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Saturday, May 28th, 2011
1350 miles just to see 2 birds – it’s completely ridiculous, I hear you say- but it has been done, I can assure you! Well, what else can you do if you NEED Capercallie & White-tailed Eagle than drive to Scotland, which is just what herself & I did in early May. So it’s low flying up to Loch Garten on the Tuesday after Easter, locate the RSPB Osprey watchpoint, reacquaint myself with Crested Tit in the carpark, head for the B&B & get to bed early as it’s up at 5am! It just happened to be that very cold night when many of your garden plants were hit by an unexpectedly sharp frost & that meant -4 degrees at 5.30 when we both queued up to witness the early morning lek. Well, would you feel like strutting your stuff in that temperature at that early hour? Neither did they for the first time in a month! 2 ½ hours with no action – we were not too pleased with life & frozen stiff! Best be getting back for the full Scottish breakfast with plenty of haggis & hot coffee! Hmmm, let’s try our luck with dolphins at Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth. The sun shone & we connected with a small family group but not as many as we had hoped for, before enjoying a picnic on the beach & a walk round the golf course. Things were looking up! Our next plan was a trip up Findhorn valley for more exercise & hopefully the sighting of a Golden Eagle. It really is a wonderfully attractive valley & we saw Peregrine, Raven, Ring Ouzel & Wheatear but no Eagle. The suntan was coming on a treat!
Madam adamantly wasn’t getting up the next morning for any sort of bird, which just about guaranteed a good show of machismo for those who did! Well it was only an alright show from 5.30 am onwards for 2 hours at some 400 yards range with trees getting in the way but a poor photograph did prove that the boys had been seen! Red Squirrels & Great Spotted Woodpecker on the feeders & nesting Osprey were nice extras. I was feeling as though the miles were worth it already! 404 by the way!
So it’s off to Mull then for the next challenge! 45 mins by boat from Oban harbour which was home to numbers of Hooded Crow. Black Guillemot & Great Northern Diver from the boat & 40 mins drive north to Tobermory. The first half was just fine but then it became single track with passing places & prodigious potholes! We couldn’t believe it! Black pudding made a nice change for breakfast before we took a pre-booked day long island nature tour in a 9-seater minibus. Wow, that’s the way to see what’s what in no time flat! Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Whimbrel, Shag & number 405! Sitting in a tree, flying round showing his white tail then swooping unsuccessfully for a fish! We can all relax now & enjoy the show & the coffee, lunch & tea provided! Rock Pipit, genuine Rock Dove, Red-throated Diver, Seal but unluckily no Otter although they’re not usually hard to find if you have local knowledge, all with the continuous background melody of singing Willow Warblers.
The afternoon was just as packed with good things. The views of the sea & variously shaped islands were spectacular, the sun continued to shine with a few clouds rolling across the sky for added interest. We were soon watching a Golden Eagle enjoying rabbit for tea, a Hen Harrier going hungry & 2 over-flying White-tailed Eagles. Cuckoos called, Grasshopper Warblers reeled if you could hear them & those Highland Cattle with their calves – aaaah, it was all too much! So that was Mull done! Well, we did at least do the island properly & spent 3 days there but discovered that you can cheat & take an early boat from Oban as a foot passenger & be picked up at the ferry port for a day trip & then delivered back to a late ferry! It may have been a slight error that I didn’t remember that genuine Corncrake can be heard (but possibly not seen!) on Iona which is just a short hop from the SW corner, so I’ll have to stick with my central drove boys & give them all my support!
Friday, May 6th, 2011
Why did I suddenly change my mind, pay a small fortune & go foreign with a commercial company after all those years of indecision? You tell me! I haven’t the foggiest but Eilat were real good! (As my north-country son-in-law would say!) I’ve enjoyed many hectic trips birding abroad on a shoestring with mates but this was different. Mr Al bade me be at Heathrow 3 hours before departure with which I dutifully complied & then spent 2 hrs 25 mins awaiting the call! But it were good when I got there – the current bun was in the sky at 8.00 am & I rediscovered my shadow. Foolishly for a twitcher of advanced years, I decided to go straight out to the town parks & start scoring when I really should have been snoring after the sleepless flight. Then there was the first excursion organised by the Eilat Bird Festival team at 4.00 pm – had 5 lifers by bedtime! Now Arabian Warbler, of which there are c.20 pairs in the world, wasn’t bad on the first day but I enjoyed the sighting of 3 of Herr Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse at the famous K20 pools. Now all other sandgrouse go to watering places first thing in the morning & then convey the water back to their daylight desert haunts in their breast & belly feathers but these fellows do it in the late evening & I mean late, it was really, really dark! Nothing with the naked eye at 30 yards but birds with discernable head & breast markings through strong optics! Amazing – to use an overworked word.
6 am start with my packed breakfast was the latest I had all week! Off north up the only road out of Eilat, initially with Jordan 2 miles to the East & Egypt 2 to the West but widening as we progressed northwards. Utter desolation everywhere – desert, not sand dunes with camels & Bedouins, but rocks, dust & impressive mountains either side of the rift valley. That’s why we were there; it’s the continuation of the African Rift Valley & is the main pathway for birds flying north from their winter haunts to their breeding grounds in Europe & Asia but avoiding having to fly over the Mediterranean Sea. Our intrepid leader, one of the best birders in Israel, took us to a recently mown area & it was alive with Larks, Pipits, a Namaqua Dove, & a Quail in the open! Ah well, 4 more lifers by lunchtime! Now the day had warmed up it was time for a spell of migration observation in the mountains – Steppe Buzzard, Steppe Eagle & Lesser Spotted Eagle almost everywhere – 3 more lifers! Graceful Prinia & Little Green Bee-eater & it was time to hit the beach at the top end of the Gulf of Aqaba, not for a relaxing swim but more intense birding for gulls, terns & herons which migrate up the water’s edge. White-eyed Gull & Western Reef Heron went straight in the book! Whoops! What’s that? Oh, a Pied Kingfisher giving a diving display right before our eyes! Lifers now 15.
4 am start to the Negev desert close to the Egyptian border & Macqueen’s Bustard country. He took some finding & the heat haze ruined my photographic attempts but another major rarity in the bag! The number of birds to be found in what seems to be a landscape of nothing but dust & rocks is quite unbelievable – Cream-coloured Courser, Stone Curlew, Thick-billed Lark, Spotted Sandgrouse, Wheatears of all sorts, raptors & the one or two scrubby bushes are bound to have a Scrub Warbler flitting around at the base or a family of Arabian Babblers with a lookout posted on the top. Wonderful stuff & it was a long day but we were back in time for a beer, shower, beer & sumptuous buffet.
The next afternoon I chose to go up to the Dead Sea area for an evening search of Nubian Nightjar deep in some kibbutz on military ground. Special permission had been granted us but the weather was unfavourable & we even felt a drop or 2 of rain where it never does! Patience was in short supply when we finally found 1 in our spotlight sitting on the ground & then giving us a flying display & there were plenty of flying things for it to catch! Then it was off for Hume’s Owl a long way up some rocky gorge. It had to be lured with recorded calls but good sightings were enjoyed when it came to see what the hullabaloo was all about. Yet another mega! 27 lifers by the time I went to bed that morning! Up again for 5 am start & all the way back to the Dead Sea area but this time I chalked up Tristram’s Starling, Fan-tailed Raven & Clamorous Reed Warbler. Dipping on Smyrna Kingfisher made me think of claiming my money back!
Days were running out & lifers were harder to find but the quantity of rare birds at any of the sites was just fabulous & my ID was coming on a treat! I wasn’t going come all this way & not go for everything available so it’s off on another evening trip with spotlights & 4 x 4 to another military area to see Pharaoh Eagle Owl. Not too difficult to find. He stands on the ground all night, runs after prey & is very keen on being photographed. Just round the corner we found the only Egyptian Nightjar seen during the week & we were pretty pleased with ourselves despite what it cost – & I’m not telling! So that left only half a day to finish off with – just time for my only breakfast of the week in the hotel, a Semi-collared Flycatcher & a Striated Heron to bring my total to 32 lifers – give or take. Birded out or wot but smiling contentedly!!