Thursday, 7 December 2017

Jon and Rod's ill-fated Bolivia trip

This trip like several in recent years started for me when Jon Hornbuckle asked if I would be interested in a small low-cost private trip to Bolivia. Rod Martins had seen his old friend Barry Walker at the Birdfair and persuaded him to put on a private cost-price Bolivia trip for friends using Barry's Manu Expeditions expertise. I was very interested but timing wasn't great for me as Jon had a reason to go in late November/early December which is my busiest time at work (most tours go in September/October when weathewr is generally better). Jon brought the trip forward a few days to sort of accommodate me, starting in La Paz on 9 November and departing on 3 December. Still not ideal but I could just about manage the whole trip and cleared the time off work by agreeing to go in some extra days on my return to catch up. Soon there were six of us with Brian, Duncan and Nick coming too. News of the trip spread and pretty much everyone Jon mentioned it too wanted to come. Soon Lori, Malcolm, Mike, Neil and Paul were on board making a rather uncomfortable 11. So much for it being a small trip! The trip was a topic of conversation in Mongolia for those of us there, probably much to the amusement of those who were not going, with concerns raised over escalating costs but most of us decided to proceed, some indeed, myself included, having already booked non-refundable flights. Lori and Nick then dropped out for cost/work related reasons, Nick when his School became an Academy and refused him the time off he'd assumed he could have. He wasn't close enough to a comfortable retirement to press the issue, took a hit on the flight and went to Amazonian Brazil and Paraguay with Birdquest in the summer instead! We paid Jon a deposit which he sent on to Barry then almost immediately Neil dropped out for work reasons. Jon recruited Marc to replace of him and things stabilised with a group of 9. That is until disaster struck and Jon was involved in a serious car accident in the South of France which left him with complete and seemingly irreversible memory loss and worse. His part in this and any other trip was very sadly over. It came as a great shock to all of us fortunate enough to have travelled with him in the past - absolutely tragic.

There was still a question of paying Barry a final balance and refunding Neil his deposit. I took over the 'admin' side of the trip liaising with Barry. I collected monies, sent Barry £17500 and then had a couple of sleepless nights when it wasn't delivered - Barry hadn't realised his account details had changed. TransferWise allowed one redirection and after a couple of days it arrived in his account, much to our relief. There were now eight of us going, six (Brian, Duncan, Mike, Paul, Rod and me) for the whole trip, Marc who wasn't staying for the last part (Apolo) and Malcolm whom was joining three days in (after) Riberalta.

Four of us were flying out with Avianca and had 17 hours in Bogota between flights. I tried to arrange some birding but was unable to find a guide with vehicle who was available and prepared to help us at a reasonably price. It soon became clear that my preferred option (Monterredondo) wasn't really feasible. At least the time at Bogota airport could be usefully devoted to last minute reading of reports. A week or so before departure Duncan and I received an email from Avianca, in Spanish, telling us not to be concerned because they were making every effort to mitigate the effects of a long running pilots strike! This only served to increase stress levels although monitoring flight departures showed all relevant flights the previous week had gone and none were more than 4 hours late. That our Ecojet La Paz to Riberalta flight had been put back gave us 8 hours to make that connection.

On the evening of 7 December I met Brian, Duncan and Rod at Heathrow's Terminal 2 to check in for our Avianca flight. It was on the board and scheduled to be on time so everything was looking good. That is until Rod was refused check in. His passport had a corner of its clear cover to the photograph page coming away by about 5mm. It seemed amazingly trivial but apparently a passenger with similar had been let on the flight a couple of weeks earlier but was refused entry into Bolivia, turned back and Avianca fined £2000. Rod was understandably incredibly dejected, and we were all pretty shell shocked by the triviality of it and felt greatly for him. A trip lost for a stick of glue, although having been spotted by the airline staff representing a 'mended' passport was unlikely to have worked. We suggested he get the coach to Victoria, find a cheap hotel and present himself at the Passport Office nearby the next morning. If he could have got a new 24 hours passport he could join us in Trinidad with Malcolm, only missing 3 days of the trip, but very sadly he did not make it. We all missed his company.

Brian, Duncan and I were now the only survivors of the original line-up with both the main instigators of the trip not making it. Very sad but what could we do? We boarded our flight, 10 hours to Bogota. Our 17 hour wait there was spent in (and around) the airport, reading reports and studying the Field Guide. As the layover was more than 12 hours Avianca were not allowed to check our bags all the way through to La Paz (for most airlines it is 24) so in some ways it was just as well we;'d no birding arranged as we would have had the hassle of having all our luggage with us. We arrived in La Paz at 03:30 after a 3 hour flight, collected our bags, changed some $ (the airport being our best opportunity to do so) and mistakenly (in my view) paid for a few hours in an airport Sleep Box Hotel. It was expensive and excessively hot and stuffy and I wish I'd slept on airport seats as originally planned. Only a slight concern that my bag might be stolen while I slept prevented me from doing so.

Postings with photos from the trip will follow in due course. Here is one to be getting on with:

Blue-throated Macaws near Trinidad, 12 November 2017

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

the end of autumn (27 October-7 November)

Tuesday 7 November. I took Cookie to Shoreham Harbour and Widewater. At the former a single Brent Goose flew west and a Rock Pipit was in the car park. At the latter were 5 Little Egrets and most of the Mute Swan family (one adult and the four youngsters) flew off east as I arrived but were soon back. Perhaps the young were being encouraged to spread their wings a bit.

Sunday 5 November. Mill Hill with Cookie was quiet with the 2 Stonechats, 8 Song Thrushes and 9 Linnets. We then went to Pulborough where I quickly saw the Pectoral Sandpiper from West Mead Hide before joining Megan in the woods. Some shooting nearby made Cookie very anxious so we gave up. A shame as the falling leaves were nice in the sunshine. Later 10 Collared Doves were lined up on our fence and a visit to the Adur produced another 2 Stonechats. Only Black-headed Gulls were present in any numbers as the tide wasn't that low.
Pectoral Sandpiper at Pulborough
much closer than most unusual waders I've seen at Pulborough but still pretty distant
 Saturday 4 November. Mill Hill with Cookie was quiet with a Redwing, 6 Meadow Pipits and 15 Goldfinches. Later we walked around the houseboats seeing what was presumably the returning Greenshank.

Friday 3 November. A family trip to Crowlink with Megan, Vanessa, Ruth and Cookie. I saw 8 Stonechats, 195 Goldfinches and a Corn Bunting during our walk to the sea, along half the sisters to Birling and back via Belle Tout Wood (where 150 Wood Pigeons flew over). It was nice to see John and Doreen Cooper but other than a couple of Dartford Warblers they'd not seen anything different. Very quiet indeed for diurnal passage despite some impressive counts inland. I couldn't pick anything interesting out of the gulls during a late visit to the Adur at low tide although 10 Dunlin were present.

Wednesday 1 November. Mill Hill with Cookie was quiet with a Sparrowhawk, 2 Stonechats and 15 Goldfinches. Later a visit to the Adur at low tide produced a colour-ringed Herring Gull, 4 Grey Plover and 2 Dunlin.
Stonechat at Mill Hill

Tuesday 31 October. A charm of 10 Goldfinches were feeding in thistles near Southwick Power Station as I cycled to work.

Sunday 29 October. A visit to Beachy with John King was like most this autumn, a disappointment. I saw 2 Peregrines, 2 Swallows, 4 Rock Pipits, a Dartford Warbler, 4 Goldcrests, 95 Goldfinches and 12 Redpolls, my first for the year. Despite much looking in likely areas we failed to find any Ring Ouzels and I finished the autumn on just 2.
Redwing at Mill Hill, a really smart bird when seen well

Saturday 28 October. Mill Hill with Cookie produced 14 Stock Doves and 390 Wood Pigeons flying west, 8 Song and 2 Mistle Thrushes, 5 Goldcrests and a Siskin heard. Megan and I then took Cookie to Rewell Woods but not being prepared to wait for any length of time failed to see any Hawfinches.  We did see a Firecrest on our walk round which was nice.
Magpie Inkcap at Rewell Woods
Friday 27 October. Megan and I took Cookie to Cissbury seeing 6 Stock Doves and 200 Wood Pigeons flying west, 3 Stonechats and single RedwingRing Ouzel, Goldcrest and Reed Bunting.
Reed Bunting at Cissbury
Ring Ouzel at Cissbury - not the view I was hoping for
Speckled Wood at Cissbury

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Very quiet in Sussex (20-25 October)

Wednesday 25 October. An early visit to Mill Hill with Cookie produced 2 Goldcrests, 7 Long-tailed Tits and about a dozen Blackbirds in very dull conditions. Later when the weather had greatly improved Megan and I walked Cookie from Widewater to Beach Green Lancing seeing a Wheatear and single Meadow Pipit on the beach.
Little Grebe at Widewater, I've very rarely seen one standing up
one of my first bird books illustrated grebes standing up. At the time I thought it an impossible pose. Clearly not but still very misleading.
Wheatear on a groyne at Widewater
one always hopes a late Wheatear is going to be a rare one but ours are often almost as nice

as it turned its back on me I was struck that it would probably be the last I see this year. Safe journey and see hopefully see you again in five months time
Sunday 22 October. Megan, Ruth and I took Cookie to Crowlink and walked along half of the Seven Sisters to Birling and Belle Tout and back. A nice clear sunny day made for a lovely walk despite a strong westerly wind. I saw one each of Chiffchaff, Buzzard, Stock Dove and Corn Bunting and about 30 Goldfinches making it possibly my quietest ever visit to Beachy.

Saturday 21 October. Very rough weather with some very heavy showers, one which caught Cookie and me on the Adur while checking the gulls at low tide. One of the 62 roosting Great Black-backed Gulls was colour-ringed making it worthwhile.
Great Black-backed Gull 50H on the Adur. A bird I'd previously seen here on 30/12/15. It was a female, hatched Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, Normandie on 27/05/10 and seen at Dives-sur-Mer, Calvados on 15/07/12, Cricqueville-en-Bessi, Calvados on 04/10/13, Dawlish Warren, Devon on 14/09/14 and in a car park in Shoreham-by-Sea on 17/07/17

Friday 20 October. A short seawatch during a visit to Shoreham Fort in a very strong westerly wind produced 4 Gannets and an adult Mediterranean Gull flying west while a Rock Pipit and 2 Greenfinches were on the beach. Hopes of finding a Grey Phalarope were soon dashed and Widewater was no more successful. Later Megan and I took Cookie to Pulborough walking the fungi trail and to Hayle's Viewpoint. A Coal Tit was the highlight.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Two-barred Greenish Warbler (18 October)

Wednesday 18 October. A successful trip to Dorset where the Two-barred Greenish Warbler was showing in dull weather at St. Alban's Head. John King and I were on site for two and a half hours and had a number of good but usually brief views. Most of the time I concentrated on watching the bird but a couple of times tried photography, twice finding it in the view-finder. It was a bird I'd wanted to see in Britain for many years. Nice to see John and Doreen Cooper, Richard and Ann Kelly and from my formative days in Cardiff Hadyn Jones. I also saw Black Redstart, 2 Chiffchaffs, a Goldcrest and 2 Firecrests.
Two-barred Greenish Warbler at St. Alban's Head
focusing was a problem when in the vegetation

the time it was in the open it was against the light and I'd forgotten to change the camera settings
Tuesday 17 October. A Peregrine on a lighting gantry near Southwick Power Station as I cycled to work.

Sunday 15 October. After a very quiet visit to Mill Hill with Cookie (3 Long-tailed Tits, 2 Goldcrests and a Chiffchaff) Megan and I took her to Rewell Woods to look for Hawfinches. We saw 21 although they were very skittish. Also a Red Kite and some brilliant fungi. Later, at low tide, there were two Le Havre colour-ringed Great Black-backed Gulls on the Adur.

Hawfinch at Rewell Woods.
another unintended action shot where I was late with the camera but shows how dumpy they are
Magpie Inkcap in the clearing at Rewell Woods
we were more impressed than Cookie was
Sulphur Tuft in Rewell Woods?
Le Havre Great Black-backed Gull 39S
Le Havre Great Black-backed Gull 58S, I had to do a double-take to be sure it was a different bird
Saturday 14 October. Johh King and I spent over 5 hours at Beachy seeing very little. I recorded 70 Swallows, 22 House Martins, 13 Stonechats, a male Ring Ouzel, 6 Chiffchaffs, 2 Goldcrests, a Raven, 350 Goldfinches, a Bullfinch and a Reed and 26 Corn Buntings. With light winds, albeit westerlies, we'd hoped for more.
Ring Ouzel in Shooter's Bottom
it rather saved an otherwise very quiet visit
smoke signals from Hodcombe being ignored by passing field trip
Friday 13 October. Megan and I took Cookie to Cissbury. Very quiet with single Green Woodpecker, Mistle Thrush and Jay seen and a Chiffchaff heard. Later I had a wander around Brooklands hearing a Chiffchaff and seeing 3 Long-tailed Tits. Not sure why I bothered but one always hopes ...

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Northern Greece (03-10 October)

Megan and I went to Northern Greece for a week in early October, Megan interested in the antiquities and me hoping to see Dalmatian Pelican. Neither of us had been to Greece before and we were not disappointed.
Dalmatian Pelican Lake Kirkini
Tuesday 03 October 2017. We flew with easyJet from Gatwick to Thessaloniki, an early departure that had us a Summer Parking at 03:45 car. Our flight arrived a little early and we collected an upgrade to our pre-booked car from SiXt, a very nice Mini Cooper diesel automatic even if it did have very low seats. Less impressive was learning our prepaid fully comprehensive insurance didn't cover the car's mirrors, wheels or underneath. We decided against paying extra for those but immediately wondered if it would be a false economy. We drove north to Lake Kirkini near the Bulgarian border navigating using downloaded on my phone. We stopped at the south of the lake and scanned, and not far offshore were two Dalmatian Pelicans. It is always nice to see one's target bird early on in a trip. We made a few more stops along the lake before arriving at our accommodation, the very friendly Morfi Hotel in Kirkini. We wandered around the nearer part of the for the rest of the day. There were lots of birds on the lake but most were too distant to identify. We saw more pelicans (most distant Dalmatians), 3 Pygmy Cormorants, a Black Stork, hundreds of distant Greater Flamingos, 2 Caspian Terns, Kingfisher, a few common migrant hirundines and warblers (just like Sussex), 4 Spotted Flycatchers and a few Jays and Hooded Crows.
my first Dalmatian Pelicans were the first birds seen on Lake Kirkini
it was third time lucky for me having missed them in January 1980 when Bharatpur was exceptionally dry. I failed again in Mongolia this May, although we had already booked to visit Greece by then so I was fairly relaxed about it
Mexican stand-off
friends again

Lake Kirkini, two pelicans and two Pygmy Cormorants were around the central line of nets
bizarre birds
Pygmy Cormorant

Squacco Heron
distant flamingos and pelicans
Wednesday 04 October 2017. After an earlyish breakfast which included enough food to make a packed lunch we drove to the NW corner of the lake but the light was very poor. We tried a road down to the lake along its northern edge from where birds were closer, but still distant, and the light much better and spent the best part of an hour there. We then found a track to the eastern side of the lake, the light was great but birds again very distant. It would have been possible to drive around this part of the lake on a rough track and we might have tried it had we gone for the wheel and underneath cover although I'm not sure it would have taken us much closer to the distant pelicans and flamingos. We continued on to Serres, rather too busy for our liking but some nice views looking down on the city. Back to Kirkini we tried the NW corner again, the light was very much better but most of the birds no closer. We also tried the western side again but a group on horses and few birds were in the best looking area. Birds seen included 6 Garganey, 100 Shoveler, 1000+ Greater Flamingos, Squacco Heron, hundreds of Pelicans (most too distant to identify), Pygmy Cormorant, 8 Avocets, 200+ Common Snipe, 100 Wood Sandpipers, 10 Greenshank, 25 Yellow-legged Gulls, 8 Jays, 30 Hooded Crows, 50 Swallows and a House Martin, 30 Willow Warblers and 5 Chiffchaffs, 10 Spotted Flycatchers, 120 Yellow and 3 White Wagtails, a Red-throated Pipit seen and one heard and 3 Hawfinches.
mountains beyond Lake Kirkini, the nearer ones mark the border with Bulgaria
our car (at its cleanest), very nice to drive (photo: Megan)
Great Spotted Woodpecker at Kirkini, black saddle at the base of the bill well hidden
looking north from the eastern side of Lake Kirkini, pelican and flamingo shimmer and impressive mountains
mainly flamingos
Dalmatian Pelican

Willow Warbler
hills above Serres
Megan at the Cityzen walls
looking down on Serres
back at Lake Kirkini
close Dalmatian Pelican
Thursday 05 October 2017. After breakfast we tried the track to northern side of the lake again but birds were no closer and despite being earlier the light not much better. We continued to the eastern side of the lake to a rough track which headed in the direction of the lake shore but after walking for half an hour open water was no more apparent. We returned to the Morfi and checked out. It had been an excellent place to stay. We drove west to Edessa stopping at Lake Dojran on the border with Macedonia for a picnic lunch we'd prepared at breakfast. The route was then a bit cross country to Edessa, not helped by my missing a couple of turnings. We arrived in Edessa mid afternoon, found our hotel, the Hagiati, and parked easily in the street opposite. The hotel was ideally located close to the waterfalls and the old town. We looked around them until dark. Birds seen around Lake Kirkini included 500+ Greater Flamingos, 2 Spoonbills, 20+ Dalmatian Pelicans, Marsh Harrier, 20 Avocets, 2 Green and 20 Wood Sandpipers, a Sand Martin and 100 Swallows, 6 Willow Warblers and 40 Chiffchaffs, 8 Spotted Flycatchers. At Dojran we saw 6 Dalmatian Pelicans, 20 Pygmy Cormorants and a Red-backed Shrike with another 5 Red-backed Shrikes and 6 Crested Larks on the journey to Edessa. Perhaps best of all was a superb Wood Warbler in Edessa.
NW corner of Lake Kirkini looking north
Lake Dojran looking west to Macedonia
looking north
frogs at Lake Dojran

view from Edessa
Preying Mantis in Edessa
Painted Lady
view of the ancient city (near brown/cleared area) from from Edessa city wall
Friday 06 October 2017. We walked down past the waterfalls to the foot of the escarpment and the ancient city. Back in town, not as steep a climb as we'd feared, we visited a few sites before finishing the day driving a short distance to the Agas Reservoir. We failed to access it from the north, the road our map showed running alongside provided no more than views of the tops of some reeds with the only track we found off it soon heading in the wrong direction. The south side was more successful. Areas of open water were few but did host about 10 Ferruginous Ducks. Other birds seen during the day were 320 Little and a Red-necked GrebeBitternPurple Heron, 3 Pygmy Cormorants, a Red-rumped Swallow, another superb Wood Warbler (in Edessa), Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Grey Wagtails and a Red-throated Pipit and poor views of 4 Cirl Buntings.

behind the main waterfall

main waterfall at Edessa

site of ancient Edessa

the Byzantine Bridge in Edessa
Ferruginous Ducks at Agas Reservoir

Saturday 07 October 2017. After several warm sunny days the weather changed and it was heavily overcast when we left Edessa. We drove to the ancient site of Pella where it was blowing a gale. We had just about finished looking around the ruins when the rain set in. We visited the museum and drove to Vergina in improving but still quite rough weather. The Museum of the Royal Tombs, once we found it, was very impressive despite being an underground excavation. Above ground sites were closed for renovation which was disappointing even if visiting them would have been rather bracing. We drove the short distance to the Ktima Kalaitzi, our hotel for the night set somewhat remotely in a vineyard on a hill top. An ideal location for a creepy murder mystery although it was hosting a wedding reception. Once checked in we returned to a supermarket in Vergina to buy some food and visited nearby Veroia Reservoir. Birds seen during the day included a Pygmy Cormorant, 800+ Coot, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, a Little Owl, 4 Tree Sparrows, 5 Spotted Flycatchers and a Black Redstart.

Little Owl in Vergina
Sunday 08 October 2017. We left Vergina and drove towards the coast to the main north-south highway. Turning off just before it we took a track 2-3 kms down to the coast where we saw 100 Greater Flamingos, 10 Great White Egrets, 4 Dalmatian Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Marsh Harrier, 2 Curlew, 4 Greenshank, 5 Crested Lark and some Rock Sparrows in mobile mixed sparrow flocks. We drove back to Thessaloniki although it took a while to rejoin the main road. Traffic was light out to the airport where we returned the car, somewhat muddy thanks to the coastal excursion. We caught the airport bus back into the city centre, missing our stop which added a couple of minutes to a short walk to Hotel Ilisia where we were staying for our last two nights. It was a typical cheap, basic, city centre hotel and although our room had a nice view we later discovered the road outside was quite busy all night. We walked to the seafront and along the prom to the White Tower seeing 5 Caspain Terns and 4 Yellow-legged Gulls. The Battlecruiser Averoff making its first visit to the Aegean since WW2 was moored at a nearby quay too good to miss so we headed there at sunset.

Ktima Kalaitzi, early morning
fantastic setting, Veroia Reservoir in middle distance
view from the hotel
Thessaloniki prom and the Battlecruiser Averoff from the White Tower, 
Megan at the White Tower
Alexander the Great
inside the Rotunda
Thessaloniki seafront
Battlecruiser Averoff

still struggling with the Greek alphabet

Monday 09 October 2017. A day visiting museums, we saw some nice mosaics, lots of stone pillars and statues (many headless) and enough pots, coins and religious icons to last me a lifetime. I also saw 4 Yellow-legged Gulls, 2 Caspian Terns, 25 Alpine Swifts, 500+ Rooks (roosting in the town) and a Spotted Flycatcher. At dusk we revisited the Averoff.

Thessaloniki's White Tower
The Roman Agora
we arrived just after it had closed although we could see it quite well walking around the perimeter

Thessaloniki Metro archaeological preparatory works
with so much archaeology progress was going to be slow
Battlecruiser Averoff with Mount Olympus in the background

10 October 2017. We caught the airport bus, rather more crowded than previously, checked in and flew home. It had been an enjoyable, relaxing and successful holiday.