Birdwatching in Costa Rica

Words: Seth Inman

In the lower folds of Poás Volcano’s foothills, overlooking the city of Alajuela and Costa Rica’s Central Valley, Xandari Resort & Spa offers travelers what Forbes Magazine has called “a mountainside slice of paradise.”

The forty-acre property includes diverse tropical gardens and a forest reserve with several miles of trails that lead to multiple waterfalls—one of which is between sixty and seventy feet high. A hundred and thirty bird species have been reported on the resort’s eBird hotspot, but Xandari is a mere twenty minutes away from the country’s main international airport.

Hummingbirds and tanagers flit year-round amongst the flowering bushes and fruiting trees that surround all 24 villas and the open, veranda-style restaurant, which offers an outstanding view, particularly at night. A creative Costa Rican menu utilizes fruits and vegetables grown on-site, from arugula and cherry tomatoes to yucca and plantains.

Blue-and-white Swallows commonly swoop down by the sunset pool (one of three saline-treated pools on property) to sip water and hunt insects at a calm spot overlooking coffee and forest with a backdrop of the Central Valley.

Strange vocalizations of the Montezuma Oropendola, diverse tunes from the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and eerie whistles from Rufous-and-white Wrens drift up from the woods below, while various species of raptor soar thermals in the skies above.

The nearby trails offer secluded areas from which to spot White-eared Ground-Sparrows foraging among the leaf litter, Red-crowned Ant-Tanagers chattering in the dense vine tangles, and Long-tailed Manakins performing their mating rituals under the lush canopy. To say nothing of all the migratory warblers and other families of birds that find Xandari’s forest and gardens to be a little oasis in the greater overwintering haven of Costa Rica!

An orange grove, with its neighbouring chicken coop and goat pen, is a popular area for the local community of Blue-crowned Motmots and one of the resident pairs of Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, as well as three types of saltator that fly through almost daily for their breakfast.

With the resort’s plant-a-tree program, guests have planted over 500 trees throughout the property over the last eight years, and compost from pruned vegetation nourishes both the edible garden plants and the natural forest in certain disposal pockets that make good foraging ground for Gray-necked Wood-Rails.

At dusk, calls from the Common Pauraque and Laughing Falcons echo across the hills, and if you’re lucky and have a good flashlight you might spot a Mottled Owl or Tropical Screech-Owl, as well as the cute but deadly Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.

Dawn choruses resound with Rufous-naped Wren chatter and whistles from Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, often interspersed with Yellow-throated Euphonia and Barred Antshrike song depending on the location of your villa.

While eating a complimentary breakfast of tropical fruits and freshly baked banana bread and muffins, flocks of raucous parrots or parakeets, swirling packs of swifts, and sallying flycatchers can be seen from the restaurant.

One of the advantages of being in the Central Valley is the proximity to several key Costa Rican birding hotspots that can be visited as day trips. Xandari Resort is just an hour away from Poás Volcano National Park (222 species on eBird), Carara National Park (466 species, including the famous Scarlet Macaw), and the Tirimbina Rainforest Center private reserve (356); it’s also two hours away from La Selva Biological Station (532, and Costa Rica’s #1 in species count) and Tapantí National Park (431).

These popular birding destinations are perfect places to find the exciting tropical species like trogons, toucans, and tanagers that are more rare around Alajuela and San José.

Costa Rica’s dry season, or summer, runs from December to April and corresponds with the North American bird migration, so despite the higher rates on hotels throughout the country it makes for better birding. The rainy season lends to more affordable prices given the lower amount of tourists in the country, and often the mornings are sunny and clear before the afternoon downpours.

Most Costa Ricans, or Ticos, who work in the tourism industry speak English and are quite friendly. With nearly 900 species recorded in a country two-thirds the size of Scotland, Costa Rica is a top candidate for any bird-watcher’s holiday destination, casual or avid!

Birdwatching in Taiwan

Words & pics: Mike Weedon

The genius of Darwin was in the simplicity and clarity of his thinking. Tiny genetic mutations will result in slight differences in organisms’ ability to survive and reproduce. Given enough time the pressures of selection will lead to the development of different species.

When populations are isolated, such as on islands, the effects may become magnified and accelerated. For instance, Darwin famously noted the radically different bill structures of the apparently closely related finches of the different Galapagos islands.

In extreme cases, where there has been considerable isolation, such as Australia, New Zealand or Madagscar, there are a large number of endemic bird species. But on little island groups, like the British Isles, which are close to and formerly joined to the continental land mass, we have just one (controversial) endemic species (Scottish Crossbill) and several subspecies, such as the Shetland and St Kilda Wrens.

Taiwan lies somewhere in the middle. It is a decent-sized island, nearly twice the size of Wales (the universal unit of area measurement), 180km off the south-eastern coast of mainland China.

It has at least 15 endemic bird species but dozens of endemic subspecies, several of which are on the cusp of being given full species status, or have already been given full species status by some authorities. There are also several regional endemics found there.

So, Taiwan offers a good chunk of endemic birds, but owing to its position off the Chinese coast, it is also a great place for seeing migrating Asiatic birds. I was there with a small group last autumn, and in a week or so, our bird haul included nearly 50 birds which were either full endemic species or subspecies, or regional endemics.

But we also got a fantastic taste of autumn migration, Taiwan style. Add to that plenty of non-endemic birds of high calibre, one or two endemic mammals, fabulous scenery, and spectacular butterflies in profusion, wonderful people and fantastic food (and, yes I am a vegetarian!), and you can see it could be very easy to fall in love with Taiwan.

Taiwan is a long north-south island, shaped (to my eye) like a chrysalis, with the capital Taipei in the far north. As most visitors do, we started our adventure here, getting our eye in at the botanical gardens.

We arrived a couple of days after a typhoon, so there was a certain amount of tidying being done. But we were soon ticking our first endemic: the very attractive and colourful Taiwan Barbet, plus seeing our first Black Bulbul (a bulbul in Chough’s clothing), Grey Treepie (like a small colourful Magpie), Chinese Bulbul and Malayan Night Heron. More familiar birds included Moorhen and a Kingfisher enjoying the lotus ponds, overlooked by a Night Heron.

The older people of Taipei clearly love the gardens, and were gathered in groups doing Tai Chi or just walking around enjoying the air. There were also a group of 30 or so photographers all trying to get a snap of Dark-streaked and Brown Flycatchers as well as a young Crested Goshawk. Overhead, a pair of adults of this spectacular Accipiter hawk were displaying.

With our eyes now partly in., we hit the northern tip of the island, at Yehliu Geo Park. The car park was jammed with coaches, mostly from China, and the paths incredibly densely crowded with parasol wielding, shuffling masses.

But, after a couple of hundred yards, the crowds simply vanished and our group ploughed on the Magic Toilet, a shaded loo block renowned as migrant stop over. We added Japanese Paradise flycatcher, Arctic Warbler and Blue Rock Thrush to our trip lists.

In the early evening of that first day we paid our respects to a pair of local celebrities. At the Chingsui Wetland at Jinshan a young Siberian Crane had arrived in 2014. By autumn 2015 it had developed a healthy symbiosis with a local farmer, who dug in the paddyfields while the Crane stood beside him, looking for morsels.

Also there were great flocks of mixed herons and egrets,  Black Drongos, Spot-billed Duck and best of all, a female Painted Snipe (females are the pretty ones in this species!).

For the next few days we would venture south. Despite having a population of 24 million people, most of Taiwan, away from the western plain, is covered in beautiful forested hills and mountains.

Taiwan Blue Magpie

It didn’t take too long driving through the hills to encounter our first flock of the one bird I wanted to see above all others, Taiwan Blue Magpie; a spectacular, blue, black add white, red-billed, long-tailed beauty of an endemic bird! Taiwan Scimitar Babbler (like a big grumpy, white-throated Wren) was very pleasing, too, rather rescuing a rainy second day, largely on the road.

On our third morning we made a tactical decision to check out the car park area, first thing, at Taroko National Park, near way we were staying.

It is curious how often car parks are the best places! This one yielded some of the best birds of the trip, with the small trees dripping with endemics, flocks of them: Taiwan Yuhina (unnervingly like a Crested Tit, but unrelated; and calls like a Goldfinch), Yellow Tit, a big, feisty tough guy tit with an open yellow face and long crest, Varied Tit of the potential split Taiwan subspecies/species. Then there was the gorgeous Grey-chinned Minivet (like an extremely colourful arboreal, red wagtail).

That morning we rose through the spectacular Taroko gorge, heading up into the mountains. We stopped off for a coffee by a Sacred Tree (don’t ask me why it was sacred), where we were given honey on a cocktail stick (don’t ask me why). And, as luck would have it, a group of endemic laughingthrush-like bird, the Steere’s Liocichlas (don’t ask me how to pronounce it), were in the bushes just near us.

We crossed a terrifying rickety bridge by a waterfall, which produced that mountain stream staple the Plumbeous redstart, as well as another endemic, the Taiwan Whistling Thrush (resplendent in navy blue).

Seeing a Flamecrest

But it was when we reached 3,000m altitude, that things got even juicier. Up there, in the pines, we encountered the renowned Flamecrest, a fancy relative of our Goldcrest, with a voice so high I could only hear it with my right ear!

There were tame endemic White-whiskered Laughingthrush, even tamer Alpine Accentor (of the Taiwan subspecies, of course). An incredible little dense swarm (like bees rather than birds) of 30 tiny Golden-headed Parrotbills came buzzing by, dropped in, moved off, gone.

But the star high altitude endemic for some in our small group was the Collared Bush-robin, or Johnstone’s Robin, a very pretty ash, chestnut and white endemic relative of the Red-flanked Bluetail.

The forested mountains of the Dasyueshan Forest are fantastic places for a drive and for birding, so naturally popular with visitors. Here we got great views of the amazingly colourful and distinctive endemic Swinhoe’s Pheasant (though we dipped on the more famous Mikado Pheasant; you can’t win them all).

The forests near the top produced some lovely little birds with fancy names, including the Rufous-faced Warbler, Grey-cheeked Fulvetta, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and a tiny, exquisite relative of our Long-tailed Tit, called Black-throated Tit.

The next day we were down in the western lowlands, in a completely different world of fishing ponds, muddy paddyfields, waders and herons. There were Long-toed Stints, Marsh Sandpipers and Lesser Sand Plovers.

We flushed a coupe of tiny Yellow Bitterns (like Little Bitterns) and saw a flock of 75 Black-faced Spoonbills, the vanguard of the 2,000 (half the world population!) which winter in Taiwan.

Then it was down to the southern tip of the island near Kending. Our very nice hotel contained one of the strangest underground walkways to the beach I have ever witnessed. The Tunnel of Weird, as we christened it, contained a bowling alley, lots of computer games, shops and, of course, a 20-foot chameleon. No one was there except a man to ask for money for the bowling (there were no takers). Very surreal.

But the reason we were in the far south was to witness the start of the great raptor migration which passes through each autumn. We were too early for the famed Grey-faced Buzzard passage, but bore witness to the passing of several hundred Chinese Sparrowhawks, plus Oriental Honey Buzzards, and such bonuses, above our forest watchpoint as White-throated Needletail, Oriental Pratincole and Ashy Drongo, as well as our first views of the endemic Taiwan Macaque and a visiting group of Taiwan Green Pigeon.

A fascinating country for birdwatching

Taiwan is a beautiful country full of fascinating wildlife. I haven’t even had space here to describe the bat-catching antics of a Kestrel; the curious display flight of the Black-shouldered Kite; the subtle beauty of the endemic Owston’s Bullfinch or the Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.

I haven’t touched upon the Pheasant-tailed Jacanas or Black-naped Monarch (endemic subspecies of course). And I haven’t been able to convey the wealth of food delights on offer or to do justice to the landscape. You are just going to have to see, hear smell and taste for yourself.

But the lasting message, is that this is a land of speciation in action. Even the humble, familiar Coal Tit has its own Taiwan subspecies, with an elongated crest: ripe for ‘splitting’. Darwin would have loved this place!

Birdwatching in Texas

By Stuart Winter

Seeing the Rio Grande snaking its silvery, glistening way into view through gnarled mesquite trees for the first time leaves a surprising sense of disappointment.

Grande as in grand? Any thought that Texans don’t go in for hyperbole in a state of superlatives, where ranches are bigger than some European countries and humungous steaks are almost the size of our cows, is shot down faster than gunslinger on the draw. The Rio Grande may well have been enshrined in Western folklore by John Wayne, but this languid, lazy river with its necklace of resacas is certainly no Mighty Mississippi.

Watching it meander slothfully towards the sea, you can easily skim a stone from the United States on to Mexican soil across a mirrored surface that reflects perfect images of the countless birds continually traversing this most famous of international borders.

Brightly coloured kingfishers and orioles, majestic hawks and herons, dazzling jays and flycatchers… There’s hardly a second when birds are not flitting hither and thither over unhurried waters without a flinch from immigration officials.

That’s when it suddenly dawns. Whoever named the river must have been a birder. The Rio Grande is certainly one of the grandest places I have ever focussed binoculars.

American birders' paradise

A quick look at a map of the United States soon shows why the Lower Rio Grande Valley has such a special place in American birders’ hearts. The Stars and Stripes fluttering by the roadsides denote this southernmost tip of the Lower 48 is as American as mom’s apple pie, yet the subtropical climate and vegetation mean the birds are as Mexican as tequila and tortillas.

Little wonder so many people from every state of the Union make annual migrations to the region to bask in the glory of the most eagerly-sought birds on the American Birding Association checklist. Last November I joined their journey to the Deep South.

There is certainly no better way to embrace TexMex species in all their colourful grandeur than by participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Admittedly nowhere near large as the British Birdfair in terms of marquees and sideshows – its seminars and stands are concentrated in a civic building in the city of Harlingen, a few miles north of the river – the festival, however, does everything to maintain the classic Texan credo of making things big and awesome.

ts field trips and the stellar array of top names leading these tours from the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico way upriver into the Rio Grande’s arid reaches are the stuff of legend. Ask anyone who saw the 2013 Amazon Kingfisher…

Last November’s glossy official programme listed more than 40 excursions over an action-packed, five-day agenda, giving participants of all experiences not only the chance to rub shoulders with the cream of American birding illuminati but also watch them deliver an endless stream of the region’s most highly sought species.

Among the top names starring on the programme for the 22nd annual RGVBF were John Dunn, author of the seminal work on American warblers; acclaimed photographer Kevin Karlson and super twitcher Greg Miller, whose alter ego was played by actor Jack Black in the The Big Year, Hollywood’s take on American twitching. There was also “one of our own” – British expat Julian Hough, who lives in Connecticut and has become a leading light on the American birding scene.

It was Julian who helped introduce me to some of the Rio Grande’s most eagerly-sought birds as I worked through a five-day itinerary of field trips that the organisers had customised to help me see most of the valley’s specialities.

Leading a crocodile of birders – or should that be alligator in these parts – along the labyrinthine trails of the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Julian was quickly pointing out birds that had been high on my wish list.

Feisty Great Kiskadees with their bandit masks held us up as they dashed from look-out to look-out. Even brighter Green Jays, a dream for any colouring book fanatic, played tag in denser cover, their striking green and yellow plumage absorbed by the leaf colour. An Altamira Oriole exploded into view in all its fiery glory. Think flying Christmas lights!

Seeing Green Kingfisher

As we made our way out of the riparian forest into open wetlands, Julian served up another Rio Grande delicacy, Green Kingfisher, an emerald gem of a bird but surprisingly easy to over look on a concealed perch. Amid the hubbub of wildfowl and shorebirds, there were much-sought Least Grebes and Mottled Ducks to pick out from the Blue-winged Teal and countless American Coot.

Suddenly, the already buoyant mood went up several notches. Julian was on a Hook-billed Kite. The list hungry Americans went into a frenzy. This was a lifer for many of them, a real doodle-dandy of a bird for those who had travelled from New York, Washington state and California to see Texas’s finest. 

On paddle-like wings, it soared effortlessly over the dense stands of moss-covered ebony trees, avoiding the attentions of a passing Harris’s Hawk, before disappearing from view. The hawk had no doubt found a supply of its favourite food – tree snails.

One day’s Texan birding, a notebook littered with asterisks denoting lifers, and the adventure was only beginning. The Rio Grande’s upper reaches beckoned.

Two hours upstream of the festival headquarters, Salineno, with its population of 302, is unlikely to feature on many tourist itineraries but for American birdwatchers the views this hummingbird of a hamlet provides over the Rio Grande has made it a place of legends. The dusty shoreline is pock-marked with tripod feet and engrained in the memories of all those have made a pilgrimage here over the years to see truly wild Muscovy Ducks. I had to make do with three species of kingfisher.

Belted and Green were quickly under the belt but a copper-breasted Ringed Kingfisher, a brash, bruiser of a bird that has “gone large” with the bill order, was simply mesmerising as it disintegrated the Rio Grande’s tranquil somnolence with its raucous calls.

Zone-tailed Hawk

A soaring Zone-tailed Hawk, shining out amid a huge flock of Black Vultures, followed by a ghostly Grey Hawk, quickened the pulse to such an extent that some people needed a sit down.

There was only one place in town: the nearby winter feeding station with its amphitheatre seating plan to allow perfect viewing of more RG – I was now using the local language – specialities.

Among the ostentatious Green Jays and blazing Altamira Orioles, squabbling over strategically positioned orange slices, diffident Olive Sparrows lurked. A Black-crested Titmouse, a recent split from its Tufted relation, and superb Audubon’s Oriole, another Mexican speciality with a restricted range in Texas, kept the life list rolling.

Cattle country came next. The festival programme’s exhaustive trip itinerary had me venturing into Kleberg County, an agricultural region where the fields providing forage for the famous Texas Longhorn cattle had flooded from some of heaviest rains in living memory. Shorebirds, never waders the other side of the Atlantic, took advantage of a rolling landscape dappled with pools as they arrived fresh from the Arctic tundra.

Peeps – Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers – scuttled between the legs of lanky American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Stilt Sandpipers looked on with a suspicious air, wary of any marauding raptors. There were plenty to fear. Northern Harriers seemed to be patrolling every field, outnumbered only by the American Kestrels atop each telephone pole. Crested Caracaras and delectable White-tailed Hawks were a reminder that we were in deepest Texas.

A huge flock of American White Pelicans, numbering at least 5,000 birds, turned the famous Texan “big skies” into a monochrome kaleidoscope with their abstract shapes set in the pale, milky afternoon sky. Only the purple-painted fence posts provided an incongruous dash of colour. The reason for the colour wash was chilling: purple denotes a land owner’s right to shoot first, ask questions later. Worrying, indeed, but it failed to deter the migrating Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from taking up squatting rights on virtually every post.

The days rolled and even though I was enjoying a relentless parade of new birds, the lure of the “twitch” could not be resisted, though it meant a three-hour coach journey to the legendary frontier town of Laredo.

The gunfighters have long gone. Perhaps they were driven out of town by the seedeaters? These birds sure are mean. The Rio Grande’s reedy river margins are the only place in the USA to see White-collared Seedeaters, though even in the thin ribbon of habitat, they are as skulking and secretive as any locustella or acrocephalus warbler. We searched and searched.

Vultures circling

Black and Turkey Vultures circled overhead, sensing we would never emerge from the reeds and would make them a great lunch. A whisper trickled through the group: seedeater showing. I was near enough at the head of the queue to sneak a 10 second ‘scope view. Nondescript bird, certainly, some might even say boring, but such views provide an awesome addition to any fanatical American lister’s collection. We had one happy birding posse.

Even with 20 trans-Atlantic trips under my belt, the RGVBF provided 26 lifers, which included: Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds, a best-by-call identification challenge, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Clay-coloured Thrush and remarkably approachable Common Pauraques, although even at a metre’s distance they were so remarkably camouflaged roosting in brushwood close to a trail through the Estero Llano Grande State Park they could have tripped you up.

To mention disappointments would be chary, yet there was one bittersweet moment on the final of the day of the festival when I took one of the Leaders’ Vans Tours staged to help participants mop up any birds still needed.

A Swainson’s Warbler was my target, a dowdy, furtive ground-hugger, unquestionably the most elusive member of America’s most ostentatious family of birds. We arrived at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center full of expectation.

It had just been seen. Emphasis on the past tense. The neighbourhood Loggerhead Shrike looked mightily smug – and somewhat plump. The warbler had provided breakfast. At least the warbler escaped the ignominy of dangling on a shrike larder. A nearby pair of Aplomado Falcons, think pimped up Hobbies, soon soothed any disappointment.

At last autumn’s exchange rates, my choice of five daily field trips ranged in price from £40 to £60 with a small festival registration fee. Considering the cream of American birding accompanies every excursion, the festival cost is great value for money. The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival lives up to its name. I had a grand old time…

Acknowledgements:

Birdwatching attended the Rio Grande Birding Festival, courtesy of Nancy Millar, director of McAllen Convention & Visitors' Bureau – Click here

Access and Accommodation. I flew to McAllen Airport via Houston, an international hub served by British Airways and other major US airlines.

A great place to stay in the valley is at the Alamo Inn B&B, a few minutes’ drive from Santa Ann National Wildlife Refuge. The inn is run by Keith Hackland, a regular exhibitor at the British Bird Fair, and whose warm hospitality, birding knowledge and tireless help made my visit such a success. Click here

For details of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival 2016, click here.

Birdwatching in Malawi

By Dominic Couzens

It was late afternoon at a guest house in one of Africa’s less well-known capital cities, Lilongwe. I was sitting opposite my guide, Abasi Jana, reviewing the day’s birding with cup of tea in hand. The last of the sunlight twinkled on the garden pool and a gecko roused itself from slumber to scuttle across the wall. Our attention was caught by a small bird in one of the garden shrubs.

“Collared sunbird,” called Abasi after the briefest scan with his binoculars. “That’s a new one for the day”.

He was right, it was yet another. Much as I always think it’s rude of a new bird to appear when you are actually tallying your day-list, this intrusion was, in a way symptomatic of the happy profusion we had experienced in the last few hours. Collared Sunbird was species 109, on a curtailed day – we hadn’t even started at dawn.

Malawi, you might say, was showing off.

Perhaps, though, it needs to. This small republic in south-central Africa, a third submerged under the eponymous Rift Valley lake and its southern half surrounded by Mozambique, is far from a famous birding location, seemingly outshone by the safari centres of neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania.

Yet it punches above its weight bird-wise, 650 species cramming into a country smaller than Greece, owing to a rarefied mix of different habitats and a high number of localised species that make even hardened Africa-philes salivate.

As to this opening salvo of birds, it happened that we had seen most of them in relatively unusual circumstances – in miombo woodland, a well-defined habitat made up from modest-sized trees without much understory, on poor soils.

Miombo hosts a profusion of birds, seeing them can be far from a doddle. Success depends entirely on finding roaming bird flocks that come and go as they please. At Dzalanyama Forest Reserve there’s 100,000Ha of the stuff, plenty in which to hide.

In the end it took all of fifteen minutes to find our first flock. Just beyond the entrance gate, Abasi stopped the car and declared “Pale-billed Hornbill”.

Seeing a Souza's Shrike

A scramble led us to a clearing and a great view of this decidedly scarce species; it was perched resplendent on a treetop and making a sound like a very panicked green woodpecker.

Within seconds we were distracted by a movement in the greenery a few metres away at eye level, and were amazed to see one of Dzalanyama’s most sought-after species, a Souza’s Shrike.

In contrast to our own shrikes, which are generally birds of open areas, this small grey and olive-brown shrike specialises in feeding low down in the shade of the woodland, making it easy to overlook.

Souza’s Shrikes habitually join bird parties and, sure enough, the sunlit canopy was soon alive with flitting shapes.

This is always a thrilling spectacle, eliciting a wholesome mix of excitement and panic, and here in the heart of Africa exotic names came thick and past – Yellow-bellied Hyliota (like a colourful Pied Flycatcher), Green-capped Eremomela (yellowish, warbler-ish), Black-eared Seedeater (sparrow-like) and African Paradise-Flycatcher (caramel brown, opulent long trailing tail). My notebook was hot for half an hour, before the feeding party ghosted out of sight.

“Good start,” I remarked to Abasi.

“Stierling’s Woodpecker!” he replied, eyes fixed behind me. This was another “mega”, hardly found anywhere else in the world. It looks like a cross between a Great Spotted and a Green Woodpecker, with a bold black stripe through the eye, and two of them pecked away at close range, adjacent to a plain-faced Cardinal Woodpecker.

The woodpeckers were part of a new flock, and we were rapidly immersed again in shifting shapes. Several species, including the Hyliotas, had disappeared, while new ones appeared such as Southern Black Flycatchers - no flock in miombo woodland is exactly the same.

The variety kept up: we clocked the scarce and smart Rufous-bellied Tit (African tits are languid creatures, seemingly robbed of the family effervescence by the heat), plus Black-throated Honeyguide, the bird that leads people to bees’ nests and waits for the comb to be extracted as its reward.

Flock three turned up about forty minutes after that (with one of my favourites, Spotted Creeper, one of the few land birds that inhabits both Africa and India), and flock four just before lunchtime (with Violet-backed Starling, a bird of salivating gorgeousness).

By the time we were settling into what was packed-lunch enough for eight, it seemed had seemed almost every top quality bird – except one.

“We should see Anchieta’s Sunbird by the dambo,” Abasi reassured me. But I was twitchy. You see, Anchieta’s Sunbird is to Malawi what a completely gorgeous actress or actor might be to a film – worth the entire spectacle.

I remembered seeing the plate in Birds of Africa depicting this gem, years before, and taking a sharp intake of breath. The bird has a glittering blue head and a brilliant yellow breast, but it looks as though somebody has taken a dagger to the latter and there is a splash of vivid crimson flowing down the front.

Birding in the dambo

The dambo, a wet area within the forest, delivered, of course, with a male sunbird in a flowering Protea. And this being Africa, a habitat shift offered another spike of new species, including Scaly-throated and Pallid Honeyguides, Flappet Lark and, presumably embarrassed by the plenitude, both a Red-faced Crombec and a Red-faced Cisticola (tiny warbler-like birds).

Despite the wonders of miombo woodland, to many birders the biggest joy of Malawi is in its remaining patches of highland forest. Continent-wide, this is now a very scarce habitat, and the feathered gems associated with the Afro-montane biome seem to be diminishing by the day.

You could actually see this at two of our next destinations, on the Zomba Plateau a few hours south of Lilongwe and further south at Thyolo, where the vegetation is almost completely denuded, leaving only remnant patches to hint at the riches of the past. 

We saw a number of woodcutters even during our short visit to Zomba. Admittedly it does make forest birding easier, and over the next few days we caught up with almost all the specialities, including such sought after species as Bar-tailed Trogon, White-starred Robin, African Broadbill, Square-tailed Drongo and a host of sociable thrush-like birds called Greenbuls, bewitchingly difficult to identify.

We also scored a hat-trick of gorgeous mini-finches: Red-faced Crimsonwing and both Green and Red-throated Twinspots, each of which has white dots on the underparts that appear to be painted on.

Several inhabitants of these forests are rare even within Afro-montane biome, and are currently confined in this small corner of Malawi and neighbouring Mozambique.

Arguably the two biggest stars are the colourful White-winged Apalis, a small, long-tailed canopy species with bold yellow, black and white colouration, and the Thyolo Alethe, which is a chunky, oversized Robin-type bird that feeds on or just above the forest floor, lapping up its favourite food, ants.

The triumph for us of finding the latter species was tempered by the fact that some of its more assertive prey found their way up our trouser legs and effected a seriously painful bite. Another favourite, although slightly more widely distributed, is the Green-headed Oriole, which I actually spotted before Abasi (equivalent to getting the ball off Lionel Messi once in five days).

Another species to make Southern African birds literally go weak at the knees, this oriole has, as you can guess, a moss-green head and mantle.

If Malawi itself is off the tourist radar, then what of its highest mountain, Mount Mulanje? Apparently it is a well-known peak among globetrotting trekkers, but I confess I had never heard of it.

It is actually an inselberg rising from the surrounding 700m plain, with several peaks topping 2500m and one, Sapitwa peak, at 3002m. In between are deep forested ravines with plunging waterfalls and fast-flowing streams.

Here there is enough luxuriant forest to give you hope that some of the Afro-montane specialities will survive. We spent an intoxicating afternoon hiking one of the trails, admiring a whole hillside thick with forest, obtaining magnificent views of Silvery-cheeked Hornbill and a little flycatcher-type gem known as a Blue-mantled Elminia, while Scarce and African Black Swifts rode the updrafts on the cliffs high above. What a place!

There could hardly be a greater contrast between the high mountain forests and our next location, Liwonde National Park. Lying on the plain next to the Shire River that drains Lake Malawi, it provides a dose of what any tourist would think of as “wild Africa”.

Only 540 square kilometres in area, Liwonde apes its host country in miniature by encompassing a network of different habitats, including marshes, savannah and a type of tall woodland known as mopane.

Within this rich mix, game animals are everywhere – indeed, from the restaurant of my accommodation, the luxurious Mvuu Lodge, you could see Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Impala and Warthogs every time you glanced up from your ice-cold beer. (At night we saw a Pel’s Fishing Owl from the dinner table, a common experience here).

Malawi wildlife

The river froths with Hippos, living in one of the highest densities in the world. Together with a more than healthy population of Nile Crocodiles, and 900 Elephants, this is not a place to go swimming, or indeed wandering off.

The chalets are set away from the reception area and, adding a definite frisson to your visit, you are not allowed to walk anywhere after dark without a guard, and to summon a staff member in time of need you beat a drum in your bedroom. For lack of dangerous predators such as lions or leopards, the main problem is elephants.

At the beginning of the wet season they routinely wander around camp and can be unpredictable.

The richness of Liwonde extends to its birds, with over 400 species recorded in this relatively tiny area (one of the highest totals in southern Africa). This means that you can hardly go anywhere without seeing a glittering away of colourful, iconic and – frequently – unusual birds. For example, you can enjoy such African staples as bee-eaters, rollers, woodhoopoes, hornbills, weavers and sunbirds around the camp while you’re enjoying a cup of tea, or on a short daytime walk (a treat in wild Africa).

But you can hardly avoid coming across delights such as Böhm’s Bee-eater, a small, dainty species that frolics around the chalets here, but is actually pretty rare everywhere else in the world.

On the boat trips to enjoy the hippos (and the elephants which often swim across the Shire River), it is quite easy to see African Skimmers and White-backed Night Herons. The many palm trees host Dickinson’s Kestrels and Red-necked Falcons, and the mopane woodland just drips with birds, including rarities such as Lilian’s Lovebird (a tiny parrot) and Racket-tailed Roller.

The variety is dazzling, and indeed we again saw 100 species in a single day here, neatly topping and tailing the trip.

Malawi is fabulously rich in wildlife, safe, genuinely friendly (its tagline as “The Warm Heart of Africa” rings true) and small, meaning that the distances between sites are easily manageable. The only thing that Malawi seems to lack is visitors – and they are missing a treat.

With thanks to Central African Wilderness Safaris and Malawi Tourism.

Birding in Taiwan


Tension is the word. Tension and impatience. Everyone huddled on one side of the boat, the side from which the local guides are scanning the skies. Yesterday, the sea had been too rough for us to make this trip. Today’s not much better. The heat from the dazzling late morning sun scorches any bare surface I reach for to steady myself as the wooden ferry is bounced around the Taiwan Strait. Somewhere behind me, seasickness is taking its toll on a landlubber. The locals are all at the front of the boat. They make this trip every day and are used to having to make occasional stops for Westerners to focus their bins on the many rocky outlets.

From my left, a cry in broken English goes up: “Chinese Crested Tern, Chinese Crested Tern!” One of the guides points to the sky with his left hand and hurriedly beckons everyone with his right. He’s grinning, but a second pair of eyes confirms it was a false alarm. It’s not surprising. There are thousands and thousands of terns out here: Greater Crested, Roseate, Black-naped, Bridled – all screeching, soaring, diving and swooping, but there are only a few handfuls of the star attraction: the bird of myth, the tern that came back from the dead – the Chinese Crested Tern.

Until 2000, the species was considered to be extinct, but a photographer’s discovery of four nesting pairs among the tern colonies on the Matsu archipelago sparked one of the greatest comeback stories of all time.

Now the two main islands of Matsu – Beigan and Nangan – are swamped with Chinese Crested Tern T-shirts, cuddly toys, posters and birders from all over the world.

The first two days of our group’s Taiwan tour will be spent on Matsu – and the CCT is our top priority. It’s mid-July and it’s hot. What’s more, there aren’t that many birds around on Matsu in July – but it is the best time to see the terns. During the breeding season, trips to the breeding grounds are banned, and come autumn and winter, the birds have gone. Where, nobody knows.

So, with few birds on land it’s time for us to regain our sea legs and find that miracle bird. This time we have a private boat, run by one of Beigan’s hotels. The captain (and hotelier) knows exactly where to take us – all we have to do is find a needle in a haystack. On the huge rock in front of us are hundreds of terns – mostly Greater Crested, a bird superficially similar to the Chinese Crested. Not only do we have to contend with this life-size, grey, black and white version of Where’s Wally, in searing heat, but we’re on a boat. A boat that is bobbing up and down. And, under Taiwanese conservation law, we can’t get too close. This is extreme birding.

“There’s one! And another!” someone shouts to my right. All eyes follow his extended finger, as he attempts to direct us. “Where the shadow falls on that green rock, count three birds across, then drop down to the bit that juts out…” This becomes our way of communicating with each other for the next hour or so.

When you get your eye in, the CCTs are easy to pick out. Their wings are a lighter shade of grey and the forehead is white, not black like the Greater Cresteds. And each one is a living piece of history.

On the boat ride back to Beigan, it is hard to imagine how the next 10 days on the Taiwan mainland could possibly top that.I needn’t have worried.



From the bustling street markets and skyscrapers of the capital, Taipei, to the vast forests and mountains, birds are everywhere. Black Bulbuls sit on every wire, the white blobs at the side of every patch of water turn out to be Little or Intermediate Egrets and Japanese White-eyes flit through the trees overhead. But it’s the endemics birders come to Taiwan for – there are 15 of them and we managed to see most.

Trickiest of all were the pheasants – Mikado and Swinhoe’s. It was really too late in the year for good views of these elegant birds and a couple of fleeting glimpses at the side of the road on some hair-raising mountain passes were all we managed.

The mountains, largely covered in thick forest, offer a break from the smothering humidity of the lowlands – but not much. It’s still pretty warm. Up in the highlands you encounter a more traditional way of Taiwanese life, but there are still modern flourishes that have spread up from the big cities below. Many of the mountain areas are hugely popular with Taiwanese tourists, so there are plenty of facilities along the winding roads – just try not to look down if heights make you a bit giddy.

It was at one roadside stop that a particularly tame Plumbeous Redstart obligingly posed for the photo above. Another obliging bird was the endemic White-whiskered Laughingthrush and by the end of our stay, these subtly coloured babblers became so commonplace they were dismissed as “another laughingthrush”. One endemic that failed to lose its charm, though, was the Taiwan Yuhina, a Crested Tit-like bird that I could have watched for hours. Crested Tit isn’t the only bird with a Taiwanese lookalike, the endemic Flamecrest is a dead ringer for a Firecrest and just as captivating.

We saw more than 100 species, from Crested Goshawk to Malayan Night Heron, Pacific Swallow to Vinaceous Rosefinch. Birds too good not to mention, like Beavan’s Bullfinch, Taiwan Sibia, Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler, Steer’s Liocichla, Taiwan Fulvetta, Crested Serpent Eagle… But there’s only room for one more bird, and it has to be the last one we ticked on our search for endemics: Formosan Magpie. Black head, red bill, deep purple-blue body with a ridiculously long tail – I’ll never underestimate a Magpie again.

JACK THORPE


Factfile: It helps to have someone with you who knows their way around. Although English is widely spoken, not knowing the local language can still be a real barrier. You’ll want to see as many birds as you can, so a guide is almost essential. When you’re there, make sure you visit the night markets, especially on Beigan, where the food is simply incredible. If you love seafood, you’re in for a treat. For more information, visit: www.taiwan.net.twGetting there: EVA Air flies from London Heathrow to Taipei via Bangkok seven times a week. Book through www.evaair.com Useful websites: www.birdingintaiwan.com

Kazakhstan: Stronghold for Sociable Lapwing

Kazakhstan is well-known as a massive, land-locked former Soviet nation in the middle of nowhere. Surely, it can’t be any good for birds. You’ve got to be kidding, writes Mike Weedon

Two summers ago was with a delegation of birders and optics experts from Europe and America visiting the mighty former Soviet state of more than a million square miles, courtesy of Swarovski Optik.

Out in the steppe we saw: probably more than 100 Pallid Harriers, nearly all ghostly pale grey males (the females presumably already on nests in May when we were there), and more Red-footed Falcons than I have ever seen. In some damper grassy areas we watched the dazzlingly exotic Demoiselle Crane and dozens of gorgeous Black Larks.

We passed families of Steppe Marmots, large, golden rodents which squeak out barks to warn you away from their burrows. We drove by Steppe Gulls, Steppe Eagles – you name a bird and stuff Steppe in front of it and we saw it - and we stopped at marshy lakes where the numbers of birds defied belief.

In the heart of Korgalzhyn State National Reserve, a massive area of grass and marsh and reed-fringed lakes of variable size, covering an area bigger than Cambridgeshire, every small cluster of isolated bushes was giving shelter to passing songbirds such as Booted Warblers, Greenish Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers.

Overhead went parties of 30 Black-winged Stilts, 50 Wood Sandpipers, half a dozen Greenshanks and 100 Ruff at a time, spasmodic waves of migrants passing all day. We found the reserve’s second ever Rock Thrush and there were Ortolans and Cuckoos.

The reeds bordering the lakes and the trees within them resonated with the songs of Savi’s Warblers, Paddyfield Warblers and Bluethroats. There were gorgeous, lemon-headed Citrine Wagtails and even a couple of massive black-headed Pallas’s Gulls around.

A pair of Merlins were nesting in a tree near our huts, both male and female anomalously light grey like tiny Gyrs – pale and washed out like many birds of the open pale steppe.

Gatherings of thousands of male Ruff warmed us up for the most startling sights which came on and above the open water. Here, migration had reached starling proportions, where strangely familiar birds had multiplied to numbers which I didn’t imagine were possible. One medium-sized lake’s surface was black with what looked like flies but which turned out to be 20,000 Red-necked Phalaropes. Above them, the apparent swarms of mosquitoes were actually 10,000 White-winged Black Terns.


Sociable Lapwings

The next day we were taken to see Sociable Lapwings by the researchers who are protecting them in their stronghold. Back in their glory days I remember seeing two Sociable Lapwings in a day at two sites in Kent. But, since 2004, they have been categorised as Critically Endangered because of loss of habitat and threat of hunting on their wintering grounds.

Scary estimates of only 600-1,800 remaining adults were made in 2006. Luckily, wintering flocks of 3,000 plus have since been found, so there is hope. Many birds live in close association with cattle, and it was in a vast field with cows that we were privileged to watch Sociable Lapwings at the breeding site. We were determined not to scare the birds unduly. So, picture if you will, the bizarre scene of 30-odd Western birders lined up crocodile style attempting to present the smallest possible front to the birds, as we left our vehicles and entered their territory.

Our strategy was successful, as the birds fed nonchalantly around the grazing cattle. A mighty Pallas’s Gull drifted by just to add an extra soupçon of magic to the whole atmosphere. It was surely the best cow field I’ve ever birded in!

MIKE WEEDON

The reason for the trip, Sociable Lapwing


Watching Sociable Lapwing


Paddyfield Warbler


Steppe Marmot