Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Shetland summary (and since)

I was up on Shetland from 14-20 October with Messrs Eade, Lethbridge, Croft and Johnson – bit later than previous years, so a slightly different experience and mix of birds, but still a fantastic place and a great trip. Since getting back to work on the following Tuesday morning, I’ve been pretty busy there, and then birding at the weekends so this feels a bit like ancient history now. Never mind.

The birding was unsurprisingly quite hard work, with relatively few migrants this late in the season. We still scored a fair range of rarities and scarcities, generally on our own, with very few other visiting birders remaining. The most exciting (but also most challenging) period was the last couple of days, with a strong constant easterly wind and pretty much constant rain. At times, pretty foul conditions – but it was obvious that birds were arriving. Our spirits were buoyed by finding an super-skulky Olive-backed Pipit on the Saturday, and the near-certainty that there was a ‘big one’ out there somewhere to be found kept us going non-stop til the end.

We were right, as well – but the fact it was a male Rubythroat, on Fair Isle, with news breaking while we were on the A1 near Newcastle, was a bit of a kick in the teeth. Still, surely that was it, so not too bad? (I’m sure there will be at least one twitchable mainland Rubythroat in the next ten years, given the recent surge in records). Oh dear: the kick in the teeth was followed by a Cape May style slap in the face. Ouch.

But enough complaining – any trip of this kind is almost guaranteed to miss something good by a day or two, it’s just the nature of the beast. I love these remote places, and rare bird searching / finding (far more than the idea of smash-and-grab twitching megas from down south)… so I’m happy with the outcome, even if it could’ve been better still.

The rarity roll-call featured:

  • Wilson’s Phalarope – the moulting adult at Sand
  • Western Bonelli’s Warbler – cracking views on Whalsay, with the bird calling quite a bit too


  • Little Bunting: very close, though very brief views at Quendale
  • Citrine Wagtail: another showy bird, at Fleck, just down the road from Boddam:


  • the aforementioned self-found Olive-backed Pipit – a real team effort, found and identified in horrid weather. (Hard to believe this was my bogey bird, with seven dips prior to 2010, yet now I’ve seen one every year since then, and co-found one).
  • White-rumped Sandpiper – good views of a rather bright juvenile bird at Boddam, again in driving rain!
  • four Yellow-browed Warblers, including a close bird in small patches of irises out on Garths Ness – maybe newly arrived?


  • a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher
  • no less than 11 Great Spotted Woodpeckers – pretty scarce on Shetland, but there’s been an impressive influx this year. One bird in the second Sumburgh quarry regularly took cover in a hole in the rocks, in the absence of trees!
  • a stonking male Northern Bullfinch
  • Long-eared Owl in broad daylight
  • numerous educational Siberian Chiffchaffs
  • hundreds of Mealy Redpolls
  • plenty of Crossbills – sadly all Common for us

And of course, the place itself is fantastic, leaving the birds aside. This scene from Whalsay includes the Bonelli’s favoured gardens…


… while these scenes are from Lamba Ness right up at the top of Unst. Beautiful, if rather bleak…


Finally, in the way home, a diversion via St Abbs was well worth it, scoring the Sardinian Warbler immediately, and then enjoying a range of late autumn migrants including more Yellow-browed Warblers.

Since then, I’ve scored a lifer (and got soaked for my trouble) with the Semipalmated Plover on the south coast, enjoyed the cracking male Two-barred Crossbill in Kent, and been buzzed down to a couple of feet by the awesome pair of Pallid Swifts along the clifftops at Foreness Point in Margate.


So, while there’s plenty in the country that I’d like to see right now (hopefully some of it will stick around – for ages!), I can’t really complain. It’s been pretty good!

Friday, 11 October 2013

Herons of the Pantanal

Just time for one final set of photos from Brazil, before heading off up north tonight, first for Matt and Claire’s wedding in Aberdeen, and then on to Shetland for the week. Hopes are high!

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that the Pantanal has lots of different herons, given that it’s partially underwater for a good chunk of the year. They’re pretty a smart and photogenic bunch, though, so it would be a mistake to overlook them.

First up is the rarest of the bunch, Zigzag Heron:


We finally tracked this down from a late afternoon boat trip from the Hotel Pantanal Mato Grosso, midway along the Transpantaneira. They’re absolutely tiny, and very skulking. Fortunately this one was calling regularly, and our boatman skilfully got us in amongst the vegetation. The photo was taken at ISO 6400, with a spotlight on the bird – it was almost totally invisible otherwise!

Another weird looking beast was Boat-billed Heron, picture below. These are coloured rather like Black-capped Night Heron, but the bill is pretty amazing. Again, these are skulkers, sticking to the shady banks all the time.


A couple of more familiar looking species next – Cocoi Heron is pretty similar to Grey and Great Blue Heron, and Striated Heron is a bird that I’ve seen all over the place (including at least three American birds in the UK). Both were pretty common.


One of the most striking species was the fantastically named Rufescent Tiger Heron, below. We thought that the patterned young birds, like this one, were actually smarter than the more rufescent adults!


We also had good views of Jabiru, Wood and Maguari Storks, plus Roseate Spoonbills, Great, Cattle and Snowy Egrets, Capped, Whistling, Little Blue and Night Herons. Not a bad haul!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Giant River Otters

Second only to the stunning Jaguars in the mammal department, these guys were fantastic value on the River Cuiaba and subsidiaries in the Pantanal.


Clearly very sociable creatures, we had the privilege of watching two different family groups interacting and feeding during our time on the river, both times around half a dozen animals.


The species is now categorised as endangered, with only a few thousand left in the world, centred around the Amazon basin. The biggest individuals are well over five feet long, and all have a pretty ferocious set of teeth.

From some angles, the somewhat sinister and slippery face with big beady eyes recalled Gollum…


… but from others it has to be said that they’re really quite cute!


Monday, 7 October 2013

Pantanal Kingfishers

As you might expect for one of the world’s greatest wetlands, Kingfishers were not in short supply. There are only five species and we saw the lot – but the camera only caught up with two of these, so there’s not much diversity here!

The most obliging from a photographic point of view were Amazon Kingfishers, frequently remaining perched as the boat slid in closer and closer. The male has a large chestnut/rufous patch on the upper breast, while the female is metallic bottle green and white – both pretty smart!


The other species that got caught on camera was the huge Ringed Kingfisher – a fairly common, and often noisy, bird. We’d seen one or two of these in the Lower Rio Grande valley in Texas a few years previously.


Of the remaining three species, Green Kingfisher was reasonably common, but not as easy to see well, while American Pygmy Kingfisher and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher were only seen once or twice, in flight only.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Raptors of the Pantanal, part II

Another of the most common birds was Snail Kite, shown below in adult plumage with a striking red eye and slaty grey upperparts (and a slightly hazy photo – taking even half-decent photos in the heat of the day was nigh-on impossible out here).


The young Snail Kite shown below was ridiculously obliging, while struggling with a crab in a roadside bush. You would simply never be able to just slowly walk straight up to a bird of prey in the UK as I could with this one…



And finally, this is a Southern Caracara, just metres away from the same Snail Kite. I reckon it was trying its luck for a free meal, but didn’t get any joy this time.


Aside from the birds photographed here, you can add Crane Hawk, Great Black Hawk, and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture to the list, plus a few others that I’ve probably forgotten. Not a bad selection, I reckon…

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Raptors of the Pantanal, part I

Time for another belated photo instalment from our August trip to Brazil (facilitated by a quietish day today in the south-east, getting home at a reasonable hour!)

The Transpantaneira road is a raptor enthusiast’s dream, with a fair range of species, birds in decent numbers, and above all, close views. (Best to look away now, Dave…)

One of the most abundant is the aptly named Roadside Hawk, readily identified by the unusual demarcation between vertical barring on the upper breast and horizontal on the lower. The individual below was actually a riverside hawk, but still a bit of a poser.


Another regular sight on the river was Black-collared Hawk. These birds regularly catch fish from the surface, a neat adaptation. The first shot was taken as the hawk was whistled in by a boatman, before it (unsuccessfully) made a grab for the fish he threw. I was unsuccessful in getting a shot of the bird fishing, too…


One of the scarcer birds along the road was this tiny Pearl Kite, the only individual we saw during the trip…


… while by contrast, Savanna Hawks like this one were abundant, hunting over grassland.