Sunday, January 31, 2016

Unlucky Dip

Thought this would be a bit of fun.  I admit that I’m not a hardened twitcher but over the last couple of years I have made a bit more of an effort to plug a few of the cavenous gaps in my British list.  Over a period of 23 years, I have been for one or two things, and have along the way missed a few (a lot) too.   I think this is normal – you can’t see everything you go for otherwise it wouldn’t be a challenge, but like most, find it extremely gauling when high expectations are swamped by abject disappointment.

So the thought came into my head to create a list and document the birds I have failed to see as I blundered into another Frank Spencer-esque twitch, failing to anticipate the possibility of a no show, totally mis-interpreting weather conditions, arriving too late, or frankly, just being a bit unlucky.  I have heard anecdotes of monumentous failures such as twitches from London to Tiree via Bristol for Parula, London to Shetland for Snowy Owl, and many fruitless trips to the outer isles for mega vagrants.  Mine are somewhat less exciting than those.

However, here is the list of my epic failures thus far:

31st January 2016 - Franklins Gull – Fen Drayton RSPB

This is what inspired my tormented malaise as I stood in the wind and light rain watching a gull roost in the hope that the Franklins Gull that had been present the night before, might have favoured this spot, and make a return visit.  It didn’t which I was half-expecting might happen but still, we live in hope.  The whole afternoon was a farce apart from connecting with a smart adult winter Slavonian Grebe, at least twenty Goldeneye and a flyover Redpoll, I missed the Iceland and Med Gull.  Ok it was difficult to pick anything out in the gloom, but having put my ID skills to the absolute test, I returned with a massive fail.  This was my second dip for this species so am hoping I might be 3rd time lucky.  Somehow I feel the torment will continue.

VERDICT: Poor decision, poor craftmanship

20th October 2015 - Isabelline Shrike - Wells Wood

Pretty much ditto of the above.  An overnight clearout of the Shrike and the Warblers (Blyth’s Reed, Hume’s).  Bluetail, Olive-backed Pipit, and Pallas’s Warbler saved the day on this occasion.

17th October 2015 - Isabelline Shrike - South Huish Devon

This was a long shot, but the percentages I felt worked in my favour.  Having just come off the Scillies, I made headway towards South Devon.  It was a battle against time, but I was determined to get there.  The journey was longer than I thought, my Sat Nav directed me down windy country lanes that I couldn’t fathom at the time but how could I argue with that silky voice.  TomTom is just too masculine a name for it.  Anyway, despite my trusted NavAids, I missed a turning adding another 15 minutes to the journey.  I arrived in a bit of a panic.  There was only probably another hours worth of daylight left but on arriving, a couple of birders directed me to the exact location with a caveat.  Apparantly the Issy had been harassed by a cow and had possibly done a bunk.  It had.  I collapsed in a heap.  I did console myself with the six lifers I had picked off the week before.

12th October 2015 - Arctic Warbler – St Marys Scilly

Having just arrived on the islands, the Arctic Warbler was reported on The Garrison.  I headed up there (gingerly as I was still recovering from illness) but in the fading light, the Warbler was not seen and was not reported since.

22nd September 2015 - Acadian Flycatcher – Dungeness

I didn’t go for this so maybe it doesn’t count, but I had an opportunity.  To be fair I wasn’t very well but was so desperate to get out of the house.  It was a filthy day, grey and the sky full of rain.  I sat in the car with the aim of heading to Vange Marsh for the Wilsons Phalarope when news came through of an empid at Dungeness.  I sat there and thought about it.  My health wasn’t great, it was a decent drive down there, so I decided against it.  I admit to slightly regretting my decision not to go for a day or two afterwards but the decision to err on the sensible side was probably the correct one.  I did luck in on the Cornwall Alder Fly a few years back so no regrets.

VERDICT: sensible decision given the circumstances

29th August 2015 - Black Stork – Cooden

Urrrgghh.  This was one I wanted simply because I felt sorry for myself.  I was ill, actually I really wasn’t well but Kat and I had headed down to Eastbourne for a few days just for a change of scenery.  We headed over to Cooden Park where the Black Stork had been seen intermittently over the preceding days so I would have to have had an enormous slice of luck.  The weather was great, it was the end of August and the sun was beating down.  I stayed for as long as I could bear, but clinging onto the faintest hope of an appearance of this wayward migrant didn’t materialise.  I’m not sure I really cared at the time.

VERDICT:  Clinging onto hope

14th August 2014 - Franklins Gull – Cley NWT

My first Franklins failure came at Cley, on a warm evening in Norfolk.  The scene was immaculate, what you expect from Norfolk really.  The Gull had roosted the previous night and believe from memory had come into roost on previous nights too.  However, this particular evening it failed to return.  In fact it had been present 3 nights out of 5.  I happened upon the blank day.   I had spent a couple days in the area, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.  Just a tad disappointing.

VERDICT: Unlucky

11th October 2014 - Little Crake – Minsmere

This was one of those annoying ones.  I recall the Little Crake having been present for a few days.  I had just been up for the Steppe Grey Shrike and wanted to get two ticks in a day so boldered across to Minsmere where the Crake had been present the same morning.  Having arrived, I sat in the elevated Bittern hide and waited in growing expectation at a rather modest reedbed.  I waited some more, for five hours I sat there, nothing, absolutely nothing.  Oh well.

VERDICT:  A bit unlucky

18th October 2014 - Isabelline Shrike - Warham Greens

This is turning into my bogey bird.  Three failures so far and all by not very much.  Timing is everything, and I as always get to these things a bit too late.  Just not reactive enough for twitching I think.  This is a problem.  Warham Greens was a day too late.  There were some great birds on show the day before, I recall Bluetail being present and a couple of rare phylloscs but an overnight clear-out left me once again walking dejectedly alongside the freshmarsh lamenting my inability to get to these things on time.

VERDICT: Poor timing, need to be a more reactive.

17th June 2014 - Honey Buzzard – Ashdown Forest

My number one bogey bird.  Just can’t seem to connect with it whilst on trips abroad, and I can’t miss them.  I have probably seen around 700 individuals around Europe so just one in the UK would be rather nice.  Incapacitated during the influx of 2006, wrong place right time when local birds have drifted through, but Ashdown Forest was one opportunity that springs to mind.  Enjoying great views of the Short-toed Eagle, The Prof and I decided to stay put while the majority of the assembled group headed over to the Gills Lap Car Park.  Realising the STE was not going to appear, we eventually meandered over to the group who had enjoying fantastic views of a HB that drifted right over the car park.  It will happen one day – hopefully this year!!

VERDICT: Wrong place. Right time.

3rd September 2008 - Semi-palmated Sandpiper – Dawlish Warren RSPB

This was one of those instances where I just wanted to be lucky.  The bird had been present I believe for a couple of days and had been seen that morning.  When I arrived, there was no sign of it but of a few muted whispers of it still being present.  As it happens, it wasn’t seen again but the consolation was that I was in the area anyway so no harm done.

VERDICT:  Hoping for the long shot but went miles wide

28th July 2002 - Stilt Sandpiper – Pennington Marshes

Another ‘nearly bird’.  I was at Bournemouth Airport having a flying lesson of all things, and thought I would head over to Pennington afterwards to hopefully connect with this rare wader.  It wasn’t there.  Not much else I can say about that.

VERDICT:  Whatever

Long-tailed Skua – Cley

A regular bird that I haven’t yet seen.  I was in Norfolk and there was a report of an individual lingering off coastguards at Cley.  Needless to say that by the time I arrived, it had drifted further along the coast.  I headed over to Salthouse but no sign.  Think the full English Breakfast did for me.

VERDICT:  Just pure tardiness

18th September 2013 - Ortolan – Dungeness

I add this, but it was one of those that would have required an enormous slice of luck.  One was reported while on site, but whilst the skies were clear, it was blowing a gale and felt that it would have been a really lucky moment to have caught up with it.

VERDICT: nevermind

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Vietnam - Beaches, Food, and a bit of Wildlife

Vietnam is a beautiful country - just everything about it makes it an absorbing place to visit.  I just wish I could have spent more time there talking to the local people and taking in more of the natural history.

Eight days is not enough, but we packed in as much as we could including a bit of beach time - it is a place of relaxation too away from the mayhem of the busy streets and disperate demography that is just so typical of this part of the world.  It is wholly agreeable and makes you wanting more.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Vietnam - Marble Mountains

Situated just south of Da Nang City, the Marble Mountains aren't really that well publicised, but having searched the local guides of places to visit from Hoi An (and still equiped with our motor vehicle), we headed on the 40 minute ride north.

The marble mountains are essentially five hills that have under-gone extensive extraction of marble making the area renowned for its delicate sculptures all of which can be seen lined along the streets within the vicinity.

And they were far more impressive than I thought.  A short elevator ride takes you up to a level where paths lead to the many temples built as sanctuaries for the Buddhist monks.  One of the main features of the mountains are the sheer facades and the deep caves that are still used as areas of worship.

It is a splendid place.

The caves maintain an air of solemnity despite the inevitable herds of tourist groups.  One cave in particular was distinctly striking in that a small gap had been wonderfully positioned at the top where the suns rays would penetrate into the hollow below illuminating a small area in which one could be transformed into Deity.  And it was designed for worship.  A wonderful thing I think.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Vietnam - My Son

We're all for a bit of adventure so a day trip to My Son was planned when the crazy thought of hiring a couple of motorbikes entered our minds.  There was one minor concern here in that neither of us had ever ridden one before.  But at £3 a day, it was a death wish that we couldn't possibly turn down.

So we collected our two wheeled time-machines and headed away on a few practice runs.  It took a bit of getting used to, but I felt ok in control of the bike.  It was just the traffic I was concerned about.  However, having watched Kat bounce down the road like an inebriated kangeroo and reporting that she was having difficulty turning and braking (yes she said that), we decided that one scooter would probably be a wise decision.  Yep!

So off we sped on our 90 minute journey to My Son.  And it was exhilierating.  The traffic was mayhem but the bike just enhanced the experience of Vietnamese life.  They key was feeling confident, and being assertive in decision making, whilst weaving in and out of traffic, avoiding potholes while taking in the Vietscape that flashed by while throttled up.

So we arrived safely.

My Son is a complex of Champa Hindu Temples much similar to the architecture of Ankor Wat in Cambodia.  They were built as an act of religious worship to Shiva dating as far back as the 4th Century.

Each of the temples were connected by well defined paths and possessed their own character.  It was much more touristy than I expected, didn't possess the wow factor that I expected, but was a fascinating insight to the cultural evolution of the Viet people.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Vietnam - Hoi An

18th - 23rd January 2016

Internal flights in Vietnam can be picked up cheaply with a return flight to Da Nang only costing just over £50rtn including checked baggage and seat assignment.  The hour flight bounced past the cumulonimbus before emerging into the coastal town of Da Nang.

The weather was different here on arrival, mostly overcast and a lot cooler, but still pleasant enough as we made our way to the resort through Da Nang city passing by the financial district and a couple of impressively illuminated bridges.  The city was evidently much more modern and vibrant than I had expected.

Checking into the Muca Spa Resort (£20pppn), we were both impressed by the quiet location, and just how well managed the hotel was.  Hardly an authentic Vietnamese experience, but they did offer a variety of massages, and a decent Vietnamese menu selection in the restaurant area set on an extended stilted area under ambient lighting and typically mood enhancing music.

The hotel was particularly accommodating in that bikes were available for hire free of charge for the 4.5km cycle into town along the main road that passed along the paddy fields before disappearing into the melee of the town.

Wandering through on the first day, it was evident that this was a real market town, stalls narrowing the streets garnished with fresh produce with a complete range of foods from herbs and vegetables, to fresh fish and live chickens.

Aware that Hoi An is prodigously touristic, there was a palpable feel of village life here, where markets line up alongside the river where locals would commute across to the Cua Dai peninsular.

The historic centre is closed to traffic for the majority of the day, but is packed with tourists visiting the many temples, museums, and cultural living quarters the combination of which have declared Hoi An as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are many influences that have carved out a deep cultural heritage making this area an really interesting place to visit.

The evening hours have a completely different feel.  Restaurants begin to bustle as do the bars infested with tourists making the most of the cheap beer and great food.  The stalls continue to ply their trade with the technicoloured lanterns illuminating thoroughfares as passersby enjoy the ambience of a vibrant carnivalesque Viet-scape,

Friday, January 15, 2016

Vietnam - Saigon

15th - 18th January 2016

A first long haul trip for a while, and a trip to the far east for a short eight day break in Vietnam split between two destinations, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hoi An on the South China Sea coast.

Travelling on Vietnam Airlines, the Dreamliners took us firstly to Hanoi and then connected us southbound to Saigon. 

Always a massive culture shock when arriving in this part of the world, the humidity mixed in with the toxicity of the city air, streets full of noise and colour with relentless waves of motorbikes roaring past, each individual focused on their small piece of road as they go about their daily routines.

Cho Ben Thanh was a five minute walk from our hotel, crossing the busy Pham Ngu Lao road and oppoiste a busy interchange was a hive of activity of stall holders selling their wears which were mostly clothing items and accessories

The War Remnants Museum was a sobering visit.  On one hand it was fascinating to experience the Vietnamese perspective of the America War fought over twenty bloody years, but the images exhibited was a hard-hitting reminder of the impacts of war, the ruthlessness of human combat, and the cumulative destruction of military intervention.

The forecourt was cluttered with American military tanks and planes used in the Viet Cong offensive but the main interest was most certainly within the indoor galleries with plenty of images captured by the brave photographers that accompanied the platoons on their combat missions.

On display were stills of gruesome remains of army casualties being dragged across the warzone, the most awful affects that the chemical agents (Orange etc) had on children, indiscriminately used to destroy agriculture and the country's ecology, and the iconic photo of the Napalm Girl that won the Pulitzer prize.

The mood there was sombre, and extremely humbling.

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

The city however is a place of vibrancy, of busy streets with plenty of great architecture.  The (Ho Chi Minh) Square stretches from the City Hall up to the Song Sai Gon River overlooked by a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself.

An example of former French colonialism is the Notre-Dame Basilica impressive in it's gallic architecture as much as it's incongruity positioned in downtown Saigon not far from the Square.

Bui Vien road is alive with bars and restaurants, similar to the Kho San Road in Bangkok, the centre for all the backpackers to congregate for some cheap food and beer, to catch up on some sport, or to dive in for a cheeky massage.

We treated ourselves to a drink on the top floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower.  Like most cities in this region, here the lives of ordinary Vietnamese reside juxtaposed alongside a burgeoning economy where corporate businesses operate from impressive office blocks.

The Skybar offered great views over the smog shrouded city and having arrived at just after sunset, the sky glowed under the fading light. 

A couple of days, and that was all the time we spent here.  A shame really because another day at least would have done it justice.  Saigon is a fantastic city, full of atmosphere and character, continuing its upward trajectory after the grim events of the war.

Next stop - Hoi An.