Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Red-belted Clearwing, Romsey - 22nd May

Over the winter I purchased a full set of clearwing pheromone lures and a pheromone trap from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies (ALS) I was keen to see more of these species having only encountered Currant Clearwing and Six-belted Clearwing previously. So with a partial day working at home in Romsey and lovely warm and sunny conditions, I studied the range, flight periods and foodplants of the 16 British species and decided to try for Large Red-belted Clearwing using the 'cul' lure. After an hour or so I popped outside and was amazed to see a clearwing in the trap, expecting it to be a Large Red-belted I was surprised when I captured the animal and realised it was a stunning fresh Red-belted Clearwing. This was an unexpected catch as the species is said to fly from mid-June and comes to the 'myo' lure. Still, I am not complaining, this was a stunning beast!

The Red-belted Clearwing is classified as Nationally Notable B but is actually probably more widespread than this status indicates. The species is found through south-east England roughly south-east of a line from the River Severn to the Wash. The larval foodplant is apple but it has also been recorded from hawthorn, pear, almond, and rowan. The species is found in open woodland, gardens and orchards.

Male Red-belted Clearwing - Romsey

Noar Hill National Nature Reserv, Selbourne - 21st May

After a breeding bird survey near to Havant I headed to Noar Hill National Nature Reserve to see if I could connect with Duke of Burgundy. This 20 hectare reserve was was formerly a medieval chalk working is owned and managed by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT). The reserve consists of a mosaic of scrub and species rich grassland which has a high diversity of invertebrates, many of which are rare and scarce. The population of Duke of Burgundy at the site is one of the strongest in Hampshire and, while towards the end of the flight season, I was keen to see this rare and localised species which is on the wing for only a few weeks in a year. On arrival at the site the first butterfly I saw was indeed a Duke of Burgundy but it was a very tatty individual with worn wings and a missing antennae. The next butterfly was a stunning and pristine Small Blue and then a Dingy Skipper. I began to encounter more Duke's and through the hour or so I was at the site I encountered around 15 specimens, mostly they were fairly worn, but I came across at least three fresher individuals.

It was still a little early for the vegetation to be in full bloom but there were hundreds of Common Twayblade and Cowslip as well as around 10 Early Purple Orchid which were far past there best. It was a very enjoyable stop but the pressure was on to get back to my desk.

Duke of Burgundy - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Duke of Burgundy - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Duke of Burgundy - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Small Heath - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Common Blue - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Common Blue - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Small Blue - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Dingy Skipper - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

The micromoth Pyrausta purpurea - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Common Twayblade - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Eyebright - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Common Milkwort - Noar Hill NNR, Selbourne

Friday, 26 April 2019

Cerro Mongus (Ecuador) - 26th April (Day 2)

I was up at 04:45 had a much needed shower and packed my bags ready for a morning in the field. After coffee we headed from our hotel and after a short way turned off the tarmac and onto a cobbled road weaving its way through a dry Andean Valley with spectacular hills either side and spreading into the distance as far as one could see. At each junction of the road Gabo slowed and asked for directions just to check he was heading the right way, it was some time since he had visited Cerro Mongus. Eventually, after winding up the cobbled road for almost an hour the road turned to a steep dirt road and we climbed as far as we could before parking at the furthest limited we could drive. The weather was superb, so often it is wet and foggy here but today it was clear, with a light breeze and dry. From the car we walked the last kilometre or so to the Elfin Forest at Cerro Mongus. It was moderately steep and muddy and at 3700m the oxygen was a little thin and I found it fairly tough going. But we soon entered decent habitat and started seeing a few birds, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Tyrian Metaltail and Great Thrush. Conscious that the main target here can be very difficult we pushed on through the forest and into the Espelitia dotted grassland of the paramo, here we fairly quickly came across a female Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, my first new bird of the trip and while a little dull the striking orange crest was a standout feature. We pushed on trying to locate the drainage channel which marks the only ‘trail’ into the forest. After a while we located the trail and followed this into the forest which was not much more then 4m tall. At the first clearing we scanned for a while and then Gabo played the tape of our main target, Chestnut-bellied Cotinga and to our amazement after a few plays a bird responded very near to where we stood. It wasn’t long before a superb male popped out onto a nearby twig and we had amazing views of this near mythical bird which was first discovered as recently as 1989. Over the next 30 minutes we enjoyed prolonged views of a male and two females as they fed in the canopy of the forest.

We then birded around one kilometre of the trail seeing Andean Guan, Western Tawny-bellied AntpittaMasked Mountain-tanager, Stolzmann's Tanager, Golden-crowned Tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanagerBlack-breasted Mountain-tanager and White-throated Tyrannulet but as the heat gained the bird activity died and so we decided to move on. As we left the forest we spent some time admiring the beautiful paramo habitat with its abundance of Espelitias and watching a group of Andean Siskin. In the next forest patch we tried for our next key target, Crescent-faced Antpitta and after a few plays of the tape a bird responded downslope, a few more plays of the tape and a few more responses but the bird stayed put and so we opted to head downslope through the forest to located our target. We stopped and played again and after a short while a movement, not our target but a fine Rufous Antpitta. Gabo explained that the Rufous Antpitta is dominant over Crescent-faced and often the latter will not appear if the former is present. We descended further downslope to a bamboo thicket and tried the tape once more but again the Rufous Antipitta appeared. We decided to head for the next territory and after pushing our way through the bamboo and settling we again played the tape but little happened, a Grey-browed Brush-finch appeared and Gabo caught a brief glimpse of a bird that he thought may have been an Antpitta but nothing showed. We decided to head back to the first territory but had no joy, we resigned ourselves to a dip and headed back to the car and made our decent along the cobbled road and dry inter-Andean valley back to Urcuqui. We arrived at 13:30, packed bags had a quick lunch of Talapia and rice and set-off on the 1.45 drive to Casa de Eliza, Limonal. By the time we arrived it was 16:00 and too late to head to the Chical Road and so we relaxed and birded from our balcony adding Scrub Tanager, Lemon-rumped Tanager, Buff-throated Saltator, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and a few other scrappers to the list.

Rainbow-bearded Thornbill - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Rainbow-bearded Thornbill - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Grass Wren - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Red-crested Cotinga - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Chestnut-bellied Cotinga - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Chestnut-bellied Cotinga - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Chestnut-bellied Cotinga - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Black-chested Mountain-tanager - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Masked Mountain-tanager - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Masked Mountain-tanager - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Rufous Antpitta - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Beautiful paramo grassland habitat with numerous Espelitia - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Espelitia - Cerro Mongus, Carchi, Ecuador

Thursday, 25 April 2019

North-west Ecuador - Background and 24th April (Day 1)

Background
I had long wanted to visit Ecuador having only visited Bella Vista for a days birding prior to a long trip through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Tierra del Fuego. There are around 400 ticks for me in the country and having worked through various trip reports and studied lists of the Endemic Bird Areas (EBA's) in the country I had decided that the Choco region in the north-west of the country offered the best return for a two week trip.

The Choco region extends the length of western Colombia and Ecuador and includes the coastal lowlands and the eastern slope of the Andes up to an altitude of 3,800m. The region is one of the wettest areas on earth with 16,000mm of rain annually and the habitat is dominated by humid to wet forest of varying types. Commonly for most countries in the tropics, deforestation in the region is described as major. At the highest altitudes the forests give way to paramo habitats characterised by wet grassland with tall composites such as Espelitia and patches of Poylepis woodland. There are over 50 species of bird endemic to the region and high levels of endemism in plants, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. There are over 4,000 species of butterfly present, an amazing total for such a small country. The majority of endemic bird species are found in the lower tropical areas and up to the subtropical foothill forests with relatively few species in the higher altitude areas.

Logistics
I was to undertake this trip alone with a guide, most of my other travelling buddies have already been to Ecuador, often on multiple occasions, and so I opted to undertake my first lone, longer duration foreign birding trip. Having been recommended a guide, Gabriel Bucheli, we worked through various iterations of an itinerary and settled on one that followed an ant-clockwise circuit from Quito northwards towards the Colombian border before dropping down westwards into the lowland forests at Playa del Oro and returning south and then east via the Mindo area.

I provided Gabriel with a list of around 150 species that I still needed and occurred in the NW area of Ecuador, some were ridiculously rare in this part of Ecuador or occurring in too remote an area for this trip and eventually we whittled the list down to around 120 potentially gettable species. Clearly, in the Neotropics one will never see all targets due to the nature of the habitats and the species but I considered a target or around 100 new species to be a good goal.

Gabriel (or Gabo) was a first rate guide and I would fully recommend him for a guided trip to Ecuador he knew the birds and their calls exceptionally well and new the locations of territories of many, if not all, of the target species. He was great company and we became good friends over the course of the two weeks, by the end of the trip I was planning my next trip to Ecuador with him. Gabriel can be contacted on gabucheli@gmail.com but note that he is often in the field and may not respond immediately.

Gabo charged me $6,250 for the full trip which included all accommodation, park entrance fees, food, vehicle and guiding. I then spent an additional $20 a day on beer, laundry and tips. I am sure the trip could be done cheaper especially without a guide, its an easy country to travel in but of course using a guide has massive advantages. Gabo has a good vehicle which could easily accommodate a group of three and so this would make a similar trip for such a group pretty good value.

Photography and Equipment
This was my first major trip with my Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II and I took with me the 300 F4 Pro lens with a 1.4 converter and also the 28-100mm lens (which I didn't use). It took me a long time to decide to take this camera/lens combination rather than my Canon 1DX Mark 2 and 400mm DO Mark 2. It was partly David Tipling who convinced me to take my Olympus set-up while I was on a course with him in February. My biggest concern was the poorer high ISO performance of the Olympus over the Canon, a potential significant constraint when birding in the dark forest interior. David showed me how to overcome this by becoming confident in using the camera at slower shutter speeds than I would the Canon. This confidence in use of the slower shutter speed allowed me to keep the ISO low, and for much of time I was shooting below at or below 400 ISO, in the dark forest interior I would sometimes go up to 1250 ISO. As an owner of a bad back, I love the light weight and portable nature of the camera and lens and so I was keen to give it a try in forest conditions.

My doubts about the Olympus before the trip were well and truly laid to rest when using the kit in the field. I found this to be a truly remarkable camera, perhaps not quite as pin sharp as the Canon set-up but I found the lens to be more versatile than my Canon set-up and a better performer in low light conditions primarily due to the in-camera and in-lens stabilisation. This means that you can shoot at far slower shutter speeds than you can with the Canon while still achieving no image blur. There were images that I obtained, okay not award winning, of species that I would never have achieved with the Canon set-up. Take my images of the Pittasoma, these were shot with the bird in thick understorey cover in very low light and at around 30th/second – I simply would not have been able to obtain images of the quality I did with the Canon that I did with the Olympus. Time to sell my remaining Canon kit when I return home!

I also took with me my Sennheiser microphone and Olympus recorder but I hardly used it. The reason for this is that, having not been to South America since Colombia in 2012, I found the sheer number of birds at times overwhelming and so I concentrated on looking at them and photographing where possible – to take sound recordings as well would have detracted from one of the other two.

Weather
We had a lot of rain! On most days we had at least some heavy rain, this was especially so in Playa de Oro and in the Bellavista area. Rain often fell in the afternoon but we had several days where there was also continuous or at least intermittent rain in the morning. At Playa de Oro it was particularly hot and humid when not raining, most notably on Day 6. Awa Road, Tundaloma area and Silanche were also hot. On the remaining days we were at higher altitudes and the temperature was pleasant. Finally, we had a lot of fog when birding the Bellavista area and this often combined with rain to make fairly unpleasant conditions. At times the weather definitely had a negative impact on birding, most notably on the afternoon of Day 4 and Day 6 and much of Day 12.

Annoyances
Other than regular rain and fog Ecuador was a very pleasant place to travel. I took no malaria pills as the risk in the north-west is very low and non-existent in the mountains. The only issues we had were largely in the lowlands. At Playa de Oro I picked up some mild food poisoning but it didn't really affect my birding. Also at Playa de Oro both Gabo and I picked up a fairly heavy dose of Chiggers which were incredibly itchy. Also in the lowland areas and as far up as at least Milpe we were almost constantly followed by small numbers of mosquitos which seemed to like to target the hands and wrists for their lunch.

Summary Itinerary
  • 25th April (Day 1) - 06:20 flight Heathrow to Madrid then 11:50 flight to Quito. Flight arrived at 16:00 then transfer to Hostería El Oasis in Urcuqui.
  • 26th April (Day 2) - Cerro Mongus AM, then drive to Limonal.
  • 27th April (Day 3) - Chical Road and Awa Road. Then drive to San Lorenzo.
  • 28th April (Day 4) - Tundaloma area AM. Then drive to Selva Alegre and boat to Playa de Oro.
  • 29th April (Day 5) - Playa de Oro.
  • 30th April (Day 6) - Playa de Oro.
  • 1st May (Day 7) - Playa de Oro AM then drive to Pendro Bicente Maldonado stopping at Playa las Penas en-route.
  • 2nd May (Day 8) – Silanche and Rancho Suamox AM then drive to Chontoloma Lodge near to Mashpi town.
  • 3rd May (Day 9) - Mashpi Shungo AM and Santa Rosa Road PM.
  • 4th May (Day 10) – Mashpi Amagusa AM then Oilbird Caves PM. Drive to Los Bancos. 
  • 5th May (Day 11) - 23 de Junio AM then Milpe Gardens and reserve late AM/early PM. Rest of PM spent on Old Nono - Mindo Road.
  • 6th May (Day 12) – San Jorge de Milpe Lodge AM. Bellavista area PM. 
  • 7th May (Day 13) – Paz de las Aves and Bellavista AM. PM drive to Nono via Tandayapa.
  • 8th May (Day 14) - Yanacocha Reserve AM then drive to Quito for 17:40 flight to Madrid.
  • 9th May (Day 15) – Flight Madrid to London arrive London 13:35.

Map showing the key sites and species recorded during our trip. Zoom into map and click on pins for more details (note the map has not yet been fully populated with species and I shall complete this as I prepare additional blog posts).

25th April - International Flight to Quito
On the 24th I was in bed by 22:30 but awake by 01:00, for the next hour I snoozed but struggled to sleep. At 02:00 the alarm went off and I hurriedly had coffee, finalised my packing and at 02:45 my taxi arrived to take me to Heathrow Terminal 5, after an easy journey with little traffic I arrived at 04:15, checked in and was soon through security. It was not until 05:30 that shops and lounges opened and so I sat and read for a while. Boarding the 06:20 flight to Madrid at 05:45 I soon drifted to sleep and the two-hour flight was soon over. The transfer from the London-Madrid flight to the Madrid-Quito flight was very swift and I was through security by 09:00 and by 09:15 was relaxing with a coffee in the Iberia Airways lounge genning on the trip. My 11:50 flight eventually left the runway at 12:15 and I began the flight relaxing with a wine or two and trying to get my head around the myriad of birds that was possible over the coming days; not easy with a memory as poor as mine. I managed around four hours sleep and awoke to turbulence as we passed over St Maarten in the Caribbean we passed over Caracas and headed south-west along the spine of the Andes passing over Bogota. As we landed into Quito at 16:30 the lush vegetation of the basin in which the city is located looked remarkably European with tall tree-lines, copses and pastoral fields.

The outskirts of Quito

Passing through immigration, collecting my bags and passing through security was remarkably fast and by 16:50 I was out in the foyer looking for Gabo who was due to be there at 16:45. I wandered around scanning all the signs with various names but my name was nowhere to be seen. 30 minutes passed of searching and I began to wonder whether I had been shammed by a person pretending to be a bird guide, I then cooked my plan to stay in a hotel overnight and then book a flight back to the UK tomorrow and abandon foreign birding entirely. And then, out of the now very sparse crowd appeared a smiling and apologetic Gabo, he had forgotten that he needed to help his wife organise for a fair and then, on leaving home to collect me, he had realised that he had his wife’s mobile in the car and so had to head back to his home in Quito. All was good and we hurriedly loaded his 4x4 and headed out of the airport. A short way out we stopped at a small reservoir where we added our first birds to the list as darkness fell with Slate-coloured Coot, Yellow-billed Pintail, Pied-billed Grebe, Snowy Egret, Neotropical Cormorant, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

We then began the two-hour drive to Urcuqui making various stops en-route for fuel and water. We arrived at our hotel the Hostería El Oasis at just gone 20:15, grabbed a quick fish and vegetable dish and a couple of beers and crashed ready for tomorrows first proper birding.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Slimbridge WWT, Hayling Island, Denny Wood and Pennington Marsh - 17th - 24th April

With the last days before my next foreign trip, work and family life have been hectic. The glorious, warm sunny Easter weekend of 19th April was spent decorating at home with some time on the beach with friends and family and enjoying the garden. Birding of late has been confined to a few short jaunts when time allowed. On 14th April we were at Cowley and so I spent a couple of hours at Slimbridge WWT reserve while Sarah was with friends. Highlights were six Sand Martin, two Willow Warbler, a single Swallow, Sedge Warbler and a few left over Wigeon, Pintail and Teal.

Avocet were showing very well from the Rushy Hide with 29 birds present - Slimbridge WWT

Avocet - Rushy Hide, Slimbridge

Black-headed Gulls were looking fine - Slimbridge WWT

After a breeding bird survey near to Bognor Regis on 17th April, where the highlights were my first Whitethroat, Wheatear and Yellow Wagtail of the year as well as good numbers of Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, I stopped for a short walk along the Billy Line to the Oysterbeds on Hayling Island. The highlights here were three Whitethroat, 12 Whimbrel and Willow Warbler. I spent some time at the Oysterbeds enjoying the hundreds of nesting Mediterranean Gull and Black-headed Gull and my first Sandwich Tern of the year.

Whimbrel - Hayling Island

Whitethroat - Hayling Island

Nesting Black-headed and Mediterranean Gull - Oysterbeds, Hayling Island

Mediterranean Gull - Oysterbeds, Hayling Island

Mediterranean Gull - Oysterbeds, Hayling Island

Mediterranean Gull - Oysterbeds, Hayling Island

Sandwich Tern and Mediterranean Gull - Oysterbeds, Hayling Island

Later in the day on 17th April I popped to Denny Wood where there were good numbers of Redstart on territory. Its always a great pleasure to see these stunning birds in the fresh green, spring leaves of Beech and Oak at Denny Wood.

Redstart - Denny Wood, New Forest

On 18th and 24th I spent a couple of hours at Pennington Marsh, on 18th I walked the Ancient Highway and back around the seawall to Jetty Lagoon and back to the car park. On 24th I walked out past Fishtail Lagoon and back to the carpark. There were many Reed Warbler and Whitethroat on territory as well as small numbers of Sedge Warbler. Up to seven Ruff were present including a stunning rufous necked bird. On both days there were up to six Spoonbill on Fishtail Lagoon. There appear to be two pairs of Little Ringed Plover breeding on Fishtail Lagoon this year. Other highlights included two Common Tern, two Little Tern, a partial summer plumaged Spotted Sandpiper and a stunning summer plumaged Turnstone. 

Ruff - Fishtail Lagoon, Pennington Marsh

Spotted Redshank - Fishtail Lagoon, Pennington Marsh

Turnstone - Fishtail Lagoon, Pennington Marsh

Time in the garden produced my first Holly Blue of the year and a couple of Orange-tip but despite scanning the skies over a few cold beers while revising for my trip there were no fly-over migrants.

Orange-tip - Romsey

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Cheesefoot Head and Fishlake Meadows - 8th-9th April

Time has been very tight of late and it appears that the spring is slipping by without me being able to get into the field to enjoy the migrants arriving.

On 8th April I popped to Cheesefoot Head to the east of Winchester where two Dotterel had been present since 6th April. At times the birds had been showing well but I arrived just as the birds had flown and it took some time to relocate the birds, when they were relocated they were just about central within a large wheat field and views were distant through the heat haze. The female bird was just gaining some black on the belly and rufous on the underparts, the male was rather drab. Also here was a single singing Corn Bunting, several Yellowhammer and good numbers of Meadow Pipit and Skylark.

Distant Dotterel in the heat haze at Cheesefoot Head, the female is the left hand bird.

The Dotterel were in the middle of this large field

Cheesefoot Head

On 8th and 9th April I popped into Fishlake Meadows Hampshire Wildlife Trust reserve on the northern outskirts of Romsey. This reserve is only a few minutes from my house but I rarely visit, as previously access has been difficult away from the canal path along the eastern edge of the reserve and a path along the northern edge or one had to lurk, dubiously, behind a bus shelter to view the areas of open water. Now that the reserve has been taken over by the Trust there are hard surfaced paths and viewing screens - its really quite a pleasant reserve.

Over the couple of days that I visited I had great views of a pair of Garganey (unfortunately my camera had run out of juice), three Great White Egret, a Glossy Ibis in a pony paddock to the east of the reserve and my first Sedge Warbler (3), Reed Warbler (1), Swallow (6), House Martin (4) and Sand Martin (25) of the year. Also here were good numbers of Pochard, Shoveler, Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting and Cetti's Warbler.

Great White Egret - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey

Chiffchaff - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey

Grey Wagtail - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey

Cetti's Warbler - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey

Great White Egret - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey

Glossy Ibis - Fishlake Meadows, Romsey