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ARCTIC FOXES OF PYRAMIDEN

A ‘Blue Fox’ runs off with a kittiwake wing (Mike Watson)

Ivory Gull, Nordenskjöldbreen (Mike Watson)

Previously I have always been in a rush to get around the island of Spitsbergen within a sixteen-day timescale so that usually means turning left out of Longyearbyen and heading for the open sea. However, to the right lie the upper reaches of Isfjorden, an often-ignored wilderness of Arctic tundra, huge escarpments and remote glaciers. In fact, the fjord extends so deep into the island of Spitsbergen that it almost cuts it in two. For instance, the large glacier Nordenskjöldbreen that flows into the head of Billefjorden leads directly to the ice cap of Olav V Land on the east coast. I felt sure that some of the wildlife that is commoner on the east coast probably uses these routes across the island and whilst we couldn’t find any bears during our time in Isfjorden (there had been at least one around two weeks earlier) we did see Sabine’s and Ivory Gulls here.

 

Worker’s accommodation building, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Passing this way also allowed a not-to-be-missed opportunity to visit the abandoned Russian mining settlement at Pyramiden (after the mountain of the same name that overlooks the town). I must admit to finding post-industrial decay fascinating, maybe it goes back to growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s surrounded by similar scenes but I also know that such places usually very quickly become havens for wildlife. I heard that Pyramiden was very good for Arctic Foxes and this proved to be worth the admission price alone.

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake colony on the workers’ accommodation building and the covered mine shaft railway line (Mike Watson).

The rickety old wooden jetty gave an idea of what was to come, a ramshackle decaying Arctic town, much of which is being allowed to lie where it falls.  Pyramiden and its coal rights were bought in 1926 by Russia but it was not until after WWII that it flourished as a coal mining community. By 1989 there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living there. However, it was abandoned in 1998 owing to poor coal reserves and quickly fell into disrepair. We were picked up in a rather smart Russian bus and transferred to the hotel, which acts as the hub for the tourist activities, which are obviously growing in popularity. Our expedition leader, Phil Wickens, remembers only a couple of people living here not so long ago but there are now 30, employed as guides and hotel workers.

Opposite the hotel, there is a large kittiwake colony nesting on the old workers’ accommodation building, occupying every window ledge and with every ledge now occupied the colony has overflowed onto surrounding buildings and even onto the swings in the adjacent derelict children’s playground. The settlement is a fascinating step back in time to the Soviet era and we were lucky to be allowed inside five buildings: the workers’ canteen, Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre, Swimming Pool, Cinema and the school. Most are now in a state of decay, minus much of their furniture and some have been tidied up a bit unfortunately, presumably to make them a little safer. I particularly liked the canteen and its awesome polar scene mural in the main dining hall. It struck me that whereas I am usually amazed at how much older than expected other artefacts are in Svalbard, I was equally stunned to learn how comparatively new the derelict Russian buildings are, thanks to a combination of shoddy Soviet era workmanship and the harsh winter environment.

 

Kittiwakes on the workers’ accommodation building (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake playground, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Workers’ canteen entrance (Mike Watson).

Mural in the former workers’ canteen (Mike Watson)

Lenin outside the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Sports Hall in the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Kittiwake colony, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Mine shaft railway, Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Phil Wickens in the school building at Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

It was not just the old buildings that were of interest, a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers flew over the jetty. We saw four separate Arctic Foxes, including two dark morphs (or ‘Blue Foxes’). Those up by the mine workings were taking numerous bits of kittiwake presumably to stash for the winter and the one that walked up to us by the jetty was particularly tame. The flora was good too, with Woolly Lousewort common (although now over) and of thistle proportions! Polar Dandelion and Arctic White Campion were growing everywhere among the buildings and Yellow Mountain Saxifrage was even to be found in coal deposits. A few of us had an evening in the bar of the restaurant sampling some nice Russian beer before hiking back to SV Noorderlicht and the 21st century. Thanks to Captain Floris Spikermann Immink and his crew of SV Noorderlicht and also to our expedition leader Phil Wickens for making the Pyramiden visit possible.

Phil Wickens at Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).

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LAXÁ HARLEQUINS REVISITED

Harlequin Duck, Laxá June 2019

SITTING NEXT TO A RUSHING SALMON RIVER WATCHING HARLEQUINS SHOOTING THE RAPIDS is one of my favourite wildlife experiences. We had such a great time in 2017 on the Laxá (‘Salmon River’) in Iceland’s Lake Myvatn region that I was looking forward to returning this summer. However, things are rarely as good a second time sadly. Although we enjoyed some stupendous close views again the chironomid flies after which the nearby lake was named were out in force making photographing quite arduous, even with a head net. Without it the experience of the non-biting although mega irritating flies is like having someone poke you in the face, ears or mouth every second or two. Expect to eat a few of them by accident as they fly into your mouth kamikaze style. Not painfull but very distracting, there can be clouds of several hundred of them around your head within minutes. The weather before my 2017 visit was very cold and they had not really got going but the weather recently had been unusually warm and the sodding flies were bad. Ah well, plenty of bird food I guess, looking on the bright side. Much worse was the sheer number of anglers all along the river at my favourite spots, which caused the Harlequins to move off elsewhere. I am going to need to find a quiet spot away from them when it return in 2020. Consequently my images were not as dramatic as in 2017 but I managed to get the lovely marigold flowers into backgrounds this time. Fortunately this was a birding rather than a photography tour so no one minded but next time with Wild Images this project is going to need some more effort. I also heard some disturbing news that Harlequins are declining in Iceland and no one knows why yet. My original Laxá Harlequins post can be seen here and you can see the details of my next Wild Images Iceland tour here.

Harlequin.jpg
Harlequin.jpg

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DANUBE DELTA

Dalmatian Pelican burning in a delta sunset

THE DANUBE DELTA IS THE LARGEST WETLAND IN EUROPE, covering more than 515,000 hectares, of which 220,000 hectares is reed bed, the largest in the world. To put this into perspective the total reedbed habitat in the UK amounts to only 5,000 spread across 900 sites! The delta is truly immense. Designated BirdLife International’s Important Bird Area IBA RO081, it holds significant (>1% of the EU) breeding populations of the following 26 bird species: Ferruginous Duck, Spotted Crake, Little Crake, Yelkouan Shearwater, Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Great Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Great Egret, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Pied Avocet, Kentish Plover, Collared Pratincole, Little Gull and Mediterranean Gulls, Little, Caspian, Whiskered, Common and Sandwich Terns, White-tailed Eagle and Red-footed Falcon.

To say it is a birdwatcher’s paradise is definitely an understatement! Every time we ventured out in the myriad channels and lagoons in the heart of the delta, we got this impression, there were simply birds in profusion everywhere. As well as the water birds the reedbeds were alive with the songs of Great Reed Warblers and Common Cuckoos chased overhead in numbers we can only now dream of in the UK. The ancient willows lining the banks provided nest sites for Golden Orioles, rollers, hoopoes and noisy Red-footed Falcons, while Thrush Nightingales belted out their songs from the dark shadows and the occasional ‘pings’ of Bearded Tits could be heard even from the smallest patches of reeds. The nests of Penduline Tits dangled precariously over the water and kingfishers zipped along the channels. Out in the more open lagoons, where large stands of lily pads grow, mixed colonies of Black-necked and Great Crested Grebes nested side by side with Whiskered, Black and Common Terns with the ever-watchful Hooded Crow lurking nearby in the hope of an easy meal. Little Bitterns and Red-necked Grebes were also here but were a little shyer and more retiring. The most exciting spectacle for me were the Pallas’s Gulls, almost all pristine adults in breeding plumage, their number has recently increased and we counted up to 22 at any one time during our efforts to photograph them.

It was a real privilege to be able to get so close to many of the special birds of the delta as a guest of my friends at Sakertour in their custom-built photo boat. We had a lot of laughs of course but this was also the first time I had visited the delta in spring and turned out to be some of the best days birding I had in Europe so far. It is said that spectacles are the new ‘megas’ and if the Danube Delta isn’t on your ‘bucket list’ yet, it really ought to be. Finally I would like to thank János Oláh and his Sakertour team of specialist photo guide Zoltán Gergely Nagy, our boat driver Romica Tiganov, János Tar (‘Manu’) and Attila Szilági (‘Fiteti’) for looking after me so well. By the way we still have space on the 2020 Wild Images Danube Delta tour here.

Pallas’s Gull is a fish eating gull that usually avoids rubbish tips!

Whiskered Tern backlit

Black Tern over its lily pad colony

Black Tern over its lily pad colony

Mating Black-necked Grebes

Red-necked Grebe in evening light

Purple Herons were unusually shy in the delta

Purple Herons were unusually shy in the delta

Squacco Herons were common and very obliging

Little Crake skipping across lily pads

Common Kingfisher

Eurasian Hoopoes are feeding well grown young by late May



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2018 HIGHLIGHTS

2018 Highlights by Mike Watson

The year got off to a rather slow start, was dominated by the ‘Beast from the East’ and there were few wildlife highlights in January and February. I spent a lot of time climbing with Alexander, saw the Skids at Preston Guild Hall with Rocket, did a few hikes up Pendle and produced the first in a new series of pin badges for Spurn Bird Observatory with Steve Williams, the 2016 Siberian Accentor. A drake Common Scoter at Barrow Lower Lodge caused me to dust the cobwebs off the 500 for what was most local birders’ second species of scoter on this tiny little pond next to the A59 McDonald’s. Jon Hornbuckle’s passing away in February was sad, he was a friend and a maverick birding legend. My first tour of the year was in March, Baja California, preceded by a few days in SoCal out of San Diego. I had long wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park and it more than lived up to expectations, including a few nice new ABA birds like Le Conte’s Thrasher. A Thick-billed Kingbird in San Diego itself was very welcome as were lots of gorgeous Phainopeplas. I even stayed in the same motel at Idyllwild in the San Jacinto Mountains that I had done 27 years earlier, it looked like nothing had changed there in the meantime. The Baja cruise itself down the west coast and up into the Sea of Cortez aboard MV Searcher was unforgettable with numerous cetacean encounters, including Blue, Great and Dwarf Sperm Whales, breaching Humpback Whales, Fin and Short-finned Pilot Whales not to mention the Gray Whales, whose calves stuck their heads into our motorized skiffs. Captain Art Taylor and his wonderful crew took whale spotting to another level! Fab-u-lous!

A return to Israel, also after almost 30 years, followed in April. The birding on the migration flyway is still as good as ever although the birding sites have changed somewhat, some have been destroyed completely but some new ones have emerged. It was also nice to stay in hotels instead of the infamous Max’s Hostel or sleeping on North Beach. Highlights for me were the Sinai Rosefinches, Hooded Wheatears, a crazy tame Corn Crake, my first WP Crested Honey Buzzard, a flock of a thousand white pelicans over Agamon Hula, point blank Crowned and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and song-flighting Syrian Serins as well as Eastern Steppe Festoon butterflies on Mount Hermon with some great Israeli birding friends. The first Stocks Spring Birdwatch got what we hope will be an annual event off to a start and the walled garden big sit produced 76 species over the course of the day.

Another quiet spell of falling to bits included seeing the recently colonized Purple Emperor at one of my old haunts Chicksands with Stuart Pittman and led up to my fourth visit to Svalbard and another cruise aboard SV Noorderlicht. We got all the way around the island of Spitsbergen this time with the sea ice far away to the north above 81 degrees but still managed to see 14 Polar Bears, including my first close encounter on land. The birding highlights were a flock of 14 Sabine’s Gulls (some of which were in courtship for some reason!) at my favourite spot on Spitsbergen and Ivory Gulls in Hornsund. After a gap of only a day I was off again, this time to Brazil’s Pantanal where the Jaguar activity was off the scale at 33 sightings in only 10 boat trips on the Rio Cuiabá and included some nice photographic encounters. However, my personal highlights were Ocelot at the Santa Teresa ‘outdoor photo studio’ and the touching distance habituated Giant Anteater at Pouso Alegre. The second in the SBO pin badge series, Ivory Gull was ready for the Bird Fair and in September Alexander entered his first climbing comp at one year under the minimum age, three years under the top of his age category and came fifth, which was a big surprise to everyone. He’s got the power!

In September a return to Madagascar, also with Wild Images, was successful and my personal highlights were tree-climbing Fosas, Crowned Lemurs and Golden-crowned Sifakas and Collared Nightjars to name a few. The roads (if you can still call them that) in the north were the worst I’ve ever travelled on, taking 12 hours to cover a very bumpy 190km. This was set to be my last of the year and I’d even completed my usual highlights collage but being sent on a cruise to The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica at 24 hours notice in sad circumstances was something of a shock. My seventh and final continent (or eighth if you count Madagascar) was special, as were the endless seabirds, particularly Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, penguins, Rufous-chested Dotterel on The Falkland Islands and in particular South Georgia. Its King Penguin colonies (the Serengeti of the South as Attenborough called them) are one of the wildlife wonders of the world and easily a match for Svalbard. Everything in the South Atlantic is bigger, more impressive, more remote and more dangerous. It is simply awe-inspiring. This trip also meant that I spent 50 days at sea this year and coped with some very rough conditions better than I have done before.

December was another East Lancs washout and was mostly spent indoors at climbing gyms with my little superstar. As time goes by I enjoy watching him do things more than doing them myself. I thought it would be longer before he was better at things than me but in the end it was only six years. Looking at another busy year ahead I’m still falling to bits but going for it more than ever.

Finally I should say a big thank you to everyone who keep things going while I am swanning around, Jen, Nigel, Pauline and Pete at Birdquest/Wild Images and my partner Évi, who I abandon on a regular basis. Also a big thank you to our local guides, ground agents and drivers who looked after so well this year.

[Collage l-r from top: Joshua Tree National Park, Phainopepla, Blue Whale, Humpback Whale, Sinai Rosefinch, Crested Honey Buzzard, Corn Crake, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Little Auks and SV Noorderlicht, Sabine’s Gulls, Bearded Seal, Ivory Gull, Jabiru and Jaguar, Ocelot, Giant Anteater, Crowned Lemur, Golden-crowned Sifaka, Fosa, Collared Nightjar, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Rufous-chested Dotterel, Gentoo Penguin and St Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia - King Penguins and Southern Elephant Seals]

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