Wednesday 24 February 2010

Tughlaqabad Fort, New Delhi

This is a quick retrospective of a trip to Tughlaqabad Fort in New Delhi, posted in response to a request for information. This is a very easy trip and can be enjoyed with just a couple of hours.
The fort is surrounded by huge red rock walls up to 15m high. Within these ramparts is a wide expanse of relative calm. Constant efforts to restore it cannot keep pace with the fact that it is almost 700 years old.
Rocks and rubble are strewn around the citadel part of the ruin while the vast majority of the enclosed area has reverted to scrub. Brown Rockchats loved the rocks, obviously, so did the White-fronted Kingfisher. The scrubby areas hosted Indian Robin, Little Green Bee-eaters, Ashy and Rufous-fronted Prinias.
More open tracts of ground would have Yellow-wattled and Red-wattled Lapwings, Laughing Doves and various mynas.
It is located 6 kms from ITC New Delhi Sheraton and is easily reached by cab. A very modest entrance fee may be loaded by a western tourist charge and a camera charge, both extras are minimal. There are no facilities available here and little if any shade.

Tughlaqabad Fort, New Delhi, DEL, India

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Introducing Mauritius

Today’s imperative was to snatch a couple of hours out before the storm hit. A big tropical depression was headed towards the island as we landed into Mauritius and was predicted to make landfall shortly after lunch.
“Sleep can wait, I’m going birding.” With the rallying cry of Charlie from ringing in my ears, I got changed and went straight out.
Birding in Mauritius would usually take the form of a trip to Black River Gorge in the southwest of the island to look for endemics. This would not be feasible today with such a limited weather window, so I opted for the easy ride of SSR (Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam) Botanic Gardens at Pamplemousses.
10 minutes walk from Caudon Waterfront found me at the bus station. From there, bus 22 heads to Grande Gaube via Pamplemousses and stops right outside the gardens. Half an hour and MR23 (@MR50/£1) later, we arrived at the impressive entrance gates. A fee of MR25 is payable.
A comforting security presence was visible, Indeed, I had one guard all to myself as he followed me around, curious as to what I was up to. After each series of photos, he would like to see the results and offer his appraisal. Mostly security was discrete.
Immediately inside the gate, the trees were alive with birdsong mostly that of the Common Myna (introduced), but the Madagascar Turtle Dove (introduced) was also keen to make itself heard. Red-whiskered Bulbuls (introduced) were another obvious resident.
My first birdy picture came in the shape of a Madagascar Fody (introduced). I do not recall them being quite so approachable before. Even though the flash has washed him out a little, he is still a splendid bird.
The gardens cover an area of 37 hectares and are mostly laid out in an informal style with few straight lines. The most popular attraction is the giant water lily pond. Victoria Water Lilies cover a rectangular pond. At over a meter across and with turned up edges, they looked like giant round trays and were easily able to support a juvenile Green-backed Heron that used the raised edges as cover when stalking. It was watching some dragonflies that had caught my attention too. See for the odonata of Mauritius.
The water lily pond brings in the crowds and the curiosity that I try so hard to avoid, so I moved on. Despite that, the gardens were reasonably quiet for a Saturday.
At the nearby lotus pond, a Scaled Munia (Spice Finch (introduced)), was heaving nesting material into a palm. I do not know what stage of the breeding year February in Mauritius would represent. The island is 20 degrees south of the equator, so the sun had by now returned from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Northern sky as it heads all too slowly towards the Palaearctic spring. Mauritius does not have a marked monsoon but between January and April, it becomes very hot and humid with squally depressions.
A picturesque lake with islands and sun/rain shelters is the largest body of water in the gardens. A Common Waxbill (introduced) climbed the seed-heads of some tall grasses. Out on the water, a moorhen fed it’s chick and the nests of village weavers (introduced) were waiting inspection by the females.
At last, I found a bird which was the only endemic likely to be seen beyond the south-west part of the island. The Mauritian Grey White-eye is unusual among white-eyes in that the white eye-ring is very inconspicuous. It is like the rest of it’s family though in disliking staying still while being photographed.
The sun had passed it’s height of the day but the promised cyclone had not materialised. The heat was starting to take it’s toll on this tired blogger and I needed a few moments to myself in the shade. I found a nice palm near a heron to settle beneath only to be startled by a Mascarene Swiftlet whistling past my ear to scoop a drink from the lake. Another one joined it and they made two or three passes each, pale rumps plainly visible, before climbing up and away.
I realise that you need to be in the right frame of mind to photograph swifts. It is a thankless task.
As a special treat on the way home, we found ourselves flying over the wonderful looking Aldabra Atoll.
Bird species; 13

Green-backed Heron 3, Common Moorhen 8, Zebra Dove 4, Madagascar Turtle Dove 16, Mascarene Swiftlet 4, Red-whiskered Bulbul 30, Madagascar Grey White-eye 15, Common Myna 120, House Crow 2, Madagascar Fody 8 Village Weaver 6, Scaled Munia 4, Common Waxbill 1.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Palo Alto Baylands, San Fancisco

Birding in San Francisco throws up a few options and today’s post features the Palo Alto Baylands. The area is noted for Burrowing Owls and Clapper Rail, but don’t get your hopes up as I didn’t find either of those. Anna's Hummingbirds were plentiful though.
35 miles down the bayside from San Francisco City, the salt marshes were shrouded in fog this morning. I skipped back and forth between sites trying to make the best of a late start and a midday tide. There are 3 favoured sites in Palo Alto. Turning off from Freeway 101, take Embarcadero for Lucy Evans Interpretative Centre and boardwalk.
San Antonio is the off-ramp for Charleston Slough (rhymes with blue). Finally, turn off at Shoreline Blvd for Mountain View tidal marsh.
I wanted to be at the boardwalk 2 hours before high tide so visited Mountain View first to look for Burrowing Owls. It was the furthest of the three sites.
At the end of Shoreline Blvd. is plenty of parking with a lake and a golf course on the inland side and a tidal marsh and protected area on the bayside. Cycle and jogging trails double as birder paths and give dry, flat access and views of the sloughs. The protected area is set aside for the Burrowing Owls who like to take vacant possession of California Ground Squirrel’s holes. The owls are shy and drop back into the burrows if approached. This was a Saturday morning on the first day for weeks without rain. Even by 08.30 it was busy and I suspect the owls were laying low.
I visited here twice during the day but shall amalgamate the two visits seamlessly as if one.
A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was very approachable and allowed me to get close enough to see what he had had for breakfast. An Anna’s Hummingbird was performing display flights, rising 20m into the air and power-diving, pulling up to form a clearly defined J-shape, then rising again to repeat the display three or four times. A still photo can’t convey the drama. I keep considering video but how much can I actually carry? In case you are wondering, this is not a picture from during the display. That was beyond me.
Out on the water were Ruddy Duck, Shoveler, and Greater Scaup. On the distant sloughs were more Shoveler and some Brown Pelicans. There were a few Great and Snowy Egret on the edge of the water and Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows in the scrub.
Canada Geese were grazing on the protected area where I was scanning for the owls. A Northern Harrier sailed into my vision but I thought a goose was possibly a big target for her. Instead she landed just ahead and took a drink from a puddle. Anticipating that she might give me a fly-by, I switched my lens stabiliser to panning mode and the camera to Servo AF to keep a moving object in focus. I was pleased with the result.
A small mixed flock of House Finches, Western Bluebird and Yellow-rumped Warbler greeted me back at the car park.
The fog was still fairly thick when I arrived at the Lucy Evans Interpretative Centre at the end of Embarcadero and I saw a fogbow for the first time. It is a similar principle to a rainbow I suppose, but you dry out more quickly afterwards.
A pond there was hosting some Ring-billed Gulls with approximately 200 Bonaparte’s Gulls on the slough across the road.
An area by the centre has it’s tidal flow restricted in both directions thus giving high and low tides about two hours later than the slough beside it. A dyke-like, raised path runs between the managed slough and the pickleweed marsh. In a scene reminiscent of one I had witnessed a few weeks ago, all the wading birds took off as an ibis flew over. I thought it was a Glossy Ibis until a fellow camera-toting birder advised me to be on the lookout for a White-faced Ibis. The mistake was understandable I am sure you will agree. It was the red eye that swung it.
From some reeds nearby, the strident song of a Marsh Wren rang out, I recorded it singing and played it back resulting in the bird showing itself at the top of the reeds.
Beyond the Interpretative Centre is a boardwalk that pushes out into the tidal marsh for about 400m or so. This is the favoured rail area and it has produced Virginia and Clapper Rail for this blogger in the past. The end of the boardwalk was obscured by fog until I tried to take an artistic photo, when the mist miraculously lifted. My theory was that the high tide would flood the marsh and push the rails up into view. For future reference the tide needs to be higher than today’s 2.5m to achieve that. There were plenty of Song Sparrows though.
The managed slough was busy. American Avocets were starting to attain their summer plumage. Short-billed Dowitchers were taking advantage of the delayed tide with a single Long-billed Curlew.
The natural slough was the most prolific spot at this site. Teal and Shoveler were present as well as other ducks, waders, egrets and that flock of gulls. At the far end of the car park is a boat ramp. A great Egret was preening.
The day was warming up now and the fog had lifted.
In between the two sites already mentioned, at the end of San Antonio Rd, is Charleston Slough. Right beside the parking area is the Coast Casey Forebay. This was a popular roosting place for American Avocets, about 2oo of which were waiting out the high tide. Also here were Greater Yellowlegs, Black-necked Stilts, American Coots and a small selection of duck. I took the path which led out between the slough and Adobe Creek. On the left was a viewing platform for the creek. Cinnamon Teal, a Double-crested Cormorant and a few Black-crowned Night-herons were all roosting among the tall reeds. On the other side, another platform looked up the length of Charleston Slough. A small island in front of it was providing roosting space for 3 Black Skimmers among the gulls, Marbled Godwits and the Willet. There were dowitchers too, but I couldn’t tell which one from that distance.
The trail reaches nearly two miles out into the bay. Further on, the creek opened out into sandbanks and shallow water. Clustered around any bits of debris on the sandbanks were mixed flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers. Small flocks of 50 or so huddled around sticks and logs, preening and resting. The least seemed to be the most here.
Among the other bird were ducks, egrets, coots and Common Moorhen. Out in the deeper Charleston Slough were even more Shoveler. Good numbers of Canvasback, Ruddy Duck and scaup were present too.
A lake close to the parking lot held Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneye and a high concentration of Pied-billed Grebes. Snowy Egrets were winkling mussels from the beds on the edge of the lake.
By now the warmth had gone from the air. The sun was dipping towards the horizon and the tide was reaching it’s lowest point. I pulled in to the boardwalk on the way home to watch the sun go down over the curlew. A large flock of tiny peeps that I assumed to be Western Sandpipers flashed in the sun’s last rays of the evening.

My plan to set off early in the morning was thwarted. I had mistaken a past favour for standard practice at Reliable rentals. If you wish to set out early, you can rent a car from Reliable and take advantage of their free parking. Rent the night before and set out from their garage when you wish. Returning the car after 17.00 will incur a second day charge.
This works perfectly if you are renting for more than one day, but becomes expensive for just one day.
Alternatively, Budget next door are open from 06.00 – 21.00 7 days a week.

Bird species; 54

Pied-billed Grebe 14, Western Grebe 3, Clarke’s Grebe 1, Brown Pelican 9, Double-crested Cormorant 30, Great Blue Heron 1, Great Egret 12, Snowy egret 18, Black-crowned Night Heron 14, White-faced Ibis 2, Canada Goose 120, American Wigeon 40, Gadwall 15, Green-winged Teal 80, Mallard 60, Cinnamon Teal 4, Northern Shoveler 1600, Canvasback 140, Greater Scaup 30, Surf Scoter 4, Common Goldeneye 2, Ruddy Duck 600, Turkey Vulture 4, White-tailed Kite 2, American Harrier 6, Red-tailed Hawk 6, Common Moorhen 3, American Coot 100, Black-necked Stilt 30, American Avocet 1000, Short-billed Dowitcher 20, Marbled Godwit 70, Long-billed Curlew 1, Willet 80, Western Sandpiper 1000, Least Sandpiper 250, Ring-billed Gull 200, Herring Gull 20, Bonaparte’s Gull 200, Black Skimmer 3, Mourning Dove 6, Anna’s Hummingbird 15, Marsh Wren 1, Bewick’s Wren 2, Northern Mockingbird 2, Western Bluebird 7, American Crow 25, House Finch 15, Yellow-rumped Warbler 3, Savannah Sparrow 1, Song Sparrow 20, White-crowned Sparrow 14, Golden-crowned Sparrow 22, Brewer’s Blackbird 50.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Jack Snipe in Mote Park

Can’t stop.
I just want to put it out that the Jack Snipe is back on the old pond at Mote Park, Maidstone.
I met Dave Sergeant there and he pointed out the Water Rail that frequents the pond. We changed position to get a different angle and suddenly, there was the snipe. It must have been there all along, but did not register. The camouflage is superb. Only when it starts it's characteristic bobbing does it become visible.
After a while the rail became impatient with us giving all our attention to the snipe, so he chased it away.
"Possibly it is considering a nest close by", suggested Dave.
The Jack Snipe did not go too far and stopped on the far bank by the water's edge.More when I come back from San Fransisco.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Powai Lake in Mumbai

A trip to Mumbai would normally be the cue for a visit to Borivali (Sanjay Gandhi) N.P. But on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, it was likely to be so busy that I decided to try somewhere new instead.

A couple of birds that you would put money on to find would be the ubiquitous House Crow and the Black Kite. Both birds are widespread and abundant around habitation. Before I set out, I looked from my hotel window at the ITC Maratha, across a small garden that I had not previously known to exist. Just outside, at the top of a palm sat a Coppersmith Barbet. I missed him, but managed a shot of an Asian Koel with his vivid red eyes.
I found Vihar Lake on Google earth and liked what I saw. What I failed to see was the guarded control gate manned by a policeman who would not let me through. Vihar Lake has been closed to the general blogging community since 1993 it would appear.
Still, not to worry, I had the indomitable Dalbir Singh driving me who hastened to Powai Lake and suggested a look there.
The Renaissance Hotel overlooks Powai Lake, I had stayed there once before so knew of the lake, but not from this angle. A large road passes it at a tangent and Dalbir happily pulled over and parked. The lake-side was clogged with water hyacinth and rafts of it drifted gently further out in the lake. The rafts made good floating islands for the birds and straight away I could see communities on each one.
On the first, a Little Egret fished while a Bronze Jacana picked among the hyacinth.
Close in there were a few Indian Pond Herons and a couple of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas flushed further along the shore. The Purple Swamphen was very common too.
Indian people are inquisitive; especially with westerners whom they regard as curiosities. The sight of an Englishman out in the midday sun is bound to draw attention. I was creeping up on a dragonfly, moving very slowly and carefully moving my camera rig into position. My concentration was on the dragonfly, not what was going on behind me. Just as I had manoeuvred myself into a good position, a shadow passed across the dragonfly and scared it off. I stood up and looked behind me to see 12 men craning to watch this fascinating piece of street theatre. They would have been unable to see the dragonfly from where they were and must have been perplexed to see someone apparently stalking and taking pictures of the ground.
Don’t forget to visit
As I moved on, some of the spectators followed. Others joined in and were updated on what had happened so far. Eventually they lost interest and I was left alone with Dalbir who discretely held back and allowed me room. He even carried my rucksack and passed stuff to me.
This pond heron was perched on a piece of corrugated plastic and I was able to approach quite closely. I was following a rough road that looked as if it may be a precursor to some development of the lakeside. It led around a promontory and then stopped.
From here I could see more of the hyacinth islands. One was supporting a Grey Heron, an Asian Openbill, some Black-winged Stilt, and more Bronze Jacana. Another counted a Glossy Ibis amongst it’s inhabitants. A small number of Gull-billed Terns crossed low over the water, fishing.
In conversation with an Indian colleague on the return flight, I discovered that Lake Powai has a reputation as a hot-bed for wife-swapping. I shall bring mine with me next time. I wonder what I will get for her?
Here is a tip if you are staying in an international hotel in India. A bottle of Kingfisher beer can cost up to IR500 by the time service charges and taxes are added. From a stall outside, they cost IR75. So, in buying 2 on the way back and bringing them to the lounge, I saved enough money to pay Dalbir who was asking IR700 for 3 hours.
Dalbir Singh, Damesh Cool Cab Service, 9892021794

Bird species; 22

Indian Pond Heron 20, Grey Heron 1, Purple Heron 1, Little Egret 16, Great Egret 4, Asian Openbill 1, Coppersmith Barbet 1, Asian Koel 3, Rose-ringed Parakeet 20, Asian Palm Swift 5, House Swift 30, Purple Swamphen 14, Bronze Jacana 8, Pheasant-tailed Jacana 2, Black-winged Stilt 30, Gull-billed Tern 6, Black Kite 15, House Crow 400, Asian Pied Starling 8, Common Myna 20, Barn Swallow 6, Yellow-bellied Prinia 1.

Powai Lake, Mumbai, Bombay, BOM, India

Friday 5 February 2010

On my own doorstep.

I found myself with a couple of hours to spare. The Mrs was away, the boy didn’t need to be collected from school ‘til 3.00, what to do?
The sun broke weakly through the clouds and made up my mind for me. In the middle of the day, I wouldn’t usually expect too much, but I would see more than if I stayed in watching “Tricia”. So I decided on a couple of hours in Mote Park.
Imagine how pleased I was when I caught sight of a Water Rail at 13.00. Normally crepuscular in habit and shy at best, I was delighted to see even the back end of one disappearing around a bend in the River Len.
I had started from the Willington Street end, crossed the first bridge and snooped around the alders. There was plenty of activity and lots of birdsong. Perhaps spring was coming early. Tree Creepers, Nuthatches, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits were all calling and feeding busily.
Crossing back over the bridge, I caught sight of the white tail of the rail. It seemed unperturbed by dogs nearby and was moving downstream. I left a wide berth and tried to get in front of it.
It was possible to see it better now and I noted that the bill was mostly dark, perhaps indicating a young bird. It probed in the soft, wet ground on the southern bank between the two bridges and didn’t seem to mind me being there. Despite it being approachable, it was not very photographable with the surrounding undergrowth confusing the auto focus.
Only when it returned to the river bank did I get a relatively clear shot.
It disappeared for a while into some thick vegetation. I could tell that it was still there from the splashes and ripples in the river and occasional glimpses as it bathed. I moved on intending to re-visit on the return journey.
On the tiny island in the main lake, just beyond the weir, a Greater-spotted Woodpecker was excavating a hole.
The rest of the visit was relatively uneventful until I met another birder with a camera looking for rails. He was a blogger too at He told me that Simon, the Mote Park blogger, had seen 3 rails and a Jack Snipe earlier in the week! That rather took the wind out of my sails.
I checked up on Simon as soon as I got home and there, with pictures, was Lymnocryptes minimus. I have been home all week and a lifer has been camped on my doorstep without me knowing. That will teach me to keep a closer eye on events at home.
If only Wayne Bridge could do the same, we might still have an England football captain.

Bird species; 21

Little Grebe 2, Great Crested Grebe 1, Mallard 3, Tufted Duck 5, Water Rail 1, Coot 6, Common Moorhen 8, Common Gull 4, Black-headed Gull 20, Wood Pigeon 60, Greater Spotted Woodpecker 1, Robin 3, Blackbird 3, Great Tit 12, Blue Tit 18 Long-tailed Tit 4, Nuthatch 2, Wood Creeper 2, Magpie 8, Carrion Crow 25, Starling 15.