Thinking about birdwatching in Africa but want to avoid the crowds? Then head for eastern Tanzania, home to some of the most exciting birds on the planet, writes Stephen Moss
If you were planning a birding trip to Tanzania, what would be your top three sites? Chances are that the Serengeti would be first on your list, closely followed by the Ngorongoro Crater and perhaps neighbouring Arusha. You’d certainly see lots of great birds – and plenty of other wildlife. But you might also get fed up with having to share your experiences with crowds of tourists, each trying to get that special photo, and encouraging their guides to get as close as possible to the animals to achieve their aim.
But there’s another Tanzania: arguably even easier to reach, as it is all within a day’s drive (or short flight) of the former capital Dar-es-Salaam. It’s safe, absolutely beautiful, and packed with birds. And in terms of a wide range of landscapes, it’s as good as anywhere I’ve been in Africa.
My companions Graeme, Kevin and I started with a circuit of three different ranges in the Eastern Arc Mountains, isolated ‘islands in the sky’ dotted along the ancient Rift Valley. Together, these are known as ‘Africa’s Galapagos’ for the extraordinary array of endemic birds – and other creatures – that live there. Driving north from Dar, our first stop produced a small flock of bright Golden-yellow Weavers with black masks.
Superficially similar to the common and widespread African Golden Weaver, this population may turn out to be an entirely separate species. Known as the Ruvu Weaver, after the river along whose banks we found them, this taxon has been known about for decades, but has only recently been considered for full species status. Either way, it was a beautiful bird, and seeing them was a great start to our 12-day tour.
Leaving the stiflingly hot plain we rose into the cooler Usambaras, and reached our first destination, Emau Hills Lodge, by mid-afternoon. Almost the first bird we saw was a Pale Batis, like a miniature Pied Flycatcher, sitting on its nest along a narrow branch.
A short walk around the area produced more wonderful birds: huge Trumpeter Hornbills flying across the late afternoon sky; a Long-crested Eagle perched on a nearby tree; and Olive and Amethyst Sunbirds, the first of no fewer than 11 species of sunbird seen on the trip.
The following day produced even better views of very rare members of that wonderful family: the endemic Amani sunbird, and my favourite, the Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbird, which is named after what was to be our next destination, the Uluguru Mountains.
I should probably confess at this point that this was no casual birding trip, but an expedition, with just one target species in mind. Before you dismiss me as a ‘world lister’, I can explain: I have spent the last few years writing a book on the origin of bird names, whose title is Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, and felt that I needed to encounter the bird itself. To find out why, and if we succeeded, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out!
Fortunately, given the legendary rarity and elusiveness of Mrs M’s eponymous bird, there were plenty more species to enjoy. We pitched camp by the side of a river, and with our guide Elia took a walk around the forest trails nearby.
All images: Alamy
The birds were harder to see here than at Amani, but even more rewarding when we did: a Yellowbill (also known, rather confusingly, as Green Coucal) creeping around a bush like a squirrel; a very elusive African Tailorbird (actually a kind of warbler), and best of all, several Livingstone’s Turacos – a worthy tribute to the legendary Victorian explorer. Like all turacos, these are extraordinary birds: moss green, with a long tail, prominent crest and, when they fly, bright crimson wing-linings.
In the high forest, where we went in search of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, we saw other birds found nowhere else in the world: the Uluguru Mountain Greenbul, and the graceful Loveridge’s Sunbird, named after an early 20th Century British ornithologist. Even when it got dark, the action didn’t stop – we were woken in the night by the unmistakable, metronomic call of an African Scops Owl perched just above our tents.
The third in our trio of Eastern Arc mountain ranges – after the Usambaras and Ulugurus – was the tongue-twisting Udzungwas. After the privations of camping it was great to arrive at the delightful Hondo Hondo Lodge, at the foot of some impressive hills. As well as the birds, the monkeys are a great attraction here, too: troops of yellow baboons entertained us as we drank a cold beer or two, while the trees around held the endemic Iringa Red Colobus and also Sykes’s Monkeys.
Oddly, the three endemic birds we were looking for live not in the mountains, as is usually the case for such isolated species, but on the floodplain of the Kilombero River. Two of them are so little known that they still don’t have official names. To see the first of this unique trio, we headed out to the edge of our guide Emmanuel’s home village. Here, in the baking midday sun (what do they say about mad dogs and Englishmen?) we came across a tiny, streaked bird flitting about on the edge of a field: a White-tailed Cisticola.
In case you are not familiar with this family, they present one of the greatest of all bird identification challenges, though this bird was actually quite distinctive, at least by cisticola standards.
Next day, we rose early for the long drive to the Kilombero River, home to the other two endemics. Almost as soon as we got out of the car we found not just one, but both of them: a fine male Kilombero Weaver, perched along the riverbank, and a Kilombero Cisticola – unstreaked, and looking rather like a Cetti’s Warbler with a prominent supercilium – close by. Then we enjoyed one of the highlights of the trip: travelling slowly up and down the river in large, punt-like canoes.
I love watching birds from a boat: they are far less wary than if you approach on foot, and being on the water also gives you a unique perspective – almost a bird’s eye view. As we glided past, we had great views of a fine selection of waterbirds: Giant and Malachite Kingfishers, African Jacanas, Water Thick-knees (looking remarkably like our own Stone-curlew) and the mighty predator of this wonderful continent, African Fish Eagle.
By now, we were starting to see more and more raptors, including fabulous views of a Great (aka Black) Sparrowhawk perched on a tree as we climbed to a waterfall above Hondo Hondo for a swim. As we headed back down into the lowlands, I totted up our total raptor list for the trip so far: 15 species, almost as many as I’ve ever seen in Britain. But as we entered the gates of Mikumi National Park, we simply had no idea of the wonders that awaited us.
Birding reminders of home
At first, our attention was drawn by the sudden variety of birds, and how easy they were to see after the rigours of birding in the mountains. Everywhere we turned, there were Lilac-breasted Rollers and Southern Ground Hornbills, the latter flashing their long eyelashes as if they were flirting with us.
Familiar reminders of home, too: Wheatears, Common and Wood Sandpipers, and, rather more exotic, both White and Black Storks, all enjoying the benefits of winter in Africa before they headed back north to breed.
However, it was the raptors that really stole the show: over the next two days at Mikumi we more than doubled our species count, with Grey Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Spotted, Steppe and Tawny Eagles, and no fewer than five species of vulture.
Having recently returned from India, whose vulture population has been virtually wiped out by the use of a chemical given to cattle, it was good to see these amazing scavengers doing so well here; alongside plenty of mammals including Lions, African Elephants, Giraffes and Zebras – or, as our guide Roy called them, ‘disco donkeys’.
But if Mikumi was good for raptors, then our final destination, Selous Game Reserve, was outstanding. Named after a Victorian big game hunter and soldier, Selous is – and this fact surprised me, too – the largest game reserve in the whole of Africa, and one of the biggest in the world. To get there, we had to fly in, over miles and miles of unspoilt land; having arrived, we discovered, to our delight, that we were the only guests at the splendid Selous Impala Camp.
The most beautiful bird ever?
Our host at Emau Hills had warned us that Selous would be ‘brutal’, with midday temperatures hitting 40°C. But we were lucky: a thin layer of cloud kept the heat just about bearable, and early starts and late finishes meant we saw some wonderful spectacles.
Cruising along the mighty Rufiji River, we came across vast flocks of bee-eaters – no fewer than seven species, including the rare Bohm’s and the incredibly beautiful Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, which swept low over the ground alongside our vehicle like the Red Arrows. As I said to my companions, there may be a more beautiful bird in the world, but at that particular moment, I couldn’t think of one.
On leaving Mikumi, we had reached a total of 33 different raptor species, 22 of them seen in Mikumi alone. Surely, there couldn’t be any more? And yet they just kept on coming. African and Eurasian Marsh Harriers, the rare Dickinson’s Kestrel, Lizard Buzzard, African Hobby, Osprey and a delightfully confiding Little Sparrowhawk, all helped bring our total for the trip up to 42 – roughly the same number found in the whole of Europe.
If birds-of-prey, as top predators, indicate a healthy environment, then we must have hope for the birdlife of this beautiful country, which is full of unexpected surprises.
For us, the trip wasn’t quite over. Roy, who had organised the trip so well kindly invited us to his home by the Indian Ocean just north of Dar for a farewell meal with his delightful family.
Of course, we had to carry on birding – a few familiar waders (and one lifer for me, Sooty Gull) nudging the trip total over the 300-species-mark. But as dusk fell, and we headed to the airport for our night flight home to a rather chilly UK, it wasn’t the numbers, but the sheer
variety of birds, mammals and other amazing wildlife we’d seen, that led us all to vow to return to Tanzania, someday soon.
PLACES TO STAY ON A BIRDING TRIP TO TANZANIA
Selous Impala Camp, Selous.
Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe (Helm)
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
Mike Weedon joins a bird race in Peru, for a week of breakneck birding in this South American hotspot
The idea was insane. Bring together six, four-man teams of top bird researchers and tour leaders from five countries and set them up for six consecutive days of ‘bird racing’ against each other in Peru. And just for good measure, start the racing in the southern Amazonica region, then after a few days travel up into the Andes to finish racing around the legendary Machu Picchu. If that isn’t enough to break them, I don’t know what will. I’ve got it, let’s make the schedule extra gruelling and throw in more than a bit of sleep deprivation.
As a bit of birding theatre, it was exceptional, as the most enjoyable way to spend your birding time for a week in Peru, I have my doubts; and doubt most normal birdwatchers would choose this route to getting the most of South America. However, I must confess that I was not strictly a racing participant, so I will never really know. I was a hanger on, a birding journalist along to follow the whole caboodle.
But, as you may have guessed, I was not there to stroll around kicking up leaves on the rainforest floor and lounge around. I was there to get as much out of the wildlife experience of this incredibly rich country as I could. And as we journalists were on the same regimen of 3-4 hours sleep per night followed by a full day’s action, followed by another 3-4 hours’ rest if we were lucky, I was able to absorb much of the insanity of the inaugural Birding Rally Challenge.
Things were a little different at the start, when we all met in Lima and had inevitable introductory sessions and flesh pressing and a bit of birding at the Pacific coast near the capital. In addition to a good smattering of American waders, herons and ducks, some of the great birds on show were Many-coloured Rush-tyrant, Peruvian Thick-knee, White-tufted Grebe and Belcher’s Gull (a fine name for a bird). On the ridiculously rich sea, Peruvian Boobies and Peruvian Pelicans passed constantly, a Peruvian Diving-petrel (which looks like a Little Auk) a new group for me, was sitting on the water, and a Peruvian (what else?) Tern was a rare find in the area.
And in the evening, a few us paid a visit to a traditional resting area for the amazing Inca Tern, a bird which looks like it was drawn by a child with a particularly vivid imagination.
But this action was just warm-up stuff, blowing the jetlag cobwebs off the binoculars and adjusting the optics of our eyes for South American birding. The real action was going to kick off once we had travelled another 500 or so miles south west to Puerto Maldonado and the wonderful Inkaterra Amazonica Lodge on the banks of the Rio Madre de Dios, near the Bolivian border.
We were staying in raised wooden huts in the beautiful grounds where agoutis (like large, smooth guinea pigs) trim the grass and the wooden paths are patrolled by large bright green-and-brown lizards, appropriately called Amazonian Race Runners. There are giant snails, bigger than your clenched fist, the trees resound to the polyphonic madness of dancing oropendolas and caciques (both types of icterid or New World oriole) and even before the 4.30am wake-up knock, the Grey-naped Wood Rails are calling so loud sleep is impossible.
To keep the official Birding Challenge as fair as possible, all the teams visited the same areas, but at different times or on different days. Our little band of hangers on were a little more flexible and followed similar, but not identical, routes.
Most of these consisted of a 5.30am boat trip along the mighty Rio Madre de Dios, watching early morning movements of parrots, oropendolas, hawks and herons until we reached one of various rainforest destinations, rich in life.
The forests are a delight, and for an ill-prepared newbie to the region, a head-spinning mass of sounds and shapes. There were brilliant blue butterflies, tiny, agile Squirrel Monkeys and birds of all shapes and sizes, from Great Black-hawk and Greater Ani to tiny hummingbirds. Among the highlights of our first morning were Chestnut-eared Aracari (a small toucan) and the crazy, crow-sized Amazonian Umbrellabird, though Long-billed Woodcreeper (like a treecreeper on Olympic-standard steroids) pushed them close.
Best of all for me, though, was a bird which sounds like a tortured donkey, roaring its terrifying bray from the treetops, before briefly flying out like an enormous, long-legged, black-and-white eagle. It was the Horned Screamer – a bird which looks half chicken, half vulture, half made-up bird, half turkey, half goose, and is probably related to ducks, geese and swans, though you wouldn’t guess it. To the teams, it was just another tick, but we were in the privileged position of being able to enjoy it. We able to use this to our advantage over the next couple of days. Our visit to the ox-bow lake at Sandoval started well enough with White-fronted Capuchins (monkeys) and a wonderful gathering of parrots including Blue-and-yellow Macaw in an old palm tree. But by the time we got in the canoe for the lake trip, the rain became absurd (and my Peruvian bird book has never really recovered). We were able to rectify the situation slightly in the afternoon at Inkaterra’s Concepcion site, with a couple of superb Sunbitterns, the striking Slender-billed Kite and more Hoatzins then we knew what to do with.
But we hadn’t got what we had come for on the ox-bow, so begged to have another go the next day, sacrificing a farmland birding site to do so. And, boy, was it worth it. After only a few minutes in our canoe on Sandoval, we spotted our prize splashing in the distance: a family group of seven Giant River Otters. We paddled up close and had the group fishing for piranhas around our boat, rolling and playing and coming up to breathe like squeaky, puffy, playful little long-necked whales – one of the most magical mammal encounters imaginable.
We spent the afternoon on a high, post-otter, but also on the canopy walkway at the Amazonica lodge, where a Curl-crested Aracari (a toucan with a curly haircut) paid us a visit.
The next day, after even less sleep than usual, the teams had the little matter of crossing the Andes to contend with. The Challenge rules were even more bizarre than usual: teams were allowed and encouraged to bird on the way, as they crossed altitudinal divides revealing more and more diversity of avifauna. However, we all had to arrive at the destination at a certain time (to catch a train), so only had a couple of hours total to be out of the vehicle actually watching birds.
Luckily, this tactical conundrum was of little concern to us hangers on, and we got on with enjoying the view, the thin air of altitude, the Mountain Caracara, Andean Flicker, Andean Gull, the colours of the mountain people’s clothes, the llamas...
We all took the night train journey to the little town at the base of the hill up to Machu Picchu, where we stayed at Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, in lovely hummingbird rich gardens by a classic Torrent Duck torrent.
The fabled lost city of Machu Picchu is, of course, one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. I wonder how many people have ever gone there for a bird race? This is what we were here for, and the breathless paths overlooking the magnificent ruins were surprisingly rich in birds – all different from the lowland rainforest bids of further east. There were White-tipped Swifts, Rusty Flowerpiercers, Green-and-white Hummingbirds, White-winged Black Tyrant... I could go on.
Back in the valley near the town, the birding was excellent and, as the teams struggled desperately to add a few more species to their totals, I went birding with the Challenge organiser Dennis Osorio, in the woods and gardens of the valley. It was a moment of peace, a chance to step away from the madness of the race, to take time and really enjoy the birds of this wonderful area. I was able to add many birds to my week’s ‘list’ (totalling close to a very respectable 300 birds, rather than the race-winners’ 500 or so). Highlights of a great walk included flocks of varied tanagers, the giant Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, the Blue-banded Toucanet and best of all, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, one of the iconic birds of South America.
Trumping even that, though, was a family of Spectacled Bears (mother and two cubs) feeding in treetops across the torrent from the hotel. The most competitive Birding Rally team even took the extreme course of spending a precious hour watching the bears, rather than ticking more birds. Of course, they were to use this time as their excuse why they eventually ‘lost’ by a handful of species. But, I sneakily suspect, it was a case of sanity breaking out in this most insane of all bird races.
Mike would like to thank the organisers of Birding Rally Challenge 2012, especially Dennis Osorio, and Inkaterra (inkaterra.com) for their exceptional hosting.
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.
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!
The reason for the trip, Sociable Lapwing
Watching Sociable Lapwing
The Gambia has long been a popular destination for UK birders, and deservedly so. In winter, a six-hour flight from the UK winter sees you arriving in this small sun-kissed country during the dry season, when you can expect temperatures in the high 20s or low 30s °C.
Often described as a finger poking in the side of Senegal, the country’s borders follow the River Gambia, and for much of its 205-mile length it is only 15-20 miles wide. Mostly flat or gently undulating, its rich fauna can be attributed to its huge diversity of habitats. The western coast looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and islands such as Jinak, while the shallow continental shelf provides abundant fish for both the local fishing industry and seabirds. Except for some relatively compact tourist areas, the vast sandy beaches are largely deserted and often hide dune systems and wetlands. There is woodland, savannah, farmland and scrub and the estuaries of both the Gambia River and the Casamance River have complex deltas with a combination of mudflats and mangroves providing food for herons, egrets and waders as well as nesting sites for many birds.
I am currently planning my eighth holiday in The Gambia and for all but the first trip I have stayed in eco-lodges and camps. Gambia now has an established and growing network of eco-lodges, run on environmentally sound principles and employing local people. Fortunately for us, these lodges are located in some of the best bird-rich habitats this small country has to offer. Despite going back year after year I have never failed to add new species to my Gambian list but I still have a long way to go to see all of the country’s birds, which is fast approaching 600.
Easily more than 200 of these can be spotted on short trips from coastal eco-Lodges such as Footsteps at Gunjur and Farakunku Lodges at Tujereng. By combining a stay at these lodges with an upriver trip to Tendaba and perhaps up to Georgetown a list of more than 300 birds is easily achieved in a fortnight. Some lodges, such as Footsteps and Farakunku, provide fully guided birding packages which can be booked in advance, visiting birding hotspots such as Brufut Woods, Abuko Nature Reserve and the Faraba Banta bush track but you can see a lot just within walking distance of the lodges.
Jinack Lodge is the most remote of the eco-lodges situated on a ‘desert island’ of that name and is available for accommodation or a day visit. There is no electricity and the lodge is run on eco-principles, growing their own vegetables and harvesting fish from the Atlantic Ocean. Passerine birds include resident species such as Yellow-crowned Gonolek, African Silverbill, Senegal Coucal and Black-crowned Tchagra as well as a host of paleartic warblers wintering there and inter-African migrants such as Namaqua Dove and Woodland Kingfisher. The largest colony of Caspian Terns in the world (40,000 pairs) breed there and many can still be seen during the dry season along with Royal Terns, Grey-headed, Kelp and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (from Norway!) along with Pink-backed Pelicans, egrets, herons and waders.
Marakissa Lodge provides accommodation and merits a morning’s birding and lunch on the terrace. The speciality bird is Spotted Honeyguide, which can be seen visiting the feeders. The same feeders also provided me with the closest views I have ever had of Yellow-throated Leaflove, while the creek at the back offered excellent views of Giant Kingfisher and Black Crake. The extensive woodlands have been partially ruined by the construction of a new road but still hold the uncommon leaflove, White-crested Helmet-shrikes and Violet Turaco. Indeed, on my last visit to Marakissa in January 2013, I notched up more than 80 species.
Farakunku Lodge and Tujereng area are close to the west coast, with the ocean a 40-minute walk away. Inland walks mainly cover open areas dotted with trees and are excellent for a variety of raptors including Long-crested Eagle and Black-shouldered Kite, as well as Wattled Plovers and Four-banded Sandgrouse. A walk to the coast takes in a flooded quarry by the main road, which sometimes hosts Giant Kingfishers.
Within walking distance of Farakunku is Tujereng Wood. Actually a relatively open area peppered with silk cotton trees, the misnamed wood is one of the most reliable sites for the rare Bru-bru – a type of shrike, but is also good for Striped Kingfisher – a dry land kingfisher, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weavers and White-shouldered Black Tits among many others. A driver can drop you off if it’s hot or better still employ a Gambian Bird Guide who will locate the many specialities by song and call.
Further south, Footsteps Eco-Lodge boasts particularly green credentials combined with a high standard of accommodation. Star billing goes to an un-chlorinated, freshwater plunge pool filtered through a reedbed. As well as the usual Village Weavers, Orange-cheeked Waxbills make their home in the reeds, and the pool attracts scores of birds which come to drink and bathe, including African Pygmy Kingfisher, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and at least three species of swallow.
Immediately adjacent to Footsteps is an area of mature woodland which holds a host of interesting species including White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Pied Hornbill, Common or Brown Wattle-eye and Grey-headed Bristlebill. Combine a visit to the wood with a walk to a wetland area just beyond ‘Iceland’ a village built on top of a windy ridge on the sand dunes – it is very cold by Gambian standards! You can notch up 100 species in a morning and if you’re unfamiliar with Gambian birds then ask to go with Lamin, a reliable bird guide based at Footsteps.
A short drive south brings you to Kartong, which in my opinion is one of the best birding sites in the whole of The Gambia. It is also the location of West Africa’s only bird observatory run by an Englishman: Colin Cross and his Gambian wife Binta. It is well worth employing Colin to give you a guided tour of this fabulous coastal wetland, which was the result of flooding redundant sand mines. More than 180 species have been recorded at Kartong and my highlights have included Painted Snipe, Purple Swamphen, and both Long-tailed and Standard-winged Nightjars.
Finally a stay at Tendaba Camp, a day’s drive upriver, is essential for the boat trip into the bolons (mangrove creeks) across the river from the camp. This affords your best chance of seeing African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron and the huge Goliath Heron. White-throated and Ruby–throated Bee-eaters are also likely and Mouse-brown Sunbird is virtually guaranteed. Expect to see three or more species of Kingfisher and many raptors, including, if you are as lucky as I was on my last trip, Martial Eagles.
I hope this has whetted your appetite for eco-birding in a country whose wildlife, people and culture I have truly come to love.
The dry season runs from November to April, when flights can be booked with Thomas Cook or Monarch and Gambia Bird. Some scheduled flights are also available from the continent such as Brussels Airways, but these tend to be more expensive. Airport transfers can be arranged through the lodges.
A country as rich in birdlife as it is in culture. A week’s just not long enough…
Perhaps the most acclaimed of Colombia’s artists are the writer and Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. Their work, though regarded widely as great art in itself has also drawn attention as being peculiarly Colombian, somehow reflecting the essence of the nation more than others. Botero is reported to have proclaimed himself the most Colombian of Colombian artists.
And, pompous and pretentious though it may seem, from the short spell I spent earlier this year immersed in the birds of the country I can see a little of what he means. Throughout my time there in February I felt in a state of curious hyper-reality and strange surrealism which reminded me of the ‘Magic Realism’ of Garcia Marquez.
But even more so, I saw something of the art of Botero in the world around me. For those not familiar with Botero, his paintings are of what could justifiably be called well-rounded characters. Some may even call them ‘fat’, perhaps like the Colombian equivalent of Beryl Cook, with added biting satire and political content. However, dare to use F word (fat, that is) in front of the guides at the Botero Museum in Bogota and you will be assertively reassured that the figures are not fat, but exaggerated of form, given extra fullness, enriched, apparently to reflect the artist’s intuitive aesthetic.
And it is this very richness, feeling of things full to bursting, which is an overriding impression it is impossible to avoid when birding in Colombia. For this is a land of incredible birdlife, perhaps the richest in the world, with nearly 1,900 species including 73 endemics, and new birds being discovered all the time.
My time there was all too brief, in February last year, and with a week or so there is no way to see everything on offer, but each of the localities we visited had an almost overwhelming wealth of bird richness.
I was part of an inaugural familiarisation trip to help develop and promote bird tourism within the country. We started at Medellin in the mid-north and even as we breakfasted at our stop-over hotel, the garden was kicking with birdlife – Acorn Woodpeckers (with curious dark eyes), Ruddy Ground-doves and the ubiquitous Great Kiskadee, and Blue-grey and Palm Tanagers. From Medellin we flew west to the coast at Bahia Solano and drove the somewhat patchy road toward El Valle and our beach side lodge of El Almajel.
Along the way we got stuck behind a truck which was itself stuck in mud, so we bundled out of the vehicle and enjoyed some roadside birding. But it was Colombia, and the inevitable surreal edge was lent to the situation by our camouflaged armed soldier guard blending into the bushes while we watched such delights as King Vulture, Blue Ground-dove, Bay-headed Tanager and various parrots and hummingbirds.
The truck was soon dug out and we continued to our beachside lodge – huts set in forest by the Pacific, renowned for passing Humpback Whales (but not at that season) and filled with birds. Red-legged Honeycreepers and several tanagers came to fruit in the garden, and the wooded slopes above provided a mixed flock of mouth-watering small birds – including the delightful Scarlet-and-white Tanager (more like an Asiatic Crimson Sunbird than a ‘normal’ tanager), Rufous-winged Tanager plus such lovelies as a Pied Puffbird (like a little black-and-white kingfisher).
The next day was one of the strangest of my birding career. I thought I had waterproof clothing until I went to see my first Baudo Orependola, a far from impressive endemic with a little colony of hanging nests in a giant lone palm in the forest. It rained and rained and the path of a few miles was a stream or a narrow river or a thin lake if you prefer – it was certainly deep in water and soon I was morphing from mammal to amphibian, almost breathing through my wet skin.
But out of the damp emerged beauty and as the rain cleared, on the way back to the relative dry, we picked up such bedraggled delights as Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-chested Jay and, best of all, a scarce Grey-capped Cuckoo drying itself, on a wire, as if on a clothes line.
In contrast to the miserable morning, the afternoon’s birding was sensational. We passed back along the paved part of the road we had come in on and birded our way back. We walked right under a perched King Vulture, its rainbow-patterned face uglier than any artist could conceive; watched a tiny hawk which rejoiced in the name of Tiny Hawk, saw gorgeous snow-white Black-tipped Cotingas and marvelled in the crazy ‘wing-snap’ display sounds of the Golden-collared Manakin, a ball of bird which Botero himself could have dreamt up.
It is a given in South America that whenever you change altitude or move around a bit in hills or to and from the sea, there is a completely different set of birds to be enjoyed. So when we headed back to Medellin and birded the foothills nearby we were able to watch birds such as the endemic Red-bellied Grackle (a grackle with added colour no less), Emerald Toucanet and Chestnut-headed Oropendola for instance. From Medellin we flew to Manizales, where the geothermally heated pool of our hotel hinted at how close we were to proper mountains.
Things were about to kick into a new realm of magic reality, as we were whisked away after dark to the local sewage works to enjoy one of the world’s most bizarre night birds, the Lyre-tailed Nightjar – the nightjar with a three-foot tail. We had great views of a young male then found a mother with a tiny chick on its nest in one of the works’ pipes.
In the morning, we hit the heights, with a visit to what was my favourite Colombian habitat, the Páramo, at an elevation of well over 4,000m. At this altitude everything seems strange, perhaps owing to the bizarre vegetation or the shocking drop in temperature, or perhaps to the fact that you get out breath just using binoculars!
I like to believe, though, that the most destabilising thing was the magnificent close-up views of one of the world’s great hummingbirds, the Bearded Helmetcrest. This highly localised little greenish beauty has a Mohawk hairdo (hence the Helmetcrest) and a long beard of pure amethyst, for me the bird of the whole trip.
The hummer was backed up by high altitude specialities with mad compound names such as Many-striped Canastero (like a very streaky Dunnock) and Brown-backed Chat-tyrant (like a New-World Whinchat) and Andean Tit-spinetail (another streaky Dunnock-alike).
Still enjoying the euphoria of birding the spectacular highlands, we dropped in elevation for the afternoon and visited the Rio Blanco reserve, to be greeted by what can only be described as flocks of hummingbirds coming to the nectar feeders and flowers of the garden. There were nine or so species, all with names drawn from the peculiar trove of fantasy titles only hummingbird taxonomists could dream of: Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Sparkling Violetear, Bronzy Inca.
Here comes the Worm Man
As we enjoyed the hummingbird feast, things took another twist towards the strange. In among the hummers, armed with spade and bucket, was a man known simply as the Worm Man. For the past several months his daily ritual had been to collect worms in his bucket and head for the forested slopes above. That afternoon followed him up the hill, but were almost immediately distracted from our duty by a feeding flock of passerines with more bizarre names: Ruddy Treerunner, Capped Conebill, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Montane Woodcreeper…
One thing the Worm Man has in abundance (besides worms) is patience and he waited for our flock to pass so he could lead us to a little shaded area with a couple of benches where we would sit still and wait. His earthworms were placed in a wok-like bowl in a small clearing some 30 feet away and we sat still and waited while he whistled a simple repetitive refrain – the call of the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta.
We waited and waited and as we waited, the challenge became to focus on the bowl, stay with the current reality, look for the slightest movement.
The Worm Man whistles and it is so easy to drift off in imagination, to be walking the epiphyte-dripping rainforest slopes of Chicaque National Park, watching Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers and flocks of delightful tanagers and woodcreepers, warblers and fruiteaters, each more exciting than the next, each corner holding a new explosion of excitement, and perhaps the endemic hummingbird we sought, the Black Inca.
The Worm Man whistles and a tiny tapaculo, the closest a bird gets to being a mouse (like a little dark wren) shoots out into the periphery of perception then away before I could focus.
Another whistle and my mind takes me to the hills above Bogota, where Tawny-breasted Tinnamous call, as we watch russet and grey Agile Tit-tyrants and Glowing Puffleg (another hummer). Then down to the outskirts of the city to search for the local
endemic Bogota Rail. I shake myself back to the present forest reality where the whistles of the Worm Man are being echoed from the forest.
Then, shyly and warily, the worm-hungry antpittas appeared. There were three species, the Robin-like Slate-crowned Antpitta, the gorgeous Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and the endemic Brown-banded Antpitta. Treading the fine line between fantasy and reality, they are perfect, nervous balls of energy, the size of a round, tailless thrush. Not fat, but with added richness, vitality or fullness. A bird as the living embodiment of the art of Fernando Botero, the most Colombian of all artists.
Colombia is a large country in the north of South America, bordering Panama (and the only South American country with Atlantic and Pacific borders). Owing to its position, size and wide variation in geography (from Amazonian rainforest to Andean páramo), it has the largest bird list of any country with 1,871 species, of which 74 are endemic. Getting there: Mike travelled to Colombia courtesy of Proexport London, Colombia Tourist Office, 2 Conduit Street, London W1S 2XB, 0207 491 3535. Mike would like to thank them and all associated organisations who faciliated his trip to the country, and provided transport, accommodation and guiding within Colombia.www.colombia.travel
Extraordinary birds and a world of contrast as we go island hopping in the Lesser Antilles
When I visited some of the Lesser Antilles this summer, I had a fair impression of what I would be in for. I was expecting relatively low diversity of bird life (as is typical of small islands well away from a continent), a few endemics thrown into the mix and some lovely Caribbean island scenery. What I did not realise was the striking contrast between each of the four islands I went to – contrast in landscape, people, culture and birds.
The trip incorporated Antigua and Barbuda, the dual-island state, and the hub for travel to the other islands, Montserrat (a British Overseas Territory) and Dominica (a country not to be confused with the Dominican Republic). The islands share a core of landbirds, such as a kingbird, a peewee, a couple of thrashers, three hummingbirds, a few pigeons and doves, though in differing abundances. But it is the subtle differences which make the region particularly fascinating.
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua is a gorgeous island, rightly beloved of honeymooners and holidaymakers seeking superb coralline beaches, warm seas, sun and relaxation. The island was perfect for getting my eye in to the local bird scene, familiarising myself with the species which would form the staple core for the other islands I was to visit.
Our hotel, the Siboney Beach Club in Dickenson’s Bay, set on the sandy shore on the north of the island, was a wonderful starting point. The garden was packed with birds –Antillean Crested Hummingbird nesting outside my balcony, Green-throated Carib (another hummer), nesting above our dining table; Carib Grackles, Bananaquits and White-crowned Pigeons vying for attention. And a short walk away, there was an abundance of breeding Black-necked Stilts (with small young) and Wilson’s Plovers (with tiny young), and a mangrove colony where we could stand eyeball to eyeball with punk-headed baby Tricoloured Herons, surrounded by nesting Snowy and Great White Egrets and Brown Pelicans.
Having got a taste of the birdlife, the next day we took a catamaran trip out to Great Bird Island, which despite its name, is a small rocky island packing with massive action. We climbed the jagged rocky hill and walked among thousands of nesting Sooty Terns, smaller numbers of Bridled Terns, Brown Noddies and Laughing Gulls, and even had tantalising views of one of my dream birds, Red-billed Tropicbird (though they nest there, we were a little late for their breeding season).
And to cap a perfect bit of birdwatching, after a barbecue on the beach, we snorkelled back to the boat over corals, following parrotfish and cuttlefish – my idea of a slice of paradise.
Barbuda, the smaller sister island of Antigua, is 50 or so miles’ flight to the north and has a completely different feel from Antigua. Equally blessed with superb sandy beaches, including the renowned pink beach, it is flatter (the Highlands peak at 38m) and less lush and has a population of just 1,500 compared to the 80,000 or so on Antigua. There is a less affluent, rather more ramshackle feel to it, though there are also decidedly upmarket areas such as the Lighthouse Bay Resort.
Wherever we went on Antigua, everyone told us we simply must go to Barbuda for the birds. It was not the delightful endemic Barbuda Warbler (a surprisingly common little Dendroica warbler, bright yellow beneath and grey and white above) they were particularly recommending, it was the renowned colony of 5,000 Magnificent Frigatebirds set in the mangroves of the Codrington Lagoon. After a short trip out in a small boat we were in the heart of the colony – completely the wrong time of year for the balloon-blowing contest of the red-pouched males, but just right to enjoy the full-sized chicks, at arm’s length, waiting to be fed on seabird sick by their piratical parents: glorious!
A similar distance to the south from Antigua as Barbuda is to the north, Montserrat could hardly be more different. It is mountainous and lush and richly forested. But the whole island leaves you tinged with a great sadness. Hurricane Hugo was bad enough in 1989, with damage to 90% of all structures, but the eruption of the Souffriere Hills Volcano from 1995, and particularly 1997, was a blow too far.
The volcano caused the direct death of at least 19 people and buried the capital, Plymouth, causing the entire population to flee north. From a population of more than 14,000, only 4,500 are still resident; the southern half of the island is strictly out of bounds and the current population lives wholly in the north where few people lived before the eruptions.
We visited, by boat, the old capital Plymouth, viewing through the sulphurous pall the grey hollow city, buried in dust, mud and boulders. It was a deeply moving and tragic sight, leavened slightly by a rainbow over the island, somehow promising new hope. Pelicans guarded the old town pier and as we sailed along a pair of sea turtles mated near the surface – life goes on.
There is a great spirit among the people of Montserrat, and there is no better exponent of this spirit than our bird guide, James ‘Scriber’ Daley. His home town of St Patrick, just by Plymouth, was completely wiped out and his family now live in the UK, where he was offered work with the RSPB. But he has chosen to live away from the family and work as a custodian for Montserrat’s birds and in particular the renowned endemic, the Montserrat Oriole.
Subtle differences from Antigua include the prevalence of Scaly-naped Pigeons over White-crowned Pigeons, but what we really wanted to see was the oriole. There is no better person to take you into Montserrat Oriole habitat than Scriber, and it was only a short walk along one of the bird trails of the Centre Hills before we encountered our first family. The males are black with golden rumps and bellies, the females and younger birds more golden green all over. We watched a few groups foraging for insects and with only a couple of hundred in the world, it was a real privilege.
The woods held other near-endemic delights, such as brooding Bridled Quail-dove and my personal favourite, the aptly named Brown Trembler – it’s brown and it trembles its wings like a begging baby bird. We saw several of these relatives of the thrashers, like small, long-billed thrushes, including an obliging bird at its nest in a rotten stump.
Dominica is an island state of more than twice the size of Antigua. The most northern of the Windward Islands, it is mountainous and heavily forested, and like Montserrat has been badly hit by hurricanes, particularly David in 1979, with wrecks still cluttering the shore at Portsmouth in the north. The resemblance ends there though, and there is once again a very different feel about the country from the other islands we visited. The capital Roseau is positively bustling and there is a more independent feel to at least the small part of the 70,000-odd population we encountered.
The forested volcanic hills are home to some sensational endemic birds. King of these is the Sisserou, the Imperial Parrot, and our guide, forest ranger Bertrand ‘Birdy’ Jno Baptiste took us to one of the treasured nest sites, high in a massive tree. But despite a silent vigil for more than five hours, the parents did not return to feed the young and the chick was sadly found dead a few days later. We had to make do with the smaller commoner endemic parrot, the Jaco or Red-necked Amazon.
Just as everyone in Antigua tells you to go to Barbuda for the birds, everyone in Dominica it seems wants to show you where the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films were filmed. And as we took a boat trip along the narrow river channel blocked by one of the Portsmouth wrecks of 1979, it was easy to imagine the gnarled mangroves in the film. There were other things to feast the eye on here: Plumbeous Warbler, the endemic monochrome grey equivalent of the Barbuda Warbler, a Scaly-naped Pigeon on the nest, and Lesser Antillean Flycatchers.
Forest birds are in rich supply, with more Scaly-breasted Thrashers than on the other islands, and where Pearly-eyed Thrashers dominate. Also in contrast with the other islands, there are more Purple-throated Caribs than Green-throated. And, as if to emphasise these subtle changes, Dominica also has its own beautiful endemic hummer, the Blue-headed Hummingbird.
If I were forced to choose, Dominica was perhaps my favourite of these various island destinations. Perhaps it’s the wild, lush rainforest, perhaps it’s the richness of the forest fauna, reflected in the higher number of endemics, or perhaps it was the fact that I was intoxicated by the place one night at our hotel perched on the cliffs above the Caribbean. As I paddled in the pool, both Caribs fed around me, replaced by bats as the sun went down. Night fell and, as I sipped a rum punch, the sea lapping gently on the cliffs, the power failed. The stars came out to play and little fireflies flashed on and off, on and off. Pure Caribbean magic.
Mike would like to thank the tourist boards of the Lesser Antillean destinations for inviting him to visit their countries and territories. The following is a list of of the relevant tourist authorities and places where Mike stayed. For alternative accommodations and organisations offering birdwatching trips to the various islands, consult the tourist boards or check out adverts in this magazine Getting there Antigua and Barbuda Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority: www.antigua-barbuda.com 0207 031 8160 Siboney Beach Club: www.small-hotels-antigua.com Montserrat Montserrat Tourist board: www.visitmontserrat.com www.olvestonhouse.com Dominica www.discoverdominica.com www.tamrindtreedominica.com