Monday 27 February 2012

Margate cemetery, Kent.

As a grand spectacle of landscape design and commemorative architecture, the cemetery at Margate cannot rival the wonderful Mount Auburn of Boston, but it has the advantage of being a short drive away rather than on the other side of the ocean. It also has a very attractive decrepit feel to it. The cemetery is still in use, but the more recent tenants are laid to rest in the south-eastern section, leaving the more established residents to enjoy the woodland and scrub that has been reclaiming the headstones in the older, north-western section.

Entry is via the gate (Google Earth ref; 51 22 24N 01 22 42E) from the crematorium and the sense of peace and restful quiet is immediate. Carrion Crows were cawing in the trees by the crematorium to add a truly authentic air. Small bushes and trees lined the cemetery side of the wall with more shrubs and brambles creating a very birdy feel. A Chiff Chaff was flicking through the bare upper branches of the small trees here. It was enjoying the rewards of overwintering on this beautifully warm February morning.

The resident blogger, Steve, who writes almost daily updates at Margate Cemetery Birder, was making his round and we took a quick tour together. He mentioned that the Firecrests move around the graveyard, but could usually be found around the birdy area where we had met. Steve noted the calls of a couple of Crossbill and pointed them out as they flew over. He also explained with a sigh that the cemetery had recently been taken over by a new maintenance and management firm. Much of the scrub is being cut back and burned to make the approach to the active area tidier. It is a shame to see all the lovely habitat being lost in an area that people seldom visit.

Eurasian Magpies and Jays were obvious and plenty of smaller birds such as European Robin, Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits could be constantly heard in the background. A very friendly, albino Grey Squirrel kept me company as I waited for the Firecrests to pass through.

A spike in numbers of European Woodcock had drawn me to this site, but the cold weather that had driven them from the continent had gone and the woodcock had moved on as the sun warmed the north-eastern tip of Kent. A Firecrest did eventually show. I returned to the birdy area a couple of times, standing vigil for a short while on each pass before finding one which was feeding in the ivy climbing the bare trees. It came out into the open for a reasonable view and I managed to get the camera trained on it, but couldn’t get the focus.

Birds seen; 21
Common Kestrel 1, Common Woodpigeon 60, Rose-ringed Parakeet 15, Great Spotted Woodpecker 2, Dunnock 2, Song Thrush 2, Common Blackbird 10, European Robin 1, Common Chiff Chaff 4, Goldcrest 1, Firecrest 1, Great Tit 4, Blue Tit 10, Jay 3, Eurasian Magpie 20, Eurasian Jackdaw 60, Rook 4, Carrion Crow 120, Common Starling 30, Chaffinch 6, Common Crossbill 2.
Visit the dedicated UK page for other sites nearby including; Oare Marshes, Reculver Saxon Shoreline and Mote Park.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Bye-bye Boston.

The airline industry operates in a dynamic world where change, flexibility and cost effectiveness are an ingrained part of the culture. A new fleet of younger, prettier and above all lighter crew will be taking over the Boston routes from April. Us old hatless crew, complexions desiccated by a thousand transatlantic night flights and weighed down by years of experience will wave goodbye to one of our favourite destinations. We all felt little twinges of sadness and sciatica as, for most of us, this would be our last visit here and the stop was so brief.
It seemed more appropriate to toast the city one last time with my colleagues than to wander off alone to look at birds, so I had purposefully left my camera behind, but the girls' instinct to shop could not be overcome and I found myself with a spare hour before dusk on a stunning Massachusetts evening.

Many years ago, I took my first faltering steps into North American birding in Boston Back Bay Fens so I wanted to take a last stumble around the park before meeting up with my colleagues. It was strangely liberating to be birding with neither a camera nor even binoculars, but it occurred to me that I may end up writing a post and suddenly the urge to get pictures overwhelmed me. If you were one of the strangers that I may have inadvertently startled by asking for copies of your photographs, I apologise.

To Dionysius, who actually sent me some, thank you very much.

he Canada Geese were making a tremendous noise along the Muddy River and flocked on the lawns, feeding and depositing. The heads of the male Mallards looked stunning in the late afternoon light. A few White-throated Sparrows fed on the ground by the bridge near the rose garden.
In the Community Gardens, I met Annie who has set up feeders in her patch and visits every day. She had attracted Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse and Song Sparrow.

A young Red-tailed Hawk flew low across the allotments and settled in a tree above another garden filled with feeders. The weak winter sun had left the sky now and the hawk was silhouetted until it dropped down into the gardens scaring the passerines, but not managing to catch one.
I hope that the new crew will enjoy Boston as much as we did and that they will get out to see the beauty that it has to offer. Don't miss the Whale watching and as for the cemetery at Mount Auburn....
Given the cyclical nature of this business and the re-birth of ideas that keep a transient management busy, it is quite probable that the route will one day revert to the wizened fleet, but until then, "So long Boston".

Birds seen; 12

Canada Goose 200, Mallard 40, Red-tailed Hawk 1, Mourning Dove 10, Red-bellied Woodpecker 1, Black-capped Chickadee 6, Tufted Titmouse 4, House Sparrow 8, Song Sparrow 4, White-throated Sparrow 8, Northern Cardinal 4, Red-winged Blackbird 4.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Valentine's day in Brooklyn, JFK, Feb 2012

It was Valentine’s Day and I had a date. Please don’t tell the memsahib! I didn’t bring flowers or chocolates to my rendezvous, but I don’t think my date minded, after all we were headed out to the dunes by the cape. We had met up at Doug’s home in Brooklyn and although he did look very attractive this morning there was only one object for my affections today: We were going to Breezy Point to have another go at finding my life Snowy Owl.

Doug was obviously very confident that he would be able to find the owl and stopped along the way to have a look in at Floyd Bennett Field. The disused airfield overlooks the west side of Jamaica Bay and the water was as smooth as glass. In the foreground Brant Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls roosted on the shore. A flock of Canada Geese flew straight at us across the inlet.

The flat water was perfect for scoping and Doug soon picked out a couple of Red-necked Grebes from the Horned Grebes and separated a Barrow’s Goldeneye from a small flock of Common Goldeneye. There were many Red-throated Loons and more Red-breasted Mergansers than I ever recall seeing in one place before.

Floyd Bennett Field Birds seen;
Brant 600, Canada Goose 165, American Wigeon 2, American Black Duck 6, Mallard 4, Greater Scaup 2, Bufflehead 85, Common Goldeneye 25, Barrow’s Goldeneye 1, Red-breasted Merganser 150, Red-throated Loon 8, Horned Grebe 70, Red-necked Grebe 3, Great Cormorant 3, American Kestrel 1, Ring-billed Gull 100, Herring Gull 5, Mockingbird 1.

Even more loons and mergansers were seen at Fort Tilden as Doug teased me by delaying the climax that would surely come once we reached Breezy Point. Even then he prolonged the exquisite pleasure of anticipation by taking me the long way round.
Fort Tilden Birds seen;
Red-throated Diver 35, Great Northern Diver 6, Long-tailed Duck 60, Bufflehead 35, Red-breasted Merganser 70.
From the parking lot at Google Earth ref; 40 33 22N 73 55 54W we walked to the beach that runs around the north and west of Breezy Point. The water was still very smooth and Doug scoped some Razorbills and even more loons and mergansers.

A Snow Bunting settled on a railway sleeper that had been washed up and at last I managed to get a recognisable picture of this bird. Greater Black-backed Gulls waited near the waterline and Doug pointed out a Glaucous Gull behind the heaped sand of the shore. Sanderling hardly bothered to run back and forth as the tiniest ripples from the glassy bay lapped the beach. Inshore the dunes rose gently, covered sparsely with coarse grasses and an occasional short, scrubby bush. Doug finally cut up from the beach to the dunes and about 100meters in was a large white bird, unmistakeable even from that distance as a Snowy Owl.

This beautiful bird was entirely white which brought about some discussion about the occurrence of this plumage type. I was of the impression that the pure white individuals were adult males and that most of the irruptive birds were juveniles with dark barring on their plumage.

Doug had heard of research suggesting that chicks become progressively lighter, the later they occur in a clutch. Since the lemmings had been so plentiful this year on the owls’ breeding grounds of the far north, many of the later, whiter chicks survived and this individual may be one of those.

It was at this point that I began regretting my lack of expertise at digiscoping. The owl was well placed for a picture, just a little bit far away. Our best attempts didn’t come up to over-hopeful expectation, but then Doug led me around the point to get a look from another direction. The owl was closer from this angle and it was even possible to get the Empire State Building in the distance behind. Even so, I was cursing myself for not getting a better grip of distance photography before finding such a perfect subject.

A steady stream of birds passed the jetty at the extreme south-western tip of Breezy Point. Doug continued doing all the spade work, counting as many as 625 Long-tailed Ducks while I mucked about with the owl and a flock of Sanderling roosting close to the water’s edge. The wavelets seeping onto the sand were minute and most of the flock managed to ignore them. Some however were unable to resist the primal urge to run ahead of the ripples, disturbing their resting flockmates as they went.

Breezy Point Birds seen;
Red-throated Diver 30, Great Northern Diver 12, Great Cormorant 4, Pale-bellied Brent Goose 35, Long-tailed Duck 300, Surf Scoter 4, Bufflehead 35, Red-breasted Merganser 50, Sanderling 600, Ring-billed Gull 20, Great Black-backed Gull 8, Glaucous Gull 1, American Herring Gull 140, Razorbill 2, Snowy Owl 1, Common Starling 25, Myrtle Warbler 5.

Doug suggested that I might like to see the Brooklyn Scaup flock. I must confess out of Doug’s hearing that I didn’t think a flock of Greater Scaup warranted a special stop, but that was until I saw the thousands of ducks tightly packed together by the marina at Dead Horse Bay.

By its own standards, the flock was comparatively small today. Our estimates were wildly different and I am choosing to go with Doug’s count as he is far more familiar with flocks of this size than I am. His estimate of 12,000 birds was way short of the flock’s potential at 30,000 plus.
Dead Horse Bay Marina, Birds seen;

Horned Grebe 1, Pale-bellied Brent Goose 75, Mallard 3, American Black Duck 18, Greater Scaup 12,000, Bufflehead 20, Red-breasted Merganser 4, American Kestrel 1.
We had elected to miss out on Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge today in favour of a chance to find Purple Sandpiper overlooking Gravesend Bay. Seldom does a life bird come so easily as peering over the edge of a railing and finding one at your feet.

Up to a dozen Purple Sandpipers were working the rocks along a 100meter stretch of seawall looking out across the bay to Staten Island with the Verrazano Bridge to our right. They were accommodating too, posing for pictures and allowing us a close and personal view as they fed from the wet rocks.

Gravesend Bay Birds seen;
Greater Scaup 30, Bufflehead 20, Common Goldeneye 4, Purple Sandpiper 12, Ring-billed Gull 150

 Doug, you were great company and a wonderful guide. You found three lifers for me today and the Snowy Owl will always remain a treasured memory. Thank you so much and happy Valentine’s Day!

Monday 20 February 2012

Tyson's Corner, Virginia, February 2012

The morning started very slowly at Tyson’s Corner, where we stay during our slip on Washington Dulles trips. The dead-end path was birded with nary a one seen and only a couple heard. The earthworks for the construction site now cover what used to be the sunken meadow (Google Earth ref; 38 55 25N 77 13 13W) and it looks as if the deer have moved on.

Just a short way along the pavement is another small wood and the path continues across a little bridge where a pond is overlooked by residential units (Google Earth ref; 38 55 41N 77 13 26W). The residents here often feed the birds and at last I began to see some Northern Cardinals and Carolina Chickadees. They looked a bit nervous this morning and the reason soon became clear. A young Cooper’s Hawk was perched in a tree close to the feeders. Three Blue Jays came down from the larger trees to try and shoo it away, but the hawk paid them no attention.

At the bottom of Park Run Drive an ornamental patch of shrubs and blossom trees had attracted a Northern Mockingbird, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. I don’t know if Virginian mockingbirds are more confiding than in other states, but they always seem more approachable here than anywhere else.

A line of bushes at the entrance to an office block was busy with birds with White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jays and Downy Woodpeckers. As I leaned on the wall to take a picture a security guard came out to shoo me away. No-one is allowed to take photographs on this private land without permission it appears and that concession was not forthcoming, even after a chat with her boss. Actually, it was not so much a chat as a monosyllabic refusal. “He don’t allow no-one to take no pictures of this facility”, the original guard informed me as I left, to which I should have replied, “It’s not a facility, it’s a bush”, but instead I muttered something under my breath and returned to the public footpath ten feet from where I had been refused permission to take pictures.
From here I could see straight into the boss’s office and spent a few happy moments irritating him by taking long lens pictures of him through the window of his facility before turning my attention back a Song Sparrow.

Some of the offices here are low-level government administration buildings and the security guards are wound tighter than tripwires. I have been detained by the police before now for using camera and binoculars along the roads here, so it is probably best not to tease the officers while they are doing their duty.

Another mockingbird posed at the back entrance to the hotel, again allowing a very close approach.

Birds seen; 12

Great Blue Heron 1, Mallard 2, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Mourning Dove 4, Downy Woodpecker 1, Carolina Wren 1, Northern Mockingbird 3, Carolina Chickadee 3, Tufted Titmouse 4, Song Sparrow 3, White-throated Sparrow 6, Northern Cardinal 5.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Singapore Botanic Gardens, February 2012

This post is written in homage to the Singapore Botanic Gardens whose previous post has proved, by far, to have been the most popular on this blog. My pilgrimage began from the new Botanic Gardens MRT station at the north end of the gardens. 
A male Asian Koel showed brilliantly in the low dawn light but flew before I could get the camera trained on him. Luckily, a female replaced him almost immediately and sat for a moment. Eco Pond can be found at this end of the gardens and has matured greatly since my first visit. It used to be possible to get a close look at the birds on the island from a short boardwalk that reached out into the lake.

This has sadly been removed and I had to check off the Pink-necked Green Pigeons, Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Yellow Bittern from a distance. Australian Black Swans grace the lake with their presence, but are there as exotics. The approachability of the Lesser Whistling Ducks always makes me wonder about their provenance.

Another birder was circling the lake in the opposite direction and we joined up for the morning. Bob, from Birding 5s, works on the basis of only knowing 5 birds well at any one time. He was in Singapore for even less time than I was. A flock of Tanimbar Corellas flew over. Tanimbar Corellas were only described properly in 2004 after the original Goffin’s Cockatoo was found to have been described from 2 unrelated birds. Again the provenance of these birds disqualifies them from the list below.

We walked along the lower path parallel to Cluny Park Road in the hope that we might come across the Red-breasted Crake, but no luck there. The path slopes up to where the visitors centre sits atop a ridge. From the ridge we were able to look out over the Symphony Lake and check the palms on the small island. A couple of tiny Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots were seen on the gently bending fronds. In the far distance, a White-breasted Kingfisher was perched high in a tree and a Blue-tailed Bee-eater flew high, fast and direct across the open area. The rainforest area was very quiet today with a few calls heard, but only one Asian Brown Flycatcher seen high on a snag. Bob had a flight to catch, so we took a quick amble around the lake before he had to head back to the airport.
A Laced Woodpecker stopped on an overhanging branch ahead of us. This action shot was the result of a fluke as all my settings were wrong.
The Yellow Bittern however gave us all the time in the world to get some shots. After Bob left, I took another look in the forest as I was sure that it must have more to offer today.
A Black Drongo was calling madly but was perched deep in the gloom. The Live View on Canon’s DSLRs allows the mirror to be locked up and vibration reduced. Luckily the drongo sat very still for the long exposures.
In the Ginger Garden, one of the workers took me by the hand and led me to a tiny pond watched over by a Stork-billed Kingfisher.
Heliconia Walk passes between beds of the Bird of Paradise flowers. A Crimson Sunbird came to feed from the nectar and an Olive-backed Sunbird followed shortly afterwards.
I began to think that this would make a good place to wait for a while during my next visit. The gardens are rich dragonflies as well as birds and the heat of midday had stirred many into life.

A selection is included below as well as a link to a previous odonata-heavy post from the gardens.

Ictinogomphus decoratus

Crocothemis servilia


Brachydiplex chalybea

The odonata watching took me for another tour of the Symphony Lake and I enjoyed another close encounter with a Yellow Bittern (before the blackmail begins, I must confess to having called it a Cinnamon Bittern when anybody stooped to ask).
A photographer with a big 500mm lens joined me and had to stand back on the path to achieve his minimum focusing distance. A Banded Woodpecker and a Stork-billed Kingfisher stopped into the tree above us as we watched the Bittern. On my way back to Eco Pond as I was leaving the gardens, three Black Bazas flew over.
They landed in a distant tree, but would not settle and this was the best look that I had. It was here that I met a couple who spared my blushes by correcting my Cinnamon Bittern error. I had some nice pictures and was already planning a 10,000 Birds post and I would never have lived it down if the post had gone live with a mis-ID.
They also saved me a lot of trouble identifying a Paddyfield Pipit, which has replaced the old Richards Pipit.
Birds seen; 28

Yellow Bittern 6, Lesser Whistling Duck 14, Black Baza 3, Brahminy Kite 1, White-bellied Sea Eagle 2, White-breasted Waterhen 12, Spotted Dove 8, Zebra Dove 1, Pink-necked Green Pigeon 35, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot 2, Asian Koel 4, Stork-billed Kingfisher 2, White-throated Kingfisher 3, Blue-tailed Bee-eater 2, Banded Woodpecker 1, Laced Woodpecker 1, Pacific Swallow 15, Paddyfield Pipit 1, Yellow-vented Bulbul 6, Oriental Magpie Robin 1, Asian Brown Flycatcher 1, Plain-throated Sunbird 2, Crimson Sunbird 2, Olive-backed Sunbird 1, Black-naped Oriole 8, Black Drongo 1, Javan Myna 300, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 30.
For other posts from Singapore Botanical Gardens, follow the link in the post above or us ethe URLs below;

Visit the dedicated Asia Page for more posts from Singapore, including; Sungei Buloh, Central Catchment Area and Paser Ris.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Return to Paser Ris, Singapore, Feb 2012

Paser Ris had already managed to outdo itself this week and it may have been expecting just a little too much for it to reveal any more of its treasures this morning. I had returned in the hope that the Mangrove Pitta would put in another appearance, arriving early and waiting by its favoured habitat. A few other Singaporean cameras had similar hopes and Ashy Tailorbirds passed through as we waited.

A bird of prey perched nearby during our vigil, but was badly silhouetted and I can only guess that it may have been a Honey Buzzard. A dragonfly has also gone begging as I cannot find any suitable matches for it. All thoughts are welcome of course. By around mid-morning, there had been no sign of the pitta, though there had been some disturbing stories about local cats prowling the area. I couldn’t decide whether to persevere for the pitta or to try and salvage something from a morning that was fast ticking away. The arrival of the beautiful Toh sisters tempted me from the mangroves and we took a turn around the rest of the park as the day heated up. It was pleasant, but ornithologically quiet.

The normally raucous Collared Kingfishers were strangely muted and the birdlife was sparse. Some of the very common birds came out to be seen; Black-naped Orioles showed well and the Grey Herons made plenty of noise as we passed their rookery. Jacqui and Sherwin were new to this bird watching lark so it was fun to share their enthusiasm. An Oriental Magpie Robin looked to be collecting nesting material, but the otters didn’t show and we could not find the owl.

From the platform overlooking Sungei Tampines we watched a Striated Heron for a while, stalking deliberately along the bank and noticed an Ashy Minivet in the mangroves. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Paser Ris had given up its third lifer for me this week. Eventually, the ladies had to move on and we returned along the boardwalk and said our goodbyes.

Birds seen;
Grey Heron 30 Little Egret 1, Striated Heron 1, White-breasted Waterhen 1, Common Sandpiper 1, Spotted Dove 5, Zebra Dove 2, Long-tailed Parakeet 3, Asian Koel 2, Copllared Kingfisher 4, Common Kingfisher 2, Pacific Swallow 6, Ashy Minivet 1, Yellow-vented Bulbul 3, Oriental Magpie Robin 2, Ashy Tailorbird 3, Arctic Warbler 1, Asian Brown Flycatcher 1, Plain-throated Sunbird 2, Black-naped Oriole 12, House Crow 4, Asian Glossy Starling 60, Javan Myna 30, Nutmeg Mannikin2.
I wanted just one more look for the pitta, but there was still no sign of it and I took a final flyby of the platform before heading home. Here I met Jerry Loie. We got into conversation and before long I was in his car being whisked away to a site that I had not previously heard of.

The Lorong Halus Wetland (Google Earth ref; 01 23 43N 103 55 22E) had been built over an old landfill site, but is not easily accessible without a car. Taxis would not be available from here unless specially called (Punggol LRT station is within 3kms, but I cannot vouch for access). Jerry stopped along the approach for a Purple Heron and a White-breasted Kingfisher which dived into the roadside verge to catch a lizard (Skink?).

The site may take a few years to mature, but already attracts Long-tailed Shrike. From there we continued just up the road to Serangoon Reservoir for a quick look at the Little Grebes, but were hit by a huge downpour. Thanks to Jerry for driving me around and dropping me back to the station afterwards.
Birds seen;
Purple Heron 1, Eastern Cattle Egret 25, White-throated Kingfisher 4, Long-tailed Shrike 1
For directions and more posts about Paser Ris, follow the links below;
Visit the dedicated Asia Page for more posts from Singapore including; Singapore Botanical Gardens, Sungei Buloh and Central Catchment Area.