Sunday, 30 November 2014

Ethiopia - Addis Ababa to Debre Libanos

Following a direct, overnight flight from London to Addis Ababa we arrived about half an hour early. So after clearing immigration and getting our baggage we met our local guide, Girum, and loaded our luggage into our 3 Toyota Landcruisers. Whilst I  returned to the terminal to wait for Mike who was flying in from California the rest of the group notched up quite a few goodies around the airport including Dusky Turtle Dove, Thick-billed Raven, Grey-backed Fiscal, Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, African Citril, Tacazze Sunbird and Swainson's Sparrow amongst others. 

White-browed Robin-Chat

Once Mike had arrived we drove to the Ghion Hotel for breakfast and coffee (oh yes!!) and then a quick look in the gardens proved worthwhile as we saw a pair of White-browed Robin-Chats, Abyssinian Slaty and African Dusky Flycatchers, Speckled Mousebirds, Montane White-eye, and both Brown-rumped and Streaky Seedeaters. Leaving here we met up with Tony who had arrived earlier from Ireland and then set off through the chaotic traffic and up onto the Sululta Plain. 

The endemic Wattled Ibis

Our first stop was excellent as we had our first endemic Wattled Ibis, Blue-winged Goose, White-collared Pigeon, and Ethiopian Siskin. Some pools were full of water and held several Yellow-billed Ducks and at least 2 Hottentot Teals, Black Stork, African Sacred Ibis and Black-headed Heron, whilst waders present included a confiding Temminck's Stint, several Ruff, Black-winged Stilt, Wood and Green Sandpipers and a large flock of Spur-winged Lapwings. Best of all were several views of African Snipe, which seemed to outnumber the Common Snipes that were also present here. 

Yellow-billed Ducks

Walking across the field and around the edge of the pools yielded Egyptian Goose, many Blue-headed Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits, Brown-throated Martin, flocks of Red-rumped Swallows, Moorland Chat and a few Pied Wheatears. Many Yellow-billed Kites were present, along with quite a few Tawny Eagles, whilst overhead there was a Lanner, Hooded and Ruppell's Vultures, at least two classic Lammergeiers, and a perched Augur Buzzard was also very nice. 

A short drive took us to a different area of fields where Plain-backed Pipit, Isabelline Wheatear, Ethiopian Cisticola, a few Red-billed Oxpeckers were hitching a ride on some horses, and eventually decent views of the endemic Abyssinian Longclaw through the scope, whilst an African Fish-Eagle flew low over our heads. 

View from the lodge at Debre Libanos at dusk

From here we drove to our lodge situated right at the edge of a stunningly deep escarpment. We took a late lunch outside, watching quite a few Palearctic wintering birds such as Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, and even a soaring male Pallid Harrier. More typical African birds were also present, such as Black-crowned Tchagra, Variable Sunbird, Fan-tailed Raven, a flyby Verreaux's Eagle, and even the endemic White-winged Cliff-Chat.

Stour Cisticola

After lunch we drove down to the monastery and found Red-fronted Tinkerbird, the endemic Banded Barbet, African Paradise Flycatcher, Little Rock Thrush, a brief Black-winged Lovebird, Baglafecht Weaver and Mountain Thrush. During the drive back to the lodge we saw a troop of Gelada Baboons, along with a few Hemprich's Hornbills, a confiding Stout Cisticola and a Common Fiscal

Mocking Cliff-Chat

Then a quick walk down to the Portuguese Bridge before the light went proved to be a good move as there was a small group of endemic White-billed Starlings, as well as Mocking Cliff-Chat and a few Nyanza Swifts flew over as well. 

What a day and after the checklist a quick count revealed we had seen 94 species today.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Up into the Mountains Again.....

Left the motel at early o’clock and drove up into the mountains, arriving at dawn after a little ‘discussion’ with the local constabulary. Needless to say it was freezing and there was some ice on the mountain track as we drove up to over 8,000 feet. At the first stop we heard a Northern Pygmy Owl in the distance, which was quite exciting. However, at the next stop a little higher up (around 8,000 feet) we heard and then managed to spot a calling Northern Pygmy Owl perched high up in a pine tree, and then followed it as it flew to a huge dead tree where we scoped it. I was particularly pleased to get this recent split from the Pygmy Owl of Europe. Numerous juncos came in to mob the owl and it was amazing to see so many birds suddenly appear out of nowhere as the forest initially seemed devoid of birds. 

Northern Pygmy Owl

So we walked up the track in search of Pygmy Nuthatch and came across another Northern Pygmy Owl – wow! This one was much closer and drawing the attention of several Mountain Chickadees and we were treated to terrific views. Our luck was truly in as just after seeing this I heard a Pygmy Nuthatch in the distance and then there they were, four of the little beauties flew right up next to us. Always a treat to see and a decent trip tick indeed! 

Mountain Chickadee

Pygmy Nuthatch

Walking back to the car we had a female Williamson’s Sapsucker and then drove lower down where numerous Western Bluebirds and Townsend’s Solitaires were enjoying the morning sunshine.

From here we decided to forego the delights of the Bosque Grasslands and drove back up to Sandia Crest in the hope of some more rosy-finch action. Arriving at a decidedly chilly parking lot, we welcomed the heated restaurant from where we could view the feeders. 

Grey-headed Junco

Steller's Jay

Just a few Grey-headed Juncos and Steller’s Jays were coming in and we were thinking of leaving after a two hour wait when 3 Black Rosy-Finches appeared. After another hour of waiting and again thinking of leaving a single Brown-capped Rosy-Finch flew in! We were so pleased to get our second rosy-finch species and I think coming here a few weeks later would definitely result in all 3 species.

Black Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

All that was left was to drive to the airport motel and a final great evening meal before flying back to the UK the next day.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Heading South....

A great day today as we explored areas to the south of Socorro. It only took just over an hour to reach Las Animas Creek and we were grateful for the suns rays to finally reach our position beneath some huge Arizona Sycamore trees as it was decidedly chilly at dawn this morning. But we were soon warmed by the appearance of a cute little Bridled Titmouse that showed extremely well down to a few metres. 

Bridled Titmouse in the early morning light...

A cross between a Crested Tit and Tufted Titmouse, this is a really good bird to get in New Mexico and to say we were pleased is an understatement. There were also a few Acorn Woodpeckers here and some other commoner birds including lots of Gambel’s Quails and a Hermit Thrush, but we didn’t linger and headed further south to Percha State Park

Percha Dam State Park.

The temperature gauge in the rental car read only 28°F at 8am today – no wonder we were shivering as we walked around the RV Park here, but it soon warmed up and in just a few hours the temperature actually rose by 33 degrees!! Anyway, we saw several lovely Phainopeplas perched on the treetops, as well as a Green-tailed Towhee and the commoner Spotted Towhee, a flock of Brewer’s Sparrows, a nice male American Kestrel, and a Pyrrhuloxia.

Green-tailed Towhee


A short distance up the road was Percha Dam, another great birding location and a rarity magnet in the past. This was a particularly ‘birdy’ site as the numerous trees were attracting lots of Audubon’s Warblers. Along the creek we saw at least 3 Greater Yellowlegs and finally a pair of cute Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. 

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Then we drove up to Cabello State Park, again just a few miles away, and at the entrance gate the helpful lady in the kiosk told us about a good restaurant just a few miles away – which was in fact superb! Then we returned to Cabello but it was not particularly great, with just distant views across the lake to some distant grebes and ducks (including a flock of 18 Buffleheads and a few Common Mergansers, although we did see our first Chipping Sparrows here.

Elephant Butte State Park

Moving on to Elephant Butte State Park we drove down to the Marina where we had really close views of Western Grebes, some of which were calling and displaying – how weird! 

Western Grebes

In fact it was lovely and warm here so we watched the grebe’s antics for a while and a few of them came within 15 metres of us. Further out were some Clark’s Grebes and a pair of American White Pelicans. After our picnic lunch here we drove around the roads in the park and had a great time. At one spot we pulled over to look at a Northern Mockingbird perched up in a tree, and then noticed a Crissal Thrasher running into cover nearby. Hiding behind a bush we were delighted when the thrasher decided to pose on top of another bush quite near to us! Wow! There were also more Phainopeplas, Sage Thrasher, American Robin, and a superb flock of 40+ Mountain Bluebirds.

Crissal Thrasher

Mountain Bluebirds

Sage Thrasher

Then we left here and drove down the road, where a small lake held both Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. Nearby, Paseo del Rio held 3 Hooded Mergansers but the habitat looked really nice and I would have liked more time to check it out. 

Hooded Merganser

And that was our day as our proposed last-ditch visit to Three Sisters viewpoint higher up the lake was curtailed by a closed road. So we returned to the hotel in daylight for a change and then dinner at Denny’s.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Bosque del Apache

By 7.15am the dawn flight of cranes and geese was over so we drove around the North Loop, getting some fine views of Song, Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrows – all of which were new for the trip. 

Habitat shots at Bosque del Apache.

There was also an immature Bald Eagle eating a Snow Goose,  Spotted Towhee, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, close Say’s Phoebe, plus a field with 3000+ Sandhill Cranes, and further on around a 1000 Snow Geese were feeding in a field beside the track. 

This huge flock of Snow Geese was feeding beside the track.

Back at the Flight Deck we scoped an adult Bald Eagle and all of a sudden around 6,000 Snow Geese began flying overhead and most of them dropped down into the lake behind us. This was a simply awesome spectacle and I cannot truly describe the volume of noise from so many birds. We then drove along the track and pulled up right beside all of these birds and spent a good long while watching them – they were almost at touching distance. Unbelievable! I was impressed by the numbers of Ross’s Goose present and I estimated 400+ in this one flock alone.

You get quite close to the birds here.....!

Spot the Ross's Goose....?

Eventually we went to the Visitor Centre for a nice hot cup of coffee and watched the feeders where a covey of Gambel’s Quails were very nice. There was also a couple of White-throated Sparrows with the White-crowneds, Spotted Towhee, Mountain Chickadee and House Finch.

Gambel's Quail at the feeding station.

Leaving here we drove just a few miles along the road to a nearby trail, seeing a Roadrunner doing its thing along the road and a Rock Wren greeted our arrival in the parking lot. The desert habitat here made such a pleasant change to what we had been accustomed to on this trip so far but it was very quiet to start with. However, things changed all of a sudden when a Green-tailed Towhee put in an appearance and no sooner had we seen that than my most wanted bird here, a Crissal Thrasher began singing from the top of a bush on the slope above us. Oh yes baby!  It was very nervous and wouldn’t allow a close approach at all so we settled down and watched it running between the bushes like a mini-roadrunner, with occasional sallies onto the tops to sing before he disappeared entirely. 

Black-throated Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow

Whilst sat down here a flock of sparrows came into view, which proved to be Brewer’s Sparrows and they showed nicely. We followed this with several Black-throated Sparrows and a flyby Lesser Goldfinch before returning to the parking lot. There were also a few Verdins around but they were flighty and disappeared pretty quickly.

So we drove back to Bosque del Apache, pausing at the Visitors Centre for more coffee before taking a slow drive around the reserve once more. This time we really soaked up the atmosphere as lake after lake had huge concentrations of waterfowl present and each provided an extremely tranquil scene. The light was stunning and we had lost the harsh midday glare, so we spent our time scoping each lake and pool in search of something new. The first lake was the best one of the afternoon in fact and had an adult Bald Eagle making sallies across the water in search of an easy meal. This led the ducks to take flight and settle again much closer to us. A fine Bufflehead was nice, as was Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon and Western Grebe, whilst a flotilla of Ring-necked Ducks stayed just out of range of the camera. 

Bald Eagle.

American Wigeon.

Bufflehead (female).

Lesser Scaup.

There was also a Black Phoebe (oh joy!) and a confiding Marsh Wren here as well. Moving on, the concentrations of each species kept changing at each lake we scanned, but eventually we found a trio of fine Redheads, American Avocet and Ring-billed Gull to add to our list.

By the time we had reached the reserve entrance it was already 4.30pm so decided to drive up the road to some nice pools, watching several Northern Harriers quartering the fields and enjoyed the crane spectacle once more. Sure enough several thousand Sandhill Cranes could be seen flying across the golden-hued trees and against the distant mountains before many of them flew in and settled right in front of us. 

Sandhill Cranes arriving to roost.

Some of the cranes flew right over our heads.

More cranes arriving to roost.

Just part of a flock of 1000 roosting beside the road.

What a show they gave and, once again, I was in awe of one of nature’s truly remarkable spectacles. The noise and sheer commotion of so many birds was very impressive indeed.

Official estimates today of 40,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese, 10,000 Sandhill Cranes and 50,000 species of duck in the reserve!

So to sum up in words our experiences today has been very difficult indeed. Suffice it to say, Bosque del Apache – AWESOME! BRILLIANT! INCREDIBLE!

Dawn at Bosque del Apache

Left at the ridiculously early time of 5am, stopping to get a coffee and breakfast burrito along the way and arrived at Bosque del Apache half an hour later. We parked up at the Flight Deck viewing platform and waited in the freezing cold darkness for the first rays of dawn to lighten the horizon. In fact within ten minutes it was getting visibly lighter and you could make out the silhouettes of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese out on the lake. 

Sandhill Cranes at dawn.

A crescendo of noise was emanating from the near-darkness and around 6am it was light enough to scope the birds. We were stood with several photographers from around the world (including Japan) to witness the spectacle of the morning dispersal of thousands of birds and we were not to be disappointed. 

More cranes at Bosque del Apache.

At first the odd one or two cranes took off, but slowly and surely more and more began taking off and flying away into the distance, followed by the Snow Geese and other wildfowl. The light was getting better and better all the time and we soaked up the atmosphere. 

Great early morning views of Snow Geese.