Saturday 30 January 2021

Holiday in the time of Covid Part 1

Alpine Swifts climbing for the pass at Erendag

The noise climbs as birds strain to gain height. You feel the noise as well as hear it, a roar but remarkably high pitched, the wings of several hundred thousand hirundines struggle upward and then I feel it, the reason for the struggle as a warm breath on the side of my face. The wind gathers itself and the birds climb higher, striving for the pass. The sky is dark now, full of Swallows, wall to wall. Thousands of Red-rumped Swallows, House Martins, Alpine Swifts and Bee-eaters are lost in the morass. A few Common Swifts are spotted and an Eleonora's Falcon joins the throng, like Mercury on the battlefield. A light breeze suddenly turns into something a little more potent and the sky clears and the noise drops away as the dam breaks. All the birds struggling to haul themselves over the 2700m high pass on Erendag are pushed over the top and disappear towards the coast, Israel and beyond.

Red-fronted Serin

This is what greeted me on the 26th August in the Western Taurus mountains. I'd gone looking for Red-fronted Serins and the like but borne witness to an amazing piece of migration. Afterward it felt lonely up there, despite plenty of Swallows continuing to hawk, despite finches and wheatears carpeting the ground. It was one of the finest things I have seen whilst birding. No, strike that, it was one of the finest things I have seen.

A different experience

I was fortunate to escape the virus-laden depression of the UK for a family holiday in Hisaronu, Mugla, Turkey which is between Olu Deniz and Fethiye. The destination was principally chosen due the Covid-19 status of the country as we booked 10 days before we went having lost a holiday to Sierra de Grazalema, Cadiz. The upside was plenty of potential new stuff although I barely had time to draw breath in preparation. The hasty purchase of Dave Gosney's SW Turkey site guide was invaluable. I was only able to get a car for 5 out of 14 days but I tried to make the most of that. I considered trying to go and see the Fish Owls but a 400 mile round trip and the uncertainty of whether I could get to see them dissuaded me. I chose to do a local day, two days in the Taurus Mountains, one morning on the coastal marshes in Fethiye and then some time with the family. I saw a perfusion of birds with big numbers, spectacular species and plenty of diversity.

Babadag from the pool

The first day of the trip was spent lazing round the pool, getting to know our environment. There was a ridge above the hotel which was shielded annoyingly by a line of conifers. Looking beyond this I picked some corvids playing over the top. After a bit of time watching them they resolved into Chough. Hirundines skittered round the pool, both Red-rumped and Barn Swallows and I later found that the Red-rumped Swallows were breeding next to my window. A single Alpine Swift was migrating south along the ridge. The only other additions were White Wagtail, Jay, House Sparrow and Collared Doves all of which were common around the pool area. 

Day two started with a coffee on the balcony and a band of Crag Martins working along the ridge, migrating. Again, the main purpose of the day was some family fun with a good food and a few jars of euro lager. Before it got too hot I had an amble into the pine forest behind the hotel. Venturing out required a mask and it was sweltering but worthwhile. My hopes were pinned on local specialties but alas they weren't to be. All the standard paridae were present with Coal Tit amongst the pines and Long-tailed Tits in the gardens. Blackbirds scurried and a Sparrowhawk darting made it feel like Albion rather than Asia Minor. This continued with Grey Wagtail, Chaffinch and Goldfinch only for a very welcome Hoopoe to snap me out of my pining. A Lesser Whitethroat was a pleasant surprise but hardly earth shattering. A Short-toed Eagle, hanging over the forest, was my first of the trip and my first decent view of one since I visited Kefalonia in 2013. Later in the day a lifer, as a Long-legged Buzzard traversed the ridge. This was one of a pair which presumably nested on the hillside somewhere, as I saw them most days there on.

The summit of Babadag ready for tourists when the cable car starts running

The isolated mountain of Babadag, taller than Ben Nevis, sits above Olu Deniz and Hisaronu and you can drive to the very summit. Its a nervy, steep ascent with adverse cambers, hairpin bends, interesting road surfaces, single track and absolutely no crash barriers In short it was terrifying. Obviously I went up three times in the five days I had the car. It is the closest place to get some of the mountain birds although not all are available. It also gave me a new way to not see Kruper's Nuthatch. The reason for the road is the tourist industry and at the top parascenders hurl themselves off and into the unknown, to land half an hour later in Olu Deniz, far below. It was a delight watching these specks of colour drift on the breeze from mountain to sea. It was less delightful meeting the minibuses which ascend and descend the mountain at breakneck speed making my own, slightly sedate pace seem mundane. These guys must have nerves of steel.

A gurning idiot at 1900m

The birding on the way up was non-existent as I wrestled the car all the way up. It was mild at the height but there was no wind and I was joined by swallows of both flavours and a kettle of 41 Ravens. Another shape lolloped in with the corvids, a female Goshawk. She thundered off, back to her forest kingdom after a less than friendly welcome. A small sylvia dropped over the edge of the cliff and into a bush on a cliff. Gingerly putting my nose over I gained views of a female Ruppell's Warbler. I didn't get a good look at this species the entire trip but there were several seen briefly, in cover or from cars, much like the sort of views I got of Sards across Europe. This was a lifer and another swiftly followed with a Rock Thrush scooting around the as yet unopened centre at the top of the mountain.

After 30 minutes at the top, I decended, checking all the safe pull ins on the descent for Sombre Tit and Kruper's Nuthatch. I didn't see a sausage but I did find a pass to the south of the mountain which went through some farmed clearings. It was very hot by this stage but a timid Lesser Grey Shrike was my first of the trip whilst in the bushes an Eastern Bonelli's Warbler was a first. The only other bird seen aside from swallows and ravens was a Kestrel hunting for small snacks. I returned to the bosom of my family, eager to share with them the excitement of the morning. They, obviously, didn't give a stuff. The afternoon was enlivened by the discovery of a small Spur-thighed Tortoise amongst the rock garden. This was one of several that I found in the grounds of the hotel. In the evenings these were supplemented by Kotschy's Geckos, both of which were lifers. There were also Turkish Geckos about as well but they were rather more familiar to me. My eldest daughter ran regular evening herping clubs for the kids whilst the parents enjoyed the euro lager with social distancing excusing the loud voices.

A Spur-thighed Tortoise

My first trip to the mountains proper had me heading 150km inland towards Seki and 2500m up, to Erendag and the Gogu-Beli Pass. I hit Erendag first, driving through Temel where there were so many Swallows it was insane. It was obvious that these weren't just local breeders but accumulations of birds as every inch of phone line and surface of barn was covered. Small numbers of House Martins and Red-rumped Swallows were in these groups. I climbed out of the village and started to ascend, finding some small water cut valleys along the dirt track road. I got out and I could hear birds but I saw virtually nothing. A ficedula escaped ID and several Lesser Whitethroats took far too long to sort out. A Chiffchaff hweeted and a few sallies from a Spotted Flycatcher were all I could muster when there was suddenly a flurry and a storm of swallows. They were everywhere. I thought I was going to find a few in my hair they were so numerous and close. I pushed on seeing Cirl Buntings in an orchard. I found a stop, overlooking a forest with meadows and hedges infront of me. It seemed a good vista and so it was to prove as a hulking raptor hauled itself into the sky and up the ridge. After ten minutes or so of ascent the adult Bonelli's Eagle disappeared over the ridge. I wasn't aware this species was a goer but I later checked and their records have been blurred by eBird as they are a rare breeder. Trying to relocate it, I espied a distant raptor but this was a brief Griffon Vulture, my only one of the trip somewhat surprisingly. Closer, the meadows held Red-backed Shrike, Rock Bunting and finally, a Sombre Tit in the firs above the road. 

Tawny Pipit

I pushed on, keen to get up the mountain before the heat became problematic. It was less than 20c for the first time during the trip. I got to the ski centre at Erendag and had a poke about. It was derelict despite being relatively new. Poor access must make it a hard spot to get to with about 8km of track between me and the main road. Wheatears were evident and surprisingly they were all northern. I was unaware but Northern Wheatear breeds in the mountains of this area. I was expecting it to just be Finsch's with maybe some passage Northerns. Crested Larks were also everywhere along with my first Tawny Pipits of the trip and a lone Hoopoe. Further still and onto the seasonal farmsteads where families were set up for the summer. Caucasian Water Pipits were now amongst the Tawny Pipits and an unfamiliar looking wagtail gave a buzzy call. There were lots of flava wagtails stalking the alpine meadows, most of which were Black-headed Wagtails with a few thunbergi mixed in. A pale Long-legged Buzzard flushed from a rocky outcrop and descended to the boulder field below. The reason it shifted was soon evident with a Short-toed Eagle getting up and circling in the warming air. It gave a decent show before disappearing up and over the ridge, heading on its way.

Red-fronted Serin

I had got quite high up at this point and I parked my car near to a farmstead. The swallows from lower down were starting to gather and I could hear Bee-eaters although I couldn't see them. I was engrossed in finch hunting at this point and Linnets were my reward for careful scrutiny of them with the odd Goldfinch. I pushed up the goat herding track and I was aware something special was going on with all the aerial birds. The densities were mindblowing and they were pinned in by the pass which was at 2700m. My car was parked at just over 2000m and I hauled my backside up to about 2300m. Wheatears were still very much in evidence. A band of small finches fed on some asterids. They looked rotund and dark. Getting closer they were Red-fronted Serins, my main target of the day. A few Kestrels joined the swifts and swallows overhead and then they were joined by a dark-morph Eleonora's Falcon. This didn't hassle the hirundines and hawked merrily. There was a slight breeze detectable on my cheek and suddenly the numbers of birds overhead increased exponentially. The calls filled the sky and there was a palpable excitement amongst them. The breeze stiffened and the dam burst as the birds reached 2700m and moved on to the promised land beyond. All that was left was the local swallows feeding on the aerial flotsam which was gathered at the pass. 

I was aware I wanted to see the Gogu-Beli Pass and turned on my heel. A Hatay Lizard 
Phoenicolacerta laevis, a large, strong species, also known as the Syrian Lizard and a recent colonist of the area darted amongst the montane shrubs. A Rock Thrush was up on the ridge above me briefly. Quickly I was at the car - how did it take an hours hike uphill and 15 minutes down? More Red-fronted Serins were along a water filled gully. A bumpy descent in the car got me back to Seki in pretty good time but a close Long-legged Buzzard made me stop and a small shape creeping through a boulder outcrop was my first Western Rock Nuthatch. I was expecting it to feel bigger but it wasn't that far from the Nuthatches of home, at least at that distance, despite the different substrate.

Hatay Lizard

Before long I was at the Gogu-Beli Pass. I realised it was a mistake. It was hot, there were no birds and people were at both water taps, either side of the pass. I quickly gave up. I stopped at the dripping tap on the north-western side as there was just a family of four having a picnic as opposed to the cast of 5000 at the south-eastern one. A single Rock Nuthatch was brave enough to ignore them, picking up crumbs and giving me astounding views, looking like a weird Robin from home. I watched for a while but when I grabbed the camera it soon disappeared into the rocks below. It was now very hot and I was knackered so I headed back to base picking up my first Hooded Crows and White Storks on the way.

Long-legged Buzzard

Part 2 on its way shortly. 

Wednesday 27 January 2021

A Professional Update?

Professional, me? That is a laugh. I have however just finished a seven year, nine month and 27 day stint with Wood aka Wood Group and formerly Amec and Amec Foster Wheeler. The vagaries of the oil industry and its decline are responsible for the various changes. I am moving on. For now, it is reflection and remembering some epic birding, some great moments and being cold/wet or both a lot. I spent my first summer in South-west Scotland on the wind farm train and found an American Golden Plover on a hill in Ayrshire. Remarkably, I found the same bird, 100 miles away, at St Mary's Island in Newcastle the following week. It was definitely easier to pick amongst 7 other Golden Plover on the hill! Pete, my close mate and colleague and I shared a couple of autumns of sea watching at St Mary's where we had a flyby Surf Scoter which later settled on the Suffolk/Essex border. A Rough-legged Buzzard in Northumberland was more contentious as I found it and Pete missed it, despite it flying over the land we were both looking at for five minutes. Thankfully the locals also saw it. Pete got his own back in spades with Black Kites and Honey Buzzards.

I have had seven years in Somerset, starting in the winter of 2013/14 and culminating this January. The luxuries of Blackmore farm now a distant memory but I enjoyed the area immensely when it wasnt westerly gales, rain and freezing. There were some good finds including Caspian Gull (8 county records), Wryneck, Bee-eater, Iceland Gull, Waxwing, Leach's Petrel, Siberian Chiffchaff, Tundra Bean Goose, Black Tern, Richard's Pipit, Wood Lark and Cattle Egret (before it was dross) as well as this autumns Red-throated Pipit. I also saw Kentish Plover, Two-barred Crossbill, Hawfinch, White-billed Diver, Great Shearwater, Cirl Bunting, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Bluetail and many other bits and pieces in the South-west during my trips. I met some very decent Somerset folk and counted a lot of birds. I didn't see Little Bittern which is an enduring source of frustration. 

My acquaintance with Goshawks prior to my starting with Wood was occasional and not great. Now, I've monitored so many I cant begin to count. I've seen birds perched up close, endless display, lots of individuals of all ages. Upland raptors are hard to see but gosh are they worth the effort. In fact, I have worked on many projects in the Highlands and saw most of the specialties during surveys including nesting eagles, divers, Pine Martins, Parrot Crossbills, Capers, Hen Harriers, Black Grouse. I spent 2 months stopping an Osprey nest from being disturbed and then got cut out of the press release (haha!). I have also seen more Peregrine nests than anyone else in the UK I'd imagine and had the fortune to rescue a chick last year. I even found a Leatherback Turtle in the Irish Sea! I have been challenged regularly, I've failed often, I've even succeeded on occasion, I've worked with some dedicated professionals and I've made friends to last a life time. I'm not really supposed to post about the new job, so I wont other than to say I have one and I wont be going to site anymore which my wife will love. I am so happy to be able to be home for my family as I have been itinerant for 11 years since I started as an ornithologist and my kids will find it weird that I don't up and out for a week but they deserve my time. I have been privileged and I know it. My scope broke on site about six months after I started and my bins are knackered. I've been using work optics for years now and they travelled with me on occasion. I have just treated myself to a Swaro scope and will be saving for new bins. That is my big reward for my new role along with a Skoda Octavia estate. My Dad would be proud of my sensible car choices at least. My 19 year old self, less so.

Dudes, it's been excellent.   

How birds and brains become mutually exclusive

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