Sri Lanka 2017 Part 3 – Lunugamvehera & Sinharaja

We certainly made the right decision on the morning of the 18th July. The previous day we had been touring Block 1 of Yala National Park, seeing very little. Yala is the worst nightmare of anyone who likes to watch wildlife in peace and in near-solitude, as no less than 125 Jeeps were crammed into this tiny section of the park that day.

However, the following morning we decided to go that extra bit further to Lunugamvehera National Park, which is attached to Yala however significantly less popular. I have no idea why that is, because as soon as we entered the park were we racing towards our first Leopard sighting of the day.

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We had brilliant views of this Leopard, much better than I’ve ever had before. In most other places where Leopards are found, there are other big cats inhabiting the area which drive the leopards into cover for a lot of the day and they become very shy. In Africa, it is lions and in India, there are Tigers. However, in Sri Lanka, there are no predators larger than Leopards and therefore they’re far more relaxed. We were able to watch this Leopard for a long time as it rested within a thin thicket, before getting up and moving slowly into the shade of a tree where it would probably spend the first few hours of the Sri Lankan day-time heat.

Lunugamvehera is not a huge park, and therefore we made a few circuits during the day. There are always new things to see on every circuit, such as Lesser Adjutants and a Stripe-necked Mongoose on the dry river bed, a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers above a beautiful secluded river, and on the open plains an Indian Roller perched on a bare tree for all to see.

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Stripe-necked Mongoose

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Lesser Adjutant

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Stork-billed Kingfisher

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Indian Roller

The second circuit was a little more exciting than the others, however. We were driving through the arid woodland when the guides noticed huge tracks on the side of the road that could only belong to one animal: a Sloth Bear! We increased our speed slightly as we drove in the direction the rather fresh tracks were heading, and after a bit of driving back-and-forth we heard from the other vehicle that they had just seen the Sloth Bear heading our way. We waited on the road and sure enough, we managed to spot a bear slowly ambling through the small trees towards the road in front of us. As it reached the road it increased its speed suddenly and lolloped across the track: a wonderful sight.

The rest of the day in the park continued as one would expect it to in the searing heat of the Sri Lankan arid zone. There was not too much happening mammal-wise, although as the sun and the temperatures began to sink, that all changed.

The Jeep drivers and the local guides all know each other really well, and therefore an efficient network is maintained that allows drivers to know about sightings in the vicinity. This came into play very nicely as our Jeep driver became aware of a Leopard that had just been seen near the reservoir in the centre of the park.

It’s a huge reservoir, with an impressive dam that is featured on Sri Lankan currency (the 5000 rupee note). It is surrounded by a forest of skeletons, the remains of the forest that had stood in the area before the construction of the dam. The washed-out trees still stand sturdy like statues, creating a unique landscape, dotted with large ponds left behind by the receding water of the dry season. These ponds are full of a plethora of water birds, such as the Painted Storks struggling with fish far too large and the Indian Pond Herons chasing each other around the muddy edges.

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The bird-filled ponds

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Indian Pond Heron

It was just after we pulled up beside one of these ponds that we spotted the Leopard strolling nonchalantly towards rim of the pond basin – scattering the storks, herons, plovers and ibises – where it lay down. It just seemed completely oblivious to the vehicle, and everything else around it. As the setting sun cast an awe-inspiring glow over the Leopard’s beautiful coat and the bizarre landscape, it really was a memorable moment.

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Unfortunately, we soon had to get going to avoid being fined for a late exit. However, even as we were rushing back to the gates, our experience in Lunugamvehera was not over. All of a sudden, one of the guides knocked three times on the side of the vehicle, meaning ‘stop’. As we halted and began to reverse, none other than our third Leopard of the day came into view. It was drinking from a watering-hole no more than 15-20 metres from the road! An amazing end to a brilliant day in Sri Lanka.

The following morning, as we were leaving our hotel at Yala, I realised that we only had a limited amount of time left in Sri Lanka. However, I think we had saved the best until last. We were leaving Yala for the Sinharaja Rainforest: a serious birder’s dream and a leech-hater’s worst nightmare!

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We were lucky to have two full days within the rainforest. My ambition for the trip as a whole was to manage to see as many of the endemics as possible, and we were already doing well. I had 13 left to see, and all of them could be found in the Sinharaja Rainforest and the surrounding area. It would be very tricky to see them all; however I would try my best.

Entering the Sinharaja Rainforest with a guide is compulsory, and the tour leaders made sure that we had a guide that would be able to show us as much of our target wildlife as possible. It turned out that the leaders had made a very good choice; within only about 45 minutes we had already seen a number of the target birds, including Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, Sri Lanka Myna and Sri Lanka Crested Drongo. This was because it’s a long drive up from the ticket counter to the reserve entrance, only about 1km however incredibly bumpy due to the floods the month before. We were travelling in a Toyota Pickup, meaning that our local guide was able to stand up in the back and spot all the birds that we would otherwise have missed!

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Sri Lanka Myna

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Sri Lanka Crested Drongo

By the time we arrived at the entrance it was around 8am and too late for the morning activity; however I only had 9 more endemics to see. Although due to the rainforest canopy keeping out a lot of the hot sun, birds are active to some extent throughout most of the day. Many species form bird waves that travel through the forest feeding on anything in their path. These we were actively seeking out, as they almost always have a few goodies among them!

It wasn’t long before we came across our first bird wave of the morning. The bird waves are usually dominated by Orange-billed Babblers, and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes were also a key part of them (another new endemic!). We were also able to add Red-faced Malkoha to our list! Unfortunately, birds in the bird wave are always quite mobile; the rainforest is thick with vegetation, meaning that these birds were incredibly hard to take photos of!

After the bird wave passed through, it was almost as if it was becoming night-time! We heard two and possibly even three Spot-bellied Eagle-owls began to call to each other. It was quite a surreal experience! Meanwhile, our guide was down among spiny vines in a large, deep ditch trying to locate another bird of the night, which is known to roost here in roughly the same place every day. These were Sri Lankan Frogmouths, a near endemic, and it was great to be able to see them at such close quarters. The males and the females are very sexually dimorphic, which the males being the more drab and dull of the two. This is because he is in charge of incubating the eggs.

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Sri Lanka Frogmouths, Male (L), Female (R)

The next bird wave came through slowly afterwards, with more Red-faced Malkohas and Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes in the mix. And after being shown a particularly co-operative Spot-winged Thrush, I only had 6 more species to get!

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Spot-winged Thrush

Finally, we noticed that the 3rd and final bird wave was coming through. And it carried a surprise! I noticed a small, brown bird fly up on round wings onto a branch where it was half-hidden. ‘Owl’, I exclaimed! Despite all my efforts, I was unable to get anyone else onto it other than the guides. Thank goodness I had a few ‘record shots’ as proof! While the bird was actually in view, I didn’t have any time to think about what it could be. However, on looking back at my photos, I saw that it could be nothing other than a Chestnut-backed Owlet, an endemic! This species is actually diurnal like the other owlets, which would explain why it was out in the daytime. It still wasn’t something I was expecting at all!

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We moved on through the rainforest, seeing plenty of interesting invertebrates. We came across so many butterflies, including the Sri Lanka Birdwing, and I also spotted an incredibly long-legged tiger beetle. On arrival back home, it was kindly identified by Fabian Boetzl as a Sri Lankan endemic, Calochroa discrepans

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Eventually, we arrived at where I would hopefully see my number one target for the whole trip. The Serendib Scops Owl was first described as new to science in 2004 from this very rainforest, and it still remains the best place in the world to see it. However, it’s not easy to get to! First, we had to descend a steep and slippery slope to get down into a very large ditch, and then we had to wade through treacherous mud and dodge very thorny vines for quite a while. It certainly all paid off however, as we were treated to excellent views of not one but two of these brilliant owls roosting in the giant ferns. I think this was the highlight of my entire Sri Lankan holiday, being able to look right into the eyes of a ‘mythical’ bird.

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Serendib Scops Owl

The next day was very similar; however we were focused on the two species we had left to see: the Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush and the Sri Lanka Spurfowl. Being perhaps the hardest of all the endemics to see, I knew it was going to be a challenge. There were a few known places where the former could be seen, and I was eager to try some out. The first is just beside the path not too far from the entrance, and it appeared we were in luck when we heard one calling. The call is not loud and not distinctive either, and the bird was clearly moving. We crept along as silently and as quickly as we could in order to catch up to the bird, which was clearly moving unseen along the dark forest floor in front of us and to our left.

Eventually, we spotted a movement. We had caught up with the bird quicker than we anticipated. It was feeding just behind a patch of plants in front of us, right next to the path. I eased forward as slowly as I could manage, in order to get a good view of it. I have never seen a bird so camouflaged! The scales that give it its name really allow it to blend into the forest floor. Despite being only 10 metres away, if I took my eyes off it, it would take some finding to re-locate it! Not only were we able to watch it feeding so well but it also hopped up a log and flew into a tree, where it perched in the open quite high up. For an almost completely ground-dwelling species, this really was a special encounter!

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Scaly Thrush

The time of this sighting was only around mid-morning, so we were off to a good start. However, despite marvelling at a superb array of rainforest wildlife, the Sri Lanka Spurfowl eluded us for the whole day. As we headed back down the bumpy track to our lodge, I thought that we would have seen 33 out of the 34 endemics, which I wasn’t too displeased about.

Originally, I had planned to have a lie in on our final morning before heading back to the airport hotel. However, I’m glad I changed my mind at 6am! I knew I couldn’t miss the pre-breakfast bird walk, just in case something exciting was seen. You never know! And it turned out that I made the right decision…

We walked along the road from our lodge, seeing many common birds such as Green Imperial Pigeons and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers. It’s not a large or dense village, with very few houses, and soon we were walking along a cobbled road through thick forest towards some outlying buildings. Unlike the Scaly Thrush, Sri Lanka Spurfowls are very territorial and have a very loud call, which starts low but builds to a climax as the pair are duetting. Suddenly, we heard it rise up from the depths of the forest, I couldn’t quite believe it at first! They sounded quite far off but they were getting closer, toward an area of open ground beside a stream. We kept our eyes on that area of open ground and sure enough, two spurfowls  walked into view! They were quite distant, however they completed our set of endemics for the trip, which I was elated about. A super end to a super trip!

 

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 2: Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Kandy is a major Sri Lankan city, known for its tea and also the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locations for Buddhists. Located in the intermediate zone, between the dry zone and the wet zone, the climate is akin to that of a rainforest. We were staying just outside of the city, at the Tree of Life hotel. All around us was rainforest.

We could tell that the area was going to be great for birdlife on the first afternoon of our stay there. Just walking a little distance from my room, I encountered a bird wave, or more formally a mixed-species foraging flock, that was moving through the hotel gardens. Bird waves often occur during the heat of the day when the flocks result in a higher feeding efficiency. Another reason for these flocks is the increase in the number of pairs of eyes, which makes spotting predators easier.

Usually flocks form around a particular species that initiates it, the so called ‘nuclear species’ and these are usually the centre of the flock and keep its form. Often these are babblers as their obvious vocalisations probably draw in birds from the surrounding area. However, in this flock there did not seem to be a ‘nuclear species’ but more or less equal numbers of each participating species.

As we had just left the dry zone and this was our first stay in the intermediate or wet zones, the birdlife was markedly different. Within the feeding flock we came across our first Jerdon’s Leafbirds, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Sri Lanka Woodpigeons and Great Tits of the trip. The latter may not sound very exciting however it was distinctly paler than the Great Tits we get back in the UK,  and is treated by a lot of authorities as a separate species, the Cinereous Tit (Parus cinereus).

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Sri Lanka Woodpigeon

The highlight of my stay in Kandy was the session we spent in the hotel gardens during the evening, past nightfall. The hotel gardens are one of the best places to see the Giant Flying Squirrels, a species I was not expecting to see before going on this trip. Giant Flying Squirrels are mainly nocturnal animals, which have to travel from where they spend the day to where they feed at night. For the squirrels here this means crossing a road. However, they don’t do so on foot.

As it got darker, we waited on the road and scanned the canopy with our torches. Despite the tour group being unlucky last year, it wasn’t long until we spotted the eyeshine from the first flying squirrel. We watched it run along the branch right to the edge where it waited and assessed the situation. Soon it simply jumped into the air, splayed open its legs and glided into the trees on the other side of the road. Wow!

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Nuwara Eliya, the coolest town in Sri Lanka, was our next stop on our Sri Lankan tour. The town has a climate very similar to the UK’s, which made it popular with British pioneers looking for a taste of the country they came from. This has influenced several aspects of the town, especially the architecture. This town was very different to every other town we visited or passed through on our journey.

Sitting at quite an altitude, overlooked by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka, its surroundings host lots of special birdlife including some species found solely in the Sri Lankan high hills. During our stay in the town, the first site we visited was Hakgala Botanical Gardens. The gardens were surprisingly good for wildlife, considering that it’s a very popular place for schoolchildren to play in at that time of day, once classes had finished. One of the highlights was the ‘Bear Monkeys’ – a speciality of the area.

Bear Monkeys are a subspecies of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, a Sri Lankan endemic. This subspecies was given the name ‘Bear Monkey’ due to their long shaggy coat which keeps them warm in this chilly climate.

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The following day we were out very early for our trip to Horton Plains, the main reason we were staying at Nuwara Eliya. Upon arrival at the national park, the only one in Sri Lanka where you can walk freely and don’t have to stay in a vehicle, we split into two groups. I chose the slower paced group as I thought that it would give me a greater chance of seeing more birds, and I was right!

I had two main targets for this walk, the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler and the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush. I hadn’t very high hopes for the Whistling Thrush as its a very elusive species that usually only shows itself in the open at dusk or dawn, and by the time we had arrived at the park it was a bit too late in the day.

However, we did have luck with the other target, as not long after we set off I heard a short, clear call coming from the dry, scrubby montane forest. A small brown bird hopped into my view, only metres away, and began hopping around on a bank right next to the path. It was highly mobile and in deep cover, but it was a great sighting, especially after another Sri Lanka Bush Warbler joined it.

At one point along the walk, I stopped by a stream and waited a little while to see what turned up. This is the favourite habitat of the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush, which nests in stream banks and patrols the streams to look for food. Although I predictably had no luck with the thrush, I did sense a movement behind me. I looked around to see, on a log barely a few feet away, a small dark squirrel hopping along. There are several species of squirrel in Sri Lanka, ranging in size from the Grizzled Giant Squirrel, about the size of a monkey, to this, the Dusky Striped Squirrel. An uncommon species, Horton Plains is one of the best places to see it.

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Now that we had explored the mid- and high-hills, we then headed back down into the lowlands. Next stop: Yala NP.

A few other photo-highlights from our stay in the hills:

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Sri Lanka 2017 Part 1: Sigiriya

A few weeks ago I was embarking on a trip I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I was heading on a fortnight-long Naturetrek tour around Sri Lanka with a focus on the nation’s fantastic mammals and vast array of endemic birds. After an afternoon and a morning of familiarising myself with the birdlife around the Airport Hotel gardens, the tour formally began and we were setting off on the long drive from Colombo to Sigiriya.

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A White-breasted Waterhen with a chick, seen at the pond in the hotel gardens.

During our stay in Sigiriya we were based at Hotel Sigiriya, near Sigiriya Rock. On two of the three days we resided here we would do an early morning bird walk in the area around the hotel, including a lotus-filled lake next to the rock itself. It was here where most of the birds were, including Grey-headed Fish-eagle, Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Jungle Prinia.

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Jungle Prinia

However, I think that the highlight of this area was this beautiful bird:

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Sri Lanka Junglefowl

The reason that the photo isn’t excellent is because there was poor light in the strip of waste-ground between the tiny local market and the dry scrub next to it – a favoured site of the Sri Lanka Junglefowl.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl is the national bird of Sri Lanka and as the name suggests, it is an endemic. This means that its global distribution is limited to Sri Lanka. It is one of four species of Junglefowl and one, the Red Junglefowl which is very similar in appearance, is likely to be the ancestor of domestic chickens.

On the second day of the tour, we visited the nearby Minneriya NP. This park is famous for its large gatherings of wildlife and especially elephants. These elephants come from all around to drink at the huge tank at the centre of the park, however they sometimes have a little trouble getting there.

We were taken around the park in Jeeps, and I was surprised at the number of vehicles within the park at one time. Although it was great to see all the elephants congregating in such large numbers (often up to 300), it was hard not to notice that the elephants were getting a little hindered by all the vehicles that would suddenly rush to where the elephants were leaving the forest to go and drink. Although they must be used to the numbers of vehicles, a couple of times their route to the tank was blocked by Jeeps. Once, an elephant got quite aggravated and rammed into a Jeep, damaging the vehicle and pushing it many metres away. I personally think that limiting the number of Jeeps entering the park per day might be a good idea, perhaps by making pre-booking compulsory, however I understand that the logistics behind this must be complicated.

Otherwise, the birding was excellent especially around the quieter sections of the tank. Huge numbers of Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelicans and Spoonbills congregated around the edge, with a Lesser Adjutant mixed-in and loads of Black-winged Stilts a bit more spread-out. Other waders were also present with species including Kentish Plover and the bizarre-looking Great Thick-knee. Meanwhile, on the open grasslands of the park it was enjoyable to watch and listen to the display flight of Oriental Skylarks, and to see the Paddyfield Pipits attending to their nests.

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A small group of Painted Storks. There was a huge group just behind these ones!

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The Paddyfield Pipits would often allow close approach in the Jeeps

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We came across a number of Indian Peacocks and Peahens in the park, the first of the trip.

The following day, after a morning of birding around the hotel, we had lunch at a great local restaurant on the banks of a small river. Immediately after our arrival, the chefs threw some fish onto the bank of the river, although it wasn’t clear what they were for. However, we soon found out when a huge Water Monitor, which must have been at least 5 feet long, lumbered out of the water and swallowed the fish. It wasn’t long before others arrived, however the first monitor was the largest and fiercely protected its lunch. The smaller monitors got a few scraps but the largest one wouldn’t budge. It even tried to whip the chef with its very powerful tail every time it was given more fish, which was incredibly dangerous!

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Our next stop on our tour around Sri Lanka was Kandy, nearer to the hills and within the wet zone. There would be quite a change in landscape and wildlife! I’ll end this post with a slideshow of some of the highlights of our stay in Sigiriya.

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30 Days Wild – Day 3

Today I was lucky to spot a family of Great Spotted Woodpeckers that visited my garden. There were two adult birds, the parents, and also one young one, presumably recently-fledged. It surprised me that there was only the single young bird as Great Spotted Woodpeckers usually lay 4-6 eggs. I assume that either there wasn’t enough food available for all the young birds or the others had been predated just after they had fledged.

The first bird I saw was feeding on the ground, unusual for Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Great Spotted Woodpeckers mainly prefer to feed in trees unlike the Green Woodpecker which predominantly feeds on prey such as ants on the ground. It is possible that this adult was looking for the same sort of food as a Green Woodpecker would however, in order to meet the demand of its chick.

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I could see that this individual was a male, due to the red patch on the nape (the back of the head). Only adult males have this patch, it is absent in females, and is instead replaced with the same creamy-white colour as the woodpecker’s underparts. And furthermore you can easily tell a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker by the completely red crown. Overall I think that Great Spotted Woodpeckers look very smart regardless of their age or sex. They’re one of my favourite garden birds and I look forward to seeing how this family gets on.

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BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 3

It was just after 8pm on the Saturday evening, it was a crisp evening on Thetford Forest and the attendees of BTO Bird Camp 2017 were in a group on a ride through an area of young Scots Pine trees. We were with Greg Conway, who is working on tracking technologies for investigating the private life of one of our least-seen species, the Nightjar. It was very interesting to hear of his research, and tonight we were there to try and help with it.

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The Nightjar habitat at Thetford Forest

Right on cue, at 21:18, the first Nightjar was heard churring. The song of the Nightjar is a peculiar sound, quite unlike most other bird songs. As well as the male’s churring song the Nightjar produces another peculiar sound which is a loud, sharp cracking sound. This is not a vocal sound however. It is produced by the Nightjar’s body, and the sound was long attributed to the tips of the wings meeting each other in flight. However it is hard to believe that this is true as Nightjars, and other birds that make this sound such as Short-eared Owls, have very soft feathers that seem incapable of making such a sound in that way. One theory that seems plausible is that the quick downward motion of the wings creates the sound in the same way a whiplash would.

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This photo was about as good as it got with the light levels not exactly going hand-in-hand with bird photography!

The first Nightjar was seen shortly after, at about 9.30pm, sitting right on top of a pine tree. We were able to watch it churring in plain view for quite a while, before it flew away producing some ‘wing-clapping’ sounds. I was incredibly pleased with this sighting as it was the first time I had ever heard a Nightjar, despite living only about 20 minutes away from one of the best sites in Sussex, Ashdown Forest. Nightjars are well distributed across most of England, Wales and southern Scotland on heathland, moorland and similar habitats. So if you have what you think is a suitable location for these birds nearby and you live within the Nightjar’s distribution I would highly recommend an evening walk there!

It wasn’t long before two Nightjars were giving close, although often invisible, fly-bys of the group. Occasionally however they would come into view, and when they did they were incredibly close above our heads. It was a memorable experience and I don’t think it would be easy to get much better.

Well, I was about to get proved wrong as a car came driving up the track towards us from the direction of where several mist-nets had been erected. Mist-nets are very fine, thin nets; so-called as they are not easy to see. They catch birds easily and safely, without harming the birds in any way. I knew that the arrival of this car meant one of two things: either the ringers had given up trying to catch anything or a Nightjar had been successfully caught. To have gone from not seeing a Nightjar to seeing one in the hand in the space of a few hours was an excellent thought, so I was overjoyed when a white bag emerged from the car, containing a Nightjar.

The Nightjar was quicky ringed, biometrics were speedily measured and all other details were transcribed into the book of data. Following this was a chance to admire the bird for a short while as well as one to take photographs. It was amazing to be able to see an otherwise mysterious bird up close and in detail like this, and surely something I’ll never forget.

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Nightjar in the hand

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Nightjars are long-winged and long-tailed. This makes them much lighter than they look!

Although most of us didn’t get to sleep until midnight, that didn’t mean we were able to have a lie-in the next morning. We left the camp again a little after 6am, on our way to the Suffolk coast near Felixstowe and more specifically Landguard Bird Observatory.

I have only visited one bird observatory before and that was Portland Bird Observatory, in Dorset, last August. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand what work goes on at an observatory instead of just reading about the sightings on the internet. I loved my visit to Portland Bird Observatory, therefore I was eager to visit another one.

Although it was still early morning when we arrived at Landguard the sun was already beating down and most of the wildlife was awake and active. We passed a large patch of Green Alkanet flowers on our way to the observatory building, just outside Landguard fort, which provided a vital feeding stop for 3 or more migrant Painted Ladies which had crossed over from Europe in the warm weather during the previous week. These were my first Painted Ladies of the year.

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After pausing for a while to watch and photograph these strong insects (many fly all the way from Africa and still look pristine!) we continued on to the observatory building where we had a look at the observatory moth trap. It was really interesting to see how the lepidopterous fauna can change with habitat and geographical position. The species of moths were much different to what I usually find in my garden moth trap, so there were a number of lifers.

As in most moth traps there were lots of little brown jobs although also a fair few very interesting ones too – my favourite were the Small Elephant Hawk-moth and the Cream-spot Tiger.

The Small Elephant Hawk-moth is related to the much more common Elephant Hawk-moth although smaller and more brightly coloured. It is usually found in chalky and grassland habitats, where its foodplant (bedstraws) can be found. The Cream-spot Tiger is just as beautiful and impressive, with even more colour hidden behind its dark forewings with large cream-coloured spots. It has orange hindwings and a bright scarlet abdomen, which are revealed suddenly when the moth is startled to scare away a potential predator.

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger

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Cream-spot Tiger

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Small Elephant Hawk & Cream-spot Tiger showing its stunning hindwings!

Following the moth trap we went on a walk around the Landguard LNR. The LNR is a nice coastal reserve, with breeding Ringed Plovers probably the star attraction. Most pairs had chicks, in differing stages of development with some still quite young although others well developed. It was also great to learn about the shingle habitat and the plants that grow there.

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Ringed Plover parent

After leaving the observatory the plan was to go to a piece of beautiful Suffolk heathland where we might be in for a chance to see another very elusive species, the Dartford Warbler. The Dartford Warbler is a species mostly southern in its British distribution, therefore it would be a lifer for many of the young birders who had come from Northern England or Scotland.

Upon arrival at this heath we were immediately greeted by the luscious song of a Woodlark, coming from right above our heads. This was a big surprise as Woodlarks are not common in Suffolk and therefore a very good species to see. It was excellent to watch performing its song flight, with the song of Yellowhammers also in the background. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the Woodlark (it just turned out as a dot in the sky) however a Yellowhammer singing on a bush behind us was more than happy to pose for photographs.

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Singing Yellowhammer

We walked down a track through the centre of the heath and there we waited to try and get a glimpse of our target species. Although there were loads of other birds, a hunting female Kestrel, several Stonechats including a recently fledged youngster and a flyover Yellow Wagtail (my first of the year) we ended up waiting quite a long time without any luck. That was until David Walsh, a bird guide who was helping out, came running along the road where the vans were parked exclaiming that he had seen a Dartford Warbler on the other side of the heath. We all quickly made our way towards where the bird had been seen and scanned the area to see if we could re-find the bird.

After a few minutes of searching, someone eventually spotted the bird and tried to get everyone else onto it. I struggled at first as it was quite distant and exactly matched the colour of the heather, however when it flew it was easily seen. Luckily, I think everyone managed to catch a glimpse of the bird. Looking back at some photos it appeared to have a few green caterpillars held in its beak; the Dartford Warbler was feeding young in a nest!

After a very enjoyable break for lunch at a nearby pub we were on to our last site of the weekend, RSPB Hollesley Marshes. We soon set out to walk through the reserve towards the sea wall. A Marsh Harrier drifted over the wetland in the distance while Swallows hawked for insects over the water’s surface. The track-verge was bursting with umbellifers and insects sipping the nectar, and damselflies danced on the leaves of Horse Chestnuts. It was clear that this reserve was one that was full of life.

As we walked towards the sea wall, we  passed a smaller marsh on our right. Here we could see Shelducks, and Avocet and a single Common Gull. From the sea wall we could see back over the marsh and out to the choppy water of the Alde River and the North Sea. Several Common Terns flew up and down the river and Herring and Black-headed Gulls battled the strong winds to keep in the air. Plenty of Avocets could be seen on the marsh, as well as a single Teal which was a surprise.

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Avocet with food

Finally, we stopped off at a hide that overlooked the larger marsh. From here we were treated to a close-up view of a Swallow on the wires just metres away and some close sightings of Linnets too. Avocets gave good views once again – a good end to our visit to this RSPB reserve and to the Bird Camp as a whole.

BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 2

It was a 4.30 wake-up for me on Saturday although I was awake well before that, awoken by the sound of a Cuckoo persistently singing outside the tent! Not a bad problem to have, despite the loss of sleep…

The attendees were split into three groups the previous evening and I was in group one, the only group that had to wake up so early. However I didn’t mind all that much as our first activity was bird ringing down at the BTO Nunnery Lakes reserve and an early start usually means more birds!

The Nunnery Lakes reserve is a network of lakes created by the gravel workings of the past. As well as lakes, there is also a myriad of other habitats including sandy heathland and wet woodland. An excellent 60 different bird species breed on the reserve, not including all those that pass through or spend the winter on the site. One of the key species on the reserve is Cetti’s Warbler, a localised resident species found in only the southernmost locations in England and Wales as well as across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

We were able to catch a couple of these birds during our ringing session. They may be drably coloured but they are full of character. I believe that breeding wasn’t able to be confirmed at Nunnery Lakes in previous years, however one of the birds we caught clearly had a brood patch. Brood patches are bare patches of skin that develop in the breeding season. They only occur in birds which are incubating eggs as the added proximity of the blood vessels to the surface of the egg allow heat to be passed on to the egg more efficiently. It was great to be able to confirm breeding of this uncommon species.

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A Cetti’s Warbler that we caught at Nunnery Lakes

Cetti’s wasn’t the only warbler species we caught during the session. We also managed to ring Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers. We ringed a few Reed Warblers and there were clearly others singing around us, along with more Sedge and Garden Warblers. Clearly the reserve supports good breeding populations of each species. They all have slightly different habitat requirements and it is evident that Nunnery Lakes provides the perfect breeding location for them all.

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Reed Warbler

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Sedge Warbler

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Garden Warbler

Although there were plenty of birds being caught, ringed and released, there was still a number of avian attractions to steal the attention. Cuckoos were calling from every direction, and there must have been at least 3 males heard calling through the whole morning. The sound of the male Cuckoo is well-known however the female’s is less so yet nonetheless distinctive. We were lucky to hear the call of the female which is described as a ‘bubbling’ sound, quite bizarre! Shortly after first hearing this unusual sound the female herself came into view, flying quickly across the pit nearest the ringing station.

It didn’t take more than a first glance to realise that this individual female Cuckoo was not an ordinary female Cuckoo. Most female Cuckoos look very similar to the males, with only a small patch of rufous colouration on the breast. However, this Cuckoo had more than a little rufous colouration on the breast, in fact almost its whole body had a rufous tinge! Rufous morphs like this one are quite uncommon to see so I feel privileged that we had caught a glimpse of such an unusual Cuckoo. These photos below were taken by Elliot Montieth (@Elliot_Montieth www.elliotsbirdingdiaries.wordpress.com):

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It was following the ringing that our group moved on to the nest recording part of the morning. We were each given a long, wooden stick that, we were told, was to be used to gently tap vegetation to see if a bird flies off a nest. We all set off gorse bushes here and small trees there however not finding much using that technique. It wasn’t long into the session however that we located a Bramble and Gorse thicket that was a possible nesting site for a Willow Warbler. After a lot of searching and poking about within the spikey vegetation the nest was eventually located, with several young in the nest:

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Willow Warbler chick

As you can see the chick is not very developed with lots of down and adult feathers only just coming through. The white bars on the wings are what are known as the pin feathers, a sort of sheath before the feather veins expand and become the feathers seen in the adult bird. This chick clearly has a lot of growing to do before it fledges!

Lots of time passed until the next nest was found and we resorted to using the tapping sticks again. I was tapping most of the gorse and bramble bushes, as well as the short oak and hawthorn trees dotted around. Most taps were generally unsuccessful however one unassuming Hawthorn tree did give me a bit of a surprise when a female Blackbird flew out from the centre after a light tap! Knowing that this probably meant that there was a nest present, I immediately looked inside the tree for a nest. It wasn’t hard to spot as it was right in the centre of the tree and with the help of Toby Carter’s purpose-bought selfie-stick we were able to see that there were indeed eggs in the nest!

I was quite pleased to find my first Blackbird nest as it is not a species I was expecting to find. This is because as the Blackbird is a resident species, most pairs are already well into their breeding attempt with many having already fledged young. Few would have started their first attempt so that they would be on eggs at this time of year, so I doubt that this brood is the first to be attempted to be raised by the parents this year. I imagine that either this pair started incredibly early and have already fledged young which are now independent and are attempting a second brood, or the nest failed (e.g. it was predated or the nest itself destroyed) and the pair have now started again.

Just after that activity ended it was time for some birding before the next activity (and, to a lesser extent, breakfast). Just standing around seeing what flies by proved to be a useful exercise with my first Hobby of the year accelerating past high above the nearest lake. Arriving in the UK in late April to May they sometimes gather in large groups (up to 50!) at popular prey-rich wetland sites soon after arriving. However this was the only one I was to see that morning. Still, it was not bad to get a year tick.

Following the replenishment of energy, my final activity of the day commenced. This was learning how to do the Common Bird Census (CBC). For the CBC, one needs to note down the locations of individual birds on a map, and visit the site several times each year. By doing this one can begin to build up an idea of each bird’s territories. Whilst learning about the Common Bird Census we took a circuit of some of the lakes, which were rich in invertebrate as well as bird life.

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The above beetle is a species of longhorn, so named due to their long antennae. There are a number of species in the UK and they are a favourite among many entomologists due to their size (they can get larger than this) and how easy they often are to identify. Annoyingly, this is one of a few similar species, however I believe that it is Stenurella melanura. Longhorn beetles can often be found on flowers like this one or on the dead wood where they have spent most of their life as a grub. Occasionally, as they are so large compared to many other beetles, I spot them in flight and follow them until they land. One species that is easy to spot and identify is Rutpela maculata or the Yellow and Black Longhorn Beetle. If you do spot any longhorn beetles, the Longhorn Recording Scheme would love your records via iRecord.

After a much-needed rest back at the Nunnery and a well-earned lunch, we set off to Lakenheath Fen just inside Suffolk. I was looking forward to visiting this reserve as I’ve never visited it before and it’s home to a number of species that are tricky to see, such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. Upon arrival at the reserve, we were split into two groups as this reserve trip was not simply a walk to see what we can see but a bird race: a competition between teams to see as many species as possible.

My team set off in a different direction to the other, and our first stop was a viewpoint overlooking a wetland. With Oystercatchers, a Redshank and Common Terns flying down the river it was clear that Lakenheath was a reserve full of birds even with an incredibly strong wind blowing. After seeing all that was in view at that viewpoint we continued along the path beside the river. We saw a Marsh Harrier and another Hobby, both birds of prey characteristic of wetlands.

It wasn’t much farther along when the highlight of the visit to Lakenheath appeared. On huge, pounding wingbeats a Bittern made its way across the reedbed, presumably with food for its young. At this time of year most breeding Bitterns will have young in their nest, and this makes them easier to see as they make feeding flights to and from the nest in order to feed the growing chicks.

The final stop before heading back in the direction of the visitor centre was where a Marsh Warbler had been seen for the past week. With it being incredibly windy I knew that we were never going to hear it let alone see it, but it was nice to stop for a short while and wait. There was a Marsh Harrier quartering the nearest reeds and a Cetti’s Warbler flew around us. Despite not seeing the Marsh Warbler I felt satisfied by our visit to Lakenheath as we had managed to see a number of key reedbed specialists. I’m hoping I can visit the reserve again sometime, because as it’s so large there is lots more to explore!

One of the highlights of the day was this stunning Stone Curlew giving exceptional views in a field. I do not want to disclose the location of this unusually unwary individual as it is on a breeding site, and as Stone Curlews are in decline I do not want it to gather unwanted attention from people with unfavourable intentions. All that aside it was superb to get such a rare opportunity to watch this species at a range that wasn’t hundreds of metres!

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Writing part two made me realise that I have a lot more to write than can fit into 3 parts so this series of blog posts will now be extended to four parts. In the next part, look forward to hearing about an adventure with Nightjars, a successful moth trap and a search for Dartford Warblers!

BTO Birdcamp 2017 – Part 1

Last weekend I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend the BTO Bird Camp that took place between 26th-28th May based at the BTO headquarters at The Nunnery in Thetford. For young birders aged between 12 and 18 it is a superb opportunity for the future of birding and ornithology to meet like-minded individuals of the same age and to see some fantastic wildlife.

This series of blog posts will be split into 3 parts as I have a lot to write about! This first part will give an introduction to the Bird Camp – including information about the BTO and the sponsors of the event the Cameron Bespolka Trust – and the first evening. In the second part I will talk about the birds and the moths and in the final part I will talk about the brilliant range of dragonflies, some scarce, that we saw.

I am very grateful to the BTO – British Trust for Ornithology – for organising this event. This is the second year this event has been running, and reading the trip reports from last year’s camp I couldn’t wait to apply and fortunately my application was successful. Along with this event the BTO run many others to develop skills in bird identification and nest recording among others. I believe that these events are really important to ensure that our birds are better understood.

Many of the events that the BTO run are intended to improve the public’s skills in bird surveying, often with a particular survey or census in mind. The BTO run many nationwide surveys to improve the knowledge of Britain’s bird life. These include the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). The BTO is an excellent organisation without which our ornithological fauna would be less well understood and the Bird Camp would not have taken place.

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One of my Cuckoo photos from Thursley Common a couple of weekends ago. The BTO run a Cuckoo tagging project in order to find out more about the lives of these birds, which you can read about here: https://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking

As well as the BTO I am very grateful to the Cameron Bespolka Trust for sponsoring the event. Cameron Bespolka was an enthusiastic young birder who was tragically killed in a skiing accident a few years ago, and the trust was set up in memory of him. The trust’s main aim is to inspire young people to enjoy birds and nature. As well as sponsoring this camp, they have done lots of work here and abroad to help young people get interested in the environment around them. You can read more about Cameron, the trust and their aims on their website: http://www.cameronbespolka.com/

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The camp that I had been looking forward to for so long finally came around last Friday. After a 3-and-a-half hour journey to south Norfolk I arrived at just before 6pm shortly after which we had dinner and an introduction to the camp. We also did a little bit of birding around the Nunnery – we recorded a number of common species such as Jay and singing Blackcap. I even had a brief flight view of a Green Woodpecker and an Oystercatcher flew over as well which I wasn’t expecting. Slightly later on we heard a Tawny Owl respond to Louis Driver’s clever wooden owl whistle!

Most of us had an early night to rest before the 4.30 wake-up some of us had! It was clear that there was lots of great birding to come…