Protect Our Rarer Species

Protect Our Rarer Species

Monday, 20 February 2017

Waxwings and Wheatear...

Better late than never I always say and yesterday I finally got the opportunity to try for some Waxwings that have been feeding on berry bushes in the central reservation of the A38 near Heathfield, Devon for over a month now. There were ten present although they weren't all immediately obvious, flying between the berry bushes and some taller roadside trees. Waxwings are so exotic looking and always a treat to see. My father-in-law had come along to see them too, his first ever. They always put a smile on your face.

Waxwing, Heathfield, Devon: R. Harris

Happy to have finally connected with them, we then decided to try for another long - staying rarity, the Desert Wheatear at Thurlestone in South Devon (see Dave Helliar's photo's from recent post). I've seen a few before in the UK so I guess there was no burning need to see it immediately but it has been here since early November 2016 and it was only another 30 miles from the Waxwings so...

Desert Wheatear, 1st winter male,  Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone
R. Harris
Desert Wheatear, 1st winter male,  Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone
R. Harris
Desert Wheatear, 1st winter male,  Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone
R. Harris
Desert Wheatear, 1st winter male,  Leasfoot Beach, Thurlestone
R. Harris
It's a beautiful and confiding little bird and it was happily singing in the warm almost Spring-like sunshine - not something I've heard in the UK before. It looked very at home and these photos could easily have been taken anywhere in its native Afro - tropical range. Here's a short video of it too:



We came back via Torbay in the hope of seeing some divers and grebes in the Bay but unfortunately it was surprisingly quiet while we were there. Half-a-dozen Cirl Buntings helped distract from the lack of other birds though.

Cirl Bunting, male: R. Harris
Cirl Bunting, female: R. Harris
Reed Buntings were also present.
 Not a bad day out and I'm finally starting to feel like I've caught up on some of the local birds.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Straw-headed Bulbul...a closer look.

Following my trip to Malaysia last year, I got a real interest to learn more about the Straw-headed Bulbuls we'd seen. They have become incredibly rare in the last 10-15 years. We were very lucky and saw at least 5 or 6 individuals (including a group of three) in Taman Negara, probably the oldest lowland rain-forest on earth. I have to say they left quite an impression with their beautiful melodic song and their showy plumage (for a Bulbul). All part of their downfall.

Straw-headed Bulbul - one of a handful seen in Malaysia
Very rare and sadly on the decline.


The reason they have become endangered (IUCN Red List sp the species raised from 'Vulnerable' to 'Endangered' in Dec 2016), perhaps not surprisingly, is because of man. We seem to have a habit of screwing things up in the natural world and the Straw-headed Bulbul is just one of a long list of species who are knocking on extinction's door because of our greed and ignorance. Once plentiful, there are now an estimated 600-1700 individuals left in the wild scattered over Peninsula Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. In fact Birdlife International estimates that because the existing populations are so fragmented, it is unlikely any one of them can support more than 250 mature birds and the entire population is decreasing. Collected for the cage bird industry and feeling the effects of habitat loss, one wonders how much longer the species will survive. Will the last Straw-headed Bulbul be a miserable specimen locked up in the cage of a private collection somewhere?

The saddest thing is that on the face of it there doesn't seem to be much that we can do to stop its demise. Everywhere I traveled in Malaysia there were palm oil plantations, some stretching as far as the eye can see. The only areas not effected are mountain slopes where the machinery to clear and plant cannot reach. Perhaps checking palm oil products come from sustainable sources will help but not growing palm oil would be even better,a big economic issue to be overcome. Whether palm oil or cage bird industry, it all comes back to money and greed and it seems we are prepared to wipe another species off the face of the planet to get it. Pulau Ubin and Singapore remain one of the species' best hopes for survival. You can see it, hear its bubbly song and learn more about the conservation efforts being made to save it on YouTube.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Local birds in January...part 2

Good birds in January continues and certainly one of the best performers so far this year has to be this lovely young male Desert Wheatear, which was been enjoying life at Thurlestone in south Devon - it really doesn't look out of place in Dave Helliar's photos!

Desert Wheatear, Thurlestone: D. Helliar
Desert Wheatear, Thurlestone: D. Helliar
Desert Wheatear, Thurlestone: D. Helliar
Closer to home the regular Purple Sandpipers at Lyme Regis also performed well (they have so much character about them) also a Black Redstart.

Purple Sandpiper, Lyme Regis: D. Helliar
Purple Sandpiper, Lyme Regis: D. Helliar
Black Redstart, Lyme Regis: D. Helliar
Even closer to Chard were a long-staying female Goldeneye at Chard Reservoir and a nearby Shoveler.

Goldeneye, Chard Reservoir: D. Helliar
Shoveler, female: D. Helliar
Meanwhile in north Somerset a Snow Bunting has been entertaining birders and photographers at Huntspill allowing typically close views without a care in the world

Snow Bunting, Huntspill: D. Helliar
Snow Bunting, Huntspill: D. Helliar
Snow Bunting, Huntspill: D. Helliar
On 25th January Dave found this 1st winter female Ring-necked Duck with the tufties at Chard Res but it had gone by the following morning.
Ring-necked Duck, Chard Res: D. Helliar
Ring-necked Duck, Chard Res: D. Helliar
Overall a great month locally for birds - not a bad start to 2016 Dave! 

Monday, 16 January 2017

Local Birds in January...part 1

The 'Three Counties' area has had some good birds already this year and Dave Helliar has been making the most of his time in seeing them plus some of the more regular but good-to-see species too.

First up, the recent Cattle egret near Chard - Dave got this excellent photo of it in perfect light.

Cattle Egret nr Chard

This first group were all from 3 January in Devon.

Barnacle Goose, Exminster Marsh, Devon
Bonaparte's Gull, Exmouth, Devon
This adult has been returning for several years now
though much more difficult to catch up with these days.
Common Snipe, Goosemoor, Topsham
American Wigeon,, Matford Pools, Exeter
From 5 January we have the Rose-coloured Starling that has been around the Weymouth/Dorchester area for some time now.

Rose-coloured Starling, Dorchester
Rose-coloured Starling, Dorchester
Bearded Reedling, Radipole Lake, Weymouth
Bearded Reedling, Radipole Lake, Weymouth
Eider, Portland Harbour

 And finally from 14 January...

Dipper, Somerset
Mediterranean Gull
Waxwings - part of a group of nine near Topsham, Devon
Waxwing, Topsham, Devon

Thanks to Dave for supplying his photos and the month isn't over yet. Hoping for some waxwings even closer to home, like this one just outside my house from 2013.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Cattle Egret, take two...

Thought I'd check to see if the Cattle Egret was still hanging out near Tatworth this morning and an early visit paid off. Not only was it still there but this time it was a bit closer, around 70m away at the closest point. It looks quite happy so maybe it (and the accompanying Little Egrets) will stay for a while longer. While I was there the landowner turned up and flushed them when he entered the field to move a boundary fence but I'm sure they would have come back as soon as he went.

Cattle Egret, Tatworth nr Chard
Cattle Egret, Tatworth nr Chard
Cattle Egret, Tatworth nr Chard


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Cattle Egret...

There has been an incredible influx of Cattle Egrets recently with birds turning up just about everywhere, sometimes in small flocks!  Turn back the clock 30 years and this was a real rarity here in the UK. I vividly remember twitching one somewhere on the outskirts of Yeovil not far from Sutton Bingham Reservoir and at the time I had no real expectations of when I might see another...how times have changed!

There has been a single bird moving around the lower Axe valley area for a few weeks now and when I heard of one that had turned up locally near Chard yesterday, I assumed it might well be the same bird, that was until the Axe bird was seen at around the same time, so this was yet another.

I didn't get a chance to look for it until today but it was still hanging out with ten Little Egrets when I tried for it and not surprisingly, it was staying close to the cattle feeding in the field. It was always distant but here's a heavily cropped shot of it.

Cattle Egret near Tatworth

Never thought I'd say this but it was a pity the sun was out. Could really do with a slightly cloudier day so that it doesn't appear too over exposed (even though I'd compensated for this in camera). With a bit of luck it might hang around.

Dave Helliar arrived just as I was leaving and got a nice photo of it as it moved closer...

Cattle Egret: Dave Helliar

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Blue Rock Thrush...

Whether it's a genuine vagrant or an escape, we will never know for sure - it's impossible to call. Ever optimistic, birders are nearly always looking for a tick and the majority will plump for this beautiful bird being a wild vagrant, whilst a few (usually those who've already seen an 'accepted' bird) will question its origins. Either way it was worth going to see simply because it was a male Blue Rock Thrush and it was kicking about in someone's back garden in Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire. The weather was a bit grim but the bird showed well and everybody was happy. To top it off there were two Waxwings a short walk away too - a great few hours birding and a super way to finish 2016.

Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Happy New Year to everyone. Raise a glass to good birding, herping and whatever tickles your fancy, in 2017!

NB: All photos taken on the Nikon P900.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A County First for Christmas!

Well, I never expected a Blyth's Pipit so close to home but when news broke of one at Blagdon Lake near Bristol in the week, I just had to go see it. Blyth's Pipits are usually notoriously difficult to get decent views of. They often turn up in long grassy fields or paddocks and you spend much of the time trying to see the features and jizz that separate it from the similar Richard's Pipit. Not this one. When Dave Helliar and I arrived on site and marched the 3/4 of a mile or so to where the bird was, it was ambling about on the shoreline. It has to be some of the best views you could ever have of this difficult species here in the UK?

When you view them this well, the differences from Richard's are much easier to see. Although it was about 30 meters away the light was good and some distant photos could be grabbed. My best efforts below:

Showing the nicely streaked crown and rich plumage tones
1st winter Blyth's Pipit, Blagdon Lake
The bill structure, hind claw and jizz
Could all be easily seen with prolonged views
1st winter Blyth's Pipit, Blagdon Lake

Couldn't ask for a better Christmas present! Thanks to everyone who's followed the blog in 2016 and a Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Day 8, Last day at Bukit Fraser...

Bukit Fraser - 1st December, 2016


Stephen's Place on the Telegraph Loop at Fraser's Hill is a special place. Nigel told me before-hand that it was and I can see why. Stephen Hogg started up the B&B a few years ago along with his wife Salmhia. Today they are ably assisted by their two young boys as well - Adam and Daniel. When you stay at Stephen's Place you really are staying in their home - sharing the comfy sofas with them, watching tv with them and eating delicious home-cooked meals at their dining room table, you are made to feel like part of the family. Prior to his life as a trailblazing B&B owner (B&B isn't a well known concept in Malaysia), he was a wildlife photographer, cameraman and film maker often called upon whenever filming in Southeast Asia was required. He's worked on any number of well known wildlife documentary series including Nigel's own 'Ten Deadliest Snakes -Malaysia', as well as for the BBC, ABC Australia and National Geographic to name but a few and is still one of the country's top wildlife photographers. The B&B only accepts like-minded people who are seriously interested in wildlife so you can always guarantee good conversation with the host and other guests. What more could you ask for? This is definitely the place to stay when visiting Fraser's Hill.

So it was our last full day to explore Fraser's Hill before leaving Malaysia. Nigel and I met up and set out early to make the most of the first few hours birding. We had already decided to walk the Telegraph Loop road - Stephen's Place sits at the top of this 4 km loop and just walking around the road can offer some of the best birding in Fraser's Hill. The weather was a little murky and intermittent rain showers swept through but they didn't last too long. Initially a little quiet, we soon started picking up little groups of Mountain Fulvettas moving noisily through the dense under-storey and a few calls we didn't recognise. It was wonderful having a guide but when you're thrown in at the deep end on your own, you soon learn to recognise birds as you see them. Luckily Nigel was more familiar with them than me and was very adept at identifying the commoner birds by call too.

The weather on Fraser's changes very rapidly.
Mountain Fulvetta, not an easy bird to photograph
Our list started to build and we soon added Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Golden Babbler, Long-tailed Sibia, Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush, Fire-tufted Barbet, Little Pied Flycatcher and another Rufous-browed Flycatcher.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon
After the first couple of waves it went quiet again and we continued to head down the loop. As we reached an open corner of the road a vista appeared allowing you to see for miles across the hillsides. A pair of Little Cuckoo Doves flitted around the top of a fruiting tree at eye level and a group of Siamang hollered and moved through the canopy about half-a-mile in front of us giving good views. Fraser's Hill is a very special place.

Little Cuckoo Dove
View from the Telegraph Loop

Enjoying the view and the Siamang below
Towards the bottom of the loop we saw a Crimson-winged Woodpecker before turning the corner and making our way back up to Stephen's Place for a late breakfast, we planned to walk the loop again later, As we approached the house a gorgeous male Mugimaki Flycatcher pitched up in the garden before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived and the 300 strong colony of Glossy Swiftlets that make Stephen's garage their home, came piling out to make the most of the insects brought out by the rain.

Glossy Swiftlets
Closer view

After our late breakfast I spent some time in the garden watching the Black-throated Sunbirds and was rewarded with a Mountain Tailorbird, Javan Cuckooshrike and Buff-breasted Babbler, then we got to see these beauties in Stephen's garden...

Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
Showing its horizontal pupil
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
The markings on the neck appear when agitated
as it puffs its throat and neck out.
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
As thin as your little finger, very delicate snake.
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina

Vine snakes are rear-fanged and mildly venomous Colubrids, unlikely to cause any major symptoms unless you were allergic to the venom. It would take some effort to envenomate a human, first getting a good hold on a hand or finger and then chewing on the bite site to get venom into the victim. Their normal prey consists of geckos and frogs.

You wouldn't really want to get bitten by this though, not deadly but it would spoil your day...a fantastic male Popeia fucata (synonym: Trimeresurus fucatus) or Siamese Peninsular Pitviper.

Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Below is the female, she lacks the well defined markings of the male but often has a white or pale lateral line instead. This one was pretty much as big as they get and she was grumpy too, perhaps because she was just completing her slough!

Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Portrait of the above snake.
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
They are quick to strike and have a surprisingly long reach, so you have to be a bit cautious when getting photos. They have relatively long fangs which can deliver venom deep into the hand/digit (being mostly arboreal they are more likely to be encountered on branches or foliage waiting for prey and hence it's usually the hands that get bitten). Their venom is primarily haemotoxic, destroying components of the blood and causing local swelling and pain. There is often blistering and secondary infection can result in gangrene and the loss of the effected finger or thumb.

Also in the garden were several noisy Streaked Spiderhunters too.

Streaked Spiderhunter
Streaked Spiderhunter

On our second lap of the Loop we added a few extra species including this lovely male Orange-bellied Leafbird, Verditer Flycatcher a nice Speckled Piculet and a White-throated Fantail doing what they do best.

Orange-bellied Leafbird, male
Rain-drenched Verditer Flycatcher
White-throated Fantail - poor record shot
Oriental Magpie Robin, female
Also found this unusual Polydesmida Flatback Millipede - an amazing little creature.

Flatback Millipede

Striped Blue Crow on its last legs.

We finished our second lap and headed back to the house for dinner. We wanted to make the most of our last day and Stephen was taking us out for more rarities later along with his son Adam.

We set out once more just after 8pm. Now dark, it was time to try and find a real Fraser's Hill speciality...Coremiocnemis hoggi, a fantastic tarantula named in honour of Stephen Hogg, who spent years studying, photographing and filming this previously unknown species. To be more precise Stephen and his wife spent two years travelling three-times-a-week between Kuala Lumpur (where they were living at the time) and Fraser's Hill, where they would spend the entire night studying the spiders before the two-hour drive back to KL in time for work! That's dedication for you. To see them properly they have to be tricked out of their burrows by imitating insect prey walking close by - this is where Adam comes into his own - he's chief spider tickler.

Coremiocnemis hoggi - best ID feature are the hairy back legs.

This is a sizeable spider which would fill the palm of your hand. We found about a dozen or more but sadly they are becoming rarer as they are regularly dug out of their burrows to be collected and sold as pets - as a species we are truly greedy and abhorrent at times! Even rarer though (and sadly for the same reason) is this incredible Trap-door Spider...

Adam deftly unveiling a Trap-door Spider
These are declining fast and there is currently no enforceable protection to help them. Both of these particular spiders appeared on Nigel's '10 Deadliest Snakes' programme (season two) about Malaysia as well as Sir David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth series (season 1, episode 3).

Short video (no sound)

We weren't quite finished though. As Stephen and Adam left us to our own devices, Nigel and I continued on in search of snakes. Unfortunately we didn't get lucky with snakes but we did find a couple of nice large millipedes.

Millipede sp. Fraser's Hill
A rare and beautiful Malaysian Jewel Centipede (Scolopendra)
Unfortunately these are also taken and sold as pets
reaching crazy prices on the open market.
Back at Stephen's Place the moth trap was running and there were many species present on the large sheet. Stephen has recorded over 2,800 species just in his garden!! This beauty stood out though, by literally overshadowing the rest.

Silk moth sp.
Silk moth sp. with hand for comparison
With that, our Malaysian adventure was over. After a few hours sleep we were driven back to Kuala Lumpur International Airport by one of Stephen's neighbours and off our separate ways. What a great trip we had.

I'd highly recommend Craghoppers Nosilife clothing, which helped to keep me bite free throughout the entire trip, Lifesystem repellants and sun lotion and of course my trusty Nikon P900 which could be relied on for any situation. My thanks also to Wilbur Goh and Andrew Sebastian who are both superb bird guides and I would highly recommend either of them to anyone planning a visit to Malaysia.

I must also mention the great Nigel Marven for inviting me along - if you haven't checked out Nigel's website yet you really should. You can also follow him on Twitter @NigelMarven and keep an eye out for his shows on Eden Channel and National Geographic. Nigel's next series of Ten Deadliest Snakes starts in the New Year on Nat Geo Wild.