Friday, 1 November 2019

Isles of Scilly,19-26 October 2019

I spent a week on the Isles of Scilly from 19-26 October 2019 with David Campbell, Ian Jones, Magnus Andersson and Paul Goodman. We rented the same house high on a hill overlooking Hughtown on St Mary's. From the house we had a good view of both sides of the isthmus whatever the weather.

The Isles of Scilly are about 50km west of Lands End, here:

79980cde57046efe7835ab8246faefe9f0cdb0f2 cornwall and the isles of scilly

We were lucky enough to enjoy very good weather until the Friday, when a severe storm set in. 

Before Friday

On Friday
Until the storm, we were able to enjoy the delights of St Mary's, St Agnes, Tresco and St. Martins. Being islands, travel on foot is easy, as no island is more than four or five kilometres long.


At this time of year, birds are migrating. They stop off at the Isles of Scilly to rest, before continuing their journey South. In addition, some migrating birds from further afield may get blown a lot further than they bargained for. They end up way off course on the Isles of Scilly.

Here are a few rarities which we saw:

Lapland Bunting in a field with cattle

Spotted Crake - a normally elusive water bird. This one was quite confiding.

Red-throated Diver. In Penzance Harbour.

Blue Rock Thrush. I know it doesn't look blue in this photo.

Spotted Sandpiper - A vagrant from America.

Citrine Wagtail - Also in a field with cattle. They rely on the livestock to disturb insects, which the birds then eat.

Subalpine Warbler. This one is a juvenile and looks quite like a Lesser Whitethroat!

Yellow-browed Warbler. A vagrant from the Far East. At this time of year they are relatively common, with a few hundred records countrywide.
The migration attracts a good number of birdwatchers and twitchers. For those of you unfamiliar with the difference: 

A birdwatcher is someone who likes birds and usually visits somewhere for an afternoon or a day to see which birds are present, and what turns up during their stay.

A twitcher is a birdwatcher who usually has a pager, and gets news of rare birds reported around the country. If one appears that they have not seen before, they drop everything (if they can) and travel to wherever the bird is. Sometimes, they see it and sometimes not. If they see it, they can add it to their list. Twitchers aim to see as many birds as they can in their own country.

Going to the Isles of Scilly is a mixture of both birdwatching and twitching rare vagrants that happen to turn up there. Most twitches are, however, only a boat ride and a short walk away!

The night sky and the lack of light pollution.

The Isles of Scilly are quite isolated from the mainland. Light pollution is virtually non-existent. In consequence, on a clear night the stars are easily visible. The Milky Way, our galaxy, is visible to the naked eye. Through binoculars, literally thousands of stars are visible.

The Milky Way - taken last year on St. Mary's

Other Birds.

As well as the rarities, there are also many other common birds on Scilly. Here are some. Many will be familiar to UK readers. This hen harrier was flying along when it saw a female pheasant. This is what happened:

Hen harrier - "Aye, aye, what have we here?"

Whatever it has seen, it makes straight for it!

The pheasant realises it's in danger and makes a 'run' for it!

The Hen Harrier gives chase. He was ultimately unsuccessful. The pheasant got away!

Shortly after, the Hen Harrier is worried by a Raven. There's no peace if you're a raptor!

There were one or two unusual birds this time. This Blackbird has a white head!

Blackbird with white head

The dark bill on this blackbird indicates that it is from Scandinavia. Normally, the bill of the male Blackbird is orange - see photo above.

Here are three our our smallest birds.

This Wren, one of our most common birds, is enjoying a juicy slug!

The Firecrest (with the Goldcrest, our smallest bird) prefers mixed woodland.
The Goldcrest, being so small, is rather flighty and difficult to photograph. It prefers conifers, but is here in deciduous woodland.

Wheatears are fairly common on migration.  They often sit on the top of rocks.

Siskin. A lovely lemon bird. They sometimes come to bird feeders.

This Spotted Flycatcher was hunting from the roof of the Parsonage.
Starlings are underrated in my view. Close up, they are very attractive, with interesting markings.

Black Redstarts can often be seen perching on rocks, fences or buildings. They whisk their tails often, displaying their red undertail.

There is plenty of water in and around the Isles of Scilly. The shores, lakes and marshes are home to many aquatic species.  Here are a few.

Oystercatcher. Who knows if they actually catch oysters. They are one of our most easily recognisable birds.

Sanderling. A small wader, usually feeds by racing around in the surf as the water laps in and out. They are very active and mobile while feeding.
Snipe. Often hard to see with their excellent camouflage. They probe for small creatures in soft mud. This bird was seen at dusk in very poor light.
Water Rail. Even more skulking and elusive than the Snipe. This one also appeared well after sunset. Their call is like the squeal of a piglet.

Tresco is probably the second most visited island outside St. Mary's. It is an interesting place, with large lakes, an Abbey and a well laid out garden. It is home to red squirrels. 

After taking this photo, this red squirrel came so close that it was too near to photograph. I couldn't get my phone out quickly enough!

Here is one of our favourite birds. The ubiquitous Robin never fails to please. It's song is everywhere.

The Robin - our national bird.

Unlike last year, when the ferry was delayed for two days because of the weather, we managed to leave on the right day! The storm on Friday delayed it's departure from 15.30 until 17.00 to give the wind a chance to die down. Even so, the crossing was 'interesting', with quite a high swell and some exciting pitches and rolls. It didn't seem too bad while you were sitting down. It was when you got up to go to the bar or walk to another deck that the rolling of the ship made it really difficult to move about.

We arrived in Penzance at about 20:00, collected the car and were back home in our beds by about 02:45 on Sunday morning. Luckily, the clocks went back that night, so we had an extra hour of sleep! Aah!

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Cuckmere Haven day trip

On Sunday, we returned to Cuckmere Haven to dull weather and rain in the afternoon. There were many fewer birds than last time, but we spent time with some common birds and getting reasonable photos. Here they are:


Little Egret

Canada Geese strafe the sheep




Mute Swans - both male by the looks of them

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Kingfisher finally this year

After several visits to Morden Hall Park, I finally met up with the kingfisher. He didn't just treat me to a flash of blue as he powered past me (though he did do that once or twice) but he sat nicely for a couple of minutes so I could get some photos. It's a shame about the branch in front, but, hey, you can't have everything!

Kingfisher - male. I only had my walkabout lens with me.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

A day in Newhaven and Cuckmere Haven

Went down to the South coast yesterday  to see Purple Sandpipers. I went with Naveen, whom I met a few weeks ago, and who is a fellow birdwatcher and keen photographer.

We went first to Newhaven East Pier to find Purple Sandpipers. They are passage migrants, so they would be around for only a few weeks each year.

On arrival at the pier it was incredibly windy. We could see a group of birds about halfway along. As we approached, it was a small flock of Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones. The light was against us, so we needed to be on the other side of them. As we tried to inch past, we flushed them and they flew to the beach. Fortunately, a couple of walkers with a dog  flushed them again and they came back to the pier. We were  able to take as many shots as we wanted as they were now comfortable with our presence.
Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper


Naveen getting down for the perfect shot!

We then moved on to Cuckmere Haven where I had heard there was a Glossy Ibis. As we parked, another birdwatcher told us where the ibis was and we found it very easily. It was fairly distant but there were a few other interesting birds around including a gorgeous Mediterranean Gull in full breeding plumage.

Glossy Ibis

Little Egret

Common Gull - They're not that common! 
Mediterranean Gull taking off

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Madagascar 4 - Anakao, Tsimanampetsotsa, whale-watching, Antananarivo, home.

Anakao is a popular beach area but there is no viable road to it.  The quickest way to get from Tulear to Anakao is by speedboat. After breakfast, we went to the speedboat terminal where the tide was out, revealing a large expanse of mud (and probably worse. Nevertheless, this was no problem, as we were taken to the speedboat by a, slow but secure, means of transport: zebu cart! Our cart had two zebu with minds of their own. The driver had constantly to encourage them with a stick or we would have been stuck in the mud!
In a zebu cart heading for the speedboat!
The speedboat was large, and capable of taking 25 passengers with all their luggage. We were soon skimming over the waves along the coast.

On arrival, we paddled ashore to the beachfront hotel with a ‘to-die-for’ view over the limpid sea.  It faced West, an ideal direction to enjoy perfect sunsets!  

My case coming ashore on paradise beach.

There were various chalets in the sand dunes scattered around the site. Fortunately, our chalet was the nearest to the dining room / bar.

After settling in, we spent the rest of the day relaxing, swimming and planning the next few days.  Tomorrow we were due to go to Tsimanampetsotsa National Park to the south.  I spent some of the afternoon looking for the local birds.  There were one or two new ones including Sakalava Weaver and Littoral rock thrush, a slightly different species from the Benson’s rock thrush we had seen at Isalo.

Littoral Rock-thrush  - Male

Littoral Rock-thrush  - Female
The following day we set off to Tsimanampetsotsa in three 4x4s.  We stopped part-way there in a flat clearing, where Rija explained about the unique plant ecosystem. Nic noticed nearby some plover species but we were too far away to have a proper look. We carried on towards the entrance to the park where we stopped for the guide to buy tickets.  It was already hot at about 9 a.m.

Our vehicle was the last one in the convoy and was driving quite slowly.  We quickly lost sight of the first two cars.  On speaking to Rija about it, she explained that the driver was trying to be extra careful because Norma (aged 89) was in our car and he thought she looked rather fragile! Norma said he needn’t worry about her.

At Tsimanampetsotsa our guides, Jacky and Julien took us first to a cave full of water containing fish with no eyes. The cave was completely dark so they had no need of eyes.  Here's one of them:

Blind fish in cave

The ground and vegetation in the park were unlike any other.  The ground was hard slabs, which the guide informed us was fossilised coral. Now, I'm sure all my readers know, therefore, that the ground we were standing on was once at the bottom of the sea.

This Park was also home to some impressive baobab trees here are a couple of them:

Lynne by huge baobab tree
Enormous parsnip? No. Baobab!

Not too far on was an extremely impressive Banyan Tree with roots going deep down into another cave which, apparently, linked up underground with the first cave we had been in. The caverns are very popular with cavers or, as the guide quaintly insisted on calling them, speleologists. The Banyan tree held a juvenile cuckoo-hawk.

Banyan tree
Cuckoo-hawk - juvenile
After the guided tour, we moved on to the lake, where we saw some distant flamingos but none close by. We also climbed the nearby hill.  Here is Lynne at the top with the lake behind.

Lynne by Tsimanampetsotsa Lake
The return trip was slow going on the soft, sandy tracks. I asked our driver if he would stop where we had stopped on the way down.  I recognised it when we got there, and fortunately the plovers were still there. I got out and took a few shots before they scuttled further away.

Madagascar plover (I think)

A little further ahead our track was barred by the most overladen and bogged down taxi bus I had yet seen in Madagascar. We stopped to take a picture of their miserable situation.  

Overladen taxi-bus stuck in the sand.
No idea how they got out.
It’s astonishing how many people are crammed into this bus.  In addition, you can see the enormous amount of luggage on the roof and the several people who were actually travelling on the top of that luggage.  I have no idea how they managed to get free as it had sunk quite a long way into the soft sand.  Rija informed us that this was a long-distance taxi bus that went to the north of the country about 1000 miles away and took several days to get there.

We got back to the hotel late in the afternoon.  It was still light.  I wandered around the compound looking for a few birds before relaxing with a beer and waiting for the sunset.

Sunset at Anakao
The following day we were due to visit one of the offshore islands, but most people wanted to go whale watching. Rija arranged it, and a stop at the island was part of the whale watching trip anyway, so everyone was happy

Our hotel was in quite an isolated position with no proper road communication with the rest of the island. As a consequence, there was no shower and the toilet had to be flushed using a bucket of sea water which was replenished periodically by the staff.

Hot water was brought twice a day. We used this to wash standing up in front of the wash basin, which had no waste pipe. The water just ran out of the bottom onto the floor and then into a drain.  These were small inconveniences compared with our beautiful situation by the sea.

Next day (our final full day here) our boat arrived to take us whale watching. It was actually a large balsa canoe, complete with outrigger and outboard motor.  

In the balsa wood canoe, looking for whales.

We all fitted in easily and motored away passing the island where we would later stop for lunch.  There were several other whale boats in the area and it wasn't long before we caught sight of our first humpback whale. In the next few hours we saw several humpbacks on the surface and diving showing their flukes (the lobes of their tails) as they did so
Apparently individual whales can be recognised by the shape and pattern on their tail fins.  I had thought that the tail fin of a whale was quite smooth and featureless but this close-up of the fluke of a humpback whale clearly shows the incredible patterning and the ragged edge of it.  It also appears to have a large crab clinging onto the end!

Flukes of a humpback whale showing the
distinctive patterning by which they can be recognised.

After the whale watching we headed for the island. We pulled the boat up on the beach and waded ashore. Our guides made a tarpaulin shelter for us while they cooked the fish they had caught for our lunch.  Nic, Sian and I wandered off in search of wildlife and birds.  There were a few small birds that proved extremely elusive, but we also saw a grey plover another plover species and a whole series of red-tailed tropicbirds which soared overhead as we approach the far end of the island.  We wandered into their nesting area.  Some of the tropicbirds were sitting on eggs underneath bushes for protection.

Red-tailed tropicbird
Those of my readers in Europe are probably familiar with the little egret, a small white bird of the heron family. It was once quite rare in England, but they now breed here in large numbers and inhabit most shallow stretches of water. Anyway, here is a little egret.

Little egret - dark morph

Oh, yes, it is. This dark morph is unknown in England but is quite common in Madagascar. Both varieties were nesting in the same tree. Here is the little egret most of you know.  It was just next to the dark morph above.

Little egret

I also spotted a whimbrel on the shore.

We got back to camp in time for lunch, after which it was back to our hotel.

After dinner, we all sat looking out to sea, enjoying a final drink. Nic had noticed a nightjar which periodically swooped down into the lights to catch a moth or some other insect and then disappeared again.  I decided to investigate. I got my camera and my head-torch and quickly located not one, but two, nightjars in a tree, literally just outside the hotel and around the corner. I tried to take a picture by shining my head-torch at the tree but, as soon as I did that, they flew away. I therefore took a picture using the ambient light to focus manually. This was quite tricky as it was almost pitch dark. I focussed the camera looking at the top of the tree. I waited until I knew the nightjars were there I then took a photo using the built-in flash on my Canon 7D2. The flash wasn't strong enough even at maximum ISO, but when I got home I was able to make adjustments in Photoshop. This is the resulting photograph of the Madagascar nightjar. The flash is, of course, reflected from the eye.

Madagascar nightjar

The following day we boarded the speedboat again and set off towards Tulear. Very quickly it became clear that there was something wrong with the boat, as it was going very slowly. The driver looked worried and Rija was also looking concerned. I'm not sure why they didn't tell us immediately, but it was over an hour before they confirmed that there was something wrong with the engines. They called another boat, which eventually came to meet us.  This was fortunate as we had a plane to catch. The replacement boat was the shuttle boat of one of the other hotels, which very kindly took on board everyone and sped off towards Tulear.

The flight back to Antananarivo was uneventful, and quick at just about an hour. We went back to the same Belvedere Hotel that we had stayed at on the first night.

Our flight home wasn't until the late evening of the following day (actually the very early morning of the day after that) so we spent the next day on a tour of Antananarivo. This included the king's palace on one of the highest hills in the area.  The outside was fairly run down to be honest, although the history was interesting, and there was some very interesting furniture, photographs and other artefacts on the inside.

Grounds of the King's palace

We also visited a balcony overlooking the capital from quite near the Queens Palace which had been burnt out several years ago and never restored.

Near the Queen's palace overlooking Antananarivo.

There followed lunch in a very nice restaurant, and then a short shopping trip for souvenirs before we went back to the hotel to pack for the last time. We had our final dinner before leaving for the airport at about 23:00.  Our flight was at 01:30 back to Nairobi, where we arrived at about a 05:00. The stop-over this time was only about three and a half hours before our flight back to London.

We really enjoyed our visit to Madagascar. The country is poor, and desperately in need of some infrastructure. We were impressed at the resilience and inventiveness of the people, who wasted nothing and lived with the barest minimum. We were acutely aware of how privileged we were to be able to visit this amazing country with its unique wildlife, beautiful countryside and national parks. The lemurs and birds were enchanting, and the scenery was breath-taking.