Thursday 30 April 2009

Muskrats and Misdemeanours

This week, I am going to Newark, New Jersey, twice. We leave for the first sector on Saturday and return into Heathrow from the fourth sector on Thursday morning.
Our designated crew hotel is undergoing renovations and so we have been relocated for the first half of the trip. We stayed in East Rutherford, which is surrounded by huge phragmites reed beds known locally as the Meadowlands.
The brief glimpse afforded to me from the bus on the way to the hotel, looked very interesting, especially given my recent phragmites adventures at home. But this being America, the meadowlands within sight of my hotel window were out of reach. The USA does not provide good facilities for pedestrians. Indeed hotel concierges across that great country reserve their most quizzical looks for “Limeys” who suggest that they might like to walk somewhere rather than drive.
There were however smaller patches of reed beds interlinked with torpid channels. It was possible to reach some of these, but only after walking along the hard shoulder of the freeway and scrambling over the crash barriers and down a precipitous slope with one of the aforementioned torpid channels at the bottom. A police car spotted me on the access ramp and braked as if to stop, but there was a big build-up of traffic behind him and so he continued on his way.
The patch I was exploring was bordered by a mosaic of car parks and offices in an area known as Wall Street.
The temperature on the previous day had reached a surprising 31C and today was hotting up too. It was predicted to pass 30C again.
I had hoped for some rallids which must have been in there somewhere, but none showed themselves. There were some Tree Swallows nesting in a stump and plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds calling and displaying from the trees along the edge as well as in the reeds. There were some carp in the shallow water chasing each other as if about to start spawning.
An open-water area harboured a flock of orange-legged yellowlegs and I stopped to see if I could decide between the greater or lesser versions.

As I sat a rustle in the fallen reeds beside me caught my attention. Something large was moving around in there. For some reason, I immediately thought, ”Skunk!” and moved myself to a safe distance. The creature never showed itself, but I did see 3 Muskrats as I continued along and I suspect that my skunk was actually one of those.
The yellowlegs were roosting on small tussocks of cut reeds and I could clearly see an upturn to their bills, characteristic of the Greater Yellowlegs. The Lesser Yellowlegs has a thinner and straighter bill. Barring on the flanks served to confirm. I realised now that I had wandered close to another Tree Swallow nest. The birds claiming the hole in the tree were being very attentive to me and swooping fairly close. When I withdrew, the swallows calmed down and alighted onto reed stems to take stock of their situation, kindly posing in the process. There were occasional attempts at landscaping as I passed through the back lots, car parks and dumpster areas. Like little oases in the tarmac, each held something to cause me to linger. A Song Sparrow was belting out his refrain from a short tree while some White-throated Sparrows hopped about beneath a picnic table. For the first time I heard 2 mimids singing together. A Northern Mockingbird was singing richly and repeating each phrase 2 or three times, while a Brown Thrasher gave his varied calls without repetition. I even managed my first picture of the thrasher. Returning to the hotel brought me past a Red-winged Blackbird in full display. He wound up his “Kong-koreee” fluffed up his feathers and thrust his shoulders forward to show off his epaulettes to their best effect, all the while apparently suffering a grand-mal seizure.

On the edge of the reeds just below the singing blackbird was a Muskrat seemingly fascinated by the display.
Later in the afternoon (when ideally I would have been resting in preparation for the overnight flight back to London), I popped across the road to the cemetery to check the larger trees there and see if I could find any warblers. It is after all the second half of April and I had only seen 2 species earlier in the day, a Blue-headed Vireo and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. These were seen at the little road running along the bottom of the cemetery. I later found that my wander down that track would have been considered trespassing if anybody had seen me. Ooops!
In the cemetery I missed a beautiful chance for a picture of a Red-tailed Hawk. It was sitting on a horizontal dead branch in full view. He was well lit by the softer afternoon light, and he was scratching into a crevice in the branch while flickers mobbed him. I am guessing that the flickers had their nest here and the hawk had cornered one of the birds inside it.
Because of the heat, I had opted to travel light, ie without the big camera and lens. This was such a good-looking picture that I rushed back to the hotel but was, alas, too late. The hawk had given up and left by the time I returned. Still, I did get a shot of a PalmWarbler, which brought my warbler total to 3 species. Wish me better luck for the 2nd leg. Woodbridge here we come.

The temperature was holding up when we arrived back into Newark for the second part of the itinerary. I hired a bicycle to explore the area around Woodbridge where we were staying this time.
I started at Merrill Park. This is a pleasant park which has managed to combine social, sporting and ecological needs into a neat bundle. It stretches from West to East following the flow of a small river. The southern bank of the river was sloped and wooded with understorey tangles and a good natural feel. The northern bank held the grassy areas, picnic sites and sports fields.
A ride downstream along the northern bank produced surprisingly little. A few Red-winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves and American Robins. I found a likely looking spot to sit and wait for something to come to me. I had chosen a gap between some large trees in the hope that warblers would cross the open area on their passage through. There was also a good view across the river into the tangled slope of the south bank.
Sadly the warbler idea came to nought. A Blue-grey Gnatcatcher fell to my cunning plan by crossing the gap, but that was all. Most productive was a tree just a few meters away.
After sitting for a few minutes. I heard a Hairy Woodpecker call. Sure enough the bird appeared from the far bank and made for a hole in the nearby tree. During the hour or so that I sat vigil, a pair of them returned 3 or 4 times each. I could see the entrance hole and saw the pair pushing their heads inside, though I heard nothing from within. I am assuming that they were feeding young.
Next came the White-breasted Nuthatches, 2 of them spiralling around the trunk and feeding vigorously from the same nearby tree.
Across the river were A Red-bellied and a Downy Woodpecker and some Blue Jays.
Downstream was a small gravel bed dividing the river into 2 channels. On the far side was a medium-sized wader. It was a Solitary Sandpiper, only my second ever sighting of this bird. The light was fading by now and I still wanted to visit Roosevelt Park to trail-blaze for the next morning. So I grabbed a quick pic and moved on. On the way I passed through Evergreen Meadows, a small housing estate with a preserved area around it. Then as I approached a railway bridge, I thought I saw some deer on the embankment. I stopped beyond the bridge and climbed the slope on the other side of the tracks. Sure enough, there were four White-tailed Deer which waited just long enough before giving a demonstration of the phrase “high-tailing” and showing at the same time where their name comes from. On my way back to the hotel I passed a bar and recognised a colleague. I stopped for a while and was subsequently delayed the next morning. The weather was a little hung-over too. The temperature had plummeted to 13C. It was overcast and raining. The wind was coming from the North and I anticipated lots of warblers struggling to make headway and so stopping to feed instead. There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting high in the oaks. A Cat bird sat and sang for a while, reminiscent of a scratchy Robin. Taking the Northern Mockingbird and the Brown Thrasher from the first leg into account, this completed the list of mimids that I was likely to see in New Jersey.
I reached Roosevelt Park and found some Barn Swallows flashing in and out from under the outflow bridge on the lake. There were 3 Double-crested Cormorants and a Song Sparrow and further round the lake, 2 Northern Rough-wings were collecting mud from the island.
Roosevelt Park is well wooded and has areas with undergrowth, particularly along by the stream. Here there were American Goldfinch and Eastern Phoebe. But again I failed to find warblers.
The weather did not look conducive to photography this morning so I didn’t bother to bring the camera. So, I have no pictures to show what an attractive place Roosevelt Park is and I am sad to say that I probably did not do it justice from a birdlist point of view.

On the way back to the hotel I committed my fifth misdemeanour of the trip.
It was a disappointment that my rap sheet was longer than my warbler list
(possibly more than a dozen in total but I am only counting each different one once). There was the trespassing and walking on the access ramp from the first leg. To that add cycling on the pavement, trespassing on the railway (a separate trespassing offence). To get back to the hotel I had to ride on the hard shoulder of the freeway against the flow of oncoming traffic. This is another good reason for writing anonymously.

Friday 24 April 2009

Kicking my heels

In my profile, I glibly claim to be a family man who devotes his attention to his family. It is only fair after all that I should attempt to make up for being away so much. But on this occasion, I have not had a rostered trip for 2 weeks and my family were getting fed-up of me. My son is back to school after the Easter break and my wife needed to do some “girly shopping” so there was no reason to kick my heels at home.
It is late April and the weather is glorious. There was no wind this morning to disturb the phragmites reeds at Oare Marshes and I was hoping that the Bearded Reedlings would give me a better view than the usual obscured sightings through the stems. I confidently packed my camera for just such an opportunity.
Oare Marshes Reserve is run by Kent Wildlife Trust and features in
I was planning a stake-out on the eastern side of the reserve where a dyke runs along Faversham Creek and holds back the tide of the Thames Estuary.
It took longer than anticipated to reach my ambush spot as the Sedge Warblers were showing so well and were begging to be seen and heard. They were sitting up high in the reeds and on scrub and brambles, singing their varied songs.
Their display flights sent them high into the air before gliding back down into the reeds. If the reedlings were as accomodating as this, I would be in for a good day I thought.
I could hear the reedlings further round and continued on beyond the spot that I had mentally picked on the journey in. The place I chose was not as close to the reedbeds as I would have liked, but there was a small hawthorn bush as cover and the birds were close by.
They were moving quickly from stem to stem and their miniscule weight bent the seed head down into the cover of the surrounding reeds. But luckily they were staying in the same general area. I hoped that it would only be a matter of time before they ventured close to the edge of the reed-bed and allowed me a clear shot.
I sometimes feel as predatory with a camera as I might if I had a gun. In both instances, there is an element of ambush or stalking in order to achieve that clear shot. I wonder if the birds ever consider my body language. After all many birds, such as Cattle Egrets and ox-peckers have intimate relationships with other mammals, why do they feel uncomfortable near humans? Perhaps it’s the lurking and the skulking that makes them suspicious. Possibly it is the response to a very real threat. There is shooting allowed very close to Oare Marshes and many of our migrant warblers may have been shot at as they passed through the Mediterranean countries on their way here.
As I waited a Linnet stopped to see what I was up to.
After a while I felt that I had blended nicely into the scene and the birds were moving a little closer. I risked a little “pishing” to try to pique their interest. This had a great effect with 2 males coming right out of the reeds and a third flew a big circle around me to check me out. This gave a great chance for the photos below.

I was concerned that I was disturbing them as only the males came to investigate the “pishing”. If their interest had been stimulated, then I might have expected to see the females coming closer too. As it was I think I must have caused them to perceive a threat and the males were reacting in a defensive manner.
Once the males had satisfied themselves that there was no threat, they moved back into the reeds, but occasionally popped out again to keep an eye on me. They appeared to be relaxed now and fed right on the edge of the reed-bed in front of me.

My last picture of the day was a Meadow Pipit trying to confuse me into thinkiong it was a Tree Pipit.

Monday 6 April 2009

A morning in Tel Aviv

This week Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is situated on the shore of the eastern Mediterranean.
The field guides indicate that there is a strong migration route through the area, so I was hoping to see plenty of warblers passing through. There were plenty, but only of a very few species. There are also a few specials from the area.
The Syrian Woodpecker is strikingly similar to our Greater Spotted Woodpecker, but with the addition of some light streaking on the flanks and the lack of the barred tail-sides.
The Palestinian Sunbird is unmistakeable as the only likely sunbird of the region.
The Graceful Prinia is distinctive with dark and light spots at the end of each feather on it’s strongly graduated tail.
So these were 3 targets to look for during a stay which allowed me a very quick outing in the evening when we arrived, and the best part of the next morning.

Across the road from the hotel is a tiny park with a bus rank and childrens’ play area. It is a very unlikely spot to find much bird-life, but it constantly surprises me. I have found Eurasian Wryneck, Bluethroat, Black-capped Jay and the sought-after Syrian Woodpecker here in the past. This evening was only a very quick visit of about 40 minutes before the light began to fade. A group of refugees had made camp in the park and I felt uncomfortable there once the other park users moved on, so I left while the going was still good. I am ashamed to say that I was not able to correctly identify a Willow Warbler. I have plenty of excuses that I used to save face, but that’s all they are excuses. They were actually Lesser Whitethroats who had been feeding in a bottlebrush shrub and had picked up yellow pollen stains on their heads and throats. The next morning became a trial with my camera, freshly back from the menders, misbehaving, my monopod broke, my lens jammed and it took nearly 45 minutes to get to Hayarkan Park, supposedly just 10 minutes from the hotel.
Park Hayarkan, to use it’s correct moniker, runs along the Hayarkan River flowing east to west into the Med. The western stretch is known as the Sportek and is fairly sterile as far as birdlife is concerned. It is mostly sports fields, but with the saving grace of the scant riverside vegetation and a few bushes.
Here there were Pied Kingfishers and Blackcaps. Common Bulbuls, Common Mynas and Roseringed parakeets were noisy and obvious. These were to be expected unlike the flock of Monk Parakeets which I must assume had escaped from a childrens’ play park further upstream. The further upstream I walked, the rougher the park became. By this I mean, the people using the park remained polite and non-threatening, but the vegetation became thicker, ranker and far more birdy.
Now I started to find the prinia and some more of the Lesser Whitethroats. A Black-crowned Night Heron roosting within a couple of meters of a busy pathway seemed oblivious to the joggers, cyclists and road traffic. I do not recall seeing one napping with it’s bill tucked into it’s breast before. I have no reason to suspect it of abberant behaviour, but I am surprised never to have observed it before, after all BCNHs are widespread and common and I have seen them many times. There is a small garden on the north bank of the river and here were the first Palestinian Sunbirds of the day. Flowering trees attracted them in and I sat watching a proud male calling from the top of one of them, his dark plumage flashing with blue and purple as he changed his angle to the sun.
White-throated Kingfishers were very common along the river and their descending call became a very familiar sound. The river forks about 2 miles inland. And I took a bridge across the north fork and found a large area planted with eucalyptus and large yellow daisies. There are plenty of picnic tables, a large children’s adventure area and a cycling circuit. Beware of the cyclists.
This looked promising, but yielded little until I came back to some indigenous habitat back on the north bank by a large lake.
A pair of Egyptian Geese caught my eye at the river crossing, but they were amongst a lot of domesticated mallard-types and Muscovy Ducks. Possibly someone’s idea of an exotic collection. A Pied Wagtail showed beautifully by a water control system and I gave the camera a full workout on it.
Right alongside, a Spur-winged Plover posed graciously for me.
Along the lakeshore, the Lesser Whitethroats were abundant and had a few Chiffchaffs mixed in. A bottlebrush tree held 6 blackcaps and my lens jammed during what should have been a terrific photo of goldfinches on a flowering thistle. Perhaps the purple and green of the thistle with the yellow and red of the bird, overloaded it’s colour capabilities.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Orcas in Vancouver

Before I was struck by the joy of birding, I was a mammaler. If you can be a birder or a mother (one who likes moths) then I am sure mammaler should be acceptable. Safari in Africa was my overriding passion and I indulged myself freely at every opportunity. With a job that took me around the world and which often sent me to Africa, I was living the dream.
Of course, when out in the wild looking for mammals, it was inevitable that I would run into a few birds, in fact I used to include Ostrich on my sightings list. Soon an interest developed and was encouraged by my friend Martin. I quickly realised that one can find birds pretty much anywhere and that I could go birding in every destination that my work took me.
But every so often, I slip back to my old ways and target a mammal as my objet de jour. Last year the winter timetables changed for Vancouver flights. This gave me more time in Vancouver, more importantly, it allowed me to find something that I had wanted to see for a very long time.
I first met Nemo the killer whale in a drunken dare, many, many years ago, whilst at college in Clacton-on Sea, Essex. He fascinated me so much that I got a part-time job mucking him out and maintaining his tiny pool on the pier. The pool which had been deemed adequate when he had arrived 6 years previously was now hopelessly small and plans were afoot to move him to Windsor Safari Park. Here he had been promised a larger pool and company in the form of a female called Winnie.
Sadly Nemo was never able to settle well at Windsor. All those years isolated from others of his kind and kept in cramped conditions had left him with emotional issues which he was unable to resolve. He did not mix well with the other animals at Windsor and had to be kept in a side pool which was even smaller than the one in Clacton. He died in the side pool 2 years after his transfer and Windsor Safari Park is now the celebrated and more eco-intelligent Legoland.
Having been associated so closely with Nemo (let’s not get carried away here, I used to clean out his pool)I developed a deep affection for Orcas as they should correctly be called and dreamed of seeing one in the ocean where it is supposed to be. Little did I know then that I would end up working for an international airline and might actually get the chance one day. Sadly the whale-watching cruises from Seattle and Vancouver cold not guarantee to get back to land in order for me to be on the plane in time for work. Instead, I often used to take a ferry across to Vancouver Island and then come straight back again in the hope of seeing Orcas on the crossings, but never had any success. For the birders amongst you, I did have some success on the ferries with Rhinoceros Auklets, Bald and Golden Eagles and the like.
Anyway, my big chance came when my airline decided to re-schedule the flight to leave later in the evening. This meant that I would be able to go whale-watching and be back in time for tea. So I did.
Whizzing along in an open-topped boat at the end of October is a chilling experience. Even with immersion/exposure suits we were cold and huddled into any shelter to stay out of the wind and the spray. But let’s get to the whales. The whale-watching cruises have an extensive network of spotters on the water, in the air and on the shore who call in when whales are spotted. After one and a half hours of huddling, a call came through to say that Orcas had been spotted a long way South of our position. The good news was that they were travelling quite quickly in our direction. So we decided to enjoy an opportunity to take it slow and warm up in the weak sunshine in the lea of the islands to the east of Vancouver Island. Here we saw Bald Eagles and a small family of River Otters to coax our hands out of our pockets as we warmed gently. After a short while, the exposure suits started to peel back and everybody became more comfortable and chatty.

There is always a sense of anticipation on tours like this. Is it excitement at having the chance to experience something wonderful, or stress in case you don't? Knowing that the Orcas were on their way, we were able to relax. There were seals to be seen, Dall's Porpoise and the promise of Stellar's Sealion.
Soon enough, it was time to speed up again to intercept the Orcas and get a good view before they moved out into the larger channel. In case you are concerned, I have a big zoom on my camera and a cropping facility on my picture processor. I believe that the code of practice requires that boats remain at least 100m from the Orcas, but on this occasion a bigger distance was given as the whales were travelling along close to the shore. Our tour company was very aware that trapping the whales between the boats and the land would cause them stress and were keen to avoid this eventuality. One of the whales however seemed to have no concerns about our presence and passed so close to the boat that I could not get him all in.

There were approximately 20 whales mostly from a well known group called Pod K. There were also a couple of males from Pod L, consorting with them.Around the Vancouver Island area, there are a number of pods of Orcas. They have been extensively studied and are well known to the tourist vessels and researchers. The resident animals, K and L pods, feed exlusively on fish, while the transients are mammal predators.

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