Monday, 18 March 2019

The Gambia 2019 Part 1

We hadn't specifically planned to return to The Gambia this winter but I always keep an eye out for a good deal and when we spotted 2 weeks at our favourite Gambian hotel we thought "Why not!"
At a similar price to our first visit almost 10 years ago it certainly was a good deal. Current exchange rates were not dissimilar to our last visit at around 63-4 dalasai to the pound but we noticed a rise in some prices, particularly drinks and as a fair proportion of our budget is spent in this direction it made a noticeable difference. A pint of draught beer was 400d in the hotel across the road, a 330ml Julbrew 110d in our hotel bar, or 70d in their shop. Elsewhere you could still find a cheaper price  particularly during"Happy hour(s)" where the price dropped to 60d.
The Gambia is an attractive proposition purely on the weather, particularly at the time we went. You are hardly likely to see rain as the dry season is well under way, perfect for sunbathing and escaping the British winter, not quite so good for bird watching and photography as it turned out.
One of the other benefits is it's not too far to travel either, the flight takes approximately 6.5 hours from Manchester flying with Thomas Cook. However, having booked this holiday based on attractive flight departure times 4 weeks before we were due to tavel we received an email to say that the times had changed.Instead of a 1610hrs arrival, it was now 1940hrs. Even worse, instead of arriving home at Manchester at 2335hrs we would now land at 0330hrs  instead. Ah well, we'd worry about that later!
The outward flight was fine but by the time we were delivered to the Bakotu Hotel it was past 2100hrs and at reception we were given the news they didn't have a room for us for the first night, instead we'd have to put up with one of their self catering apartments 100m or so down the road.
Not a lot you can say about that but we were promised a move the next day so it just meant we couldn't really unpack, so it was drop everything and find somewhere to eat before last orders.
Reporting back to reception the following morning after breakfast we were told we'd be allocated a room after 1.00pm. Ah well.
I headed off with my camera down to Kotu Bridge where the bird guides hang out and others gather to see what's about. Claire made use of the apartments private balcony.
Down on the bridge I was immediately aware of some changes. I have never seen so many birds fishing around the bridge at the same time.

The fishing fleet.

There were at least 40-50 Long-tailed Cormorants
Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus
and there were more arriving by the minute!
Never before have I seen so many Pink-backed Pelicans in the creek either and they too were joining in the fishing fleet.
Pink-backed Pelican  Pelecanus rufescens
There certainly seemed to be plenty of fish about, the Cormorants were popping up everywhere with their bills filled.
Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus
It made for some interesting photo opportunities even if the species are ones I have seen before.
Long-tailed Cormorant   Microcarbo africanus
Just for the record, and for my Photo Big Year where I'm trying to photograph more species than last year I snapped some of the usual subjects like the Western Reef Egret
Western Reef-egret  Egretta gularis
but one bird in particularly grabbed my attention.
Yellow-billed Stork!
Yellow-billed Stork   Mycteria ibis
I'd only ever seen one before and that was a juvenile on passage many years ago so I was delighted to see this one. One of the guides told me that they were regulars so I wasn't too concerned that I only had my smaller 100-400mm zoom lens as the bird was a good distance, maybe 200m away. I would catch up with one later...I hoped!
Meantime it was a visit to the vulture feeding site nearby. I wasn't interested in the feeding, far too many birds to isolate one for a half decent snap, however, as they pre-empt the 10.30hrs feeding time they start to arrive individually so a bit of fun getting flight shots.
Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus
They are not the most photogenic species though!
Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus
Quite the opposite in fact!
Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus
Still they proved an interesting subject for the time being!
Hooded Vulture  Necrosyrtes monachus
It was getting hotter by the minute and the sun was getting too bright for photography too so I wandered back to see if our room in the main hotel was ready which eventually it was.
A nice surprise too!
The Bakotu is only a 3* hotel but it's ideally placed with good birding on the doorstep as well as easy access to local restaurants and the beach. They'd improved to rooms too!
Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.
Comfortable mattress toppers now on the beds
Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.
Plenty of space for everything and best of all a new bathroom with a very sophisticated shower too!
Bakotu hotel, Kotu, The Gambia.
It was worth waiting for after all even if the first day was largely disrupted waiting to unpack.
TBC

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Spain 2019 out and about again!

All 6 of us were up and about fairly early but we all hung around to say goodbye to Cornelius, Paul and Yani too when she came to pick them up to take them to the airport.
The rest of us had made a decision on what to do that last day but sometimes plans don't quite work out as intended. All I would say is, when ever you hand over your passport, whether you might be checking in at a hotel or handing it over at some other place, just make sure it's your passport and thus avoid unnecessary stress when you realise you have someone else's!
Mike and I ended heading back to Alicante before Rich and Steve.
The first port of call was a reserve near the city where White-headed Duck can be seen. It was nice to be out in the fresh air again instead of in a box but boy was it fresh!
We had a howling gale and despite sticking it out for a few hours we didn't get to see the duck in question.It's a shame as I wanted to see the reason the Ruddy Duck ( an American import) was eradicated from Europe to stop them breeding with the White-headed ones. The following photo was taken locally to where I live over 10 years ago and I haven't seen one since.
Ruddy Duck   Oxyura jamaicensis
Ah well, a journey wasted perhaps. We were told that there was a pair in residence but they must have taken refuge from the wind by hiding in the reed bed along with nearly everything else that was about.
On the open water it was quite choppy.
Eurasian Coot   Fulica atra
And only those that loved being under the waves seemed to be prepared to put up with it.
Little Grebe  Tachybaptus ruficollis
No, the Coot we were after was to be seen some distance away at another reserve south of Alicante. With nothing doing, we decide to go for it and although it was a good 45 minute journey it proved very worthwhile. The Red-knobbed Coot is only found in Southern Spain where Europe is concerned and to be honest at first appearance it was a bit underwhelming, however, when the sun came out later it made all the difference!
Red-knobbed Coot   Fulica cristata
Quite a handsome bird after all.
Red-knobbed Coot   Fulica cristata
There was another bird of note , well in as much as one I had never seen outside of captivity that is.
The Marbled Duck.
Marbled Duck  Marmaronetta angustirostris
Again, not really eye grabbing but at least it put my number of "lifers" for the trip up to three when I included the Bonelli's Eagle.
The reserve had more to offer than just those two though.
Some nice birds to add to my 2019 list!
Western Swamphen.
Western Swamphen  Porphyrio porphyrio
Yes that's it's name now it seems, used to be Purple Gallinule, Purple Swamphen but now no Purple at all.It's been divided in to 6 different species and this is the European version and always a lovely bird to see no matter what you call it!
It was still very windy and as I'd packed my tripod away in the suitcase my lens had to be hand held and to be honest I struggled.
Glossy Ibis  Plegadis falcinellus
Some distant Glossy Ibis took flight but I still had the 2.0TC on the 600mm and it's not the best combination for those shots.
Glossy Ibis  Plegadis falcinellus

We found where they had moved to later on on our way home but it was now too dark to be worth trying to re-assemble our gear from the back seat of the car.
There was one last treat in store before we left though. 
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And it wasn't the Black Redstart male either!
Better than that.
When the Redstart flew Mike followed it to try for some pictures in better light, meantime I decided to go for the Red-knobbed Coot now the sun had made a brief appearance. He came back to show me the images he's taken of one of my favourite birds of all time.
Bluethroat!
I went off to look for it in the area he told me he'd seen it. At first I had no luck but then "Bingo".
A bit distant but I'm not complaining.
Bluethroat  Luscinia svecica
What a cracking way to end the day, to end our trip too.
Bluethroat  Luscinia svecica
Amazingly it could have had an even sweeter end too. As we were packing our gear away in the car park, suddenly there was a commotion out over the lagoon. Both Male and female Hen Harriers flew over the very spot we had been standing 15 minutes ago. What an opportunity that would have been!
Ah, well. I would still have had the 2.0x converter on the lens and would no doubt have struggled. 
We returned to the Ibis hotel in Alicante to meet up once again with Steve and Rich. They had been lucky and caught sight of a single Alpine Accentor, a species neither Mike and myself had seen before, but dipped out like ourselves on the White-headed Duck. Still they were happy bunnies too.
A last night's supper and a few beers in celebration were called for. 
It had been a good week, the weather had at least been largely sunny even if the wind had counted against us. This was probably the most successful and enjoyable trip for a few years.
Who knows, we might repeat something similar next year.
I wonder where?!
Anyway if anyone has any extra questions don't hesitate to ask.
cheers
Dave

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Spain 2019 Day 7 Time running out.

So there we were, Day 7 already and still some unfinished business, particularly for our Group. We were really keen to see Rock thrush and Crested Tit. Group 1 on the other hand had seen everything we had with the exception of Mistle Thrush and female Kestrel.
Our hide options however were now very limited, in fact so limited we were given a choice of one!
We were to go to the one I really didn't fancy, the one we renamed the Hunter's Hide which was the one Group 1 had abandoned on the very first day. It was good for Blackcaps they said but they didn't enthuse anymore than that. A Firecrest had been seen and photographed earlier in the week we were told, Group1 had heard it but not seen it. It had a lot of appeal so with no alternative to choose that's were we headed. Group 1 meanwhile were back to the Reflection hide.
The big problem was it was now very windy indeed. The upland hides would be useless because of the wind and they had even had rain and sleet where the Ring Ouzels where so they wouldn't be performing either.
The Hunters hide it was then!
And a Blackcapfest .
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
There's only so many shots you can take.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
so I won't be trying for the ones that are in our garden this year!
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
I don't know what they were feeding on but as the day wore on, the more yellow their faces appeared.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
It all got a bit boring if I'm honest.
My favourite was the shot in the rain.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
Yes, we had wind and rain at one stage.
We'd had plenty of Blackcap opportunities the previous day too se we were desperate for something new.
On the whole that wasn't to be.
Rock Bunting   Emberiza cia
Just the usual suspects.
European Serin  Serinus serinus
It's amazing how complacent you can become in just 7 days!
Sardinian Warbler  Sylvia melanocephala
As time went on we began to realise we were not likely to see the Firecrest.
Small compensation was a visit by a pair of Chiffchaff
Common Chiffchaff   Phylloscopus collybita
The bramble perch working well!
Common Chiffchaff   Phylloscopus collybita
Although they were the only ones we saw all week they were not exactly high on our wish list.
We rang Yani and asked if we could move to the Goshawk hide for the rest of the afternoon to try for the Crested Tits. She told us it would be a lost cause, it was far too windy there, why didn't she ring Group 1 and ask if we could take their place in the Reflection Hide?
We were unanimous in that it was Crested Tit or nothing! It had become a shared amusement that every time Yani said something was a certainty through bad luck it hadn't happened. Think Bonelli's and the Rock Thrush! She didn't make rash predictions, it was based on experience.  
We decided that if she said it wouldn't happen there was a better chance it might!
So it was back to the Goshawk hide we went, and yes, she was correct, there was a fierce wind blowing. We asked was it possible to bait the Goshawk hide too but her answer was that there were clients using the hide the next day so if it was fed the day before it might not turn up as it wouldn't be hungry. Oh well, so be it.
Things didn't look good for 90 minutes or more then suddenly we had a visit!
Crested Tit   Lophophanes cristatus
Despite the wind, a single bird appeared at the baited pine cones.
Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus
The size of the cone brings home how small the bird is but isn't the best for photos! The wind flattened the crest too.
We weren't sure if that was our lot but luckily the bird returned . Only once, but enough to grab a better shot than on the first visit.
Crested Tit   Lophophanes cristatus

That was it then, job done!
Along with Group 1 we headed back to the hotel in Yani's People Carrier. The day at the Reflection Hide had't brought any Cresties in there so our decision not to try and swop was vindicated too.
So that was it, our 7 days of hide photography was over but we still had a day left to our own devices which would end up back in Alicante.
Yani had provided us some ideas to work on so we had something to mull over a beer before dinner.
TBC

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Spain 2019 Day 6 Crisis Point!

Today was the day so much rested on, not just for our group but for all six of us.
Group1 were down for another attempt at the double which we'd successfully completed two days previously. Goshawk in the morning, Bonelli's Eagle in the afternoon.
Our group was heading for the Rock Pool hide in the morning, the Reflection Pool hide in the afternoon. That was where Group 1 had been the previous day and they had had great views of the Blue Rock Thrush that owned the rock, guarding it for hours at a time. We were told it was a dead cert! They had later moved on to the reflection Hide where they had views of Crested Tit albeit just before they were due to be picked up.
I was hopeful for both. I didn't realise at the time but the Crested Tits had been viewable from the other two positions in the Goshawk hide and the other two did at least get some shots, on the other hand I had been the lucky one to date with the only shots from our group of the Thrush.
Hopefully all this would change today.
I made one big decision before we left the hotel. I was going to travel light. A recent operation on my back still causing some pain and numbness in my legs but more worrying, I seemed to have picked up a painful knee problem to which I could only assign to having sat awkwardly in the hide the previous day. I knew that the Rock Pool hide involved a short uphill walk so the less I carried the better. My 600mm lens stayed in the hotel and instead I had just my 100-400mm plus a 1.4 teleconverter. More of that later, in the meantime the scramble up the hill and for the first time everI felt my age as I had to use my tripod as a walking stick to take the pressure off my knee.
Still I got there and soon all three of us were sat in the hide eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Thrush!
This is the Rock Pool...not what you might have imagined I don't suppose!
7M3A6274
It was some feat that managed to manhandle this large rock some distance and taken several people to do so. A small pool of water was created for each visit by topping up the pool from a supply of bottled water. No wonder the site was guarded jealously by the Thrush. There was little evidence of water for miles around. You could see stunning almond groves for as far as the eye could see.
Almond Groves
Beautifully manicured plots, they relied on irrigated water during these dry periods. Today was going to be dry but the weather was changing, a lot more cloud cover and the wind was really quite strong.
We sat and waited..... and waited.....and waited. There was little sign of anything, let alone the Thrush.
Word came through that Group 1 had the Goshawk in front of them for over an hour. Good news there then.
Eventually the first bird appeared, a Rock Bunting. We'd seen them at the other mountain hide but they looked much better here as they were perched on rocks!
Rock Bunting
The light wasn't the best though
Rock Bunting
but we were at least encouraged that life still existed up here in the wind!
Rock Bunting
For a brief while we had visits from several other birds too.
Crested Lark
The Crested Lark looked good in this rocky terrain too
7M3A6472
There was disappointment when a male Black Redstart, our first, flew in from behind us for the briefest of visits and I certainly didn't see him looking any where other than ahead of us.
Black Redstart
He might come back!
But he didn't.
Along with a single Robin we had another bird to photograph, the humble House Sparrow.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
It seemed illogical that that we'd find them here, off their normal terrain but this one looked good anyway!
7M3A6355
Much better than the ones frequenting the hotel car park who were usually sat on the fence, however, I'd been grateful to see Spotless Starlings sat there on most days.
Spotless Starling  Sturnus unicolor
In the Rock Pool hide though we were beginning to despair of seeing the Thrush. If it hadn't turned up to defend the rock when 5 other birds were present it can't be in the vicinity. The wind was getting stronger too so eventually we decided to move on and try our luck at the Reflection Hide.
At least when we arrived at our new destination the sun had come out again so the light wasn't an issue. The wind though was quite fierce. We felt for the guys up at the Bonelli's hide knowing that if it was strong here it was gale force up there. Would their chances be ruined by the wind? Apparently not! They stuck with it and eventually the female Eagle landed and fed for 15 minutes or so. Great Stuff!
The reflection hide was basically a huge concrete table with a pool in it. The pool and seed attracted quite a lot of birds , the majority by far being Blackcaps.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
The female of the species is an exception to the rule that the males are more attractive of the two,
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
We had as many as 4 all lined up along the pool's edge. Sometimes with other species.
Blackcap and Robin!
There, I've included a Robin shot at last!
European Robin  Erithacus rubecula
It's the one bird that seemed to be nearly everywhere, as indeed was the Sardinian Warbler!
Sardinian Warbler
Thrilled to get some decent images of this species on Day 1, I was now getting quite complacent about them however there was a bonus. Our first decent opportunity of photographing a female.
Sardinian Warbler
The wind continued to blow.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
as demonstrated by another strong gust here.
Eurasian Blackcap  Sylvia atricapilla
We witnessed birds struggling to keep their feet on the table without being blown off. Suddenly I spotted something in the corner of the pool, at first I thought it was a piece of twig blown off a nearby tree. Oh no, this was my favourite sight of the day!
Horseshoe Whip Snake  Hemorrhois hippocrepis
I couldn't believe it, a snake!
7M3A6628
Snakes need a drink too.
Horseshoe Whip Snake  Hemorrhois hippocrepis
It's a perfectly harmless Horseshoe Whip Snake but we didn't know that at the time!
Horseshoe Whip Snake  Hemorrhois hippocrepis
They can grow up to 1.5 metres but this was just a third of that size. We debated to whether we should move it as it might scare off any birds but was it poisonous? Were we at risk! It's generally agreed that snakes with round eyes are not venomous, those with slit eyes are. King Cobras are deadly though and they have round eyes! Paul, being nearest the door volunteered to go, I decided to go with him to get some close up shots but the snake was off like a shot the moment the door opened. Amazingly it vanished in to thin air and how it appeared on top of the table was a mystery too. Seems they can travel to places you wouldn't expect! With hindsight maybe we should have left it to see what would have happened, I can't think it was a threat to any birds but there again what does it eat?
Anyway, with that visit over the next best thing was another Black Redstart male visiting.
It landed right in front of us.
Black Redstart
With my 100-400mm plus a converter attached the minimum f stop is F8. At this distance the depth of field would be too shallow so to keep the whole bird in focus I closed down the aperture to f10. The downside is that as the bird was likely to move or the wind might move it, I needed a higher shutter speed. I opted for 1/1250th of a second. Using auto-iso ( apologies if you have no interest in photography!) this then bumped it to 10,000. which would horrify some!
Looks OK to me but I just take photos for fun really.
Black Redstart
Back to f8 can you see what I mean about depth of field on the next one, the tail feathers are not sharply in focus. It's a lower shutter speed too, just 1/400 sec so auto-iso produced 1600.
Black Redstart
Not sure which is preferable really. Anyway, the female took up some better positions and poses than we'd previously had seen.
Black Redstart
Sadly though, the Crested Tits didn't appear before pick-up time.
Still, there was much to celebrate back at the hotel with everyone pleased that Group 1 had done the double. We were envious too that instead of Black Rabbit, the Goshawks had been baited with not one, but two perches of Red-legged Partridge, a much more natural looking and less gory prey for these photographs.  Once again though only the female Goshawk had come down to eat, likewise only the male Bonelli's. Two birds hadn't appeared at the provided food for nearly a week now.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but instead of going to the reflection pool we should have requested a visit to the Goshawk hide for our turn for an afternoon session.We might have had the male Goshawk back as they often reappear late afternoon and meantime we'd have had an opportunity of Crested Tits which appear on a very regular basis..usually.
Mind you, we'd have missed the snake!
TBC