us into an innocuous looking bit of teak woodland, bordering farmland and we got out to search it. It only took ten minutes before a cry from Bhola had us converging on the first of a pair of forest owlets that were hanging around the area. To say I was relieved was an understatement. We photographed the first owl high in a tree for fifteen minutes before another cry from Bhola alerted us to the other half of the pair, a more photo-suitable bird, which flew after a short while to a higher perch. Superb and my third tick of the trip.

Spent the rest of the morning chatting as we drove. Sandeep and Trishna visited a range office, to recruit help from the Forest Department in their research. On the way back we bumped into a large group of gaur by the road. Took an enjoyable lunch at Semadoh and then headed for the hotel and report-writing.

With an estimated population of 250 individuals and perhaps as few as 100 known birds, forest owlet is justifiably of the highest conservation concern. Spotting two was a great way to end six weeks in the field.

Travel/birding advice: if you head to Chikaladara and Melghat Tiger Reserve you need to allow plenty of time to source a guide. Bhola (the guide I used) works at the Semadoh Visitor Centre, there is a basic dormitory there and this would be the best base if you are on a budget. Otherwise you have to stay 45 minutes away in Chikaldara. The place I stayed (the Satpura Retreat) was pretty crummy. Retreat? Think less place of rest or refuge and more Napoleon's chaotic and costly departure from Moscow in 1812. I would not recommend it, Mrs B has a disparaging term for such a place - a man-tel (def: a hotel run solely by men, standards of cleanliness being appalling, the food can be quite good, but never visit the kitchen!). As I write I am covered in itchy chigger bites so tuck your socks in and put some insect repellent on them whilst in the field.

We bumped into a few pairs of grey junglefowl during the early morning, not a bird I see very often.

Birding Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah

The mud volcano at Tabin, you do not get one of these at Danum. Such natural mineral sources are important for maintaining populations of Sumatran rhinos.

With Danum shut in the early part of the year for refurbishment (except for occasional large groups) we were diverted to Tabin in January this year. I have always wanted to visit this site and was interested to see what we could find there in our four-day stay, especially when compared to the premier site up the road (Danum).

The accessible parts of Tabin are all secondary forest. Birdwatching is mostly along the roads and there is no doubt that you can see a lot of large forest bird species this way. Raptors, hornbills and canopy-flock species were much easier to see in the more open habitat at Tabin than at Danum. But when it came to deep-forest species like the pittas and the special flycatchers and babblers, then Tabin is a poor second choice. Tabin has a primary forest core area, but this is not easily accessible to the casual visitor. Secondary habitats at Tabin also proved to be remarkably poor for dragonflies and amphibians, two groups well represented at Danum.

One of the great things about Tabin though were the lengthy night drives. These lasted 2.5 hours and even the stretches of road along the boundary with oil-palm plantation were very good for mammals. I doubt there is a better place to find and photograph leopard cats in Asia, we were finding ten animals a night on some roads! We also had plenty of encounters with Javan civet and the three large flying-squirrels were present in small numbers and were often seen in 'flight'.

I would recommend Tabin to wildlife photographers, as well as to birders with a little bit of time on their hands. It cannot replace Danum as a lowland rainforest location in Sabah but a visit to Tabin would add value to a trip that already included some time at the former. People who try are sometimes rewarded with views of a rhino, a good enough reason to return one day I reckon.

You can read more about Tabin in an article here.

A week at Kanha

People ask me why I like birds sometimes...

Kanha is all about the mammals and high on the wanted-list is always tiger. We did 12 drives and saw seven tigers, a good result, thanks to an excellent tracker and some hard work. This individual was easily the most photo-suitable tiger of my career to date.

More of the same tiger - a young female.

Too good.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Leaving Gujarat

With a poor monsoon in mind and dry conditions inland, we visited a coastal wetland called Sodav Bankhara (near Kodinar). It was rammed with birds and we had an all too brief sesson here, dashing about and looking at things. This roosting flock of demoiselle cranes took exception to our presence and lifted into the air in a spectacular fashion.

Dalmatian pelican - just one of the many wetland birds that were present at Sodav Bankhara. We also saw green turtles mooching about offshore and plenty of evidence of egg-laying.

Velavadar produced large numbers of blackbuck as usual, but we skunked out on striped hyaena and wolf.

Little Rann of Kutch images

Asiatic wild ass - not difficult to find here but tough to get in an interesting pose. I quite like this shot but feel an awful compulsion to start writing low-grade humorous captions for it.

The only new mammal for me on the trip; at last an Indian wolf. With fewer than 3000 remaining, an encounter is always going to be exciting.

Indian courser - one of the best birds in India.

Cream-coloured courser - present in small numbers this winter in the Little Rann.

Sykes's nightjar gave us the runaround this year, none seen on the first night drive and only three on the second.

Desert warbler

We stayed once again with Dhanraj Malik at Desert Coursers, it is the best place to stay if you want to see the wildlife of the Little Rann of Kutch and one of my favourite places to stay in the world.

Top Gir

Flame-of-the-forest trees (Butea monosperma) provide a welcome splash of colour to the dry woodland at Gir in the dry season.

With forest owlet on the potential menu later in the trip, it was time to fully familiarise myself with its much commoner congener - the spotted owlet.

Two days at Gir started the Central India trip off, and what a start. We did well for leopards with close but brief views on each of our first two morning drives. The lions performed well albeit to order. Birding is always good too here, my first white-bellied minivet was a male and just superb. This species has been high on my most-wanted list for decades and did not disappoint. Sadly no photographs, I could not take my eyes off it!

Disparoneura quadrimaculata - dry season dragonfly faunas are always rather depauperate but this one is flying year-round and it is a little stunner, Gir remains the only place I have ever seen this species.

Lion around. Last year you could walk in after the Asiatic lion at Gir (under supervision), but now the lions are shepherded to the roadside for your enjoyment. A slightly plastic zoo-like experience sadly.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

India update

Just a quick update, they are running the generator especially for me in the middle of the day...

Nearly done in India and it has been a monster of a tour. Kicked off at Sasan Gir for the lions and we were not disappointed with some quality time with a pride of 7-8 animals. The big bonus came in the form of two brief leopard sightings and a cosmic male white-bellied minivet (a tick for me).

Next stop was the Little Rann of Kutch, always good for birds, we enjoyed great views of McQueen's bustard, hoopoe lark, desert warbler, Syke's nightjar and more. Photographs to follow I hope. The icing on the cake though was an excellent encounter with a lone wolf out on the pan.

Currently at Kanha and the first two days produced four tigers, one of which was the most photo-suitable of my career to date. I wish I could post photos now, but fear I would die of dehydration in the process.