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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]




Wood Warbler, Stocks Reservoir 21 May 2018

THE ACCELERATING TRILL OF A WOOD WARBLER is one of the most evocative sounds of spring in East Lancs woodlands but it is sadly all too rare these days with usually only a maximum of 2 or 3 per year. Punctuated occasionally by 'teeoo-teeoo' calls similar to a bullfinch, a hissing trill reverberated through a small patch of birch woodland as I opened the car door at Stocks Reservoir early on Sunday morning. Bam! I was hoping for an interesting shorebird last weekend but this will do nicely instead. Wood Warbler's song is very familiar, having listened to it many times in Clockburn Dene near my home in Gateshead as a child. I've also heard it all over Eastern Europe, where it is happily still very common. It is even on my cumulative garden list, if you can have such a thing, with one singing from a railway embankment behind my flat in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in the early 90s. I have found a few in East Lancs since I moved here in 2005 but I don't see it every year as they have become very scarce across much of their range in England so every one of them is a real delight. Sadly this bird was gone by late morning so maybe just a migrant passing through? Just in case anyone is interested, particularly bearing in mind the attention the Olympus 4/3 set-up is getting, the file info for the photo above is: Canon 1DX, 700mm, ISO3200, f/6.3, 1/200 sec. (handheld).




Crested Honey Buzzard, IBRCE, Israel 20 April 2018

ROLLING UP TO THE IBRCE on 20 April, an interesting raptor was soaring over the Jordan border crossing. Binos through the windscreen, it immediately looked like a Crested Honey Buzzard, so we came to an abrupt halt and piled out of the van in time to get some nice views of it almost overhead before it spiraled out of sight into the midday haze.

The most striking feature was the relative proportion of the wings and tail, obvious immediately, with the tail length shorter than the breadth of the wing base and the hands as broad as the arms. Described as eagle-like by Dick Forsman. Added to this, the long 5th primary (which forms a step in the wing tip with the shorter 4th primary), grey head, dark gorget, lack of dark carpal patches, sparse underwing barring with a broad dark trailing edge and distinctive undertail barring meant we were looking at an adult male Crested Honey Buzzard. Get in!

However, the possibility of a hybrid with European Honey Buzzard needs to be ruled out as Dick Forman writes about claims of Crested Honey Buzzards in the Middle East ‘photographs of alleged Cresteds have revealed that a considerable number of the claimed birds actually show a combination of features from both species’. Looking closely at my photos the iris appears dark, which is a feature of adult and there is a suggestion of a dark bill tip, which also fits this ID. In male Crested HB the flight feather barring crosses all the primary bases as on this bird but to me does not meet the body clear of the secondary coverts as Dick states is diagnostic. However, I’m not sure how variable or important this feature is, as it seems to be the only thing I can find that does not fit perfectly with this bird being an adult Crested HB. The following is a series of images of the bird soaring from several angles.




Hooded Wheatear, Ovda, Israel April 2018

IT WAS MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS since I last had a close encounter with a Hooded Wheatear. Apart from one brief look in Oman, my last meeting with this amazing bird was in the vast canyon of Metzoke Dragot in Israel’s Dead Sea region, with friends David Hind, (the late) Keith Regan and Nick Watmough. This was a time when I was very much into birding in Israel and I made several visits in my early twenties before the intifada really got going and I turned my attentions elsewhere. Wheatears are some of my favourite birds and with its extra long legs and bill, this one in particular literally stands out among them. It was also one of the first new birds I saw in Eilat on my first visit there. I had just dropped my bag at the notorious Max’s Hostel and headed out towards the north fields and there it was, a fantastic male Hooded Wheatear, almost at my feet and right on the edge of town. I can remember it like it was yesterday. This was a time when there were no hotels on the North Beach and tamarisk scrub stretched all the way from there to the saltpans. As time has gone by (and I have also got more into bird photography) I have hoped for another close encounter and with no luck in Oman, where they are quite scarce, Israel represented my best chance. It was therefore a very exciting moment to call one on the April 2018 Birdquest tour there, out on the desolate Ovda Plain, just looking over my shoulder in case anything had sneaked in behind us, like so often happens in wide open places.

Hooded Wheatear has a wide range from Egypt to western Pakistan but there are not many countries within this area that are still relatively safe for visiting western birdwatchers so consequently there are not too many opportunities to see one. Something else has struck me about them that adds to their appeal. They are often inhabitants of remote wild desert canyons, met with briefly before they make long flights across chasms to become simply a black-and-white dot on a distant rock face. However, an encounter with one on a desert plain is often a different prospect. The Ovda Plain bird appeared to approach and investigate us. ‘How did you know it would not just fly off when we approached it?’ said André. I guess this might be a difference between a breeding bird and a simply curious wandering one?