Monday, 29 April 2013

Birding on Tobago - Day 3 and 4

Day 3 (20th Jan)

Before breakfast I walked to Crown Point (effectively the end of the airport runway). This was pretty quiet though I did find a house wren, cattle egret , a lot of black-faced grassquits and a pair of green rumped parrotlets (the only pair I saw). I also saw hirundines hunting over the runway but they remained unidentified.

Cattle Egret

House wren
Green-rumped parrotlet
The rest of the morning was spent on the hotel beach but at lunch time our hire car was delivered (Sheppy’ s – excellent service and value) so in the afternoon we visited Grafton Caladonian Bird Sanctuary and the Adventure farm.
Grafton was a huge disappointment. The place was deserted, the feeders empty and the area  where the empty feeders stood heavily over grown making photography near impossible though there was nothing to photograph. This was a real blow as it was one of the sites I was depending on being only a short drive from the hotel and suitable for pre-breakfast visits. We hung around for half an hour or so mainly because 2 species of hummingbird were visiting a flowering bush close to the Copra House – a ruby topaz and a copper-rumped hummer. Also whilst I was trying to get a photograph of the hummers a male antshrike turned up.
Ruby Topaz
We then moved on the Adventure farm feeling quite down and fearing the worse but on arriving the spirits lifted  - there was a row of feeders and hummers were everywhere.
5 of the 6 Tobago species of hummingbird (Rufous-breasted Hermit, White necked Jacobin, Ruby Topaz, Copper-rumped, Black-throated Mango) were present at the farm and in good numbers. Close by there was a feeding station for other species such as shiney cowbird, white tipped , blue grey and palm tanager, barred antshrike, ruddy ground dove (as well as eared and pale vented). We also saw our first motmot though this was an ugly brute.

Trinidad Motmot

Palm Tanager
We had arrived at the Adventure farm mid afternoon and the sun was disappearing behind the trees making photographing the hummers difficult but we would return.
Day 4 (21st Jan)Little Tobago.
Another full birding day. Peter Cox had booked us on “Franks” boat which operated out of Blue Waters Inn and it was another early start – Blue water inn being a good 90 minutes drive from Coco Reef.  Our guide for the trip, Zelarni (my attempt at the spelling), was near the hotel car park and was waiting for us. Eventually we motored across to the island- with Angie and I being the only customers. If we hadn’t have pre-booked they wouldn’t have gone (unless we paid for the hire of the whole boat).
We didn’t see many land based birds on Little Tobago, though there were a lot of brown crested flycatchers (always high up) but once up at one of the view-points the views of the red billed tropic birds was superb. Also on view were brown boobies, red-footed boobies and frigate birds. I spent a lot of time on flight shots but (as always) I could have done with the birds being a little closer and had longer there.

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Red-billed Tropic Bird

Red-billed Tropic Bird
Brown Booby

Very distant Red-footed Booby
After the view-point Zelarni then took us to another spot where we had tropic birds literally at our feet. 2 birds were with chicks only 3 – 5 yards away and one, wanting to take off from the path came out of the scrub at our feet. These birds were too close for my 400 mm lens to focus on but luckily I had my Sony/ zoom to hand and managed some reasonable shots.

Red-billed Tropic bird

So not many birds but as far as the tropic birds were concerned everything I’d hoped for. The only downer was we were too early for the brown noddys – poor research on my part.

Sunday, 28 April 2013


28th April Restharrow.
My initial plan was to check out the scrape then walk the Sandwich recording area taking in the beach, the gullies and the Elms. I only got as far as the scrape.
When I arrived around 7.15 – 7.30 there was a garganey asleep on the island so I decided to stay and hope.

Teal, garganey and dead herring gull

Over the next hour or so it didn’t do that much though it moved a few feet after some teal walked past it but every time it moved it immediately went back to sleep – it had obviously had a tiring journey.
The waiting around wasn’t actually that boring because the scrape was like Madison Square Gardens most of the morning – with little grebes and coots constantly scrapping and a couple of drake mallards trying to muscle in on the act. Unfortunately all this took place a little too far away.
The first action close to the hide occurred when a white wagtail dropped in, walked off to the left but eventually returned and fed for a few minutes right in front of us:

White wagtail

Next up a little ringed plover few in and wandered around the island and amazingly the lapwings ignored it – they tend to chase away any visiting waders.

Little Ringed Plover

We lost the LRP when something unseen spooked everything on the island including the garganey but it plopped onto the water with the teal and mallards but quickly returned to it’s sleep. The bad news was the LRP had also been spooked and it didn’t return.
There were also a couple of curlews on the far bank but as always they were too distant.


After a couple of hours our hopes came to reality when the garganey took to the water and swam strongly towards us before turning back and hauling itself out on the near side of the island.


Then panic – the bird took to the air flying straight towards the hide. I fired off a couple of shots in hope, expecting this to be the last we saw of it, but no it landed just to my right – less than 10 yards away!!!!

My first shot got the head and body in frame but I couldn’t get the legs in but it stayed put allowing me to adjust the focusing point and a fired off half a dozen shots before it took to the water and swam up and down in front of the hide. Every now and again it returned to the island but it kept coming back in front of the hide, feeding and even preening. I’m told it did this in to the afternoon.


Most of the time all this took place in glorious sunshine but even when the clouds built up the bird was so close the pictures were superb.
I suppose I took about 150 shots at close range but at 10.30 I had to go home.
All in all a productive session seeing as I’d not moved all morning.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Birding on Tobago - Jan 2013. Day 1 and 2

I had read a lot about the bird watching and photographic opportunities of Trinidad and Tobago so in January I dragged my wife off for a week on Tobago.  Visiting both islands would have been nice but with Angie being at best a reluctant birder this was not an option. I also would like to have gone for 10 days but Tobago is not well served with flights and as far as I know only Virgin, BA and Monarch fly there from the UK with each only having one flight a week. Needless to say flying out with one carrier and back with another was prohibitively expensive. 
Tobago is not a large island but getting around it not quick and a car is essential. The south west of the island is the area with the densest population and getting from Crown Point to Scarborough or Plymouth is quite easy (other than in the “rush hour” where every car on the road serves as an unofficial bus and hence cars are constantly stopping to pick up anyone wanting a lift). Try to get further north though and things really slow down as the only 2 roads linking the S to the N twist and turn either along the north or south coast of the island.
Birding wise the main sites in the south that I was aware of were Bon Accord (marsh), Tobago Plantation (golf course and lakes/ponds and just about the only open fresh water on the island), Grafton Caladonian Nature Reserve and the Adventure farm  the latter two being trees/scrub/hilly.
We stayed at the Coco Reef Hotel in the extreme SW of the island. The hotel is superbly convenient for the airport and the rooms, staff, food and bar area were excellent –  important as this was a “family” holiday with birding throw in rather than a birding holiday though it must be said quite a lot of birding was thrown in. The hotel gardens however are small and are not the most bird rich environment you can find;  the hotel does not have a bird feeding station. The hotel beach is small and protected by a manmade breakwater. This ensures it’s calm in the resulting bay with some very good snorkelling but it’s not pretty so we used the Pigeon Point beach on a few occasions.

Coco Reef Hotel.

My general birding (other than specific trips) was confined to going out early morning prior to breakfast (till 9.30-ish).
Areas birded/sites visited:
-          Hotel and local area including Pigeon Point.
-          Grafton Caledonian Bird reserve (near Black Rock and about 15 minutes drive).
-          Bon Accord marsh - about 3 minutes drive away just to the north of the Milford Road though it could be walked easily enough.
-          Tobago Planation (about 10 minutes drive)
-          The Adventure Farm (about 20 minutes drive)
-          Little Tobago – all day trip; it takes 90 minutes to get to Blue Waters Inn from Coco Reef.
-          Rain Forest – all day trip with Peter Cox

As I was keen to get decent photographs of what I saw I often spent quite a long time with a subject rather than trying to rack up as large a tick list as possible (which wouldn’t be possible anyway as I was unfamiliar with the Island, with most of the species on offer, and didn’t know their calls/songs) so compared to several trip reports I have read I rather under-performed however I did manage some pleasing images. Some of the better images can be seen on my Flickr site
 This report will use some of the Flickr images but also some of the less good pictures to help complete the picture of what I saw.
Photography wise Tobago was quite a challenge – most of the birds seemed to spend most of the time in the shade and the shade could be very dark. I expected the rain forest to be very dark but so was even the roadside shade and quite often I had to resort to ISO 1000 just to get shutter speeds of 1/100 to 1/200. The use of a tripod with my non-image stabilised lens was therefore essential.
Hotel and Locale birding:
In the hotel grounds you could not avoid bananquits, palm tanager, blue grey tanager and tropical mockingbird  – put out any type of food on your patio (sugar, bread, fruit) and they will come to it especially the banaquits and mockingbirds though the mockingbirds got very possessive.

Blue grey tanager plus plam tanager in background

Also seen in the hotel grounds were eared and pale vented doves, spectacled thrush, black-faced grassquit, merlin(a chance encounter) and a lone sighting of a female antshrike. The only seabirds seen from the hotel beach were pelicans. All in all the hotel grounds were a disappointment and was only good for the very common species. Once we had hired the car it didn’t matter too much but it did restrict what I saw during the first few days.

Tropical Mockingbirds

The birds mentioned above were seen just about everywhere on the island and won’t be mentioned again.
Day 1. On the first morning pre-breakfast I walked out to Pigeon point. Along the shoreline there were a small flock of sanderling and a number of turnstones and by/on the fishing boats were laughing gulls, royal, Sandwich and Cayenne terns (a yellow billed Sandwich tern that may be split sometime). This was the only place I saw terns during the whole week.  Inland of the beach is mainly down to palm trees  plus  lawns so the area was very quiet bird-wise though that first morning I did find a pair of red crowned woodpeckers and on every  visit there (we used it as an alternative to the hotel beach) tropical kingbirds and spectacled thrushes were seen.

Royal, Sandwich and Cayenne terns plus laughing gull

Pier at Pigeon Point

The rest of day 1 was spent lazing around on the hotel beach.
Day 2 was one of the big birding days – a visit to the rain forest with Peter Cox. I had warned Peter that I wanted to photograph the birds we found and we had a private hire to avoid any problems with customers who wanted to rack up ticks.
Peter plus his driver, Lester, picked us at 6.30 and we drove to Scarborough to pick up Northside Road to Mason Hall from where we drove up the north coast of the island to the rain forest. We stopped at several places along the Northside Road seeing orange winged parrot, yellow bellied elania, green kingfisher, black crowned night heron, green heron,  spotted sandpiper, crested ororpendoloa, giant shiny cowbird,  During the climb up to the rain forest we stopped on numerous occasions to search for birds in the roadside trees in this way Peter found a red legged honey creeper(the only one seen), rufous tailed jacamar, 2 giant black hawks overhead, and we saw a red tailed boa (found by a forest ranger  who held onto it because  he knew we were coming).

Red-legged Honet Creeper

Great Black Hawk

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

In the rain forest itself Peter knew of a  blue-backed manakin lecking site and we spent quite a long time watching them perform their dance. Peter also knew of  a white tailed sabre wing display area where again it was a matter of waiting quietly for them to turn up/return. Also in the rain forest  Angie found our first collared trogon – a female.
Photography in the forest was extremely challenging and the pictures achieved hardly gallery shots but I did manage shots of the main target.

Blue-backed manakin

White-tailed Sabrewing

When we returned to the bus Lester had found a couple of male collared trogon in the roadside trees so the next 30-45 minutes  was spent trying to photograph them.

Collared Trogon

Due to the photography I did missed a few birds that Peter found - northern water thrush along Mason Hall road  (I was trying to get a picture of green kingfisher) and yellow and ochre flycatcher (I was after jacamar pictures). I also failed to get a picture of the   olivaceous tree creeper that appeared 30 feet above our heads as we watched the sabre wings.
 At first Peter would be continuously seeking out new birds but once he saw I really did want to get photographs of the main species he concentrated on finding the best views possible and waited patiently – this was especially true of the trogons where both Peter and Lester were constantly re-finding the birds ( 2 males) after they had moved and scouting out better vantage points.
All in all an excellent day with all the major rain forest birds captured on digit.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Dark Legged Willow Warbler

First many thanks to anyone who is still looking at this blog - it's been a long time since my last posting.

I thought for my first real post of the resurrected blog I’d talk a little about willow warblers and chiffchaff identification – oh joy did I hear you say!.
I, like many others, have a simple way of deciding whether it is a chiffchaff or willow warbler – I look for the leg colour. I know there are other features that help distinguish them but leg colour in general is the easiest to see and hence the most relied on criteria.
Whilst out yesterday I noticed what, from first appearance, looked to be a willow moving through the scrub. It had a very strong supercillium and eye stripe and there was no flicking of the tail. I was happily clicking away and was checking that I had the expose correct when I saw that the beastie had dark legs. I followed the bird for some time and got as many shot as possible to help with the id.
The following is a result of checking my field guides, talking to Ian Hodgson at SBBO and a bit of internet research.
As I see it the key features are:
Chiff                                                                         Willow warbler
Subdued eye stripe and supercilium                 Strong(er) eye stripe and supercillium
Dark ear coverts                                                    Pale ear coverts with darker surround
Short winged                                                           Long winged
Short primary projection  (~1/2 tertials)          Longer primary projection (~ equal to tertials)
Legs generally dark                                                Legs generally pale
What follows are a series of pictures of birds that I’m sure I have  identified correctly (mainly because they called) and that show some or even most of the above characteristics though some of the key features are not very convincing. One problem with the comparison is that I have very few willow shots from spring, most are autumn birds. Still here goes.
4082 Winter chiff taken at Dungeness. Subdued super and eye stripe, legs not particularly dark (certainly not black), darkish ear coverts, wings look short and the primary projection is clearly short.

5099 Spring bird (march). Subdued super and eye stripe, legs medium coloured (again certainly not black), plain face/darkish ear coverts,  wings don’t look that short to me but the primary projection (just about seen) is short.

1992 Spring bird. Subdued eye stripe and super, legs look dark but it was a dull day, plain face though ear coverts quite pale compared to many, wings don’t look that short but the primary projection is clearly short

7233. Autumn bird. Very subdued super and eye stripe, dark grey legs, plain dark face/ear coverts, short primary projection

Willow Warbler
5037 Autumn bird. A distinctly yellow bird, strong supercillium but eye stripe but not that strong, pale legs, clearly pale ear coverts (pale patch beneath the eye),  can’t say much about the wing length and primary projection.

1274 Autumn bird. Distinctly yellow, strong supercillium plus eye stripe(not that strong), can’t see the legs and ear coverts don’t look that pale. The wings do look long and the long primary projection is clear.

1343 Autumn bird. Distinctly yellow, strong supercillium and eye stripe, legs clearly pale, face looks pale as do ear coverts, wing length looks quite long but primary projection is not that clear (to me anyway).

Now onto yesterday’s bird:


In all bar one this bird shows all the classic willow warbler features.
In the field looked decidedly yellow (though this doesn’t show well in the pictures; Canon auto -white balance not being up to the task)
It had a very bold supercillium and eye stripe.
It has pale ear coverts with a slightly darker surround giving it a pale face.
The wings look long and has a long primary projection, the projection being nearly equal to the length of the tertials(best seen in 4048).
BUT the legs by any normal standards look dark.
I sent the picture to Ian Hodgson of SBBO and despite the dark legs Ian confirmed this is indeed a willow warbler. If you actually Google “dark legged willow warbler” you will find a host of reports where this has been seen, so whilst uncommon they are well known.
So if you think the best way of telling a willow for a chiff is to look at the leg colour beware.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Testing testing

The internet speed seems to have improved in the village over the last week or two so I thought I'd give the blog another go. When I stopped upload rates were as low as zero and most of the time less than 70kb /sec. I suspected this as the cause of the problems I was experiencing.

Pretty poor fare today, no real change on the scrape and certainly nothing interestimg. The Elms held the same today as it has the last few days - 3 or 4 firecrests, a similar number of goldcrests, a few chiffs and a blackcap or two. And a walk through the gullies and look around the sailign club showed no wheatears or black redstarts (though someone later reported a wheatear on the beach.

Since this has worked I will probably resume the blog.