Tale of a lesser Tern

Gull-billed Tern (Asian), affinis – amongst macrotarsa (Australian). Now a full split

Just before we depart north for a family holiday in Queensland I thought I’d recount the story of our quest to add another tern species to my Hunter Bird Observers Club (HBOC) list. I have nothing but admiration for the members of this group who run an excellent bird club, covering the catchment area of the Hunter river, north of Sydney. Compared to my own North East Norfolk Bird Club recording area HBOC is huge – probably bigger than the size of the combined counties of East Anglia. So creating, maintaining or increasing a HBOC list is no mean feat. Last time I was out here I achieved the minor milestone of ‘300 in the Hunter’ – the ‘big guns’ here all have lists of well over 400! So, on our second day in NSW, we headed a couple of hours north up the coast to visit a known tern roost where, amongst the regulars, a recently discovered Roseate Tern has been roosting for over a week. However, on the day of our visit, the tern decided to roost elsewhere – apparently the first time it had done so during its stay! As luck would have it though, much closer to home at Stockton sand-spit, another less-rare tern was hanging about. Yesterday, on our second attempt, we nailed it. This was an Asian Gull-billed Tern – a recent split from the endemic Australian Gull-billed Tern – which is seen in the Hunter area on a near annual basis. It really is distinctive though, being smaller than its Aussie counter-part, a shade darker, with a slightly different head profile and, conveniently for us, in contrasting winter plumage. A lesser Tern, but a good looking bird and a ‘Hunter tick’ for me!

A new decade and another world trip

Hooded Plover – always good to catch up with this scarce Southern Hemisphere wader

We’re just reaching the end of of the first stage of our current world trip – visiting family and friends in Australia and South America. We’ve been in Victoria for nearly ten days, staying with my brother in Edithvale, on the edge of Melbourne Bay, and at Wilson’s Promontory. I’ve been struck-down with a bad dose of ‘airline lung’ ever since we got here and the weather has been even more unpredictable than is usual for Melbourne, with highs over 40 degrees and overnight lows down to just five at Wilson’s Prom. The current devastating bush fires across Victoria and New South Wales have also impacted, with thick smog here, even in the city. Nonetheless we have been able to get out and do some birding – racking up over 130 species so far. A couple of trips to Werribee – ‘the most impressive sewage works in the Southern Hemisphere!’ – and some wader spots around the Prom have helped boost the wader and wildfowl list but, unfortunately, on our only trip to the ‘highlands’ – to look for forest species – the entire area was closed due to a total fire ban. It always takes me time to get my eye (and ear) in over here so most of the stuff has been at the ‘regular’ end of the scale, but highlights have included: Brolga, Hooded Plover, Freckled Duck and that ‘odd looking’ shelduck, which has been creating a bit of a stir locally, at Werribee. We’re off to Newcastle this morning to see Dan, Morgan and the kids and probably do a bit more intensive birding – I know there are a couple of  Hunter Valley ticks waiting for me up there. We then move on to Queensland for a family holiday, where I expect my next post to come from (but we’ll see!)

Brolga – only the second time I’ve seen these magnificent cranes – both times at Werribee

A bit of a random selection of other stuff, starting with Sacred Kingfisher – the default species for Victoria

A rainforest speciality – Flame Robin – seen feeding young at the nest

Both species of spoonbill – Royal & Yellow-billed – together at Werribee

One of several hirundine species – Fairy Martin

Sharpie – the default wader for these parts – Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

And to close, that odd-looking shelduck (possible Cape or Paradise?) at Werribee

Autumn in Andalucia

The iconic Andalucian species – White-headed Duck

We’ve just returned from one of our regular early autumn birding trips to Andalucia. We flew on this occasion with Jet2 from Stansted to Malaga – very impressed with their service, hired a car from OK Rental and stayed in Antequera, Vejer de la Frontera and, for the last three nights, at Las Margaritas in Tarifa. We were joined by Neil, my long-standing birding friend, and his partner Nicola. The weather was warm (up to 42 degrees on occasions) with a moderate easterly wind and good visibility throughout, which meant that is was far from ideal conditions for observing raptor migration. With the relative dry conditions and a lack of any open water on La Handa the birding was harder than usual, but we did manage to clock up 163 species in the week nonetheless, including all five breeding species of swift – the undoubted highlight of this years trip! The supporting cast included: White-headed Duck (over 70 on Laguna Medina), Marbled Teal, Ferruginous Duck, Black Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, Bonelli’s Eagle, 22 species of wader, Slender-billed & Audouin’s Gull, Red-necked Nightjar, Azure-winged Magpie, Calandra & Thekla Lark, Bonelli’s, Olivaceous, Sub-alpine and Orphan Warbler, Spotless Starling, Rock Sparrow, Tawny Pipit, Hawfinch and Crossbill. With several interesting butterfly and dragonfly sp added to the mix, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable and relatively relaxing holiday – although it’s true we were out of our hotel from 07.00 to 23.00 on one occasion!

Amongst the 22 wader species seen were plenty of Curlew Sandpiper 

Slender-billed Gull were plentiful at the Bonanza salt-pans and Los Lanches

Also along the beach at Los Lanches – Cory’s Shearwater came close to the shore

Passerine interest was many and varied – with Zitting Cisticola

Rock Bunting


Greater Short-toed Lark

and Olivaceous Warbler

Hoopoe added a splash of colour

But it’s really the raptors which provide the interest and challenge to an Andalucian autumn

Here is a juvenile (pale form) Short-toed Eagle

A scarce Bonelli’s Eagle

and best of all on this trip – melanistic form of Montagu’s Harrier

If the raptors aren’t obliging then usually the storks are

With careful observation the much scarcer Black Stork can be found

But the real highlight of this years trip were the swifts. Along with the more regularly encountered Alpine, Common and Pallid, we found several late breeding Little Swift (record shot)

Here’s one leaving it’s nest

and, for the first time in probably the last half-dozen visits – White-rumped 

This part of Spain is also home to a number of self-sustaining populations of imported species, including Common Waxbill

With dragonflies and butterflies providing additional interest – here Violet Dropwing in the foreground

Another good trip to Spain, with great scenery, food and birds.. we’ll be back before long!


Cromer to Dover -completing the England section of the NCN1

Last week we completed the England section of the National Cycle Network route 1. It’s taken us three weeks, over the past three years, to cycle from Berwick-on-Tweed, on the Scottish border to Dover. This latest stage, being just short of 350 miles, took us from Cromer – following the coast of East Anglia, around the Thames estuary, through Canary Wharf & Greenwich, via the Medway towns and the East Kent resorts of Sandwich & Deal  – to Dover. The longest single day was 72 miles from Maldon to the Isle of Dogs. For me, the stand-out sections were: the ride through the gentle rolling countryside of the Suffolk Essex border, the route down the Lee Valley past the Olympic Stadium into the heart of the capital, discovering the previously unvisited southern stretch of the Thames Path opposite Canary Wharf and the coastal path from Sandwich to the busy cross-channel port of Dover. Although definitely not a birding trip, we did manage to clock-up a total of 86 species, seen or heard whilst speeding (an average of 10 miles per hour!) through the English countryside – for more details visit Aylmerton Nature Diary.

Here’s us at the start of this final section of the NCN1, from Norfolk to Dover

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Our first night’s stay was at Beccles – picture of the parish church


Framlingham Castle – Day 2. Last visited 45 years ago when we took the kids from the Children’s Home on their summer holidays


One of our birding highlights was a pair of singing Turtle Doves in mid-Suffolk – having no proper camera this iPhone record shot is the best I could do!


On the approach into Maldon – Bry & Neil at the scenic Heybridge Basin


You do see nature up-close on a bike – this unfortunate Grass Snake was a roadside casualty


The route into London follows the Lee Valley from the M25 to the Olympic Park, avoiding any roads – quite remarkable!


A view of Canary Wharf  (night four) – from the Greenwich side  


Looking up stream to the Thames Barrier 


Deal Castle – part of the Cinque Ports complex 


Journeys end – arrival into Dover. Three weary, relieved but delighted bikers!


That’s it for England – next year we turn our attentions to Scotland and the next section from Berwick-on-Tweed to Forfar.


Return to Fuerteventura – ten years on

The island’s only endemic – the must-get Canary Islands Chat

We’ve just returned from a ‘cheeky week’ birding on Fuerteventura, with friends Bob & Sue. We flew with Ryanair from Stansted, stayed at the Eurostars hotel in Caleta de Fuste – central for visiting all parts of the island, and hired a car from Goldcar – where the guy behind the counter gave us an excellent recommendation for a tapas bar with live music, the El Capitan. It turned out to be a superb place – we eat there every night!

You certainly don’t go to Fuerteventura expecting a big list – or if you do you’ll be sadly disappointed – but what you do see is pretty special. As well as the must-get desert species: Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Barbary Partridge, Trumpeter Finch & Lesser Short-toed Lark, we caught the tail-end of Spring migration with Iberian & Spotted Flycatcher and Melodious Warbler being’ the high-lights. The ever-present Spectacled Warbler, Berthelot’s Pipit and Canary Islands (Fuerteventura) Chat, interspersed with African Blue Tit, Canary, Egyptian Vulture and Barbary Falcon all made for a great birding experience. On an island where fresh water is at a premium – average annual rainfall is only 200mm – we saw some interesting ‘water birds’ – Little & Cattle Egret, White Stork and Spoonbill, but ‘star bird’ was, without doubt, the long-staying, though seemingly increasingly elusive, African Dwarf Bittern. It took us seven visits to Barranco de Rio Cabras and more than 15 hours solid observation to finally get acceptable views of this ‘5th for the Western Palearctic’.

The desert species can take some finding – 25 of these Black-bellied Sandgrouse were found at a well-known mid-morning drinking pool


Harder to find were Houbara Bustard – record shot taken in the heat of the afternoon sun


Found whilst looking for the bustards – one of a small flock of Lesser Short-toed Lark


The Micronesian endemic – the ubiquitous Berthelot’s Pipit – found pretty-much everywhere on the island


Raptors are thinly distributed but we did find seven Egyptian Vulture together in one spot – we also came across a breeding bird on it’s nest


Turtle Dove, though near-mythical now in Norfolk, were present in good numbers on Fuerteventura


along with a few well-dispersed Laughing Dove, and African Blue Tit



Spring migrants were scarce, most having already gone through, but we did find Melodious Warbler and Iberian Pied Flycatcher together in Barranco de la Torre



The resident shrike is the koenigi race of Iberian Grey Shrike


Unlike on the mainland, Spectacled Warbler are easy to find on Fuerteventura


A splash of colour was provided by Trumpeter Finch, with their unmistakeable ‘toy trumpet’ call


But the ‘bird of the trip’ was, without doubt, the long-staying African Dwarf Bittern – finally seen well after seven visits and over 15 hours intensive observation!


Other wildlife highlights included two special dragonflies: Broad Scarlet & Epaulet Skimmer



and Fuerteventura Green-striped White butterfly



NCN 1 – Yorkshire to Norfolk


The Minster at Beverley, our first stop on this year’s NCN 1 cycle-ride

Last year we cycled the National Cycle Network Route 1 from Berwick, on the Scottish border to Flamborough. Last week we continued our journey south, from Flamborough to Norfolk. Unfortunately we were a man down this year, as Neil developed a nasty swollen knee just prior to departure – leaving brother Bry and me to carry the flag. We cycled 250 miles in five days, stopping at Beverley, Market Rasen, Boston and Gayton (just off the NCN 1, but the only place with suitable accommodation). Overall, a very pleasant section of the route, beginning with the gentle rolling hills of East Yorkshire, crossing the Humber bridge, through Lincolnshire following the line of the Wolds, around The Wash into Norfolk, heading north to the coast before finally turning east and the Cromer Ridge. The weather was near perfect, if a little too hot on occasions. A great way to spend a week  – good company, nice scenery, interesting people and tasty ale!

Crossing the Humber – the traditional selfie


The Stump – in the historic town of Boston (in need of a little tlc) – departure point of the Pilgrim Fathers


We stopped at several delightful refreshment points along the route – none better than Caffe Aurora, Holbeach – where we were treated to some impromptu mid-morning opera!


Noticed on departure from The Crown at Gayton – one of two nice Delft tiles, set in the car-park wall


Next year – legs willing, Norfolk to the southern end of NCN 1, at Dover!

Day 60 – So how did we do?

Pilated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker (photo from the internet)

By the time I publish this post – my last of the current trip, we should be back in the UK and on route for Norfolk. So how did we do? Well, before I divulge the numbers and offer a few more general reflections on our trip, an update on this mornings final efforts to add one more species to the Great American Birding RoAd Trip list. The species in question was Pileated Woodpecker – a not inconspicuous bird, well distributed across much of America. One we’d previously seen well in parks and suburban gardens in Florida. But could we find it on this trip? – could we feck. We’d scoured every wood from Houston to Seattle – a little of an exaggeration perhaps, but we did look pretty hard. In a final, last ditch attempt on our way to the airport, we stopped off at Billy Frank Jn National Wildlife Refuge, at Nisqually – Jane having spotted on eBirder a cluster of recent sightings in the area. We got our permit and spent a good hour walking the trails, dodging the downpours and seeing a few good birds, but with little success regarding our target, except for a couple of distant calls. We got back to the car and were just driving out when a large black woodpecker-like bird flapped in front of us. Despite it responding to play-back, we didn’t see it again! It just about makes the list! 

So, turning to the numbers; in total we visited seven States (with a ‘touch-down’ in Canada), drove 8765 miles, and saw 462 species (still checking on a couple of possible extras) – taking my personal all-time America total to 513. Texas accounted for well over 300 species – no other State came close, underlining it as a top, world-class, birding destination. 


Alongside seeing some fabulous birds – tracking their migration from Mexico to the Canadian border, and the awesome scenery, we’d always hoped that the Great American Birding RoAd Trip would show us something of real America – Trump’s America. I’m not sure how representative or insightful our experience has been but here’s a few personal observations, for what they’re worth.

America is a BIG country, with vast tracts of ‘nothing’ – it was mostly mountains and desert from mid-Texas to Oregon. We drove through many small towns – ironically most called ‘cities’, and passed through several vast low-rise conurbations on six-lane highways. Place sign-boards often indicated date of founding – rarely earlier than mid-19C, altitude – high or low, and population – down to the last individual. They cherish their heritage – practically every small community had a museum. Restrooms are everywhere – even in the remotest locations and, in the main, spotless. They are an ethnically diverse nation, with Spanish commonly spoken right up into Washington State. We saw affluent housing, clustered around golf courses or marinas – much of it gated, but we also saw plenty of folk living in caravans, trailers and sheds. Issues of homelessness, unemployment and respect for veterans were universally apparent. There was a formulaic predictability to most places we visited – the same shopping malls, fast-food outlets, churches, drive-through this, that and the others. Yet you can get anything you need, day or night. Schools and hospitals were almost all new buildings – generally imposing structures. In contrast, the distinguishing features of most native American communities we saw were run-down housing, a casino, multiple evangelical churches, social security offices and police stations. The notable exception being Neah Bay and the Makah Tribe, who appear to be managing things very differently. One recent development, which caught us by surprise, is the legalisation / tolerance and public sale of Cannabis in most States we travelled through. This, together with the apparent universal acceptance of gun ownership and hunting makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Most American TV is punctuated with large doses of advertising – usually for some obscure medical condition (with symptoms most of us would recognise) for which there is an ‘over the counter’ cure or for lawyers who will act for anyone in respect of anything – for a fee. The American political / civic system, difficult for an outsider to fully grasp, appears to be under-pinned by the basic democratic process of election – everywhere we went there were bill-boards for candidates seeking appointment to a wide range of posts and positions. Everyone we met from Texas to Washington (with very few exceptions indeed) were welcoming, talkative and resilient people – proud of their place and keen to share it with strangers. We mostly felt safe and oddly ‘at home’. If these are the impressions, accurate or otherwise, formulated during a few weeks travel through some of America what, I wonder, do Americans who visit the UK make of us? Is there a ‘special relationship’ between us or are we just two nations divided by a common language?


Day 59 – Homeward bound


Spotted Sandpiper – one of a handful of species we saw in every State we visited. This one, in summer plumage, is easy to separate from our own Common Sandpiper, but in winter they are much more tricky. Now that would be something special to find at Felbrigg!

Today is our final day in the USA – we fly from Seattle to Manchester, via Iceland, this afternoon. By the time we’ve driven from our comfortable and well-located base for the past three days in Hoquiam, ‘Lumber capital of America’, to the airport, returned the hire car and checked in, there is very little time for birding, but we do hope to make one last stop in search of a particular species which has evaded us for the entire trip! On the whole there have been very few species which we have missed along the way but inevitably there’s been some. We’ve ‘twitched’ quite a few American rarities and managed to connect with a lot of the regional specialities as we’ve made our way north. Some of the long-distant migrants have followed us (or rather, we’ve followed them) from Mexico to the Canadian border. Other widely distributed species have, of course, popped up everywhere. Surprisingly perhaps, during our journey from east to west and south to north, we’ve only visited seven States and one of them – New Mexico, we drove through in a day. Nevertheless there’s half a dozen or so species which we recorded in every State, which include:

Red-winged Blackbird


Turkey Vulture – photo courtesy of Jane

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Black-headed Grosbeak


Cedar Waxwing


and Lesser Goldfinch


There’s a lot more editing to do before I get my photographic record of GABRAT into shape, but it’s a pleasant task, bringing back instant memories of hundreds of birding encounters we’ve had over the last two months.



Day 58 – Our last day of birding

New birds: Red Knot


Red Knot, probably our last addition to the GABRAT list

Today was our last full day of birding in America. We spent it around Grays Harbour looking for shorebirds, visiting Bottle Beach and the National Wildlife Refuge in the morning and, perhaps fittingly, the poo ponds (Hoquiam water treatment plant) in the afternoon. Given that it is now mid-June, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of shorebirds have long-since departed this area for their breeding grounds further north in Canada, Alaska and beyond. However, there was one last species we hoped to see before drawing our GABRAT list to a close. Some excellent detective work by Jane discovered a sighting of our quarry, just a week ago, at a nearby location and we set-off in pursuit. What a difference a day makes up here in respect of the weather. Yesterday it never stopped raining, today, wall to wall sunshine – perfect for birding. We arrived at Bottle Beach and started searching for waders on the incoming tide. Grays Harbour is gigantic and the few remaining shorebirds could be anywhere. As luck (skill?) would have it we quickly located a small group of roosting Grey (Black-bellied) Plover with a few Short-billed Dowitcher amongst them. Further down the beach a party of Greater Yellowlegs and a few gulls. On our way back to the car I decided to give the waders one last look. In amongst them was one bird with a brick-red breast and grey scalloped back – Red Knot, probably the last one on the entire estuary! After that the pressure was off and we could enjoy seeing what was around. At the poo ponds in the afternoon I added a few State ticks, including several duck species, out of the nine present. Finally I spent a happy hour trying to make sense of the numerous gulls dotted along the shore. With the various ages, established hybrids, etc. I’m not sure I made much progress, but it was fun anyway! Not a bad way to end the day and draw to a close this remarkable journey.

Greater Yellowlegs, in summer plumage – one of a handful of waders remaining in Grays Harbour


Day 57 – A complete wash-out


Jane on the National Wildlife Refuge board-walk at Grays Harbour this morning

We woke up this morning and it was raining – as I write this blog this evening, it’s still raining. This is the first whole day of rain we’ve had in over eight weeks of birding and the steady down-pour has significantly restricted our activities. As a consequence, for only the second day of GABRAT, we’ve failed to add a new bird to the trip list 😦 We did visit the near-by Hoquiam water treatment ponds a couple of times, the excellent (in better weather) Grays Harbour National Wildlife Refuge and, this afternoon, the agricultural areas around the Brady Loop Road. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen some nice birds, but we’ve got pretty wet doing so and our optics have remained covered up for a lot of the day.

Most interesting bird of the day was this bedraggled summer plumage Western Sandpiper


Runner-up was this colour-ringed Raven – any help from American banders, on the origins / history of this bird, would be much appreciated. Seen at Hoquiam water treatment plant