Something and nothing.

With gales forecast at the coast last week and westerly winds set to swing north west I thought we might finally be in for some half-decent birding at Draycote as it has generally been pretty good for vagrant seabirds, within a West Midlands context. In the event we got nothing, an Ad. and Juv. Arctic Tern being the only arrivals to come in with the weather.

Juv. Arctic Tern, Draycote Water.

Juv. Arctic Tern, Draycote Water.

To be entirely fair the only birds the blow really did bring in to the Midlands were Grey Phalaropes which, for the most part, fell to our south and west. That is a really good bird though and there were quite a few of them. I had been predicting a Sabine’s Gull would turn up in the region somewhere and just one did. It was found at Daventry Reservoir which is just to the north-east of the ridge separating the Upper Leam from the upper reaches of the Cherwell. From my flat it can barely be five miles, which you might think a good reason to go and see it. You would be right, but I was that demoralised I didn’t really want to on day one. I cracked on the afternoon of day two however as the bird was hanging around on the shoreline at extremely close range. Along with a lot of other people this is my favourite gull species and aside from two adults which could be ‘breaded in’ at St Ives after the legendary 1982 seawatch there, the closest I have ever got to one.  That gale brought two Leach’s Petrels to Draycote, but then it was far more powerful than last week’s.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Juv. Sabine’s Gull, Daventry Reservoir.

Ospreys have been seen at Draycote every week since the end of July and there have been at least two individuals involved, the bird seen on 13-14/09 having paler secondaries and underwing-coverts and having dropped a primary on the left wing, whereas the bird I last saw there on 21/08 and which had probably been present for around three weeks had a missing primary on the right wing. That is pretty much it in recent weeks, though Dunlin and Common ringed Plover are present daily and Little Ringed Plover, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank and Ruff have all put in appearances. The peak count of Yellow-legged Gulls in the roost thus far was 38 on 30/08 and there are still excellent opportunities to study juveniles in the daytime, though I have not managed any good photos this season. So far there have been just two Caspian Gulls.

It’s been emotional.

A Great White Egret recently spent a few weeks in south Warwickshire, the initial discovery made by a birder who does not live in the county and was visiting somebody at Walton Hall where the bird had taken up residence in a section of diverted river bent in to service as a makeshift moat, or ornamental lake. I had an interest as it is a locality I very occasionally check and so far as I knew I was pretty much unique in that regard. I popped over with Dan Watson on 11/07 and spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the sunshine there with Gus Ariss two days later (these two having tracked down the locality from the initial report).

Great White Egret, Walton Hall.

Great White Egret, Walton Hall.

I remember (just about) driving an 1100 cc Mk 2 Ford Escort all the way to Dolgellau in 1982 to see my first Great White Egret, which was a big rarity in the UK in those days. Now it breeds in Britain and there are a handful of records a year in Warwickshire where I have even been fortunate enough to find one. I also recall hot-footing it to Thrapston in neighbouring Northamptonshire to see my first Little Egret. They now breed in my home county and are present at Draycote Water all year round in numbers varying from a couple to the low teens.

Little Egret, Toft Farm.

Little Egret, Draycote Water.

I still regard these species as exotic and it recently struck me that I mourn the loss of what I regard as ‘traditional’ British birds far more than I enjoy the appearance of newcomers. It also struck me when considering recent colonists that I have a very snooty attitude, shared by many birders, to reintroductions and I positively loathe feral populations like the apparently ever-expanding cohorts of Greylag Geese with which I must now contend in the Leam Valley. One bird which recolonized Warwickshire in recent years and which I do love having around is Common Raven. When I was at school this was a bird I only encountered in the Black Mountains and once I left and began my twitching career one I most often met with along the wild and rugged Cornish coast. I will I think, forever associate those glorious kronking sounds with the most ‘wild’ of places and have a soft spot for the raven as a result.

Common Ravens ‘tumbling’ over Napton-on-the Hill.

Common Raven, Napton-on-the Hill.

Common Raven, Napton-on-the Hill.

They are widespread in Warwickshire and even nest in my landlord’s garden but they are recent arrivals, as are the Common Buzzards and Common Polecats which I also thought of as denizens of the Welsh borders and both of which are now resident in the Upper Leam. Yet whilst I like seeing them I do not have quite the same affection for the Red Kites which joined the aforementioned species in crossing Offas Dyke. Except of course they didn’t and therein lies the source of my favouritism, the kites were reintroduced and due to the snootiness about reintroduced animals I conceded to feeling earlier I don’t regard them in quite the same way as the others which made it here under their own steam.

Red Kite, Shipston-on-Stour.

This attitude is illogical, they are all conservation success stories and there are far too few of those to be getting all superior about any of them really. Not only that but I am entirely inconsistent with my prejudice. I don’t really feel the same way about Little Owls though their ancestors were originally released from the collection of Lord Lilford on to his estate  near Oundle in Northamptonshire. I began my birding life in that county and grew up with the Little Owl which, unlike the Greylag or Ring-necked Parakeet (the latter of which is still mercifully rare in Warwickshire) just ‘feels’ like a ‘regular bird’.

Little Owl, Upper Leam Valley.

That though is the point I make here, birding, God help us, is an emotional business. I simply hate the fact of losing species. It pains me that European Turtle Dove has almost gone, not just from the Leam Valley but from the country and that Corn Bunting and Grey Partridge appear to be following a similar trajectory to the vanishing point.

European Turtle Dove, Upper Leam Valley.

There was an old man in my childhood village who remembered Corncrake (a species for which a reintroduction programme has now been established on the Nene Washes) breeding around there, I would listen to him talk about that often and the entire notion had me spellbound. It is in part that same romance of the past which drives me in to hellish tracts of rainforest in search of birds so hard to see it feels like a ghost hunt. These are often, though not always it should be recognised, species whose entire global range has been reduced to a handful of surviving fragments of a habitat which would once have covered thousands of square miles. They probably have one foot in the grave and making contact with them has a resonance stretching back across time to the initial discovery of the animal by someone who may well have been honoured in the species name.  It also reaches forwards across time as a function of the powerful knowledge that future generations may be denied the opportunity you currently enjoy. It is worth taking some time to think about what makes you tick? You may be surprised at some of the answers.

Rufous-crowned Pittasoma, endemic to the Chocó rainforest of NW Ecuador and SW Colombia. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

A tale of two godwits (changing fortunes and changing behaviours).

At the beginning of August I became the fourth member of a team working on an extremely large writing project, a consequence of which has been that I am left with precious little ‘field time’. I did however venture forth on the afternoon of 09/08, the potential for good birds coming in off the weather getting the better of me. Bob Hazell had found a Bar-tailed Godwit which I spent a pleasant half-hour with in Rainbow Corner at Draycote Water. It was the first I had seen there for years and aside from a party of six seen in April by Dan Watson, the first I could even remember occurring there for years.

Adult male Bar-tailed Godwit, Draycote Water 08/09/17.

Whilst the species has always been scarce at Draycote I suspect the frequency with which it occurs there has reduced significantly. Scanning back through the West Midlands Bird Reports as far as the data for Warwickshire can be relied upon in recent years (I only have them going back to 2006) there are no records between 2014 (the last report published) and 2011 when there were two on 30/05. I am fairly sure that this years two records are the only ones since 2011 so there have been just three occurrences in seven years.

Adult male Bar-tailed Godwit, Draycote Water, 08/09/17.

The subspecies breeding and wintering in Europe is the nominate and it is suggested in the current literature that it’s wintering population trend is upwards whilst the breeding trend is unknown. This seems likely to reflect the relative ease of counting wintering flocks as opposed to attempting estimates of a breeding population that is widely dispersed at low densities over vast expanses of tundra. Of the remaining four races at least three are known to be declining on their wintering grounds, it is thought that two of them which use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway have suffered dramatically as a result of habitat loss around the Yellow Sea. The species has thus been classified as Near Threatened. In the UK, where of course it does not breed, it is Amber Listed. I am not certain the species does occur less frequently in our area and if records are reduced that could reflect decreased observer coverage and increased disturbance levels at Draycote. I still suspect it has though and if I am correct it begs the question, why may this be? Many of the key wintering areas in the UK are to our east and north so it is perhaps no surprise we get so few few passing through. But what about the Severn Estuary? The Severn is after all one terminus of the autumn migration along the ‘Cotswold Corridor’ identified by Eric Simms, which passes over Draycote Water. A report by the RSPB has suggested that some species, including Common Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit may be shifting their wintering grounds from Wales to continental Europe. If my suggestion that the latter has declined at Draycote (and it would appear the former has too) is valid, a change in migratory behaviour would be the likeliest cause if the European population is stable, or increasing. Finally, a couple of local records I have not yet mentioned from the period in question are a flock of 20 seen flying over Napton Church by Richard and James Knightbridge in 2014 and one I heard over my flat in March of this year.

I am of the opinion that whilst Bar-tailed Godwit has become even scarcer locally that Black-tailed Godwit is met with more frequently in recent years. I was surprised to find just five records from Draycote in the West Midlands Bird Reports covering the period 2011 to 2014, though there has also been a flock of seven over Napton Reservoir and another single which tried to land there before giving up and moving on. Additional records from the Leam Valley are at least two from Toft Farm including the bizarre one documented elsewhere on this site, of a bird which frequented a game feeder during a mid-winter snowfall in 2010 (select  ‘Odds and Sods’ then ‘Behaviour’ from the menu bar to view). This year however there were two spring records and a further four since passage recommenced at the end of July. One is present as I write.

Juvenile Black-tailed Godwit, Draycote Water, 15/08/17.

Black-tailed Godwit is also classified as Near Threatened as a result of declines brought about by agricultural change in continental Europe. In the UK the breeding population of nominate race birds is increasing and the breeding range of iselandicus, which winters in the UK, is spreading. BTO data show significant changes in the wintering distribution and numbers of Black-tailed Godwit and the same RSPB report referred to earlier, lists the species as one of those recorded showing the greatest increases. Phil Andrews kindly sent me a link to some data from Upton Warren in Worcestershire, which he collated and he and John Belsey have posted https://twitter.com/upstarts1979/status/893849821739614208?fref=gc  which shows significant increases in both the number of bird days and the number of birds recorded there. So, it appears we may be losing some and winning some, as the saying almost goes.

Juvenile Black-tailed Godwit, Draycote Water, 15/08/17.

Amazonian Ecuador – Napo Wildlife Centre

Our canoe journey to Napo Wildlife Centre was eventful. We delayed our departure as the varzea forest we would be travelling through can be very productive and by the time we set off the rain had stopped and activity levels were high in the late afternoon. Good views were obtained of Spix’s Guan and Blue-throated Piping Guan, Crane Hawk and White-shouldered Antbird when Jonás picked out an interesting Jacamar like call. It came from an Amazonian Royal Flycatcher which we found fairly quickly, perched low down in the vegetation along the side of the channel. As ever in canoes it was awkward as the bird came in to view and was then lost again depending on where you were sitting as the boat drifted, but the bird was tolerant and we all got to see it well. Our guide Jorge has been at the lodge for over ten years had not seen this species there before, though he had heard it a few times. Shortly after this a Chestnut-capped Puffbird was picked out on call and gave us a very hard time before Jonás found it and again we were treated to excellent views of a difficult and good looking species.

Chestnut-capped Puffbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

As the light began fading we found an Agami Heron then a Zigzag Heron. The latter had been a new species for me the previous year and though I had seen two they were both spotlighted whereas this one was originally viewable in natural light, under the vegetation where it performed weird dancing movements around a fallen log. It crossed the channel and we then got the more typical views of it perched up but I preferred the original encounter in many ways. Numerous Boat-billed Herons and a roosting Sungrebe enlivened the final stage of the journey.

Sungrebe.

It is difficult to explain the view which greeted us when we arrived at the lagoon on the edge of which the lodge stands. Most of these lodges are pretty staggering, given their locations in the depths of the Amazon, but NWC has a tower rising from the dining area which is lit at night creating the most amazing spectacle as you approach across the lake.

I was pleased to minimise nervous anticipation by getting straight on to the ‘tiputini’ trail in the Yasuni National Park the following morning. We had to move fast to begin with if we were to reach our primary destination in time but picked up a few birds en-route including Lawrence’s Thrush and Golden-headed Manakin. Arriving at the lekking area for Black-necked Red Cotinga we soon heard the explosive advertising calls of the males. Over the next hour or so we watched the birds at fairly close ranges and they are among the most spectacular I have seen anywhere in the world. Leks in Ecuador and Peru are fairly stable but those in Brazil appear to be more mobile in nature, the key determinant everywhere being resource availability. There are not very many ‘accessible’ sites at which the species can be seen and it is in my estimation one of the best birds in the Amazon. The posture is designed to show off the red rump to maximum effect and I commented on how short the wings were. I subsequently discovered that the primaries are modified structurally for use in display. Many sub-oscines, which have comparatively simple vocal apparatus, produce peculiar sounds during display using modified feathers.

Black-necked Red Cotinga. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

A Sapphire Quail-Dove could not be coaxed in to view but as is often the case playing a recording of one species yielded another, in this a case a superb Banded Antbird which gave even better views than the only one I had seen previously when it flew up on to a branch right next to us.

Banded Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Other species recorded over the course of the morning included Red-stained and Chestnut Woodpecker, Speckled Spinetail, Yasuni, Rufous-tailed, Plain-throated, Grey , Long-winged and White-flanked Antwrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, White-eyed Tody-tyrant, Greyish Mourner, Citron-bellied Attila, Screaming Piha and Blue-backed Manakin. A Black-faced Antthrush was uncooperative but I did see it whilst I think Jonás was the only person to glimpse a group of Grey-winged Trumpeters which were on the wrong side of a gulley for us. A few people got on to a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager but I was not unfortunately one of them. A peculiar encounter was with a group of King Vultures sitting low down in the forest where they converged on the carcass of a stingray. A final surprise was a female  Lunulated Antbird sitting right by the trail.

Lunulated Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was a long day and we had little time left so repaired to the tower at the lodge where various parrots were passing by and we had our only sighting of the Giant Otters in the lagoon.

First light on day two found us up another canopy tower.

It was a misty morning and a quiet one but a Bare-necked Fruitcrow was feeding a nestling in the tree and I took the opportunity to make some notes as I guessed data on the species nesting habits would be limited. It turned out I was correct and the notes have formed the basis of a short note which has been accepted for publication in an on-line journal run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.

Bare-necked Fruitcrow. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Moving on to the famous parrot lick the stars of the show were a number of Orange-cheeked Parrots.

Orange-cheeked Parrot. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

An afternoon boat trip secured a few more species typically or often found in varzea including Reddish Hermit, Amazonian Streaked Antwren, Yellow-crowned Elaenia and Cinnamon Attila.

Amazonian Streaked Antwren. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

We left in darkness the next morning to reach a section of the channel Jorge had recommended as a good spot for Salvin’s Currasow and almost unbelievably discovered a party of four right out on the exposed bank at super close range!

Salvin’s Currasow. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

It was a stunning end to the Amazonina leg of the tour and the absolute and final hurrah was a Black-spotted Bare-eye which showed fairly well once lured to the edge of the channel.

Napo Wildlife Centre is superb in every way and the guides are truly outstanding. It is expensive but then so are all the Amazonian lodges and NWC is community run so you do at least know that your money is going to local people who, as a consequence, have every reason to protect the forest rather than exploit in destructive ways. I would recommend it to anyone without reservation.

Amazonian Ecuador – La Selva

La Selva was one of the earliest lodges in Amazonian Ecuador and for a long time pretty much the place to go. The high cost of staying there was always an issue and few serious birders appear to visit these days. The lodge is very plush and comfortable with an excellent network of trails and good guides. We used La Selva as our base for birding the north bank of the Rio Napo and some of the nearby river islands.

Our journey in was quiet in the mid day heat but the river has changed considerably since my last visit. Expansion of oil extraction operations has left the Napo looking a much busier river than the one I remember with working vessels and high speed water taxis moving between numerous settlements around which forest clearance is all to evident. There seemed, unsurprisingly, to be far fewer birds along the banks of the river and island shorelines.

Large-billed Tern, Rio Napo.

A short canoe ride from the river edge to the lodge yielded Black-tailed and Green-backed Trogons, White-chinned Jacamar, Long-billed Woodcreeper and Hauxwell’s Thrush. A late boat trip around the lagoon was  abandoned as heavy rain set in but from the lodge balcony we had good views of one of the key target species, Orange-crested Manakin. Watching the day roosting Sand-coloured NIghthawks in the trees below the balcony was another classic La Selva experience.

Sand-coloured Nighthawk, La Selva.

Another resident around the decking was the bizarre folivorous Hoatzin.

Hoatzin, La Selva.

Early the following morning we had our first failed attempt for Zigzag Heron before carrying on to search for a La Selva speciality, Cocha Antshrike. They didn’t give themselves up easily but we secured good views of a female, the more distinctive of the sexes and brief views of a male.

Cocha Antshrike F, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

On our way out we had superb views of the spectacular Fulvous Antshrike, a difficult bird to see well but our return journey was frustrating with brief views of Spot-winged Antbird, even briefer glimpses of Black-tailed Leaftosser and a party of Marbled Wood Quails flushed from the front of the line and thus only really seen by the leaders. Eventually we  encountered a pair of Sooty Antbirds which performed well and a Black-faced Antbird followed by a mixed flock which contained Plain-throated, Grey, White-flanked and Rio Suno Antwrens as well an Ochre-bellied Flycatcher. The afternoon was sweltering and the forest still but we nonetheless managed to track down a Collared Puffbird, a couple of Purplish Jacamars and a superb male Wire-tailed Manakin, my first and unsurprisingly a target species for me. An afternoon session on the canopy tower was also a little slow but yielded another target species of mine. Like the manakin Plum-throated Cotinga is not a big rarity but it is spectacular and a bird I was desperate to see. It didn’t disappoint, the colours of the plumage among the most vivid I have ever witnessed. It turned out to be the only one we connected with on the trip. Other birds seen from the tower included Golden-collared Toucanet, Grey-headed Kite, Laughing Falcon, Blue-and Yellow Macaw, Yellow-crowned Amazon and Black-faced Dacnis.

Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, La Selva.

The next morning we returned to the same tower where highlights included Bat Falcon, Ivory-billed and Many-banded Aracaris, Ringed Woodpecker and Black-headed Parrot.

Many-banded Aracari, La Selva.

Ringed Woodpecker, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

Descending we discovered a Rusty-belted Tapaculo singing close to the trail and Jonás quickly found an appropriate log and lured the bird in to view. This was another target species of mine and whilst I knew the drill it was still pretty remarkable to see the bird hop on to the designated log right on cue. Two more of my targets followed in rapid succession, a Brown Nunlet and a superb Chestnut-belted Gnateater. I then got better views than I had previously had of Spix’s Guan. A big personal blow followed when I moved away from the group to get an angle on something and missed a Reddish-winged Bare-eye in the process. The mornings successes left me just about able to remain philosophical about this (an occupational hazard of rain forest birding after all) and we picked up a day roosting Tawny-bellied Screech Owl on the way back to the lodge. After lunch a Brown Jacamar was a nice detour along the banks of the Napo en-route to an old stage river island where progress was difficult but excellent views of Castelnau’s Antshrike were obtained along with a few Orange-headed Tanagers. For the second evening running a Kinkajou disrupted dinner as it foraged in the trees immediately alongside the balcony.

Kinkajou, La Selva. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.

We left La Selva the following morning getting excellent views of an Agami Heron on our way, a bird I had previously only seen in immature plumage. As we arrived at our first destination, an early stage river island, the heavens opened on us. Torrential rain continued for the entire morning but we soldiered on heroically, eventually scrapping together a list that included Olive-spotted Hummingbird, White-bellied and Parker’s Spinetails and the appropriately named Drab Water Tyrant. A Grey-breasted Crake came frustratingly close but refused to budge further leaving me grateful I had seen this species well in Brazil just a year previously. We finally abandoned the mission and repaired for lunch before moving on to our second base of operations on the S bank.