Friday, 9 March 2018

Algarve winter birding

Following our return from Thailand at the end of January we enjoyed almost a month of really good birding in the Algarve before the weather intervened.  However, for more than a week now heavy rain, gale-force winds and even several mini tornados have rather disrupted things!

Winter birding in the Algarve is never lacking in interest.  Without too much effort our daily bird list, even in short daylight hours, usually extends to 90 or more species and often exceeds 100.  No two winters are exactly the same and although huge numbers of birds migrate from Northern Europe to escape the cold, it is only extremely adverse conditions that drive some species this far south.  Only rarely, for instance have we seen Snow Buntings or Long-tailed Ducks in the Algarve and when Redwings and Fieldfares arrive they are only ever in quite small numbers.  Likewise, Short-eared Owls are irregular and unpredictable.  This winter there have been more Siskins than usual, there’s been no shortage of Ring Ouzels in their usual haunts around Sagres and even a few Bramblings have been reported.

Snow Bunting


 Short-eared Owl

 Ring Ouzel

Eurasian Siskin

Perhaps not surprisingly the number of birdwatchers visiting the Algarve in winter is relatively small but those who do come are seldom disappointed.  Species such as Alpine Accentor, Penduline Tit, Richard’s Pipit, Caspian Tern, Little Bittern, Bluethroat, Booted Eagle and Black-winged Kite are usually not difficult to find and most years there has been something unusual, like last winter’s Sora, the Bufflehead in early 2016 or the Red-breasted Flycatcher of 2014/15.

Alpine Accentor

 Caspian Tern

Black-winged Kite



Red-breasted Flycatcher

On 27th December a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler found at Fonte Benémola was just the third record for Portugal.  It was seen for just a few days and then only with difficulty!  It’s remarkable that the two previous records of this species, both in the Algarve, were on 27th December (1999) and 31st December (2002). 

This winter has been exceptional for long-staying rarities and near-rarities.  The star bird has been a Sociable Lapwing that was found at Lagoa dos Salgados in November and remained in that general area at least until last week.  For several weeks a Marsh Sandpiper has been frequenting a site near Olhão and recently a Red-knobbed Coot has been faithful to the same corner of the San Lorenzo golf course. 

 Red-knobbed Coot

Marsh Sandpiper

For a while a Lesser Yellowlegs was also at Lagoa dos Salgados but perhaps influenced by rising water levels there it has since been seen at the ETAR Faro Nascente, Lagoa do Trafal and Foz do Almargem.  Not officially rarities but still scarce in the Algarve, two Temminck’s Stints have been viewable in the Ria Formosa at Quinta do Lago and in that same general area, a possible Pallid Harrier has been seen several times and photographed but it remains the subject of debate.  There have also been occasional sightings near Estômbar of one or two Little Buntings.

 Lesser Yellowlegs

Temminck's Stint

And there have been a few birds that will have only been seen by those who were there at the time.  We were lucky to get a very good but brief look at what could only have been a Little Swift at Lagoa dos Salgados on 2nd February and a Rustic Bunting was photographed near Sagres on the 7th.  Neither of these birds was seen again.  The same is true of a Red-throated Diver seen at the end of December flying out to sea from the mouth of the Guadiana River. 

A few Greylag Geese often occur, most regularly at Castro Marim but otherwise geese are scarce here.  Brent Geese sometimes turn up in the Ria Formosa or at Ria de Alvor and there have been records of Barnacle Geese but their origin is open to question.  Ducks on the other hand are here in their thousands and have sometimes included American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck and other rarities.

 Greylag Geese

Brent Goose

Finally we have to mention that thousands of gulls descend on the Algarve in winter.  As well as the six regular species (Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged, Black-headed, Mediterranean, Audouin’s & Slender-billed) those among us who are prepared to put the time in scrutinising the flocks may be rewarded by finding a Great Black-backed, a Common, a Glaucous or even a Caspian or Ring-billed Gull.  The recent storms brought a number of Kittiwakes into view and this week has seen the arrival of two or possibly three Iceland Gulls.  Remarkably, one of the Iceland Gulls has been seen on the so-called Roman bridge over the Gilão River in the centre of Tavira.

 Slender-billed Gull

Iceland Gull

As we see now the return from Africa of Pallid Swifts, Yellow Wagtails, Red-rumped Swallows and other migrants it would be nice to think that winter is over but in the wake of the destructive 'Storm Emma', the coming days see the Algarve once again on high alert as 'Storm Felix' approaches bringing who knows what new rarities.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Thailand...again - 5

An overnight stay in Nakhon Sawan gave us an opportunity to take a boat trip on the lake at Bueng Boraphet.  Last year this trip was one of the highlights of our time in Thailand and we had no hesitation when a repeat was suggested.  It has to be said, however, that this second trip didn’t quite live up to our expectations.  One of the main reasons for this was this year’s much higher water level, which certainly had an effect on bird numbers and distribution.  Another reason was that the boatman was intent on finding for us a Baer’s Pochard that had been seen just a few days earlier.  What was supposed to be a three-hour trip turned into more than four hours and when it finished we had to hurry to meet the check-out time back at the hotel. 

Baer’s Pochard is a rare bird and there is no doubt that we would all have liked to see it but Beung Boraphet is the largest freshwater swamp and lake in central Thailand covering 224 square kilometres (for readers in Staffordshire that’s just about 300 times the size of Belvide Reservoir!).  We would have needed some luck to find it, particularly given the large numbers of Garganey, Lesser Whistling Ducks and other species on the water.  Really, we spent far too much time concentrating on just this one target although the morning’s bird list was still impressive, including Pied & Eastern Marsh Harriers, Black-eared Kite, Pheasant-tailed & Bronze-winged Jacanas, Green & Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and White-throated Kingfisher as well as many long-legged waterbirds.

 Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Oriental Darter

Our next three nights were spent at Ban Bang Home Resort, near the coast on the Gulf of Thailand.  How very different it seemed without the continuous, torrential rain that we experienced there last year.  The same could also be said of the nearby saltpans at Pak Thale and Laem Pak Bia, where we were able to enjoy looking at the thousands of waders without the need to be regularly drying off our binoculars.  The boat trip to the sandspit, which previously had been quite unpleasant, was this time really enjoyable and we were able to get much better views of Malaysian Plover, Chinese Egret, Pacific Reef Egret and the other species that make this short boat ride well worth the effort.

 Ban Bang Home Resort

 Pacific Reef Egret

 Malaysian Plover

Chinese Egret

During our time in this area we identified 38 wader (shorebird) species, including Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Far Eastern Curlew, Long-toed Stint, Asian Dowitcher and Malaysian Plover.  We also saw White-faced Plover, also known as Swinhoe’s Plover, which (depending on who you ask) may or may not be a separate species from Kentish Plover.  What a treat it was to see a flock of about 1,200 Eurasian Curlews but at the same time be able to watch more than 300 Terek Sandpipers gathering to roost.

Spoon-billed the 'scope!

 Great Knot

 Marsh Sandpiper

 Black-winged Stilt

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

We also managed to visit several sites that we didn’t get to last year.  Notable was a lake near Wat Takaro where we went to look for Spot-billed Pelican.  We found just one but among the many accompanying ducks we were surprised to find a drake Red-crested Pochard, thought to be only the fifth or sixth record of this species for Thailand.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and we had to head for Bangkok and one last night in Thailand before our flight home.  On the way to the capital we stopped at Nong Pla Lai rice paddies, where Booted, Greater Spotted & Eastern Imperial Eagles and Black-eared, Black-winged & Brahminy Kites were all seen.

 Brahminy Kite

 Black-eared Kite

Greater Spotted Eagle

Our flight from Bangkok was an evening departure, which meant that we had plenty of time for birding on our last day.  We went first to Muang Boran Fish Ponds, located on the outskirts of the city but by 8.30 a.m. the heat and humidity were such that we decided to head for the coast and Bang Poo. Here a Slaty-breasted Rail showed well from the hide and among the huge numbers of Brown-headed Gulls and Whiskered Terns present, we were able to find both Black-headed & Slender-billed Gulls both scarce winter visitors.

 Slaty-breasted Rail

Brown-headed & Black-headed Gulls

Will we go again to Thailand?  Possibly – it’s a big country and there are lots more birds to see!  In spite of the dreadful weather early on in both trips and some seriously hard beds, we have really enjoyed most aspects of Thailand, including the food.  Thanks are due to Neil & Pennapa Lawton for arranging it all. 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Thailand...again - 4

After leaving  Malee’s our next three nights in Thailand were spent at Mr Deang’s Birds Centre, situated in Doi Inthanon National Park.  At 2,565 metres above sea level, Doi Inthanon is the country’s highest point and quite an attraction for tourists.  Unfortunately, the mainly miserable weather that we had been experiencing so far on this trip continued and it was cold, foggy and damp throughout most of our stay on the mountain.  As a result, the birding was sometimes hard work.  After our experience with the rain and mud during our 2017 visit we had at least equipped ourselves properly this time and we were particularly pleased with ourselves for packing our wellies.

We made several visits to the 340-metre long boardwalk trail known as Angkha (or Ang Ka), located near the summit and enjoyed some reasonable birding in spite of the conditions and the many non-birding, sometimes noisy tourists who seemed largely oblivious to the presence of any birds.  Highlights here included Dark-sided Thrush, White-browed Shortwing, Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, Snowy-browed Flycatcher and a brief look at a Grey-sided Thrush.

Ang Ka boardwalk

Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker

Snowy-browed Flycatcher

Across the road from the trailhead, the small café attracted even more tourists but as well as enjoying a warming drink there we also had good views of Blue Whistling Thrush and Bar-throated Minlas among the sea of selfie sticks.

 Blue Whistling Thrush

Bar-throated Minla

In spite of the weekend traffic there was some good birding from the side of the main road up the mountain and when the dust and noise of the traffic became too much there were tracks off that provided some relief and some interesting birds.  Probably the best of these was the abandoned jeep track at kilometre 37.5 but it was badly overgrown and with numerous fallen trees to climb over it was a bit of an obstacle course.  It was badly in need of a work party with a couple of chain saws!

Climbing over fallen trees

Just a short drive up the road from Mr Deang’s, the ‘kilometre 34.5 track’ was another one of the recommended sites on the mountain.  After who knows how many days of rain it was horribly muddy but still we went there twice, the second time hoping it would be better than the first!  It wasn’t!  Birds seen included Asian Emerald Cuckoo and a female Vivid Niltava and we also flushed a couple of Mountain Bamboo Partridges off the track but the conditions were awful and the birds disappointing.

This is why we packed our wellies!

It’s fair to say that we didn't see Doi Inthanon at its best and we were all pleased when it came time to leave!  There was at least the expectation that we would be warmer and drier elsewhere.  In fact we did see some sun on the last morning there but under a clearer sky it was colder than ever.  On the way down the mountain we made two short but worthwhile stops that produced Slaty-backed Forktail, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Collared Falconet, Red-billed Blue Magpie and a couple of picturesque waterfalls.

Our group with Mr Deang

Our next destination was Seng Dao Resort Li from where we made two visits to the nearby Mae Ping National Park.  This area of mainly dry dipterocarp forest had been billed as a site where we might find some woodpeckers and we did indeed see Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, White-bellied Woodpecker, Greater & Common Yellownapes, Common Flameback and several groups of striking Black-headed Woodpeckers.  In addition Blossom-headed & Grey-headed Parakeets, Common & Large Woodshrikes, Rosy Minivet, Black-naped & Black-hooded Orioles, Rufous Treepie and Violet Cuckoo were among the highlights.  We did a lot of walking but we got our reward.  Better weather and plenty of birds were just what we needed!

 Common Flameback

Black-naped Oriole

Violet Cuckoo

From Mae Ping it was a long drive to Nakhon Sawan, a journey punctuated by a diversion to the Bhumibol Dam on the Ping River to see Dusky Crag Martins.  It was a chance for some to catch up on their sleep, for others to simply look forward to another night in a comfortable bed – we were heading to MaiHom Resort, a hotel that we had stayed at last year.  In fact much of the rest of the trip was a repeat of last year’s itinerary.

                                                                    Bhumibol Dam

More to follow...