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21st November 2023 - Malaysia - Rainy Season

And so 30 years after my first trogon in a Costa Rican forest, we come to the final one here in Malaysia. Cinnamon-Rumped Trogon – CRT – for short here.

Since my last report from India where we bagged the Ward’s, there has been Hispaniolan in the D.R. and both Javan and Sumatran in their respective islands. I was set for the CRT. [The devastating news of the 4 way split on Black-Throated was fortunately countered by the biggest luck a birder could ever have, as I was in the Atlantic forest of Brazil when the IOC announced it and was able to get the only one of the 4 that I was missing, “Atlantic Black-Throated Trogon” the very next day up Pernambuco.]

So I was on a roll – CRT will put the “Trogonquest” to bed and I can move onto other leisure pursuits like drinking and smoking or spending more time with Mrs Eden

DAY 1

I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur a day and a half before enjoying the delights of the Mandarin Oriental and an Irish Bar down the road. Culture was supplied by the National Gallery of Malaysia a short ride away, but that was all chaff really, the CRT was way more important than the Guiness and “Still Life of Rambutan and Mangosteen”

Guide Liew arrived at 05:30 for the first run to a lowland forest – Krau Forest by the Deerland Zoo about 2 hours from the capital.

Truthbomb #1 – “why are you here now?” he asks by the open door of the Toyota.

“Because you are meeting me for the CRT quest” I reply.

He explains that it is Rainy Season and no birder comes at this time. A quick look up reveals blue skies and no clouds. I thought El Nino and Climate Change ran all the global weather now, so a bit of rain was as unpredictable as a Rishi Sunak cabinet re-shuffle.

He is adamant that this is the worst time of year to come to Malaysia.

I didn’t know that.

And so to Krau Forest by Deerland Park. We scramble through to an old pitta feeding station, where once a local photographer had the ultimate shot of a Garnet and Giant Pitta with and Rail Babbler on the same wormy log. A week later it was destroyed overnight, all hides and logs trashed. The main suspect who runs Deerland Zoo still remains a happy man as the volume of photographer’s cars that were there have now gone.

Liew and I head into the Krau Forest to be met with some babblers.

Short-tailed Babbler, Malaysian Black-Capped Babbler, Black-throated Babbs, Sooty-Capped Bobs and a singing Large Wren-Babber as well. A true Babble-Fest, but no trogon.

Next forest is a few hours east on the coast. Gunung Arong. This is a special road here in Malaysia, as it is the only road that cuts through coastal wet peat forest. It supposedly holds the mythical Black Partridge, a bird Liew has never seen before. We get fly over Great Slaty Woodpecker and perhaps a CRT call but no matter how we wait and play back we never hear it again. It could have been a White-rumped Shama, that forest mimic.

We have to pull out as the drive to Mersing – our base for 3 nights is still a fair drive away.

Mersing Merlin Inn should be a 2 star, but has 3 as there is a pool in the grounds. Wifi is good though and there’s a working fridge, for your beers bought in KL before getting here. So a blank on the first day – no worries, plenty of time left.

DAY 2 – LENGGOR FOREST

This is “the spot” where we hope to get it. Liew has had most views here, and most of the decent photos of CRT come from here, so our eggs are in this basket for the next couple of days.

Truthbomb #2 – “it’s raptor migration time” Liew informs me.

“Does that matter?” I ask “they all just fly past overhead surely”

Turns out a few thousand sparrowhawks over night in the forests here and across Johor. No wonder the little birds dig deeper into the forest and remain quiet.

And it is – an absolute silent area. There are 2 or 3 good trails to walk here playing the tape and at one point we hear a Scarlet-Rumped Trogon and I get onto it dug deep and low in a dank recess of a bush. And front on it looks totally like a CRT, and for a moment my hope’s raise that we have “2 bird theory” here – but when you hear the call, this little fella’s tail is pumping in harmony. An SRT for sure, not my CRT.

An hour later with little to see, Liew hears a mega babbler. A pair come in to a cleverly placed speaker and Liew gets his best ever shots of White-Necked Babbler. A newbie for me. Another tick follows with a Brown-streaked Flycatcher, now called “Umber Flycatcher” in a fruiting bush, where finally we get a bit of activity. The sparrowhawks must have gone.

A Mega-Babbler

A few more hours of trogon silence and we call it a day. Still plenty of time left though.

DAY 3 – LENGGOR

Truthbomb #3 – if I was here at the right time of year and there weren’t roosting sparrowhawks, my odds for this bird is 1 in 5. Liew, who loves his stats reckons it’s 1 in 10 to 20 for me.

That hurts

The monsoon finally turns up in the late morning and we are both soaked. The afternoon is spent at a nearby café stuffing most of their paper napkins into my sodden shoes.

We still have a couple of hours after the storm subsides and go back to the forest. Here we meet “The Lenggor Tigerman”. There are tigers in this forest, but nocturnal and very wary of humans. Tigerman’s job is to patrol at night, checking for poachers and trying to get a sighting. In the last 5 years he has never seen one. I know how he feels!

Opposite Lenggor is another forest. It looks prisitine, but Liew explains that it is owned by some shady people and no-one is allowed in. In fact they are allowed to shoot anyone who trespasses. Despite my protestations that this cant really be the case – he is adamant and wont go anywhere near it.

I suppose the warning signs should be believed!

Don’t shoot – I’m only birding

A huge leech attacks my sternal area, a parting gift from Lenggor. Still time. Liew is an optimist.

DAY 4 – Panti forest

Walking the same silent trails for 2 days is driving us both nuts, we make the decision to go down the peninsula to the famous Panti Forest. I have been there before 4 years ago but we nixed the CRT then as we were focused on the Rail Babbler which took 2 days to get. With renewed vigour we head South.

Truthbomb #4 – Liew has found a gizmo on eBird that can predict our chances of seeing a bird. It is 0.7%. I wish he hadn’t looked at that.

Panti is as silent as Lenggor. Not just a silent CRT but completely bird silent. There are signs hung around some of the trees from The Panti Birdrace 2023 which was on last week. Liew checks the results online.

100 competitors. A 48 hour race. CRTs seen: Zero. The same result as us for that day.

Trogon-free Competition

DAY 4 – Panti to KL

A last throw of the dice here, and it starts promisingly. A Malaysian Crestless Fireback crossing the road. I first thought it was a black chicken until commonsense took hold. New for me though.

Let this be the start of good things…

It wasn’t. Silence ensued as with every day before. Liew is out of Truthbombs but does tell an odd story of guiding here before with a Dutch couple who would not let him use playback or go to staked out feeding sites. Yes they missed a whole lot of species, but guess what they did see?

Yup - CR bloody T. This is so not going to plan at all for me.

We drive back to KL via Gunung Arong where we thought it might have called on Day 1. This was a huge mistake as of course we never heard it there and it delayed our drive into KL, which being Deepwali Weekend resulted in a stupid late arrival. Sadly not the Mandarin Oriental for me, but the Royal Chulan in downtown. This is a smoke free hotel, but the rooms all have balconies and frankly I have never been one for sanctimonious rules.

Tonight I have to make the call. Back to Krau Forest near Deerland or try something totally different and cut our losses and go for something else.

DAY 6 – Fraser’s Hill

Time to face up to reality. I am not going to see the trogon at all and we are both fed up of listening to its call on the tape. Best for our mental wellbeing to change the mission, change the scene and get frustrated by a different set of birds. We head up to the Highlands.

We hit an early motherload with a pair of displaying Chestnut-naped Forktails. A newbie for me and an emotional tick. I had missed this at Danum Valley in Borneo years ago as I had taken the day off birding to entertain my son whom I was with. Got that one back at last!

We head to the top of the Hill as Liew has a spot for a rare pitta. It’s a tough one as a mate of his had been here all last week and missed it several days in a row. The spot is up behind a car park and today the area is full of campervans as the public holiday is in full swing. We get to the spot and Liew has 2 little pop-up hides for us. He puts out the worms and in come Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes with Buff-breasted Babblers. They eat most of the worms, so a re-worm is in order but the wrong birds come. A pair of White-tailed Robins. Very nice.

White-tailed Robin

We have about 2 hours here for our target. After an hour its paydirt. In comes a Rusty-naped Pitta. At last – a mega.

Rusty-naped Pitta

One more newbie was to follow with a Bamboo Woodpecker on the road below Frasers Hill. Not a bad day considering the lack of birds over the previous 5. Liew was happy to bird for longer but with memories of yesterdays late return to KL, I declined as there were Irish Bars to hit up in the capital.

That was it – 6 days – 6 ticks and zero Cinnamon-rumped Trogons.

My thanks to Liew and dear reader – never ever go birding in Malaysia in November. You have been warned!

Janky Cracka Fool

For an even better blog than this... Read Rob's Blog

 
20th January 2022 - Travel Tips in the Time of Covid

Travel during Covid has been like rolling the dice. A different result or set of rules on almost a weekly basis.

Fortunately JCF has managed to get away diving quite regularly during this time and from vast experience offers to “Go Up to 11” with the best hints and tips for Pandemic Getaways in these dark times.

1. When you have completed your Passenger Locator Form – take a screenshot of the first page that has the QR code on the top right. You don’t need a print off, as most hotel rooms don’t have an Epson, and nowadays everyone at Check-in and your UK airport is perfectly happy with the PLF on your phone. But as airport wifi is so unreliable, and often Googlemail only shows a limited number of emails if you are offline – then a screenshotted PLF is a good idea. Samsung is the volume down/ power button simultaneously. IPhone seems to be both power buttons at the same time on my wife’s IP8 – but other models are different. Check the instructions before you go. I also go the next step and put the screenshot in a folder with images of all the other bits of paper you need as well – to make check-in slicker and get to Duty Free quicker.

2. Your NHS downloaded double vaccination certificate has a time expiry. It is written in tiny font by the QR code. Make sure that the expiry date does not precede your return flight – otherwise the QR code won’t work – and you will miss your flight. Here as well a screenshotted VaxCert is useful as if the paper gets creased or dirty the check in code reader might fail. Take the image from the downloaded form from the NHS App.

3. Tales of 5 hour waits at UK airports on your return are true, but fortunately not that common. These mega-waits only seem to happen when several full planes arrive at the same time. Classically this happens with the Transatlantic arrivals into Heathrow which are normally early in the morning. Try to plan your arrival back to Blighty for later in the day, or early evening. Traveller now tries to arrive at smaller airports like Stansted in these times, as the waits are a lot shorter.

4. Take a book. A big book. You never know where a delay will come from and you need all your phone battery for showing the various forms or for last minute app downloads as you may have forgotten to do them before. A classic airline mess up is when your forms are not properly scrutinised at check-in and the fact you haven’t completed something for your destination is only noticed just as you are boarding the plane. This happened to me with Air France last year – resulting in 3 hour delays in both directions as some hapless passengers were denied entry to the plane and their luggage had to be hauled off the flight. Recommended reading – the Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom. 500 page thickies of fine historical crime fiction.

5. When considering any destination or for last minute pre-flight paperwork check Traveller uses 2 indispensable sites. The obvious one is the gov.uk website that gives country by country information. But a very good up to date one is the US travel portal www.kayak.com It has a cool algorithm that lets you put departure and destination country in, and then gives you direct links to any pre-flight online forms or print-off based paperwork you need.

6. Never fake a PCR test. We all know someone who has thought about it, and some who have actually done it. Back in the early days of Pandemia, when PCRs were coming in north of 250 quid you can see why some tried. But now after Hancock’s mates have filled their boots – prices are very reasonable. In fact Traveller sometimes gets a pre-flight PCR when coming home if it is cheap and reasonable to get one. It saved my journey back from Africa last year as for some reason my VaxCert QR code wasn’t reading at all, perhaps due to the shitty phone being used by the guy at the airport. Fortunately my get out of jail free card was that I had a back up PCR test as my hotel was offering them for 20 quid and done in my room – so I had one for the heck of it. I’d still be in Libreville now if I hadn’t taken that opportunity.

7. Take a few lateral tests with you abroad. I don’t like surprises and before pre-flight PCR-ing, I like to know what the result might well be. The laterals are very accurate now – if done properly. Into your throat until you gag – and up your nose until you sneeze! A negative result is reassuring. A positive result allows you to plan ahead – perhaps a flight change or a panicked call to your insurance company.

8. If your destination country goes RED when you are there then you have to pay the exorbitant 3000ish fee for imprisonment somewhere near Heathrow for a week or more. Another option is to see if where you are is not RED for any other destination in the world. I would far rather spend 3K on a 5 star on the Palm in Dubai than a Premier Inn in Uxbridge. Clearly you may have to juggle flights but it will be worth it, so make sure your booking has a degree of flexibility if your destination is likely to become a hotspot.

9. Have the blinkin’ vaccine. Now I don’t want to stir up any unnecessary controversy – or insult those who don’t want to be told what to do, but you can see the endgame here. The unvaccinated will soon never be allowed to travel and frankly I would like to see something more colourful than a trout underwater at some point in the future. So if you like 100 metre viz and warm sandy beaches which only comes once in a lifetime in the UK, then just roll up your sleeve. Here’s a cautionary tale. Traveller was diving with 3 mates in Mexico last year. 3 double Astra’d and Anti-vaxxer Steve. Yup, the inevitable happened and poor Steve got Covid and went down like a blunder-bussed elephant, whilst we 3 remained asymptomatic. Later we all tested positive on laterals but still felt fine. You can still contract Covid having been vaccinated – it’s there to stop your dying. That’s all.

10. Make sure your Travel Insurance is from a well-known UK company or explicitly states that Covid and all the consequences are covered. Some don’t. I had this in Costa Rica last year where mine was ok’ed on entry as they had heard of BUPA. But buddy Steve’s was not known and didn’t have anything about Covid, so the Dive operator had to personally vouch for him which took several hours to sort at the airport. Lucky I had Number 4 above!

11. Get acquainted with the WHO Covid Dashboard. It gives the day and weekly rates for Covid positive numbers for every country in the world. Traveller uses it to track the rise and fall of each dive destination I am considering. If you see there is a slow uptick in the graph then you can see there might be problems down the line. It’s even worth checking the results of surrounding countries to see if the whole area is going to get blacklisted. This helped when considering a dive trip to Kenya last year. A couple of countries next door had gone RED, but the Dive operator insisted Kenya would be OK. A quick check on the WHO dashboard showed Kenya had exactly the same curve as all those deemed too Covidy to go to. I was right, it would have gone RED when I was out there if I has listened to them.

Hope this helps dear gangsta.

JCF

For an even better blog than this... Read Rob's Blog

 
3rd May 2021 - Breakout 3

DUBAI, ROMANIA AND GEORGIA

JANUARY 20th TO APRIL 3rd 2021

Jules Eden, with:

Stewart Kirkaldy - Dubai

Iliutia and Marius from BirdinginRomania.com - Danube Delta

Alex from BirdingCaucasus.com - Georgia.

I don’t do Lockdowns. Hate them. So when a child like weeping Minister of Health announces that from January to an undated point in the future, we have to all stay at home for the good of the NHS, that’s enough.

Time to go somewhere better.

With a Romanian wife, the answer is Bucharest – but not direct from the UK, there’s a 14 day home quarantine if you come in from London.

Dubai is the best option, free of quarantine both ways.

Let’s do this.

DUBAI

DAY 1

The flight, half empty but still full of Essex Girls discussing shopping trips in the Arab state was bizarre. They were not supposed to be travelling.

I had a letter of business invitation in case of problems, but no-one at check in was bothered.

They check your PCR cert on arrival but it is quick and organised. Just as well as mine was £250 in London. A rip off. One day anyone “Covid Profiteering” should stand trial. Watch out Bezos and all of Hancock’s pub friends.

Arrival to The Palm and the Waldorf Hotel and a sea facing room which would come in useful later.

As we had arrived at an un-Godly hour of the morning, we had to kill a few hours before the “room was ready”. There is nothing odder than a gentleman birder walking around the pool with binoculars whilst Instagramming babes are oiling up with sunscreen. I got a GRACEFUL PRINIA as well as a WHITE-EARED BULBUL, but a lot of strange looks like I was the weird one.

I had booked a day’s guiding via the excellent www.uaebirding.com website, and a 6 a.m kicker the next morning left Angela, my wife a tad confused as to why I should leave such luxury and miss the opulent breakfast “to go to another swamp”.

Stewart Kirkaldy meets me with a coffee and a hash brown burger wrap and we are off.

He has a Resplendant Quetzal tattoo on his right arm. Clearly dedicated to trogons as much as I am. I couldn’t see his left arm, but as a true Scot I assumed the ink was of a capercaillie with the face of Nicola Sturgeon.

First stop, the famous Pivot Fields, which are now closed. But there’s a way in for the locals who have done the knowledge.

Stewy hits us on a WHITE-TAILED LAPWING, before Daurian Shrikes and Desert Wheatears. A good start especially with one thousand Pin-tailed Sandgrouse vermiculating infront of the car. Sadly these are bred to kill by the locals.

A few minutes drive from the Pivots is an area of sandy thorn scrub. We split up and both play the call to get an ASIAN DESERT WARBLER.

Next stop is an area called Expo Lake. Dubai is still selling its World 2020 Expo, obviously cancelled “because of Covid” – but the infrastructure is all in place.

A troupe of ARABIAN BABBLERS shows really well.

On the way to the next site we come across “the photographers”. There is a strange enmity from birder to togger in these parts. Both sides have the same wishes – bird close in front of you – but the birders blame the others for scaring owls et al from known sites, and the toggers blame the birders for encroaching on land which gets everyone banned. Stewmeister asks if they have seen anything, but knows deep down they wouldn’t have a clue what they had been looking at.

We push on the next site – Al-Qudra. But something seems to be wrong with my tough looking well-muscled Scotsman. “What’s up dude?” I ask.

It turns out that the next spot is also where the Sheikh of Dubai breeds his Houbara Bustards for slaughter by Saker later. Protecting these poor creatures is Stewart’s nemesis. The Salmond to his Sturgeon. The Edward Longshanks to his Mel Gibson.

Yes – its “Psycho-Afghan in a Datsun Sunny”.

Within seconds of getting me onto a momentary scope view of CREAM-COLOURED COURSER, the nutter has abandoned his bustards and driven like hell towards us.

“Go go, I call the Police. You go now.” Stew tries to be polite saying we are just watching the coursers but Afghan’s tone is rising. As we drive off I did mention that we could have both taken him out but that would have been a lifetime in jail in this Emirate, so important are future dead bustards.

We drove back up the highway and stopped where we could get a better lateral view of the coursers…but guess who turned up near us in the lay-by screaming abuse? No wonder we have never beaten these people in any war.

Time to head for the coast. Our next target has a few spots from Dubai up to the pointy bit farther east. Our first call was decided by the fact that there is a massive off-licence right by where the birds are.

Parking spots are hard to find as all the ex-pat alchies are here in force to stock up on booze. Some good waders and gulls are near enough to scope. The tide is half way out – but I catch a glimpse of something big and white way out left.

Scoped- it is the big target – CRAB PLOVER. We scurry left through broken rocks and dead cats to find about 10 of them. Way to go, us! One proceeded to come even closer.

We celebrate our good plover fortune with a shopping trip. Mr Kirkaldy knows all the different prices for whisky in Dubai and nails a bottle of something peaty for half the price of Duty Free. I just buy the biggest case of beer that I can physically lift. In this part of the world it’s all about Beeronomics.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBpko8lHdrI

Our last stop for the day is Jebel Jais, a bit farther east. It’s an irrigated part of the country, but good for wheatears and other passerines.

However for the time of year birds seemed surprisingly tough to see. We were both getting frustrated at wandering through goat farms and dry wadis with not a peep until we found a bit of elevation and a new track to a hotel being built up in the hills. This threw up some goodies in quick succession.

SPECTACLED BULBUL, HUME’S WHEATEAR and at last the other biggie for these parts PLAIN LEAF-WARBLER. It may be the blandest phyllo but it is one of the toughest to see. Unless of course you fancy walking around Iran with a pair of binoculars. Nope? Me neither.

Back to the Waldorf as the sun sets and the comedy moment of our arrival in a dusty Land Cruiser alongside all the Lambos and Ferraris spewing out beautiful women with their Arab-Gangsta boyfriends. The main porter remembers me from the early morning and is aghast that I have actually been into the desert interior to look at birds.

DAY 2

It starts with bad news. Romania has added Dubai to the 14 day quarantine on arrival list. This is bad as there should be a free run from here to Bucharest, so we have to fly to somewhere neutral before going to Angela’s home.

I leave her with various WHO Covid rate and IATA websites to find a solution as I have to meet today’s guide.

As Stewart is in full employment, it is only occasionally he can guide. Today it is Dermot who has only recently taken up birding to fill the gaps from arranging Oman desert tours with tented camps.

What he may lack in birding ability he makes up for with sensible driving and a large selection of drinking yoghurt.

We get to Wamm Farms – a special hotspot in the Emirates. You have to arrange permission to go there as there are herds of Friesian cows for local milk and they grow large areas of grass for our bovine chums. One slight problem is that it is right by an ectopic part of Oman’s border. Do not point your bins in that direction as all hell will let loose.

The birdy area at Wamm seems to be the Cow Graveyard. You are constantly stepping over skulls and spines in pursuit of the birds.

We get onto a PERSIAN WHEATEAR, or Red-Tailed in another nomenclature. That’s about is here, no warblers calling back. Time to go to Dibba Port where there should be easier newbies.

SOOTY GULL is easy, but there is a slight problem here. It seems that UAE Construction has decided to re-develop the whole coast from Dibba to Fujiarah at the same time. What should be sweet gull spots with chances for waders has become a chugging, messy dump.

I get a 2nd winter HUEGLIN’S GULL on the beach near Fuji but it’s a long way home and Dermot doesn’t want to lose his license by speeding.

DAY 3

Glory be. It’s Australia Day, and as Stewart works up the Aussie Embassy helping Okkers get back home in these Covid times, he has a day off.

6 a.m’er and yet again I miss the gluttonous hotel breakfast buffet, and back to Wamm and that part of UAE as that’s the best chance of newbies.

Loch Dibba was found by Stewart a few years ago. It’s a massive water filled stone quarry but with good hinterland around it.

Off-roading we spot a slightly more matt wheatear. And it is the VARIABLE WHEATEAR. Just like a Hume’s but in the right light you can see the difference.

A female HOODED WHEATEAR perches near us as well. Stu has been calling local birders as some had been seen before. Nice work fella.

His final moment of glory was a bird that I had spent several failed hours of searching for with Dermot…we had a couple of calls but no show.

He had it in the scope – and served up like a Bird Buffet was STRIOLATED BUNTING.

Hoots Mon, you da man!

It’s only a half dayer as Stewart has to get back home and we have to change rooms at the Waldorf. Angela has found a solution to get to Romania.

It’s Cairo.

But we need a bit more time in Dubai to sort PCRs to go there.

Before vacating our sea view room – I am scoping a gull feeding frenzy from the balcony and up out of the water pop 2 SOCOTRAN COMORANTS.

A nice finish to Dubai before it is locked down and the Instagrammers are all sent home. The cost for a hotel PCR, needed for Egypt was $50 and done by a doctor. It really is rip-off Britain, that charges 5 times as much. Your head will be on a spike Hancock.

EGYPT

Not really birding here – as it is time for my wife to bucket list some strange triangular buildings in the desert west of Cairo.

I have been a few times before and once saw a hoopoe-lark by Cheops. Now it is more built up and busy.

We stayed at the Kempinski by the Nile, except that our room had no view of the worlds 2nd biggest river. Odd that, as most rooms were empty and you would have thought it might have been nice of them to sort that.

And to cap it all, in this world of Booking.com and Trip Advisor, I was actually texted to rate how good was my check-in to the hotel!

After 10 minutes of being there. FFS.

ROMANIA

Customs at Bucharest are not so worried about where we have come from, but more-so that I have a British passport. I get the 3rd degree before being allowed in.

DAY 1

The Danube Delta.

The town of Tulcea is the kick-off point for the Delta. The trains from Bucharest are very slow and you have to change far west of Constanta. So the best option is a bus. Cheap, but you are packed in tight on small seats. It’s a 4 hour trip with a loo break half way. Everyone is masked but one old lady in the back is hacking away in true covid style. You can’t open any windows.

On arrival, the team – Iliuta, boss of BirdinginRomania and Marius arrive to get me and first stop is Ciuperca Lake a few minutes away.

Here I finally get a clean, definite CASPIAN GULL. As here they are in the majority – whereas in Bucharest the Yellow-legged seems the more abundant. Telling the 2 apart can be tricky as from a distance, all eyes seem black and finding the gray secondary protrusions into the black of the primaries is beyond my optical skills. We have a couple more hours in the region of the Tulcea before the first of my 3 nights at a reasonable local hotel.

DAY 2

Wild Goose Chase

Despite the cold – it seems the geese think it is warming up enough to bugger off to Siberia. If I were here a month ago there would be plenty more – so it takes the best part of the day to finally locate a flock containing RED-BREASTED GOOSE.

5 of them in a flock of 2 thousand White-fronted. A great spot from Marius here. Top birding. They stay in view for a good length of time until something puts up the whole lot of them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWQ7QgUwQCw

For the rest of the day we cruise around and find 15 Long-eared owls in pine trees outside of a small village.

And then we hit on a “Mystery Goose”

There’s a half white goose in another flock of White-fronts.

Could it be a Snow Goose?

Could it be a leukistic White-front? Chances even for a Ross’.

You decide.

It turned out to be the former, but enough excitement was generated to bring the twitchers out the next day.

The day finishes with Smew, Goosander, Bewick’s swans, and a shed load of Long-legged Buzzards.

DAY 3

Delta Boat Trip

Iliuta had prepped me the night before with Extreme Angling Clothes.

Over trousers, under trousers, thick coats and heavy duty gloves. Even wellies and balaclavas. It was going to be cold on the water today.

The boss owns a whole host of boats as he does delta cruises in the summer – and we set off in our open topped fibreglass 30 footer.

The first tree lined channel throws up Lesser-spotted Woodies, a Black Woody and my first European GRAY-HEADED WOODPECKER. Previous Picus Canus have only been in China and Nepal.

A Greater-spotted Eagle shows really well and we continue our route through channels and lakes to get to the famous delta town of Mile 23.

This is the only real habitation within the delta itself, and so is comprised of fishermen and hoteliers.

Just before we arrive we nail a PALLAS’ GULL and full breeding plumage DALMATIAN PELICAN.

The boat ride back gets us the first of the Little Gulls to arrive here as well as incredible views of Bearded Tits.

The following morning, before my bus back to Buch, there’s enough time to hit up a Sombre Tit in some wooded hills as well as finding a viewpoint for perfect Danube Delta photos.

There are less people coughing on the charabanc home. A good sign the pandemic is easing in these parts.

But as much as I loved the beauty of Tulcea and the Delta – as a Londoner, it was nice to get back to a crowded dirty city at last.

There’s a two week intermission here as Angela and I bounce around Romania getting her vaccinated, a small property bought and renovated, as well an offer to host a radio show in Bucharest after I had appeared twice on “Ex-Pat Life” for Guerilla Radio

https://www.guerrillaradio.ro/podcasturi/expat-life-04-03-2021/

https://www.guerrillaradio.ro/podcasturi/expat-life-11-03-2021/

A text comes in from Marius – the warblers have arrived!

DAY 4

It takes a 7 a.m train to get to Constanta at a reasonable birding hour. In fact First Class ain’t so bad on RomaniaRail. It’s just slow.

The warblers have come in to a reeded area north of Constanta, through Mamaia [so quiet now, but Babylon in the summer] and near a small village of Vadu, over-looked by a massive abandoned chemical factory.

Fortunately there are huge areas of reedbeds here – although it is chipped away at the borders for the EU market for thatching for their Hansel and Gretel cottages.

Marius is confident of our target, but I have birded long enough to know that the only thing definite in the bird world is that Covid will screw up everything.

It’s taking too long – not a sound from our warbler, but plenty of Water Pipits, Black-necked grebes and a few more Dalmatian Pelicans.

We go to Plan B – we play the call through the car speakers to get more range across the windy reeds, and it works – finally a pair of MOUSTACHED WARBLERS come in and super-skulk a few metres away on the water line.

That’s it with the BirdinginRomania team – I need to get a train back to Bucharest in time for the bars to be still open.

Another intermission for a few weeks that sees a planned trip to Morocco cancelled after Royal Air Maroc cancel my flights with 2 days notice before I fly, a Romanian Temporary Residence permit which would have gotten me a vaccine – refused because of Brexit – but I have had some luck. An advert seen on Cloudbirders – checks that no visas or quarantine are needed, just the 72 hour PCR – and they have guide availability. And it’s a short distance from Bucharest to get to:

GEORGIA [the country - not where they play the Masters]

DAY 1

Arrival and straight to Plan B.

Plan A never stood a chance. After a 5 a.m arrival and rendezvous with Alex from BirdingCaucasus , I am told that the road north to Kazbegi is closed and will be for a few days to come because of heavy snow. We will do the trip in reverse. The only problem with this is that every day counts with the warbler migration and we could be a bit too early by going South first. It is the only option though – so we set the SatNav for Lake Jandari.

The legacy of Communism is everywhere here – huge panel built high-rise housing blocks, and Communist era cars are plentiful too. But off the main highway we find the serenity of the Caucuses. SIBERIAN CHIFFCHAFF is seen by a small river – calling distinctly. It’s not a full species but the tristis ssp of a normal Chiffchaff.

The lake is not far away and we get there and park up on the grass next to the water. Alex gets onto a Stonechat and in some taxonomies it is a NORTHERN CASPIAN STONECHAT, however in reality it is a new ssp hemprichii that used to be a variagatus. No tick but a nice start. It seems a good day for raptor migration and over the next hour we see Steppe Buzzards and Steppe Eagles overhead. And finally 4 ARMENIAN GULLS come close enough for identification.

Our final destination and base for 3 nights is Dedoplitskaro quite near the Azerbaijan border. There is a huge Georgian enmity to their neighbours, which Alex says is due to centuries of border issues and their attitude – but we know deep down it was that Azerbaijan won Eurovision in 2011 when Georgia didn’t even make the final.

DAY 2

Taribana Plain

We are hitting the steppes today to see what is around. It is a cold and wet day – perfect for not seeing migratory warblers but good still for larks – Skylark, Crested, Great Short-Toed and Calandra as well as loads of Isabelline Wheatears. Eastern Imperial Eagle shows soon as well as Lesser Gray Shrike.

On the way back we get a nice flock of ROCK PETRONIA.

DAY 3

Pantishana Canyon, Vashlovani N.P.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60jni3GCMjE

The early morning is spent getting my Day 3 PCR test – the rule here. An hour’s drive to a private hospital on a Sunday, arranged by Alex ends with a £20 PCR test.

The cheapest yet. We really are being ripped off back in Blighty. On to the steppes now.

Still no warbler migration, but we do get perfect views of Chukar, Wryneck, Rock Bunting, Wallcreeper and Western Rock Nuthatch.

On the steppes on the way back all 4 harriers are seen well especially Pallid Harrier.

Nothing new for me but as I said to Alex, a few years ago and this would have been my best ever birding day. It’s all about the timing.

DAY 4

Stepantsminda – formerly known as Kasbegi.

It’s a long drive, a transect of Georgia from SE to North with a slow crawl through Tbilisi half way through. We get to Steps for lunch and see Lammergeier from the restaurant balcony. Alex has over-ordered for lunch and we have to get through 20 huge Georgian dumplings as well as lamb kebabs.

Post lunch birdage provides my best session since Day 1 in Dubai – a distant memory by now.

A large patch of Sea Buckthorn, a spiky small tree for those not bothered with flora – gets the local ssp of Black Redstart – then I see a bright white cap – yeehah, there’s GULDENSTADTS REDSTART. And another, and another. This is the perfect time of year for them to be low and a minute from the car park. Easy birding. Alex gets a CAUCASIAN GREATER ROSEFINCH in the same buckthorn stand and for a beautiful moment I had male redstart and rosefinch in the same binocular view.

Now for more of the Caucasian Big Five. We find our first viewpoint still under snow – but have to trudge knee deep through it to scope a mountainside. No luck but Twite ssp brevirostris and Ring Ouzel are seen well.

Alex reckons to try another side of the canyon a short drive away, and bless his lucky eyes and powerful scope, we get on to 96, yes ninety-six CAUCASIAN BLACK GROUSE.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVkbYYaCeUo

The day finishes with reasonable views of a couple of RED-FRONTED SERINS

We have 3 nights at a sweet Guesthouse run by a charming Georgian called Now. Food is perfect, again in huge quantities, Wifi excellent but the whole area is very cold. I have to sleep with some clothes on.

DAY 5

The best viewpoint for another of the Big 5 is snowed over – so we have to park by the monastery and trek through the snow and ice to get to a good position. It is minus 5 and with windchill probably -8. We look for 3 hours with no success. This is repeated in the evening again with no success. The disappointment sandwiches a CAUCASIAN MOUNTAIN CHIFFCHAFF and ssp Dipper.

DAY 6

We have to do it all over again.

Slidy drive – park - snow-trudge - set up scopes – freeze – not see the bird.

But then, on the verge of hypothermia - Alex gets them. CAUCASIAN SNOWCOCKS. 3, distant but enough Swarovski power to pick up the key features. Big 5 in da bag.

Alpine Accentors, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Yellow Wagtail ssp feldeggi are the extras today. We are leaving tomorrow, so this is my last night sleeping in jeans.

DAY 7

There has been no snow melt at all, so the route back is still through roads with 3 metre high snow banks either side. The truck queue going to Russia is still several kilometres long, but with Alex’s nippy Toyota Delicia we are able to get through all the hazards as well as picking up Horned Larks ssp penicillata on the way.

There’s one bit target today and it is on the other side of Tbilisi in some pine forests. We go there to get it before we have lunch. Except it proves a bugger to find, and poor Alex is pulling hair out on this one as he is writing a scientific paper on the species’ distribution in Georgia. Our last patch of forest is Last Chance Saloon or we have to come back tomorrow, which will waste a lot of time as we are headed the other way entirely for most of the day.

Alex tries a different call – and at last – a reply. It comes in to a close pine and finally we get KRUPERS NUTHATCH. A thrill as I kinda collect this family, so now just a couple in India, a couple in America and the tricksy one in Algeria to go.

2 tour nights and 3 of my own now in Tbilisi. Civilisation at last. The room is warm, Wifi good, but there’s a 9pm curfew here, which means they close the bars at 7.30 p.m. On finding this out and seeing as its 7 pm by the time I find a bar – they are shocked to see I order 4 beers in one go – and thus begins my reputation in this sweet capital city.

DAY 8

The final day of birding in Georgia. In fact the final day of birding since leaving the UK just short of 3 months ago. The Epic Quest to not be Britain is coming to a close.

We start close to Tbilisi where a photographer has posted a pic of an Eagle Owl roost on some cliffs. The rest is straight out of Benny Hill as we drive here and there trying to find a rock face that matches the photo. Togger refuses to take calls and our frustration increases until eventually he does answer a call and gets us to “just past the blue and white house, by a pylon and look down across the canyon”. Now it is obvious. My first cliff-perched Eagle Owl ever. A good beginning to the day. Alex’s next client will of course be brought right to this spot without the 3 hours of searching I had to do. It never seems to happen the other way round!

We drive to Lake Kumisi to check on waders and any cranes – and with a huge chunk of luck, there is a speck in the scope of a crane, not tickable really, then 5 fly over, right above us as if to land. DEMOISELLE CRANES. Perfect flight views.

Today was also all about trying to find a few warbler targets, as by now they must have arrived from the Middle East. If not – then there might well be something to this “climate change” all the kids are talking about.

The dusty road to the David Gareti Monastery has a few stands of low scrubby trees, and we split 3 ways to increase our chance. Alex gets the first response, and the scratchy chittery call brings in MENIETRIE’S WARBLER. I have now come full circle as I was playing this bird in Dubai in January with no success, but here it is on the other end of its migration to respond at last.

Eastern Orphean has still not arrived it seems.

We head back to Tbilisi as there are rumours of flycatchers at the not-opened-yet new zoo.

Alex’s pal Dachi has been with us all day, and as he has worked in the new zoo with set-up - he is able to get us in.

The team there point out where there have been sightings and we explore the area. Soon enough there 2 males and a female SEMI-COLLARED FLYCATCHER.

An absolute brilliant end to the day and the whole epic as it brings up my 30th newbie since that first Graceful Prinia by the Waldorf pool in Dubai.

Time to go home to London.

Thanks to Stewart, Iliuta, Marius and Alex for everything.

Let’s hope it is back to normal soon.

JCF

For an even better blog than this... Read Rob's Blog

 
15th January 2021 - REJECTED REVIEWS 2

PRODUCT :

Nestle Black Magic Classic Favourites 174g

REVIEW:

My mum likes "taking the knee" as much as any octagenerian.

However since her arthritis has taken a turn for the worse during lockdown -

she feels it is increasingly difficult to get down there and show her support to end racism with our brave soccer players before kick-off.

Fortunately Black Magic came to the rescue!!

By dropping a couple of these delicious treats on to the carpet in front of the TV just before the whistle is blown,

she gets down quicker than Kaepernick or a London bobby.

And as they are all soft centered - she doesn't even need her teeth!!

Thanks Nestle.

RESPONSE: REJECTED

For an even better blog than this... Read Rob's Blog

 
15th January 2021 - REJECTED REVIEWS

Janky has been hammering orders off the Amazon like any man in lockdown.

But since this online shop has got "political" and banned certain speech outlets - it is clear their game for 2021 is to run our lives in a more dictatorial way.

So when they send an email after every order saying "Your opinion matters - MR JANKY CRACKA FOOL, do you have a moment? We'd love to know how everything worked out with you. Please take a moment to review your most recent item" gone are the days of not bothering.

If you don't review, you will be placed on some sort of watch list - and the days of receiving "tat bought whilst drunk" will be over.

So I have tried my best - but for some reason the Big A has rejected all of my opinions.

I can't work out why.

PRODUCT: ESPOSTI 2021 POCKET DIARY

REVIEW: A fantastic diary

So far I am still in January, and it seems to be fairly accurate – let’s hope the other months work as well.

RESPONSE: REJECTED [Thank you for submitting a customer review on Amazon. After carefully reviewing your submission, your review could not be posted to the website ]

PRODUCT: “THE BEAGLES” –BEAGLES DOG T SHIRT

REVIEW: Incredible twist

I did not get it at first - but now I do -

So they have spun the name of the famous band "The Beatles" and made it into the "Beagles" - as it sounds similar

Then they have replaced the image from their famous album - A Hard Days Night - with dogs instead of Scause popsters crossing that famous road in St Johns Wood. I bought a pink one and it is AMAZING

RESPONSE: REJECTED

PRODUCT: BOSCH MICROWAVE

REVIEW: Microtastic!!

I can say no more.

RESPONSE: ACCEPTED

JCF

For an even better blog than this... Read Rob's Blog

 
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