Tiger tales

Our first Tiger in Ranthambhore – also our last!

We’ve just returned from a two week – two centre trip – to India. After a couple of nights in Delhi acclimatising to our new surroundings, the weather and wildlife we travelled by train to Ranthambhore national park, with the primary objective of seeing Bengal Tiger. We were lucky enough to see a young pregnant female on our first safari – not so lucky for the remaining six safaris, when we only saw fresh tracks and heard alarm calls! Still, we did see a good variety of other animals – including Sloth Bear – snakes, and plenty of birds. Here is a taste of things to come!

Are you sure we’ve got all the cases? – our first experience of Indian railways!
In search of Bengal Tiger
Only 20% of the park is open to visitors. The public section is divided up into ten separate game drives – each drive is around 12k – 17k long. There are thought to be 80 tigers in total in the whole park – that’s less than two per safari. The odds of seeing one are pretty low!

Post Script: We subsequently learned that our tigeress had produced two healthy cubs!

Ringed birds in Spain

Last week, during our visit to Andalucia, we spent some time looking at gulls, terns and waders around the Guadalquivir estuary. In just half a day we found six ringed birds, originating from various European countries.

First up, a Black-headed Gull – ringed in the Czech Republic – click here for details

Next, a Kentish Plover ringed at Marker Wadden, Holland, in May 2020

A Redshank ringed in Kragero, Norway in August – it travelled 2,700k in a month

Sanderling – no detail received yet (Post-script – ringed on Sanday, Orkney, Scotland – but no further details available)

A Lesser-Black-backed Gull – also of Norwegian origin

And finally, those orange-billed terns! Soon after arriving at La Jana beach I picked out a bird of Sandwich Tern size, with a long, slightly drooping, orange bill – surely an Elegant Tern. We watched it for half an hour, moving from on spot to another – along with a hundred Sandwich, several winter Common and a couple of Caspian Tern. Only when I was looking through the photos that evening did I realise that there must have been two Elegant Tern in the flock – one ringed – the other not! From my blog back in September 2013 – “The male was first ringed in Marismas del Odiel, Huelva (SW Spain) on 8 October 2002 as a Lesser Crested Tern, but when it was re-trapped in 2006, it’s  identity was questioned, DNA was taken and the identity awaits confirmation – though is leaning towards Elegant.” If the ringed bird in my photo was this original bird, it is now two decades old at least!

The second, un-ringed bird.

Any observations or comments on these birds welcome.

Autumn in Andalucia

There are few opportunities to get up close and personal with migrating Snake Eagles – Tarifa in September is your chance

We’ve just finished a week birding in Andalucia, our favourite autumn migration location, accompanied by our long-standing birding buddies Bob and Sue. We flew with Jet2 from Stansted last Friday but had to sit on the tarmac for a couple of hours before departure due to the French air traffic controllers strike. We eventually made it to Malaga and drove to our old town Tarifa apartment, arriving for supper. The following day we stayed local, visiting the beach at Los Lanches, La Pena raptor watch-point, the greatly improved salt marsh reserve at Barbate, finishing with a visit to La Handa to check on the extent of any flooded rice paddies. With generally unfavourable raptor migration conditions and little or no water on La Handa, the following day we opted for a trip out west to the Guadalquivir estuary area, including the Bonaza salt pans and the beach at La Jara. The next two days were a combination of raptor watching and looking for migrant passerines at a number of sites close to Tarifa. Our last two days were spent inland in the mountains of Los Alcornocales and Grazalema. As well as using local knowledge, built up over our many previous trips, this time we used the Crossbill Guide to Western Andalucia – co-authored by our good friend John Cantelo. His generosity of knowledge, advice and assistance for us is now captured in a book – packed with everything you need to know about the diverse wildlife of this great area. The book navigated us to several sites we’d never managed to find before and helped us identify plants and insects, previously overlooked – well done John.

By the end of the week we’d amassed a creditable total of 164 species, but with so many ‘stand out’ birding moments it’s hard to pick out the highlights. 16 raptor species from La Pena watch-point in one session – including an eye-level encounter with a Long-legged Buzzard and 235 Black Stork is definitely up there. Back in September 2013 we found a couple of Elegant Tern at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river – super-rare birds originating from the west coast of the Americas. We’ve been back several times without success but this week lightning struck twice – two Elegant Tern at La Jana! (for a fuller account see my next post covering ringing recoveries in Spain). Common Bulbul and Little Swift have a European toe-hold in Andalucia – we caught up with both species at their regular haunts. Other highlights included: White-headed Duck, Marbled Teal, Black-shouldered Kite, two dozen wader species, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Bonelli’s, Olivaceous and Spectacled Warbler and Rock Sparrow & Rock Bunting.

Booted Eagle – both phases – were in the skies above Tarifa from dawn to dusk
Black Kite were often the first raptors on the move – this one was snapped over our town apartment balcony
Honey Buzzard seemed more difficult to catch up with this year
Just a few of the hundreds of Black Stork which went through Tarifa in just a few days
Perhaps the ultimate highlight – one of two Elegant Tern found on the Guadalquivir estuary
Typical bird of the limestone uplands – Blue Rock Thrush
Slender-billed, Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls – but which is which?
Two-tailed Pasha – took the prize for ‘best insect’
Greater Flamingo with friends – Black-winged Stilt and Redshank
Rock Sparrow (or Petronia to give it it’s proper name) aren’t always easy to find – there were dozens in Llanos de Libar

Just a flavour of the delights of an avian Andalucia autumn – until the next time.

In case you missed it

Son Joe at the Chile stand – Global BirdFair

I realised today that my recent blog post on Cromer Nature Notes, about the newly returned / re-vamped Global BirdFair, might not have been picked up by the more international audience of this blog, so here’s the link

In case you are wondering what is happening next for us on the international birding front, in September we return to our much loved and missed (during the Covid years) Tarifa – in southern Spain – for a week of raptor migration, and then in November we’re off to Northern India – to Bharatphur, and tigers! I’ll keep you posted.

The Italian Chapel

Today we’ve been relaxing on Orkney – cycling from where we are staying in St Mary’s, at the southern end of Mainland, across the Churchill barriers which connect a number of small islands with South Ronaldsay. One of those islands is Lamb Holm, where the only structure of any significance is a chapel built out of two Nissen huts by Italian POW’s captured in North Africa and put to work on the construction of the barriers – sealing off a number of entrances to Scappa Flow. The barriers had been ordered by Winston Churchill, when he was First Sea Lord, following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 834 lives, by a German U-boat in 1939. The interior of the chapel was painted by one of the POW’s, Domenico Chiocchetti, using a post-card his mother had given him of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino, as inspiration for his alter-piece. When the Camp Commander, Major Buckland, realised that Chiocchetti was indeed a very talented artist he allowed him to continue painting to make the basic building more attractive. So it is that the entire walls and ceiling are a complete trompe-l’œil, which give the chapel it’s unique character. I first saw this special place in 1974 when on a camping holiday in Shetland and Orkney with brother Rob and best friend Neil. Apart from more visitors, a visitors centre and a car park it has changed very little in the intervening half century!

Day 11 – Thurso to John O’Groats

Back in John O’Goats – this time on the completion of the NCN 1

Today we had only one thing on our mind, getting the job done – completing what we’d started back in Berwick in 2017 – cycling the length of the British mainland east coast on the NCN 1, from Dover to John O’Groats – 1250+ miles. The weather for this final stage was the best it’s been over the past week, with clear skies, warm sunshine and virtually no wind. Our route took us east to Castletown and past Dunnet Head (actually the most northerly point on the British mainland) before heading inland on quieter roads before rejoining the coast road at Canisbay and on into John O’Groats. As befitted the occasion, Bry led us down the final straight to the famous sign-post above the harbour. Photos, coffee and a moment to reflect on a job well done. Then it was time to get back on the bikes and cycle the 21 miles back again – which we did at an average speed of around 25 mph! The only addition to the bird list today was Black Guillemot – several around the harbour at JOG and again, this afternoon, around Scrabster – from where the ferry to Orkney sails tomorrow morning. I’m really looking forward to a weekend of relaxed birding and biking before heading south on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen and then, hopefully, catching the train back to Cromer. Bry and I have now cycled the length of Britain twice together. Not something either of us really planned to do, it just happened. You get to know someone pretty well in these circumstances – even when they’re your brother. Thanks Bry it’s been a blast. Our only regret is that Neil, who has been with us on most of our NCN 1 journey, wasn’t able to complete the final few days due to the rail strike – there’ll be another time mate!

Day 10 – Tongue to Thurso

The view from our Thurso cliff-top caravan – with the Orkney Isles in the background

This 40+ mile stage, east along the north coast through Betty Hill, retraced our steps on the End to End, a decade ago. A roll-a-coaster of a route through coastal villages before arriving at the ferry terminal of Thurso. A coffee stop at Betty Hill after a third of the way was followed by lunch – which consisted of coloured water and half a dozen energy beans – just outside Reay. Still we did make up for it once we arrived at Thurso with tea and brownies. The weather was mixed, with sunshine and showers and generally a side wind. The only additions to the bird list were a singing Redpoll in Borgie Glen – a gut-busting climb near Betty Hill – and a lone Great Skua harassing a Hooded Crow on the run-in to Thurso. Today we’re ‘getting the job done’ – a gentle 20 miler to John O’Groats and the end of our NCN 1 journey. Well not quite, we’ve then got to ride back, before catching the ferry to Orkney and our enforced route extension. But more of that in due course..

Day 9 – Lairg to Tongue

Fabulous, freshly emerged Golden-ringed Dragonfly – wildlife event of the day for me

An excellent stage for wildlife! True, the weather was still shite at times – in fact we got soaked at one point – the wind gave little assistance and there were some long and steep drags, but all of this was cancelled out by the scenery and nature along the ride. We left Lairg heading north-west, following the shores of Loch Shin, eventually arriving at the Crask Inn (literally in the middle of nowhere and now run by the Episcopalian Church) for coffee. This had been a memorable early refreshment stop on our End to End route, back in 2012. From there, looking out across the miles of nothing that is Sutherland, I spotted the first of our ‘ticks’ – a summer plumage Golden Plover, quickly followed by another new species – Snipe. A lone Raven flew overhead as we steadily made our way through Altnaharra and on towards our lunch stop. Passing a small loch I saw three birds at the waters edge – clearly divers. Through the binoculars they turned into a family party of Black-throated – Mum, Dad and a youngster! We were sitting at the road bridge at the head of Loch Loyal when I spotted a shape moving in the water. It was a newly emerging dragonfly which just managed to cling on to a rock in the middle of the river. Through the bins I could see it was black and yellow – I had to get a closer view! Off with the socks and shoes and in I went. Fortunately it was still drowsy, so it sat on my hand as I returned to dry land to show Bry. Wide-spread but thinly distributed in western Britain, though absent from East Anglia, this Golden-ringed Dragonfly was a ‘first’ for me! We finished our ride at The Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue – 40+ miles since departing from Lairg. In the evening I rode down to the causeway looking for waders – mostly Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Curlew, with a lone Dunlin – new for the list. I did also see a nice Wheater – our sixth new bird for the day – bringing our overall trip list to 106.

The NCN 1 sign opposite The Crask Inn
Cold, but boy was it worth it!

Day 8 – Tain to Lairg

Along the Dornoch Firth

What a difference a day makes! Admittedly this was our ‘rest day’ or, at the very least at just over 40 k, a short stage. But the sun came out, there was no head-wind and the scenery gently transitioned from arable to highland. The stage began with a short section along the A9 but once clear of that we headed north-west along the shores of the Dornoch Firth as far as Ardgay, where we had a welcome roadside coffee. Through Bonar Bridge – familiar territory from our End to End ride in 2012 – and then along a delightful road following the River Shin. Lunch – a roll from Tain Tesco – was taken at the view-point overlooking Shin Falls. It was here that Bry spotted our first Dipper of the trip, which turned out to be two adults visiting their nest right opposite where we were sat! Our ride finished early at the Lairg Highland Hotel our comfortable, if a little overpriced, overnight stop. A walk in the early evening to a nearby local nature reserve produced our last ‘tick’ of the day, Red Grouse, which together with Osprey, Hooded Crow (the real deal this time) and Whinchat brings our trip total to 100! At supper we sat next to an interesting and engaging American family, Mum, Dad & daughter, who had bought their bikes over from the States to tackle the JOGTLE (John o’Groats to Land’s End), they are just a couple of days away from completing their holiday mission – hats off to them! Todays stage also brings us within spitting distance of the north coast.

The delightful River Shin
A hand-held digibin shot of Dipper at it’s nest

Day 7 – Inverness to Tain

Bry just boarding the Cromarty – Nigg ferry

A stage of two halves – we left Inverness YHA hostel and crossed the North Kessock bridge before cycling east along the spine of the Black Isle – some long and steep climbs involved. Cromarty was our lunch stop before taking the ferry to Nigg back on the ‘mainland’. From there it was a hard slog north-west to our overnight stop at the well appointed and hospitable Shandwick Hotel in Tain. The weather remained cold – we reckon with wind-chill around 8 deg. – and showery. Strictly speaking, no new additions to the bird list, but a couple of hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow provided interest on route and a taste of things to come. Tain was home to a joint RAF /FAA base during WW11 and in the final years of the conflict hosted the USAF 66th squadron of B-24D Liberator bombers – the flat desolate landscape is still punctuated with war-time buildings. Today we head north west along the shores of the Dornoch Firth and deeper into the highlands.