Tuesday, 20 January 2015

4000 miles to Lhasa – in a Toyota minibus

Bob Vaughan

A birding trip across the roof of the world with Hannu Jännes as bird guide, organized by Birdquest (official write-up with better pics here http://www.birdquest-tours.com/pdfs/report/CHINA%20-TIBET-%20REP%2014-ebook.pdf

The trip started in Xining central China (Qinghai) then down to Nangqian on the Eastern edge of Tibet and then back up past Lake Qinghai and over to Golmud and Ruoqiang on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert in Western Xinjiang province before crossing the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa.  Mapping this is quite difficult as many of these towns are small but here is a try on a world scale:

The Chinese language has become much easier now they’ve stopped drawing and written it down properly, for instance q, x and j are all apparently pronounced “ch” as in China, although why one letter is chosen over the other (or ch)  isn’t obvious and sometimes they are used interchangeably (except in China). In a similar way many birds in this region have at least two names, one geographical or descriptive and the other after the person who first described the species e.g. Tibetan or Roborowski’s Rosefinch, and sometimes you can use all three e.g. Tibetan or Black-winged or Adam’s Snowfinch.  This goes a bit further with some of the Snowfinches, five of them under Birdlife International taxonomy are now very boringly known as Ground-sparrows (not to be confused with Ground Sparrows of Central and South America). So the White-rumped Snowfinch becomes the White-rumped Ground-sparrow or indeed Taczanowski’s Ground-sparrow or Mandelli’s Ground-sparrow with Mandelli's Snowfinch or Taczanowski’s Snowfinch as back-up. I prefer Snowfinch, Ground-sparrow sounds like a Chinese spice.

The first couple of days of the trip were spent north of Xining in a beautiful hilly wooded area called Huzu Bei Shan. Blue Eared (or Elwe’s) Pheasant was spectacular and fortunately the Chinese, Gansu and Alpine Leaf Warblers were easy to identify as they were singing. The supporting cast of Spotted Bush Warbler, White-throated Redstarts, Himalayan Beautiful and White-browed Rosefinches, Chestnut and Chinese Thrushes and Slaty-backed Flycatchers and a male of an isolated race of Red-flanked Bluetail (albocoeruleus) all showed mouth wateringly well. 

Retracing our steps back to Xining there was a sandstorm so we waited until next morning to drive up a rocky escarpment overlooking the town. We found a pair of Pale Rosefinch, now split from Sinai Rosefinch, amongst singing Gowlewski’s Buntings

and an inquisitive Przevalki’s (or Rusty-necklaced) Partridge. After breakfast we headed to the vast Qinghai Lake where a selection of water birds were found with the first of many Hume’s Groundpeckers. This charismatic bird is apparently most closely related to our Great Tit and should now be referred to as a Ground Tit.

Black-necked Cranes strutted the lakeside and a few Pere David’s (or Small) Snowfinches (Ground-sparrows) hid in the short grassland. We then went south to some rather European looking fields where a Wryneck duly popped up, the Yellow Wagtails were Eastern however and the Finches Mongolian! Pine and Black-faced Buntings showed well, and so on to Gonghe for an overnight stop.

The next day was a 400 mile drive over the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau down to Yushu on good roads over some high passes. The first pass gave us a huge male Guldenstat’s (or White-winged) Redstart  and many Rufous-necked Snowfinches (Ground-sparrows).

and a few Prince Henri’s (or Tibetan) Snowfinch (still a Snowfinch). The highest pass was Bayankala Shan at 4824 metres (15,827 feet) where, as always, the pass was adorned with prayer flags so I walked up and took a picture.

Getting back I felt a bit breathless but slowed down and got my gear together to walk out over the valley for the major target, Roborovski’s (or Tibetan) Rosefinch. We set-off but I soon felt very groggy and disorientated with an immense thirst, Tom gave me a bottle of water which helped a bit. I really needed a rest so I staggered back to the bus where John kindly said I could pinch one of his mountain sickness pills. I swallowed one and sat back – then a message came through that they’d got the Rosefinch. No way - I set-off as fast as I dare using my tripod as a crutch and found them with a glorious male Roborovski’s feeding at about 20 feet. The female was a little further off, so with the mega in the bag I was looking forward to getting down to Yushu at a mere 12,000 ft. My headache developed nicely and I later discovered that I had been bleeding directly into my front sinuses above my nose. Acute Mountain Sickness is not pleasant but the antidote is worse – next day in the morning my fingers felt as though they were connected to the electric mains and in the afternoon I felt incredibly tired, dragging my feet along - I vowed not to do any more pills. The prospect was that we were going higher later in the trip, and the only cure for MS is to go lower, but of course there is no down in the middle of the Tibetan plateau. The Upland Buzzards were waiting.

The upper reaches of both the Yangtze and Yellow River flow down off the plateau and through Yushu, the town was almost entirely obliterated by a large earthquake in August 2010, with over 2500 people killed and 12,000 injured. Since then it has fortunately been completely rebuilt, and the restaurant and hotel were just fine. Leaving town in the early light we found a Spotted Great Rosefinch (severtzovi) which was formerly split but is now rather unfashionably lumped back in with Great Rosefinch. They don’t do lumping in South America. My bird of the day however was a pair of Ibisbill with two large young on a riverside, a new family.

It is a shame my camera was on the wrong setting, this should have been a good photo…

We abandoned a stop for Red-fronted Rosefinch as the rain had set in but later the rain eased and we stopped opposite a steep hillside where we had good scope views of five Blood Pheasant, a pair of White-eared Pheasant and a Tibetan Babax. Later that afternoon we went up a beautiful sunlit gorge where further White-eared Pheasants showed well, a large Himalayan Marmot sat squeaking at us to let its chums know we were around and I finally caught up with the attractive Snow Pigeon.  Next morning we went further up the same gorge to a high pass with meadows and crags to either side looking for Kovlov’s (or Tibetan) Bunting. The bird duly performed very well until the cloud rolled in.

Back down in the gorge we visited a nunnery where Tibetan Partridge and Elliot’s Laughingthrush ran around and a Pink-rumped Rosefinch perched up. It was rather wet by now and the head monk (yes, does seem a bit liberal) invited us back to his place for the traditional beverage of hot water. We stayed a bit further south in Nangqian for two whole nights, not an attractive place but the upper reaches of the Mekong flow through it.

The expedition today was into the Beizha forest, with the first stop a steepish climb…

Towards the top, over those rocks at the top, three adult and three young Szechenyi’s Monal (or Buff-throated) Partridges fed rather nervously out under some trees. On the way down we disturbed two Blood Pheasants. We then entered a valley with a fast flowing stream, on the other side of which the very high pitched song of a Maroon-backed Accentor could just be heard, though it proved impossible to see. The forest area was very productive with Dark-sided and Slaty-backed Flycatchers, a pair of Giant Laughingthrushes, some active Crested Tit-Warblers, Chinese Fulvetta, Przelvalski’s Nuthatch, Black Woodpecker and a male Long-tailed Minivet. Sadly I was not quick enough to see the Three-toed Woodpecker when it suddenly flashed across the road. Lunch was spent in bright sunshine in an open valley accompanied by Daurian Jackdaw and both Coughs. Two covered trucks arrived and many novice monks in their red habits jumped out and disported themselves on the grass.

The next stage was a journey back north, apparently eastern Tibet is closed to visitors due to unrest and so we had to retrace our steps, in the rain. After a superb breakfast of freshly baked doughnuts at a café in Yushu we climbed back through the high passes. The weather cleared and we explored an open hillside. Almost straightaway a pair of Przevalski’s (or Pink-tailed) Finch perched just of track on some low bushes, beautiful birds which are now assigned to their own family and probably the most wanted bird for all. They put on a good show followed by a White-tailed Rubythroat and a Streaked Rosefinch with a supporting cast of Kessler’s Thrushes and Robin Accentors. A truly memorable hour of top quality birding.

Onwards across the moors we saw a pack of five Grey Wolves raiding an island with nesting Bar-headed Geese, on the other side of the road a splendid male Lesser Sand Plover stood in a small pool.
Overnight was at a very small town with a huge town square and a very good restaurant at all at an altitude of 15,250 ft. I have a theory that beer is good for aclimatisation to high altitude conditions and that theory was duly put to the test with few adverse side effects. In fact more generally I believe beer is good for many things, particularly urination. Onwards, with the bus making increasingly strange noises, the front suspension having suffered some malfunction. Although the roads were generally very good there is a lot of construction going on with new roads and bridges being built everywhere. Sometimes we would be on the new road, with the old road to one side and the new motorway being constructed to the other side which was feed by huge lorries on a supply road next to that. China’s ecomomy is clearly doing well, though much of the population we saw was relatively impoverished.

That was the end of the first leg, the next stage was across the top of the Tibeten plateau and we revisited Qinghai Lake, this time at the western end where it was stilll remarkably blue. Here we met a pair of Black-necked Cranes, the huge Tibetan Lark and a few Pallas’s Gulls before contuiinuing to Chaka for three nights.
Next morning we explored the steep sides of a valley and soon connected with Ala Shan Redstart, a highly range restricted species. This mega was accompanied by a number of Brown Accentors, Przevalski’s and Daurian Partridges and then some incomparable Wallcreepers.

This was another new family for me as I have dipped in the Pyrenees a couple times, rather a long way to catch up but all the more appreciated. A flocking shepard then lead us to a magnificent remote valley but although we heard distant Himalayan Snowcock there was no show. In the afternoon we explored a wet land area adding the black-backed form of Citrine Wagtail ssp calcarata sometimes (correctly) split as Tibetan Wagtail and a distant Little Tern. Next day we visited a valley to the east of Chaka for another potential split the weigoldi form of Smoky Warbler which showed well. A Red-fronted Rosefinch finally performed for us and wandering back we found another Pink-tailed Rosefinch. We headed back via a desert area and after some searching found a few Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) Snowfinches, Mongolian Finches and Larks and finally the main target - Hendersons Ground Jay trotting between the tussocks. Hannu picked up two distant flying Pallas’s Sandgrouse and I managed to latch on to them for a brief (but definative) glimpse , the others weren’t so lucky. Our final morning in Chaka saw us back in the first valley and here we found Daurian Grey Partridge, good views but my pictures have apparently detriorated rapidly from colour to sepia-tinted. I guess he is OK though. Walking back in the rain we found a rather soggy Chinese Grey Shrike ssp tibetanus a good split, as Tibetan Grey Shrike, but not accepted by the IOC (yet….) and so on to Golmund for an overnight before the 750km drive to Ruojiang.

The early scenary on this drive was really impressive, largely open plains with distant snow capped mountains. The small café we stopped at for lunch served excellent fresh food where multiple dishes were presented with a variety of stir-fried vegeatables, home made noodles, meat and sauces all cooked in an open kitchen. In fact all the places we visited throughout China served great food, plenty of fresh produce cooked and flavoured well, some spicy some just delicately tasty. The only quirk was that the rice was usually the last item to be served up to us, I suppose because it took a while to boil. This area is not all idylic though, some miles later we did go past a huge asbestos mine just outside a small town. There was white dust billowing everywhere, I suspect the life expectancy of the locals might be limited.  After just 350 miles we passed through the craggy Altun mountains into the Tarim basin and the edge of the Taklimakan desert in Xinjiang province. Before entering the basin we stopped in a dry valley to find some more potential splits: Desert Lesser Whitethroat ssp margelanica aka Margellanic Lesser Whitethroat and Isabelline Shrike ssp arenarius, split as Xinjiang or Chinese Shrike by some, the many Spotted Great Rosefinch were again severtzovi lumped back with Great Rosefinch. Just a hundred miles or so more into the desert and we reached Ruoqiang. 

The next morning we went into the desert, where a large shallow lake had created an unearthly mist

from out of which appeared a Sexual Sparrow (spelt Saxaul)

and the alienesque Biddulph’s Ground Jay.

These were ticks for all, we had breakfast and wandered out into the sandy area chasing a calling White-winged Woodpecker. It called we followed, it disappeared, it called from elsewhere and so on, but we eventually nailed it and yes I can honestly say it wasn’t a Gt Spot.  I did not nail the Desert Lesser Whitethroat though, but it is lumped with Margellanic isn’t it? By this time the sun was burning down so we retraced out steps across the trackless waste. Ken set-off in his fashion and I followed soon realising that the others had gone another way – schoolboy error. I decided to follow Ken rather than find the main party for two reasons - I didn’t want to split the group any further and I had no water. We then had to admit that neither of us knew where the hell we were apart from lost in the Taklimakan desert and neither of us had any water. After a little while we heard a distant truck, which meant road over there somewhere, so we headed for road over there somewhere. We found road over there and then had to decide which way to walk, we went that way. No drama, the bus appeared to appear in the heat haze and lo we were saved from certain death. Now that the mist had evaporated the shallow lakes turned up some new birds, an oddly familiar mix of birds like Starlings, Black-headed Gulls, Avocets, Northern Pintail and an ordinary Citrine Wagtail. In the afternoon it was hot and windy and time for something a bit more exotic, how about a Tarim Bush-dweller? This is a local potential split of Chinese Hill Warbler and although a skulker it showed really well on a gate, until I pressed the shutter. It wasn’t a very picturesque gate. A Barred Warbler showed briefly. This area has both the wierd and more familiar birds, West meets East. Talking of which Marco Polo came through Ruoqiang in 1273 when the town was known as Lop, it is officially part of the Silk Route between the Middle East and China and is an ancient transit point between Mongolia and Tibet - well cool. It now looks thoroughly undistinguised with the usual ubiquitous concrete buildings and wide roads, I saw no vestige of cool, maybe it is hidden away. The place is surrounded by wonderfully bleak desert though: on our way back to Tibet we stopped to (let the others) connect with some Pallas’s Sandgrouse and there were singing Desert Wheatear getting ready to appear on the East coast of the UK later that year. Our return journey to Golmud was uneventful apart from the vicious sandstorm which blew away any sight of the road and distributed asbestos over many square miles. We arrived in Golmund late but as ever the supper was super, although the beer was a little like Ruoqiang (not as cool as I had hoped).

And so into Tibet…now owned by the Chinese and I understand the Llamas have fled to South America. The weather was good as we crossed the plain and drove up on to the plateau. First stop on the plateau was a magnificent open area with snow-capped peaks to the south with a glacier sliding down the highest peak, Yuzhu Feng.

Our first Tibetan Antelope and many Gazelles fed on scraps of vegetation on the plain, Sakers fed on the numerous Pika, but overall there were few birds, just the ubiquitous Rufous-necked Ground-sparrow.

We moved on down the main road then took a left to bump down a stony road for hours at a very slow pace. We were accosted by some bandits who’d lost a flagon of monks oil, but we sent them away because we were after Tibetan Sandgrouse. We finally got to the area where they had been seen last year and we spread out and walked slowly and breathlessly across the boggy ground. Inevitably I was at the wrong end of the line when they were found and had a half mile stomp up hill. I arrived gasping for oxygen but the six beautiful Sandgrouse continued to feed in the sunshine oblivious to their admirers. We spent some time gripped by our quarry and summoning the energy to trek back to the bus. The bus journey back was slow and tortuous and we arrived as it got dark at the salubrious “Ritz” Budonquang the major local resort and our highest overnight stop.

The rooms were basic, but they lit an open fire to keep out the piercing cold. While dining at the fine restaurant behind the black pick-up above I  had a bad thought. With the door and window shut to keep out the cold how much would the fire compete with us for any spare oxygen. I had plenty of time to consider slow asphixiation as a pack of Tibetan Mastiffs barked incessantly all night. I got up about 02-00 to attempt to piss on the dogs. The sky was crystal clear and ablaze with myriad stars, quite the best starry night display I’ve seen, I suppose I was nearer to them and there was no polluting air in the way.

Next day was sunny and notable more for the mammals than the birds, there were plenty of the long- horned Tibetan Antelope

and quite a few rather charming Kiang or Tibetan Wild Ass. In a curious way it was often possible to guess what this simple beast was thinking.

An apparently wild Yak stood quite close to the road and stared at us quite motionless. We were lucky the yak was on it’s own as if there had been two together then they would have started talking as they do, yakety yak. Then a large Grey Wolf trotted across the road in front of the bus, it acknowledged us with a rather fierce expression before wandering into the wilderness.

We went over Tangkula Pass which was the highest point of our journey at 17,200 ft asl where there were many Brandt’s Mountain Finch (but no Sillem’s!).

The road to Lhasa is lined with many checkpoints. We must have had to stop and show papers at about ten of these, each one taking 10-30 minutes, but finally we arrived in Lhasa arguably the best guarded capital in the world. We visited a local park for Lord Derby’s Parrakeet, the provenance of these birds is a little doubtful as they although they live wild locally the ones in town may be escaped cage birds, but I guess it’ll go on the list.

On our final full day we got ourselves to a nunnery – the famous Shuksep Nunnery near the top of a steep valley. Giant Babax and Brown-cheeked Laughingthrush interupted our usual picnic breakfast, a little further in the Nunnery grounds Tibetan-eared Pheasants were mincing around quite unconcerned.

It took a bit of climbing but we eventually bumped into a Tibetan Snowcock which called from a nearby crag and then decided to walk right up to us!

Further on up Ken found a smart White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-warbler and on the way down Tibetan Blackbird showed well. A visit to the river basin gave us Russet Sparrow and telescope views of a Palla’s Fish Eagle.  A great morning.

The afternoon was culture time with a visit to the unique Potala Palace which clings to the largest peak in town. That’s the Palace at the back behind pretty lady and stupa.

The Palace entrance is at the top, via many many steps. Inside there are practising monks (with mobile phones) but it is largely a museum to the mind-bogglingly complex Tibetan form of Buddhism with intensely ornate old artifacts representing former adepts and it acts as a shrine to previous Dalai Lama’s. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso fled to India in 1959 and maybe the last, he has not decided whether to be reincarnate himself (and continue the line) but he has suggested that if he does then the next Dalai Lama may be a women "Why not? What's the big deal?" he said. The Chinese government has claimed control of this popular religion, and reincarnation.

Next stop was a real monastery where similar golden artifacts were to be found amongst the monks. In the courtyard novice monks were meditating deeply while their opposite number was jumpimg up and down clapping to distract them. But life’s like that, just when you think you’ve reached Nirvana someone stamps on your toe. By the way Nirvana literally means “blown out” as in candle, in the wind or maybe a whaft of teen spirit?

We had a final meal and three of us departured next morning for the flight to Chengdu, a huge bustling city. With an afternoon to kill Ken and I made for Du Fu's Thatched Cottage, a park on the western outskirts. We took a taxi and explored this rather pretty and popular park, it was hard work in the late afternoon heat but:

2 Collared Finchbill
Chinese (or Light-vented) Bulbul (common)
White-browed Laughingthrush (common)
10 Vinous-throated Parrotbill
2 Black-throated Tit
Chinese Blackbird (T. mandarinus – maybe a race of T. merula) (common)
2 Rufous-faced Warbler
2 Red-rumped Swallow (a few of the striated race daurica or japonica?)
1 Little Egret

As afternoon wound to a close we decided to try to get back to the hotel, which raised a few questions. Where were we, where did the buses go, how did you pay for buses, how do you flag a taxi? We found a map and eventually got our bearings and trudged off, the taxis just went passed us but after half an hour I saw one stop so I ran up and sat down in it – apologising to the girl who had got there first (sort of) and waved our map at the driver. It worked and he drove off, insanely fast, into the rush hour traffic, overtaking on the outside, swinging through the lanes on the wide and very busy roads with no sense of ballistics or momentum. We hung on and arrived intact with only a small dent to his taxi – good man. The meal in the Hotel was probably the worst we had the whole trip, we should have gone out again.

Overall I saw 221 birds with 98 ticks and three new families – quality rather than quantity on an epic tour through the most amazing scenery.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A slav to love

What more little black and white blobs.  Yup! Since jono has already top trumped everyone and queared the pitch on the Wansteadbirding site, I have no option...

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Self assessment

It's around this time we are forced to our self-assessments at work - a completely pointless and tedious task - which are completely ignored once I've written what they want me to say.  I hate my job, but it pays the bills, when I can be arsed to pay them; it pays my pension, which will probably outlast me; and allows me to give me money to environmental causes, pathetically matched by the huge American firm I work for. That my contributions are just pissing in a Jovian storm doesn't make me feel that really the whole work thing is that great.

Anyway this is my self assessment for the thing I do enjoy, namely birding.

Last year year listing wise was my worst for many a year (225 species), but there were new additions.  A few new additions.  Too few additions:

  1. Myrtle Warbler (Feb 15th, Durham)
  2. Red-flanked Bluetail (Feb 16th, Marshfields Gloucestershire)
  3. Two-barred Crossbill (Lyndeford Arb, Norfolk)
  4. Spectacled Warbler (7 June, Burnham Overy, Norfolk)
  5. Short-toed Eagle (June 21st Ashdown Forest, Sussex)
  6. Collared Pratincole, 26th July (Minsmere RSPB)
  7. Ross's Gull (31st July, Topsham, Devon)
  8. Masked Shrike (25th September, Kilnsea Yorks)
  9. Siberian Rubythroat (5th Oct, Levenwick, Shetland)
  10. Lanceolated Warbler (7th Oct, Quendale, Shetland)
  11. Eastern Bonellis Warbler (10th Oct, Scalloway, Shetland)
 All of which puts me in close reach of the magical 400.  So target one is acquired!

Ok so the targets I set last year failed miserably: getting my Kent and Suffolk lists over the 200 mark.  I managed Kent once, and Suffolk slightly more. So no prizes for guessing how that went. I think I only managed Norfolk on a handful of occasions.

Best trips: Shetland of course, but great days out to Ashdown Forest (twice), Topsham (with Marco for the gull), and a trip to Norfolk with Mr Fisher (who also did the second trip to see the Eagle) for the Speccy.

London had a bad year though I missed out on a few good birds by being away in Cambridge, there just weren't that many we didn't see on the patch.  Rainham only had a Spotted Crake, and a warbler that shall remain nameless.  Slim pickins indeed.  I did however win the London Bird Club patch challenge with probably the lowest score for years.  I couldn't be arsed and I won't be listing for Rainham again. Luckily Howard is taking up the Patchwork Challenge mantle, where I got beaten on points by some arse from Wanstead and a guy from Luton (that's the Inner London League for you).  To put it in perspective Dave Mo thrashed my pitiful Rainham total (obviously the regulars would have done so too), but with Kev Jarvis out of the running there was not much pressure, though Gary James did brilliantly at Galleon's Reach and thoroughly deserved to beat me.

So other targets:

I will go to Shetland again

I will see as many new birds at Wanstead as I can

that's it

Friday, 26 December 2014

Shettered: of booze, birds and pies

Twenty-four bottles of red wine, two large crates of Stella, two not-so large crates of Peroni, eight cans of "K" cider (plus c. twelve pints of Cobra), enough to keep the body and soul together in anyones language.  Luckily I had three more than capable tipplers to help me get through that lot, and three also very capable birders to help rack up my best ever total in Shetland: 132 species (team effort), 3 lifers, 20-odd Shetland ticks and 26 year ticks, slaughtering the Bagger's team in the process.  We earned every drop!

So a Cowboy, a Monkey, a Hawky and an Utter Twite did mainland Shetland (4-11 October) and did it well.

Of course they'll say the Siberian Rubythroat was the bird of the trip, for me: Great Tit, Blue Tit  OK it was, and the day we had the little bugger to ourselves for around 30 minutes will live long, ya da ya da! And after the hideousness of the Saturday standing in the rain for hours at the wrong garden and then seeing the unedifying spectacle of the twitch at the house where it was relocated (luckily for the owners they were on holiday), it was especially pleasant to see it from the comfort of the car. Unfortunately (or not) my camera had drowned and was behaving badly so no pics from me, in fact, since I switched back to the Canon lens I had completely forgotten how to use it, I am surprised I've got anything usable at all out of the trip...

After the ritual humiliation of the security at Birmingham airport (much to the mirth of my colleagues), which had me down to my socks, trousers and shirt and with the metal detectors still going off and me fearing a  cavity search, it was on to the plane on a dreary brummy morning. Off the plane at Aberdeen to heavy rain, an hour to dry off before getting wet and on to the plane for Shetland (I managed to bang my head getting on and off every plane and getting out of my seat each time). The weather hadn't improved at Sumburgh, but with news of "the bird" still present we donned our gear  ready for a easy sibe spectacle.  Four hours later, cold, wet and extremely pissed off, we did likewise, only to be back a few hours later when the bird was relocated a quarter of mile further down the village.

Another unseemly scrum ensued.  All the best positions had been taken, but the hopeful were scattered around the extent of the property anywhere they could get a view of open ground in what was a well established, and vegetated garden. I held back as the others followed rumours of sightings, if this was the way I was going to see it then I was quite happy not to. Changed my tune rapidly when we had it to ourselves didn't I? The others got a few brief glimpses and were happy so we returned to the digs birding on the way.  Somehow we managed 57 species on the first day and several bottles of wine.

5th October

The routine was established today, out at first line to check the lighthouse rosea and have a look at the sea. A Merlin flashed through, which was a good omen. We checked the quarries before quickly heading up to Sandwick for our private appointment with a certain Rubythroat.  That well and truly bagged we did a circuit of Geosetter (Pied Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler), Loch Spiggie (Whooper Swan, Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye, Scaup) and finally Quendale (Whinchat). Then news of a Little Bunting at Boddam dragged us north again, which obligingly showed fairly smartly on the road while a few Red-breasted Merganzer idled out in the bay.

No time for loitering though as news of an Arctic Redpoll and the first winter Pallid Harrier pushed us further north to Veensgarth and Tingwall. After a few false starts we managed to spot some birders at the end of a plantation and after just about managing to elude some troublesome barbed wire, we were soon watching a Hornemann's fluff ball in a group of a few dowdy Mealy cousins. Clearly it wasn't as big and bright as my previous encounters, but the Harrop camp put this down to its first winterness, and clearly not as friendly so we didn't linger long as darkness was quickly approaching and there was a harrier to see.  Where exactly that was was not too apparent. Somewhere in the vicinity of Tingwall airport and while the airfield itself is quite a small area the moors surrounding it were dark and looking decidedly empty. Luckily (probably Hawky) we picked out a group of birders by some farm buildings and thought this our best bet. When we arrived it looked like we would be beaten by the light, but somehow one of the birders there pulled it out of the bag just in time and in the end we had some great views, even if I couldn't remember how to use my lens. A much better looking bird than the oiled one of my first trip to here parts and lucky for us as I think this was its last day here.

Another good day with two new birds for Tony and the list now up to 85 and already we knew we were in a race with team Bagnall (who we gracefully let find most of the good birds) and it would be an epic, titanic struggle.

6th October

Our least productive day of the whole trip, the promised winds from the east were increasing in strength and we were optimistic that we would find some good stuff before long for ourselves. We checked the first quarry to find only the first of hundreds of Robin that would appear in the wake of the on coming storm. While we clambered in the car, the Monkey had walked along the roadside wall where he flushed a Long-eared Owl, which proceeded to sit further down the field towards Sumburgh farm, where it stayed most of the day. When we returned later we were put on to a Short-eared Owl sitting in the moor above the road (the first I've seen with ear-tufts raised and a first for Shetland for me). In between we had a serious look for a Radde's Warbler that had been found by Hugh Harrop, sadly well on its way to the next world, but couldn't even find a body.  Arctic Tern fishing in Sumburgh Bay, our first Long-tailed Duck flying across and a few Razorbill kept the score board ticking over and we ended up with a Black Redstart back at base (93 sp).

7th October

The wind hammered in that night and most of the next day, it was looking good for eastern arrivals. Driving down to the first quarry I spotted a Ring Ouzel, which exited sharply as we pulled up  For some reason we had to go back to the Tescos at Lerwick (probably more wine needed) and while we were there we checked the shore front to find a group of Purple Sandpiper in with some Turnstone on a slip way.

Shopping done, we were back down to Sandwick to poach a Pomarine Skua found by the opposition, which Hawky duly found, and a few Little Gull working the swell out in the bay.  We tried and dipped the Bluethroat in Toab, but picked up Woodcock, Linnet, Jackdaw and Black-tailed Godwit (Pool of Vrykie). We were back at base early as the weather began to brighten up only for the first beers of the night to be interrupted with news of a possible Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler at Quendale, probably the worst place imaginable. We hammered it down to the mill, of course the bloody bird was hiding out somewhere near the top of the rifle range, so we dragged ourselves up there. Here already were a fairly large group of hopefuls plus the finders and, with our extra numbers, we had ourselves an organised flush. Only on the third walk through did we score, at one point we had it surrounded in a small clump of sedge before it flew heavily back into the iris and we had to start again. Looked good for a Pallas's to those there in the know and from the back of camera shots, but overnight it was re-identified as a Lanceolated, still a lifer for me and Tony so no grumbles from us (#105).

8th October

Beaten again into the lighthouse garden by local Paul Harvey at the crack of dawn we did however score with the first Snow Bunting blown around the headland.  Today was surely going to be our day for finding something rare and we nearly did down at Channerwick.  Working the gardens below an old ruin, I picked up a large warbler in with the Blackcap in the nettles and Iris.  I called the lads over and a local who was casing the joint as well. Brief views of what was either a Reed or Marsh Warbler (favoured by the local man) before it flew up the gully, we wanted to nail it one way or together so we followed. We could re-find it, but on the verge of giving up I flushed another warbler with marked scalloping on the back.  This bird lead us on a merry dance through the bracken for about an hour while Hawky and Tony watched from the other side of the burn. Unfortunately not a Lancy or PGtips, just a Grasshopper Warbler, but still a Shetland tick for me, and the most views I've ever had of one - and all crap! Not quite what we'd hoped for but along the right lines.  We consoled ourselves by poaching another of Team Bagnall's finds a Great Grey Shrike at Eastshore.

9th October

We headed north today towards Voe, and Vidlin.  While the weather was much like last year the birding wasn't.  A few Gadwall on a small loch just outside Vidlin and a Common Scoter on the main sea loch was out reward. We made our way back via Kergord, its plantations and its Rook. Rook done the others took delight in finding another Great Tit, which I couldn't for the life of me see. Meanwhile Hawky had wandered off and found two Tree Pipit further down the road, and then a Common Redstart by the farm buildings there, by the time we reached there they had legged it. We slowly meandered down south, checking Geosetter where we all enjoyed a very showy Yellow-browed Warbler and we put on to a Northern Bullfinch (female so not quite as exciting as last year's bird) by another local birder.

Back on the road and back to Toab for a Red-breasted Flycatcher, which had become a scarce bird since the Bradnum/Vaughan/Lethbridge team had left the islands a few days earlier. We waited for about an hour by the playground at Hestingott and the only suitable habitat.  Hawky got it flycatching at one point, but the rest of us had to wait on. Not surprisingly it was working the space between the house and the trees in the garden well out of the wind.  Did get my first Blue Tit in Shetland, which made up for dipping one back last year in Lerwick on our Grosbeak jolly. With the addition of a Cormorant at Grutness we had made it to 125 species.

10th October

A day made memorable by Tony leaving his camera bag at Sumburgh and falling over at Toab. While the others returned to retrieve said bag and watch Tony swan dive, I dodged the rain and any decent birds in Levenwick. Matters improved in the afternoon with the news of two Olive-backed Pipit in Voe (and a Spotted Flycatcher) and an interesting warbler being a nuisance in Scalloway. The OBP took a bit of finding and a bit of trespassing too, but well worth hearing that call again.  While the Scalloway bird was, at first, thought to be a Eastern Bonelli's which, since we'd all seen one, wasn't stoking the fires of enthusiasm much, but hell we'll give it a go (did pick up calling Red Grouse from the moors behind the town). I can't actually remember seeing it well or at all that day, but our enthusiasm grew somewhat when by the next morning someone had heard it call and it became a Western BW.  Much more acceptable.

11th October

Another dipped Little Bunting at Toft (again), though we might of seen it, but who cares we'd seen one already!!. Traipsing through the small patch of oats we flushed something better: our own OBP!  Now news had come through of the Scalloway warbler's promotion to very interesting and so we piled back up the road. It would have to be obliging as well as interesting as we were off the island by midday, and duly it was oh yes!  OK not the best views as it plied around the tree tops, but for me another bonus in Scalloway as I pulled back my first Great Tit of the trip, Sc-core! A final Guillemot in the harbour put us on 132 and though Team Bagnall would still be on the island till the ferry that night, we were in a pretty good place. And lo it came to pass.

A wonderful week, so good that we've already booked up for net year.  Now if I could only remember some of the detail like the night the Short-eared Owl flew down the street between the lighthouse buildings one storm tossed night while I was having a sneaky smoke, the hundreds and hundreds of Robin and Redwing, the flocks of Brambling, Twite and of course the Otter that swam along the pier and us at Cumlewick. Great times, thanks boys and especially to the Monkey for the great organisation.

Species List

1 Great Northern Diver
2 Red-throated Diver
3 Slavonian Grebe
4 Mute Swan
5 Whopper Swan
6 Barnacle Goose
7 Greylag Goose
8 Pink-footed Goose
9 Brent Goose
10 Shelduck
11 Mallard
12 Gadwall
13 Shoveler
14 Wigeon
15 Pintail
16 Teal
17 Goldeneye
18 Red-breasted Merganser
19 Common Scoter
20 Eider
21 Tufted Duck
22 Scaup
23 Long-tailed Duck
24 Water Rail
25 Moorhen
26 Red Grouse
27 Black-headed Gull
28 Little Gull
29 Common Gull
30 Kittiwake
31 Herring Gull
32 Lesser Black-backed Gull
33 Great Black-backed Gull
34 Arctic Tern
35 Pomarine Skua
36 Great Skua
37 Rock Dove
38 Collared Doce
39 Wood Pigeon
40 Long-eared Owl
41 Short-eared Owl
42 Kestrel
43 Merlin
44 Peregrine Falcon
45 Sparrowhawk
46 Pallid Harrier
47 Fulmar
48 Razorbill
49 Black Guillemot
50 Guillemot
51 Cormorant
52 Shag
53 Gannet
54 Lapwing
55 Ringed Plover
56 Goden Plover
57 Sanderling
58 Dunlin
59 Purple Sandpiper
60 Common Sandpiper
61 Turnstone
62 Snipe
63 Jack Snipe
64 Woodcock
65 Curlew
66 Oystercatcher
67 Black-tailed Godwit
68 Bar-tailed Godwit
69 Redshank
70 Knot
71 Heron
72 Meadow Pipit
73 Tree Pipit
74 Olive-backed Pipit
75 Rock Pipit
76 Pied Wagtail
77 Grey Wagtail
78 Yellow Wagtail
79 Great Grey Shrike
80 Skylark
81 Swallow
82 Lanceolated Warbler
83 Grasshopper Warbler
84 Reed/Marsh Warbler
85 Garden Warbler
86 Common Whitethroat
87 Blackcap
88 Willow Warbler
89 Chffchaff
90 Yellow-browed Warbler
91 Western Bonelli's Warbler
92 Goldcrest
93 Great Tit
94 Blue Tit
95 Song Thrush
96 Mistle Thrush
97 Redwing
98 Fieldfare
99 Blackbird
100 Ring Ouzel
101 Robin
102 Common Redstart
103 Black Redstart
104 Whichat
105 Stonechat
106 Siberian Rubythroat
107 Wheatear
108 Pied Flycatcher
109 Spotted Flycatcher
110 Red-breasted Flycatcher
111 House Sparrow
112 Dunnock
113 Wren
114 Starling
115 Rook
116 Jackdaw
117 Carrion Crow
118 Hooded Crow
119 Raven
120 Twite
121 Linnet
122 Chaffinch
123 Brambling
124 Goldfinch
125 Siskin
126 Artic Redpoll
127 Mealy Redpoll
128 Bullfinch
129 Reed Bunting
130 Snow Bunting
131 Little Bunting
132 Lapland bunting