Last chance to C – by Paul Chapman

The category C species is a constant topic of conversation in the car as we travel. Since we wanted to know more about it we asked our friend Paul Chapman, British birder, who we met on our second trip to Kuwait to make matters more clear. Paul is now “guest blogger” here and wrote the following informative and entertaining piece for you all.

LAST CHANCE TO C 

Nothing is more likely to produce a gasp from a competitive lister than to realise that he has missed a species which he’ll now never get. In a Western Palearctic context, this would seem reserved for Slender-billed Curlew and the like, but in fact, a new series of blockers has started to appear. There’s always that dream that you’ll get a chance at Aleutian Tern or Ascension Island Frigatebird – mythical birds like these can always recur – but with tighter regulations on bird imports and a heightened approach in many countries to preventing invasive species taking hold, will there ever be another self-sustaining population of Lady Amherst’s Pheasant? For those that have visited that same farm near Rilvas, Portugal to be greeted by the revelation that there aren’t any Black-headed Munias any more or walked those same streets near the shops in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, Israel only to see Ring-necked after Ring-necked Parakeet rather than their Nanday cousins, they will be aware of that feeling.

Howls of derision are directed towards self-sustaining feral species – Category C species. They are often referred to in slang as ‘plastic’. Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts that I have seen over the years ironically entitled ‘Plastic Fantastic’. In fairness, few words rhyme with plastic.

But for a WP lister intent on a 800+ life list or a 700+ year list, they are difficult to ignore. In a WP context, not far short of 5% of the species likely to be seen in a year will be Category C species. I counted 33 species which I believe are only on the Western Palearctic list as a result of feral populations. These can be broadly broken down into wildfowl (6), gamebirds (6), parrots (5) and cagebirds (16).

For the wildfowl, the species are generally located in northern Europe – a day out in the Netherlands and Germany should get you a clean sweep of Black Swan, Bar-headed Goose, Swan Goose, Mandarin Duck and Ruddy Duck. Probably the admission that has caused most howls is that of Muscovy Duck. Recently added in Northern Italy, this species was also considered to be self-sustaining in Britain before an intervention on that population.

Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck

The gamebirds are more problematic. It is far more difficult to tell if a species routinely released and artificially fed is really self-sustaining. California Quail requires a trip to Corsica. Northern Bobwhite can be targeted in Northern Italy as well as still in France and also available in France (and perhaps the Czech Republic) is Reeve’s Pheasant. Whereas Golden Pheasant clings on in Britain but for how much longer, two species now appear to have become ultimate blockers being Lady Amherst’s Pheasant in Britain – a victim of golf courses, increased disturbance and loss of understorey – and Erckel’s Francolin which never really took to Italy. I’m not sure how many listers got to the forbidden ‘orgy island’ Zannone (as CNN described it) before the demise of the species. Maybe if they saw that headline then they would have tried but lets face it, birders aren’t normally known for that type of thing.

The parrots again are in the main an easy enough bunch. Ring-necked Parakeet is found in a number of countries and Monk Parakeet is heading the same way though despite fulfilling self-sustaining status according to the bird committee, it was prevented from admission to the British list and control measures are in place. Alexandrine Parakeet has recently been admitted in the Netherlands and Yellow-headed Amazon in Germany. Nanday Parakeet is a problematic one. The true extent of the Israeli population – now lost – has always been unclear and its Canaries and Barcelona populations are part of a whole bunch of parrot species which occasionally escape and breed – Blue-crowned, Red-masked and Mitred perhaps most notably. Indeed, Blue-crowned has bred in the Britain. One species admitted and then removed is Fischer’s Lovebird. Many took the trip to the stunning backdrop of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat but eventually the cages and the feeding proved just too much for the list compilers….. The species is now totally erased – a mistake in time eradicated from all lists. At least you could always have a seawatch from the nearby headland.

So then you get the ‘true’ cagebirds. In the main, these split between the Iberian Peninsula and the Middle East. The former with planning should produce Red-billed Leiothrix (also in France and Italy), Crested Myna (Portugal), Black-headed Weaver, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Common Waxbill (also on the Atlantic Islands) and Red Avadavat. Black-headed Munia (Portugal) has reached blocker status with the birds apparently being recaptured for the bird trade – an ironic twist and a reminder to move fast.

Red-billed Leiothrix
Red-billed Leiothrix

The Iberian Munia puzzles are probably not over yet though as various species have a tendency to get themselves established at least temporarily and perhaps Scaly-breasted Munia will slip seamlessly into the list in the next decade. Otherwise the Middle East adds Common Myna (increasing throughout), Bank Myna, White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls and Ruppell’s Weaver (Kuwait) and Vinous-breasted Starling (Israel).

Vinous-breasted Starling
Vinous-breasted Starling

At least four of those appear to have pretty restricted populations. This leaves Vinous-throated Parrotbill – one species to chase despite some earlier listing confusion – mainly in Italy and as a recent vagrant from there to Switzerland but also with a population in the Netherlands, Red-billed Leiothrix in France, Spain and Italy and Indian Silverbill in at least France, Israel and Kuwait.

So there you have it, 33 species and 4 of them already likely to be extinct in the countries in which they were admitted.

Is that the end of the matter? Well not really. Four species are pretty much exclusively ticked as Category C species though they continue to occur (or at least occurred) on a Category A basis. Egyptian Goose and Ring-necked Pheasant are most often seen in their feral European populations and I doubt that many would twitch a Sacred Ibis in the Middle East having seen the European ones. Also, Helmeted Guineafowl is now extinct as a Category A species and listers resort to the Cape Verde introduced populations. Further, where does House Crow sit on this list? A slightly different proposition being human assisted in its arrival rather than escaped or released but nevertheless as a result, this is seen by many as a variant on the Category C conundrum. So that takes us to 38!!

It then gets really murky. Ironically the Eurasian Collared Dove expansion, that has made certainty of identification of African Collared Dove in its former haunts including Egypt and elsewhere difficult, has also confused the identification of the feral populations in at least the Canaries and the identification of vagrant Snow Goose and Greater Canada Geese from their self-sustaining feral relatives is more a matter of art than science.

So why have these species got such a poor reputation amongst ‘serious birdwatchers’? Often by their nature they are tame, some are brightly coloured and some just look out of context. Another reason is that there is no clear definition of what self-sustaining means and by their very nature, it is difficult to separate recent escapes or supported populations from truly self-sustaining ones. In Britain, the Lady Amherst’s Pheasants in North Wales were considered untickable whereas the ones in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire were counted. In France, arguments continue over which are tickable populations of Reeve’s Pheasant. In Kuwait and indeed in Israel, a species seems more likely to be officially accepted onto the list than elsewhere. Does one well at Jahra Farms really support a self-sustaining population? At least the Bank Mynas have moved wells in the last few years! I once had a conversation with a member of the Israeli committee who was genuinely surprised that Nanday Parakeet was on their list. So at times, it does really seem a lottery.

What next? Do any of those Indian Peafowls breeding in Britain tick the boxes? What about the Greater Rheas in Germany? Those Scaly-breasted Munias and maybe Pin-tailed Wydahs in the Iberian Peninsula or the Red-whiskered Bulbuls on Fuerteventura may be next let alone the next parrot off the conveyor belt?

Although not to everyone’s tastes and certainly beset with problems of interpretation and confusion, Category C species are an intrinsic part of any geographically limited list. I know British listers who count Capercallie for their British list but will only admit it to their World List when they have seen a Scandinavian bird. That said, this is a species with at least some European assistance and reintroduction programmes so at times you cannot really tell the origin of the bird in front of you. In reality, whether it is a Houbara at Merzouga, a Double-spurred Francolin at Sidi Yahya des Zaer or a Red Kite in Oxford, if you scratch the surface, in an overcrowded world with the impact of man at every corner, the position is a lot less straightforward than some with absolute views would like to think. I am far less fussy. I’m not sure when I first saw my Category A Red-legged Partridge or Little Owl away from Britain and I wouldn’t know where to start in working out a Category A British Mute Swan. My personal view is just enjoy the birds for what they are unless they are causing an environmental impact. In an average year, a WP year lister may well end up with 37 Category C targets, a furrowed brow over some extinct friends and a bit of insurance to acquire over a few that may soon be joining the party.

 

 

Italy instead of Turkey

Since we were able to finish our Turkey trip way ahead of time, we went twitching in Romania, but we also rescheduled our summer trip to Italy. This coincided well with a Black Heron rarity in Puglia, Southern Italy.

Arriving in Rome Italy, we immediately headed south towards the reported Black Heron. Ticked number 600 en route at a gas station, trash bird. It would have felt good to have the Amur Falcon as 600, but then again you can’t have everything.

Italian Sparrow
Italian Sparrow

Arrived at the sleepy little Mediterranean city of Porto Cesaro. We had received pretty good information from Italian friends, and we were able to find the Heron just after a few minutes scanning the bay.

Black Heron
Black Heron
Black Heron fishing
Black Heron fishing

This is an African bird, as far as we know, 7th find in WP, very good. On the shore there were also some normal Mediterranean birds, such as Yellow-legged Gulls, Audouin’s gulls, a few Little Terns and a lost Little Stint.

Audouin's gull
Audouin’s gull
Little Stint
Little Stint

Slept in Porto Cesaro after a spectacular full-on Italian dinner. Now, this is a country with food culture. Morocco, eat your hart out.

In the morning, drove north, long drive towards the mountains north-east of Lucca, close to Pisa. Camped late at night, high up. Early start, searching the steep wet slopes for Red-billed Leiothrix, an Asian bird introduced, probably by mistake as result of cage birds fleeing their captors. We found quite a few after maybe an hour of searching. Quick birds, hard to photograph.

Red-billed Leiothrix
Red-billed Leiothrix

Went from Lucca to the little village of Deiva Marina (where incidentally I were a few years ago, a bicycle race started from there) There were eBird reports of Moltoni’s warbler from that village. We found a pair almost immediately, too easy. This was a bird we had worried a bit about.

Moltoni's Warbler
Moltoni’s Warbler
Moltoni's Warbler
Moltoni’s Warbler

It’s not as hard to distinguish from the regular Subalpine warbler as you would think, the call is entirely different and the song has a different twang to it. Also, the coloration is pinkish, not red. However, the main distinguishing feature is the wren-like call. Some things are harder when you read about them than when you actually do them.

Tick on – drove further north, ticked Sacred Ibis from the highway. Abundant in the rice fields. Arrived in the afternoon at Lago Orta which hosts a category C population of Muscovy Duck. These birds were surprisingly hard to locate and we also feel uncertain of the actual category C categorisation of these birds. Anyways, the Italian ornithology organisation has deemed these birds wild.

Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck

Italians don’t speak english. Traveling Italy without being able to speak Italian you have to get by with body language. When we had ticked the ugly ducks, we got into a conversation with an Italian couple that just – well – spoke a lot of Italian. A lot. I couldn’t hold back and countered with Paperi Poperi

 

Drove to Milano and made a late evening attempt at Northern Bobwhite before crashing in hotel. Tried another site in the early morning and walking into the right habitat at dawn, we could hear the Bobwhites displaying inside the thick bushes. These birds were hard to see, hadn’t it been that the Bobwhites were calling we would never had been able to find them. Thus, it was lucky that we were able to do this Italy trip now in June, instead of as originally scheduled in July when we believe they are silent. Excellent birding in general at that site with singing Nightingales and Melodious Warblers everywhere.

Melodious Warbler
Melodious Warbler

Drove on, this time into France and the Alps. Arrived in the afternoon with spectacular weather over the Alps.

Alps
Alps

Birded the slopes of the mountain roads north east of Modane and shortly found the Citril Finch.

Citril Finch
Citril Finch

Started to walk the mountain slopes and found a displaying Rock Partridge after a few hours. The call is surprisingly loud.

Rock Partridge
Rock Partridge

Drove down the mountain in search of a camping spot and a Spotted Nutcracker flew over the road. We were able to tape in the Nutcrackers and got good views.

Woke up in the morning in rain and complete mist. Bad weather just came in. In this weather the Partridge would have been impossible, probably the Citril Finch too.

Next stop – Cyprus.

 

 

 

 

Twitching Romania

A couple of days ago we were in the car, close to the tourist resort Antalya in Turkey, heading towards a lake in the area where we could tick Dalmatian Pelican, the last bird for Turkey for us. We had heard about recent sitings of an Amur Falcon in Romania, it was reported on Tarsiger and also on Tommy Holmgrens Facebook. Someone dropped the comment – how far is it to drive there?

Our Turkey trip was finished, one week ahead of schedule, much due to all the help we got from Emin, but also due to the fact that we nailed the Caucasian Black Grouse in Georgia. Thus, we had extra time on our hands so we went twitching to Romania.

For our non-hardcore-birder followers, I now repeat some lister terminology.

  • Twitch – Fly/drive/run/whatever to a reported rare bird.
  • Twitchable – The reported rare bird is supposedly still there if you decide to go there.
  • Tick – If you run a bird list (as we do) , a tick is a seen or heard bird.
  • Tickable – Some birds cannot go on the list, they are not tickable due to the bird not being wild, but rather an escaped previously caged bird.
  • Lister – a person that keeps a list.
  • Dip – Go on a twitch, and not find the bird

So, with the extra time on our hands we went twitching in Romania. Easy and cheap to fly from Antalya to Bucharest and we went straight to the Red-footed Falcon colony in the Donau Delta where the Amur Falcon had been seen. Spent the better half of the afternoon and the evening scanning the colony.

Scanning
Scanning

Zero warblers in the patch of forest, probably due to the 60 pairs of Red-footed Falcons nesting there. The only other bird in that patch was an Oriole. Apart from the nesting Rooks, Red-footed Falcons steal the nests from Rooks. Seems to be a never ending fight.

Eurasian Golden Oriole
Eurasian Golden Oriole

No Amur Falcon though, but it was a delight spending time in the Red-footed Falcon colony, actually getting to know the individuals.

Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon

Next day we were in slight panic mode, we also needed to get Dalmatian Pelican. Some local guides we spoke to suggested we needed to go on their boat tour. Started early in the morning at the Red-footed Falcon site, but then went searching for Dalmatian Pelican. After an hour or so, we found a 2 cy bird.

Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatian Pelican

Went back to the Falcon site, scanning. Yet another Dalmatian came flying over.

Dalmatian Pelican
Dalmatian Pelican

Eventually – we gave up. It’s a fucking dip!

Chai?

There is a lot of tea-drinking going on in Turkey. We think that one should always say yes when offered a cup of tea, and we’ve been offered many. Nice.

Going west from Birecic, where we all had our hair and beards sorted by a Syrian barber we drove towards Aladaglar NP. We didn’t make it all the way though, and decided to camp before sunset. Once at the camp site, Mårten thought he should check how Krüpers Nuthatch sounds and played it from the phone. Dang, an aggressive nuthatch came flying in immediately.

Krüpers Nuthatch
Krüpers Nuthatch

The habitat was pine forest, lot’s of Mistle Thrush, Coal Tits and more.

Coal Tit
Coal Tit

After a slow morning with slow birding and lots of coffee we eventually drove towards Aladaglar where we met up with Basar Safak who runs a wonderful pension just below the mountain. Anyone who decides to go to Aladaglar to see the Caspian Snowcock should seriously consider to stay in ÖzŞafak Pension and let Safak show you the area.

Before sunrise we drove up to the mountains to look for Caspian Snowcock and Radde’s Accentor. Here we need to give some extra cred to Basar Safak who broke his arm one day prior to our arrival. We thought it was strange how his messages suddenly changed character and his english got really bad. This time it was not a case of someone using spellchecker at the start and then later, not botherin. No, Basar was still drugged and had just left the hospital having to write with is left hand… And the day after he was with us up on that mountain, his arm in a cast and a big smile on his face. What a guy!

20170528-IMG_9130
Happy people on a mountain

Birding in Aladag mountains was very different to our birding in the Caucasus mountains in Georgia. In Aladag the weather was perfect. No wind, no mist, no clouds, no snow (except at the top of the mountains). A fantastic morning and it was not long until Basars and Martens whistling payed of. A Snowcock was calling back and after some minutes scanning the slopes Klacke found two birds on a not to distant ridge. Very nice!

Me and Erik decided to try and get some pictures of a nice looking Rock Thrush while looking for Radde’s Accentor, our remaining target in Aladag. As the Thrush moved closer and closer we got more and more excited and then from under a small bush four meters away a brown bird crawled out. Radde’s Accentor Erik whispers to me! A dream bird for Erik and nice photos too.

20170528-IMG_9111
One of two Radde’s Accentors
Rock Thrush
Rock Thrush

Loads of other mountain birds too

Red-fronted Serin
Red-fronted Serin
20170528-IMG_9097
Snowfinch in display flight
Crag Martin
Crag Martins were everywhere

After dropping off Anna Bohlin at Adana we drove further west. Picked a camping spot close to Akseki where Olive-tree Warblers should nest. Parked the car and open the doors, one-two-three-tick. They were singing everywhere. Very very hard bird to photograph though, the area where we camped hosted many many Olive-tree Warblers, singing constantly, always hiding.

Olive-tree Warbler
Olive-tree Warbler

Nice, that concluded the three eastern grey, Eastern Olivacious, Upcher’s and now Olive-tree. Other nice birds we saw in the morning were Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Eastern Orphean Warbler and to us unknown race of Eurasian Nuthatch.

Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eastern Orphean Warbler
Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Nuthatch

One more slow morning with loads of coffee and birding.

Drove further west towards the well known site of the Turkish Brown Fishowls, Oymapinar. We choose a small mountain road there and did several stops looking for Rüppel Warbler. We saw Rüppel Warbler in Israel, but it would be nice to see on the breeding site as well. One stop had breeding Cretzschmar’s bunting singing.

Cretzschmar's bunting
Cretzschmar’s bunting

And one had:

Rüppels Warbler
Rüppels Warbler

High quality birds.

Once we got close to the site, we tried to scope the owls from a site we had heard of.

Brown Fishowl faaaar away
Brown Fishowl faaaar away

But we couldn’t see the owls, the nest is known and the owls are down there. This lake has tourist boats driving around, but the skippers know that birders are prepared to pay up to get to the known owl site, thus they charge. Hence we had to pay up, 50 Euro/pers to get to the owls. Initial price was 100.

Brown Fishowl
Brown Fishowl

Driving further west towards a site for Dalmatian Pelican where we have a date with a friend of Emin, we start to talk tentatively about a recent siting of Amur Falcon in Romania – How far to drive there? – There are Dalmatian Pelicans in the Donau Delta too, right – so we change plan completely and fly to Romania. Flexibility is king.

So, this is last post from Turkey, and we’re giving Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu more than big thanks. Emin, we never met you, and now we’re leaving Turkey. Must meet some day !!!

Towards Birecik

When we started to plan our WP year and the first time heard of, and read about the birding site in southern Turkey called Birecik, we were fantasising over the amount of good WP species that were possible to find in that area. However, as the year has gone by, we have one by one found those good species in other countries. By now, we only had three remaining target species in Birecik.

We still were missing the Pale Rock-sparrow and Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu provided a spot close to Sanliurfa which was good both for the Sparrow, but even more interesting, See-see Partridge. At sunrise we drove on the dirt road into the right habitat. The Partridges were common, this was a bird we had been worrying quite a bit over.

See-see Partridge
See-see Partridge
See-see Partridge
See-see Partridge

We searched the area for hours for the Pale Rock-sparrow. We found a small pond in the dry area which attracted quite a few nice birds.

Desert Finch
Desert Finch
Calandra Lark
Calandra Lark

Crested Lark were ridiculously common everywhere. We’ll never forget the easily recognisable call of the Crested Lark for the remainder of our lives.

Crested Lark
Crested Lark

As opposed to the Nemrit Dagi, Finch’s Wheatear was common in this area.

Finch's Wheatear
Finch’s Wheatear

No Pale Rock-sparrow though, and eventually we gave up. On the way out from the good habitat, through an industrialised area a Little Owl perched wonderfully.

Little Owl
Little Owl

Now, on to Pale Rock-sparrow. On our Facebook chat, Jani Vastamäki suggested to search the area around Yeniakpinar. We went there and spread out with the Walki-talkies. Short-toed and Lessed Short-toed Larks were extremely common in the area.

Short-toed Lark
Short-toed Lark
Short-toed Lark
Short-toed Lark (crazy stance)
Lesser Short-toed Lark
Lesser Short-toed Lark

Mårten finally stumbles on to a nest of the Pale Rock-sparrow with a nesting female, and the male singing nearby. Took pictures and withdrew quickly.

Pale Rock-sparrow
Pale Rock-sparrow
Pale Rock-sparrow
Pale Rock-sparrow (male)

Possibly the most boring bird in the Collin’s guide, but the more you bird, the more interesting the so called LBJs or Little Brown Jobs become. So, not boring at all, on the contrary, amazing.

Drove down to the wonderful little city of Birecik. The war in Syria is evidently near. Refugee camps along the road, and people we spoke to had recently lived in Kobane, occupied by Daesh devils just recently. On the Turkish side life goes on as usual though. On the way into the city, on a cliff we see the first of several Northern Bald Ibises.

Bald-headed Ibis
Northern Bald Ibis

We’re not sure if these birds are tickable, a few years ago the Ibises were extinct from this area and they have been re-introduced. Cool bird nevertheless. The ones we saw were all ringed.

Evening walk along the reeds of the mighty Euphrat river.

Euphrat River
Euphrat River
Evening Walk
Evening Walk

Soon we hear the target bird, the Iraq Babbler calling in the reeds.

Iraq Babbler
Iraq Babbler

In the last light, a group of Dead-sea Sparrows came chattering.

Dead-see Sparrows
Dead-see Sparrows

So, half a year ago, we though we were going to spend a week in Birecik – how wrong we were. On the other hand, Birecik has always been the placeholder as a backup site for various birds. Like Menetrie’s Warbler – if we don’t see it here, we’ll pick it in Birecik we have said. As it turned out, we only had three birds here, the Pale Rock-sparrow, the See-see Partridge and the Iraq Babbler.

 

 

 

Roadtrippin’ Turkey

The plan was to go by car from Van all the way to tourist resort Antalya on the Mediterranean coast. Long drive, but for reasons unknown to me Turkey has better roads than countries like Sweden and England. Actually, this is a mystery, how come countries like Morocco, Egypt and Turkey have better roads than what we have.

First stop was a quarry, close to Van where Eastern Rock Nuthatch had been reported. Western was common there, but no Eastern (string?)

Western Rock-nuthatch
Western Rock-nuthatch

The ubiquitous Rock Sparrow was everywhere in the quarry.

Rock Finch
Rock Sparrow

Anna Bohlin joined up on our Turkey leg.

Anna Bohlin and Mårten
Anna Bohlin and Mårten

Slightly surprising was the amount of Rooks at this site. This is
barren high elevation, and we think about the Rook as a typical
bird of agricultural landscape.

Rook
Rook

After dipping the Eastern Rock Nuthatch it was high time for breakfast. We drove down to a lake with reeds close to Van. Again, same as camping, having breakfast at the birding site is very nice. In the reeds Reed Warbler and also Great Reed-warbler were common. Great Reed-warbler was earlier on the
difference list, Erik saw one at Muttla Ranch in Kuwait.

Great Reed-warbler
Great Reed-warbler

Soon we also found a few Paddyfield warblers, a good WP bird.

Paddyfield Warbler
Paddyfield Warbler

The lake also hosted a few White-headed Ducks. When we were planning our WP year we never though that we would just see White-headed Duck as a regular species several times over the year. We though it would have to be specifically targeted at a known site.

Driving west, around the large Lake Van we made a short stop to
have a good look at the common Armenian Gulls. Fully adult birds
are easy to distinguish from other Gulls due to their stocky four-coloured bills.

Armenian Gull
Armenian Gull

Arrived at the famous site of Nemut Dagi in the afternoon.
At the foot of the mountain we tried a spot recommended by Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu. We almost immediately found a few Cinerous Buntings at the spot.

Cinerous Bunting
Cinerous Bunting
Cinerous Bunting
Cinerous Bunting

According to Emin also Eastern Rock-nuthatch and Pale Rock-sparrow was a possibility at that spot but we couldn’t find any. Nemut Dagi is a major tourist attraction with large stone statues from 30-60 BC, i.e more than 2000 years old statues.

Nemut Dagi Statue
Nemut Dagi Statue

The tourist business in Turkey has apparently collapsed the last couple of years. Since (for completely strange reasons)
Booking.com is blocked in Turkey we just drove there and picked a hotel at random. Driving up on the cozy hotel driveway, the owner simply cries out in joy – Tourists !!.
We spoke to them and they had seen very few tourist the last few years and we also saw quite a few shut down places on the mountain.

After checking in, in the afternoon as well as the entire following day, we drove slowly up and down the mountain birding with many
short stops. Below the tree-line quite a few high quality birds were
common.

Balkan Tit
Sombre Tit
Woodchat Shrike
Woodchat Shrike
White-throated Robin
White-throated Robin
Black-headed Bunting
Black-headed Bunting
Upcher's Warbler
Upcher’s Warbler
Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow
Black-eared Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear

There are many reports of Finch’s Wheatear on the Numut Dagi mountain, however we couldn’t find any. The odd looking pale Black-eared Wheatears are quite similar though. This is one of the drawbacks of systems like eBird and Observado, there is never any checks for correctness, but then again, how could there be. The whole point is that everybody reports what they see which is exactly what makes these system so powerful and useful.

Below the tree-line we also found a couple of Eastern Rock-nuthatches. The nest is especially strange, a hole right into a vertical cliff.

Rock Nuthatch nest
Rock Nuthatch nest
Eastern Rock-nuthatch
Eastern Rock-nuthatch

Above the tree-line we soon found the price bird at Nemut Dagi, the Kurdish Wheatear.

Kurdish Wheatear
Kurdish Wheatear

The Wheatear as well as Cinerous Bunting were very easy on the mountain. What was not easy though was Pale Rock-sparrow, the Rock-sparrow should apparently be common on the Nemut Dagi mountain. We searched and listened for hours for the sparrow. This is a nomadic species, and some years they are abundant at a site whereas the next they can be missing. Other common species on the mountain were Rock Sparrow and surprisingly enough Wood Lark.

Wood Lark
Wood Lark

as well as Horned Lark.

Horned Lark
Horned Lark

Climbing all the way to the top –

Mårten and Anna
Mårten and Anna
Klacke at top of Nemut Dagi
Klacke at top of Nemut Dagi

we get to see the strange statues. Among the statues, Snowfinches nest. Strange and nice.

Snowfinch
Snowfinch

Birding in Van

The trip from Georgia to Lake Van, in eastern Turkey was a bit awkward. We flew via Istanbul, an alternative would actually have been a bus trip from Tbilisi to Van. Had a bit of luck with the rental car at Van airport. This is the second time we are sloppy entering the arrival time at the airport, and when we arrive the car is gone. A local company had a car though, which was better than the one we had booked. We want to return the car in Antalya, making car rental a bit more complicated.

Van appears to be a very nice little city, friendly atmosphere, restaurants everywhere. It appears as if European visitors are rare here too, wherever we go people gawk curiously, albeit friendly.

First day birding started with pouring rain, thus we got a few well deserved extra hours of sleep. In the late morning, we went to a spot an hour away we received by Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu, turkish top birder who has been very helpful. It is very valuable to have a local birder to talk to when visiting foreign countries, Emin is the guy!

Just after a few kilometers up the mountain side, we connect with the first target bird. We hear it singing, and soon see it.

Grey-necked Bunting
Grey-necked Bunting

A very good WP bird, soon after we hear (and see poorly) over flying Crimson-winged finches. Very characteristic flight and call, after a few kilometers more up the mountain we get close.

Crimson-winged Finch
Crimson-winged Finch

The price bird of this mountain though is the Mongolian Finch. This is a bird Mårten has searched for in Armenia on numerous occasions without ever finding the bird. The tactic according to Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu is to just sit and wait at the spot. We do that for a while but soon get restless and spread out. After an hour or so, we find one, and then later two birds.

Mongolian Finch
Mongolian Finch

What we thought was going to be one of the hardest birds to locate in Turkey bagged on the first day.

Happy Campers
Happy Campers

Down by the car again, we see a couple of Black-headed Buntings. We’ll probably see lots of those as we travel Turkey. And finally, driving down the mountain we’re talking about Bimaculated Lark, and Mårten reads from the Collins Guide – They like high elevation area, just where agriculture is almost not longer possible. We all look out and say, well that’s here then and stop the car. First thing we hear is a singing Bimaculated Lark high in the sky.

Bimaculated Lark
Bimaculated Lark

Six new ticks in a day, we’ll probably never do that again during the year. Or maybe on Madeira in August!!

Kazbegi Georgia

Absolutely wonderful to go birding in a normal country where we don’t have to look out for police and militaries all the time. Normal customs, normal traffic, normal. The goal was to visit Kazbegi National Park. We rented a 4WD in Tbilisi and drove to Stepantsminda which is the mountain village at the foot of the impressive Kazbegi mountain.

We did a number of short road stops, the first by a small river which had some nice birds, nothing spectacular though.

European Bee-eaters
European Bee-eaters

Next short stop was better, with Green Warbler and Red-throated Flycatcher.

Red-throated Flycatcher
Red-throated Flycatcher
Green Warbler
Green Warbler

Nice lunch en-route where we, after traveling many muslim countries, could both satisfy our cravings for pig meat and some alcohol.

Cravings
Cravings

While eating a Lammergeir came flying over the lunch restaurant. A bird we have been worrying a bit over.

Lammergeir
Lammergeir

Finally, at Stepantsminda, we went birding immediately. New WP ticks came flying in directly. The Caucasian Snowcock calling from the mountainside, a few Red-fronted Serins and two Caucasian Black Grouse displaying on the mountainside.

Red-fronted Serin
Red-fronted Serin

 

The second day we started birding the bushes along the valley in Stepantsminda. We’d spoken to a few birders we met and apparently both the Great Rosefinch as well as the Güldenstädt’s Redstart had been seen in the valley. Griffon vultures were very common.

Torrent Vulture
Torrent Vulture

Scanning the bushes below the petrol station I  (Klacke) see one Güldenstädt’s Redstart flying over, the others were not able too see it though. This would be a horrible species to have on the Difference List. We searched for that bird to no avail.

Close to the village a sure spot for Wallcreeper was easy. This was a lifer for both Erik and me. One of those birds that stand out like a beacon in the Collins Birdguide.

After lunch we went with the car up to the famous Gergeti Trinity church on the mountain.

Scanning above the Gergeti Trinity church
Scanning above the Gergeti Trinity church

No Redstarts and no Rosefinches. A couple of Cinerous Vultures came soaring. Also a difficult WP bird which was very good to get.

Cinerous Vulture
Cinerous Vulture

Scanning slopes is the birding tactics in Kazbegi

Scanning Slopes
Scanning Slopes

Now the Güldenstädt’s Redstart and the Great Rosefinch both sailed up to an unthreatened position of most wanted bird, thus we decided to hike up the mountain next day. Both these species are true high altitude species. They winter in the valley, but  as spring come they go high. Unbelievably high, it’s hard to fathom how birds can live during such harsh circumstances. We started early in the morning in light rain. As we came higher the rain just continued to pour. Eventually it became snow which was easier to handle, but cold and windy.

Cold
Cold
Upwards
Upwards

Birding conditions were poor, however the high altitude species were active. The Snowcocks were playing like crazy in the mountains. Once we got up sufficently high, we were able to relatively easy locate the Great Rosefinch, we saw at least 10 birds.

Great Rosefinch
Great Rosefinch

No Redstarts though and eventually we gave up, cold and wet. One of the most common birds on the mountain was the Ring Ouzel, they were resident at very high altitude as well as way down in the valley.

Ring Ouzel
Ring Ouzel

In the afternoon the skies cleared and Erik and Mårten decided to make yet another attempt climbing the steep hill just below our hotel.

Climb
Climb

You see them as two small dots in the far. Again, the Snowcocks were displaying and Mårten managed to shoot a video.

Still no Redstart though. Next morning we decided to pursue the tactics of searching bushes in the valley. It had rained all night, and the theory was that with such bad weather, some birds might have decided to fly down to the valley. We went to a new place recommended by Frans De Schamphelaere just north of the village and – dang – we found one Güldenstädt’s redstart after just 5 minutes of scanning. Took the car down to those bushes trying to get better views and maybe a photograph, but we were never able to relocate the Redstart. Did get the best picture of the fast moving Mountain Chiffchaff though.

Mountain Chiffchaff
Mountain Chiffchaff

Also found a group of Rosy Starlings (new WP tick) and the best picture of Common cuckoo.

Rosy Starling
Rosy Starling
Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo

 

 

 

Wrap up Egypt

Our Egypt trip is now almost finished, yesterday we got our last two remaining target birds here in Egypt. The Senegal Coucal and Streaked Weaver. They were both relatively easy to locate in the agricultural fields close to Abou Hamad just north-east of Cairo. The Coucal we found almost directly

 

Senegal Coucal
Senegal Coucal

The Weaver was harder lo locate and we walked the foot paths among the fields for quite some time. Eventually three birds came flying over and landed shortly in some reeds so that we could all get good views. Pretty good birding in general in that area, with lots of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and also quite a few Greater Painted Snipe.

Greater Painted Snipe
Greater Painted Snipe
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
White-throated Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher

Apart from the debacle with binoculars at Egyptian customs, the Egypt trip must be considered a total success. We missed two species, the African Skimmer and the Goliath Heron, neither were present we believe.

Despite the chaotic traffic, we have managed to have zero incidents with the car, which by the way was a great car. Jeep Wrangler.

Chaotic manual petrol filling
Chaotic manual petrol filling

We were very happy with the 4WD jeep, so when we got stopped by the military at Suez and they asked if the car was 4WD, we said yes yes officer – it’s 4WD. That turned out to be the wrong answer there, no 4WD vehicles are allowed at all on the Sinai peninsula. Apparently this was part of a drive from the Egyptian authorities to fuck with the beduins – who they for some reason don’t like.

We have received a lot of help from various friends during out two week trip here in Egypt. Thanks a bunch !!!

  • Tomas Axen Haraldsson has led several trips to Egypt over the year. Tomas provided valuable information during the entire trip. He also set us in contact with:
  • Haitham Ibrahim, who also provided good info several times. Haitham set us in contact with:
  • Atyat Ghareeb, she borrowed us Haithams old binoculars. We would have missed species without those.
  • Mohamed Habib provided good info.
  • Bob Swann, provided the call of the Yellow Bittern. Without that we would have missed the bird. The song that exists on Xeno Canto is all wrong. We later also got the same song by email from Santamaa Markku.
  • Dan Pointon had good information on the Saunders Tern.
  • Istvan Molodovan who does field work in Egypt had good information on which roads were possible to use.
  • Pierre-Andre Crouchet, who provided the final piece of the puzzle for the Yellow Bittern.

Traveling, Sleeping, Eating

I wanted to write a bit about how we travel, what we do and what we don’t do. What works well and what doesn’t. We’ve now traveled quite a few countries and learned quite a bit. So here goes.

Camping

The advantages of camping are several, it’s cheap (free actually) but the best is probably that it gets you species. Usually we try to camp on the spot for one or several birds. A good example is the Golden Nightjar spot in Western Sahara. Camping lets us be on the spot late in the evening, and then also waking up on the spot early is obviously good. We’re carrying a 3 person dome tent as well as cooking gear. The stove we use is a Primus multi fuel stove that runs on petrol as well as on diesel. Petrol and diesel are easy to buy everywhere. The dish we have settled on we have nick named Golden Rice, since the first time we cooked it was at the Golden Nightjar spot. The ingredients vary, but it’s basically rice, tomatoes, onions, chilli powder and whatever. If sausages are available they go in too. Fry everything, add rice and water – boil – eat. Everything in one casserole.

We’re also  traveling with sleeping bags and sleeping mattresses. All this is pretty bulky, and almost one entire bag is full of camping gear. It’s worth it though, especially since it makes us much more flexible. When driving, we know that we have the camping gear, thus there is almost never any panic as to where we shall sleep, we can always choose to set up the tent somewhere in the dark.

Internet

So far we have managed to have proper internet in all countries we have visited. We have a low-end Android phone, and we buy new SIM cards in the countries we visit. This can sometimes be a bit of a hazzle, but usually works fine. The low-end phone has the local SIM card, and then we use WIFI tethering on that phone to share internet to our regular phones and laptops. We consume almost 1 Gig per day. Internet is cheap though, especially so in countries like Morocco and Egypt. It’s invaluable to have Internet on the road. It makes things like eBird research and hotel bookings just so much easier. Prior to the year – while researching which birds are where, we did enter a lot of eBird/observado GPS points into a shared “Google My Maps”. From there it’s possible to export a KML file, which can be imported into an (Android only) map app called Locus. Thus, even without internet, we would have access to offline maps with GPS points for the important birds. So far we haven’t used the Locus Map that much since we have had proper Internet.

Hotels

Usually we sleep in hotels or sometimes in apartments. We use the booking.com app or sometimes just the regular hotel search on google maps. This has worked very well. We usually try to make the bookings as late as possible en route in the car. We don’t want to be tied up by hotel bookings, it’s better to focus on the birding tactics and late in the afternoon decide where to sleep. Flexibility is key. Prices of hotels are very different and sometimes it can be ridiculously cheep. Especially in Egypt, we have had a few full board hotels for as little as 10 Euro / night for the three of us. It’s probably subsidised by the Egyptian government.

Customs, police and checkpoints

Countries like Morocco and Egypt have checkpoints on the roads pretty much everywhere. Especially the Moroccan ones were irritating since each stop could take up to 10 minutes with police men writing down the details from our passports. A good trick is to have ready made copies of your passports that can just be handed out to the police at a checkpoint. In Egypt the checkpoints are military, not police, and pretty relaxed.

In Morocco we developed the ultimate checkpoint tactics. Here goes – read this and use for the remainder of your lives. When driving in to a police checkpoint you must never ever, under no circumstances have any eye contact with the officer standing there making the split-second decision weather to stop the car or let it through. That’s it, and it works unbelievable well. Since we started to employ this tactics, our checkpoint track record is stellar.

Customs and Airport Security is a harder nut to crack. In Rabat, Morocco we had our cameras and scopes confiscated by the customs. There the story was that we needed a permit from the “Ministry of Communications” in order to travel the country and photograph. We think they were just generally afraid of journalists, especially journalists travelling south into Western Sahara. We were able to get the damned permit, but it took the best part of a day to get it. However, the trick when flying with optics into Morocco is easy, just don’t fly to Rabat, choose Casablanca or Marrakech where they are more accustomed to tourists and optics are fine there in the customs. On our second trip to Morocco, we flew to Casablanca. The customs inspected our optics and there were no problems.

Egypt is a different story altogether though. In short – it appears to be a random process. Some birders get optics through customs, some don’t. We had almost all our optics, including the binoculars confiscated at customs. We’re not the only ones, others have had similar bad experiences with Egyptian customs. This situation is so bad, and random, so until this changes we cannot recommend Egypt as a birding destination at all. Unless you’re desperate for those (pretty awesome) WP ticks, choose another country. If you do go to Egypt, put all optics into the checked in luggage. If possible, choose a camera lens that is smaller. We have Cannon 100-400/5.6 lenses and those went through.

This is something for Birdlife International to work on. Egypt is a fantastic birding country, and it would be a shame if birdwatching tourism died out due to idiotic rules.

Music

We spend a lot of time driving. Offline music in the car is extremely important. These are some of our offline Spotify lists. Enjoy.

Pet Sounds Stefan from the hipster record store in Stockholm.

Lennart Persson a collection of what now deceased music critic Lennart Persson wrote about

Klackes Songs

Leon Hennings our friend Leon has impeccable taste in music, these are his most listened to songs last year.