Monday, January 05, 2015

How Big?

I've mentioned it before, but this is the last time. Probably. 2014 was my Big Year. For North American birders my use of this phrase will be a debasement. For birders in that part of the world a Big Year is a real competition - if only with yourself. It has fixed geographical limits and a limited but clear set of rules. For those of us elsewhere, influenced by Mark Obmascik's book and the subsequent film, a Big Year has become any year in which we see more birds than we could reasonably have hoped to see in 365 days in any geographical area, up to and including the entire globe. Or perhaps to be more accurate it's the year in which we see more birds than we can reasonably expect to see in a given area for the rest of our lives.

So having a Big Year is still a Big Deal, even if it's not the ABA-approved version. Declaring yourself to have had one is, in a way, an admission that you've hit the peak and that it's essentially all downhill from here. There will still be new birds, and glorious surprises, and reprises of old friends you haven't seen for years. But they'll be scattered over time, not concentrated in a single year. You've had your winning streak and it's time to cash-in. So, then, you've won, and the the next question is - How Big?

The answer, in my case, is 580 species, including a staggering 164 lifers, according to the Birdlife Taxonomic list. This will probably seem rather paltry in comparison to some of the lists you see around. One of the bloggers on 10,000 Birds had a list of over 1100 species in 2013. That's more than my life list. But that's the point. Everything's relative. My year list this year represents more than half the species I've seen in my 42 years on the planet. That's not small news, at least for me. So what explains it?

In three words, "Africa" and "voluntary unemployment". The first is obvious enough. I started the year living in Kenya, which, from a lifestyle and birding point of view, was incredible. I had Amethyst Sunbirds (Nectarinia amethystina) in my garden. I had Nairobi National Park on my doorstep, which apart from providing the odd sensation of seeing wild Lions (Panthera leo) only a few kilometres from my home, is also an extraordinary birding location. I've racked up 110 species there in a single day, and the legendary Brian Finch, who compiled the bird check-list for the park, has managed up to 200.

Amethyst Sunbird (Nectarinia amethystina) - one of three regular species of sunbird in our Nairobi garden. They were all stunning.
But the problem we had in Kenya is that I had an utterly dreadful job - the worst, by far, of my career. Something had to give, and in the end it was me. I resigned in February, and thanks to the absurd amount of leave I was entitled to had two months with my feet up before we had to depart the country. I used it to the full, taking time to visit the coast and, more extraordinarily, doing a five-day walk from the Laikipia Plateau to the edge of the Samburu reserve with two friends, five camels and five guides. Some of the best nights of my life, these were, sleeping under the stars and watching Liechtenstein's Sandgrouse
(Pterocles lichtensteinii) flying in to water themselves on the edge of the Uaso Nyiro River after dusk, while Elephant (Loxodonta africana) trumpeted in the distance.

My bed next to the Uaso Nyiro river on the walk from Laikipia to Samburu. Bliss.
We left Africa in May, with great regret, and had two months in the Balkans (my old stamping ground and my wife's homeland) before moving to Belgium in July. So I mixed things up a bit, birding-wise, and was surprisingly lucky with my sightings in Europe. And with the new job I started in the summer I still got to travel to Africa - and so added further to my already extensive list. Is there any kind of lesson here, aside from bloody-mindedness and dumb luck on my part? Well, for a start birding requires leisure, and a bit of time off, apart from being good for the soul and giving you a bit of self-belief, does wonders for your year list. But though I'm not superstitious I find it hard to avoid seeing something karmic in this year's experience. My awful job takes the appearance of a test, and my decision to face up to that test by resigning from the post - with all the risks this entailed for my future career and the present well-being of my family - was rewarded not only with a fantastic new job after a decent pause, but also with a plethora of birds. In short, the gods of birding smiled on me, and I took advantage.

I'm attempting to add my year list for 2014 (and this year) to the side bar, and when I've worked out how to do that I'll add my life list for good measure. So I'm not going to go through this incredible twelve months blow-by-blow. But I would like to highlight some of the really outstanding birds of the year for me.

Amongst the top five have to be two species I saw with the help of local birding guide Jonathan Baya in the strange Arabuko-Sokoke forest near Watamu on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya. I plan to write more about the extraordinary three days' birding he laid on for me, but for now let me mention the strange Sokoke Scops-owl (Otus ireneae) that he managed to track down for me with the help of a friend, and the even stranger Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis) - a bird masquerading as a mouse in its behaviour and about as easy to see. Neither of these birds is really stunning to look at, but they're both staggeringly rare on a global scale, so it's a real privilege to see them. And they're also - particularly the Pipit - pretty odd to boot.

Jonathan Baya demonstrating both the tight habitat of - and the required stance when tracking - the Sokoke Scops-owl (Otus ireneae). There was a pair about 5 metres from our position.
Is it a bird? Is it a mouse? It's a Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis)
From my walk in the north of Kenya the bird I was happiest about at the time was probably a stunning Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) which dashed past one of our camps below the level of the river bank and only a few metres away. But on reflection I think the best bird of that trip was probably the Golden-breasted Starling (Cosmopsarus regius), a species which was much more common than I'd expected but just as beautiful.

Golden-breasted Starling (Cosmopsarus regius) - not shy, and why would it be?
The last African bird of my top five is probably the Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) I saw on the wires of Mogadishu Airport in Somalia. The situation in Mogadishu is such that birds aren't exactly a priority, even for me, but this one was hard to miss nevertheless. A real stunner.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) with an Acacia twig doing a good impression of the barbed wire I saw it on
Returning to Europe I'm surprised by the level of choice I have for bird of the year. The Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) I saw at Het Zwin would probably make top spot if it weren't for another bird I'd seen only a few weeks earlier. I've never had much of a chance to do pelagic birding. We used regularly to take ferries to Ireland and France when I was a kid but, although Dad is a birder as well, we never seemed to see much from them. I began to get more luck when we last lived in Brussels - seeing Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) and Great Skuas (Catharacta skua) on the boat from Dunkirk to Dover. But I wasn't prepared for the bonanza I got from that same ferry this year in September when, approaching Dunkirk, I was greeted not only by sizeable number of Manx's but also by at least ten Balearic Shearwaters (Puffinus mauretanicus). The listing of this bird as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List has been controversial and is likely to be downgraded. But still, they're not common and I hadn't expected to see one, let alone in the English Channel not far from the French coast. So for sheer unexpectedness this species wins the prize for bird of the year 2014.

Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus) - not a stunner, but a big surprise and my bird of the year 2014.
But returning to the philosophy, if this was my Big Year, what does the future hold? Well, more surprises, as I've said. And even though I'm pretty convinced that this was the year, and it won't be bettered, I can never say never. There are whole swathes of the world I've never visited or worked on. Who knows what the future holds? I've only seen about a tenth of all the species of bird in the world, and even if I have no ambition to be a prolific life lister, I know that there's plenty more for me discover out there. And that's why I love that I've started this year with two birds I didn't see last year. It proves that there's something different around every corner, even the turn of a year.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Kicking off the New Year - Het Zwin

Belgium, it must be said, is not really a birder's paradise, and Brussels in particular is caught in limbo between the contrasting interests of the coast on the one hand, and the Ardennes on the other. So, although there are some reasonable forest and valley lake sites not far from the city, if you want a more complete day's birding, you'll be spending a few hours in the car and/or staying the night somewhere else.

I haven't really started exploring the Ardennes yet, though I'm looking forward to doing so, hopefully in the early Spring for the Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) lek. The coast I'm more familiar with, and it's here that I came yesterday for my first day's birding of the New Year. I default to a tried and tested location; Het Zwin, at the northernmost point of the Belgian coast, on the border with Holland. In comparison with many of the larger sites further north in Holland itself, this place is no doubt small beer, but most of the rest of the Belgian coast is so developed that it's considered here to be an oasis of wildness in a long line of concrete. As a consequence it's popular, and not just with birders, so being an early bird pays dividends.

But as noted above, Het Zwin isn't exactly close to Brussels. It's a one hour and 45 minute drive when there's no traffic, and most of that is along the mind-numbingly boring E40 highway. But with the sunrise now about as late as it gets in the year (0845) it wasn't too much effort to make it there for first light, and thankfully almost everyone else seemed to be sleeping off the night before.

Het Zwin - not that close to Brussels, but often worth the trip
There are four principal habitats at Het Zwin - a sandy shoreline with a largeish brackish lagoon draining through a creek at the northern end; some saltmarsh and freshwater flooded polders (the latter now being restored as habitat); some coastal woodland, mainly poplar and planted pines, but again being restored to something more diverse; and finally the scrub and grass duneland immediately behind the beach. With this mix in rather a small area there's a reasonable chance of seeing a good spread of species if your luck is in and the weather's good. I reckon I was pretty lucky yesterday.

Het Zwin - the various habitats

I parked at the northernmost end of the nearby town of Knokke and started first with the beach. I do this every time I visit, because it's popular with dog-walkers and runners, and with the tide coming up I was worried about them frightening away all the birds before I had my chance. The sea was calm and desperately quiet. The only birds I saw on it were a small flock of Wigeon (Mareca penelope) and a few Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus). But the tideline was more productive, with a few clockwork Sanderlings (Calidris alba) and flighty Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus).

The beach - look closely enough and you'll pick out a couple of Sanderlings (Calidris alba)
The beach is protected by a series of stone groynes, which attract roosting shorebirds - a mixed bag of Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), Rock Pipits (Anthus petrosus) and Oystercatchers, but with a scattering of three Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritima) mixed in. This species was one of my fantasy birds on family holidays on the West Coast of Ireland as a child, though we never saw it there, so catching it always makes me think of my father who I think has never seen one himself. I myself have seen it only once before, also at Het Zwin in 2007 and 2008 so this sighting perked me up. I tried my hand at photographing one of these - with the results you can see below. I reiterate my point of yesterday's post; Digiscoping is a skill, and I'm in the process of acquiring it, in the same way that a newborn baby is in the process of acquiring the skills of speaking and walking.

It's a Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), honestly. 
After scouring a small but unexciting gull flock by the creek I struck off into the silent dunes, on a short walk enlivened by only two birds; a skulking Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and an explosive, briefly-viewed Merlin (Falco columbarius), which bombed low over the dunes like a Spitfire and scattered Turnstones and Dunlins (Calidris alpina) in every direction on the far side of the ridge. Along with Purple Sandpiper this was one of two species I saw today that I'd missed last year - which was my Big Year, in case I'd forgotten to mention it. So, altogether, not a bad start.

After a late breakfast overlooking the quiet lagoon, which added only a solitary Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) to my list, I walked through the woods towards the freshwater polders. As I sauntered along there was a small tit flock including a couple of Short-toed Treecreepers (Certhia brachydactyla) and two Goldcrests (Regulus regulus) working its way through the poplars. And then, as I emerged, a lovely female Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) - perhaps my favourite passerine - settled nicely in a treetop for me to admire its perfect glossy black cap. I had a superb year for Bullfinches last year so it's pleasant to see this one starting off in the same vein.

A female Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) looking only slightly less dapper than the male. Not my photo, as you'd probably guessed.
The polders were thick with Geese - almost all Greylags (Anser anser) but with a few White-fronts (Anser albifrons) and a large flock of Barnacles (Branta leucopsis) mixed in. And there was good coverage of most of the common smaller wildfowl as well - with only Gadwall (Mareca strepera) making its absence felt. A flock of Swans overhead caused frustration. They had less wing noise than I'd expect from Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and seemed to have predominantly black bills, but they were behind trees before I could see them properly and I couldn't relocate them. I haven't seen Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) since I was in my early teens and would dearly love to see them again. Another bird I didn't see today was Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus), but Het Zwin is normally a reliable location for this species and I saw flocks of hundreds here in November.

Sunlight helps - a fine Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) at Het Zwin on 1 January
It's also worth checking the flocks of Barnacle Geese in the autumn. I did this - again in November - and was rewarded with a true stunner; a Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), a few of which migrate through this part of the world with the Barnacles each autumn.

Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) and cows (Bos taurus) - but no Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) this time...
By the time I'd finished at the polders the world had woken up to the New Year and was walking off its collective hangover, so I packed my kit and walked back to the car for the long drive home, with only a stentorian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) singing its heart out like a five gram Pavarotti in the scrub on the way back.

So the new year list begins with a start-up figure of 52 species in the bag already. Not bad, all things considered. But then, on the other hand, my first bird last year was a Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) seen over palm trees from our then flat in Nairobi. My first bird this year was a Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone) seen flying over the E40 Highway near Ghent. We thrive on difference, of course, but I suspect it's not hard to choose which species you'd rather wake up to.

Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) vs Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone): which one would you prefer to wake up to?

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Learning Curve

Like all skills, birding comes with a learning curve - sometimes steep, sometimes more gentle. I've seen this in the generation down, watching the development of my now four-year-old son's identification skills. Like all birder fathers I, of course, hope that my son will develop the passion just as I inherited it from my father, and that we'll have that shared interest, as well as our shared love, to carry us down the years. So naturally, but without forcing, I'm encouraging him to take an interest.

I showed him his first birds only a few hours after he was born. They were gulls. A mixture of first and second year birds. In Belgrade, where we lived at the time, my own experience is that the proportion of large Larus gulls shifts through the year. In the summer, when Danny was born, the majority of birds are Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis) and the minority are Caspian Gulls (Larus cachinnans). As the year progresses, the proportion changes in favour of the Caspians, and many of the Yellow-legs seem to take a Mediterranean holiday, or something. Anyway, the chances are that the majority of the birds we were looking at together that first day of his life were Yellow-legs. But, let's face it, that's a tricky distinction to make at the best of times, let alone when you're fresh from the womb and you can't tell a tertiary from an undertail covert.

Yellow-legged vs Caspian Gull. Try telling the difference when you're six hours old.

But here's the point. I didn't have to make the distinction myself until a few years ago. I'd only just settled into the relatively new split between Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) and Yellow-legs and the internet was in its infancy when I started hearing references to Caspians. But thank goodness the split did come late. The distinction is difficult. Even with a training in seawatching from a youth partially misspent at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, telling large Larid gulls apart in flight is a mug's game in which you're lucky to be certain of 10% of your sightings. Luckily I'd had the chance to develop my skills when the space for error was more generous. My point is that birding has come a long way from those days of second-rate porro prism binoculars and written notes, but I wonder honestly if I'd have stuck with it in my tender years if it was as competitive, complicated and expensive then as it is now. And so we come back to the learning curve.

For much of last year my family and I lived in Kenya - a birder's paradise and one where you are forced by circumstance to learn a huge host of new species. As a result I had my Big Year in 2014 and began to think more and more about the motivations that lie behind the desire to see, observe and note bird species. And I began to explore what I've seen referred to as the "Birdosphere" more and more and found myself drawn to the idea of Blogging. But, as I and others have discovered (including my friend from Serbian birding days, Dragan Simic) there is no blogging without photos. And there are no photos without digiscoping.

The kit: The telescope, bins and tripod I get, but the camera's a bit of a mystery.

So I've invested in the kit (see above), and I thank the Lord that I also have a fifteen year-old son to teach me how it's all supposed to work. There's only one problem, and it's revealed by the earlier pictures. Despite my son's best efforts to tutor me, I'm rubbish at it. Hopefully this will change over time but until it does we'll have to manage with pictures downloaded from the web and properly acknowledged, perhaps occasionally complimented by a grainy, colourless image of a distant something in a sea of grass.

A prime example: Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) at Doode Bemde, Belgium

I should add at this stage that although he accompanied me on a short birding trip last weekend, and enjoyed the photographic element, my older son is a lost cause to birding, though he more than compensates in a host of other areas. As for my younger son, he fills my heart with joy every time he pipes up with "Look, there's a Crow, Daddy" and indeed, there's a Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone) flying overhead. But I mustn't get carried away. That'll come, if it comes at all, when he says "Look, Daddy, there's a Rook" (Corvus frugilegus).

Rook vs Crow: Like chess, it will come with time.