Friday, 25 July 2014

Walvis Bay

A quick check of the gardens near the hotel gave us a pair of Orange River White-eyes, along with some Common Waxbills. So with time on our hands we walked along the seafront and enjoyed nice views of Pied Avocet, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and some common waders, as well as scoping some distant African Black Oystercatchers before going for breakfast. 

Pied Avocet
Pied Avocet
Afterwards we walked around the corner to the small harbour and set out on our morning’s excursion across the bay. We were soon joined by a Cape Fur Seal that jumped aboard and demanded some fish, but he wasn’t that friendly and was soon ‘shown the door’. We cruised by hundreds more seals loafing on the beach, as well as getting a couple of Heaviside’s Dolphins

Cape Fur Seals

But it was very quiet for seabirds with just a few Cape Gannets, some Swift and Common Terns, and a Wilson’s Storm-petrel to show for our efforts, so we returned to calmer waters and were extremely fortunate to get decent views of a pair of African Penguins

African Penguins

There were lots of Cape Cormorants and a single Crowned Cormorant, and some very familiar waders on the shoreline such as Ruddy Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling. We finished with a nice little buffet, some fresh oysters and sparkling wine before returning to shore, getting a visit from a more friendly Fur Seal who posed for photos and selfies! Around the restaurants on the quay we managed to see the reported House Crow – a vagrant and one of very few records for Namibia!

Chestnut-banded Plover

After some time off to relax we drove along Walvis Bay and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours sifting through the wader flocks. It didn’t take us very long to find our first Chestnut-banded Plover, and they turned out to be extremely common with a rough estimate of 200+ present. We also had White-fronted and Three-banded Plovers, Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, plus Grey-headed Gull, Cape Teal and Cape Shovelers, and thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingo’s.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Solitaire - Walvis Bay

Got woken up at 1.30am by a howling gale outside and I feared the worst for the rest of the day, but as I stepped out of my room at 6.30am I was confronted with the remarkable sighting of a Karoo Thrush sitting on a rock beside the pool right in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes and rushed around to get everyone. Once we were all assembled and seen the thrush, a short walk despite the high winds turned up a few goodies, such as Cape Wagtail, Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-billed Spurfowl and a Common Scimitarbill seeking shelter in a dense acacia right next to us. After breakfast a few Black-throated Canaries joined numerous Lark-like Buntings at the drinking pool, and then we left this wonderful lodge and drove out into the wilderness.

This Karoo Thrush was a big surprise outside my room at Solitaire

Continuing our run of good luck, the first of 20+ Ruppell’s Korhaans to be seen today was spotted close to the road. 

Ruppell's Korhaan

Then at our secret location, in the space of ten minutes, we quickly nailed the scarce Cinnamon-breasted Warbler that was creeping around a rocky hillside with a Cape Bunting. When a Bokmakerie began calling I couldn’t believe it when a quick scan produced a stunning pair calling back at us from the top of a large boulder. They came in a little closer to inspect us but never too close for a photo but boy the scope views were awesome! Then Dave spotted some movement in a close tree and just to show, when your luck is in – it really is in, it proved to be a Layard’s Tit-babbler. Wow!

Not a very good pic of a very, very good bird - Layard's Tit-babbler

So with that done we set off on the 250km drive to Walvis Bay, notching several Chat Flycatchers and Tractrac Chats as the scenery became more arid. A very productive drive towards the coast turned up many new birds for us, with Ostriches, Black-chested Snake-eagle, Lanner, Greater Kestrel, Three-banded Plover, Northern Black Korhaan, Cape Sparrow and both Cape & Pied Crows. We got stuck into the larks as well today with Spike-heeled, Stark’s and Gray’s showing well, but best of all were at least 4 Dune Larks – Namibia’s only true endemic.

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Dune Lark was an easy find

Greater Kestrel

A good run of mammals included Steenbok, Oryx, Springbok, Mountain Zebra and along a ‘side road’ at Charleys’ special site we had our first Giraffes. Now if you’ve never been to Africa it is a very special moment when you see some of this continent’s larger mammals and we soaked up the views in the scope of ten animals feeding below some tall acacias.

Stunning landscapes are the norm in Namibia - this was our first Oryx...

As we reached the coast our first Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls were nice, and in the distance Greater Flamingo’s and White Pelicans were seen. Then we spent the evening in the bar watching the world cup final. What a day!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Namibia Tour 2

It is considerably cooler since my last visit, well it is winter here, and there was a distinct chill in the air this morning as we met for our 7am walk. It is always a nice place to start as there are plenty of lifers for everyone and I think we did very well during our 80 minutes outing, where we walked just a few hundred metres from the hotel entrance! From an aesthetic point of view the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike perched on top of an acacia for several minutes was the star bird, although a Bradfield’s Swift flying overhead was much more satisfying to my mind! As the day began to slowly warm up there was more bird activity and we saw Familiar Chat, Black-chested Prinia, Fork-tailed Drongo, Cape Wagtail, Marico Sunbirds, a few Southern Masked Weavers, several close White-browed Sparrow-Weavers, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and lots of Cape Glossy Starlings. We walked around to an open area and then in a very short space of time we were watching an Acacia Pied Barbet, Pririt Batis, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Rufous-vented Tit-Babbler, Grey-Go-Away Bird, lots of African Red-eyed Bulbuls and several cute Blue (Cordon-bleu) Waxbills.

Then, following a nice buffet breakfast we headed off in a southerly direction before turning off the paved road and onto the ‘gravel’ road we would soon become accustomed to. Along the way we stopped to admire our first Tawny Eagles and several White-backed Vultures, whilst a single Lappet-faced Vulture just passed by too quickly, a Marico Flycatcher was scoped and we saw the first of many Burchell’s Starlings to be seen today..

The scenery was getting better and better, changing from typical ‘bush country’ to rocky gorges as the day went on and I really don’t know where the time went today, as it went way too fast for our liking. It was easy roadside birding all day and we picked up several Pale Chanting Goshawks, both Lilac-breasted and Purple Rollers and Common Fiscal early on. We stopped to admire a huge Social Weaver colonial nest in a large tree and a male Pygmy Falcon appeared nearby, along with flocks of weavers and Scaly-feathered Finches. Moving on we saw our first Helmeted Guineafowl, before stopping on a bridge over a dry riverbed, where one small pool was inviting lots of Lark-like Buntings and a single Green-winged Pytilia. Short-toed Rock-thrushes were numerous today and we probably saw at least 9 throughout the day – compared to April’s visit where we only had one distant view on our penultimate day.

Short-toed Rock-thrush

Lunch was taken at a quaint roadside restaurant and whilst waiting for our food we walked around the gardens getting our first Blacksmith’s Lapwing, Sabota Lark, Dusky Sunbirds, Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Familiar Chat, brief Black-throated Canary, Ashy Tit and a flyover Namaqua Sandgrouse. Both Tractrac Chat and Chat Flycatcher were seen shortly after leaving our lunch stop as well.

Kalahari Scrub-robin

The scenery became more rugged from here on and we searched for Herero Chat without any luck, but did get nice views of a group of 5 Monteiro’s Hornbills, Mountain Wheatears, lots of Chacma Baboons, Klipspringers and Black-backed Jackal


A Bokmakierie was perched on top of an acacia as we drove past but disappeared as we all jumped out of the minibus. As the road dropped down to the valley floor a beautiful red sunset greeted us and 3 Ludwig’s Bustards striding sedately across the grassland was a fine way to end our birding.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Qinghai - The End

Our last morning’s birding was at a lake near Urumqi where we arrived quite early and straight away got our bins on a  male White-headed Duck! This is a rare bird in China and many country listers have visited this spot over the past 4 – 5 years to tick this bird here. 

The duck site...
White-headed Duck

There were also Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck and other commoner wildfowl, along with Northern Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, many Pale Martins, Pied Wheatear and Isabelline Shrikes. We drove around to the other side of the lake and walked down towards the water’s edge where we had much better views of a male, female and immature male White-headed Duck. It was a nice setting with hills all around, beautiful blue skies and plenty of birds but eventually the time had come to turn around and head back to the hotel and pack. But we weren’t done yet as we saw a family of Chukar on a hillside to bring our tour list to 245 species seen.

After lunch we drove to the airport and flew back to the UK via Beijing, arriving the following day. It had been a great tour and was very enjoyable to be able to spend time watching birds and really appreciating them without having to be tied to a fixed and tight agenda. And I must thank a really great group for their excellent spotting, camaraderie and good humour. 

Next up is our second tour to Namibia this year......

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Return to the Mountains

Returned to the Tien Shan Mountains and birded a different valley for the morning. We found more Eversmann’s Redstarts, Godlewski’s and Pine Buntings, and many Common Rosefinches. A delightful Azure Tit performed exceedingly well but would just not settle on any close trees, instead it took delight in confounding us by landing on overhead telegraph wires…..The only new birds were a dark-phase Booted Eagle and a Great Tit – the latter species caused Clements’ list followers some palpitations in case it was a Turkestan Tit, but alas not!

Azure Tit

 As this was our 23rd consecutive day of high energy birding/travelling we decided to finish after lunch and return to the hotel early. Despite the mother of all traffic jams slowing us down, fortunately the traffic queue was going in the opposite direction, we arrived back shortly after 4pm for a much deserved rest before visiting the Irish bar for ….. pizza…….

Monday, 14 July 2014

Tien Shan Mountains

What a day this turned out to be, as we drove up into the Tien Shan Mountains. 

The meadows at the base of the Tien Shan Mountains were full of wildflowers

Although after a little later start than normal we then hit bad traffic and it took well over two hours to get out of the city and into the arable land at the base of the mountains. 

Red-headed Bunting - the first of many surprises today
Rosy Starlings were common
Tawny Pipit

But some fruitful roadside stops amidst the meadows at the base of the mountains produced a number of goodies and we soon forgot about the journey here, as we quickly found several Tawny Pipits, lots of Red-headed Buntings, flocks of Rosy Starlings, Linnet, Common Whitethroat, Pied and Northern Wheatears, whilst the fields were alive with Eurasian Skylark song-flighting, plus many Turkestan Shrikes were seen as well.

Tien Shan Mountains

Driving higher we checked out some valleys without any joy, apart from finding our first of many Fire-fronted Serins and Eurasian Jackdaws, before heading off to another good area where Pine Buntings were common and we also had Spotted Nutcracker as well

Fire-fronted Serin
Pine Bunting

We had a lunch of lamb pasties before walking up a side valley and after a bit of a search came up with 3 of our main targets: Black-throated Accentor, Blue-capped Redstart and a fine Three-toed Woodpecker. Other species seen included Coal Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest and others. 

Three-toed Woodpecker

In fact our search had taken longer than we realised as walking back to the road we noticed it was already 6.30pm so left on the drive for the hotel. However, Neil spotted a redstart beside the road and we reversed the coach only to find our main target of a fine male Eversmann’s Redstart

Eversmann's Redstart

Out we jumped and enjoyed fine scope views of it perched on some bushes before flying closer to check us out. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Back to Xining

Breakfast at a local restaurant was enlivened by a pair of Desert Finches coming down to a puddle beside the main road! Couldn’t quite believe it as we were in a built up area  and I assumed they were escaped cage birds but there was a male and female and their plumage was in pristine condition with no frayed edges indicating captivity…. A singing Eurasian Blackbird was also watched as well and interesting to note the subtly different song as well. We did indeed visit a different lake area this morning and our efforts were rewarded with quite a few Caspian Gulls being seen, plus there were also Black-headed Gulls, Little, Common, White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Paddyfield, Eurasian and Great Reed Warblers, Citrine Wagtail, many Masked Wagtails, Isabelline Shrike and a Chinese Pond-heron.

Yep it's a Desert Finch...

Then we set out on the long drive back to Urumqi, arriving 9.30pm. But along the way our driver decided to try a shortcut which led us into an arable area of lush, green fields and hedgerows where several pairs of Barred Warblers, Richard’s Pipits and Bluethroats were a nice surprise.

Barred Warbler

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Day of the Jay

Headed to the Tarim River this morning which actually took longer than expected but the overcast and cool weather really helped us. As we pulled in to a certain location it took a little over 20 minutes to nail Chinese Bush-Dweller, White-winged Woodpecker, Saxaul Sparrow, Small Whitethroat and Azure Tit. Not bad going huh? And then we could enjoy our breakfast! Afterwards we spent some time improving on our views and really appreciating these great birds.

Saxaul Sparrow

Then we drove out further into the Taklamakan Desert where we began our vigil for Biddulph’s Ground Jay, a bird endemic to this desert. The strange landscape of dead trees and tamarisk bushes could only really be viewed from on top of the sand dunes and we spent ages scanning the surrounding area for any signs of life. Apart from more Saxaul Sparrows, Desert Wheatear, Black Stork, Long-legged Buzzard and Black-eared Kite it was rather quiet. We worked both sides of the road and eventually it was Frank who became our hero and found the bird. A quick (sort of) sprint across the sand and everyone locked binoculars on one of the birds of the trip. In fact it was a family group of two adults and two almost fully grown juveniles and we watched them for a while as they moved across a small wadi in front of us. They certainly could shift and ran at an incredible speed, pausing now and again to fly up into one of the dead trees to survey the area. It was such a privilege to become one of the few westerners to see this bird.

Biddulph's Ground-Jay - mega..!!!

Driving further into the dune landscape we found another ground-jay before walking out in to the sea of sand to admire the view. Then it was lunch at a local restaurant before we headed to a town closer to Bosten Nur Lake for the night and a slight change of plan as this would give us an opportunity to visit the wetlands a lot earlier in the morning than would have otherwise been possible had we stayed in Luntai.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Urumqi to the desert.....

Yet another early start as we left Urumqi on the 650+ kms drive south to Luntai in the Tarim Basin, passing through stark grey and arid mountains where a male Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush posed nicely - and was the first of several surprises today. As the road dropped down into the desert-like plains, Long-legged Buzzards and Pied Wheatears became more prominent. 

Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush

After lunch we reached some marshes at the edge of the huge Bosten Nur Lake and followed a path through lush reedbeds teeming with Great Reed Warblers. It was fantastic habitat, with numerous Bearded Reedlings all around, at least 10 Little Bitterns flying across the area (an Asian mega-tick!), Western Great Egret, Citrine Wagtails, Common Reed Buntings of the Pyrrhuloides race, a couple of Paddyfield Warblers, and both Black and Whiskered Terns hunting the channels. 

Bearded Reedling was very common at Bosten Nur

Little Bittern - an Asian mega tick..!

However, best of all were at least 7 singing Savi’s Warblers, and we took some time to get crippling views of this rare China bird. We also had several Isabelline Shrikes, that along with most of the other birds seen here was extraordinarily pale – possibly as a result of the extremely high temperatures and reset habitat nearby? Leaving here we stopped the coach to look at our first Turkestan Shrike and noted plenty of Eurasian Starlings.

Savi's Warbler - wasn't expecting this open at all....

As we approached Luntai a Black Stork circled over the road before dropping down into a surprisingly green area and it was with some relief that we arrived at our hotel just before 9pm and a late dinner.

Xining to Urumqi

Another early morning departure saw up on the dry hillsides above Xining in search of Pale Rosefinch. It took a while but eventually everybody managed to get on one of two males seen. A Pied Wheatear was also a nice find, and other commoner birds included Red-billed Chough, Godlewski’s Bunting, Brown Accentor and Oriental Greenfinch….

Brown Accentor

We then drove some three hours to Lanzhou and flew to the north-west province of Xinjiang and the modern city of Urumqi for the final and ,for me, the most exciting leg of the tour. Bearing in mind the recent terrorist activities I was a little concerned as to what we would face here, but this turned out to be by far the friendliest place I have visited in China.

Returning to Xining

Checked out a couple of sites near Gonghe where a pair of Oriental Greenfinches were new for the trip, and we also saw Godlewski’s Bunting and Przevalski’s Partridge before returning to the hotel for our first ‘sit-down’ breakfast of the tour. Shouldn’t have bothered really as it was rubbish and craving pizza right now! Afterwards we checked out some other areas but all we found new was a pair of Asian Azure-winged Magpies - but a pair of Daurian Partridge were much appreciated by Frank before heading north after a lunch stop back in town.

This is the little fellow that has caused us so many problems....

Later in the day, on a grassy hillside we found Pere David’s Snowfinch to be common, along with White-rumped Snowfinch and Ground-tit as well. Another 100km drive back to Xining followed and some time to rest before our busy day tomorrow.