Thursday, 26 February 2015

Champions Of The Flyway 2015: Team NGB

In March 2015 a team of young birders will be racing around Southern Israel trying to see as many species as possible in 24 hours and all to raise money for Birdlife Cyprus, read on for more.

Our team comprises four young UK birders that each come from different backgrounds and lifestyles but who all share one common passion…. BIRDS. Next Generation Birders will be represented at the Champions of the Flyway event in Eilat 2015 by James Shergold, Andrew Kinghorn, Matthew Bruce and Tim Jones.

The Next Generation Birders team are proud to be involved with Champions of the Flyway in 2015. We want to see the next generation take up the fight to save species and habitats before it is too late and hope that our participation will help draw other young peoples’ attention to the plight of our migratory species and what can be done to save them.

On the 25th March 2015 the team will attempt to record as many species as possible across Southern Israel in 24 hours. We will be aiming to get upwards of 150+ species on the day, so if you would like to sponsor us per species that’d give us an extra incentive to see as many as possible!

Competing against an international array of other teams we are hoping to raise as much money as possible for Birdlife Cyprus, to help them in the fight to prevent the illegal trapping of migrant birds across the island.

‘’Champions of the Flyway is an international bird race that challenges the norm. Its primary purpose is to celebrate the extraordinary miracle of bird migration.’’

Every year it is estimated that millions of migrant passerines are illegally caught and killed in Cyprus. The birds are caught using either the traditional method of lime sticks where the birds become stuck to the stick or mist nets.

Once caught they are killed, plucked and boiled and served as a traditional dish called Ambelopoulia. This dish is in such demand by the Cypriot community and certain tourists that each bird is worth up €5 per bird and the illegal trade in these birds is worth up to €15,000,000 a year! Due to the dish being such a deep rooted tradition Birdlife Cyprus need all the help and money they can get, so please help them by sponsoring our team!

More details can be found here

This documentary shows the situation in Cyprus and what the money raised from the event will be going towards stopping.

Last year $60,000 was raised from the Champions of the Flyway event for the Batumi Raptor Camp which was used to protect the raptors passing through Georgia and this year we’re hoping to raise more for Birdlife Cyprus, more details here.

A video showing what Champions of the Flyway is and the race in 2014.

So were asking you to get behind the Next Generation Birders and sponsor our team. Every penny that is donated to us will go to Birdlife Cyprus to help them protect migrant birds passing through the island in Spring and Autumn.

Please dig deep and help this great cause, our just giving page is linked below.

If you could share this with your followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook we would really appreciate it.

-The NGB COTF Team

Monday, 23 February 2015

NGB Patchwork Challenge: Jan 2015 results

2015 sees the return of the Next Generation Birders minileague, a hotly contended league for those participants under the age of 25. It is great to see so many young birders experiencing the joys of patch birding and this year has already seen a 25% increase in patchers on 2014, with this set to increase further in February. 

With last years winner (and overall PWC winner) Tim Jones no longer patching Spurn, 2nd place Joe Stockwell moving away from Portland Bird Obs, and 3rd place Ben Porter on Bardsey being out of country for the first couple of months of the year, this minileague is now wide open as we enter 2015. Joe may have left PBO, but his new patch around Ferrybridge is certainly living up to Portland standards and it places him firmly at the top of the table. PWC newcomer Anthony Bentley is sitting in second place with his Frampton/Frieston patch, living and working on patch certainly has it's advantages and Anthony has made the most of this opportunity by recording the most species out of anyone in the league during January. Anthony heads a host of new players in this league, positions 2-7 are all PWC newcomers and all with exciting patches; the battle between Laurie Allnatt and Dan Rouse who are both patching Llanelli WWT will be particularly intriguing as the year unfolds. Looking further down the league and familiar names to PWC begin to appear, James Common at Stobbswood is looking to repeat his successes of 2014, Espen will be hoping another county first will be a reward for the hours at his Wellington GP patch after last springs Bluethroat, whilst Matthew Bruce enters his beloved patch of 'The Puddle' alongside the more well known Draycote.

Jonathan Farooqi started his PWC debut with a bang on the 3rd when he found a Green-winged Teal on his Druridge patch, the only self-found 3-pointer in this league during January and earning him a deserved 3 bonus points. Winter specialities such as Iceland Gull, Jack Snipe, Long-tailed Duck and Water Pipit were finds for several participants and always welcome 2-pointers for the total. Although not a find, the Greater Yellowlegs at Titchfield Haven provided a very useful 5 points for Amy Robjohns, with a host of other scarcities on patches in this league including 2 Serin for Max Hellicar in Southend, 'several' Ring-billed Gulls for our Irish contender Cathal Forkan, and Shorelark for Harry Murphy at Hartlepool. Lee Fuller had his own surprising highlight at Needs Ore during the month, his first record of Egyptian Goose in over 10 years of watching the site, going to show that #patchgold can come in any form!

Urban birding - Reykjavik in January

When I made the decision to visit Iceland in the depths of winter many people kindly informed me how stupid I was being. Snow drifts, minus temperatures and icy, closed roads. Not exactly ideal conditions for a birding trip. Indeed, during our eight day stay we confined almost entirely to Reykjavik, excluding our two visits to Keflavik airport upon arrival and departure. This being the case, surely I should have left Iceland feeling somewhat low and unfulfilled? This was however very far from the case.

Birding in Reykjavik provided an entirely new experience for me, drastically different from anything I am used to in the UK. Despite looking superficially similar to the Britain, the avian makeup of Reykjavik proved wholly different to what I am used to. Indeed, here you could walk along 100m of street and see nothing. Not one bird; quite the opposite of England where Jackdaws and Collared Doves adorn most chimney pots and House Sparrows chirrup from every available shrub. Despite this, Reykjavik provided some of my most memorable wild encounters to date with numerous surprises and immaculate views of usually timid birds.

Beginning in the various streets and gardens and a bit of perseverance turned up a number of familiar faces amongst the snow. Starlings were relatively abundant, whilst both Blackbird and Goldcrest could be unearthed with a little effort. The latter taking me somewhat by surprise. Redwings were by far the most abundant bird here, though admittedly I could probably see more in an afternoon in Northumberland than I did during my whole trip. What was really surprising however was just how confiding these birds were; frequently following any human possessing anything remotely edible. On one occasion I even had one land by my hand and help itself to my hotdog, totally undeterred by my presence. Truly amazing. Elsewhere amongst the multi-coloured houses and picket fences Snow Buntings existed in surprising numbers with perhaps fifty or so noted on a daily basis. Elsewhere only the odd Mealy Redpoll and the “kronk” of the ever present Ravens kept me entertained, except on the my last full day when a Merlin tore over the main street no doubt in search of the aforementioned buntings or Thrushes. 

Away from the suburbs Reykjavik boasted a few rather nice “green spaces”. Among these Tjorn lake and the surrounding park land which remained consistently frozen during the entirety of my visit. Consistently that is except for the presence of a small patch of water towards the town centre kept open by the constant traffic of webbed feet as the resident wildfowl congregated along the shore to make use of hand-outs courtesy of locals and tourists alike. Mallard were of course numerous here, as were Tufted Duck whilst Greylag Geese congregated in their hundreds. Slightly more interesting was the presence of one or two very confiding Wigeon and a hand feeding Pink-Footed Goose. 

Though even these were eclipsed by the next resident with some 75 Whooper Swans also found milling around on the small, unobtrusive patch of water. Behaving more like Mutes than the timid migrants I am used to these birds were more than happy to take food from the hand, allowing for supreme close up viewing of what has to be one of my all-time favourite birds. Anyways, things got even better when one of the lumbering white giants lifted from the water revealing a easily read ring. A little chin wag with Kane Brides and the origin of the bird were revealed with rather surprising results. Turns out the Swan, which should have been residing somewhere in the UK was ringed at WWT Caelaverock during March 2014. By Kane himself! Quite a surprising find though the reasons for it forsaking migration remain unclear. 

Moving away from “swan lake” a gander round the rather unassuming patch of water and sedge that is Vatnsmyri nature reserve turned up the trips first Gadwall alongside a couple of Eurasian Teal and few Ravens. All seemed quiet until an excited squeal from Liam heralded the arrival of the first of our Icelandic target species. A awe inspiring Gyrfalcon! Watching the colossus for a good five minutes and it drifted over head and off towards the town centre the true size of the bird became clear. Moving or should I say skipping onwards around the pool a final scan of the pool prior to departing turned up yet another surprise. A drake Green-winged Teal. Not something I was expecting to find on a half frozen puddle in the centre of Reykjavik. The bird in question showed immaculately allowing for my best photos of the species to date but before long the light faded and we set off towards our hostel.

Finally we come to the last and arguably the most awesome aspect of the city. The famous Reykjavik seafront. I visited the coast daily throughout our stay, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of Liam. This proved a fruitful endeavour with the highly urbanised harbour and built up coastline throwing up some truly fantastic birds. Eiders were the most numerous species here, closely followed by Long-Tailed Ducks. Both of which set about courting on a daily basis making for memorable viewing as the amorous drakes tirelessly pursed the females and constantly squabbled amongst themselves. Other ducks seen here include a few dozen Red-Breasted Merganser, a single Wigeon and a probable drake White-Winged Scoter. The latter of which was noted by Liam as we returned from our ‘whaleless’ whale watching trip. Though I didn’t see the bird, there has been one in the area for quite some time now and thus the “velvet scoter type” bird noted by Liam was probably the yank rarity, at least according the officiator of the “Birding Iceland” page. Rather surprisingly however the probable scoter was not the most interesting duck to be seen on the Reykjavik coastline. This award goes to a rather peculiar bird noted by yours truly on the third day of our trip. After lengthy debate among NGB members, the twitter community and even Chris Packham I have come accept the bird as a partially leuistic Long-Tailed Duck (minus the long tail). This in mind, the hotch-potch of white and brown, the small stature and the solitary nature showcased by the bird had both of scrambling around like maniacs, inventing numerous explanations for the oddity and its peculiar visage. I do believe the words Harlequin, hybrid and even Bufflehead were uttered more than once. My bad, but it truly was an odd sight.

Aside from ducks the harbour boasted a wealth of other species scrapping out a living amongst the various snow-capped fishing boats. Black Guillemots were encountered frequently whereas some fantastically showy Little Auks continuously delighted. Both Shags and Cormorants numbered well into their hundreds whilst some twenty or so Red-Throated Diver and four Great Northern Diver made for excellent viewing. The latter of which lounging around ridiculously close to our positon on the sea wall. Finally we have the gulls! By my own admission gulls have never been a favoured taste of mine. Whereas numerous birders get overly excited by the noisy white things I usually remain at home, tempted only when one of them lands practically on my doorstep. This changed in Iceland however and I feel I have developed a new found fascination for these conspicuous chip thieves. Both Glaucous and Iceland gulls were a daily occurrence here, both of which gave fantastic views as they loafed around in the surf. Liam was able to pick out six or so Kumlien’s gulls during the course of our visit subsequently giving me a lesson into Iceland gull taxonomy. Alongside the white-wingers a host of familiar faces put in regular appearances with Black-Headed Gull, Herring Gull, Common Gull and Great Black-Backed Gull all locally abundant. Liam did however manage to string me both Boneparte’s and Ross’s gulls during the duration of our visit, the latter of which would have been a truly sensational find.

And there you have it. I may not have been stunned by the bedazzling plumage of drake Harlequin Ducks or indeed had the pleasure to behold Barrow's Goldeneye in the wild but despite this my eight days in Reykjavik will go down as some of my best to date. Other birds noted during the trip though absent from the above log include; Fulmar, Kittiwake, Oystercatcher, Purple Sandpiper, Razorbill and Feral Pigeon though all of these obviously fade into obscurity when pitted against my first views of a wild Gyr and the sheer bliss associated with sharing a Hot Dog with an obliging troop of Redwings. I love Iceland and will certainly be back again in the near future, perhaps in summer on this occasion.

-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.

Friday, 20 February 2015

NGB Gullfest - madness in the Midlands

This blog post probably should have come a lot sooner, but I think we've all only just got over the mental fatigue that comes with trying to get your head around gulls! Anyway, on 13th December 2014, five NGBs embarked on a great day out in Staffordshire which was dubbed the 'NGB Gullfest'.

Matt Bruce, Zac Hinchcliffe, Espen Squinty-Ashman, Craig Reed and James Grundy started the day off at Chasewater Reservoir near Lichfield. It was a stunning winter's day without a breath of wind, single cloud and there was a lovely frost. Starting out the day in mid-morning didn't exactly mean there were thousands of gulls at Chasewater, but we had a look around for one of the few Willow Tits which frequent the country park, but sadly we weren't able to find any.

Left-Right - Espen, Craig, Matt and James scanning the far bank to get Moorhen on the daylist (no really...)

We moved onto Stubber's Green which is a green with a small lake located only a mile or so to the south of Chasewater where quite a lot of gulls go to bathe and loaf during the day prior to thinking about leaving for the roost. Within a very quick scan Craig managed to pick up a rather lovely adult Yellow-legged Gull. Being from up north, I'm keen to get as much information as possible from 'possible' Yellow-legged Gulls to 100% rule out hybrid. This meant watching it for a long time before it eventually stretched its wing and revealed its spot on wing formula.

adult Yellow-legged Gull with even a black spot on p4. Spot on!

In terms of species, there wasn't a huge diversity within the rest of the gulls, but we did spend a while trying to read a few colour-rings. As far as I'm aware we managed to successfully read all four of the ringed birds we came across. These included:
Danish Black-headed Gull, a Polish Black-headed Gull and two Herring Gulls ringed on the Severn Estuary.
Details are yet to come back on exact ringing dates, but this does show the importance of ring-reading and also ringing itself. It's great to know where some unassuming Black-headed Gulls have come from. They don't all just stay at your local McDonalds (other fast food restaurants/Black-headed Gull outlets are available) munching on chips!

There was another site that Craig took us to, but there was about four gulls on it, so it's hardly worth a mention...let's be honest!

Right! Onto the important bit... The gull roost! We arrived at Chasewater with about an hour to go before sunset. It was a lovely evening and that wind has stayed off all day making for superb viewing conditions. One of the first birds we got onto appeared to be the same adult Yellow-legged Gull from Stubber's Green as it had a distinctive squashed face.

Presumably the same Yellow-legged Gull as at Stubber's Green with very similar wing pattern and face.

It wasn't long before James Grundy uttered the words that have haunted my dreams since December 13th and probably will for some time to come! He said "Guys...I think I've got a Ring-billed Gull...."
Understandably, we were all taken back a little and thought it must be a very heavily ring-billed Common Gull. I then looked through James's scope expecting said Common Gull and then I saw it. BLIMEY! It looked spot on! The bill was broad, yellow, with a very thick black ring. The eye was pale, the mantle was pale and a similar shade to the Herrings around it. The wings looked long and there was limited white mirrors to the outer primaries. It looked absolutely spot on! What a cracking find from the NGB.

It doesn't look bad does it....

Craig then reminded us that we had better be completely sure it wasn't the Ring-billed Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull hybrid from 2012 that was seen reasonably nearby at Priorslee Lake. I remember seeing photos of that bird and I remember how much it didn't look like a Ring-billed Gull and very much like it LBBG it did. I was completely confident it was not that bird. What I hadn't realised was that there was a second hybrid and it looked very much like a Ring-billed Gull with the exception of a slightly dodgy wing formula and darker mantle.

Note the broad tertial crescent and slightly darker mantle shade here

The huge elation of seeing a new species was ever so slightly wearing off as I was shown a photo of how 'perfect' the second hybrid looked. Scrutinising our bird, we noticed that it was ever so slightly darker than the surrounding Herring Gulls and noticeably darker than the surround Black-headed Gulls. This was a little worrying, but it was certainly not as dark as any of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and it didn't appear to be as dark as the Common Gulls reasonably close by. We, aside from Mr Cynic Espen, we were all still confident it was different to the hybrid and a pure bird. All gulls are variable, so mantle shade doesn't always follow the rules, but unfortunately for us, Ring-billed Gull is regarded as one of the least variable gulls in the world!

Craig's photo showing how it compared with the surrounding Lessers (It mainly associated with Lessers, so perhaps that should've set alarm bells ringing?)

Facing away shows how almost YLG in tone it was

We decided to get some photos and video to send around to other birders that knew much more than us.

To begin with we got a couple of responses that said "Looks good, but something doesn't add up? Too dark, tertial crescent seems broad and the head streaking doesn't look right".

If we were going to go any further than this, we needed its finger print. This not only would help to confirm if it was pure RBG, but also whether or not it was the same bird as the hybrid from Priorslee. We'd been watching it for about twenty minutes and I was starting to run out of video camera battery. Luckily it started to bathe and I knew this was going to be the moment it would flap. I pressed record and after about ten seconds, I got the flap! It looked spot on! It also looked pretty different to the Priorslee bird so we were happy.

Upperwing bleeding through on the underwing wasn't a great feature. As I views this through my camera screen, I don't know how realistic this was.

Several photos of the open wing including a montage by Chris Batty showing the Priorslee hybrid (top), our bird (middle) and a pure Ring-billed Gull in Ireland (bottom). It's hardly much different to the pure bird, is it?

We consulted a lot of of experts and in a lot of the photos they were all pretty happy it was a Ring-billed Gull. When Matt and Craig went back the following monday and saw it again in more neutral light, it looked a lot darker, even prior to sunset and it was as dark as if not darker than Common Gull. We gave this further info to the experts and most did question their initial thoughts.

As the light started to disappear, the mantle shade started getting considerably darker. I know this isn't the most incredible scientific breakthrough in it got dark, the mantle got dark. What I mean by this is as the light faded, the shade of the bird got even darker than the surrounding Herrings and looked closer to LBBG in colour than Herring. That surely isn't right for RBG? We were happy we had gotten sufficient footage and documentation of the bird, so we decided to leave it and have a scan for other goodies in the flock before the light went even more.

If any of you know me personally, have read my personal blog or follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed I've been a bit obsessed with Caspian Gulls the last few years. Chasewater is renowned for Caspians, so I was certainly hopeful I would FINALLY see one. I scanned through the flock in front of us and nothing was jumping out at me or anyone else. Craig scanned a small bay to the far left and said "Oo, this looks interesting".

I recognised that "oo" straight away and frantically scanned the small bay to get on his interesting bird. "Black-head, Black-head, Herring, Herring, Black-head, Lesser and ............". And there it was! It stood out like a sore thumb! It was so pale headed, mantled and so long in the neck, head and wings!

I mean just look at that.....

CASPIAN GULL!!!! A stunning second winter bird. We all sprinted over to get better views and picked it up actively swimming around. I was recovering from a knee ligament injury at the time and I regretted that run a couple of hours later, but at the time I didn't even notice I was in agony! What a stunning bird with a wonderful face! I got a few record videoclips of it before moving onto just watching it. They say you should never meet your heroes, but after looking at so many photos of Caspian Gulls throughout the years, I was definitely not disappointed!

Elsewhere in the flock, we didn't manage to locate any 'white-wingers', but we had at least 7 adult Yellow-legged Gulls and we were able to scrutinise lots of immature large white-headed gulls which taught us quite a lot.

It was a really great day and not just because of the birds. The weather and the company was brilliant and we were all there for the same reason - to look at some superb birds!

P.S After consulting lots of experts and a couple of members going back for seconds, the general consensus now is that the gull was indeed the Ring-billed Gull x Lesser Black-backed Hybrid from 2012 (apparently gulls can change their wing pattern from year to year, particularly if they aren't fully adult. The 2012 bird was considered to possibly be sub-adult at the time)

-Zac Hinchcliffe
Zac is a Lancashire birder, ringer and aficionado of all things Cyanises, Larus and occasionally SyrphidaeZac is 22 and now works as a consultant ecologist after studying a Research Masters at Bangor University investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The NGB and I

I sit typing this feeling a mixture of things. The reason is that in 6 days from now I will be 26 years old. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, it’s just another year, I've got plenty left etc etc. But what it actually means is that I will have outgrown a certain group of 550+ young naturalists like myself, I will have crossed the threshold and become an “Ex-Next Generation Birder”.

Next Generation Birders (or NGB) was formed by friends looking for a safe haven where young birders could come together and share knowledge and experiences with others. The current age crop of NGBs range between 13-25 years of age and there is a huge variety of interests in the group and a huge variety of nationalities.

One of the group’s biggest strengths is its diversity. Through different interests and experiences there is always someone who can help with a tricky ID or with a conservation conundrum, it is a great social hub of information. Of course it is important to remember that NGB is largely populated with people in their teens and early 20s and therefore the topic of conversation can stray. It is often light hearted humour and enjoying being able to express the enthusiasm of youth, something that may be stifled in the more serious and strict world of birding with elders.

Saying that, there are also some incredibly talented individuals within the NGB network. From photographers, to ecologists, to tour leaders, to identification (Especially on gulls which completely mind-melts me!), to all round birders who love nothing more than visiting their patch. There are numerous members who have, despite their lack of years, developed into fine examples of their field and will no doubt go on to become some of the strongest and most able birders of their generation.

From the outside, NGB has a few supporters. Its links with RSPB, BTO, British Birds at The International Birdfair 2014 were a fantastic achievement and all down to the hard work of the NGB committee of that first year. Links to other organisations such as The One Stop Nature Shop, Vanguard , Princetown Press and Patchwork Challenge have all increased NGB’s reach and appreciation by the large majority of birders both in the UK and abroad. The involvement of 4 members of NGB in The Champions of the Flyway race for conservation is another landmark moment for the group’s involvement with conservation. NGB members have also visited Biotope in Norway, worked with The Batumi Raptor count studying the effects of illegal bird of prey hunting in Georgia and undertaken volunteering work around the world and in the UK.

There are ringers; all contributing to the science of birding, photographers and artists producing stunning imagery which captures the very essence of the animal in the photo or painting. Blog writers and dedicated patchers are well worthy of a mention for their dedication to what they love. There is such a huge range of interests within NGB that to new members it can appear very overwhelming at first.

Of course it wouldn’t be right to end without mentioning those members who love to list, the twitchers (for lack of a better word). From Andrew Kinghorn, who ended 2014 with the highest year total of any 2014 
year lister in the United Kingdom, to John Kinghorn who became the youngest record holder of the Southern African big year with 803 species. Both are truly incredible achievements which require absolute commitment “at any cost, to anybody” (As one famous twitcher once said).

So after all that, what has NGB meant to me? It has proven to be a fantastic escape at times from the pressures and judgement of the wider birding world. The cynicism and excessive criticism can be crippling for a young birder and there has been times’ when NGB being there has helped a lot of people massively to re establish their faith in the hobby.

I have also made many good friends through NGB. It is impossible to expect a group of over 550 people to get on perfectly with each other all the time but there are members with similar interests who I am glad to call friends and I hope can say that I have helped them or been a positive influence in some form or another. No doubt the contact with these people will remain but I must now sit outside the fence looking in as they continue their path through NGB and the birding world.

So it may be the end for my direct involvement but it is not the end of my commitment to helping the young members of NGB in any way I can. I am delighted to say that in April I will be leading a group of 15 other NGBs to southern Spain for a week of birding in one of Europe’s premier migration hotspots. Having visited the area numerous times over the last 5 years it promises to be a fitting end to my time in NGB and hopefully one which those visiting will not forget in a long time. Further on I hope my work at The One Stop Nature Shop and its involvement with NGB will help members with advice and questions on optical equipment which is so vital for nature watching, I take great pleasure in helping them decide the best optics for them and helping them get exactly what they are looking for.

So while it is a sad end, it is more bon voyage than goodbye. NGB has been a fantastic resource for me since its creation, hopefully now as one of the grand-parents of the group I can give back as much as it has given me.

Oli has been a massive help on the group, always quick to answer questions on optics, camera equipment and first on hand for any gen on birding in Spain! The occasional "for sale in OSNS" posts on second hand or discounted tech were very popular and many young birders currently peer through bins or scopes thanks to Oli's 'bargain deal sharing'!
-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 25 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Jack Baddams on working with Operation Wallacea in Sulawesi

I had always promised myself that once I had finished my final year of university I would spend the summer in some far off land working on some form of bird project. I’m lucky enough to say that is exactly what happened and I was able to secure a position with Operation Wallacea as an ornithologist for the 2014 research season. When applying for the post, I had absolutely no idea where I would end up. Operation Wallacea has sites all over the world in lots of different biodiversity hotspots and it wasn’t until I had a phone call that more or less started with “How does 8 weeks in Indonesia sound?” that I discovered which expedition I was joining. 
One of the forest camps we were using.
Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that I barely knew anything about Indonesia and could only vaguely point out where I thought it was on a map of the world. A short Google later and I had learnt that Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 17000 different islands that stretches between the continents of Asia and Australasia. I now realised that all the islands that I used to think were countries in their own right (Borneo, Sumatra, Java, etc.) were all part of Indonesia and it had some of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. The island that I was being sent to was Sulawesi, which is arguably the home of the most extraordinary flora and fauna of the lot.

One of the main reasons for this special collection of life is down to the isolation that Sulawesi has been subject to for thousands of years. Even during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were at some of their lowest points, the deep trenches surrounding the island meant that the sea still formed a barrier and movement of species was always limited. This has meant that Sulawesi has evolved some absolutely cracking endemic animals. Babirusa (a forest pig with long curled tusks), Anoa (a type of forest buffalo) and the Maleo (a megapode that lays its eggs in sun baked sand for incubation) are some of the striking animals that exist here and nowhere else on Earth. 
Sulawesi Ciacadabird

As if that wasn't enough to get your ecological juices flowing, Sulawesi also has another card tucked up its sleeve to supercharge it with even more biodiversity. You see, as mentioned before, the islands of Indonesia form a chain that link the continents of Asia and Australasia together. On the islands towards the western part of Indonesia (Borneo, Sumatra, Java) you get typically Asian species of plants and animals such as Tigers, Indian Elephants, Orangutans etc. The eastern islands (Papua and surrounding smaller ones) have Australasian species such as Cassowaries, Marsupials and the like. Sulawesi is in the middle of this island chain however and so has a mixture of both, something that only occurs on that particular island. Walking through the forests of Sulawesi allows you to see Macaques (an Asian species) eating in the trees alongside a Bear Cuscus, a marsupial (an Australasian species). The species of tree that they’re eating could equally be of Australasian or Asian origin too!

Anyway that’s your biology lesson over, on with the expedition.

I was based on Buton Island, just off the south east coast of the main island, where I would stay for 2 months. The main base for the 30 or so strong science team was a small forest village called Labundobundo - so nice they named it 1 and a half times – that took 3 days of travelling to get to from the UK. We lived with local people, sharing their houses and using the village as a base from which we would head into the jungle to stay and work at the various forest camps. These forest camps were dotted around Buton Island, with some being about an hour’s walk into the forest from the village, to some being further away. One really took the biscuit though, as it took a 6 hour drive (on jungle roads), 1 hour boat trip and 1 hour jungle trek to get to.

Living was basic and I’m not talking “I’m a Celebrity” basic, I mean proper basic. My bedroom in the village was home to geckos, toads, ants and crickets, and I had a rat that woke me up once during the night by brushing past my head at 3 o’clock in the morning. The jungle camps, which we spent 5 nights a week in, included fires for cooking the food (which included rice 3 times a day), hammocks for sleeping in and trenches dug into the ground for… you get the idea. 
One of the moths that greeted us on the sign out board in a morning

My job involved working 5 days a week collecting data through point counting, whereby I had to start surveying at 6 o’clock in the morning on transects that had been cut through the jungle around the various camps. Some of the transects’ start points were 2/3 kilometres away, so it involved getting up at quarter to 4 in the morning and having a two hour trek through the dark jungle to be at the transect for 6. This led to some interesting and slightly hairy encounters, particularly with a Sulawesi Wild Pig that was less than happy to see us and promptly warded us off with a charge. All this before we had even started our 3 kilometre there and back transects where the actual point counts took place.

There were two reasons for the point counting; one was to simply survey the bird populations of the forest to try and obtain better protection for the reserves and the birds within them. Indonesia has the second highest rate of deforestation in the world and I saw lots of evidence that designating somewhere as a national park has little effect on logging. That's why the work that the team of scientists that were out there was so important, to make known the value of the area and to try and get better protection for the region.
Sulawesi Babbler

The other reason for the study was to compare the surveying techniques of point counting vs mist netting to see how best to accurately measure species richness in such a forest. The lead scientist of the bird team, a top bloke called Tom Martin, had a pretty good idea of what we were going to find. Basically, in this environment, mist nets are rubbish. As all the birds live high up in the canopy, it’s difficult enough to see them half the time never mind catch them in mist nets. We just needed to gather the data to prove that point counts, that use identification by sight and sound, were much more effective.
Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher

As sound was going to be the main source of identification (up to 98% on some point counts), I was inducted with a 4 day crash course on Sulawesi bird calls to supplement the Xeno-cantoing that I had done before I left the UK. This is made all the more harder by the fact that the insects sound like birds and some of the birds sound like insects, particularly the aptly named Cicadabird. Even the squirrels regularly mugged me off during my first few days with their uncanny impression of a Black Sunbird.

So I got all clued up on the birds’ ID and set off on my 2 months surveying. As you might imagine, spending this long in a jungle means I managed to see some really cool stuff. Some of my ornithological highlights included birds such as Yellow Billed Malkoha, Sulawesi Crested Myna, Rufous Bellied Eagle, Grosbeak Starling, Bay Coucal, Ornate Lorikeet (which I saw whilst sat in a 50 metre high emergent fig tree as I watched morning break over the forest) and Oriental Hobby, which was only the second ever record for the island. I was also the first ornithologist to ever survey a large forest reserve in the north of the island, where I was able to add the IUCN listed species Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher to the areas list. 
Knobbed Hornbill

As the region has such a high rate of endemism, a lot of the birds there can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbills, Sulawesi Babblers, Sulawesi White-eye, Sulawesi Hawk Eagle and the ever present Knobbed Hornbills were all such birds. My favourite has to be the Sulawesi Serpent Eagle though, which has by far the coolest name of any bird I have on my life list so far.

I finished on just over 80 species for the trip which admittedly isn't a large number for 2 months spent constantly out in the field. That can be explained by the fact that whilst bird endemism is high, actual species diversity is rather low compared to other tropical forests. Also, birding in forests is bloody hard work. 
Sulawesi Hawk Eagle

I also got to see some other great wildlife too such as those Sulawesi Wild Pigs I mentioned getting chased by, a couple of Reticulated Pythons I saw whilst out with the reptile guys, Sulawesi Tarsiers, Black Macaques, Flying Lizards, Rhinoceros Beetles, Malay Civets, awesome bat species, Hammerhead Worms, Whiptail Scorpions, Dwarf and Bear Cuscus and loads of really cool butterflies and moths.. I also saw a King Cobra crossing a road. I believe he was trying to get to the other sssside. (I’m so sorry.)
Reticulated Python
Despite seeing all of these incredible animals, the best part of the experience was the people that I met. It was a revelation to find like-minded people that were so passionate about their chosen field, whether that be reptiles, mammals, insects or birds. Their desire to try and understand and protect the natural world was as infectious as it was inspiring. It was also a pleasure to work and live so closely with the local people, I even surprised myself by learning a decent amount of Indonesian and making some Indonesian friends I’m still talking to now. 

All in all, it was the best thing I've ever done and I’m immensely grateful to everyone who I met out there. If anyone reading this has any thoughts of aiming to do something similar, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It has certainly left a lasting impression on me. It showed me that living the life I had always dreamed about as a kid was not only possible but also entirely achievable, as I met people in the jungle who had spent their lives seeing nature’s wonders in an effort to understand and protect the treasures that it holds.

Jack Baddams

Jack is a 22 year old birder, ringer and a zoology graduate from the University of Leeds. Living on the border between Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire where he has access to all the inland ornithological delights these counties posses. When not in the UK, Jack likes to travel the world working as an ornithologist on various projects

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

NGB does Blashford - Jan 2014

Quite a few of the Next Generation Birder events have taken place "up north" in places like Spurn Bird Obs, so when Liam Curson suggested the idea of a South Coast meet up, we jumped at the chance. In the end, only Harry & Charlie Martin, Joe Stockwell, Oliver Simms, Abi Scott, Sean Foote & I could make it but it was still great to meet other young birders.

We decided to go to Blashford Lakes for on 31st January as there's plenty of common birds but also some rarer species at the moment. Our first stop was the Tern Hide, looking out onto Ibsley Water and it wasn't long before the first rarer species was spotted - a Long-tailed Duck. Rather unusual to see inland, or indeed on the south coast at all. It remained rather distant, and regularly dived so trying to get a decent photo was challenging.

Also rather distant were the geese - mostly Greylag and a single Egyptian Goose. I've always thought that Egyptian Geese look slightly odd. Then there were the ducks, and lots of them. Pochard, Tufted Ducks, Mallard, Gadwall, Wigeon, Goosander, Goldeneye, Pintail... I was quite amazed at the sheer number of all of them, especially the Goosander.

Ibsley Water also had a large number of Cormorants, and Great Crested Grebes. Some of the others managed to spot the 2 Black-necked Grebes, but I failed! We then decided to go for a wander and see what else was about. For over a year now, a Ferruginous Duck has been lurking in Kingfisher Lake, so we decided to give it a go. This lake was at the other end of the reserve so it look us a while to find it.

On the way we checked other lakes. First Rockford Lake, which had numerous ducks just like Ibsley, but also some Mute Swans and 2 Green Sandpipers. One of the sandpipers was nice and close on the mud by the path - lovely. Next Ivy Lake, where I saw Bitterns last year. None today, but we did get lovely views of a Kingfisher, Teal and another 3 Green Sands.

After taking a few wrong turnings, we made it to Kingfisher Lake. We'd heard that viewing the lake was difficult, but didn't quite realise just how difficult it would be.

There's a lake between this fence and vegetation...honest.

Despite the long search, trying various gaps in the vegetation and other alternatives, we couldn't spot the Ferruginous Duck. We did see plenty of other wildfowl, including numerous Pochards, Tufted Ducks and Wigeon and a Yellow-legged Gull. It's a shame the lake isn't very easy to view. A Kingfisher also flew right past Oliver Simms while we searched hard for the duck.

Lunch was eaten in the Woodland Hide while watching the birds at the feeders. Nuthatch, Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Siskin and Lesser Redpoll all taking their turn. There was also a Great Spotted Woodpecker that landed "in a tree" (one of many trees) as helpfully described, and also Dunnocks, Long-tailed Tits and Backbird. In hindsight, I should've tried photographing more of the birds as they were close up, but I was too busy watching them and eating! But here's some Lesser Redpolls and Siskin...

We then thought, for a change of scene, that it would be good to try to see the local Great Grey Shrike. The shrike must've known we were coming as despite a good search we couldn't locate it. We did however spot a Buzzard, a Peregrine and a Merlin, so not a completely pointless trip! The Merlin looked tiny compared to the Buzzard as it whizzed past!

Finally, we returned to Ibsley Water for the gull roost. This time, however, we tried the Goosander Hide. The hide was living up to its name as some of the Goosanders were rather close. The wind had picked up though, making it even harder to view the birds and much colder...still, we persevered. For the last few weeks there had been reports of at least one Ring-billed Gull coming to roost. Some days there had been two - an adult and an immature bird. The Ring-billed Gull was reported yesterday, but we didn't see it although we looked very hard. We did manage to pick out a few Mediterranean Gulls, Yellow-legged Gulls and Common Gulls in amongst the Herring, Black-headed and Lesser-black Backs.

The Great White Egret was also reported today, but again we did not spot it though must've walked right past it at least once (based on these reports)! Despite the rarer species not cooperating, it was great to spend the day with other birders. Can't wait for another local meet up.

-Amy Robjohns
Amy is a 20 year old Environmental Science student at the University of Southampton who's lived in South Hampshire all her life. She's been birding for about 7 years but has only really started getting into it properly last year when she had more free time. She recently started patch birding and is also a trainee ringer. She would really like to go birding in Scotland, the Farne Islands and Jersey!