Having seen his lovely cat earlier this year I was lucky to have an opportunity to see another of Pallas’s amazing creatures, this time his gull, in Romania’s Danube Delta, courtesy of my friend János Oláh and his Sakertour team. I remember when Janó was awaiting delivery of the ‘Borzas’ (= ‘shaggy’, after the Hungarian name for Dalmatian Pelican) almost 10 years ago and how excited he was about his plans for developing proper bird photo tours in the delta. They are very well evolved now and with the two Zolis, Gergely Nagy and Bacszo guiding the Sakertour groups in the delta I can think of few better tours in terms of numbers of easy-to-shoot great bird subjects. No-one else gets closer to the birds than the ‘Shaggy’ and so deep into the delta! Happily Pallas’s Gulls are becoming easier to see owing to the increasing numbers breeding in the delta and the Sakertour boys have got them well figured out now. We were able to spend a lot of time with them taking thousands of flight shots in lovely golden light both in the earl morning and evening. A few from the sunset session are shown below. Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) is one of the most well known German naturalists and his name is synonymous with amazing creatures from the east, where he travelled extensively, however, I had no idea he has a metal (from a meteorite) named after him as well, Pallasite! Thanks to Zoltán Gergely Nagy for guiding us and Romica Tiganov for driving the ‘Shaggy’ through the narrow channels in the heart of the delta so expertly.
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.
We were already thrilled by a great morning at Tso Kar that included Argali, Ground Tit, Upland Buzzard, Blanford’s Snowfinch and point blank Tibetan Sandgrouse but there was even more to come in the afternoon to make this my ultimate Tso Kar day and one of my best wildlife days ever. After a late lunch and a short break we set off again, hoping for a wolf, the last piece in our jigsaw, or so we thought. While cruising along slowly and checking some roadside birds I noticed a small cat trotting along the snow-free road ahead of us. It couldn’t be surely, could it? Well it was! Otzer turned on the gas and as we neared it, the cat veered off the road and crouched in front of a small raised patch of ground only a few metres away as I fired off a few frames at what was now clearly a Pallas’s Cat!!! Significantly rarer and more difficult to see in Ladakh than Snow Leopard, Jigmet mentioned that although he had now seen Snow Leopard more than 300 times but this was only his second Pallas’s Cat! The cat was clearly very cross at being disturbed and headed off across a nearby snowfield, pausing to scowl back at us every now and again. All three of our cars could watch its progress across the deep snow, a huge WOW moment for all of us. After a while a search party was assembled and Jigmet and his boys tracked the cat to a gully around half a kilometre away, where its trail went cold on bare ground. Time ticked away and the group of searchers dwindled, some connecting with a wolf that David Salt had spotted walking across the snow in front of the vehicles back at the roadside. However, after everyone else had given up and gone back to the Eco Resort at Thukje, Gyaltsen and Changchuk re-found the cat sitting at the entrance to a den in a small outcrop. Sadly too late for anyone to return in daylight and all that could be done was to admire the face-only portraits on their smartphones at evening meal.
Next morning we woke up and under clear skies it really was flipping freezing - a minimum of -32 Celsius was recorded just before dawn. Tso Kar acts as a cold sink for the air on the surrounding mountains. Our guys had stayed up all night keeping the vehicles ticking over so we were ready to roll. We headed out to the Pallas’s Cat den again but in a nutshell there was no sign this morning of its feisty little occupant, who was either fast asleep inside or had moved off to another nearby bolt-hole, of which there appeared to be several, along with more than one set of tracks! We had lunch and decided to get out of Tso Kar and enjoy some heating back in the Indus Gorge at Chumathang, our results at Tso Kar being well and truly off the scale. We crossed the now much snowier Polokonka La without incident, seeing a few Tibetan Snowcocks and en route Jigmet conjured up some great views of Stolicka’s Mountain Voles roadside at Puga Somdo, much to the delight of our small mammal enthusiast Linda. Some of the hot springs had plumes of ice frozen over them, such is the extreme cold here that boiling water freezes in the air.
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]