Friday, 24 July 2009
Back to where it all began
Here I am, back where it all began in Nairobi NP.
The concierge contacted a company called Silverbird, who agreed at very short notice to take me out for a drive. At 07.00 the next morning, Anthony, the driver and guide was waiting for me and displayed a very gratifying sense of urgency to get me to the park in good time.
We entered from the Park Service headquarters on Lengatta Road. While Anthony completed the formalities at the gate, I scanned the lightly wooded car park and saw, Baglafecht’s Weaver, Streaky Seedeater, Cape Robin Chat, Speckled Mousebird and Pied Crow.
Almost as soon as we passed through the gates we encountered 2 Bushbuck feeding quietly by the side of the road. On the other side, a small group of 5 Baboons skulked in the undergrowth.
The light was poor again this morning and never really improved through the day. All the photos on this post were taken at 800 ISO in an attempt to get a reasonably quick shutter speed. Silverbird provides those flip-top type vans and I had one all to myself this morning, so I was able to use the tripod inside the van. Even so I still suffered from camera-shake for much of the early morning. Wattled Starling
The first section of the park passes through a forested slope down towards the grassy plains. Here we saw, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher and Common Bulbul.
Out on the grasslands I encountered the same problems that I had had in South Africa last month. The winter plumage of the weavers, whydahs and widders, caused me to make the choice between persevering with identification in poor light, or by-passing the tricky stuff and enjoying the other treats that the park may have to offer. The trouble I have, is always lack of time. Even just a few minutes spent poring over a field guide could be put to better use and avoid a mad rush at the end of the day. So, after a quick glance we pressed on.
Acacias, damp hollows and shallow valleys break up the grasslands and on a pleasant day, provides beautiful scenery. Today all the colours were muted under the flat, grey sky. The mammals were everywhere. We passed through a large herd of Buffalo as they grazed both sides of the road with Cattle Egrets in close attendance. Mixed herds of Zebra, Eland, and Coke’s Hartebeest reached close to 300 animals at a time. The road was blocked for a while by a group of Massai Giraffe, distinguished by the ragged shape of their markings.
Long-tailed Shrike were common in the bushes along the road and a Northern Pied Babbler sat alone in an acacia.
Ahead, a group of safari busses blocked the road, and as we approached, a lioness crossed to join a second on the right side of the road. They quickly melted away into the grass, but the other vans were slow to move. Anthony spotted a Black Rhino on the other side of the valley while we waited.
Some LBJs are easy to identify. The Yellow-throated Longclaw for example retains plenty of clues even in it’s less showy winter feathers and the Rufous-naped Lark usually attracts attention through his clear whistled song.
Shortly after, another van indicated something interesting. It was another lioness. This one was thin and her nipples were pronounced. Anthony suspected that she was tending young cubs.
We had just passed some hartebeest which also caught the lioness’s attention. She hunkered down in the road as they crossed, to avoid being seen. Other approaching vans blocked her line so she turned her attention to another animal on the plains to our right. Each time the animal dropped it’s head to graze, or looked in the other direction, the cat would creep forward, stopping again when the hartebeest raised it’s head. The stalk took nearly 15 minutes to cover about 100m and she approached so close that she was almost under the antelope’s nose. I could not tell if the lioness moved first, or if the hartebeest saw her and started running, but the chase did not last long with the antelope easily outrunning the hungry cat.
There was plenty of game close by and I expect she tried again, but more vans were arriving and I did not want to be part of a melee, jockeying for position. So we left and continued on to the hippo pools. An armed guard met us there and escorted me round a circular walk by the river.
The area was full of bird song and movement could be seen in nearly every tree. Fischer’s Lovebirds were especially vocal, White-bellied Tits, Common Waxbills and Red-billed Firefinches were all moving. A Black Cuckoo-shrike sat quietly, watching.
In the tall trees at the entrance to the loop, White-back Vultures waited for some wind and warmth to give them some lift to start their day.
Time had us at it’s mercy again and Anthony’s sense of urgency was showing again. He had another client at 12.00 and did not want to be late. We had to forego a few birds to make up some miles. We did stop though for a pair of Secretary birds close to the road.
As we approached the turning for the exit gate, we had a yet another encounter with lions. A female with 2 cubs this time and a young male. The male looked too young to be the father of the cubs and sure enough, a few moments later, a large male came sauntering up the track to join his family.
Yellow-throated Sandgrouse circled a small pond on the way to the gate and we stopped for some last pictures of some Zebra. While the guard opened the gate for us, a pair of Superb starlings gleaned for insects among the grass and Rufous Sparrows flew up to the top of the fence.
The drive cost $120. This includes the park entrance and 5 hours worth of driver/guide and van. It sounds expensive for one person, but would be far more cost effective with 2 or 4 people. http://www.silverbird-adventure.com/
Anthony was an excellent guide with good English and plenty of information. Birds are not his strength, but his easy manner and client appreciation made up for that.
Bird Species seen
Ostrich 15, Black-headed Heron 2, Cattle Egret 20, Marabou Stork 60, Sacred Ibis 4, Hadada Ibis 2, Egyptian Goose 2, Black Kite 6, African White-backed Vulture 8, Dark Chanting Goshawk 1, Secretary Bird 4, Tufted Guineafowl 20, Blacksmith Lapwing 1, Crowned Plover 2, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse 5, Red-eyed Dove 4, Laughing Dove 2, Emerald Spotted Dove 2, Namaqua Dove 3, Fischer’s Lovebird 6, African Palm Swift 15, Speckled Mousebird 8, Blue-naped Mousebird 8, Lilac-breasted Roller 1, Rufous-naped Lark 2, Plain Martin 2, Red-rumped Swallow 6, Yellow-throated Longclaw 15, Black Cuckoo Shrike 1, Common Bulbul 15, Cape Robin-chat 1, Winding Cisticola 1, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher 1, Northern Pied Babbler 1, White-bellied Tit 3, Variable Sunbird 2, Long-tailed Fiscal 30, Fork-tailed Drongo 2, Pied Crow 30, Wattled Starling 20, Superb Starling 2, Kenyan Rufous Sparrow 6, White-browed Sparrow-weaver 4, Reichenow’s Weaver 6, Cardinal Quelea 30, African Firefinch 3, Common Waxbill 16, Streaky Seedeater 4, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting 2, Golden-breasted Bunting 4.
Mammals Species seen
Vervet Monkey 1, Olive Baboon 4, Lion 8. Plains Zebra 1200, Black Rhinoceros 1, Warthog 4, Masai Giraffe 30, African Buffalo 300, Bushbuck 2, Common Eland 60, Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest 300, White-bearded Gnu 4, East African Impala 200, Grant’s Gazelle 1, Thompson’s Gazelle 80.
Olive Thrush, African Paradise Flycatcher
Friday, 17 July 2009
I take it all back.
By chance, there was a dragonfly promotion on with daily guided tours and photo competitions. I knew that I would not be seeing many birds at this time of year, so it seemed a perfect way to spend a hot Hong Kong day.
I checked at reception where the chap told me there was a tour going “right now”. This pleased me intensely until, 30 minutes later, I found it was a flower tour. As I was the only client on the tour, we customised it and ignored the plants in favour of the dragonflies. Full marks to Wendell for flexibility and adapting perfectly to his group’s needs.
Our first dragonfly, at the top of a small tree was a Scarlet Basker. It was a female. The male was perched on the adjacent tree on a prominent perch. The Scarlet Basker male, superficially similar to the Crimson Darter, has 2 black dots on the dorsal side of it’s abdomen which the darter lacks.
We followed the stream path which, as the name suggests, runs alongside a stream. Info boards were placed at strategic points along the path, with odonta identification tips. The waterway is artificial and represents different stages of a stream’s passage over a short distance. It starts by flowing swiftly into a small pool, slowing in stages until it reaches a large pond. Wendell knew of some Asian Pintail that liked the common rushes and he quickly located some that I suspect I would have missed. So already he had earned the price of the tour which, incidentally, was free. Then he pointed out a magnificent Common Flangetail, watching over his territory from a well-placed stick.
Damselflies and Dragonflies all have unique anal projections which are very useful for differentiating the species if you get a close enough look. Hence the popularity of the suffix -tail in common names. i.e. clubtail, hooktail, threadtail, grappletail, etc. These projections are used by the male to grasp the female during coupling and only fit neatly with others of the same species, thus avoiding the risk of hybridising.
Each species of odonata seemed to have it’s own preferred habitat and territory, such that Wendell was able to predict which one we would see next ”This is a good spot for Variegated Flutterwings”, he might say and sure enough, one would struggle into view battling against the slight breeze. There is an aeronautical term which describes a craft with more wing surface area than is necessary. I don’t recall what it is, but it would describe the flutterwing well. It is not a creature built for windy conditions. Wendell observed that the females have a transparent tip to their forewings.
Next, we came to the Crimson Darter area. The male makes the name seem an obvious choice, but the female, though a delightful yellow, is dowdy by comparison.
The walk only lasted for about 20 minutes. I was having too good a time to want it to end, but Wendell had to go and show someone some plants.
Now that I was out on my own, I had no handy reference guide to identify any new species, so I had to keep referring back to the info boards. Shortly after Wendells’s departure, I found a Green Skimmer.
I criticised The Hong Kong Wetland Park previously for crowds and noisy children. My previous visits had been at the weekend so perhaps that was to be expected. I had hoped that it would be quieter on a Thursday. The crowds were less, but still noisy I am sad to say. Some showed a sense of propriety in the hides, but most did not. When one looks back out of the reserve into the town at the edge of the park, it’s popularity becomes obvious. Pressure on personal space in Hong Kong is severe. Only the super-rich have houses, with the huge majority of the population living in high-rise accommodations, jammed together with nowhere for the kids to run and make noise. Once they do get an opportunity to run and make noise…., well I guess it is only natural.
At the Mudflat hide, I actually did some bird watching. Some Black-winged Stilt chicks were close to the hide. The adults seemed to be caught in that classic parental dilemma whether to keep their offspring close and out of mischief or to give them a little independence, allowing them to forage by themselves.
A Little Ringed Plover was also tending young. The parent was guarding the tiny bundles of fluff much more closely than the stilts. Perhaps the greedy-looking Great Egret in the tree above gave her cause for concern. In the far distance, some Wood Sandpipers occasionally flushed along the edges of the reeds.A Plain Prinia showed well close by.
At the river hide, a group of children were making so much noise, that I just had a very cursory glance before running away. A Common Kingfisher was perched on a low snag up near the bridge. In the mangroves lining the river were some breeding Cattle Egret. Little and Great Egret stalked the margins and exposed mud.
The tide today was predicted to be a very small one which was one of the reasons for not visiting Mai Po. Without a big tide, the birds can remain out on the mud in the bay all day. Only when the tide exceeds 1.8m will they be driven inland to roost until the water starts to recede again.
The security guards were still in evidence today. There was one at each hide and one at each end of the one-way mangrove boardwalk. The Fish pond hide was quiet except for a couple of Black-necked Starlings flying over.
From the third hide, back to the end of the one-way system is a boardwalk through a freshwater environment. Deep reed lined ponds followed by a marshy spot, with a butterfly garden in between. So back to the dragonflies.
Just at the edge of the ponds and the butterfly garden, was a hot-spot and I found 5 species without having to move. First to catch my eye was an Asian Amberwing. A female was basking in the sun on one side of the boardwalk and the male sat unobtrusively on the other side. Then I noticed a beautiful glossy, black odonata just above the water surface. It was a Pied Percher. I mistakenly thought that the white line down the centre of it’s back was a highlight reflecting off it’s shiny skin. The transparent ends to the wings were not easy to see either, so when I came to compare it with the info board later on, I was looking for a jet black, short-winged insect. Right beside the percher was a Blue Dasher, close enough to use the macro lens. An Asian Pintail alighted close by, also in range of the 50mm macro.
Up until now, I had been using the 100-400mm Canon zoom. It has a minimum focussing range of 1.8m, so I had almost stepped backwards off the boardwalk on a couple of occasions on order to achieve focus. The 50mm, Canon-dedicated Sigma 1:2.8, can focus within 5 cms. I laid out flat on the boardwalk and reached the camera across towards the dasher. The security guard caught me and, obviously considering me to be a trip hazard, ordered me to get up. Fair play to him though, when no-one was around, he allowed me to lie out again.
I was surprised at how close I could approach the insects without seeming to disturb them. At this point, I suddenly appreciated the purpose of “live view” on the viewing monitor. However, the results were far and away better than the big zoom lens. The detail was much finer with even the facets that make up the compound eye becoming distinct. This is the way forward; for macro photography, use a macro lens. I expect that this revelation will cost me a fortune in new lenses now.
My epiphany was interrupted by the fly-past of a large black dragonfly with a large white patch on it’s upper abdomen. This was a Pied Skimmer. The limitations of the 50mm macro lens is that small, distant creatures appear small and distant in the photograph, so I switched back to the Canon and cranked up the zoom.
There is a butterfly garden separating the deep ponds from the marshy bit. Here I found my first male Variegated Flutterwing. Beyond this in the shallow marsh, another hot-spot held both sexes of Crimson Darter, a Blue Dasher and a Common Flangetail.
I had had enough now and needed to consult with the info boards back near the reception centre. As I crossed the stream where I had seen the first flangetail with Wendell, the first Damselfly of the day showed up. It skimmed across the surface of the stream as it flowed into the pond at the end of it’s course. Many damselflies have the electric blue colouration and the knack to identifying them lies in which abdominal segments are coloured and what shape the black dividing colour takes. I took a photo which will not grace this post unless my identification causes uproar at the H.K. Ordonatologists Association annual dinner, but which was sufficient to identify it as an Eastern Lilysquatter. If you need to know, the electric blue on segment 7 and 8 gave it away.
The cool and pleasant visitor centre has a café for cold drinks and a gift shop for dragonfly field guides. “Field Guide to Dragonflies of Hong Kong” by Kieth D.P. Wilson was my choice. It describes species within H.K., obviously, but also comments on their distribution and range beyond the former colony’s borders. This enabled me to identify some of the species that I have found elsewhere, especially in Singapore where all this odonata stuff started.
So the Hong Kong Wetland Park has redeemed itself in my eyes. I had not looked outside the park before and considered the pressures on open space when people live so closely together. But I am still confused at the amount of security guards needed to ensure that visitors observe the one-way signs.
To get to the Hong Kong Wetland Park, bus no. 967 leaves from Central bus station. It takes 50mins and costs HK$21.80. There is a stop immediately outside the visitor centre. The park opens at 10.00 until 17.00 with last entry at 15.30. Don’t arrive early, you will be forced to sit outside on the pavement. If you find yourself in this position, tease the security guards by taking photos of them. Admission costs HK$30. Tours are available from the visitor centre and docents are positioned around the park to answer questions. Security guards keep you upright and travelling in the right direction while ensuring that the park is probably one of the safest swamps in the world. Biting insects were insignificant today, but bring repellent anyway. Sunshades and hides are positioned through the park, but much of it is in full sun.
Friday, 10 July 2009
Crows, gulls and confusion
During the summer, most of them head north to breed, but Glaucous winged gulls are resident and were in good supply.Some were coming in to roost and the Seattle Aquarium appeared to be a popular spot for them.
This morning, I am planning to go to the University district.
Bus no 43 leaves downtown Seattle from the corner of 6th and Pike at around 05.30. The concierge at the adjacent Seattle Sheraton Hotel holds timetables for all buses. It takes approx 25 mins to reach the stadium (fare $1.75), moments after crossing the canal.
Birds were evident almost immediately this morning. American Robins and American Crows were the first to be seen. I followed the canal west towards the boat club. The bushes along the path were alive with chatter, hosting a party of Black-capped Chickadees and Bushtits. More robins and some Starlings were on the lawns by the stadium. Rowers were out on the water already, sculling between small flocks of Canada Geese and Mallard. I cut through the boat club and headed north along the lakeshore. Pontoons act as moorings and landing stages and I followed the urge to take a walk along one. A Great Blue Heron was picking it’s way towards me. Despite having seen me, it continued to approach. It was a very dull morning, so I had not yet taken my camera from the rucksack. A racoon flushed from the water’s edge and scrambled up a gnarly old willow. Cedar Waxwings and a spectacular male American Goldfinch eventually coaxed me to get the camera out before the light was really adequate.
A metalled road runs around the back of the stadium, heading north. I followed this beyond another boat club and turned to the right. Crows and Red-winged Blackbirds suddenly started making a lot of noise. A Bald Eagle flew over mobbed by the smaller birds.
A very approachable Song Sparrow sat for a picture by a wooden bridge.A Northern Shoveller and her brood of 7 shovelings were feeding in the stream as I crossed.
Now I was entering the Union Bay Natural Area. A well maintained path forms a loop around the main part of the reserve and I elected to go anticlockwise. House Finches and robins perched on a dead tree. Suddenly there was more commotion and I looked round hoping to see the eagle again. This time though, it was a Cooper’s Hawk. A pugnacious Anna’s Hummingbird, possibly 100th of the size (by mass) of a Cooper’s Hawk joined the robins and blackbirds to see it off.
After the hawk flew off, closely escorted by 2 blackbirds, I noticed an empidonax flycatcher on a branch of a willow tree. It was showing well and was singing. Normally, being both lazy and incompetent, I would give empids a cursory glance and then pretend I hadn’t seen it, but here was one that might be identified by it’s song. I recorded it on my dictaphone and tried to memorise it before looking it up. “Fits peeoo” was my best interpretation. “Fitz bew” from NG and “Rrritz-beyew” from Sibley was close enough. Add the fact that it was singing from a willow and I couldn’t avoid the fact that I had successfully identified an empid! A Willow Flycatcher.
A nearby pond held a Pied-billed Grebe with 2 chicks and beyond it, a Marsh Wren sang from the reeds. I enjoyed the wren’s exuberant show for quite a while, amused as it danced around the top of a reed mace head, singing to all points as it went. Common Yellowthroat lived up to their name today. They were as common as I have ever seen them with 5 males seen and others heard. Only the females came out for a picture though. I followed a path round to the water’s edge. From here I could see 2 Bald Eagles way across the lake. Closer though were 2 local birders, Constance and Amy.
When Constance said she lived “here”, I assumed at first that she meant Seattle. But later it became apparent that she meant Montlake Fill. She has been birding on the reserve since the 80’s and cannot bring herself to adopt the new name.
As a great believer in local knowledge (I discovered that Constance is writing a book about the reserve), I wanted to tap her for some information about the gulls of the area which regularly hybridise. She threw my whole Seattle list into dis-array with her answers.
The “hybrid swarm” has been sent to challenge experienced birders of the Pacific North West and to confound beginners and visitors. A number of already similar and challenging gulls such as American Herring, Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Thayer’s, exchange genes and physical characteristics to a bewildering degree.
I am usually very strict with myself before adding a bird to my life list, but once the tick has been entered, sorting through confusing birds becomes less critical and a “most likely” guess is adequate. I accept that this could potentially lead to a few mis-identifications, but I have to strike a balance between being reasonable and being anal.
Constance threw my lifers into doubt. She suggested that there are very few “pure” gulls around and that most of the NW gulls have contaminated genes.
A question occurred to me later that I wish I had asked: If there are only a few pure birds around, who is doing the breeding?
It is my understanding that hybrid off-spring are supposed to be sterile and incapable of subsequent breeding. Birds who are mating extraspecially are putting all their efforts into chicks that will be unable to continue the genetic line. Would this not eventually lead to local extinction? Did I understand her correctly in the first place? If you are reading Constance, there is a comments section at the bottom of the post.
Then she dropped the bombshell about the crows. If you have not visited North America, there are 2 crows which to all intents and purposes, are indistinguishable from each other. The American Crow and the North-western Crow are best identified, so I thought, by range. All my field guides tell me that they are almost mutually exclusive, although there is no physical geographical reason for this. According to Sibley et al, Seattle is within the North-west Crow’s distribution area and excludes the American Crow, but the local cognoscenti believe that the NW Crow exists only in small remote pockets and that the common corvid of Seattle is in fact, the American Crow.
There are supporters of the NW Crow and rival American Crow supporters with the threat of fisticuffs when the factions meet. The disputed reasons hinge on the crossover of size and voice which could go either way. So I shall have to reconsider NW Crows and their status on my Seattle list. Are the ones from Vancouver safe I wonder?
I walked with Constance and Amy for a while. We found a bushtits' nest hanging from a large tree. The bushtits had been disturbed during their first attempt at nest-building but had returned to try again and looked to be doing well. We passed the eastern pond which held some Kildeer and Least Sandpiper. Constance was full of information and advised on ID techniques for Least Sandpipers. Yellow legs and a middling brown not swaying either towards red or grey. I left them shortly after, but not before getting a useful site called “tweeter”, a forum for Pacific NW birders. Google Tweeter if you are heading that way.
I was pointed in a new direction by Constance and Amy and found a part of the reserve that I had not explored before. Amongst some bushes a Spotted Towhee churred and a Northern Flicker flashed it’s red undertail. A Lazuli Bunting had been reported and was breeding nearby, but I missed it.
The reserve only covers a very small area, but it had taken me nearly 4 hours to complete the loop. I suspect that if one was walking a dog it would take 45 minutes from the bus stop and back. But it was back to the bus stop for me now and just before I put my camera away, I got a really close shot of a crow. Any ideas? Even the crow looks unsure.
Pied-billed Grebe 6, Great Blue Heron 7, Canada Goose 30, Wood Duck 2, Northern Shoveler 8, Osprey 1, Bald Eagle 2, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Killdeer 9, Least Sandpiper 7, Glaucous-winged Gull 12, Vaux’s Swift 6, Anna’s Hummingbird 2, Belted Kingfisher 1, Northern Flicker 8, Willow Flycatcher 1, Tree Swallow 80, Violet green Swallow 5, Barn Swallow 25, Cliff Swallow 120, Cedar Waxwing 6, Marsh Wren 3, American Robin 20, Bushtit 20, Black-capped Chickadee 15, American Crow 60, Common Starling 6, House Finch 35, American Goldfinch 15, Common Yellowthroat, 8, Spotted Towhee 1, Savannah Sparrow 8, Song Sparrow 12, White-crowned Sparrow 8, Red-winged Blackbird 20.
Monday, 6 July 2009
I had hoped to find a Dartford Warbler, but that was not to be. Instead, I found an information board with details of dragonflies on it.
Much of the area close to where I had parked was bog and dragonflies and damselflies are abundant. With an eye and an ear still hoping to catch a glimpse or a “chaihhrr-chr” from the Dartford Warbler, I set to with the Odonata.
I was able to take photos of and identify 6 species with my new laminated card, “Guide to dragonflies and damselflies of Britain.”
Large Red Damselfly
It is becoming apparent that there are a number of families with recognisable characteristics and behaviour.
Pair of Azure Damselflies
I think I already knew that dragonflies rest with their wings spread and that damselflies fold theirs. Damselflies look more flimsy than their bigger, more robust cousins. But now I am starting to see physical traits which link close relations.
The chaser and skimmer dragonfly species have short, squat bodies, while the darters are slimmer with generally shorter wings.
Male Black Darter
Female Black Darter
The hawkers are the dragonflies that I always picture when calling to mind summer afternoons near water.
The Emperor Dragonfly was my 6th species. I didn't get a good picture, but I am going to have to open a list soon.
The White-faced Darter is a nationally rare Odonata and is said to be present at Thursley Common, but are probably around the next bend with the Dartford Warbler.
One day I shall return there and do some proper birding and tell you all about the common too.