Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Destroy your computer

Experiencing some problems in brand new, all-singing + dancing wireless router is a piece of crap and needs to be sent away for repair. This is after a week of talking to various people in Bangalore, most of whom couldn't speak English....not a problem in itself, but it is when they are working for a British company dealing with complex customer complaints!!!!

Anyway, will hopefully be able to continue with the blog asap.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007 Scotland.

It's finally happened..I have a dot on the cluster map. I think it was me though as I'm currently in Scotland with students and viewed the site on the youth hostel computer. Oh well. No, hang on, someone in Spain has looked, as has someone in the Far East! Many thanks..hope you enjoy it! A big thanks to Joe for plugging the blog...I do appreciate it and it was worth forging your end of year grades to make it look like you actually did some work....

Just got back from a week in bonny Scotland. What a fantastic country...awesome scenery, amazing wildlife and very pleasant people. The weather was excellent on the whole ( a bit of rain here and there) and the creatures obliging. Managed to get a few good pics amongst the usual hundreds of rubbish ones!

Glen Coe
Just one night in the famous Glen, after a marathon drive in a minibus ridiculously limited to 62 mph. The road between Carlisle and Glasgow has to be the most monotonous anywhere in the world surely!

Being June, it is well into Highland midge season, and these little gits were out in serious numbers, making an evening meal at the Clacchie Inn almost as unbearable as the food (how can such a well-situated inn have such abysmal food??) Anyway, a bit miffed at the non-appearance of Jimmy Saville (lives nearby) I decided to get an early night before continuing up the way to the next stop, at Ratagan on the shores of Loch Duich.

A breakfast, with accompanying midges (at 0730!!), outside provided singing Willow warbler, Siskins, mewing Buzzards and what I believe to be female Purple hairstreaks flitting around the rush pasture behind the YHA. All the books I've read say that these butterflies do not really descend to ground level, but I'm convinced that's what they were..maybe someone can help? There were plenty of oaks around...maybe the things like to hang out in grassland below the trees? Or were they Little blues? Oh I don't know.

Fort William
A 2 hour stop under the watchful slopes of Ben Nevis provided a cholesterol-boosting Scottish fry up (how many kinds of fried meat can there be??) and the lovely sight of a pair of Black guillemot courting by the harbour. I was able to watch as they twittered and circled each other like a couple of teenagers on heat..warms the cockles.

I first visited this area in 2005, and it's got to be one of the best locations for a youth hostel anywhere on the planet. You can flick a fag butt from the door into the loch (if you wanted to). Loch Duich is a beautiful saltwater loch, and sits under the gaze of encircling mountains, notably the Five Sisters. It's also famous for Eilean Donan castle which was used in a BBC trailer years ago when they had those massive inflatible globes flying over British landscapes.

Anyway, it's also useful because of the wildlife you can see with relatively little effort within 100m of the hostel. Siskins chirp in the trees, Eiders and Goosanders bob along on the water with smart Common gulls, the boggy road verges hold Water avens, Foxglove, Londonpride, Common-spotted and Northern marsh orchids, the loch shores have drifts of thrift and Sea campion, Harbour porpoises can be seen at virtually any time, Red deer wander the hillsides, and Otters are almost guaranteed if you put in the time of an evening.

Northern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza purpurella

Skye and Neist Point
Having been to Skye twice before, the prosect of a full day there was mouthwatering. Unlike previous visits I did not want to bomb around trying to see as much as decided to head straight for Neist Point, the westernmost spur of the island. Parking the van at the car park, it's a good 15 minute walk up and downhill until you reach the lighthouse and suddenly the noise of hundreds of seabirds hits you...Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Gulls, Shags and Gannets all over the place.

Approaching the sheer cliff edges with care, I was able to hunker down on the rocks, pour meself a cuppa and watch as Kittiwakes cried and wheeled a few feet away from me...I was mesmerised for over an hour just watching these birds, even though they live on shit-covered rocks and make loads of noise.

Spanking adult above....grubby first-summer below.

An urge to punch a Razorbill
After an hour or so watching the Kittiwakes and failing to see a Basking shark, I wandered down to the sea's edge to get some closer photos of flyby birdies. I was busy musing on the geological forces that could've created such rectangular rock formations when suddenly a Razorbill flew right towards me and plopped down just out of view. I could tell that it had landed extremely close, and so with thoughts of quality pics I fixed the 500mm lens to the camera and stalked forward. However, the thing had completely was nowhere to be seen on the water and I wondered if I had imagined it. I soon realised that it was in fact sat on a rock not 3 feet from me preening itself...bonus...but hold on...there was something wrong with this bird and it was giving me the creeps.

I can't explain it, but something about this bird brought mildly agressive feelings to my can you not like the look of an auk? Look at the pictures, and tell me there's not something odd about looks like a bloody Rockhopper penguin with its silly crest thing and the way it just sat there bogging me was spooky. Maybe it was injured, sick or maybe it was actually my spiritworld familiar and I've just buggered my chakras or something. Anyway, see what you think...

There is definitely something wrong about this bird...see? just look at that expression

Neist point sea stacks....covered in do we find this acceptable when birds do it? If I was to have a poo on the pavement outside my house I'd be arrested....

Well anyway, Neist Point had some more goodies on offer as the day wore on. Whilst the students, true to form, got on with some involuntary wildlife-avoidance behaviour I sat on the rocks and decided that I was going to see a cetacean...and I did...a Minke whale that surfaced at least 6 times and even managed to blow some stale breath out of its hole...superb at only 100 or so metres away.

Beinn Eighe

The mighty Beinn Eighe. Britain's very first National Nature Reserve, bought for £4000 in 1951...the bloke from the Nature Conservancy got a right rollocking from his Whitehall bosses for buying an entire mountain rather than the few hundred acres of pine woodland he was supposed to. Lucky for us he knew a bargain when he saw one!

Containing the most westerly meaningful stand of Scot's pine in Britain and some breathtaking mountain scenery, Beinn Eighe NNR is a wonderful place and every naturalist in Britain should go there. The bryophyte communities are more or less unparalleled in Britain, the pine woodland is the closest thing we have to rainforest in the UK and Loch Maree holds the largest concentration of breeding Black-throated divers in the country. Beat that! Slap on about as many national, European and international designations as you can, and you have one of the best wildlife sites in Europe.

Remnant Atlantic 'Rainforest' at Beinn Eighe

Despite having been 3 times before, it was still with a fair amount of annoyance that I had to wait with the minibus for the ATS man to come from Inverary to repair our two knackered tyres whilst the students went for a walk with one of the SNH rangers. Tip - do not get tyre failure in the Scottish can be fatal...or else you have to wait for 4 hours while a gruff man in overalls ("Where the F***ing Hell are ye?") drives like a mad git to reach you in order to change the tyres because both the spare and tools have been removed for health and safety reasons.

Lesser twayblade Listera cordata

Abernethy & Loch Garten

After leaving the west coast, we headed across country to spend a couple of days at Aviemore on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. A buzzing little town, Aviemore is the ideal location for exploring the wealth of wildlife sites in this part of Scotland, and has the advantage of being a prime wildlife location in its own right.

Craigellachie NNR - birch forest, lochans, pergrines and scarce Odonates.
Immediately behind the Youth Hostel is Craigellachie NNR, an area of prime birch forest, rocky crags and glorious dubh lochans.

Abernethy Forest - gnarly old Scot's pine with an understory of Calluna and Vacciniums...and full of ticks.

Morel fungus at Abernethy. Reminds me of a Brian Aldiss novel 'Hothouse', in which the last few surviving humans (little green midgets) struggle to survive in a world dominated by mobile carnivorous plants and friendly giant termites. The hero of the story somehow gets attached to a parasitic morel that craves human thoughts...

Ospreys schmospreys

I have decided that there is something slightly creepy about the RSPB. Full respect for their conservation work - nobody does it better really - but they do seem to be taking over the world in a quasi-religious way('For birds, For people, For ever!!! Ha Ha Ha). Take Loch Garten for instance. Spiritual home of the Osprey in Britain. Set in the midst of stunning scenery and amazing habitats. What do they do? Give them names. They give the Ospreys names. Names.
The visitor centre resembles a church meeting, with the congregation sat on benches, staring at screens showing re-runs of 'famous' osprey highlights over the years ("Remember the 'big stick' fright of 1987? or the Capercaillie suicide mission of '94?"). They are told how the nest is entirely natural , except for the bits where the RSPB volunteers weld metal bars underneath it and replenish and tidy the sticks up each winter. Anyway, I'm ranting again. It just smacks a bit of animal hospital...can't we just let the poor beasts get on with it and be content with stopping egg thieves? Do we always have to interfere? Apparently all this year's chicks died despite mouth-to-beak first aid....

I reckon the best place to watch ospreys, that doesn't require looking at a TV screen, is the Bridge pub in Aviemore. At this quality establishment, you can sit outside munching on venison steak, sipping a pint of real ale and watch up to 6 ospreys wheeling about over the trout farm next much better do you want raptor watching to be?! This year, I thought I might even pop into the trout farm and try to catch some close-up shots of the birds. They apparently let Joe Public in for £2 to watch...provided you don't have a camera. Yes, I tried to wander in one evening with my very unprofessional-looking 500mm lens (it screams amateur) and was told by the miserable teenage bufoon that I had to pay a tenner cos I wanted to take photos!! Bloody cheek! Bollocks to that I said, and walked off muttering. Stick to the pub...

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Sierra de Gredos....Like Scotland but different

Having heard a great deal about the mighty Gredos range from a herpetologist colleague, I just had to visit seeing as we were only an hour's drive away. A long, winding hour as it turned out.
The Gredos, part of the Sistema Central that effectively divides southern Spain from the high plains of the Meseta, are by no means as visually impressive as other Iberian ranges such as the Picos de Europa or Sierra Nevada, but they have a certain rugged charm that reminds you of parts of Scotland. The main road from Plasencia in Extremadura to the northern Gredos in Castille y Leon takes you through whole hillsides devoted to cherry production...late May's a bit late, but I expect late April is amazing with the trees in blossom.

Nearly every village you drive through has stalls selling fresh cherries. We felt that we should buy some and so stopped by a stall run by some old dear. The wife, being near fluent in Castllian, was sent to acquire said fruits...and came back with the smallest amount for sale...2 kilos. Safe to say that the entire road verge for 50 km on both sides is sure to be bearing new cherry trees.

Plataforma de Gredos

According to Mr Muddeman (Birdwatcher's Guide to Extremadura)probably the best place to head to was the Plataforma de Gredos. Passing through pine plantations and stony, scrubby hillsides we stopped to have lunch near a small stream. The wife, just not getting it really, has the useful but sometimes infuriating habit of saying "Oh, what's that brown thing there?". This usually heralds a new bird for me, and this time was no exception...Ortolan. Yes, I know, they turn up all the time back home, but I happen to think it's best to see a bird where it truly belongs. Maybe I should've gone to a Marseille restaurant and watched it being force-fattened, drowned in Brandy, slow-roasted and then chewed for 15 minutes by some bod with a hanky on his head to stop God seeing...
Iberiae Yellow wagtail

The streamside habitat provided great views of iberiae Yellow wagtails (collecting food for their offspring), Dipper and Whitethroat. A couple of freaky birders were creeping us out so we moved on up to the car park at the Plataforma. Mid-morning it was, and the sun was beating down, and I was not in the frame of mind to walk up steep mountain tracks for four hours to reach the Big Lake carrying bins, camera and large lens. Therefore, we strolled for about 45 mins before heading off the path for a snooze. The chilly mountain winds and sharp thistles prevented anything resembling a satisfactory sleep, but slightly refreshed, we had a good root around the boulder scree for interesting flora (some amazingly day-glo lichens)before heading back down to the car.
Iberian wall lizard of the Gredos subspecies. That is a post-coital grimace on his face...we'd just disturbed him mid-stroke...his jewels were still hanging out.

Adult male Schreiber's Lizard

Having given up any hope of seeing Bluethroat in their main Iberian stronghold, I thought I'd have one last sulky scan of the cliffs for any bird-shaped specks. What did I find? Bloody Rock thrush!! Quite a distance away, but a stunning male nonetheless! Singing his little heart out he was..and directly behind him an Iberian Ibex! How's that for a wildlife experience?

Echium spp, common on road verges leading up to the Plataforma

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Trujillo-Caceres steppes and La Serena (or the arse end of nowhere)

Apart from the craggy wooded sierras and extensive dehesas, the other main habitat of Extremedura are the pseudo-steppe agricultural landscapes that provide opportunities to see a special suite of open plain species. According to the guidebooks I had the most accessible of these areas were between Trujillo and Caceres.

On our first day in the region we spent a few hours driving along the cratered tracks near Belen, just east of Trujillo. After failing miserably to follow any instructions in the guides, we hung a left along a dusty farm track that semed to be taking us absolutley nowhere...

After a short stop, during which I spent several minutes convinced that the rock I was looking at was in fact a Little bustard, we drove on and entered a scene reminiscent of the Ngorogoro crater (minus any large grazers, or lions, or hyenas etc etc). What we had found was a huge group of vultures (mostly Griffon but with a few Black monsters) feeding on a carcass. It may have been the heat haze but I was sure I could make out a tripod leg sticking up from amongst the festering ribcage.

The Bellend plains also turned up trumps for a few more decent species too. I saw my first ever Rollers and Great spotted cuckoo..result!
Look out magpies...
Santa Marta de Magasca

Whilst the Bellend plains were very productive indeed, it was an early morning visit to the steppes surrounding the lovely village of Santa Marta de Magasca that really did the business. Within two minutes of stopping the car I had my bins fixed on a pair of Great bustards not more than 100 yards away, plus a small group of about 6 Pin-tailed sandgrouse! What a start!

Another 5 minutes saw the arrival of a pair of absolutely stunning Rollers...what a bird...made for the early morning sunshine. With the car as a hide, we managed to observe a pair of these birds feeding on grasshoppers (presumably) and perching on a fence wire not 15 yards away!

From Santa Marta, there's a 25km long dirt track that meanders through the's not really suitable for a Corsa but what the hell, it wasn't our car. So for 25Km the scenery doesn't change much...mostly rocky, un-ploughable fields with the occasional sprig of broom scrub...but the birds just kept coming. Well mostly...

The main bird I was hoping to encounter was Little bustard...apparently there's about 10 billion of them...but I kept waiting. The journey was punctauted with regular sightings of Bee-eater, Roller, Calandra, Crested and Thekla larks, Southern Grey shrike, Black kite, White stork, Pin-tailed sandgrouse...but no flippin bustards! At one point, passing through some trackside broom bushes we had a veritable flock of 5 Great spotted cuckoos...we even had to drive carefully around one who refused to get out of the road!

Southern Grey shrike

At about 20 km, after meeting possibly the largest flock of House sparrow I've ever seen (they stupidly refused to fly left or right and so knackered themselves out by stopping-flying ahead of us for several K's!)I finally saw a bustard -shaped blob off to the left at about 50 yards. Being midday, the haze was a severe nuisance, but yes, it was my very first Little bustard. Not the stunning view of a farting, leaping male I'd hoped for, but a solitary female pretending to be a statue will do.

La Serena...thousands of hectares of nothing

La Serena. La Serena. Mmmm. For months I've been reading of this fabled place whilst smoking fags in my chilly conservatory/smoking room, dreaming of flocks of bustards, sandgrouse and Montagu's harriers. The largest single area of unculivated land in Europe. Home to tens of thousands of steppe birds....

Somewhere in this picture there are thousands of beady bustard eyes staring back...

Ok, we didn't do it justice. We only spent 3 hours in the whole area. But seriously, we covered a lot of ground and had virtually no reward! The Roller nestboxes are at least 50 yards from the road, and you can't pull in anyway as it's illegal and highly dangerous. We saw 3, yes 3, harriers. Despite careful searching we saw no bustards or sandgrouse. And the villages are bloody awful! Talk about back woods. I half expected Clint Eastwood to be walking along the main streets.

What the area needs is a picturesque casa rural set up for visiting naturalists so they don't have to drive for 2 hours from anywhere remotely decent to stay. I'm being slight harsh here...I'm sure the area deserves its reputation, and I did see Little Ringed plover and Black-winged stilt in a roadside pool, so maybe it just requires a more concerted effort. PS If you are the slightly elderly bearded British gent who I was rude to please forgive me..I'm not usually moody but was having a bad day.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Here we go....occasional birding in Spain

Yes, I know it's not a Blue Chaffinch but an Azure-winged magpie, but until I get a decent picture of the fabled Fringilla of the Fortunate Isles it'll have to do....

As I am currently the only person on the planet who knows of this blog's existence I am in effect talking to myself. Oh well. I intend to update this blog as and when I can be arsed, which is likely to be once every week or less, or more likely whenever I've got something exciting to share which will be even less frequently.

Anyway, hopefully it will blossom into the no1 birdy blog thing on the interweb and as long as it's more interesting than that cider-eating worzel from Somerset's one I'll be happy! Sorry Joe, it's just cos I'm jealous.

OK...latest news..a week long trip to the birding Mecca of Extremadura, Spain. Being an occasional birder and travelling naturalist I managed a total of 8 new birds in amongst some archaeology, jamon serrano, vino tinto y cerveza.

Having been to most provinces of Spain at one time or another, Extremadura was the one place I'd been wanting to get to for many finally took the opportunity and took kit bag and tent over for a week. The plan was to mooch about visiting a few sites and hopefully catch up with a number of species that had so far eluded me on previous wanderings. In the end, I did manage to see most of the desired bunch, but the buzz of seeing some really unusual bird assemblages was what made the biggest impression. So much space!

Here's a few nice pics from among the many hundreds that I took...

Black, white and red all-over

White storks in abundance..crazy birds and rather grotty looking. Plenty of chicks too, this one appears to need some more frogs or small birds.

Their bill clapping, especially around towns such as Toledo and Trujillo, really is a very cool bloody pigeons or Herring gulls any day.

Whilst in Caceres, found an SEO exhibition about bird conservation and got the chance to climb to the top of a 14th C tower to look down on approx 20 nests, with Lesser kestrels wheeling overhead.

A bit more impressive however were the Black storks seen on the nest at the famous Parque Nacional de Monfrague...perhaps the ultimate raptor site in Europe?

This pair were observed from the viewing platform opposite Penfalcon, and share their craggy abode with dozens of breeding Griffon vultures, a pair of Peregrines, Blue rock thrushes, Crag martins and Rock buntings. Flyby species also included Cattle egret, Black vulture, Egyptian vulture (seemed to be the star of the show for the Spanish birders), Common and Alpine swift, House martin, Barn and Red-rumped swallow.

The sight of a huge circling mass of vultures, storks and hirundines is something else....


What an awesome National Park... a proper Park with absolutely zero public access over most of the area, unlike our supposed NP's in the UK (tea and scones anybody?). The undisturbed habitat pays off in the form of the largest concentrations of raptors in Europe, plus some stunning examples of maquis / matorral and dehesa habitat, full of the most amazing wildflowers (May/June seems to be the time of Composites, with each road verge and meadow a sea of every conceivable shade of yellow, punctuated by purple Echiums). Add to this a near complete guild of mammals, including pardel lynx, and an abundance of invertebrates, herps and fishes..and you have a truly breathtaking wildlife experience.

Don't go on Sundays...

I should've learnt by now. Sundays and Spaniards means party time and lots of noise (can they ever talk quietly?!) Thinking that an a.m. walk up to the Castillo de Monfrague would present a peaceful way to spend our first day in the Park, the wife and I bimbled up from Fuente de Frances to the Castillo...only to find the top thronging with folk and a fiesta in full swing. To the sound of religious chanting and kids screaming we headed straight down the perilous steps, passing the brass band on their way up (sax, trumpet, trombone and drum), and took a look at the prehistoric cave paintings in the small cave nearby. Very impressive, with red ochre animals, humans and abstracts ranging from the palaeolithic to the just-pre-Roman...some of the figures seemed to have several penises.

Salto de Tietar

With the wife getting twitchy about the many groups of weird birdy-types that seemed to be popping up everywhere (can spot those Brits a mile off!), we headed a few K's up the Tietar valley to the famous Salto de Tietar viewing platform. From here you can get unrivalled views of Griffons on the nest, plus Black storks with young, and we had a magnificently low-flying Black vulture ( I swear it was looking right at me).
A very small and very Iberian bod from Salamanca proved to be a real asset (and a bloody nice bloke) in spotting the real highlight..."Buho real!" he said. After a couple of seconds I realised he was of course looking at an Eagle owl! Superb bird, even better as it has a mature chick just below it! Could've been in Yorkshire! No, hang on, cos Eagle owls can't possibly be a proper British bird can they? I mean it's not like they regularly fly over the Alps or anything, so how could they possibly cross the North sea? Silly me. Spot the owl....

A view looking back towards Salto de Gitano, showing the amazing flora comprised mainly of various Composites, with Adenocarpus scrub and Quercus suber woodland. With sound, we would be able to hear the brass band going for it and the mad git screaming through the loud speaker from the Castillo.

Below, some kind of broomrape Orobanche growing in the cork oak scrub below the Castillo...not sure which species as yet.

Western clubtail Gomphus pulchellus

The woodland and scrub surrounding the Castillo held innumerable insects, far too many to identify well (beyond my expertise anyway), including blues, fritillaries, Two-tailed pasha (a stunning butterfly) and Western clubtail. Didn't even begin on the grasshoppers and crickets!

Great quaking grass Briza maxima


It's not every day you get to spend time in one of the great cultural landscapes of Europe (besides the New Forest) and the vast expanses of wood-pasture covering most of Extremadura are certainly worth seeing. The drive from our campsite to Monfrague took us through some prime dehesa habitat and particularly in that amber evening light they looked stunning. The images below really do not do it justice...

The Joy of Camping...

It's fair to say I wasn't that enamoured with the idea of spending a week on the sun-baked pseudo-steppes of Iberia waking up with a puffy face under a rain of condensation, or getting cornered by a spider. Maybe some lovely rural casa forestal I thought, with a cheery Spanish host who brews his own and has bustards in his garden. No. The wife suggested camping. Meaning we had to take our 4 man tent and all the associated bits on the plane, including her very dodgy-looking super-duper high pressure stove that runs on anything remotely flammable (presumably post-beer wee?).

As it turns out, the missus is a genius. It's not that I'm averse to camping per se, just that I'd waited a long time for this trip and wanted not to have to worry about scrimping it as usual. Anyway, the campsite near Monfrague was a bonus find. Hardly anyone else there, besides motorhome-driving Dutch bods, and excellent facilities.

Taming the beast...

Perhaps the most alluring thing about this campsite is the wealth of wildlife, especially the mobs of Azure-winged magpies. Initially I got rather carried away with taking photos, but by the end of the week we had them eating bread off my feet! One morning I came back from my ablutions to find that one of the devils had tried to eat the wife whist I was away.

After an epic struggle, I managed to defeat the Monster Magpie of Monfrague. Is that slight emargination on P4?

Needless to say I wasn't having it and managed to throw a sheet over the dangerous beast and then grab it in that semi-mystical 'Ringer's Grip', last seen being used by Giant Haystacks on World of Sport in 1981. Where's a C ring when you need it?

The magpies became a regular feature of our mornings and evenings, eating anything we threw at them including bread, sausage, stew and cherries.

The chainlink fence is not exactly the most photogenic perch on which to frame this superb species, but that's where they were.