Before we left home we had tried to book a couple of tours with local bird guides to help us understand habitats and find birds that we might otherwise have missed. One such guided trip was to El Yeso, a national park some hours drive from Santiago. The purpose was to set eyes on a Diademed Sandpiper-plover, a near threatened species, restricted to the Andes, in bogs between the frost line and snow line between 4 and 5000m of elevation.
Andy sent out a series of emails to Chilean bird tour companies and we heard back from a couple but the cost, 300USD each for a one day excursion, was prohibitive. However, the word was out. Not so long after, Andy had a message from Ivo Tejeda, executive director of Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile—the Chilean Bird and Wildlife Observer Network, ROC. Chile’s top birders and wild life conservationists all wear multiple hats and work as freelance guides for all the bird touring companies. If Andy (former director of the British Trust for Ornithology) would commit some time to meet with Ivo and his team, they would be very glad to take us out for a day of birding at El Yeso free of charge. How could we possibly decline?!
We left Santiago in the dark, bagged a siting of a Torrent duck en route, and eventually piled out of the cramped car deep inside the national park.
Every bird we saw was a first for me, some iconic others that ought to be. Condor, Fire-eyed Diucon, Seed Snipe, Grey-hooded Sierra Finch, Andean Goose, to mention just a few.
We spent some time trudging along boggy ground but much of it was too dry and places where the Diademed Sandpiper-plover had been seen previously were void of the bird. We drove further up the valley where the road became submerged in snow and were dismayed that motor bikers were skidding around destroying hope of finding any birds let alone the prize for the day.
We retreated down the valley having all but given up until someone in the car (it might have been me) caught a movement on the side of the road. The habitat was completely right. Out we clambered and scanned the surrounds. Not far away we spotted first a bird on the nest and then its partner. Beauties!
But this is not where our wonderful relationship with ROC ended. From Santiago we travelled north first visiting the northern most Chilean town of Arica, just a few kms from the boarder with Peru. From there we travelled up onto the Altiplano and Lauca National Park, bordering Bolivia. While there, Ivo Tejeda messaged to say that ROC had a team monitoring the nest site of Markham’s Storm Petrel in the Atacama desert and would we have time to go and meet with them. We changed our plans to divert south, to the Atacama, of course we did!
For centuries it was unknown where Markham’s Storm Petrel, sea fairing birds, nested. 10 years ago this changed. How the search unfolded is told in an article by Sarah Gilman. ROC were centre stage to this wonderful story.
The birds lay their eggs in hollows under the thick salt crust of ancient lakes, 50km inland in the Atacama desert. Using a fibre optic camera and microphone we were able to see and hear inside dozens of nests. Now the nesting whereabouts has been discovered, ROC has set up a local campaign to protect their habitat and breeding success. Street lights attract the newly fledged birds, causing them to congregate in urban areas rather than heading out to sea. Education programmes on how to recognise and rescue the birds from roads, as well as changes to street lighting are beginning to have beneficial effects. Much of the nesting area is owned by the military. ROC has been working with them to raise awareness and ring fence the nest sites so that fewer tanks now plough through. Funding for the continued protection of these birds has now been provided by the power company who’s pylons and cables stretch through the landscape.
This place, a predominantly primary tropical rain forest, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, came with a recommendation from serious birders which meant it eclipsed the other reserves, Yalle and Udawellewe, where big mammals could be seen easily, with the naked eye, no binoculars or super ocular skill required. Visiting Sinharaja Forest raised eyebrows from those we met on the tourist route, ‘be ready for leeches’ they said. They were not wrong!
We arrived at the small village of Waddagala, Kalawana in the early afternoon by air conditioned Toyota hybrid car from Ella, a journey that took us on a tour of petrol stations amongst much more. There are big fuel shortages here in Sri Lanka. Our driver pitched us out of his relatively smart car saying he would go no further. The road ahead looked reasonable to me but he was adamant, this was the end of the road for him. We paid and agreed to write him a review on Trip Advisor despite his taking constant phone calls on numerous phones en route. ‘It’s really no problem here he laughed, I can pay the police and keep my licence’.
We waited an hour or so, Andy busied himself birding and I wondered up the road, squatted down, bared my bum and peed for England. Eventually we were picked up in a battered old Landrover. It must have been at least 50 years old. The driver was a young man, Anoushka, grandson of Martin, the famous bird enthusiast and conservation guru. Anoushka’s wife and their young son occupied the front and we perched with our packs in the back. Soon it became apparent that this was going to be a painful drive, bumping and crashing and sweeping past thick vegetation. The switch backs were too tight, so each bend required a three point turn, large boulders had to be negotiated and at times quite sheer drops, of the kind where you close your eyes and wait for safer ground. I don’t know why I worried myself in our truck in Chile. This was many times worse! Occasionally Anoushka would answer his phone, other times he would stick his head out of the window and point out a bird, invariably flown before we had time to get eyes on it.
It had taken 4.5 hours to drive from Ella to Waddagala, a distance of 152km. The final 2.7km took us best part of an hour. It would have been faster and more comfortable to walk! We arrived and were greeted by Martin’s 4 daughters and his wife. And now we came face to face with the great man himself, in a photograph. He looked a cross between Nelson Mandela and David Attenborough. Sadly, he died in 2021, aged 82, of a stroke. This man had won all kinds of National and international awards which were displayed around the simple room. He is celebrated for establishing forest, bird and education programmes, training generations of guides and forest specialists.
Later that evening, I noticed a leech on the floor of our bathroom. ‘What should I do with it’ I asked Andy. He came in to inspect the little thing and picked it up with some loo roll. It squished as he did so, bright red blood oozing out of it onto the paper. MY blood as it transpired, the critter had made a meal of me and I had not even noticed. The lesson? Never pee in a tropical rain forest!
Spot the bird
Birding from the veranda gave us a great introduction to the treasures of the forest and also a sense of how difficult it was going to be. Sinharaja is home to 24 of the 27 endemic birds of Sri Lanka, before arriving we had seen just 4. With only one day to play with, we had no time to lose.
Martin’s family feed the birds from the veranda making sightings of other birds much easier. Sri Lankan Blue Magpie, Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill (both endems), Black Bulbul and Yellow Browed Bulbul all appeared to enjoy banana and cooked red rice.
On the other hand Sri Lankan Spur Fowl, a severely endangered endemic, won’t come to the veranda, but can be persuaded into the open a little further away especially if uncooked red rice grain is on the menu!
Before heading into the national park we were given a pair of leech socks. These look like Christmas stockings except you put them on over your socks before pulling on your walking boots. The idea is that leeches cannot get under your trouser leg and crawl up your body to find the most juicy and tender places to feast on. I’m not sure they’ll ever hit the cat walk, but for sure they are essential kit in the rain forest, especially during and after rain, which of course is most of the time. You have to remember it is hot and humid in this part of the world, so being buttoned to the neck, hatted, double socked and trouser legged, meant you dripped with sweat. It was a very thirsty endeavour.
Sinharaja is the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rain forest. More than 60% of the trees at are endemic. In addition to the birds, the reserve is also home to 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterfly’s, insects, reptiles and rare amphibians. Through the seriously dense thicket, light occasionally filtering down. Under the canopy it was cooler than in the open. We moved very slowly, listening to the sound of the forest, treading softly, watching our foot steps. I almost trod on a Green Pit Viper, a massive thing, that slithered off into the undergrowth leaving me quivering. We soon learned that birds come screaming through the forest in mixed feeding flocks. The number of flocks you see is the measure of the success of your birding expedition because it takes a number of fly by’s to get good views of all the species in the flock. You have to be ready, quick on the binoculars, they don’t hang around for long. The flocks tend to be led by Drongos and include Orange-billed Babbler, Yellow-fronted Barbet, Dark-fronted Barbet, Blacked-capped Bulbul, Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler, Malabar Trogon and Red-faced Malkoha. Great names and some great lookers. Note to self: add links to images when I get home.
Unlike the birds, foliage was easier to capture. And as my eyes adjusted to the dappled light, other critters came into focus.
I was wilting so we sat down for a drink and a rest and Wasantha, our fabulous Government funded guide took off to scout. A couple, so obviously from the UK, approached us on their way out of the park. ‘Have you seen anything?’ he asked. ‘Loads’ I replied. ‘Oh’, said she, ‘we must have been on the wrong path then’. More likely looking in wrong direction, I thought! She had a pair of tiny binoculars around her neck. Not good for much in this forest. ‘We are not naturists’, she continued, not realising her malapropism. We wanted to visit a National Park and this was the nearest’. They were on a day trip from Galle, a torturous 150km away! They went on their way, clearly disappointed.
My camera battery died. Just as I was phaffing around trying to find another, a young lad came along the path carrying a tripod and filming kit. Give us a minute, he said with no introduction, I might have a spare you can have. His name is Don Weersirie, half Sri Lankan, brought up in Bedford. In lock down he made a film called Wild Bedfordshire and he was currently gathering footage on snakes, for a new film, Wild Sri Lanka, ‘to give something back’ he said. Having not met any Brits since the train to Ella (a story still to be told), it was quite a coincidence to encounter two sets especially since Sinharaja barely features on the tourist map.
Wasantha returned, a little out of breath. He beckoned us to follow. By now all I wanted was to get home. ‘How far?’ I asked, ‘2-300m’ came the reply, ‘and then we will stop’. What he failed to mention was that this 2-300m was off piste, a dive into the undergrowth, over roots, pushing through branches taking care not to hold on to the barbed ones to steady your step, twisting and weaving, crossing a stream, almost over the boot, dripping with sweat. Eventually Wasantha instructed us to move slowly and quietly down a steep, slithery incline. He pointed. Initially, it was not apparent what he was showing us. But as our breath slowed, it became clear. There in front of us, huddled together were a pair of sleepy Sri Lankan Frogmouths. They look part Owl and part Nightjar. He is Grey and white and she, a deep cinnamon colour. She watched us. He kipped. What a pair! With some difficulty and with Wasantha’s help, I got some passable shots.
Forty hours on and we were on the road again. We joined the Japanese birders their guide Upul and their translator, Sunat, in the ancient jeep to get down to the village. Sunat was on his second only birding tour having been a cultural guide for more than 10 years. We had enjoyed their company. Now we would start the final episode of our journey. In the short time we visited Sinharaja Forest Reserve we clocked 20 out of 27 of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds.
I’ve just watched Don’s film Wild Bedfordshire (https://youtu.be/LCgGRmPbNso). A very nice reminder of the country we are returning to after 4 months of travel, tomorrow, Feb 6 2023.
A damp start to the day, clouds low with drizzle. We packed up, breakfasted in the refuge, collected lunch bags, and set off in waterproofs. The walkers soon spread out along the narrow path following the silent river. Rising up a steep rock outcrop where we experienced two or three massive gusts of wind, we cross into the valley of the Rio Paine, with views of the lago by the same name. Ahead the weather looked bleak. Leaving the lago behind, the valley broadened out, with lovely reed beds and pools. We passed three British lads, Sam, Thomas, and Kyle from Birmingham bringing up the rear. Sam was lying across the path with his head in a small stream. We stopped for lunch and they leapfrogged ahead of us again. The path entered beech forest and we climbed to a mirador overlooking largo Dickson and the camp immediately below.
That evening we found ourselves sitting with Connie and Melissa, mother and daughter. They were German but living and working on a sheep farm, close to La Junta just off the Careterra Austral. They had inherited the farm from a great uncle and decided to make a go of it. Melissa, the youngest child was at University in Europe but was back for the Christmas holiday.
A note for walkers
It turns out that the refuges bake their own bread, sell burgers and pizzas, all manner of snacks, provide shampoo in the showers, and for the most part loo roll! Some even had sun cream freely available. It would have been good to have known all this up front and saved us carrying additional weight on our backs. We carried kilos of nuts and dried fruit, chocolate, snacks for the route, essential when the going gets tough. We had opted to eat evening meals and breakfasts in all refuges where possible (7 out of 8, no meals are available at Camp Peros) and buy 4 packed lunches (sold for an eye watering 30USD, and carry 5 of our own (tortillas and cheese, tomatoes, avocado, apple while they lasted, supplemented with reconstituted freeze dried ‘salads’. However, we could have easily prepared a sandwich or two from the very generous refuge breakfasts or even have bought pizza which at 10 USD were much better value, and carried that for lunch.
Something the pandemic has shown us is that increasingly people are turning (or re-turning) to nature for inspiration and sustenance at a difficult time. At a different and much broader global scale, nature is taking a more centre stage as countries come together to address the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change – the recent G7 meeting and the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November, are examples of this.
The pandemic has caused a big drive on gardening, and we have jumped on this bandwagon willingly. Our focus has been to try and make a wildflower meadow. Native wildflower grasslands have been lost across England at an alarming rate over the past three or four decades with only 2% of this important wildlife habitat remaining. These places are important not just for the flowers, but also for the pollinating insects they support, and a wide variety of other flora and fauna. They are mini-ecosystems too, offering us a range of services for ‘free’ – capturing carbon, retaining water, improving the soil, not to mention inspiration for art in all its forms.
Our little meadow is in its early stages – its first year in fact. In November 2019 we began to clear deeply rooted scrub, keeping some for habitat mosaic and heterogeneity. In October 2020, (with the help of Sarah and Seth Lord of Native Gardens) wildflower seed, of East Anglian provenance, was sown, and by June it was looking gorgeous with a beautiful range of annual flowers as a nursery crop for the later mix of perennial herbs and sensitive grasses that we are hoping for next year. We have experienced a sea of colour, starting with poppies (red), moving to corn chamomile (white), then cornflower (blue) and finally corn cockle (pink) and corn marigold (yellow). The meadow is bounded by a (failing) hedge of Holly on one side – not all our efforts work at first – and a beech hedge separating us from our neighbours.
The results, so far, are not just about looking nice. We have monitored the wildlife that is using our space, and we use a light-trap to catch moths overnight and identify them the next day before letting them go unharmed – moth diversity is already increasing.
The video below shows the changes we have witnessed over the year. The musical accompaniment is by The Fitzwilliam String Quartet together with Lesley Schatzberger.
With restrictions easing and in need of a change of scene, we looked at destinations where both our interests could be satisfied – birds for him and hills for me. Of course over the years these interests have melded and while I am far from an accomplished birder and he sometimes prefers to sit (in a northerly gale sea-watching), it is not generally hard for us reach agreement. The Uists became our favoured choice, we found a place to stay and booked the ferry crossing. Neither were trouble free. We travelled North stopping for lunch at Low Newton-by-sea and then overnight with friends in Edinburgh. The next leg of our journey took us to a hill side off the river Dee and from there, because of a change in the CalMac time table (a regular feature of their service) we left a day early for Oban and the spectacular 7 hour sea crossing to Lochboisdale. Our return was similarly stepwise, stopping for a lovely lunch with friends in Doune and then overnight with other friends in Edinburgh. We had not realised quite how much we had missed the proximity of others. Being able to scan someone else’s bookshelf, stand at another’s kitchen counter, sit and chat in a different living room or garden, is transformational!
The view of Beinn Mhòr from our rented house at Staoinebrig, S. Uist. The garden went all the way to the water and included a rusty old beat up car complete with what looked like bullet holes!
An evening stroll from the house, to the accompaniment of at least two Corncrakes! They make a distinctive noise, like drawing a stick over a hard comb, twice in succession. We made way for a ginger haired shepherd, his flock and sheep dogs. The crofts, cars and other debris in the back ground are typical of the island.
Our local beach, at the Bornais end, was teeming with waders: sanderling; turnstones; and dunlin. Along with the rusting cars, old fridges and abandoned farm equipment, there were other equally powerful remnants of the island’s habitants, including the washed up remains of a whale. A fine resting place if ever there was one!
We did a wonderful walk around the island of Berneray, black skies in sharp contrast with the white sand beaches. On the north eastern corner lies a cemetery. Marked only by stones, are the graves of commonwealth soldiers. I have not been able to find out why these burials happened here or who lies beneath. Would families members know, were they told? Unrecognised people in the ground of a foreign land for which, willingly or otherwise, they had given their lives. For these poor souls, while incredibly beautiful, this probably cannot be considered a fine resting place.
From our house we could see Beinn Mhòr, the highest peak on the outer Hebrides. We waited for the best weather to climb her. It was touch and go. There are no foot paths. It would be very easy to get lost in cloud, the mountainside can disappear in seconds. The route to the top follows an arrete which caused an attack of vertigo in one of us!
On the north west side of N. Uist lies the island of Vallay, which is accessible in fair weather at low tide. The island is awash with wild flowers. Its western side has spectacular beaches perfect for a picnic and swim! But the interior is disappointing, filled as it is with cattle and all the paraphernalia that comes with farming – barbed and electric fences, plastic silage bags and unnatural ‘improved’ grassland where Machair should be, a rare and delicate grass growing on shell sand. At least the farming is not as intensive as it could be, but no doubt it impacts on wildlife and habitat. Facing the main land on the south coast lies the ruin of a large house once lived in by textile factory owner Erskine Beveridge. We spent some time trying to see the Corncrakes we could hear rasping close by. On crossing a barbed fence at a broken down style, I got a whopping electric shock that hurled me to the ground. The wire was not marked as live. Walking in the Outer Hebrides is clearly not encouraged, live wires, broken styles, no footpaths. Perhaps this keeps the place free of too many tourists. We saw no other people on this day.
Loch Aineort lies in a spectacular valley at the foot of Beinn Mhòr, just the other side of the ‘main road’ from where we were staying. We had been alerted to it by a birder we met on the beach at Berneray. At the end of the road, the land owner has planted a garden which has matured over the years and, unusually, has an array of welcoming footpaths! We returned to this place a number of times, firstly to spot otters and subsequently to walk and to sit, brew up and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
One wet afternoon we stopped on the road side, threatening clouds meant we did not wander too far from the car. We dropped down on the beach at Stinky Bay on Benbecula, and sat for some time watching waders at very close range, they appeared totally undisturbed by our presence.
On our last day, under a blanket of thick cloud, we drove south and over the bridge to Eriskay. We stopped for lunch at Am Politician, wishing that ours could do better. After an excellent meal of hand caught scallops for one and battered monk fish for the other, we set off walking around the bay. It began to warm and clear. Eriskay has a very different feel to S. Uist. It appears almost touristy, with upmarket accommodation, some remarkable and others a disgrace!
We spotted something that looked a bit like a foot path but of course turned out not to be, and then followed our noses through bog and bush to the high point of the island. Views from the top of the shallow waters between the islands were sublime.
The village shop did not have any Magnums, so clearly Eriskay is not that touristy after-all!
In September 2015 I joined a bunch of top birders on a trip to Fair Isle. There were eight of them and me.
‘I cannot think of anything worse’ is what my daughter said.
Needless to say, I had a fabulous time and so, I believe, did they!
Below is a selection of photos from the trip.
Torness, on the road up.
Overnight ferry to Shetland
My flight onto Fair Isle was a day later than the rest of the team. I spent a very comfortable night with Rebecca Nason at her B&B in down town Lerwick. Rebecca is an extraordinary photographer and naturalist. I loved her house, brimming with fine things including a delightful collection of bird bones and bills!
Fair Isle, Church of Scotland
View of Sheep Rock from Bu Ness
Bu Ness, whale tale.
Hunting for petrified fish having dipped on the Thick Billed Warbler found at Quendale the evening before. This rarity pulled all the local birders and left an audience of may be 4, plus the 8 of us for the Shetland bird club talk that 2 of our team were due give.
The bird of the trip was Yellow-browed Warbler. On 21 September 53 birds were seen and 12 were ringed. These birds, weighing just 5g, are likely to have travelled from the Urals, 3-3.5,000 miles away, to winter in Britain.
Fair Isle’s roads are lined with Angelica, a kind of wild celery. Their flowers are host to numerous insects that Yellow-browed warbler’s find utterly irresistible after their long flight. The photo below was taken by Andy Mason.
Early departure at 03:45 for a flight to Madrid from lovely Luton. Temperature on arrival a mere 3 degrees centigrade. Extremadura boasts a wide variety of habitat (Cork and Holm Oak forests (Dehesa), grass land, rivers, reservoirs, scrub, mountains) and low human population with the result that it supports a wealth of wild life. Having some insider ‘birding gen’ certainly is critical for the hard-to-find species, but quite frankly, it is amazing what a non-expert could spot along the quiet roads and byways without too much effort. The land scape was sweeping and colourful with a back drop of the Sierra de Gredos mountains, snow capped and rising to 2,591 at Pico Almanzor.
We dropped bags at Villar de Plasencia, a maze of a village where we got quite disoriented. This became the norm in most of the villages we travelled through. The road map was hopelessly lacking in detail but made for some exciting driving on incredibly narrow and sometimes steep streets, watched by bemused residents. We headed to Puerto de Tietar in Monfrague National Park and with patience were welcomed by a Spanish Imperial Eagle as well as Griffon Vultures, Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures.
The following morning the weather was poor. We explored the Embalse de Arrocampo-Almaraz where there are a number of hides, ideal to escape the worst of the rain. These however proved a mixed blessing – one had a door that would not open, one had a door that once opened, would not close, forcing us to sit in a howling gale. The last had no seating, so it was impossible to see out of the hatches. Fortunately the weather cleared and hiding no longer a necessity. We saw, black shouldered kite, little bittern, swamp hen and purple heron, Spoon Bill, amongst much else.
Purple Heron, Swallows, Sand Martins and Swifts
Cattle Egrets and Black Winged Stilts
We drove to Salto del Gitano and the Monfrague Castillo in the heart of the National Park. The sun now high in the sky, Griffon, Black Vultures and Black Kites cruised, drying their wings after the rain. Also a wonderful sighting of Black Storks, far less prevalent elsewhere than their white counterpart.
We climbed the steps up to the castle and then up the tower. We followed the path down to the river. The walk made me realise that our planned hike up Breche de Roland later in the summer, was going to be more of a challenged than previously reckoned, cancer treatment through the winter having knocked me back.
That evening we supped on fried Dorade at Villar Real de San Carlos.
The following morning we were up for the dawn and out looking for Western Orphean Warbler. Alas it eluded us due to gale force winds and driving rain. Next stop Embalse de Talavan.
Then on to Rio Almonte to seek nesting Alpine Swifts. After a while we realised we were at the wrong river crossing. Eventually we found the correct bridge but no Alpine Swifts. However, we did get a rare sighting of a lovely Golden Eagle.
Old and new roads over the Rio Almonte
The roads were so empty we could reliably stop bang in the middle
That evening we landed at Casa Rual El Recuerdo, just south of Trujillo, home of Martin Kelsey whose knowledge of the bird populations is unsurpassed. The following morning armed with Martin’s clear directions we went in pursuit of Great and Little Bustards, Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and Rollers all of which we saw.
Trujillo in the morning haze
Roller boxes on electricity pylons
Scrub and grassland
At sun down, we walked 2/3rds up one of the village lanes and perched ourselves on a sun-warmed stone wall. Holding our breath, we listened for a Red-necked Nightjar. The weather was perfect, warm and still. Insects, particularly moths, in abundance. And then we heard it – a car alarm. That’s it! The bird soared right over our heads, circled, and came back over. A world tick for Andy.
Up and out early on our final morning to seek out more Bustards. We got them. A gaggle of males, females all hidden away egg sitting.
There’s a Cattle Egret in there somewhere!
Great Bustard in the scope
Then we took a slow route back to Madrid crossing a great plain between Belen and Deleitosa where we came across a Vulture fest in full swing!
Five Griffons crossing the road
Then on through Valdecanas de Tajo, Bee Eaters and Theckler Larks at close range.
A mad dash to the airport followed. No time to pick up petrol. Walked straight through on onto the plane, last on. Great trip!
(All logged en route on BirdTrack – never leave home without this fabulous app!)
Great White Egret
Great Crested Grebe
Birds of Prey: