Monday, 28 April 2014

Let's go fly a Kite

Last weekend my other half and I found ourselves back in the Brecon Beacons, and walking up the tallest hill in the southern half of these fair islands. Let me tell you, once you've tried real mountains these piddly sub-1000m mounds of earth just don't command the same kind of respect - and I live in Essex where, as I may have mentioned in the past, even the speed bumps get contour lines. Yes the top might be hidden by cloud, but there's not even a snow-line. That's not to say I didn't wonder once or twice on the way up why I put myself through this, but there was never any doubt that we'd reach the top, and the view from the summit is stunning.

My abiding memory from that climb is Skylarks all the way up, absolutely everywhere, singing their little hearts out. It really is an amazing sound and the sheer number was enough to make me happy, even if the views consisted of small black specks against bright blue sky (in Wales! Very unexpected, but most welcome).

However, since I was walking, I didn't have a camera, so you are rescued from pictures of small black specks. Instead, you get pictures of Red Kites, you lucky people.

Yes, we did Gigrin farm. Yes, I took the long lens. Yes, it's as good as cheating and there are a dozen blurry, overexposed photos for every one of the four half decent ones below, but it's hella fun. I don't have an expensive camera or even a particularly good lens, so I was going for Character. I wanted Kites Doing Interesting Things to compensate for the fact that the photo quality wasn't going to be anything special. Fortunately, Kites feed a bit like Terns, except that instead of plunging into water they perform death defying last second pull outs when they dive for food. It is a joy to watch.

Besides of which, take a hundred photos and odds are you'll have 4 good ones to share.

And if you ever find yourself up that way and in need of a bed and breakfast, I can 100% recommend the New Hall Guesthouse in Llanwrtyd Wells. It is friendly and awesome and the breakfast is amazing.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The three signs of madness

The first sign of madness is well known to be hairs growing on the palms of one's hands.

The second sign of madness is, of course, looking for said hairs.

The third sign of madness is less well known, but no less serious. It comes in the form of an hallucination, and strikes suddenly and without warning. It leaves the sufferer disoriented, confused, and if they are unlucky enough to tell others, slightly mocked.

Today I thought I saw a Swift. In February. Which is ridiculous.

The vision lasted about half a second. It took the form of an explosive, whippy-winged, swift-sized ball; briefly silhouetted against a bright blue sky (surely an hallucination in itself) as it crashed into my field of view from behind a rooftop, turned on a wing-tip and disappeared at warp speed whence it came.

**A brief aside** I love the word whence. I should use it more often.

I know it can't be a Swift. Everything I know about birds and migration tells me that I won't see a swift for at least another three months. The trouble is, I'm having real trouble thinking of anything else it might have been. Nothing else flies like that; it just felt... swifty. The only birds I can think of that come close are also 2 months away and, consequently, just as unlikely.

I have not yet dared consider that we've just had three large storm systems sweeping in across the Atlantic. For sure I'll be doing a lot of staring out the back window for the next week or so, but I'm pretty sure urban Essex is not the first stop of choice for American passerines so let's discount that possibility for now.

So I throw this riddle out there to the world, in the hope that someone can show me a path back to sanity. Any suggestions? What am I missing? This is one dodgy ID that even I couldn't have mistaken for a pigeon at a funny angle, so what could it be?

Put me out of my misery please. Suggestions in the comments.

This is not the swift. But it is a swift. What looks like this?

Monday, 23 September 2013

Sri Lanka part 3 - the rest

I've lost momentum a bit with this Sri Lanka series, but by this point in the holiday the birding was more opportunistic than anything. That said, it was the source of new species 70, bringing my trip list to its final total. Also notable for finally seeing a couple of photos that can be classed somewhere above 'record shot'. unfortunately that doesn't apply to the first batch, taken from a guest house balcony while waiting for food.

Oriental Magpie Robin

Yellow Billed Babbler doing babbling

The next day, however, saw another boat trip, and the last chance to grab some decent photos before we were taken back to the airport the next morning. I'm quite happy with some of these.

Greater Crested Terns - bird number 70.

So good it gets a second photo

Indian Pond Heron, full of awesome

Pair of White Bellied Sea Eagles roosting in the tallest tree in the most awkward spot for viewing. Seriously, I wasn't even certain I'd seen them until I zoomed in on the photo.

White Throated Kingfishers

And so we said farewell to Sri Lanka, probably nevermore to return. The biodiversity is stunning, but at the moment there's little else that you can't see by staying closer to home and spending considerably less money. Still, it's a country undergoing a huge amount of rebuilding. We'll give it a few years and see.
And if we don't go back, I'll always have my nearly endemic green pigeon.

It's not bad here really

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Sri Lanka part 2 - Sigiriya

Sigiriya was one of my favourite places on this trip. It had an excellent combination of good food, good wildlife and a massive hill to climb. It was also the bit of the tour where I first saw an Elephant.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Not actually anywhere near Sigiriya.

We stopped in here on the drive between Negombo and Sigiriya, and due to some excellent timing from the guide, managed to arrive about half an hour before the elephants are walked out of the river and over the road, passing within touching distance of the crowd as they go. It was awesome.

Elephants are brilliant. Fact.

On arriving at the hotel, the guide pulled us over into a layby next to a fantastic bit of open marshland and got out his binoculars. Over the next half hour I added about a dozen species to my life list, and took no photos whatsoever. But I did get a good view of the next morning's challenge.

Imagine climbing a flimsy metal fire escape up the side of a massive windy building. Did you do that? Good, now imagine doing it while walking past this sign at the bottom:

And then seeing this about 20 feet away near the top:

It was an 'experience'. But the view was worth it.

The rest of the day was a combinaton of birdwatching and safari (MORE ELEPHANTS!). There are an obscene number of photos from both of those events, so in the same vein as the previous post, I'll finish up with a massive list of photos.

Baya Weaver hanging onto its nest in high winds.

Black Headed Ibis

Brahminy Kites. Also, photo of the day.

Brown Headed Barbet looking a bit bedraggled.

Lesser Adjutant Stork.

A flock of Painted Storks, and in the bottom right a single Black Winged Stilt.

I have seen PEACOCK in the wild! This was a cool moment.

Red Vented Bulbul.

Spot Billed Pelican

My one and only (proposed) endemic of the trip, Sri Lankan Green Pigeon

Stork Billed Kingfisher. It's  now a bit boring only having one Kingfisher in this country, but to be fair it's by far the best one.

White Bellied Sea Eagle

White Rumped Shama

Definitely not a birdwatching holiday

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sri Lanka Part 1 - Negombo

First up, I think it's important to point out that Sri Lanka was not a birdwatching trip (whatever Mrs Fst0pped may claim) - there was no chasing of endemics (of which there are 33 species either confirmed or proposed), and all birding took place in easily accessible locations either near or in transit between the places we were staying. Having said that, I mentioned to the tour organiser (Jith of WalkwithJith fame, if you see him at Birdfair tell him Andrew and Amy said hi!) that I liked to watch birds and we mysteriously ended up with naturalists as tour guides. So I didn't do too badly.

No birds; just a beach, some exotic trees and the Indian ocean.

And Sri Lanka is green. Unbelievably green. White Throated Kingfishers sit on telegraph wires over rice paddies, Common Mynas and Yellow Billed Babbler's flock like starlings across the ground, pecking through the dust for scraps; even the bloody pigeons are green, and I had the great pleasure at one point of seeing a Sri Lanka Green Pigeon perched in a tree (proposed endemic, split from Pompadour Green Pigeon - hoping for an armchair endemic tick at some point in the future). Just a pair of binoculars and a spare half hour off the beaten track was usually enough to catch up with 20+ different species. It's another world.

Our first couple of days were spent in a 'Holiday Village' resort in Negombo. The resort was to Sri Lanka as University is to the real world - nothing like the real experience but a good way of easing into the unfamiliar. After a 10 hour overnight flight spent sat behind a toddler, who screamed for approximately 9.5 hours of it, the first day was basically a write off and was spent reading, sleeping and taking gratuitous photos of beaches and waves. The second morning of our stay, we had an early boat trip up and down the river surrounding the resort. This is where the birds started flowing.

Big list of photos below. Very much record shots, no extra work done on them. A few might appear on the Flickr with a bit of cleaning up, but here on the blog they are unadulterated other than occasional heavy cropping.

You all know this one right? Wader migrants are usually winter birds, so this is a good find for this time of year. An odd glimpse of home among the more exotic avifauna. 

Greater Coucal, with the menacing red eye. Better views had later in the trip, but no better photos.

Indian Thick Knee. Those bulbous eyes are just as strange and disturbing in real life.

My guides called this out as a Plain Prinia, but comparing book with photo from the comfort of my own home I'm 95% certain this what we have here is a Jungle Prinia. The supercilium and mantle colour are difficult to call in this light, but that chunky curved bill is fairly diagnostic. Confident enough that the trip list has been updated anyway, though I may Birdforum it for lulz.

Male and Female Pied Kingfishers, nicely posed to show off their differences. The male has the double breast band, while the female above has the broken band.

Purple Heron

I debated lazily reusing the Striated Heron shot from the last post, but decided that it stood out too much because it's actually half decent. Viva la mediocrity.

White Breasted Waterhen. Apparently wanting to kill me.

White Throated Kingfisher. More common than sparrows.

Red Wattled Lapwing. Only slightly less common than White Throated Kingfisher.

Friday, 9 August 2013

How to be an activist without getting arrested

Yesterday I flew back into the UK after 10 days in Sri Lanka. This morning I was wide awake at 05:45. The story of the trip will be told over the next few posts, but for now I'm lacking the willpower to trawl through an SD card full of photos. So instead, here is a fairly shameless plug for an old university friend of mine.

Ruth is a freelance journalist who, among other things, specialises in social and environmental issues and occasionally flirts with travel writing (and, for those interested, has managed to combine all three of these things on her Ethical Travel blog). She is a very nice person, and in the last few days she has released an e-book called "The Armchair Activist's Handbook".

I've been quite excited about this for a while because - quite apart from the reflected glory of being able to tell people that one of my old coursemates has actually used her English degree, and TO DO SOMETHING OTHER THAN TEACHING (this is very rare) - I am a person who would love to do more (i.e. something) to change the world for the better but doesn't really like the idea of chaining myself to railings, or dropping ill-considered fire extinguishers onto policemen's heads. And there's that "work" thing that takes up all the interesting bits of the day.

It occurs to me that readers of this blog - nature loving, mortgage/rent paying lot that you are - will probably empathise with this, and might also be quite interested in the concept of "Armchair Activism". The book is split into 10 sections, from food, to clothing, to the exploitation of natural resources, and each section contains a few different case studies describing the things ordinary people have done to help make their little corner of the world a better place (my favourite might just be guerilla gardening, and there's a spot at the end of my road that's crying out for it. Watch this space). It's inspiring, and there's almost certainly something in there that's within your power, even if it's just picking nettles for soup.

I think you'll agree that at £1.59, this book is quite clearly priced to raise awareness rather than to make money, and that awareness is something that's all too sadly lacking in the population at large at the moment. You can read the introduction and the first chapter on Amazon by clicking to look inside the book; I really enjoyed it, so take a wander over, have a read and see what you think.


Right, enough of the non-bird related material. Next stop: Sri Lanka Part 1 - Negombo

Striated Heron - Negombo, Sri Lanka

The author of this blog reserves the right to have picked out the best photo in the collection to advertise this next post in order to make it look like all his photos are this interesting, and will not be held responsible for any crushing disappointment that may follow as a result.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

So I have a garden

Much as you were all enjoying the radio silence, it has occured to me that I haven't yet told the internetz about my new(ish) patch. Here it is:

Yes, I have a back garden! This is exciting. I can use it for sitting in, I can dig things, and since we discovered sunshine today I actually got to have a mini-BBQ.

Most importantly though, it means I get to keep a garden list of my very own.

I haven't actually been keeping a garden list, because that would involve being organised and writing things down, but I have been keeping a semi-formal list in my head, which features such marvels as Song Thrush and Skylark (yes, Skylark. Added on song, drifting across from the farm just over the back. Never thought I'd get that on a garden list in Romford).

It's taken some effort even to get it into the shape you see above, but I have [significant pause] plans for it. Many of them outlandish and stupid, but I think the insect hotel is doable, and maybe getting some kind of fruit bush planted to try and attract some Turdus next year. We won't be re-enacting The Good Life any time soon, but the hour I spent sitting outside this evening baking trout, sipping beer and watching Swifts screaming overhead was thoroughly pleasant, and I look forward to many more of its ilk.

Birds are still very much a part of my life - I still make a point of chasing down things I don't recognise by song and I still see the common stuff everywhere - it's just actual birdwatching trips that are in short supply, hence no posts. But in three weeks or so that is likely to change.

If I don't fill at least three memory cards I'm going to be disappointed.